Sunday, May 27, 2018

Crow Fritters

"Try to imagine half the numbers of commercial passenger flights in 2025 as today, or half the numbers of gas-powered engines. Half the numbers of WalMart SuperStores bringing full cargo ships from Shenzhen to Houston."

It is always painful to admit you were wrong, especially about something that has taken on a lot of significance in your life and you have been repeating for decades. I have that sense of contrition now as I look back on the past week and the realization that came from it.

Can one get an epiphany from YouTube? I guess so.

From Tuesday to Thursday my astral body was 3000 miles away, in the auditorium of Chalmers University in Gotebörg, while my wetware remained motionless, jacked into my laptop; tractor-beamed to an ISP tower at my rural county seat, 40 miles away. The astral body wanted to occasionally cruise the hall to one of the four other seminar rooms where important papers were being delivered but the webcast confined it to the plenary hall. The lump of flesh mostly wanted bathroom breaks and sandwiches.

What had me so enthralled was the First International Conference on Negative CO2 Emissions with 11 keynote speakers, 150 powerpoint presentations, 231 abstracts and 30 poster presentations.

The plenary hall called RunAn (Run an’ what? Hide?) had been transformed into an Emergency Planetary Care ward and the patient was dying. More than 250 of the world’s leading scientists — flying or ferrying in from 30 countries — leaned forward in their seats in upper gallery of the operating theater and exchanged banter with the surgeons reading the beeping monitors and pacing around the gurney. There was even a machine that goes ping!

Some of these surgeons were the very same ones that had created the need for the emergency measures now being mustered. They had labored for decades on committees of the IPCC, trying to get across to politicians too busy with the minutiae of realpolitik the seriousness of setting hard decarbonization targets, first at Kyoto, then Copenhagen, then Paris, and had failed repeatedly. All that was left to do now was either (a) bend over and kiss your posterior goodbye; or (b) bend the curve.

The IPCC Fifth Assessment Report quantified budgets for the 1.5ºC and 2ºC Paris targets at about 200 and 800 billion tons (gigaton or Gt )of CO2. With unchanged present emissions at about 40 Gt CO2/year, the 1.5 target will be passed in 3 to 5 years and 2 degrees within 20 years.We must bend the curve away from adding carbon to the atmosphere each year — currently a concave curve pointing up — to subtracting carbon — a convex curve peaking out and trending down. To have a realistic chance of averting disaster, we need to reach an 11 percent decline rate per annum from 2036 (preventing catastrophic climate change above 2 degrees) or better, a 20 percent decline slope from 2037 (limiting ourselves to dangerous climate change at around 1.5 degrees).

This type of curve will not be easily achieved. An 11 percent decline slope is the inverse of doubling your fossil economy every 7 years — so, halving every 7 years. Try to imagine half the numbers of commercial passenger flights in 2025 as today, or half the numbers of gas-powered engines. Half the numbers of WalMart SuperStores bringing full cargo ships from Shenzhen to Houston. Then halve that by 2032 and again by 2039. You get the picture. Phasing out the worst fossil fuels in favor of the less evil heritage fuels (sunlight, wind, firewood), will not bring carbon back into the safety zone fast enough.

The IPCC got weak knees just thinking about that so its Working Group 3 bent the curve back up a bit. The revised recommendation offered last December at COP-23 in Bonn gave more attractive narratives to policymakers — really just modest tweaks to business as usual.

The IPCC emission scenarios that meet the global two-degree target require overshooting the carbon budget at first and then removing the excess carbon with large “negative emissions,” capable of withdrawing on the order of 400‑800 GtCO2, or half-again more than humans emit.

So it came to be that delegates to UN climate conference have signed up for “negative emissions technologies” that will be sprinkled around the planet like fairy dust to reclaim over the long term the fossil emissions we are allowing ourselves in the short term (and indeed, that we, the taxpayers, are still subsidizing delivery of to the tune of 5 to 6 trillion dollars per year).

But there I go again. Calling NET “fairy dust” is what I have been doing since Copenhagen, even while extolling the virtues of biochar and carbon farming as The Great Sequestrators.

There was plenty of praise from the surgical gallery for biochar and carbon farming, for sure, but what knocked me back with a Spell of Contrition were presentations by experts on Direct Air Capture (DAC), Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and Enhanced Weathering.

