Science·What on Earth?

This Canadian company shows a greener way to bottle water

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at the difficulty of recycling plastic bottles, the hubbub over Tesla's Cybertruck and a Second World War bunker that was turned into a vertical farm.

Also: Interest in electric pickup trucks is picking up

White text against a semicircle made of lines and blue and green stripes
(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, people! 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:

  • This Canadian company shows a greener way to bottle water
  • Tesla's Cybertruck: Interest in electric pickups is picking up
  • How a WW II bunker under London's streets became a vegetable farm

This Canadian company shows a greener way to bottle water

(Ice River Springs)

As CBC science reporter Nicole Mortillaro reported recently, single-use plastic water and pop bottles are choking the planet

Knowing that, many of us make an effort to drink from reusable bottles instead — but not everyone does this. Big companies like Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper are making efforts to boost the feeble recycling rates for PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles in the U.S. — just 29 per cent in 2017 — by investing in consumer education and recycling infrastructure. 

Some beverage companies say they're also trying to increase their own recycled plastic content, which averages less than 12 per cent globally for Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Nestlé. 

Meanwhile, a number of smaller companies made the switch to 100 per cent recycled plastic bottles years ago. They include two Canadian companies — Mirabel, Que.-based Naya and Shelburne, Ont.-based Ice River Springs, which have been using exclusively post-consumer plastic waste since 2009 and 2010, respectively. And it's making a big difference.

Ice River Springs estimates it uses 80 to 85 per cent of the PET plastic collected by recycling programs in Ontario (along with some collected in the northern U.S).

"A lot of our blue box material stays right here," said the company's sustainability manager, Crystal Howe. "In Ontario, the circular economy for PET is thriving." (That's company co-owner Jamie Gott drinking from a 100 per cent recycled plastic bottle in the photo above.)

Using recycled plastic is more expensive, which is one reason that large beverage companies use very little. The cost was a challenge for Ice River Springs, but Howe said the company came up with a solution: "We started making it ourselves."

It launched a subsidiary called Blue Mountain Plastics, which buys 29,000 tonnes of plastic from municipal recycling programs each year, processes it and turns it into recycled plastic flakes. The PET from plastic bottles and clamshell containers (used to hold things like blueberries or muffins at the grocery store) is used to make Ice River's green plastic bottles, as well as the blue plastic bottles for store brands that commission the company as a manufacturer.

Meanwhile, Blue Mountain turns the bottle caps into plastic chairs.

Ice River Springs estimates its use of recycled plastic reduces the energy needed to make one bottle by 70 per cent and the water consumption to do so by 99 per cent.

While many major beverage companies sell water in clear, colourless bottles, Ice River Springs found it couldn't use as much of the plastic collected by recycling programs if it did that, since a proportion of that plastic is coloured.

Howe said when she talks to other beverage companies about using recycled plastic, one of their big concerns is how consumers will react to the different look of the bottle.

At first, Ice River customers found the switch to green bottles weird.

"Now," she said, "they've embraced it."

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

Last week, we asked you what you're doing to make the holiday season greener. We will be sharing some of the responses in the coming weeks. Here are a few to start.

Allan Grose wrote, "I am passionate about recycling whatever can be recycled, and reducing my consumption of unnecessary packaging, especially plastic. I would NEVER buy a big plastic toy for a child. Doing so sets a terrible example for the recipient of the gift."

"I'm giving secondhand books this year, including a little cash inside for the kids," wrote Deirdre O'Brien

Rachel Kim said, "Our family has eliminated wrapping paper by using Furoshiki, the Japanese method of using cloth to wrap items. Cloth scraps, old scarves, sweaters, etc. can be used to wrap our gifts creatively. The fabric can be given away, and returned next year. If you don't have scarves lying around, they are $1 to $3 at Value Village and can be reused infinitely!"

Meanwhile, Abby wrote, "We no longer exchange gifts. Instead, we will recognize a need sometime over the course of the year and say, 'Here's your Christmas gift,' and give then."

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Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.

