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Equilibrium/Sustainability — Reaching for the stars

 

 

Today is Friday. Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup.

Scientists at the University of California Santa Barbara (UCSB) are toying with the idea of sending tiny earthlings to the nearest stars — testing the limits of interstellar travel and potentially paving the way for future human journeys.

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While NASA’s Voyager missions have shown that car-sized probes can travel 12 billion miles to exit the heliosphere — the bubble surrounding the Earth — within 40 years, reaching the closest star with rocket fuel would take 80,000 years, a news release from the university said.

Philip Lubin, a professor of physics at UCSB, is aiming to help reach the next solar system by devising a way to use light as a propellant for such a vehicle — and by starting much smaller, according to the university.

His team is devising small probes that could be propelled up to 20-30 percent of the speed of light using light itself by way of a laser apparatus stationed on Earth, the news release said.  

These probes would be able to accommodate animals with a tiny mass — a finding that led UCSB biologist Joel Rothman to offer up the idea of C. elegans roundworms — creatures that “are already veterans of space travel” and involved in International Space Station experiments, UCSB reported.

“Thousands of these tiny creatures could be placed on a wafer, put in suspended animation, and flown in that state until reaching the desired destination,” the news release said. “They could then be wakened in their tiny StarChip and precisely monitored for any detectable effects of interstellar travel on their biology, with the observations relayed to Earth by photonic communication.”

Back on Earth, we’ll return to Boulder County, Colo., where President BidenJoe BidenFox News reporter says Biden called him after 'son of a b----' remark Peloton responds after another TV character has a heart attack on one of its bikes Defense & National Security — Pentagon puts 8,500 troops on high alert MORE is headed later Friday to assess damage from last week’s fire. Then we’ll take a look at why big brands like Amazon and Dow are investing in the future of recycling.

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin.  

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Let’s get to it. 


Boulder County copes with mounting loss 

 

A week after a devastating firestorm ripped through Boulder County, Colo., destroying more than 1,000 homes and killing at least one person, Coloradans are reeling from their losses and the exorbitant prospect of rebuilding.  

First words: “We all thought we were coming back,” resident Nan Boultbee, who escaped with her wife Lex Kell, told The New York Times, noting that she now finds herself waking up in the middle of the night, asking, “Why didn’t I grab this or that?” 

Boultbee and Kell are still waiting to regain access to their street so they can see the remains of their home for the past five years — a casualty of Western wildfires that have swept “through neighborhoods and left and often retreat as quickly as they came, leaving behind new landscapes of suburban rubble,” the Times wrote.

Facts and figures: The extent of the damage has yet to be determined for those who lived in the 1,084 homes lost in the fire, the Times reported.  

However, officials confirmed one death on Wednesday, after uncovering the partial remains of an adult about half a mile from an area that is under investigation as a possible source of the fire, according to the Times. One person, meanwhile, remains missing.  

Unique challenges for area refugees: For months, an informal volunteer group called the Boulder Task Force has been helping Afghan refugees resettle in Boulder County, with 10 families already there and five more on the way, the Boulder Reporting Lab found.

While none of new Afghan families lost their new homes in the fire, some did have to evacuate. Now there's a concern that “the already formidable challenge of finding rent-free homes for vulnerable refugees — in an area already experiencing a housing shortage — was suddenly going to be a much heavier lift,” according to the Boulder Reporting Lab.

Pets also were not spared: While most humans were able to safely evacuate from the fire, dozens of homeowners have either learned that their pets died or still don’t know their fates, The Associated Press reported.  

The Humane Society of Boulder Valley has since reunited more than 25 pets with owners, but is caring for of about a dozen animals — including a tortoise and a cockatiel — that are unable to live with their owners in temporary accommodations, according to the AP.


RESIDENTS ASSESS DAMAGE

Losses from the fire are expected to reach $1 billion, while rebuilding and repair efforts will put strain on already stretched construction firms and supply chains, according to The Wall Street Journal, citing disaster-modeling firm Karen Clark & Co.

Most homeowners whose houses burned down are believed by insurers to have enough coverage for most rebuilding, the Journal reported. But this isn’t usually the case, with one consumer advocacy group estimating that some two-thirds of fire victims are underinsured, according to the Journal.

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Underinsurance may still play a role: “There is likely going to be an issue about underinsurance,” Colorado Insurance Commissioner Michael Conway told the Journal, noting that that could stem from both inadequate coverage amounts and ongoing inflation.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) provides some aid for those who are underinsured, but the agency doesn’t usually fulfill a customer’s request until after an insurance provider has completed payouts, Conway added.

A parched West: In the aftermath of the fire, scientists and journalists continue to explore how climate change may have played a role in this disaster.

“What’s most exceptional, and most consistent with climate change, is how parched the landscape had gotten by Dec. 30 — a function of both persistently warm temperatures and an unprecedented, months-long rain-and-snow drought,” Boulder-based meteorologist Bob Henson wrote for Yale Climate Connections.