For years I have been calling BECCS snake oil because I imagined it just a rebranding of “clean coal” — an impossible plan to switch the world from fossil energy to biomass and continue business as usual. Carbon capture is not a heavy lift, scrubbers have been doing that for decades and the new technologies are vastly better at it. The bugaboo has always been storage because, placed in geological tombs like old coal-mines or fracked wells, carbon gas has a nasty habit of getting out — about 10 percent leakage per decade. Dumped into the ocean, which has been the main plan since the idea first appeared, it would become carbonic acid and worsen the acidification problem — now the worst it has been in a million years — destroying whatever remaining corals and crustaceans are not already dead from heat stroke.

The same kind of problem besets DAC, which scrubs the atmosphere of carbon the way a tree does, only with electric fans, stainless steel and aluminum instead of sunlight, cellulose and phloem. Also, unlike BECCS, DAC doesn’t produce its own power. To get the solvent to give up its CO2, you need copious heat. To capture a million tons of CO2 per year (one 40,000th of present net annual emissions) 300 to 500 MW are required — equal to a very large coal steam plant or several hundred wind turbines.

Among the many takeaways from the conference however, was that science never sleeps. BECCS and DAC are making major improvements. Our friend Hans-Peter Schmidt of the Ithaka Institute was there to talk about PyCCS; a tweak to BECCS where the carbon would be stored as pyrolysates, either biochar in the soil or replacements for plastics composites and aggregates in cement and asphalt. Construction aggregates alone were 53 gigatonnes in 2017, up from 37 in 2010. That’s enough to build a sidewalk around the equator 5000 times. Replacing any amount over 70% of that sand and gravel with biochar (say, from municipal biosolids or landfill carbon) would more than offset current anthropogenic emissions and take us into drawdown territory. Every additional square foot of pavement or building poured at that point would be drawing legacy emissions out of the atmosphere. You could take a century’s worth out every decade if you could just bring yourself to stop adding more.

At the current stage of commercial development, many DAC operators, such as those in Sweden, plan to sell the harvested CO2 instead of storing it. It could go into carbonated beverages, for instance. To my jaundiced eye, this is catch-and-release to the atmosphere, rather than drawdown. Until the storage problem has a commercially viable, antifragile way of sequestering carbon, DAC cannot be considered a solution.

The solution to the power hunger and high price of DAC, keynoter Jennifer Wilcox told us, was to stop trying to get CO2 to 95% purity. Just take a moment to consider how much energy it takes to concentrate CO2 from 400 parts per million (the air) to 950,000 parts per million. She pointed to the idea of Klaus Lackner at Arizona State University’s Center for Negative Carbon Emissions to take CO2 at low concentrations and feed algae, thereby producing biomass (energy feedstocks and superfoods) and hydrogen (for portable fuels).

The final keynote, by Phil Renforth at the Carbonate Systems Engineering Group at Cardiff University, looked at the ways rocks take carbon out of the atmosphere by weathering. For a third the cost of a ton of biochar he showed how we could not only build better soil fertility and improve success rates for reforestation, but avoid acidifying the oceans. In fact, we could be reversing ocean acidification by creating soluble bicarbonate biological fertilizers.

Sure, there were a number of talks that were really just desperate attempts to return a poorly designed, rapacious consumer economy to its perceived former glory, future generations be damned. I’d list Columbia professor James Hansen’s opening keynote in that category, and watched with sorrow and pity as he made his too-familiar impassioned plea to give nukes a chance.

Hansen sounded like an old lefty reciting the mantra, “The Workers, United, Will Never Be Defeated!” I will happily admit I may have been wrong about DAC but I am not wrong about nukes.

So there it is. I went from being skeptical about geoengineering technologies like BECCS and DAC to seeing how they might actually work to restore health to coral reefs and forests beset by rapid climate change. Moreover, they could perform those miracles in ways that take account of humanity’s need to switch from overpopulated consumerist economies to something more attuned to Gaian rhythms and flows. And they could bring those in at scale, at low cost, or even negative cost, meaning government programs to force them onto the market would be irrelevant and unnecessary. Sounds too good to be true. 

Yet there are college kids signing up for courses, nerdy tinkers in dimly-lit garages, and lab-rat inventors cashing in their savings bonds to pursue these dreams. The one thing we have going for us, we naked apes, is we are clever little buggers.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

The Russians Aren't Coming

"What exactly is our strategy for the Malthusian predicament?"