The Big Picture: Tesla's Cybertruck

When Elon Musk revealed Tesla's new electric pickup, the Cybertruck, last week, it was with the audacity we've come to expect from the upstart carmaker. Looking like a cross between a Hummer and the DeLorean made famous by the Back to the Future movies, the angular design has proven immensely divisive (although the $39,900 US base price is surprisingly reasonable for a vehicle of this size). During the demonstration, Musk wanted to show how resilient the vehicle was by having the lead designer throw a giant ball bearing at the driver-side window. OK, so the glass broke, but that didn't dampen interest — by the end of the weekend, Tesla announced it had received more than 200,000 pre-orders for the Cybertruck. The launch comes at a time when eight American automakers are promising electric pickup trucks by 2021.

(Frederic J. Brown/Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

  • Coal, a symbol of industrialization and an immense source of carbon emissions, is on the wane. A new study suggests that as a result of costs and greater climate awareness, the use of coal-fired electricity worldwide is dropping precipitously, with an expected fall of three per cent in 2019.

  • Cities around the world are seeking ways to become more sustainable, but there is often a lot of hand-wringing about introducing measures that could be expensive and/or disruptive. As this piece argues, there are a number of relatively easy steps a city can take (such as lowering speed limits or replacing windows on buildings) to have a significant impact on a city's emissions.
  • Is it better to buy sustainable consumer goods or resist the urge to buy entirely? This Q&A with the director of the Consumers, Environment and Sustainability Initiative at the University of Arizona explores the benefits and pitfalls of "green materialism."

A WW II bunker under London's streets is now a vegetable farm

(Victoria Belton/CBC)

Far below the streets of London exists an underground city of Second World War bunkers that were purpose-built in the event of an attack. When the war ended, these spaces were largely left empty. 

Well, not all of them. In one of these shelters, 33 metres below Clapham High Street in southwest London, sits the world's first subterranean farm, called Growing Underground. 

LED lights line two parallel rows of vibrant micro-greens and salad leaves, grown hydroponically in a pesticide-free, mineral-nutrient solution. That means they grow in water, not soil. 

Growing Underground's co-founder, Richard Ballard (above), came up with the idea while completing his film degree in London a decade ago.

"An idea for a film got me researching the future of cities," Ballard said. "How are we going to feed and power them with the growing population, when we're estimated to have another two billion people on the planet in the next 30 years? And 80 per cent are expected to live in urban spaces?"

The concept of vertical farming stems from Dickson Despommier, a professor of public and environmental health at Columbia University in 1999. He believed it was the answer to many of the challenges faced by agriculture today, including climate change's impacts on crop yields, a lack of water and soil degradation from over-cultivation.

Ballard said the location of Growing Underground's operation is ideal because it's insulated from the rain, winds and cold temperatures that are commonplace in the U.K.

Hydroponics isn't new, and has been widely used in commercial greenhouses worldwide. But the first commercial vertical farm wasn't opened until 2012 in Singapore, three years before Growing Underground. They're now dotted across the globe, with many in the U.S. and some farms in Canada, including TruLeaf, which is based in Nova Scotia. 

What sets Growing Underground apart is that it may be the first farm of its kind to open underground. It's also the first in the U.K. to sell its produce to major supermarkets, including Waitrose, Whole Foods and Planet Organic.

As innovative as this sounds, Honor Eldridge, the head of policy at the U.K.'s Sustainable Food Trust, said she thinks traditional agriculture will always play a role in food production and needs to change, too. 

"We need to take a step back and think, what are the systemic issues within our food and farming system, and is this really the technological fix that we want?" Eldridge said.

She said that repairing soil is a key ingredient of climate action, and the lack of its use in vertical farming is problematic.

Healthy soils are more resistant to extreme temperatures, fluctuations in water levels, drought and flooding. They also produce food that has a higher nutrient density.

"It's a lot sexier to support and fund something when it's so exciting and new, but we're on the lookout for a silver bullet fix that doesn't exist."

Victoria Belton

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty