Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Are plastic bag bans helping the environment? A look at results

Bans on single-use plastic bags -- one of the most pervasive sources of pollution -- are taking effect in cities and states across the U.S. as efforts to combat global plastic production pick up.

But while the moves are being lauded by environmentalists and the local governments that support them, some are questioning whether the move will be effective, primarily because of the unintended environmental consequences associated with replacement materials such as paper, thick plastic and reusable bags.

What the skeptics say

The shift from plastic to reusable and paper bags has been met with skepticism by some consumers, manufacturers and industry experts, who fear banning plastic will result in additional environmental problems and hurt consumers.

A 2017 study conducted by Recyc-Qu├ębec, a government recycling agency in Canada, looked at the life cycles of different disposable bags used within the province.

Results indicate that though conventional plastic bags tend to have higher environmental impacts when released into the environment, when compared to alternatives (such as compostable bioplastic, paper, thick plastic, and oxo-degradable plastic bags), they appear to have the least overall environmental impact (except as litter).

“Because of its thinness and lightness, being designed for a single use, its life cycle requires little material and energy,” the report says. “In addition, it avoids the production of garbage bags since it is commonly used for this function as well.”

The study, which looks at human health, quality of ecosystems, use of fossil fuels and abandonment in the environment, indicates that paper was the lowest-performing type of single-use bag with potential environmental impacts ranging 4 to 28 times that of a standard plastic grocery bag.

Also, reusables made from cotton, woven and non-woven polypropylene bags require tens to thousands of uses before they become more environmentally efficient than single-use plastic bags, the study says.

From Recyc-Quebec to the United Kingdom's Environment Agency other studies highlight the necessity of prolonged use when using reusable bags in order for their environmental benefits to exceed that of single-use plastic bags.

Research conducted by Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) suggests compostable materials can often result in greater environmental costs than non-compostable alternatives because of the impacts associated with extracting, processing, and manufacturing raw materials during onset production.

David Allaway, a senior policy analyst at DEQ’s Materials Management Program, said that in the case of 90% of manufactured items, most impact occurs when producing the product rather than when it goes to the landfill or gets recycled.

“The public believes materials come to us free of impact, and all we have to think about is compositing versus landfilling or recycling. In reality, it’s not quite true. By the time we buy this stuff most of the environmental impact has been done.”

Allaway points to the importance of assessing materials based on their intended purpose.

"I don’t think that a clear case can be made that either recycled paper or virgin plastic grocery bags are universally “better” or “worse” for the environment. Most life cycle assessments generally point to plastic grocery bags having fewer impacts than paper, but that isn’t always the case. Depending on which environmental issue you prioritize - litter, climate change, air toxins, marine debris, water consumption, etc. - you might favor one material over the other. There is no consistent or universal winner."

For Sarah Nichols, sustainable Maine project director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the decision to ban single-use plastic bags was one she struggled with for the past six years.

Virgin plastic, she explained, is ultimately a byproduct of the fossil fuel industry and is kept a low-cost material, allowing it to be made abundantly. As fossil fuels are major contributors to climate change, Nicholas says she has come to believe banning plastic bags altogether is the right thing to do. Similar to California and Oregon's bans, she believes people in Maine will not only adhere to the restriction, but reap its benefits.

“Every independent life cycle assessment that has looked at various bagging options has found that the common plastic grocery bag, when disposed of properly, has the least environmental impact," Matt Seaholm, executive director of the American Recyclable Plastic Bag Alliance said. "Paper has its purposes and should be an option that consumers can choose from, but there is no doubt that it takes more material, energy and water to manufacture than plastic, and its weight and bulkiness necessitate seven trucks to transport the same number of bags that can be hauled in just one truck of plastic.”

And Adrian Hong, president of Island Plastic Bags, Inc. in Hawaii, believes grocery bags should be available for a fee rather than ultimately banned because of the impact on manufacturers.

“I don’t think replacing plastic with other materials makes the planet better off,” he said, “You have to look at the life-cycle of the materials to see what’s best.”


Waste problems from wind and solar? Yes, it’s why we need proper decommissioning

This week Bloomberg Energy issued an attention-grabbing report on a serious waste problem with wind turbines: retired turbine blades are clogging up landfills.

This problem is only going to get worse, as Bloomberg reports, because right now the blades at the end of their lifespan are from wind power built over a decade ago. There’s been a fivefold increase in installing wind turbines since, powered in large part by federal and state incentives and mandates. What are we going to do when all those turbine blades reach their end?

This problem isn’t news to John Locke Foundation readers. We discussed the huge problem of turbine blade disposal in January. In December research intern Nick Wilkinson wrote about wind power’s noise pollution, visual pollution, disruptions of aircraft and military radar, and turbine blade waste. We’ve also recently discussed two Harvard studies that found transitioning to wind and solar would require so much land that it would actually contribute to global warming.