In his autobiography, Hollywood director, Norman Jewison describes meeting John Wayne at a party.
“Have you met Norman Jewison? The film director?” I looked down the long flight of stairs, shirtless and clutching my pants. John Wayne stared back, swaying slightly and holding a large glass of whiskey. Before I could say anything, David said, “Norman has just directed The Russians Are Coming. He and Dixie are our guests for the weekend.”
Wayne continued to stare at me, his face expressionless. I managed to murmur, “It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Wayne.”
“What are ya?” he suddenly shouted. “One of those goddamn pinkos?”
Speechless, I smiled weakly and scampered into the bedroom to finish changing. I could hear him bellowing about commies taking over Hollywood. When I slunk downstairs to join the party, I realized I was the only guy with a beard. This was foreign territory, politically speaking. Every time I saw the six-foot-four Mr. Wayne headed my way, I managed to hide. Remember True Grit? That’s what he looked like that night, and I’d heard that the drunker he got, the meaner he was.
He scared the hell out of me.
This week marks the third week I’m patiently waiting for my passport to return from the Russian Embassy, stamped with a fresh entry visa. No doubt the recent kerfuffle over false flags, spying and gassings have slowed such things down. I plan to go in July so hopefully there is enough time to get my papers in order.

Some of the questions on the form were impossible for me to answer, like “give the dates of every previous visit.” My memories of travel there extend more than a quarter century back, when I went to St. Petersburg as part of a citizen diplomacy program organized by Diane Gilman at the Context Institute. I have watched in the intervening years as the country went through its dramatic changes from communism to gangster-ism to consumerist multiculturalism. “Cosmopolitan” is a word that aptly describes a country spanning 11 time zones.

Why would Adolf Hitler make such a bonehead strategic blunder as to attack the Soviet Union? In Chapter four of Mein Kampf he explained:
The annual increase of population in Germany amounts to almost 900,000 souls. The difficulties of providing for this army of new citizens must grow from year to year and must finally lead to a catastrophe, unless ways and means are found which will forestall the danger of misery and hunger.
Hitler considered birth control, but says it would never work, and besides,
vengeance will follow sooner or later. A stronger race will oust that which has grown weak….
Then he considered the Wizards’ argument — that science will find the means to supply exponential growth —  but rejected it on Malthusian grounds.
It would, therefore, be a mistaken view that every increase in the productive powers of the soil will supply the requisite conditions for an increase in the population.
Hitler said that boosting farm output while increasing exports of industrial goods to buy food were temporary solutions at best. He called that strategy “pacifist nonsense.”

Acknowledging that it was too late and too expensive to acquire colonies outside Europe, he concluded that the only solution to the imbalance between people and land would be to acquire new territory inside Europe (and, along the way, exterminate as many other races as could be easily arranged).

We can look back on this now and heap scorn on the insanity and ruthlessness of Lebensraum but it was no more insane and ruthless than Europe’s genocidal march to the sea across North America or Israel’s march to the sea through Gaza.

Jewison’s book also tells the story of his Moscow premier screening of The Russians Are Coming:
The theater was bigger than Radio City Music Hall in New York. To sit in that enormous theater, jammed with over two thousand Russians, and watch their reaction to my movie was an amazing experience.
As the film ran, a Russian interpreter gave a simultaneous translation over the sound system. I had been told that if a Russian audience didn’t like something, they would make a “chuh-chuh-chuh” sound, so throughout the screening, I prayed I wouldn’t hear it. They laughed at the jokes in Russian that the Americans didn’t get, and everything was fine until Theo Bikel, the Russian sub captain, threatens to blow up the town. You could feel the tension in the theater, then the “chuh-chuhing” began. I thought, “Oh God, they think they’re going to be made to look like the villains again.” But when the stand-off is broken by the little boy falling from the church belfry and the Russians help save him, the audience began a rhythmic clapping and many burst into tears. Directors Sergei Bondarchuk and Grigory Chukhrai were on their feet clapping and crying.
I was sitting next to Vladimir Posner, the Brooklyn-born editor of Soviet Life. “Why are they crying?” I asked.
“Because they didn’t make it first,” he replied.
I realized then that the film, although made primarily for an American audience, expressed the hopes and fears felt by people in both countries at that period in the Cold War. What the Russians of course couldn’t believe, and were blown away by, was the fact that I had been allowed to make the film at all.
My dad was the John Wayne of my family. He built a career bashing reds, even during the years our countries were allied fighting Hitler. When I foresook everything he stood for to join a Tennessee hippy commune (I am there still), he could barely purse his lips to spit. He came to visit, all the way from California, but refused to get out of the rental car. He never understood that it was neither him nor capitalism I was rejecting. It was the whole Orwellian mind control bit.

