Can Germany Show Us How to Leave Coal Behind?

In late September, just before the German parliamentary elections, the Alternative für Deutschland held a large campaign rally in Görlitz, a picturesque city of about fifty-six thousand people across the Neisse River from Poland. I was making my way down a narrow street toward the rally when I entered a square that had been dressed up as Berlin circa 1930, complete with wooden carts, street urchins, and a large poster of Hitler.

Görlitz, which was barely damaged in the Second World War, often stands in for prewar Europe in movies and TV shows. (“Babylon Berlin,” “Inglourious Basterds,” and other productions have filmed scenes there.) It was a startling sight nonetheless, especially since, a few hundred yards away, a crowd was gathering for the AfD, the far-right party whose incendiary rhetoric about foreign migrants invading Germany has raised alarms in a country vigilant about the resurgence of the radical right.

In fact, at the rally, the rhetoric about foreigners from the AfD’s top national candidate, Tino Chrupalla, was relatively mild. Germany’s general success with handling the wave of more than a million refugees and migrants who arrived in the country starting in 2015 has helped undermine the Party’s central platform.

Chrupalla moved on from migrants to other topics: the threat of coronavirus-vaccination mandates for schoolchildren, the plight of small businesses, and the country’s desire to stop burning coal, which provides more than a quarter of its electricity, a greater share even than in the United States.

Coal has particular resonance in the area around Görlitz, one of the country’s two large remaining mining regions. Germany’s coal-exit plan, which was passed in 2020, includes billions of euros in compensation for the coal regions, to help transform their economies, but there are reports that some of the money has been allocated to frivolous-sounding projects far from the towns most dependent on mining.

Chrupalla, who is from the area, listed some of these in a mocking tone and told the crowd that the region was being betrayed by the government, just as it had been after German reunification, when millions in the former East Germany lost their jobs, leading many to abandon home for the West. “We are being deceived again, like after 1990,” he said.

Such language was eerily familiar. For years, I had been reporting on American coal country, where the industry’s decades-long decline has spurred economic hardship and political resentment. In West Virginia, fewer than fifteen thousand people now work in coal mining, down from more than a hundred thousand in the nineteen-fifties.

The state is the only one that has fewer residents than it did seventy years ago, when the U.S. had a population less than half its current size—a statistic that is unlikely to surprise anyone who has visited half-abandoned towns such as Logan, Oceana, and Pineville.

Accompanying the decline has been a dramatic political shift: a longtime Democratic stronghold, West Virginia was one of only ten states to vote for Michael Dukakis, in 1988; in 2020, it provided Donald Trump with his second-largest margin of victory, after Wyoming, which also happens to be the country’s largest coal producer, ahead of West Virginia.

The statistics are strikingly similar in Lusatia, the coal-mining region that stretches north of Görlitz along the Polish border, straddling the states of Brandenburg and Saxony, about ninety miles southeast of Berlin. Since 1990, employment at coal mines and power plants has plunged from eighty thousand to less than eight thousand, and the region’s population has fallen sharply, too.

Hoyerswerda, in the heart of the area, has lost more than half of its seventy thousand inhabitants, leaving a constellation of vacant Eastern Bloc high-rises; Cottbus, the region’s largest city, has dropped from roughly a hundred and thirty thousand people, just before the Berlin Wall fell, to less than a hundred thousand. And the rightward shift visible in West Virginia has happened here, too: along with the rest of eastern Saxony, Lusatia is the AfD’s stronghold, with the Party capturing more than a third of the vote in some towns.

But there’s one crucial difference between the two places. As part of its Energiewende, or energy pivot, Germany has embarked on a formal effort to exit coal, with a national commission and subsequent legislation setting specific closure deadlines for mines and plants, and distributing billions of euros in compensation to coal companies, workers, and the regions themselves. In the U.S., the coal exit has been haphazard.

Federal attempts to move beyond coal went dormant under President Donald Trump, and under President Joe Biden they are now running up against the opposition of Senator Joe Manchin, the West Virginia Democrat who holds both the crucial fiftieth vote in the Senate and a stake in a family coal business that earned him nearly five hundred thousand dollars in 2020.

To the extent that the country has reduced its coal usage, it has been driven mostly by the profusion of cheap natural gas. The effort to provide solutions to the social and economic fallout for coal regions has been limited to fledgling projects, such as a working group that Biden convened last year to identify communities in need and funding opportunities for them to pursue.

