Science·What on Earth?

Environmental groups seek help to catch up on cleanups

In this week's issue of our environment newsletter, we look at how citizen cleanup initiatives have fared during the pandemic, the climate cost of ridesharing and how Canadian glaciers are at risk.

Also: The climate cost of ridesharing

(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:

  • Environmental groups seek help to catch up on cleanups
  • The climate cost of ridesharing
  • Why Canada's glaciers are becoming 'endangered species'

Environmental groups seek help to catch up on cleanups

(Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup)

World Cleanup Day is coming up on Sept. 19, and this year, environmental groups say we have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to picking up trash in our wild and outdoor spaces.

The lockdown halted cleanups for months, leaving an estimated 84,000 kilograms of litter on Canadian shorelines between March and July, according to the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, a partnership between Ocean Wise and WWF-Canada.

Meanwhile, Canadians with nowhere else to go still headed outside, toting disposable coffee cups and water bottles, snacks wrapped in plastic and packets of wipes that didn't always find their way into a waste bin after use.

"I've been a hiker for about 18 years, and [this is] the first year that I've seen this much trash on the trail," said Sarah Kuindersma of Calgary, who decided it was time to start cleaning it up and organized a week of trail cleanups in August.

That's shortly after the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup started inviting volunteers back, too. Tanya Otero, manager of the cleanup, said the lockdown didn't just allow tonnes of extra garbage to gather on beaches and shorelines — it also left a gap in data about what kind was accumulating and how much.

One of her organization's key goals is to collect those stats to help governments make policy decisions, such as what kinds of single-use plastic items, from straws to takeout containers, should be targeted by measures to reduce waste.

Now, she's hoping data collected during the rest of the year can be used to spot new trends. For example, are volunteers finding more personal protective equipment, such as masks and gloves? 

"Kind of the burning question," Otero said. 

So far, she said, 100 cleanups have been registered with Otero's group between August and the end of the year. 

For those who are looking to join or organize cleanups, both the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup and World Cleanup Day offer options and support, including tips for how to clean up safely amid the pandemic.

Fernando Caparica Santos of Ottawa is co-ordinating the Canadian effort for World Cleanup Day, which includes participation from 180 countries. He's also co-leading a local cleanup. Caparica Santos said a couple of the big goals are to raise awareness about the impact of litter and the need for everyone to do their part.

Kuindersma got more than 200 volunteers to sign up and clean up 60 trails in Alberta as part of the Kanananaskis and Canmore Klean Up Event she organized from Aug. 6 to 10.

The event offered prizes as an incentive, but she said participants, including many family groups, found the activity itself fun.

"The kids really felt like it was a treasure hunt. They were super-excited to see the trash that they found," she said. Some participants were even disappointed to find their trail had already been cleaned up. It was a contrast, she said, to many people's usual reluctance to pick up trash that wasn't theirs.

"I felt like we switched the mindset," Kuindersma said.

Otero also touts a cleanup as a rewarding experience: "Being outside and knowing you're making a difference, I think, is something that people are looking to really gravitate towards."

Emily Chung

Reader feedback

Bruce Witzel emailed to take issue with an item last week on small modular nuclear reactors, in which we wrote, "Despite its downsides (most notably, storing radioactive material), nuclear energy is likely necessary in the effort to decarbonize the planet."

"The statement would have been unbiased if it read 'nuclear energy may be necessary in the effort to decarbonize the planet.' However, it was not written as such," Witzel said. "With many academics, scientists, economists and elected officials, the jury is still out about the wisdom of nuclear energy as an efficient or even necessary method to decarbonize the planet. The statement you made that nuclear energy is 'likely necessary' when taken in the context of the article about the research and promotion of small modular nuclear reactors … implicitly supports this evolving technology."

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The Big Picture: The environmental cost of ridesharing

This week, ridesharing company Uber announced that it wants to make all its rides worldwide electric by 2040, and that it was committing $800 million US to help drivers make the switch to electric vehicles (EVs). In making the announcement, Uber acknowledged that ridesharing has a large carbon footprint. A study by the Union of Concerned Scientists published in February found that rides provided by Uber and its chief rival, Lyft, actually produce 70 per cent more pollution than the trips they displace. (That's largely because the rides typically happen in cities where public transit, biking and walking are all viable alternatives.) Urban planners have long said that ridesharing is not only an inefficient way to ferry people around but that it can also lead to an increase in fatal crashes.

(Robyn Beck/Getty Images)

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web

Why Canada's glaciers are becoming 'endangered species'

(Chris Szymiec)

Glaciers can be seen as gleaming and glittering crowns, a defining feature of Canada's majestic mountains. But these treasures are melting at an ever faster rate, to the point that Shawn Marshall (photo above), a top scientist advising the federal government, now considers Canada's glaciers an "endangered species."

A 2019 study showed Earth's glaciers are losing 335 billion tonnes of snow and ice each year, with more than half of that in North America.

Marshall, who teaches glacier dynamics at the University of Calgary, is trying to address the problem of receding glaciers by switching from working out on the ice to working inside the bureaucracy in Ottawa, as the first departmental science adviser in the federal Ministry of Environment and Climate Change.

"There is more chance to make a difference embedded [in Ottawa] than if I am shouting it alone from the mountaintop, as it were," Marshall told Laura Lynch, host of CBC Radio's What On Earth.

The implications of glacier loss are troubling — not just for Canadians used to seeing white caps on mountain peaks, but for those who live downstream from glaciers and depend on them for water, even food.

Glaciers are part of the Canadian "psyche," said Dan Shugar, a geomorphologist at the University of Calgary. 

"I think if you're a Canadian that lives in the West … we're losing part of our identity," he said. Shugar likened it to telling someone in Ontario "we're going to cut down all of all the trees in Algonquin Park."

Shugar is part of a team that recently published a global database of glacial lakes, those aquamarine alpine bodies of water created by glacier melt. The result, published last week in the journal Nature Climate Change, found they had increased in volume by almost 50 per cent in the last few decades.

That rise could mean increased instability and a higher risk of flood and permanent damage to the communities that rely on the lakes for drinking water, irrigation and even hydroelectricity.

One community is already feeling the effects of the changing glaciers. Kluane Lake in Yukon has seen its levels drop since the glacier that used to provide meltwater receded so much that the direction of the melt changed entirely. 

Bob Dickson, the chief of the Kluane First Nation, said the shrinking lake is threatening fish populations as well as people, some of whom have fallen through the thinning ice on the lake in winter. Dickson also describes a near desert-like environment in the summer, as the lack of water flow has made the valley area a dust bowl.

"They get four to six inches of dust built up on the highway at times. And I know [the government] has been out there with a truck with a plow on it and pushing the sand off of the road," Dickson said. "A snowplow in the summer … pushing dust off the road." 

Marshall's role with the government is to attend meetings and scrutinize the science in draft policy on a range of issues. The aim, he said, is to help bridge the disconnect between the vast amount of climate science out there and the action a government can take. Halfway through his two-year appointment, Marshall said he is sometimes frustrated.

"I have always been concerned that there are not enough scientific voices in Ottawa, so the scientific urgency and environmental lens always gets pushed to the background," Marshall said. 

"I am not so naive to imagine that I can change that, but I do want to fight for the glaciers and the need for more vision and conviction in all of the talk about reducing emissions."

Laura Lynch

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Editor: Andre Mayer | Logo design: Sködt McNalty

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