I get that we tribe from genetic imperative. We adopted that social animal chunk of our DNA millions of years ago as a defensive strategy against predators, the same as zebras banding together to cross a river full of crocodiles. We have to deal with extreme football rivalries, religious intolerance, political dynasties and Ford owners as a consequence.

But, please. Why can’t I watch RT without my ISP slowing down the feed? Why can’t I link to a Caitlin Johnstone or George Galloway story without Facebook trolls ridiculing me as a Russian pawn? How is it that so many otherwise intelligent journals like the Washington Post or The New York Times un-inquisitively parrot Cold War rhetoric coming from K-street think tanks and party apparatchiks?

Does National Security Advisor Bolton imagine that we will have an atomic showdown with Russia that will settle the matter once and for all? And if Bolton and the other neo-cons think climate change is a hoax, does that mean they think nuclear winter is, too?

A better question would be, what exactly is our strategy for the Malthusian predicament? Is it the UN Sustainable Development Goals? Famine? The Border Wall? Glyphosate? Colonies on Mars? What exactly is the agenda here?

In the end those whose systems of economics and governance are best equipped to confront the biophysical limits of the real world will be those best prepared to make it through the death-defying rollercoaster ride now just cresting for launch. The track is out ahead and I frankly don't see anyone seriously planning to repair it.

Tick tock.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Why is your teenage sibling trying to kill you?

"We were searching for the tendrils of common language from which we could enlarge the discussion and possibly illuminate the dark areas of their thinking, and ours."

In the process of spring cleaning I happened across a cardboard binder with a yellowing, handwritten sticky label reading “An Older View Regarding Inalienable Rights.” Inside was a xerox copy of a 69-page document dated January 9, 1979 from an administrative proceeding before the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC-SECY-78–560) in the matter of the petition of Jeannine Honicker for emergency and remedial action.

Specifically, my client, Mrs. Honicker, the mother of a leukemia survivor, had petitioned to close the federal nuclear fuel cycle on constitutional grounds after learning that leukemia had been administratively deemed a necessary concomitant of the program, along with cancer, birth defects and numerous diseases that resulted in shortened lives for many citizens living downwind or downstream of licensed facilities. Include yourself there. In the course of the proceedings the NRC had stipulated to a number — 1.7 million — for fatalities from routine, “permitted” operation over the next 25 years.

There was no legal authority under the Atomic Energy Act for the agency to make that decision, so we had filed a proceeding to suspend all the licenses that had been issued illegally. Fortunately there was no requirement to post a bond against potential damages to the licensees from the shutdown, because what we were doing is called administrative rulemaking. Nonetheless, the industry took us seriously enough to send a limo full of lawyers to the front gate of The Farm to receive instantaneous service every time we made another filing. I was a billion-dollar liability.

Put aside the arguments of the petitioner, later backed by the courtroom testimony of our experts, that the number used by NRC was at least 10 times too low, that it did not account for accidents such as Three Mile Island, Chernobyl or Fukushima, that it did not look out beyond 25 years, or that it did not account for the unknowns (at that time technetium and the isotopes of carbon were unaccounted for). The lowball number they gave sufficed for our purposes. In Mrs. Honicker’s view, one would have sufficed.