This contrast was what brought me to Lusatia. The German coal exit has assumed outsized symbolic importance in a world that desperately needs to reduce carbon emissions: the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that we need to stop adding carbon dioxide to the atmosphere by 2050 in order to have any hope of keeping warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Burning coal for electricity represented nearly a third of all energy-related carbon emissions—the world’s single largest source—in 2018, and the International Energy Agency believes that global consumption of coal power reached record levels last year. In the absence of leadership from the U.S., Germany is seeking to show how a major manufacturing power can reduce its reliance on coal without causing too much economic damage or political backlash. A lot is riding on whether the country can pull it off.

“God created Lusatia, and the Devil buried brown coal underneath it.” This saying is credited to the Sorbs, the ethnic Slavic people who have lived in the region—die Lausitz—since the sixth century. The land was swampy, and the area remained relatively impoverished, with the exception of the cities at its southern end, Görlitz and Bautzen, which flourished as market hubs on one of Central Europe’s primary east-west trade routes.

Everything changed after the discovery of the brown coal, in the late eighteenth century. Brown coal, or lignite, is sedimentary rock that is less compressed than typical bituminous coal. Lignite is softer, closer to peat in carbon’s geological arc. It’s also even dirtier to burn than bituminous coal, and emits even more carbon.

Because lignite sits closer to the surface than bituminous coal, workers don’t need to dig deep shafts and tunnels. Instead, they use the open-cast method, excavating the clay and sand that lie above the lignite seam. This is safer than sending workers deep underground.

But it requires removing everything that stands in the way, and in densely settled Central Europe that means demolishing villages—Braunkohle mining has led to the destruction of hundreds of communities in Germany. Once the mines are exhausted, they are either flooded to become lakes or levelled off with fill, which often leaves the land unusable for farming and in some cases even too unstable to walk on. “No entry” signs dot the local woods.

Open-cast mining started in Lusatia around 1900, and, in the decades that followed, the villages targeted for destruction tended to be Sorbian. The new industry brought a wave of workers to the area, mostly ethnic Germans, and a prosperity that it hadn’t known before. Lusatia produced coal briquettes that warmed homes, and the fuel that lit the streets of Berlin and powered factories in Chemnitz and Dresden. The German word for miner has a noble connotation: Bergmann—literally, “mountain man.”

Brown coal is found in western Germany, too, near Cologne. But there it was long overshadowed by the much larger sprawl of bituminous mines in the Ruhr region, just to the north. These mines transformed the area into Germany’s great industrial powerhouse, a vast urban agglomeration home to Essen, Dortmund, and other manufacturing cities.

Germany’s coal riches were integral to the new nation’s rise in the late nineteenth century, to the war machine that sustained it through two horrific conflicts, and to West Germany’s rebound in the nineteen-fifties, after which the region’s bituminous mining became less competitive with imported coal. In 2018, mining of bituminous coal in Germany was shut down for good.

In the coal regions of the former East Germany—Lusatia and a second region, near Leipzig, which has seen employment decline even more precipitously—the cultural and economic hold of coal persists. Braunkohle was the German Democratic Republic’s only major energy resource—it had almost no oil or bituminous coal—so the country opened several dozen open-cast mines in the postwar decades, destroying many more villages in the process.

It built high-rise apartment towers in the larger towns to relocate people from the destroyed villages and to house mine workers. It gave these workers preferential pension payments and exalted them as paragons of the “workers’ and farmers’ state,” as the country’s leaders called the G.D.R. “Being a miner meant something,” a retired excavator operator, Monika Miertsch, told me.

A former electrical engineer in Cottbus recalled that, when he was a child in the G.D.R., his teachers endlessly told students that their small nation produced more brown coal than any other country in the world. Christian Hoffmann, a naturalist who grew up in Weisswasser, in Lusatia, said that people would snap to attention whenever a band started playing the coal-miner anthem, “Steigerlied.”

The industry permeated local life. The soccer team in Cottbus is named Energie. Regional artists put Braunkohle mines on canvas—a museum in Cottbus recently held a retrospective of the work. One of East Germany’s best-known singer-songwriters, its Bob Dylan, was an excavator operator from Hoyerswerda named Gerhard Gundermann, who kept working in the giant pits even as his musical career blossomed.

After my first visits to Lusatia, which is now home to slightly more than a million people, the dominance of Braunkohle started to seem overwhelming. It was as if everyone was working for the industry or had lost his or her family’s village to it, or both—which helped explain why some residents weren’t too upset about the latter. It made for an especially stark manifestation of the trade-off between the coal-based development of the modern world and the environmental costs that came with it.

