Friday, June 26, 2020

Covid-19 has led to a pandemic of plastic pollution

As the world produces more protective equipment—and gorges on takeaways—pity the oceans

THE THAMES has always been a reflector of the times, says Lara Maiklem, a London “mudlark”. Ms Maiklem spends her days on the river’s foreshore foraging for history’s detritus, from Roman pottery to Victorian clay pipes. She can tell the time of year, she says, just by the type of rubbish she has to sift through: champagne bottles during the first week of January; footballs in summer. The year 2020 has left its own mark. Since the coronavirus reached Britain the mud has sprouted a crop of latex gloves.

In February, half a world away, Gary Stokes docked his boat on Hong Kong’s isolated Soko Island. Soko’s beaches are where OceansAsia, the conservation organisation he runs, sporadically records levels of plastic pollution. Mr Stokes says he is all too accustomed to finding the jetsam the modern world throws up, such as plastic drinks bottles and supermarket carrier-bags. But what he documented that day made news across Hong Kong: 70 surgical facemasks on a 100-metre stretch of beach. Having cleaned it up, he went back four days later. Like a stubborn weed, the masks had returned.

Whether on the foreshore of the Thames or the deserted beaches of Soko, the planet is awash with pandemic plastic. Data are hard to come by but, for example, consumption of single-use plastic may have grown by 250-300% in America since the coronavirus took hold, says Antonis Mavropoulos of the International Solid Waste Association (ISWA), which represents recycling bodies in 102 countries. Much of that increase is down to demand for products designed to keep covid-19 at bay, including masks, visors and gloves. According to a forecast from Grand View Research, the global disposable-mask market will grow from an estimated $800m in 2019 to $166bn in 2020.

Staggering though such figures are, personal protection is only part of the story. Lockdowns have also led to a boom in e-commerce. In March, as parts of America and Europe shut up shop, some 2.5bn customers are reckoned to have visited Amazon’s website, a 65% increase on last year. In China, more than 25% of physical goods were bought online during the first quarter of the year, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a think-tank in Washington, DC.

Much of what is bought online comes wrapped in plastic—and the bad kind at that. Goods are often packaged in plastic comprising several layers. That keeps the contents safe in aeroplane holds and on delivery lorries. It also makes it nearly impossible to recycle the plastic. At the same time, the locked-down masses have been consuming home deliveries from restaurants in record numbers. First-quarter sales at Uber Eats, one of America’s biggest restaurant-delivery apps, for example, rose by 54% year on year. Every extra portion of curry, or pot of garlic dip, means more plastic waste.

If the public’s increasing appetite for single-use plastic worries environmentalists, then so too does its diminishing inclination to recycle materials that can be reused. In Athens, for example, there has been a 150% increase in the amount of plastic found in the general-waste stream, says Mr Mavropoulos. Anecdotal evidence from ISWA members suggests this is a worldwide trend. An unwillingness to recycle might be explained by people’s nervousness about venturing out to put waste in recycling bins. Or it might just be that lockdowns have put more pressing matters into their minds, prompting a slip in their diligence.

Covid-19 has led to a glut in plastic waste in other ways. For one, the pandemic caused a crash in the oil price. Because petroleum is a major constituent of most plastics, they became cheaper to produce, says David Xi of the University of Warwick. That in turn gave firms less incentive to use the recycled stuff. But the growth of plastic rubbish is mainly caused by the fact that municipalities around the world have curtailed their recycling schemes. Collections have been cut back and plants have been shut over fears about spreading the contagion. Worries about contaminated rubbish have also made some refuse collectors and sorters nervous about going into work (the virus can survive for about 72 hours on plastic).

All of which means that much of the plastic produced this year is ending up either in landfill sites or being incinerated. Both could store up future problems. Landfills, especially in poor countries, are often little more than open dumps. They are responsible for some of the biggest leakages of plastics into oceans, says Mr Mavropoulos. Because the material is light, it is easily swept by rain or wind into waterways.

Incineration is not much better. Again, particularly in the developing world where facilities can be shoddy, not only can burning plastics create toxins, but it also often fails to obliterate the plastic, leaving considerable levels of nano- and micro-particles. These can both be emitted into the atmosphere, where they can cause cancers, or leach into groundwater and eventually into oceans.

There is no academic consensus on whether plastics in the oceans, once they are broken down by salt and sun into micro-particles, are particularly dangerous to animals. Polymers, on which plastics are based, are chemically inert, although some additives can be toxic. But given the huge natural experiment now under way, researchers may soon have a clearer idea. “We are only just starting to understand the potential impacts of nanoparticles and the way in which they can penetrate into living cells in marine organisms as well,” says Dan Parsons, director of the Energy and Environment Institute at the University of Hull. “Plastic nanomaterials released into the environment could be the asbestos of the seas.”