Flipping through the 69 pages of the “Comments of the Petitioner’s staff on the NRC staff response to her petition for emergency and remedial action,” we came to what was really the core disagreement. The NRC staff’s position — the position they urged upon the five Commissioners who would ultimately decide and whom the US Supreme Court would later, on four occasions, decline to second-guess — was that:
“Even if low-level radiation can induce cancer and genetic effects, future discoveries in the prevention and cure of cancer and genetically related diseases and genetic engineering may negate many of these effects.”
As we read it now, 39 years later, the words strike a familiar chord. That’s what we are being told about climate change, or to paraphrase:
“Even if climate change can induce catastrophic warming of 4 degrees or greater this century, ending mammalian life on Earth, future discoveries in renewable energy and negative emissions technologies may negate many of these effects.”
The view we espoused in our response document was fundamentally at odds with that view. I wrote:
“The NRC Staff suggests that genetic engineering may be the answer to the radiation problem we created. It is irresponsible for this generation to require future generations to submit to genetic engineering in order to have normal children. This kind of tinkering with life is symptomatic of the attitude with which the NRC has approached the entire question of large-scale biological experimentation on the people. The nuclear fuel cycle is already compulsory, random, genetic engineering. But there must be a right not to be genetically engineered, certainly as a matter of freedom of religion, and also as one of the rights reserved to the people by the Ninth Amendment to the Constitution.
“Loss of life is certainly avoidable. One need only refrain from conduct that increases the loss of life by one’s own hands….”
“In equivocating risks, making them seem inconsequential, the NRC Staff is attempting to make present schemes of planned civilian deaths seem consistent with congressional intent and the Supreme Court’s holdings that risks are to be allowed when there is reasonable assurance of public safety. But the standard established by Congress for taking risks as a society included establishing a Nuclear Regulatory Commission to protect and preserve public health.”
“These are rational, reasonable and timely objections. They are questions that should have been addressed before the present nuclear fuel cycle was embarked upon. Is any human life insignificant or terminable by government license for ever-greater electric power production?”
We knew back then, even as we see now, we were talking past each other. This exchange of formal comments that would form the basis for review by no fewer than 23 federal judges over the next several years represented the collision of separate worlds. In his latest masterpiece, The Wizard and the Prophet, Charles C. Mann expresses that dilemma better than most:
“Prophets look at the world as finite, and people as constrained by their environment. Wizards see possibilities as inexhaustible, and humans as wily managers of the planet. One views growth and development as the lot and blessing of our species, the other regards stability and preservation as our future and our goal. Wizards regard Earth as a toolbox, its contents freely available for use; Prophets think of the natural world as embodying an overarching order that should not casually be disturbed.
“The conflict between these visions is not between good and evil, but between different ideas of the good life; between ethical orders that give priority to personal liberty and those that give priority to what might be called connection.”
“These arguments have their roots in long-ago fights. Voltaire and Rousseau disputing whether natural law truly is a guide for humankind. Jefferson and Hamilton jousting over the ideal character of citizens. Robert Malthus scoffing at the claims of William Godwin and Nicolas de Condorcet that science could overcome limits set by the physical world. T.H. Huxley, the famed defender of Darwin, and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce of Oxford, contending whether biological laws truly apply to creatures with souls. John Muir, champion of pristine wilderness, squaring off against Gifford Pinchot, evangelist for managing forests with teams of experts. The ecologist Paul Ehrlich and the economist Julian Simon betting whether ingenuity can outwit scarcity. To the philosopher-critic Lewis Mumford, all of these battles were part of a centuries-long struggle between two types of technology, “one authoritarian, the other democratic, the first system-centered, immensely powerful, but inherently unstable, the other man-centered, relatively weak, but resourceful and durable.” And all of them were about, at least in part, the relationship of our species to Nature — which is to say, they were debates about the nature of our species.”
We knew in 1979 that, in our dialogue with NRC staff, we were speaking past each other. We had tactical awareness of this impasse and to whatever extent possible we tried to bridge the gulf. We challenged the wizards on their science, not their religion. We used catch phrases and framing that might better resonate with their worldview, not ours. We spoke of personal liberty rather than connection to the natural world. We spoke of the bedrock rights of free men in voluntary association being carelessly discarded without adequate scientific study of likely consequences, such as erosion of liberty. We were searching for the tendrils of common language from which we could enlarge the discussion and possibly illuminate the dark areas of their thinking, and ours.

