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On a Saturday last summer, I kayaked up a Connecticut river from the coast, buoyed by the rising tide, to pick up trash with a group of locals. Blue herons and white egrets hunted in the shallows. Ospreys soared overhead hauling freshly caught fish. The wind combed the water into fields of ripples, refracting the afternoon sun into a million diamonds. From our distance, the wetlands looked wild and pristine.

Further inland, we left the main river channel and paddled into the muddy heart of the marsh—and began to notice all manner of plastic waste. Big things appeared first: empty bags of chips tangled in the reeds, grocery bags just beneath the surface, Styrofoam trays covered in mud, plastic bottles mixed in with other debris.

As we traveled through the marsh, we kept seeing more, and increasingly tiny, bits of plastic. Not just straws, lighters, combs, and fishing line, but unidentifiable and seemingly never-ending small pieces, ranging in size from as big as my hand to as small as grains of sand. You could stay in the hinterlands plucking trash and never leave. Even in one of the less-polluted parts of the East Coast, outside a city with organized waste management and a recycling system, the land and water are awash in plastic waste.

Plastic, and the profusion of waste it creates, can hide in plain sight, a ubiquitous part of our lives we rarely question. But a closer examination of the situation can be shocking.

Indeed, the scale of the problem is hard to internalize. To date, humans have created around 11 billion metric tons of plastic. This amount surpasses the biomass of all animals, both terrestrial and marine, according to a 2020 study published in Nature.

Currently, about 430 million tons of plastic is produced yearly, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)—significantly more than the weight of all human beings combined. One-third of this total takes the form of single-use plastics, which humans interact with for seconds or minutes before discarding.

A total of 95% of the plastic used in packaging is disposed of after one use, a loss to the economy of up to $120 billion annually, concludes a report by McKinsey. (Just over a quarter of all plastics are used for packaging.) One-third of this packaging is not collected, becoming pollution that generates “significant economic costs by reducing the productivity of vital natural systems such as the ocean.” This causes at least $40 billion in damages, the report states, which exceeds the “profit pool” of the packaging industry.

These numbers are understandably hard to make concrete sense of, even at the scale of specific companies, such as Coca-Cola, which produced 3 million tons of plastic packaging in 2017. That’s the equivalent of making 200,000 bottles per minute.

Notably, what doesn’t get reused or recycled does not chemically degrade but rather becomes a fixture of our world; it breaks apart to form microplastics, pieces smaller than five millimeters in diameter. In the past few years, scientists have found significant quantities of microplastics in the further reaches of the ocean; in snow and rainfall in seemingly pristine places worldwide; in the air we breathe; and in human blood, colons, lungs, veins, breast milk, placentas, and fetuses.

One paper estimated that the average person consumes five grams of plastic every week—mostly from water. About 95% of the tap water in the United States is contaminated. Microplastics are also widely found in beer, salt, shellfish, and other human foods. Significant quantities of these plastic bits have turned up in common fruits and vegetables, as one recent study in Italy found.

All this meant that our journey in the kayaks, picking up plastic waste along the way, looking after our local environment, was—while a genuinely helpful service to our fellow humans—only fixing a symptom of a larger problem.

The solution to that problem lies further upstream: to address plastic pollution, those who produce plastics need to pay for the damage it causes, and the world will also have to make less of it. We’ll have to develop better, more recyclable products. We’ll also have to find sustainable alternatives and increase what ecologists call circularity—keeping those products in use as long as possible and finding ways to reuse their materials after that.

While these are not exactly new ideas, they’ve received renewed attention from global policymakers, innovators, and companies looking to make a sustainable future profitable.

Making less is the most important goal—and the most politically charged one, given the immense profits and political power of plastic producers. “What’s the best way to manage waste?” says Jenna Jambeck, an environmental engineer at the University of Georgia. “To not produce it in the first place.”

