Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Mars’ South Pole oasis a mirage, study finds

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

Mars’ icy south pole doesn’t conceal lakes of liquid water — contradicting a 2018 study that found “bright radar reflections” that seemed consistent with water, a University of Texas study has found.  

The presence of liquid water at Mars’ south pole was always a long shot, according to lead author Cyril Grima.  

“For water to be sustained this close to the surface, you need both a very salty environment and a strong, locally generated heat source, but that doesn’t match what we know of this region,” Grima said. 

But that wasn’t clear until Grima superimposed an imaginary ice sheet over a radar image of Mars’ barren volcanic plain — creating the same visual effect as the “water” on the south pole.  

This week in a special edition of Equilibrium we’ll explore a joint project that dissects the legal obstacles Americans face when seeking compensation for exposure to toxic compounds known as “forever chemicals.”   

We’ll also turn our focus to Michigan, where General Motors is investing billions in the company’s electric future. And then we’ll look at a pact among companies and NGOs that seeks to eliminate certain materials from the plastic supply loop. 

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.  

Let’s get to it. 

 

Seeking justice for ‘forever chemicals’  

Brenda Hampton says the heart attack she endured last month might be a blessing in disguise — a second chance at challenging a complex legal system that barred her from seeking compensation for years of renal failure.  

Hampton, 66, has for years been raising awareness about contamination from “forever chemicals” — per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — that have for decades plagued portions of Alabama’s Lawrence county, where Hampton lives. Her grandparents both died of renal failure, as did her mother in 2001, just four years after Hampton gave her a kidney.  

But despite suffering from renal failure herself since 2015, Hampton had long ago abandoned the idea of pursuing a lawsuit — with the understanding that it was simply too late. 

The Hill has spent the last few months investigating the legal hurdles that are challenging individuals seeking compensation following exposure to “forever chemicals.”

Read The Hill’s Sustainability section and keep an eye on this newsletter this week as we unpack our entire investigation. You can read Part 1 of the series written by Sharon and our colleague Rachel Frazin. 

GM to invest $7B in electric pickups, SUVs  

General Motors is making a $7 billion investment in four new Michigan electric vehicle manufacturing plants in an effort to “be the market leader” in electric vehicles by 2025, CEO Mary Barra announced on Tuesday. 

First steps: GM will co-invest $2.6 billion with LG Energy to build a new facility near Lansing, Mich. to turn out GM’s Ultium battery and engine platform — the base for a diverse array of electric pickups and SUVs. 

What else? It will also spend $4 billion to adapt an existing facility in Orion Township, near Lansing, to turn out electric Chevy Silverado and GMC Sierra pickup trucks, pushing GM’s total output to “about 600,000 trucks a year,” Barra said.  

GM will also invest $510 million to upgrade two other Lansing-area plants “for near term projects,” Barra added.   

Biden weighs in: President Biden called the deal “the latest sign that my economic strategy is helping power an historic American manufacturing comeback,” pointing to $100 billion in investment in electric vehicle manufacturing over the past year.  

Economic impacts: In total, GM expects to create 4,000 jobs — which will result in $35 billion in spillover economic opportunity over the next 20 years, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D) told reporters.  

“Today’s investment is proof of what’s possible when we work together,” Whitmer said, emphasizing the bipartisan and public-private nature of the deal.  

“We proved the doubters and the cynics wrong. We showed everyone that we can compete for transformational projects. We can win billions and investment and 1000s of jobs. ‘Putting the world on wheels’ was Act One — in the decades to come, we will electrify the world.” 

 

A BIPARTISAN PUSH FOR ELECTRIC TRUCKS

Whitmer was joined by Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R) and Speaker of the House Jason Wentworth (R), who also supported the deal. 

“You may have heard that Governor Whitmer and I don’t always agree with each other,” Shirkey said. “But the economic wellbeing of our state isn’t a partisan matter. High quality jobs don’t have a party affiliation.”  

Putting “billions” in perspective: It can be “hard to wrap our heads” around figures of this magnitude, Shirkey added.   

But now “families across the state will have conversations around the kitchen table that take on an entirely different tone. Instead of talking about what they can’t do, they’ll be talking about what they can do: a new home, college tuition — and yes, maybe even a new car. Maybe even one they helped build.” 

“Do we have a future?” Union leaders from the United Auto Workers also touted the importance of the investment and revitalizing a region which has struggled to retain jobs.   

“I always see my UAW brothers and sisters out and about, maybe at the park or a restaurant with their family,” said UAW Region 1 director James Harris, noting that they’d ask him “Do we have a future at this location? I don’t want to uproot my family.”  

Last words: Now, he said, after years of urging patience, “I can say yes, you do have a future and a career. In this location. Yes, we do have a new product coming. And no, you don’t have to uproot your family and relocate.”  

“You can stay right here in Orion [Township] if that’s what you choose to live and work, and you can stay in this community,” Harris added. 

 

Brands, NGOs name ‘problematic’ materials 

More than 100 companies, organizations and government entities joined forces to unveil a “Problematic and Unnecessary Materials List” on Tuesday — in an effort to accelerate the transition toward a “circular economy” for plastic packaging in the U.S. 