Later in Wizard, Mann inserts nearly whole cloth his award-winning 2012 essay for Orion, The State of the Species. With it he profiles the late gaian theorist Lynn Margulis, who took a jaundiced view towards both techno-cornucopians and enviro-Luddites. Mann writes:
In 2000, the chemist Paul Crutzen gave a name to our time: the “Anthropocene,” the era in which Homo sapiens became a force operating on a planetary scale. That year, half of the world’s accessible fresh water was consumed by human beings.
Lynn Margulis, it seems safe to say, would have scoffed at these assessments of human domination over the natural world, which, in every case I know of, do not take into account the enormous impact of the microworld. But she would not have disputed the central idea: Homo sapiens has become a successful species, and is growing accordingly.
If we follow Gause’s pattern, growth will continue at a delirious speed until we hit the second inflection point. At that time we will have exhausted the resources of the global petri dish, or effectively made the atmosphere toxic with our carbon-dioxide waste, or both. After that, human life will be, briefly, a Hobbesian nightmare, the living overwhelmed by the dead. When the king falls, so do his minions; it is possible that our fall might also take down most mammals and many plants. Possibly sooner, quite likely later, in this scenario, the earth will again be a choir of bacteria, fungi, and insects, as it has been through most of its history.
It would be foolish to expect anything else, Margulis thought. More than that, it would be unnatural.
Since those long ago days when I was a young attorney crusading for justice on behalf of Mrs. Honicker, much has changed but much has not and likely never will. There are those that like to cast the difference between human tribes in terms of liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, peace-lover or warmonger, Stewart Brands or Derrick Jensens. These battles rage, sometimes even violently.

It is a talent of our species to have this range of checks and balances — instincts of protection to rein in our penchant for reckless adventure; a cautious optimism to counteract the remorse of our eventual demise, individually and collectively. We need all sides heard, that we become whole.

These days I think of it more as though our species has been going through adolescence. We are a very young mammal, evolutionarily speaking — 200,000 years since walking upright out of Africa, 100,000 years of vocalizing our thoughts (perhaps after communing with mushrooms), 70,000 years since the Toba near-extinction event forced our retreat to caves and clothing — our species is but a blink of the eye for older fellows like snapping turtles, sharks and dragonflies.

Like all teenagers we chafe at boundaries, push the limits, make unreasonable demands and fail to connect the dots between our conduct and its consequences. That part of our brain that sees into the future is still only crudely formed — unshaped clay-dough.

To my way of thinking the Wizards are our wild younger siblings. The Prophets, and I rank myself among them, are at least aware enough to grok how much we don’t know. Will we survive our feckless teenage siblings’ wreckage? It’s still too soon to say.

Thanks for reading! If you liked this story, please consider sharing it around. Our open banjo case for your spare change is at Patreon or Paypal.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

Straw Wars

Straws are a gateway drug, because they are so easy and ubiquitous. That is also what makes them a gateway solution, or “sipping point.”

500,000,000. Five with eight zeroes. That is how many plastic straws go into drink cups. Not every year, that’s every day. And that’s just in the USA. 

I can almost remember my delight as a child when a friend showed me how to take of the end of the paper wrapper and blow the wrapper at some unsuspecting target across the room. That was half the fun of straws when you were a kid. The other half was making noises and bubbles in the bottom of the cup.

The plastic story is relatively recent. The oldest straw still intact and in a museum was discovered in a Sumerian tomb dated 3,000 B.C.E. —  a gold tube inlaid with the precious blue stone lapis lazuli. It wasn’t until the late 19th century era of extravagant world expositions that people started making paper straws — wrapped in wax to keep them from dissolving in gin or bourbon. After World War II we started to see plastic. I am old enough to remember the Flav-R-Straw, a bendy straw with hundreds of tiny flavor pellets in the bellows that could turn plain milk chocolate or strawberry.

Flav-R-Straws were withdrawn in 1961 after Nestlé Quik, Bosco and Hershey’s countered with products they could back with full-spectrum market dominance. Tiny Flav-R-Straws were crushed.
Early paper straws had a narrow bore similar to the grass stems used for millennia. It was common to use two of them, to reduce the effort needed to take each sip. Modern plastic straws are made with a larger bore so only one is needed for ease of drinking, but when they hand you your 64-oz Biggie through the drive-up window, chances are it's got two, purely out of habit. 

And it's single use plastic.

You can complain and they will take back the straws, but when you aren’t looking those are going straight into the trash, which goes straight into a dumpster (in a plastic bag), which goes maybe to separation and maybe not, and then to either landfill or to some watercourse that leads to the ocean and thence the gullet of seabirds or the digestive organs of fish, turtles, dolphins or whales. Robot subs have found that plastic in the stomachs of creatures in the Mariana Trench, 36,000 feet down. 

Between 88 and 95% of the plastic polluting the world’s oceans pours in from just ten rivers, eight are in Asia and the remaining two in Africa. These rivers account for about five trillion pounds of plastic garbage that is floating in the seas. It kills an estimated 200 million marine mammals annually.