Last words: As ongoing drought and warm air pulled moisture from the landscape, grasses that were “born in a wet spring” were transformed “from lush to tinder-dry,” according to Henson.

CEO: Recycled plastics are cost-competitive 

A collection of water bottles for recycling

U.S. taxpayers are inadvertently subsidizing the creation of millions of tons of new plastic waste every year — distorting the market and disincentivizing recycling, Ron Gonen, CEO of New York investment firm Closed Loop Partners, told Equilibrium.

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And yet even with that, Gonen argued, there is a strong business case for building "circular economy" systems, in which one company's waste is another company's raw materials.

Gonen's firm has attracted investment from companies like Amazon, Walmart and Dow, who see more efficient recycling systems as a cheaper source of raw materials.

Gonen, a former management consultant and New York deputy commissioner for sanitation, sat down with Equilibrium to discuss the myth of the plastics industry and the business case for recycling.

First words: "A system where products are priced based on the amount of federal and state subsidies they get ... you can call it different things, but has nothing to do with capitalism," Gonen told Equilibrium.

Plastic waste is doubly subsidized — by fossil fuel subsidies that slash the cost of finding, drilling, refining and processing petroleum into "virgin plastics," and by public landfills that are required to take non-recyclable plastic packaging, according to Gonen. 

But even with all that, recycled plastics are "oftentimes cost-competitive" with virgin plastics, he said. "So if you gave them the same subsidies, what would happen?"

Breaking down 'plastics': Talking about "the plastics industry" is like talking about "the sports industry" — meaning, it lumps together a wide array of very different businesses, Gonen explained.

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In general, "there's no buyer for 'recycled plastics,'" he said. On the other hand, Gonen added, there are specific buyers for materials like recycled PET, the plastic used in beverage bottles. 

That makes sorting and standardization paramount. The ability to easily — and automatically — pick out specific plastics is directly tied to how profitable they are. 

Of the seven main plastics, only the three rigid ones — PET, HDPE (found in shampoo bottles) and PP (found in plastic tops) — can be sorted by machine, which makes them cost-effective to recycle.

RECYCLING AS A MONEYMAKER

A truce in the soda wars: One reason why PET is so lucrative is that the otherwise ruthlessly competitive soda industry agreed to standardize its bottles — "so when their packaging comes to a recycling facility, we don't care if it's a Coke bottle or a Pepsi bottles," Gonen said. 

But not everyone does that. For example, the yogurt industry uses a wide array of plastic types and container shapes that stymie recycling, according to Gonen.

That's why the recent passage in Maine and Oregon of “Extended Producer Responsibility” bills — which require producers to pay for the cost of recycling or otherwise disposing of their products — is such a big deal, he said.

Another questionable practice: Many ostensibly "circular" recycling schemes promoted by plastics manufacturers — like the waste-to-energy schemes panned in this Reuters investigation — are nothing of the sort, Gonen said.  

"The concept of ‘I'm taking plastic and I'm turning it into a fuel’ — that is not circular," he said. 

So what does he propose? Gonan's firm invests in, loans money to or outright purchases companies in every step of the "circular" production process.

Closed Loop invests in companies using new materials science to make new products from waste materials, and then works along the supply chain to invest in companies — and municipalities, like the City of Baltimore — that can collect, sort and pre-process the materials those products will need. 

Only in plastics? No — the firm invests in all sorts of recycling, one of the most lucrative being cardboard. That's one reason why Closed Loop has aroused the attention of major retailers. 

"Amazon.com would much rather get access to recycled cardboard in the United States and have it manufactured into a box in the United States — even better, near where their distribution centers are — then have to buy very expensive virgin timber and make it into a box," Gonen said.

Follow-Up Friday 

Another look at issues we’ve explored this week. 

Poland blocks effort to aid asylum-seeking migrants in freezing forest

  • We wrote on Wednesday about the rising danger for migrants attempting to enter the E.U. On Thursday, a mission by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to render aid to asylum-seeking migrants hiding in the forests between Poland and Belarus ended in failure when the Polish government — which has been accused of forcing migrants back into Belarus — refused to grant access to the area, according to German news site DW Akademie. 
  • "People are being attacked and beaten at the hands of border guards, and yet state officials continue to allow the practice of pushing people between borders knowing that such maltreatment continues," MSF said in a statement. 

Spanish minister doubles down on factory farming critique 

  • We wrote on Tuesday about how factory farming is coming for America’s beef ranchers. Just after Christmas, Alberto Garzon, Spain’s minister for consumer affairs, defended traditional grazing, which he compared favorably to “these so-called mega-farms" that “pollute the soil, they pollute the water” and then "export this poor-quality meat from these ill-treated animals,” as The Guardian reported.
  • After a government spokesperson — following outcry by the industry — said Garzon’s comments were made in a personal capacity, he struck back. “What I said, I said as the minister of consumer affairs. There’s no other way of seeing it,” he argued, calling his comments “flawless.” 

N95 respirator reuse may be a possibility in future pandemics

Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you on Monday.