Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Scientists create plant-based wrap to replace plastic

Scientists have developed a biodegradable, plant-based coating for foods that they say could provide an environmentally friendly alternative to plastic packaging.  

Their solution can be sprayed directly onto foods, protecting them from both disease-causing microorganisms and from damage in transportation, according to the Rutgers and Harvard authors, who published their findings in Nature Food on Monday.

“We knew we needed to get rid of the petroleum-based food packaging that is out there and replace it with something more sustainable, biodegradable and nontoxic,” co-author Philip Demokritou, director of the Nanoscience and Advanced Materials Research Center at Rutgers University, said in a statement.  

At the core of the new technology are fibers based on polysaccharides, the most common natural carbohydrates in food, and biopolymers, which are naturally occurring, biodegradable materials.

Using a heating device that resembles a hair dryer, the scientists were able to spin the fibers and “shrink-wrap” them over foods of various shapes and sizes, according to the statement.

The material encases the food and stays sturdy to shield the contents from bruising, the authors explained. In addition, it contains antimicrobial agents capable of fighting spoilage and contaminants like E. coli and listeria. 

“What we have come up with is a scalable technology, which enables us to turn biopolymers, which can be derived as part of a circular economy from food waste, into smart fibers that can wrap food directly,” Demokritou said.  

“This is part of new generation, ‘smart’ and ‘green’ food packaging,” he added.

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability.

Today we’ll see why American travelers faced travel disruptions this holiday weekend and take a look at how a melting Arctic might offer competition to Russian trade routes. Plus: Is a push to make shipping carbon neutral as green as it claims?

Let’s jump in.

Weather, staff shortages cause flight disruptions

A chaotic combination of staff shortages and inclement weather conditions led to the cancellation of more than 5,000 flights over the Father’s Day and Juneteenth holiday weekend, The Wall Street Journal reported.  

Flights saw major delays between Thursday and Sunday, with nearly a third of flights arriving at U.S. airports on Friday delayed. Several carriers also announced plans to reduce summer flight plans.

  • Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg elected to drive to New York after his flight from Washington, D.C., was canceled Friday.
  • Buttigieg told The Associated Press on Saturday that the administration would consider penalizing airlines if disruptions continued.

Slight improvement Monday: The Federal Aviation Administration confirmed that the situation was improving on Monday, as weather and traffic issues subsided, but still cited some staffing problems in Florida, according to the Journal.

The U.S. is not alone: Thousands of passengers across roughly 30 flights saw delays Monday after flights were canceled at London’s Heathrow Airport due to technical issues with luggage, the BBC reported

  • Swiss low-cost carrier EasyJet declared that it would be cutting 7 percent of its 160,000 summer flights, according to the BBC.
  • This decision occurred after Gatwick Airport, also in London, announced that it would be reducing flights taking off there, the BBC reported. 

More issues ahead: American Airlines said it would also eliminate service for three U.S. cities — Toledo, Ohio; Ithaca, N.Y.; and Islip, N.Y. — starting in September due to a “regional pilot shortage.”

Thawing Arctic could shift global shipping: study 

An ice-free Arctic artery could also offer critical trade alternatives to a historical Russian-controlled Northern Sea Route, a new study has found.  

Climate models indicate that parts of the region are now warming so rapidly that they will be iceless for months on end in as soon as two decades, according to the study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  

Big con, but also some pros: This dramatic transformation will lead to the endangerment of species that thrive in sub-zero temperatures, the researchers acknowledged.  

  • Yet these conditions will also increase the Arctic’s navigability. By 2065, new trade routes could be populating international waters, according to the study.  
  • Such arteries could help curb the shipping industry’s carbon footprint, while also loosening Russia’s control over Arctic trade, the researchers found.    

Making the best of bad news: “There’s no scenario in which melting ice in the Arctic is good news,” lead author Amanda Lynch, a professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Brown University, said in a statement.

“But the unfortunate reality is that the ice is already retreating, these routes are opening up, and we need to start thinking critically about the legal, environmental and geopolitical implications,” Lynch added.

Russia’s regulatory authority: The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, signed in 1982, increased the authority of Arctic coastal states over primary shipping routes, so long as these regions remain covered in ice for most of the year.

  • For decades, Russia has used the convention for its own economic and geopolitical interests, according to co-author Charles Norchi, director of the Center for Oceans and Coastal Law at Maine Law.
  • Russian law requires all vessels traveling through the Northern Sea Route to be piloted by Russians and provide advance notice of their plans and pay tolls, Norchi said.    

Countries chose the cheaper option: Up against such heavy regulation, major shipping companies often choose to bypass the route and instead use the much longer — but cheaper and easier — trade routes through the Suez and Panama canals, according to Norchi.  