The Ganges River in India is responsible for about 1.2 billion pounds, while the Yangtze has been estimated in previous research to dump some 727 million pounds of plastic into the oceans each year.

A combination of the Xi, Dong and Zhujiang Rivers (233 million lbs per year) in China as well as four Indonesian rivers: the Brantas (85 million lbs annually), Solo (71 million pounds per year), Serayu (37 million lbs per year) and Progo (28 million lbs per year), are all large contributors.

Panelists Naja Nielson @OrbTweet, Dianna Cohen @PlasticPollutes, Jackie Nunez @NoPlasticStraws and Jon Bowermaster @NatGeoMag at #CollisionConf

We had the good fortune this week to meet Jackie Nunez, founder of The Last Plastic Straw. She called straws a gateway drug, because they were so easy and ubiquitous. That is also what makes them a gateway solution, or “sipping point,” as Nunez tells it.

She made an invitation to all bars and restaurants to be part of her movement to eliminate plastic pollution from the source. By simply stating on menus “Straws available upon request,” bars and restaurants can be part of the solution. 

Jackie said, “I had my Last Plastic Straw moment in 2011 after receiving a glass of water with a plastic straw at a local beach side bar in Santa Cruz, California. I didn’t ask for a straw. I had just arrived into town after traveling the Caribbean. While there, everywhere I went I saw plastic pollution. On the beaches, in the water, on land. Plastic pollution was everywhere, there was no getting away from it. There is no ‘away.’”

After unloading on her waiter, she decided to be more strategic and that is when she started The Last Plastic Straw. “Basically what we are asking you to do is DO LESS…less consumption, less waste, less straws, it’s a win, win!” she says. 
Check our Resources pages for plastic straw alternatives, inspirational reading and videos that will provide insight and solutions that you can incorporate into your life right now.
Join us, by spreading the word every time you ask for “no straw” whereever straws are served, and by requesting that restaurants & bars only serve straws upon request. Start living like you love the ocean, yourself, and the planet. You will help save the planet from single use plastic pollution one straw at a time. Little things do matter. Go to our facebook page and tell us about your “Last Plastic Straw Moment”…hopefully it’s today!
Thanks to Jackie, from London to Miami, restaurants, bars and cities are banning plastic straws voluntarily. When you return yours to your server, you should politely instruct them to:
  • Provide a straw only when requested by a customer
  • Provide either compostable or reusable straws
  • Or get rid of straws completely
On April 19, 2018, ahead of Earth Day, a proposal to phase out single-use plastics was announced during the meeting of the Commonwealth Heads of Government. This will include plastic drinking straws, which cannot be recycled and contribute to ocean deterioration, damaging ecosystems and wildlife. It is estimated that as of 2018, about 23 million straws are used and discarded daily in the UK. And the alternatives are literally grass roots.

A few months before, Queen Elizabeth II banned the plastic straws and other one-use plastic items from her palaces. Canada is now considering banning straws nationwide after 70% of voters polled endorsed a plastic straw ban. 

How hard would it be, after all, to go back to paper? Now, embed that paper with biochar and you are really talking my language.




The Great Change is published whenever the spirit moves me. Writings on this site are purely the opinion of Albert Bates and are subject to a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial Share-Alike 3.0 "unported" copyright. People are free to share (i.e, to copy, distribute and transmit this work) and to build upon and adapt this work – under the following conditions of attribution, n on-commercial use, and share alike: Attribution (BY): You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor (but not in any way that suggests that they endorse you or your use of the work). Non-Commercial (NC): You may not use this work for commercial purposes. Share Alike (SA): If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under the same or similar license to this one. Nothing in this license is intended to reduce, limit, or restrict any rights arising from fair use or other limitations on the exclusive rights of the copyright owner under copyright law or other applicable laws. Therefore, the content of
this publication may be quoted or cited as per fair use rights. Any of the conditions of this license can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder (i.e., the Author). Where the work or any of its elements is in the public domain under applicable law, that status is in no way affected by the license. For the complete Creative Commons legal code affecting this publication, see here. Writings on this site do not constitute legal or financial advice, and do not reflect the views of any other firm, employer, or organization. Information on this site is not classified and is not otherwise subject to confidentiality or non-disclosure.