Greening the Link Between Land and Sea

By Catherine
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Cargo Ship APL TOURMALINE arriving at the Port of Oakland
By Catherine Bolgar

With container-port traffic having more than tripled since 2000, and today’s world container trade expected to double by 2024, ports have become important industrial centers, as well as flashpoints for environmental concerns. Regulations and technology are combining to help ports be greener.

When a port invests in green technology, it is not only good for the environment but also good for themselves, because it can make unit operating costs go down in the long run,” says Vinh Thai, senior lecturer at the School of Business IT and Logistics at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in Australia.

As the link between land and sea, ports affect not just terrestrial and marine habitats, but also such environmental aspects as air quality and noise, especially for the often-large cities next to them.

“During the loading and unloading of petroleum products, a release can occur with consequent damage to the ecosystem,” says Rosa Mari Darbra, associate professor of chemical and industrial engineering at Polytechnic University of Catalonia in Barcelona. “The noise of the port, which works 24 hours every day, may generate disturbance and even anxiety to the surrounding population. The storage of solid bulk, such as coal, can generate particles. If they are not properly protected, they may affect the respiratory systems of citizens, especially children and old people.”

The International Maritime Organization adopted the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, or Marpol, in 1973. It aims to prevent, among other things, fuel spills with design measures such as double hulls, and prohibits dumping sewage near land. It also requires ports to be able to accept waste from ships and either recycle or treat it appropriately on land, either at the port itself or elsewhere.

In order to facilitate ships’ delivery of waste at port, Spain in 2010 established a flat rate for waste-handling, Dr. Darbra says. Even if this measure has increased work for ports, the aim is to encourage ships to be greener.

Cargo shipAir pollution has been tamed around ports in the North Sea, Baltic Sea and North America by requiring ships to switch to low-sulfur fuel when entering designated coastal areas. Some ports, such as Rotterdam, offer discounted fees to ships that can show low emissions, Dr. Thai says.

Similarly, Hong Kong and Singapore reduce port fees for vessels that switch to cleaner fuel while at berth. Nine of the world’s top 10 busiest ports are in Asia, and the ports with the highest emission levels from shipping also are in Asia: Singapore, Hong Kong, Tianjin, China, and Port Klang, Malaysia.

Ports also are cutting emissions by encouraging ships to shut down their engines while at berth and switch to onshore power systems. These power generators usually burn fuel that’s cleaner than the bunker fuel used by ships. However, the challenges are providing enough power and connectivity. “Sometimes the electrical plugs and sockets aren’t the same between countries—the voltage isn’t the same,” Dr. Thai says.

Similarly, ports can switch to cargo-handling equipment such as cranes that run on electricity instead of diesel, he adds. Even warehouses can be greener if designed to use natural light instead of electricity whenever possible.

Greater efficiency does reduce harmful emissions. “In high-traffic ports, the congestion from vessels idling for long periods of time significantly increases pollution levels. This is responsible for excessive pollution, producing greater greenhouse-gas effects when productivity does not increase equally with efficiency. It’s a vicious circle,” says Jaime Ortiz, vice provost for global strategies and studies at the University of Houston. “Economically it’s not good either, as pollution shortens the lifespans of the vessels, the cargo on board and the people working on the ships.”

forklift handling container box loading to freight trainThe design of land transportation also affects ports’ sustainability. The use of trucks to transport the cargo from the port to the hinterland involves highway congestion and pollution, Dr. Darbra says. If a maximum amount of cargo were shifted to rail, it would bring important reductions in pollution. Two other competitive solutions are short sea shipping and inland waterways.

“These three measures could improve the environmental sustainability of seaports a lot,” Dr. Darbra says. “They could help decongest traffic at seaports.”

Inland vessels have less capacity than ocean-going ships, but can carry far more cargo than trucks. Goods could travel with less pollution by inland waterways to logistical centers closer to their destination, before being shifted to trucks for just the last, short leg. Inland waterways “give more power to the logistic chain,” Dr. Darbra says.


Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe, now working as a freelance writer and editor with WSJ. Custom Studios in EMEA. For more from Catherine Bolgar, along with other industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Photos courtesy of iStock

Can edible beer packaging save lives?

By Alyssa
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By: Quartz creative services

Back in March, Marco Vega, the chief strategy officer at New York advertising agency We Believers, got a text from his co-founder, Gustavo Lauría. Lauría had been supervising a photography shoot, and after the 20-or-so person production team packed up for the day, heaps of trash were left behind. “The amount of plastic bags that were left behind were just too big to ignore,” Vega says. “[Lauría] texted me that night saying ‘if there is one thing we need to pull our heads together on, it’s [to find out] what is the one thing we need to do, to minimize plastic?’ ”

Committed to the idea, the ad men reached out to Saltwater Brewery, a craft beer company in Delray Beach, Florida, that has a history of donating to conservation non-profits. They offered a proposition, to collaborate and create a compostable piece of packaging. Saltwater accepted, and the two companies then partnered with a small team of engineers, from about an hour outside of Mexico City, who are exploring alternative materials for packaging. Three months later, the three teams had it: a pale brown, biodegradable, digestible, six-pack ring that looped snugly around Saltwater Brewery’s cans of beer.

