Science·What on Earth?

Does a Plastic Free July seem crazy right now? Maybe not

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at why advocates and participants say there are good reasons to take part in Plastic Free July and the bold bet a Danish energy company made.

Also: A tale of 2 'energy' companies

(Sködt McNalty/CBC)

Hello, Earthlings! 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:

  • Why a Plastic Free July might not be so crazy right now
  • A tale of 2 'energy' companies
  • Canadian geology in the world spotlight

Why a Plastic Free July might not be so crazy right now

Finding plastic-free alternatives for packaging when buying fruits and vegetables is one way to reduce the use of plastics. (Zero Waste Yukon)

Plastic Free July sounds like a daunting and even somewhat crazy event to participate in, especially amid a pandemic when many businesses are refusing to allow reusable mugs and bags

But advocates and participants say there are good reasons to take part this year in an event that's aimed at helping people develop greener ways of doing things.

"Just starting them with a month is kind of a good way to build those habits," said Ira Webb, program co-ordinator for Zero Waste Yukon, "and then hopefully people are carrying these things on throughout the year."

Despite the name of the global event, participants don't typically go totally plastic-free — they simply try to reduce their use of single-use plastic.

"It's near impossible to go plastic-free in this day and age," Webb said. "And I think you should just be proud of making little changes."

Easy changes suggested by the Plastic Free Foundation, which started the movement in Australia in 2011, include:

  • Eliminating takeaway coffee cups by bringing a reusable cup.

  • Bringing your own reusable shopping bags instead of taking a throwaway plastic bag.

  • Refusing plastic straws when buying a drink, or bringing your own reusable one.

  • Finding plastic-free alternatives when buying fruits and vegetables.

The latter is one thing Webb is focusing on this year, along with growing his own food and baking his own bread.

"Definitely food is a difficult one on the North," he said, but he noted it's worthwhile because plastic there has to be shipped long distances to be recycled to even a limited extent.

While the other easy changes may be more difficult because of the pandemic, more than 100 health experts signed a statement last month saying that reusable, refillable containers are safe, based on evidence about the transmission of COVID-19. 

They said that such systems are "an essential part of addressing the plastic pollution crisis and moving away from a fossil fuel-based economy."

'Gained a lot of skills'

Webb hopes the pandemic won't have too much of a negative impact on people who are trying to switch to greener habits.

On the other hand, Lisa Griffin of Moncton, N.B., who has been participating in Plastic Free July every year since it started, thinks that the pandemic has already had a positive environmental impact by forcing people to stay home and cook more. 

"I feel like a lot of people have gained a lot of skills during this," she said.

Lisa Griffin is the executive director of Festival Inspire. (Kate Letterick/CBC)

Griffin runs Festival Inspire, an annual arts event she runs each July, as a green festival that promotes Plastic Free July

Festival-goers normally use reusable mugs and cups, cardboard and bamboo takeout containers and put the festival's logo on their own clothing via transfers, rather than buying official festival merchandise.

But even that waste has been eliminated this year as a result of  the pandemic because the festival is cancelled.

Griffin thinks the biggest benefit of Plastic Free July is making people more aware of single-use plastic and encouraging people, including customers and suppliers, to talk about it, which sparks change.

"It's really interesting to see how the community around you can transform," she said. "I think it's empowering."

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

After we posted a link about white-throated sparrows changing their tune from a three-note to a two-note song, many readers wrote in to point out an error — the birds live right across Canada, not just from B.C. to central Ontario as incorrectly reported. It's the new song that has only spread as far east as central Ontario. We've made a correction in the web version of that newsletter issue.

We also got a lot of mail about the new solar technologies, including some from early adopters such as Stephen Mildenberger of Mushaboom, N.S.. He's installing a dual-axis, bifacial solar system in his backyard. "One of my pet projects is to find an inexpensive way to make the 22-metre diameter circle under the array highly reflective at a cost that is paid back with increased bifacial output," he wrote. 