Because consider this:

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By: Douglas Main
Title: Think that your plastic is being recycled? Think again.
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2023/10/12/1081129/plastic-recycling-climate-change-microplastics/
Published Date: Thu, 12 Oct 2023 08:49:00 +0000

Tech

Balloons will surf wind currents to track wildfires

240717 microballoon embed1 scaled

This August, strange balloons will drift high above Colorado. These airy aircraft, launched from the back of a pickup truck, will be equipped with sensors that can measure heat on the ground, pinpointing new wildfire outbreaks from above.

The company behind the balloons, called Urban Sky, also plans to use them to understand conditions on the ground before fires start. Approximately 237,500 acres burn in Colorado annually, according to 2011–2020 data from the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center. The hope is that this new high-altitude tool might allow humans to manage—or at least understand—those blazes better.

“Wildfire is a natural part of ecosystems,” says Michael Falkowski, manager of the wildland fire programs at NASA. But climate change has proved to be an accelerant, rendering fires bigger, more intense, and more frequent. At the same time, more people are living closer to wild spaces, and the US’s history of fire suppression, which has crowded forests and left old and dead vegetation sitting around, is fanning the flames.

To deal with modern fires, Falkowski says, researchers and fire agencies have to gather data before those fires start and after they’re done smoldering, not just as they’re burning. That makes it possible to understand the risks ahead of time and try to mitigate them, track ongoing blazes, and understand the threats fires pose to communities and the environment.

Before a fire takes hold, researchers can map vegetation and estimate how wet or dry it is. During a fire, they can map where and how hot the activity is. When it’s all over, they can assess the severity of the burn and track air quality.

Pass Fire (New Mexico) 3.5m Infrared Sample from Urban Sky Microballoon.
An infrared image of the 2023 Pass Fire in New Mexico, taken by an Urban Sky balloon.COURTESY URBAN SKY

Still, the most acute phase is obviously the one when the fire is actually burning. In the heat of that moment, it can be hard to get a handle on when and where, exactly, the fire is taking hold. Satellites do some of that work, surveying large areas all at once. But the primary governmental satellites produce pictures with pixels around 300 meters across, and they can’t always get a super timely look at a given spot, since their view is limited by their orbit.

Airplanes and helicopters can map a fire’s extent in more detail, but they’re expensive to operate and dangerous to fly. They have to coordinate with other aircraft and have smaller views, being closer to the ground. They’re also a limited resource. 

Urban Sky aims to combine the advantages of satellites and aircraft by using relatively inexpensive high-altitude balloons that can fly above the fray—out of the way of airspace restrictions, other aircraft, and the fire itself. The system doesn’t put a human pilot at risk and has an infraredsensor system called HotSpot that provides a sharp, real-time picture, with pixels 3.5 meters across. “We targeted that resolution with the goal of being able to see a single burning tree,” says Jared Leidich, chief technology officer at Urban Sky. “And so that would show up essentially as one pixel—one hot pixel.” The company has some competition: Others, like Aerostar and LUX Aerobot, also make balloons that can monitor wildfires.

The Urban Sky team has launched balloons in previous tests, but in August, the technology will monitor potential fires for an actual (unspecified) customer. Sending the balloon-lofted HotSpot up will be a surprisingly simple affair, thanks to the balloon’s relatively small size: While the company makes several sizes, the original is about as big as a van at launch, inflating to the size of a small garage once it’s aloft and surrounded by lower-pressure air. The Urban Sky team uses weather software to calculate where to launch a balloon so that it will drift over the fire at the right elevation. Then the team packs one up, along with compressed helium or hydrogen gas, and drives a truck out to that location. The balloon is hooked onto a mast jutting from the vehicle, filled up with the lighter-than-air molecules,

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By: Sarah Scoles
Title: Balloons will surf wind currents to track wildfires
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/07/19/1095125/balloons-will-surf-wind-currents-to-track-wildfires/
Published Date: Fri, 19 Jul 2024 09:00:00 +0000

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The Download: Windows’ CrowdStrike outage, and wildfire-tracking balloons

This is today’s edition of The Download our weekday newsletter that provides a daily dose of what’s going on in the world of technology.