We Believers and Saltwater Brewery built their packaging primarily out of the malted wheat and barley that gets left over from the beer-brewing process. Initially, Vega says, they thought they could use a seaweed derivative. It turned out to be too brittle, and would break during manufacturing tests. Plus, “you have to then source seaweed to create the packaging, so quickly we are going to find ourselves in a bigger problem than the one we’re in,” Vega says. “Now you start to become a predator for seaweed.” Wheat and barley don’t present the same conundrum. In fact, it’s the opposite: “A lot of brewers have worked hard to get rid of the stuff,” says Chris Gove, Saltwater Brewery’s president, of the leftover grain. By using it for packaging, however, there’s “a cyclical, scalable solution that also gives back. So instead of buying the materials twice, we’re using the materials that would go to waste.” The material even retains some of its nutrients, which is good, because the package was designed to be edible to the sea animals who might eat it.

Both parties are secretive about exactly how they made their six-pack ring, but Gove says they’ve been working with 3D-printed molds. Soon, they plan on having an aluminum mold that will let Saltwater Brewery ramp up production. They’ve printed 500 prototypes so far, and over the next three or four months, Gove says, they expect to have a batch of 400,000 six-pack rings.

The problem of plastic pollution is acute, particularly in the oceans. A paper from 2014 suggested that there are a whopping 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating in the ocean, and it’s safe to assume that many of those pieces were once packaging. This has widespread pitfalls. Those range from the deaths of marine animals who try to eat plastic, to ocean acidification caused by carbon dioxide in the water, which can severely harm human health and the fishing and shellfish industries. For that reason, we can expect to see more initiatives like the one from We Believers and Saltwater Brewery in the near future.

Experiments with frozen algae

Bio-based packaging isn’t new—plenty of consumers have encountered compostable cutlery and the like at green-minded restaurants—but it had two big moments this year. One came in April, when the annual Lexus Design Awards awarded its first-place prize to Amam, a three-person design team in Japan that’s using a seaweed-based material to develop a zero-waste packaging solution. Amam’s product is called Agar Plasticity. Agar is a gelatinous substance that’s derived from algae, and in Japan, it’s often used in sweets, and you can buy it right off the shelf.

That’s how the Amam designers got their hands on the agar. “When we visited a local supermarket in Tokyo, we found agar and were attracted by its material qualities—delicacy, crispness, and airy-ness,” says Kosuke Araki, one of the Amam designers. Stores sell agar in block, flake, and powder form; Amam uses it in powder form. To convert that powder into a plastic packaging substitute, Araki says they create a liquid agar solution, and freeze it in a mold. Achieving the right degree of cushioning required a great deal of trial and error during Amam’s early days, but by April, they had a prototype. Araki used the agar box to ship a glass perfume bottle to Milan, where he would be traveling for Milan Design Week. Upon arrival, the perfume bottle was intact.

Amam’s efforts are still nascent. “What we can produce now is something functional yet a bit like craft,” says Araki of the rough-hewn quality of the packaging. He adds that he and his design partners are still using their personal freezers to test new pieces of Agar Plasticity. Support from other industries and the science community will help gain momentum, Araki says.

Mushrooming in scale

Halfway around the world, in Sweden, a bigger, broader bio-based packaging initiative is in the works. This is the second of the aforementioned “two big moments,” and it’s happening at the headquarters of IKEA of Sweden AB. In February, IKEA announced that it would begin to explore mushroom-based packaging, to replace EPS-based packaging, which doesn’t recycle or break down. IKEA is currently working with Ecovative, a biomaterials company in upstate New York, on early prototypes.

Mushroom-based packaging consists primarily of mycelium, a fiber that grows at the root of a fungus. The material acts as a natural binder for other more stalwart materials, like straws from corn, that can form the frame of a piece of packaging. Puneet Trehan, a programme manager in the new business and innovation division of IKEA, describes the design process as putting the inoculated material—the mycelium fibers and corn straws—into a mold, which then need five to seven days of growth time. After that, the newly shaped material gets baked, to suppress further growth. “Then, the packaging is ready.”

