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China’s Crackdown on Foreign Trash Forces US to Rethink Dependence on Overseas Waste Disposal

Ban on garbage imports could reshape global recycling markets

With holidays approaching, many of us are mindful of the need to collect and recycle all the additional plastic, paper, and other waste that we are about to generate. This year, however, there are questions about where that waste will end up. China, the world’s largest importer of scrap, is looking to clean up its act.

photo of recycling operationPhoto by Epping Forest District Council, Flickr China is the world’s largest importer and recycler of scrap metals, plastic, and paper.

In July 2017 China, which is by far the world’s largest importer and recycler of scrap metals, plastic, and paper, notified the World Trade Organization that it planned to effectively ban imports of 24 types of scrap, which its environment ministry called “foreign garbage,” by the end of the year. Immediately, organizations such as the US-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries and the Bureau of International Recycling warned that China’s action would cause job losses, shut down many US recycling facilities, and send more waste to landfills.

These worries are not unfounded. Global recycling markets are easily prone to disruption, and developed countries have underinvested in recycling infrastructure for years. Beijing has delayed implementation by a few months and eased its stringent new contamination limit, but its shift continues to send shock waves through the industry. Waste Dive, the must-read daily bulletin of waste-related news, named the initiative “Disruptor of the Year.” China’s action could reshape an overlooked but critical segment of the global economy: the cross-border flows of scrap that underpin recyclng markets worldwide.

The world’s recycler

Scrap exports to China took off in the early 2000s following the lifting of broader trade restrictions. In 2012 China received nearly half of all the plastic waste that Americans sent abroad for recycling and about one-third of the European Union’s plastic waste exports. According to one 2014 study, China received 56 percent by weight of global scrap plastic exports.

This trade makes economic sense all around. Shipping is cheap: Cargo ships carry goods from China to Western countries and carry scrap back, a process known as reverse haulage. China’s booming industries are located near major ports and hungry for plastics they do not yet produce at home, so they willingly pay for high-quality imported scrap to reuse. For US-based waste collectors, selling scrap to a broker to be shipped to China is cheaper than sending it to recycling facilities at home.

Plastic scrap is …more

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When the Levee Breaks

Restoration work in the California Delta could be key to addressing state's water and climate challenges

From this vantage point, the deck of a cargo ship skims by above, beyond the fragile levee wall that holds back the mighty San Joaquin River. It passes effortlessly through the wide flat river that, due to the levee and the perspective, is completely out of view on a crisp winter morning. With the ship’s submerged propeller probably somewhere around forehead-level, this perspective would normally require immersion in the relevant body of water — no place for a few wetland engineers and scientists like us.

photo of mayberry wetland in the DeltaPhoto by Kyle Seewald Hemes Ecologists are restoring and enhancing some 300 acres of wetlands on Sherman Island as part of the Mayberry Farms Project. The project is expected to help reverse land subsidence and sequester carbon dioxide, and is part of broader restoration work in the California Delta.

A few centuries ago, standing in this same spot on the edge of Twitchell Island in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin River, we would have been covered in ten or twenty feet of peat: dark, pungent, carbon-rich soil — the muck of thousands of years of decomposing plant matter and bacterial corpses. It would have enveloped anyone there, bubbling through their entrails and seeping under their toenails, like being embalmed in a thick microbial stew. Today, our small group is merely dusted with the black sediment that, since being drained and exposed to the atmosphere, is kicked up by wind that blows steadily from San Francisco Bay, to the west. This island, like all the islands that make up the Delta, is a bowl ringed by precarious levee walls, anchored in a network of rivers and channels, emptied of its carbon-rich soil by a century and a half of human meddling.

Life Amid the Levees

Will the California delta survive the pressures of a thirsty state?

The San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta is at the center of a far-reaching debate about water use in the Golden State that has left many wondering about the future of this region.

>Read More…

As the water level rises outside, and the land surface sinks inside as drained wetland soils decompose in the presence of oxygen, ever more pressure builds on the levees that are meant to protect these fertile agricultural lands from inundation. Here at the tired heart of California’s water system, from which water is pumped to the farthest reaches of California’s …more

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Worst Fires in California’s History? Some Clarifications

Lack of defensible space around homes a major reason for extent of destruction, says wildfire ecologist

On Monday, journalist, author, and author and environmental activist Bill McKibben tweeted data from CalFire regarding the top 20 most destructive fires in California. He wrote:

“Five of the twenty worst fires in CA history have come since September. Hot new world.” 

photo of twitter accountImage from Twitter On Monday Bill McKibben tweeted about the fires that have been raging across California this year.

When I came across the tweet, I immediately grabbed a screenshot and sent it off to Earth Island’s own wildfire expert — ecologist Chad Hason, director of John Muir Project.

Is McKibben’s interpretation accurate? I asked. What exactly do these figures mean? 