Indeed, like the virus itself, pandemic-era plastic pollution is hitting the poor hardest, says Inger Andersen, executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme. In low-income countries, 93% of waste goes into open dumps, she says. And where there are incinerators, they tend to be of low quality. Even in rich countries, the poor are more likely to live closer to facilities that deal with rubbish, says Ms Andersen.

There are good reasons why the public has turned to plastics, says Mr Parsons: “People know that it protects them” from the coronavirus. Not only that, points out Ms Andersen, it is hardly fair to blame manufacturers for producing environmentally unfriendly protective equipment—or consumers for buying it—given the global scramble to obtain the materials needed to make the masks and visors that keep health workers and others safe. And a world in which less plastic is produced would not necessarily be a greener one. Because the material is light, it often causes lower emissions when it is transported than alternatives do.

But what worries Mr Parsons is that years spent trying to change the public’s attitude towards single-use plastic might now be lost. Preliminary findings from research his team has conducted suggest that the public has reverted to its earlier insouciance about plastic waste. The pandemic has already encouraged the rolling back of anti-plastic legislation, such as taxes on single-use grocery bags in some American states, or a ban on plastic straws in Britain. Ironically, that may even help the climate. But just as covid-19 has scarred families and harmed livelihoods across the world, its effect on the planet will linger, too, in the world’s landfills and oceans.


Green investing is red hot but its impact is underwhelming

Publicly traded firms are directly responsible for only a modest share of greenhouse-gas emissions

INTEREST IN CLIMATE change was once a rarity in high finance; the preserve of boutique investment houses and pokey back-offices in the large asset-management firms. Now it is all the rage. Pressure from regulators and clients, as well as the increasing frequency of extreme weather events, has made green investment red hot. The trend could be a force for good in the fight to reduce climate change. But there is a limit as to how much it can do.

In order to see how much of the world’s emissions might be amenable to investor-led action The Economist analysed emissions disclosures from over 5,000 publicly listed companies. The number of companies making such disclosures has been rising steadily. Those disclosures differentiate between the emissions that companies make directly (called “scope-one” emissions) and “scope-two” emissions which are produced by the companies which provide them with energy, mostly in the form of electricity. To look at the total emissions we considered only scope one, since adding in scope two leads to double-counting.

As you would expect, the largest emissions come from companies that burn fossil fuels in the normal course of their business: those that run fossil-fuel power stations, or fleets of aircraft or steelworks. In Europe ArcelorMittal is the biggest emitter because steelmaking requires the burning of coal. In America the biggest is ExxonMobil, which unlike many large companies produces much of the electricity and heat that it uses itself. Using the emissions disclosed by these companies, we estimated emissions for non-disclosing firms on the basis of those disclosed by similar firms in the same sector with comparable revenues. Given that a firm’s decision whether to disclose and its emissions intensity may not be independent, this step could introduce error.

Totting everything up reveals that each year publicly traded companies emit greenhouse gases equivalent to 10bn tonnes of carbon dioxide from their operations. Perhaps a quarter of those are produced by listed firms that are majority-owned by governments. That leaves eight gigatonnes of emissions that stockmarkets can influence directly. That is 14% of the world’s total emissions, or 19% of emissions related to energy use and industrial processes. (Those estimates undercount oil emissions. If you add those from the oil sold by institutionally controlled energy firms, part of what is called “scope three” emissions, then the proportions increase to 23% and 32%, respectively.) Thus fund managers have some influence over a big slice of the economy, but many emissions occur outside the firms they control. They cannot directly influence the bosses of state-controlled Chinese coal-fired power plants or Middle Eastern oil and gas producers. The role that financial services can play in fighting climate change must not be misunderstood or overstated.


New Climate Poll, Same Results: People Concerned, But Not Very Much

Every few months one polling firm or another releases a survey asking people if they would like action on climate change. And survey after survey says people would – if action is not too costly or disruptive. A new Pew Research Center poll is being hyped by the Washington Post and other Establishment-Left media, but it does nothing to change the equation.

A June 23 survey conducted by the reports a majority of respondents say they are concerned about climate change along with other environmental issues, and that government should do more to prevent climate change.

As with other such surveys, however, the more important question is where their concern about climate ranks in relation to other issues and, crucially, how much they will personally be willing to pay to fight climate change. The Pew Poll doesn’t ask these question, but others have and the answers are enlightening.

If you ask the public about almost any potential concern that is frequently in the headlines, poll respondents will say government should do more to fix the problem. Indeed, when surveys ask whether crime, economic growth, education, health care, immigration, jobs, retirement, taxes, terrorism, and similar issues are important – and whether government should do more to solve these problems – majorities consistently say yes. However, what we really need to know is how important each issue is relative to other matters of concern. In a world of limited resources and limited voter attention, government must focus on what the public is most concerned about and what will motivate people when they go to the polls.

In this regard, climate change consistently ranks at or near the bottom on the list of public concerns. For example, a United Nations poll surveying more than 7 million respondents from 195 countries asked participants to rank 16 priorities. Quality education ranked first and “Action Taken on Climate Change” ranked dead last.