JLF readers have also read about studies showing that transitioning away from nuclear energy costs lives, that transitioning into more expensive energy costs lives, and that because of intermittency issues, wind and solar are actually the most costly ways of reducing emissions. We have also discussed the problem of wind power “takings.” That’s the euphemism used by the Obama-era U.S. Fish and Wildlife Division to refer to eagles slaughtered by wind turbines, as the division approved permits for such slaughter for 30 years, up from five.

What makes disposing of wind turbine blades so bad for landfills and the environment? All these things:

They’re huge, from 100 feet long to the length of a football field

They can’t be hauled away without being cut into pieces right there on site

Cutting them requires very expensive, specialized equipment
It takes a tractor-trailer to haul off a blade once it’s been cut into pieces. It takes one tractor-trailer per blade

So much trucking contributes to emissions

Over the next four year, the U.S. will be removing 8,000 blades per year

Future years will see much greater number of blade retirements, as five times as many turbines are being installed now than before

The European Union requires blades to be burned in kilns or power plants. Burning them contributes to emissions

They can’t be recycled. They’re made of resin and fiberglass and currently can’t be repurposed

They’re made to withstand hurricane-force winds — so they can’t be crushed for efficient landfill storage

Landfills don’t really have the space for them. Obtaining permitting for new landfills is also very expensive

In the next 20 years, the U.S. will have over 720,000 tons of waste blade material

Studies project increased global warming from wind power’s land-use requirements

Those studies don’t account for the additional land that would be needed for landfills for wind turbine blade disposal

Wind turbine blades are “forever waste”

In short, disposing of wind turbines is a significant problem, with negative impacts on communities and the environment.

It is reminiscent of the negative community and environmental impacts of solar panel disposal. Carolina Journal has reported for years about chemical waste components from used solar panels, including such things as gallium arsenide, tellurium, silver, crystalline silicon, lead, and also GenX and related compounds in solar panel components.

Dangerous waste underscores the need for decommissioning and financial assurance

It is for these reasons that JLF has written for years about the prudent and reasonable policy of decommissioning and reclamation bonds for solar and wind facilities. It is something that was added to House Bill 589 in 2017, a significant electricity reform and compromise bill, but the solar lobby succeeded in having that section removed.

Decommission and reclamation are standard environmental protection for other land uses. It’s so noncontroversial, in fact, that the Bureau of Land Management under President Barack Obama required full reclamation bonding for solar and wind energy projects on public lands.

Fortunately, last year the General Assembly passed decommissioning for solar and wind facilities. HB 329 requires the Environmental Management Commission (EMC) to come up with rules for the decommissioning of solar and wind power plants by January 1, 2022. The law requires EMC to consider many factors in determining the rules for decommissioning, including such considerations as:

Do solar panels, batteries, or materials used in solar and wind facilities exhibit characteristics of hazardous waste?

Can they be reused, refurbished, recycled, safely deposited in landfills, or safely disposed as hazardous waste?

How much of the state’s landfill capacity will be taken up by solar cells, wind turbines, and batteries?

How do other states and the federal government regulate these issues, including decommissioning and financial assurance?

How much financial assurance should be required to ensure proper decommissioning?

Watch out that special interests don’t capture the process

The key to EMC drawing up proper regulations governing decommissioning and reclamation of wind and solar facilities, however, is to make sure that the renewable energy lobby, solar and wind companies, and solar and wind advocates don’t capture this regulatory process.

The bill requires EMC to “establish a stakeholder process for development of the regulatory program.” The problem there is, in practice the reliance on “stakeholders” is an invitation to regulatory capture.

The term “stakeholder” is misleading. If you have a business interest is in the regulated industry, you’re considered a stakeholder. If you’re an ordinary person going about your daily business living and breathing the air and drinking the water and paying taxes and utility bills, you’re not:

Politically speaking, the citizens themselves — though they have the most at stake — aren’t thought of as stakeholders. In Lincoln’s memorable description, the American system is “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.” On the other hand, stakeholders tend to be of the lobbies, by the politicians, for the special interests.

Even if there is a consumer advocate involved, their single voice is given equal weight to the chorus of all the many other, lesser stakeholders involved. If democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what’s for lunch, then regulation via “stakeholders” is a wolf, a coyote, a lion, a jackal, and a lamb choosing whose constituency bears which costs of providing dinner.

Last year, for example, Gov. Roy Cooper’s Department of Environmental Quality identified 164 “stakeholders” in Cooper’s “Clean Energy Plan.” These were “experts and key stakeholders with a vested interest in clean energy.” It took two pages to list them all.

Despite all that, only 7 percent of those lesser stakeholders considered Affordability in electricity a “value to prioritize.” C’mon. You can bet that ordinary people have a radically different opinion on the need for affordable electricity than those “key stakeholders”!

Legislators need to be wary of what ideas come from this stakeholder process. The cronies and special interests have a vested interest in trying to avoid — or barring that, downplay — standard environmental cleanup and restoration of land used for industrial purposes. They’ve beat back decommissioning and reclamation before. The elected representatives of the people will have to keep their focus on which stakeholders they represent.


Pressure Campaign: House Dems Tell Banks Not To Finance Arctic Drilling

A swath of House Democrats wants bank CEOs to follow the lead of Goldman Sachs in pledging to stop funding new drilling and oil explorations in the Arctic.

Thirty-three House Democrats on Thursday sent a letter to five bank leaders asking that their companies back off spending on oil drilling in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

“You have an opportunity to be more expansive: to reject not just this specific oil drilling program but to prevent the financing of gas exploration, other drilling infrastructure, and to wind down the industry’s participation in the ongoing operations of existing oil and gas projects in the region,” said the letter, spearheaded by Rep. Jared Huffman, a California Democrat.

“Roads, pipelines, gravel mines, airstrips, and other facilities that would be developed to support exploration and development on the coastal plain would fragment habitat, displace wildlife, and undermine the wilderness character of the Refuge,” said the letter.

“Millions of gallons of freshwater needed to support drilling activities could be drained from fragile Arctic rivers. And oil spills, which already occur on the North Slope, would harm fish and wildlife.”

But that approach didn’t sit well with Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican.

“Frankly, it’s sad that House Democrats continue to not only get involved in the business of the Alaska Natives who actually live near ANWR’s coastal plain, but they’re now trying to further involve themselves in the economy too,” Young told the Washington Examiner in an email statement.

“Alaskans can be trusted to responsibly develop energy on our lands, and using scare tactics against private companies won’t change that fact.”

Senate Democrats made a similar demand of the financial institutions earlier this month, prompting criticism by Sen. Dan. Sullivan, another Alaska Republican.

“I’m going to be a little partisan here because it’s always coming from the Democrats [who] seem to always want to tell me and my state how to manage Alaska’s environment,” Sullivan said during a Feb. 6 committee hearing.

“And then, you take the train [up the East Coast corridor], and you’re like, ‘Holy crap! You’re telling me how to manage my environment? Look at this environmental wasteland.’”

ANWR has been in the middle of a political tug of war between Republicans and Democrats for 40 years, pitting energy development advocates against environmentalists.

The 19.6-million-acre Arctic refuge was the focus of a measure within the 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that authorized energy development on 2,000 federal acres of ANWR.

House Democrats now aim to reverse plans to drill oil in the Arctic and passed a bill largely along party lines last September banning oil exploration in ANWR. The bill, however, was not picked up by the Republican-led Senate.


Study: Carbon Sinks Won’t Cause A Massive Methane Bomb

glacier ice cores antarcticaPermafrost in the soil and methane hydrates deep in the ocean are large reservoirs of ancient carbon.

As soil and ocean temperatures rise, the reservoirs have the potential to break down, releasing enormous quantities of the potent greenhouse gas methane. But would this methane actually make it to the atmosphere?

Researchers at the University of Rochester—including Michael Dyonisius, a graduate student in the lab of Vasilii Petrenko, professor of earth and environmental sciences—and their collaborators studied methane emissions from a period in Earth’s history partly analogous to the warming of Earth today.

Their research, published in Science, indicates that even if methane is released from these large natural stores in response to warming, very little actually reaches the atmosphere.

“One of our take-home points is that we need to be more concerned about the anthropogenic emissions—those originating from human activities—than the natural feedbacks,” Dyonisius says.

What are methane hydrates and permafrost?

When plants die, they decompose into carbon-based organic matter in the soil. In extremely cold conditions, the carbon in the organic matter freezes and becomes trapped instead of being emitted into the atmosphere.

This forms permafrost, soil that has been continuously frozen—even during the summer—for more than one year. Permafrost is mostly found on land, mainly in Siberia, Alaska, and Northern Canada.

Along with organic carbon, there is also an abundance of water ice in permafrost. When the permafrost thaws in rising temperatures, the ice melts, and the underlying soil becomes waterlogged, helping to create low-oxygen conditions—the perfect environment for microbes in the soil to consume the carbon and produce methane.

Methane hydrates, on the other hand, are mostly found in ocean sediments along the continental margins. In methane hydrates, cages of water molecules trap methane molecules inside.

Methane hydrates can only form under high pressures and low temperatures, so they are mainly found deep in the ocean.

If ocean temperatures rise, so will the temperature of the ocean sediments where the methane hydrates are located. The hydrates will then destabilize, fall apart, and release the methane gas.

“If even a fraction of that destabilizes rapidly and that methane is transferred to the atmosphere, we would have a huge greenhouse impact because methane is such a potent greenhouse gas,” Petrenko says. “The concern really has to do with releasing a truly massive amount of carbon from these stocks into the atmosphere as the climate continues to warm.”

Gathering data from ice cores

In order to determine how much methane from ancient carbon deposits might be released to the atmosphere in warming conditions, Dyonisius and his colleagues turned to patterns in Earth’s past.

They drilled and collected ice cores from Taylor Glacier in Antarctica. The ice core samples act like time capsules: they contain tiny air bubbles with small quantities of ancient air trapped inside.

The researchers use a melting chamber to extract the ancient air from the bubbles and then study its chemical composition.

Dyonisius’s research focused on measuring the composition of air from the time of Earth’s last deglaciation, 8,000-15,000 years ago.

“The time period is a partial analog to today, when Earth went from a cold state to a warmer state,” Dyonisius says. “But during the last deglaciation, the change was natural. Now the change is driven by human activity, and we’re going from a warm state to an even warmer state.”

Analyzing the carbon-14 isotope of methane in the samples, the group found that methane emissions from the ancient carbon reservoirs were small. Thus, Dyonisius concludes, “the likelihood of these old carbon reservoirs destabilizing and creating a large positive warming feedback in the present day is also low.”

Dyonisius and his collaborators also concluded that the methane released doesn’t reach the atmosphere in large quantities. The researchers believe this is due to several natural “buffers.”

Buffers protect against release to the atmosphere

In the case of methane hydrates, if the methane is released in the deep ocean, most of it is dissolved and oxidized by ocean microbes before it ever reaches the atmosphere.

If the methane in permafrost forms deep enough in the soil, it may be oxidized by bacteria that eat the methane, or the carbon in the permafrost may never turn into methane and may instead be released as carbon dioxide.

“It seems like whatever natural buffers are in place are ensuring there’s not much methane that gets released,” Petrenko says.


Frogs be dammed … Australia needs more water

It is no surprise that with a continent as dry as Australia our most precious resource would be water.

If that is a given, how is it that it is well nigh impossible to build a dam in this country? We had a brilliant start with the Snowy River Scheme, but it is almost as if we completed that and decided to rest on our laurels.

Those laurels are getting pretty parched now. It is a forlorn task to find a site for a new dam that the Greens might support. Greens opposition to new dams is implacable and, when combined with the understandable hysteria of those who will be displaced because their properties lie within the area to be flooded to create the new dam, you have the perfect confluence of forces to create the big media campaigns that can terrify governments and send them weak at the knees. Too many pollies run at the first whiff of grapeshot and opportunities are lost.

Michael McCormack, the leader of the Nationals, and Barnaby Joyce, the man who wants to be leader of the Nationals, and Matt Canavan, the man who should be leader of the Nationals, are the only politicians who seem to have any interest in building more dams. The Greens can always find an endangered frog that should be saved at the expense of human ­beings’ need for clean water, so there are guaranteed to be plenty of citizens death-riding any plans to construct a dam.

I hope we find someone in power somewhere prepared to tell the nay-sayers where to get off. It would be wonderful if Scott Morrison could find the courage to build a dam as well as finance a new coal-fired power station on the east coast of Australia. If he showed that kind of courage, Anthony Albanese would be flat out ever beating him.

Any pollie with the ticker to defy the noisy frontline of demonstrators that opposes building almost anything and go ahead with real nation-building infrastructure projects will experience a surge in support. The punters love action but they don’t get much of it. Australians are getting to the point, after a period of stable economic growth, to look for a leader prepared to drag us back up towards the top of the developed world’s list of countries that make things happen.

Gladys Berejiklian has shown us the way on infrastructure and that is why she is winning. Whether it’s road or rail, her government has plans in place that, once implemented, will keep NSW ahead of the game in the decades to come. The big plays do matter and she gets it that every parent has an eye on the kind of future being built for their children.



For more postings from me, see  DISSECTING LEFTISM, TONGUE-TIED, EDUCATION WATCH INTERNATIONAL, POLITICAL CORRECTNESS WATCH, FOOD & HEALTH SKEPTIC and AUSTRALIAN POLITICS. Home Pages are   here or   here or   here.  Email me (John Ray) here.  

Preserving the graphics:  Most graphics on this site are hotlinked from elsewhere.  But hotlinked graphics sometimes have only a short life -- as little as a week in some cases.  After that they no longer come up.  From January 2011 on, therefore, I have posted a monthly copy of everything on this blog to a separate site where I can host text and graphics together -- which should make the graphics available even if they are no longer coming up on this site.  See  here or here


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