Here’s the explanation that Hanson emailed back, which I’m reproducing with some edits here. It’s worth reading through during this ongoing fire season in the West, when there are so many numbers and confusing data and wildfire causes being cited in the media. 

“He is talking about the number of homes burned, which may be accurate. He is not referring to fire size, although the Thomas fire is large — but the others not so much. 

“This year there was not much wildland fire in the mountain forests, since we had a big winter in 2016-2017. But the high levels of winter and spring precipitation allowed a lot of grass to grow, and these fires are mostly driven by grass, and shrubs in low elevations near population centers. 

“Because there is poor monitoring and enforcement for defensible space in most California counties, and because few counties have meaningful requirements with regards to fire-safe roofing and siding materials, severe impacts on communities can be expected in such circumstances.” 

Los Angeles is an exception in this regard, Hanson says. Which is why during the La Tuna fire in September, though there were more than 700 homes within the fire perimeter, only 5 burned.

Hanson has explained before that while a volatile combination of higher temperatures, low rainfall, and dry weather — all in part connected to climate change — is making extreme fire weather more frequent in the West than in the past few decades, that’s not the main reason that certain fires are so damaging.

He says we can avoid the kind of destruction the current fires have wrecked on our homes and communities, “but only if we stop focusing resources on backcountry fire suppression and logging, and instead focus on protecting communities.”

Read our in-depth …more

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Entering the Era of Border Walls

Climate change, global migration, and border enforcement are coming to an explosive head

When I first talked to the three Honduran men in the train yard in the southern Mexican town of Tenosique, I had no idea that they were climate-change refugees. We were 20 miles from the border with Guatemala at a rail yard where Central American refugees often congregated to try to board La Bestia (“the Beast”), the nickname given to the infamous train that has proven so deadly for those traveling north toward the United States.

photo of border wall protestPhoto by Peg Hunter Americans and Mexicans met at the border wall in November to protest border militarization and US immigration policies. As climate change displaces more people around the globe, migrants will be faced with expanding border surveillance, walls, and incarceration centers.

The men hid momentarily as a Mexican army truck with masked, heavily armed soldiers drove by. Given Washington’s pressure on Mexico to fortify its southern border, US Border Patrol agents might have trained those very soldiers. As soon as they were gone, the Hondurans told me that they had been stuck here for six long days. The night before, they had tried to jump on La Bestia, but it was moving too fast.

When I asked why they were heading for the United States, one responded simply, “No hubo lluvia.” (“There was no rain.”) In their community, without rain, there had been neither crops, nor a harvest, nor food for their families, an increasingly common phenomenon in Central America. In 2015, for instance, 400,000 people living in what has become Honduras’s “dry corridor” planted their seeds and waited for rain that never came. As in a number of other places on this planet in this century, what came instead was an extreme drought that stole their livelihoods.

For Central America, this was not an anomaly. Not only had the region been experiencing increasing mid-summer droughts, but also, as the best climate forecasting models predict, a “much greater occurrence of very dry seasons” lies in its future. Central America is, in fact, “ground zero” for climate change in the Americas, as University of Arizona hydrology and atmospheric sciences professor Chris Castro told me. And on that isthmus, the scrambling of the seasons, an increasingly deadly combination of drenching hurricanes and parching droughts, will hit people already living in the most precarious economic and political situations. Across Honduras, for example, more than 76 percent of the population lives in conditions of acute poverty. The coming climate breakdowns will only worsen that or will, as …more

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Why Are Elephants Getting Electrocuted in India?

Illegal electric fences on farms are a serious threat to the endangered animal

In May this year, a disturbing wildlife video from India began circulating on the Internet. It showed a dead elephant being carted off for an autopsy in a village in West Bengal in eastern India. The elephant had collapsed on a paddy field after reportedly coming in contact with an illegal electric fence. A crane truck awkwardly dragged the elephant upside down along a dirt road and a small crowd followed, taking pictures on cell phones. Burn marks were clearly visible on the elephant’s trunk.  

Asiatic elephant in the woodsPhoto by Bikash Das An endangered Asiatic elephant at the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve in Tamil Nadu, India. There are stringent laws protecting India’s “heritage” animal, but convictions for electrocutions are rare.

Wild elephants are electrocuted with startling regularity in India. According to the Wildlife Protection Society of India, there was a sharp uptick in 2016 with 43 elephants killed accidentally by damaged power lines or intentionally by illegal electric fences. In the southern state of Karnataka there were ten deaths in the last three six months alone. Karnataka is one of the states where electrocutions have overtaken poaching as a leading cause of unnatural death among elephants. “Every alternate day you hear about an electrocution case,” said K. Vijay, a conservationist with the Ooty-based Nilgiri Wildlife & Environment Association, shortly after a mother and two calves were killed by a fence on a coconut farm in neighboring Tamil Nadu earlier this year.  