A widespread Windows outage is affecting airlines, banks, and TV broadcasters

What’s happening? Windows PCs have crashed around the world, bringing airlines, major banks, TV broadcasters, healthcare providers and other businesses to a standstill. Airlines including United Airlines, Delta, and American Airlines have been forced to ground and delay flights, stranding passengers in airports, while UK broadcaster Sky News was temporarily pulled off air.

Banking customers in Europe, Australia and India have been unable to access their online accounts, and traders have been unable to operate as normal.

What caused it? The issue originates from a faulty update from cybersecurity provider CrowdStrike, which has knocked affected servers and PCs offline and caused Windows workstations to display ‘blue screens of death’ when users attempt to boot them. Mac and Linux hosts are not affected.

When will it be fixed?

George Kurtz, CEO of Crowdstrike, said that the company was actively working with customers impacted by the defect, found in a single content update for Windows hosts.

“This is not a security incident or cyberattack,” he said in a statement on X. “The issue has been identified, isolated and a fix has been deployed. We refer customers to the support portal for the latest updates and will continue to provide complete and continuous updates on our website.”

However, that doesn’t appear to help computers that are already affected, meaning that companies’ IT teams may have to follow a manual workaround that CrowdStrike sent to its customers earlier this morning, Reuters reports.

—Rhiannon Williams

Balloons will surf wind currents to track wildfires

This August, strange balloons will drift high above Colorado. These airy aircraft will be equipped with sensors that can measure heat on the ground, pinpointing new wildfire outbreaks from above.

The company behind the balloons, called Urban Sky, also plans to use them to understand conditions on the ground before fires start. The hope is that this new high-altitude tool might allow us to better manage—or at least understand—these worsening wildfires better. Read the full story.

—Sarah Scoles

Why we need safeguards against genetic discrimination

Tens of millions of people have shipped their DNA off to companies offering to reveal clues about their customers’ health or ancestry, or had genetic tests as part of their clinical care.

It isn’t always clear how secure this data is, or who might end up getting their hands on it—and how that information might affect people’s lives. Scientists, ethicists and legal scholars aren’t clear on the matter either. They are still getting to grips with what genetic discrimination entails—and how we can defend against it. Read the full story.

—Jessica Hamzelou

This story is from The Checkup, our weekly health and biotech newsletter. Sign up to receive it in your inbox every Thursday.

The must-reads

I’ve combed the internet to find you today’s most fun/important/scary/fascinating stories about technology.

1 The US has created satellite-jamming devices to combat Russia and China 
Its Space Force has developed 24 ground-based jammers to deploy. (Bloomberg $)

2 OpenAI is considering making a new AI chip
Which is unlikely to please its biggest chip supplier, Nvidia. (The Information $)
Demand for AI chips is still outstripping supply, according to TSMC. (The Register)
What’s next in chips. (MIT Technology Review)

3 You have the right to opt out of airport facial recognition
The next time you’re traveling, remember you don’t have to consent. (Vox)
The movement to limit face recognition tech might finally get a win. (MIT Technology Review)

4 We’re running out of data to train AI models
We’re staring down the barrel of a ‘crisis in content.’ (NYT $)
We’ve been aware of the problem for years. (MIT Technology Review)

5 Meta is betting big on smart glasses
It’s considering a stake in the luxury sunglasses firm EssilorLuxottica. (FT $)

6 Scientists have uncovered a surprising source of nitrogen
Microbes at sea work together to produce the vital nutrient. (Quanta Magazine)

7 Jailbreaking AI models could be legalized
It’s something the US government is weighing up to make models safer. (404 Media)

8 Small drugmakers are snapping up biotech companies
Normally, it’s only big pharma that can afford to wade in. (WSJ $)

9 You should check your Venmo privacy settings
The payment platform can reveal a surprising amount of data. (WP $)
J.D Vance’s public Venmo transactions are pretty revealing, for example. (Wired $)

10 This robot dog

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By: Rhiannon Williams
Title: The Download: Windows’ CrowdStrike outage, and wildfire-tracking balloons
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/07/19/1095149/the-download-windows-crowdstrike-outage-and-wildfire-tracking-balloons/
Published Date: Fri, 19 Jul 2024 12:10:00 +0000

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Companies need to stop taking the easy way out on climate goals

This article is from The Spark, MIT Technology Review’s weekly climate newsletter. To receive it in your inbox every Wednesday, sign up here

Corporate climate claims can be confusing—and sometimes entirely unintuitive.