The results of a survey conducted by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2019 are similar. Survey participants were asked, “How important are the following issues to you personally?” Options included climate change, the economy, gun policy, health care, immigration, and renewable energy. Climate change came in second-to-last among adults and third-to-last among teens in the number of people rating it as either “extremely” or “very” important. The only category that consistently ranked lower than climate change was “renewable energy.”

The new Pew poll touted by the Washington Post misleadingly asks if people think government should tax the fossil fuel industry, or spend more on renewable energy sources, or impose tougher emission restrictions on power plants and automobiles to fight climate change. Significant majorities of respondents say yes, yet the survey attaches no dollar figures to any of these policies. When people think something will cost them nothing, they want it, but the number of takers declines sharply as the costs go up.

However, a 2017 University of Chicago and Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs research poll; a 2015 survey conducted by The New York Times, Stanford University, and Resources for the Future; and the 2019 Post/Kaiser poll found the public wants to fight climate change only if it can be done for free or at very little cost. Even a climate realist like me was surprised by how little money people are willing to spend to fight the mythical climate crisis!

More than half (60 percent) of Post/Kaiser survey respondents said they believed the world had less than 10 years to prevent the worst effects of climate change. Despite this, 51 percent of those surveyed would be “somewhat” or “strongly” opposed to paying a $2 monthly tax on U.S. residential electric bills to pay for the fight against climate change. Similarly, 61 percent would reject a 10-cents-per-gallon increase in the gasoline tax to fight climate change.

The number of respondents opposed to hikes in electricity costs and gas taxes rose sharply when the proposed fees were increased: 71 percent oppose a $10 monthly tax on U.S. residential electric bills, and 74 percent oppose increasing the gas tax by 25 cents per gallon. These relatively modest cost increases are far below what it would cost the average household to pay for the Green New Deal (GND), or even the GND-lite carbon tax proposals being offered by a very few liberal Republicans in Congress.

In the end, the so-called climate crisis may concern many people in the abstract, but relatively few people rank it high compared to other public policy issues of concern, and fewer still are willing to pay very much to fight climate change. That’s the important truth public polling firms should note.


Bayer to keep selling Roundup in Australia, will fight local lawsuits

Bayer will keep selling glyphosate-based weed sprays in Australia and fight litigation here against its product Roundup, despite agreeing to pay more than $US10 billion ($14.6 billion) to settle thousands of claims in the US alleging it causes cancer.

Executives from the company's United States and Australian operations vigorously defended glyphosate weed sprays in an early morning media call on Thursday, saying the product was safe to use and backed by a large body of scientific evidence around the world collected over many decades.

"What I want to make clear is we continue to proudly stand behind the safety and utility of our products, and our commitment to offer them to farmers and other users in Australia and around the world," said Brett Begemann, chief operating officer at Bayer’s crop science division.

"The decision to resolve these cases was driven by our desire to bring greater certainty to farmers we serve every day," he said.

Mr Begemann said the settlement came with a big expense, but was the "right decision" for Bayer and its stakeholders. The settlement would also enable Bayer to return its focus to work on the development of new agricultural products to protect crops.

Two class actions have already been launched against Roundup in Australia and are in their early stages.

Roundup is the biggest selling glyphosate-based weedspray in the world and is used extensively by farmers in various agricultural segments to kill weeds. It is also used by commercial gardeners and home gardeners.

Roundup is owned by Bayer, after the German company bought the US agrochemical company Monsanto in 2018. Monsanto invented and manufactured Roundup for decades, which meant that Bayer inherited the legal claims against Roundup with the 2018 deal.

"Let me be clear that the settlement in the United States has no bearing on glyphosate proceedings in any other jurisdiction. Bayer will actively defend any and all claims concerning Roundup brought against it in Australian courts...we're fully committed to these crucial weed control technologies and that commitment’s unwavering," Mr Begemann said.

The coronavirus pandemic was a key reminder of the importance of agriculture, food and science to the world, he said.

"We'll continue to sell Roundup and other glyphosate-based products to our loyal customer base," he said.

"There's a really strong consensus around the world that glyphosate does not cause cancer and is not carcinogenic. No regulator in the world has ever indicated they've seen any of that," he said.

Joerg Ellmanns, Bayer’s crop science country divisional head for Australia and New Zealand, said glyphosate weed sprays were a "cornerstone" of Australian agriculture, and the company had no plans to change its marketing of glyphosate products in this country.

Mr Ellmanns said sales of Bayer's glyphosate weed sprays in Australia were performing strongly.  "We believe it's essential for Australian agriculture," he said.

Shortly after Bayer bought Monsanto a California court awarded $US289 million to school groundskeeper Dewayne Johnson, who claimed that glyphosate caused his cancer. The monetary award was later reduced and Bayer appealed the verdict.

In Australia, the first class action launched against Bayer over Roundup was led by a Melbourne gardener, who blamed his non-Hodgkin lymphoma, diagnosed in 2011, on his use of Roundup. The case was launched last year.



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