Asian elephants are an endangered species.  But not everyone views them in that light. For some farmers, elephants are a menace because they can demolish a crop within a matter of hours. Wealthy landowners protect their harvest with power fences equipped with transformers that deliver a safe buzz of electricity to deter the animal. But small farmers who can’t afford commercial fences tend to improvise. A “homemade” electric fence is often just a single wire strung out on the periphery of a farm illegally connected to an overhead power line. Because they lack a transformer, illegal fences deliver a full blast of 220 volts of alternating current, strong enough to fell an elephant on the spot.  

On paper, there are stringent laws protecting India’s “heritage” animal. Under the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972, killing an elephant carries a prison sentence up to seven years. But in reality, the system is prone to “influence,” according to one conservationist. A conviction in …more

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Climate Change Is the Story You Missed in 2017, and the Media Is to Blame

Some of Trump’s tweets have generated more national coverage than devastating disasters

Which story did you hear more about this year — how climate change makes disasters like hurricanes worse, or how Donald Trump threw paper towels at Puerto Ricans?

 photo of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class David Micallef/US Coast Guard A Coast Guard member deployed to Borinquen, Puerto Rico delivers water in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. President Trump's response to the hurricane garnered more press than the link between climate change and extreme weather events.

If you answered the latter, you have plenty of company. Academic Jennifer Good analyzed two weeks of hurricane coverage during the height of hurricane season on eight major TV networks, and found that about 60 percent of the stories included the word Trump, and only about 5 percent mentioned climate change.

Trump doesn’t just suck the oxygen out of the room; he sucks the carbon dioxide out of the national dialogue. Even in a year when we’ve had string of hurricanes, heatwaves, and wildfires worthy of the Book of Revelation — just what climate scientists have told us to expect — the effect of climate change on extreme weather has been dramatically undercovered. Some of Trump’s tweets generate more national coverage than devastating disasters.

Good’s analysis lines up with research done by my organization, Media Matters for America, which found that TV news outlets gave far too little coverage to the well-documented links between climate change and hurricanes. ABC and NBC both completely failed to bring up climate change during their news coverage of Harvey, a storm that caused the heaviest rainfall ever recorded in the continental US. When Irma hit soon after, breaking the record for hurricane intensity, ABC didn’t do much better.

Coverage was even worse of Hurricane Maria, the third hurricane to make landfall in the US this year. Not only did media outlets largely fail to cover the climate connection; in many cases, they largely failed to cover the hurricane itself.

The weekend after Maria slammed into Puerto Rico, the five major Sunday political talkshows devoted less than one minute in total …more

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The Attack on Bears Ears National Monument

In the face of Trump's gleeful dismantling of our public lands, let the resistance continue to build

To stand with a Native American friend of 40 years at the site of a desecrated ancestral grave can be a transcendent and disorienting experience. Quiet grief. No words. Very different for me than for him.

For many of us, ten months of day-in-and-day-out whiplash, the feeling of reeling with every newscast, has been deeply depressing. But Monday was different. It was a punch in the gut. President Trump’s slash and burn dismantling of Bears Ears National Monument — from 1.35 million to 200,000 acres — and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — from 1.9 to 1 million acres — was a gleeful attack on nature, five tribes, Obama, and the environmental community. A sickening scene played out in Utah’s State capitol, right down to making Mick Jagger sing “You can’t always get what you want…” at the close of a garish and surreal ceremony.

photo of bears ears national monumentphoto by Bob Wick, Bureau of Land Management The 1.35 million-acre Bears Ears National Monument in southeastern Utah protects one of most significant cultural landscapes in the United States, with thousands of archaeological sites and important areas of spiritual significance.

We can hope the courts will overturn Trump’s ecocidal, law-flouting actions and that judges will unanimously agree with the Hopi, Zuni, Navajo, Ute, and Ute Mountain Tribes, and with the Native American Rights Fund, Earthjustice, Patagonia, REI, and everyone else who is suing the bastards. But this thinly veiled move to open the door to oil, gas, coal, uranium, fracking, and all other manner of industrial invasion of what’s left of our wild public lands reveals what Trump and Zinke and their corporate sponsors are after, and how brazenly they will go about their dirty work.

If you are willing to feel carsick, I recommend you watch Trump’s speech. It’s a piece of work. “Wonder and wealth…” — we can have both!

No mention of coal stripmines or motorized all-terrain boytoys or bullet holes in ancient, priceless petroglyph panels.

I know many of us feel that our decades of work in the name of social and environmental justice are being vandalized by a reactionary patriarchy founded, at least in this country, on an imagined racial and religious superiority. Too true. I know for each of us there are certain days when the destruction feels closest to home, personal. I guess that’s the case for me here. President Obama’s recognition of a sacred cultural landscape to …more

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