The companies and groups, all members of the U.S. Plastic Pact, identified 11 plastic packaging items that they consider not reusable, recyclable or compostable at scale, and that they expect to be eliminated by 2025, a news release from the partners said.   

The publication of the list fulfills a pledge made by Pact members to “define a list of packaging that is problematic or unnecessary,” a goal of their Roadmap to 2025, according to the organization.    

First words: “The elimination of these problematic and unnecessary materials will enable advancements in circular package design, increase opportunities for recovery, and enhance the quality of recycled content available for manufacturers,” Emily Tipaldo, executive director of U.S. Plastic Pact, said in a statement.    

What, exactly, is the U.S. Plastic Pact? It’s a group established in August 2020 as part of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s worldwide Plastics Pact Network.  

The group intends to make 100 percent of plastic packaging reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025, by which time all such packaging will contain 30-percent recycled or bio-based content, according to the Pact. 

And what’s a “circular economy?” A circular economy — a core goal of the Pact’s Roadmap — is one in which manufacturing focuses on extending the lifecycle of products and works toward creating a closed loop system.   

A variety of big brands backed the announcement: Among the many companies to support the Pact are Coca-Cola, Aldi, Amcor, L’Oreal USA, General Mills, Colgate, Conagra, Nestle, Kimberly-Clark and Danone North America.   

The retailers, consumer packaged goods companies and converters that are members of the U.S. Plastic Pact collectively generate about 33 percent of plastic packaging “in scope” — meaning, all ancillary, not necessary plastic packaging — by weight in the U.S., the news release said.   

 

ANCILLARY PACKAGING MATERIALS DOMINATED THE LIST

The list identified 11 plastic packaging items that they consider not reusable, recyclable or compostable at scale, and that they expect to be eliminated by 2025:

  • Carbon black — a soot-like compound used in rubber products like tires. 
  • Polystyrene (PS) — found in packing peanuts and as foam on beaches 
  • Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) — commonly used in plastic piping 
  • Opaque or pigment polyethylene terephthalate (PET) bottles in any color other than transparent blue or green 
  • Oxo-degradable additives: catalysts used to break down plastics, but which the Ellen MacArthur Foundation has said simply lead to the fragmentation of tiny pieces of plastic in the environment, according to Bioplastics Magazine. 
  • Polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG) in rigid packaging 
  • Intentionally added per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) — also known as “forever chemicals” — the toxic compounds covered at length in Sharon’s series mentioned earlier.  
  • A group of materials described as “problematic label constructions,” which include adhesives and inks that render a package detrimental or non-recyclable.
  • Cutlery, stirrers and straws — but only when they are nonreusable, nonrecyclable or noncompostable and are provided as an ancillary item to a primary container, according to the Pact.    

 

A packet of plastic cutlery provided with a prepared salad would be defined as problematic — due to its ancillary, unrequested nature — while cutlery, straws or stirrers sold as a separate entity would not be defined as such, the news release said.  

What gained these materials spots on the list? In addition to not being reusable, recyclable or compostable, the materials also needed meet one of four other criteria: they pose a hazard to human health, they could be avoided, they disrupt the recyclability of other items or they have a high likelihood of being littered, according to the Pact.  

“Recycling will only work if we stop pumping contaminants and unrecyclable materials into the system,” Anja Malawi Brandon, U.S. Plastics Policy Analyst at the environmental nonprofit Ocean Conservancy, said in a statement.  

Last words: “Our research shows that a majority of the trash found on beaches and waterways around the world every year during Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup is effectively unrecyclable,” Malawai Brandon added. “Phasing out these 11 materials will go a long way in cleaning up the recycling stream and our coastlines.” 

Travel Tuesday

Beijing is covered in pre-Olympic smog, freighter cruises are stalled by COVID-19 and when in Rome, don’t dump as the Romans do.   

 Smog covers Beijing ahead of Olympics 

  • A blanket of thick smog is smothering the Beijing area — just two weeks ahead of the Olympics, prompting Ecology and Environment Ministry officials to authorize local government action to improve air quality, The Washington Post reported.  
  • The surging pollution makes outdoor exercise risky, while exacerbating fears that China will not fulfill its promise of a “green” and carbon-neutral Olympics, according to the Post.   

Another coronavirus casualty: travel by tramp freighter 

  • Devotees of a niche form of ocean cruise — travel by freighter — are waiting impatiently for COVID-19 restrictions and port restrictions to relax, allowing them to get back to this spartan, “spiritual” form of tourism, The Wall Street Journal reported.   
  • “Our biggest concern is passengers being stuck on ships for an extended period of time due to constant and never-ending changes in rules and regulations by various countries,” Hamish Jamieson, a New Zealand-based travel agent, told the Journal.  

Romans battling trash in city famous for Renaissance beauty 

  • Rome’s historic center is laden with open trash bags, tossed-out leftovers and empty beer cans — and its suburbs are even worse. But residents are split over who is responsible for the mess, The Wall Street Journal reported.  
  • NIMBYism has left Rome without enough landfills or garbage processing plants, while collection services are understaffed and inefficient, according to the Journal. “It doesn’t make any sense to lean on people’s civic sense when a service we pay for is provided only theoretically,” a 57-year-old warehouse worker told the Journal. 

 

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

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