Other readers noted that it's not so easy for everyone to get on board with solar, even if they want to. Nick De Domenico suggested provinces provide an option for those who want solar panels, but can't install them, including renters: Allow people to invest in solar farms and get the returns deducted from their power bills. "It levels the playing field socially and would spur much greater investment in solar energy technology and encourage more extensive solar farm construction," he said.

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The Big Picture: The tale of 2 'energy' companies

In 2008, the company Danish Oil and Natural Gas (DONG) made a bold bet — it was going to get out of carbon-emitting fuels and become a new kind of energy company, with a focus on wind and biomass. In 2017, it left fossil fuels behind and changed its name to Orsted. It is now one of the fastest-growing energy companies in the world. The company BP has long talked about going green — it rebranded itself from British Petroleum two decades ago — but its move from oil and gas into renewable energy has been more timid. As the chart below shows, as recently as 2018, the market capitalization of these two companies was worlds apart. But as oil prices have dropped and renewable energy projects have expanded, Orsted has closed in on BP's valuation.


Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Canadian cliffs and fossils are in the world spotlight. Here's why

Massive cliffs tower over the shore near the Cape d’Or Lighthouse, near Advocate Harbour, N.S., on Wednesday, July 3, 2019. The Cliffs of Fundy has officially become a UNESCO Global Geopark. The area features about 40 designated sites from Debert to the Three Sisters cliffs past Eatonville, out to Isle Haute along Nova Scotia’s Bay of Fundy. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Andrew Vaughan (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

Two sites in Atlantic Canada have been recognized as new UNESCO Global Geoparks, a designation that recognizes sites and landscapes of international geological significance.

The Cliffs of Fundy Global Geopark in Nova Scotia stretches along a roughly 165-kilometre drive, with about 40 designated sites from Debert to the Three Sisters cliffs past Eatonville, out to Isle Haute. The area is the only place on Earth where geologists can see the assembly of supercontinent Pangea 300 million years ago and its breakup 100 million years later.

The Discovery Global Geopark on Newfoundland and Labrador's Bonavista Peninsula, a rugged coastline overlooking views of caves, arches and sea stacks, features fossils from what UNESCO describes as "one of the most significant transitions in Earth's history" — the rise of animal life.

The two parks are among 15 new Global Geoparks approved by UNESCO at meetings in Paris and announced on July 10.

'Outstanding places'

"I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to visit these outstanding places," said Nikolaos Zouros, president of the UNESCO Global Geoparks Network, who came to visit both sites last year from his home in Lesvos Island, Greece.

"We collect pieces of information about this unique book of the story of our planet. These do not belong only to the people of Canada but [are] an important piece of evidence for the whole of humanity."

The announcement is a point of pride for those involved in Nova Scotia. It also signals the beginning of more work left to do to make sure the designation does what they want it to do — bring tourists to the area and boost the local economy.

"The beauty of the designation is that it immediately puts you on the world stage," said Beth Peterkin, manager of the Cliffs of Fundy Geopark. "It will let us reach audiences we could never, ever reach on our own."

The New Brunswick side of the Bay of Fundy is already designated as the Stonehammer Geopark, located at the confluence of the Saint John and Kennebecasis rivers.

The Discovery Geopark was recognized, in part, for the Ediacaran fossils that can be found in the area. These fossils — some of which can be accessed from the boardwalk in Port Union — are an estimated 560 million years old, and show some of the earliest multi-cell organisms.

Ediacaran fossils can be seen in the rock near Port Union's shoreline. (Garrett Barry/CBC)

"With over 20 [organisms] present, these enigmatic fossils record the oldest architecturally complex multicellular lifeforms, providing a window to study the preface to the Cambrian Explosion," wrote the UNESCO Global Geoparks Council in nomination papers. 

"The Geopark preserves a dramatic transition in Earth history."

Fossils for the Haootia quadriformis, believed to be the first example of muscle tissue in an animal, were found just two kilometres from Port Union's museum.

"For most researchers who come here, Newfoundland is the best place in the world to come to do the research, because we're so easy and accessible to the fossils," said Edith Samson, a longtime volunteer with the local Geopark committee.

— Emma Davie, Emily Chung

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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