But if the ice near Russia’s northern coast continues to melt, so too will the country’s grasp on shipping in the Arctic, Norchi explained. 

“If that happens, Russia can’t do much, because the outcome is driven by climate change and shipping economics,” he said.    

To read the full story, please click here.

A push to decarbonize shipping

Shipping, airline and trucking companies are facing a formidable challenge as they scramble to decarbonize their fleets amid a push to reduce greenhouse emissions.

With solutions like long-range batteries or hydrogen power supplies still emerging, firms are increasingly turning to methanol — a common industrial alcohol with a surging market — to try to reduce emissions.

  • Methanol can be produced now, in industrial quantities, from a wide variety of waste streams or renewable energy. 
  • It can be burned in engines similar to the ones used for fossil fuels. 

Big orders: Shipping and airline companies have been spending billions on renewably produced methanol production and vehicles.

‘Lego’ molecule: Methanol is one of the most common chemical building blocks in the world — used to manufacture products from silicone to fleece. 

To make it, companies just need a source of hydrogen and carbon dioxide — which can come from a wide array of natural, renewable or fossil fuel-based sources. 

  • Methanol’s simple chemical structure lets it serve as a base for more complex fuels and chemicals, Kristjana Kristjánsdóttir of Iceland-based methanol fuels startup Carbon Recycling International told Equilibrium. 
  • “It’s like the first block of your Lego house,” she added.

Environmental benefits? Since methanol dissolves in water, spills would not form the same devastating slicks like those from oil or other fuels, Kristjánsdóttir argued.

  • The compound also bio-degrades within a week, according to a fact sheet from the Methanol Institute, a methanol-industry trade group.  
  • On the other hand — for the same reasons — there is no way to contain a spill, unlike oil, the Institute noted. 


Companies from oil majors like ExxonMobil to small companies like Carbon Recycling International are racing to supply the booming methanol-powered fleet. 

While burning methanol still releases carbon dioxide, these companies claim that it’s carbon neutral because it redirects existing emissions. 

Increasing interest: Carbon Recycling International, which began manufacturing the fuel using energy and carbon dioxide harvested from Iceland’s geothermal power industry in 2006, has seen a huge spike in interest, Kristjánsdóttir said. 

  • “We can see a significant shift,” she said, noting that when they began operations, it was hard to get people to care about carbon capture. 
  • “Even the companies that didn’t want to hear about it, they’re all back at the table,” she added. 

Is it truly low carbon? That depends on a wide variety of factors, such as which ingredients the methanol is made from, which energy source powers its manufacture and whether the carbon dioxide released when it is burned is captured as well. 

For example: If generated from burning biomass or waste, or from fossil fuel plants, it is simply another aspect of the existing, fossil-fuel-based economy. 

  • That is what as ExxonMobil appears to be doing, and what Carbon Recycling International is doing with its carbon capture pilot projects on Chinese steel factories. 
  • Another Carbon Recycling project in Fjinnford, Norway, does use renewable energy to generate the hydrogen used to make the fuel, however. 

Changing the agenda: The goal can’t simply be “to make shipping look good, it’s to reduce the carbon footprint of the planet,” Sanjay Vema of Finland-based Wärtsilä, which sells solutions to help decarbonize shipping, told S&P Global on Monday. 

Using fossil fuel-derived methanol is “not doing any justice,” he added.

Monday Miscellanies

Climate change edition: A surge in Lyme’s disease, the fragile gains of effective climate communication and a push for international recognition of climate damages. 

Climate change causing uptick in Lyme disease 

  • Lyme disease has recently been surging in the Northeast, spreading into Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin and Minnesota, local E.W. Scripps stations reported. Ashley Kennedy, a Delaware state tick biologist, told broadcasters that climate change plays a big role, as “the ticks are better at surviving [warmer winters], which is allowing them to really explore new territory.” 

Accurate reporting triggers support for climate action — briefly 

  • Science-based articles about climate change can lead Americans to back government action to halt it — regardless of political orientation, according to a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, but “if they only hear it once, it recedes very quickly,” author Thomas Wood of Ohio State said in a statement.  

Vanuatu pushes for legal recognition of climate damage 

  • The small Pacific nation of Vanuatu, at existential threat from rising seas, is calling on Australia’s new Labour government to back its attempt to have the International Court of Justice recognize damages from climate change.

Send us tips and feedback: Saul ElbeinSharon Udasin. If you like this newsletter, consider sharing it with a friend. Not on the list? Subscribe here


Tags Arctic Circle decarbonizing extreme weather Pete Buttigieg plastic pollution shipping single-use plastics
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