Mycelium products are known to be light and durable—both are crucial qualities for packaging material. The lightweightness, especially, can help companies offset their environmental footprint. Plus, today, there are ways to test new materials to ensure that reduced weight doesn’t compromise a product’s viability to make it through the supply chain. Consider Dassault Systèmes’s virtual testing: the program can digitally simulate how a design will behave from blow-molding to labeling to capping to palleting. These small steps can save massive amounts of waste in the end, given the amount of material a company like IKEA needs. “We were using a couple of thousand tons of EPS per year,” Trehan says of the furniture company, before it decided to move away from EPS in packaging. These are small, incremental beginnings for bio-based packaging—but they are, indeed, steps. “Unfortunately, as a human race we have failed in recycling,” Vega says of the need for alternatives to plastic packaging. Luckily, bio-based packaging is coming into its own. “I think it’s at the very forefront.”



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This article was produced by Quartz creative services and not by the Quartz editorial staff.

New frontiers and costs of recycling

By Catherine
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Written by Catherine Bolgar

open dumpster full of trash

Are we recycling all we could? Organic waste, such as food scraps and yard trimmings, accounts for between a quarter and a third of the solid waste generated in cities—the largest single municipal waste stream, according to Eric A. Goldstein, waste expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council in New York.

If you had to identify one key area of growth for recycling, it would be organics,” he says.

Organic waste in landfills becomes mummified or decomposes anaerobically (i.e. without oxygen), producing methane, a greenhouse gas whose impact on climate change is estimated to be 25 times greater than that of carbon dioxide.

Composted organic waste though becomes a natural fertilizer that helps soil retain moisture and hold carbon. A University of California Berkeley study found that a single application of compost led to a metric ton of carbon capture and storage per hectare annually, for three years.

However, “composting if done well isn’t cheap,” says Glenda Gies, principal of Glenda Gies & Associates Inc., an Ontario-based recycling consultancy. “It requires the right temperature, moisture levels and bacteria populations.”

There’s also the question of who’s responsible for the recycling. With plastic or electronics products, the brand is usually identifiable, even on discarded goods. The manufacturer may then be legally required to recycle them. But by the time organics become waste it’s no longer clear who the brand owner is, and recovery costs then pass to the municipality, consumer or business, “who have been reluctant to pay,” Ms. Gies says.

This hasn’t deterred some city and state authorities from taking a lead. San Francisco has introduced mandatory separate collection of compostable materials, which applies to all residences and businesses, says Kevin Drew, residential and special projects zero-waste coordinator at the city’s department of environment. Massachusetts banned food waste disposal by companies in 2014, sending organics to 49 processors.

Once there, organic waste is processed into methane through digesters (like at sewage treatment plants). And unlike landfills where the methane escapes, the digesters trap it and convert it into natural gas, while the residue is turned into compost. San Francisco and its service provider are building digesters, with the resulting gas used to fuel collection and transfer vehicles, Mr. Drew says.

There’s complete recovery of the energy and compost value in the waste,” he says. “I would argue that this program will be coming to every city in the world.”

colored clothingOther materials also have strong recycling potential. Only 15% of used clothes, towels, bedding and other textiles in the U.S. is donated or recycled, according to the Council for Textile Recycling, with the rest ending up in landfills. In the U.K., about 40% of clothing is re-used or recycled. But more can be done.

“There’s an enormous amount of textiles that are recoverable as clothing,” says Mr. Drew. “There are markets around the world that will take that material. We’re on a quest to recover more textiles.

Cost is key. With traditional recycling streams, such as paper, plastics and glass, changes in technology and commodity prices affect the willingness to recycle.

“Companies want to recycle to save money,” says John Daniel, president of Federal International Inc., a St. Louis recycling firm. “In general, companies will increase recycling to the point where it costs them money, and then they stop.”

Recycling bin with glassConsider glass recycling. When collected along with other waste materials, broken glass has to be sifted out at sorting facilities. This may have been worth doing when glass prices were high, but today, “at many facilities, it’s not cost effective to separate out that glass. A significant amount of glass put in recycling doesn’t get recycled,” he says.

Similarly, “when the price of oil was much higher, carpet was able to be recycled,” he notes. “Now it is almost impossible to recycle without the cost being higher than landfilling. The cost of recovering, transporting and processing the material is significantly higher than the value of the material.”

Virgin products may seem cheaper, Ms. Gies says. But if one were to factor in environmental costs—reflected in, say, greenhouse-gas taxes or obligations on manufacturers to recycle returned products—the resulting higher price might be more realistic, and potentially uncompetitive.

“The industry naturally will recover all material demand, provided it is cost effective,” Mr. Daniel explains. “As the price goes up, then recyclers have the ability to dive in deeper and start recovering higher-cost material. The best way to increase recycling rates is to improve the demand for products made from recycled materials. Our industry will take care of filling the supply.”


Catherine Bolgar is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal Europe. For more from Catherine Bolgar, contributors from the Economist Intelligence Unit along with industry experts, join the Future Realities discussion on LinkedIn.

Photos courtesy of iStock

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