Science·What on Earth?

Electric-car rebates: More than free money?

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we examine what electric-car rebates are meant to achieve, and find out more about how to chemically recycle plastic.

Also: Recycling plastic in a lab

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, fellow travellers! This is our weekly newsletter on all things environmental, where we highlight trends and solutions that are moving us to a more sustainable world. (Sign up here to get it in your inbox every Thursday.)

This week:

  • Electric-car rebates: Are they more than free money?
  • The biggest litter items in the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup
  • Plastic that's actually recyclable

How do you get a country to go all-in on electric cars? Ask Norway

(Daniel Sannum Lauten/Getty Images)

The federal government's new $5,000 rebate for Canadians buying electric vehicles may encourage more drivers to make the switch — but will it make a dent in Canada's greenhouse gas emissions?

The rebate will likely raise sales of electric cars by a few per cent, but "that's not enough to … transform the market," said Nicholas Rivers, Canada Research Chair in climate and energy policy at the University of Ottawa.

The real value of the rebate, Rivers said, is its potential to kick-start a longer-term switch to electric vehicles (EVs), which in turn could lead to a significant reduction in Canada's greenhouse gases, a quarter of which are generated by the transportation sector.

"The intent is partly to push this new technology into the market so that Canadians get more familiar with it," he said.

Once that happens, infrastructure (such as charging stations) will follow, and manufacturers will be more likely to bring electric vehicles to the Canadian market, Rivers said. And then, as more people buy these vehicles, prices should drop.

According to Transport Canada, the federal government has set targets for EVs (or "zero-emission" vehicles) to make up 10 per cent of "light-duty vehicle sales" by 2025 and 100 per cent by 2040.

Right now, it's widely thought EVs make up one or two per cent of the cars on Canadian roads. In this respect, China, the U.K. and the U.S. are all ahead of us. But in terms of market share, Norway is the clear leader, according to the International Energy Agency. In March, EVs made up 58 per cent of new car sales in Norway — and the Norwegian government has pledged to make that 100 per cent by 2025.

Norway has achieved this transformation through "a bunch of incentives that are all piled on top of each other," Rivers said.

Gunnar Eskeland, a professor at the Norwegian School of Economics, is more blunt about it. There have been incentives, yes, but also a "sledgehammer" in the form of Norway's very high national taxes on vehicles — from which electric car buyers are exempt.

Add in free use of toll roads, access to high-occupancy vehicle lanes and free parking with charging stations readily available, and Eskeland said electric car ownership has become tough for Norwegians to refuse.

Eskeland said the Norwegian government introduced the tax exemption years ago, when people were "charmed" by the idea of electric cars, but very few were available. The widespread adoption of zero-emission cars in Norway today is largely because the government didn't "turn off" those tax exemptions once foreign EV manufacturers — including Tesla and Nissan — entered the Norwegian market, Eskeland said.

The tax breaks have cost the government a fair bit, which may mean it's not a model other countries will be eager to adopt. But Eskeland said Norway's enthusiasm may still help push the electric car agenda forward globally.

Norway's model "kind of tempts the world to move a little."

Nicole Ireland

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The Big Picture: Shoreline garbage

The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup is a conservation effort in which volunteers sign up to collect garbage that amasses along Canadian bodies of water. The initiative is a partnership between the advocacy group Ocean Wise and the World Wildlife Fund. So far in 2019, the cleanup effort has collected more than 54,000 kilograms of litter on 1,478 kilometres of Canadian shoreline. Below are the items found most often.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • "Chernobyl" has long been a byword for environmental catastrophe. The 1986 disaster at the nuclear plant in the former Soviet Union released 400 times as much radiation as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Humans were barred from the Chernobyl "exclusion zone" (which straddles modern-day Ukraine and Belarus), and observers assumed the area would become a desert. But more than 30 years later, scientists report that wildlife there is flourishing.

  • Single-use cutlery made from avocado seeds that biodegrades in 240 days — yeah, it's a thing.

  • Popular scientist Bill Nye has been preaching about the effects of climate change for years. But in this hilarious new video, the usually wholesome educator has some scathing words for those who are unwilling to address global warming: "Grow the f--k up!"

This lab has found a way to actually recycle plastic

(Marilyn Chung/Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory)

Most plastic can only be recycled once or twice before it degrades too much or becomes too contaminated with other materials and must go to a landfill or incinerator.

Mixing recycled plastic with "virgin" plastic can stretch it to last a bit longer, but even then, scientists say a piece of plastic can only be recycled about seven to nine times.

But a group of researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California say they've developed a way to recover plastic that's as good as new. It's called "reversible polymerisation," and it's a way of making plastics where the bonds can be broken apart into the original building blocks — known as monomers.

This process of chemical recycling "allows the legacy of a plastic's manufacturing and use to be erased," said Brett Helms, a staff scientist at the Berkeley Lab, who led the research team.

Helms said that recycling facilities designed to handle this new plastic would divert plastic from landfills and from ending up in the environment.

Right now, only 11 per cent of plastic in Canada gets recycled, which means the bulk of plastic is single-use. Much of it ends up in the environment — every year, eight million tonnes of plastic is dumped into the ocean worldwide. And the Environmental Protection Agency in the U.S. says a plastic bottle in the ocean will take an estimated 450 years to break down.

According to the Berkeley Lab's study, published in Nature Chemistry in April, the plastic they've developed — called PDK, short for polydiketoenamine — is a "closed-loop system." That means it can be made into a specific product, broken down and then reformed into new products without losing material — and with properties that could be far different from the original item.

This next generation of plastic is built from two types of chemicals: triketones and amines. This combination of chemicals is designed to spontaneously "click" together.

Typically, a styrofoam takeout container could not be turned into another styrofoam takeout container because it's contaminated with impurities like food. Styrofoam (a form of polystyrene) is normally recycled by packing it into dense bricks 1/90th of its original size and used to make insulation and other hard plastic products.

There are companies devoted to finding effective ways to chemically recycle existing plastics. But unlike polystyrene, PDK can easily be recycled back into its starting building blocks by breaking the material down in acid.

The Berkeley researchers plan to adapt their PDK plastics for different uses like textiles, 3D printing and foams. They also want to make the materials more sustainable by incorporating plant-based materials.

— Brendan Pietrobon

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty


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