Tech giants Amazon and Google both recently released news about their efforts to clean up their climate impact. Both were a mixed bag, but one bit of news in particular made me prick up my ears. Google’s emissions have gone up, and the company stopped claiming to be “net zero” (we’ll dig into this term more in a moment). Sounds bad, right? But in fact, one might argue that Google’s apparent backslide might actually represent progress for climate action.

My colleague James Temple dug into this news, along with the recent Amazon announcement, for a story this week. Let’s take a sneak peek at what he found and untangle why corporate climate efforts can be so tricky to wrap your head around. 

To make sense of these recent announcements, the most important phrase to understand is “net-zero emissions.”

Companies produce greenhouse-gas emissions by making products, transporting them around, or just using electricity. Some corporate leaders may want to reduce those emissions so they can be a smaller part of the climate-change problem (or brag about their progress). Net-zero emissions refers to the point at which the emissions a company produces are canceled out by those it eliminates. But very different paths can all lead to that point.

One way to get rid of emissions is to take actions to reduce them in your operations. Imagine, for example, Amazon replacing its delivery trucks with EVs or building solar panels on warehouses.

This sort of direct action tends to be hard and expensive, and it’s probably impossible for any company to totally wipe out all its emissions right now, given that so much of our economy still relies on fossil fuels. So to reach net zero, many companies choose to disappear their emissions with math instead.

A company might buy carbon credits or renewable-energy credits, essentially paying someone to make up for its own climate impact. That might mean giving a nonprofit money to plant some trees, which suck up and store carbon, or funneling funds to developers and claiming that more renewables projects will get built as a result.

Not all credits are all bad—but often, carbon offsets and renewable-energy credits reflect big claims with little to back them up. And if companies are going after a net-zero label for their business, they may be incentivized to buy cheap credits, even if they don’t actually deliver on claims. 

As James puts it in his story, “Corporate sustainability officers often end up pursuing the quickest, cheapest ways of cleaning up a company’s pollution on paper, rather than the most reliable ways of reducing its emissions in the real world.”

This sort of issue is why I tend to be suspicious of companies that claim to have already achieved net-zero emissions or 100% renewable energy. Cleaning up emissions is hard, and if you’ve already claimed victory, I’d say the odds are good that you’re taking an easy way out.

Which brings us to Google’s news. Google has claimed that its operations have operated with net-zero emissions since 2007. Now it’s not claiming that anymore—not really because it suddenly decided to take huge steps back in how it operates, but because it’s stopped buying carbon offsets on a massive scale. Instead, it’s focusing on investing in other ways to tackle emissions.

So what’s the next step for big companies looking to have a material impact on climate action? James has us covered again: In a 2022 story, he laid out six potential ways to rethink corporate climate goals. 

Instead of buying up credits, companies can instead put that money toward investing in permanent carbon removal. Developing more reliable methods of pulling climate pollution out of the atmosphere and locking it away might be more expensive, but investing in those efforts will help the market mature and support companies that need commitments. 

Companies can also contribute money to research and development for areas that are difficult to decarbonize—think aviation, shipping, steel, and cement. Those sectors touch basically every industry, so helping them make progress could be a worthy use of dollars. 

If there’s one takeaway in this tangle of news, I’d say that we could all ask more questions and dig a little deeper into claims from big corporations. Remember, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is.  

Now read the rest of The Spark

Related reading

Read more about Big Tech climate action, including why Amazon’s renewable-energy claims might be more complicated than they appear at first glance, in James’s latest story.

And here’s his piece on six

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By: Casey Crownhart
Title: Companies need to stop taking the easy way out on climate goals
Sourced From: www.technologyreview.com/2024/07/18/1095086/corporate-net-zero-goals/
Published Date: Thu, 18 Jul 2024 10:00:00 +0000

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