“They knew that it gave work. They accepted it,” Hannelore Wodtke, a member of the town council in Welzow, said when we met. We were in Proschim, a village that she helped save from a planned expansion of the Welzow-Süd mine, two years ago. “Through coal, people did earn well. And that’s why it looks pretty good around here.”

One Saturday, I accompanied a group into the Welzow-Süd mine, on a tour offered by the owner of all the Lusatian mines, a Czech-controlled company called LEAG. We started at an outlook above the mine, a vast barren moonscape stretching to the horizon, four miles across, and then a bus took us down a long winding dirt road, pausing to let us admire giant excavators—more than six hundred feet long, among the largest machines in the world—that would resume work on Monday morning.

At last, we arrived at a seam of brown coal, about three hundred feet underground. A guide handed out plastic bags and encouraged us to pick up chunks as souvenirs. Some pieces were so soft or ragged that they resembled old wood or caked mud. It was hard to believe that this rudimentary stuff was still powering one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

I recalled a similar moment, years earlier, when I was far belowground, in a mine in southern Illinois, watching workers shear bituminous coal off a seam at the end of a three-and-a-half-mile tunnel. It had seemed unbelievably archaic at the time—men tossed hunks of black rock onto a conveyor belt so that we could power our laptops and cell phones.

The giant hole in Lusatia seemed even more unfathomable: machines had destroyed villages, and then larger machines had dug into the fossilized past for three-hundred-million-year-old carbon with which to fuel yet other machines, our daily life.

“Watching coal-miners at work, you realize momentarily what different universes different people inhabit,” George Orwell wrote in “The Road to Wigan Pier,” his 1937 account from the North of England. “Down there where coal is dug it is a sort of world apart which one can quite easily go through life without ever hearing about.

Probably a majority of people would even prefer not to hear about it. Yet it is the absolutely necessary counterpart of our world above. . . . Their lamp-lit world down there is as necessary to the daylight world above as the root is to the flower.”

That quality of not wanting to hear about the mining of coal, the reluctance of those in far-removed cities to make the connection between their world and that other one, provoked much of the resentment in the producing regions of the U.S.

“This country benefitted from having the cheapest electricity in the world,” Cecil Roberts, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, told me in New York in July, after a rally of current and retired miners on behalf of striking Warrior Met Coal workers, in Alabama. “So what are we going to do with these communities?”

I heard a similar sentiment from miners in Germany. “If we really shut down now, then Berlin will have no more electricity,” Toralf Smith, a leading representative for power-plant workers in Lusatia, told me. “And I’d like to see how it goes at the universities in Berlin when the toilets don’t function and the cell phones don’t function and the Internet doesn’t function.

When their lives don’t function. It’s a lack of respect. If we have to switch things over for the sake of climate politics, we won’t stand against that, but it can’t be done on our backs. It has to be done with us.”

In 2019, the sociologist Klaus Dörre, of the University of Jena, and a team of researchers interviewed dozens of coal workers in Lusatia about the region’s transition away from the industry. They found that workers keenly felt the loss of Anerkennung—recognition or esteem—that they and their forebears had enjoyed in East Germany.

The workers cited opprobrium like that from a Green Party state legislator in western Germany who tweeted a protest poster that read “Whether Nazis or coal, brown is always shit.” One worker told the researchers, “In [East German] times, we were the heroes of the nation—that’s what they always said. And now we’re the fools or evildoers of the nation, because we have to let ourselves be scolded as Nazis or murderers or polluters and I don’t know what else. And that hurts.”

When I visited Dörre in his office in Jena, he said that the overriding theme from the interviews was the lingering trauma of the economic dislocation after the collapse of the Wall, a period known as die Wende. “The story that was told to us was ‘We’re the survivors, from eighty thousand down to eight thousand. Now you’re all coming and want to give us a second Wende.’ ”

But his team also found that the workers were not necessarily all gravitating to the AfD as a result of their anger and anxiety. Organized labor still has a strong hold on the German coal industry, unlike in the U.S.; the national coal workers’ union is allied with the center-left Social Democratic Party, and has managed to keep many members from straying right.

Union leaders, as Dörre wrote in a report summarizing his research, hope that the region as a whole can also be kept from straying too much further right: “If you can manage to show that positive development is possible for the region, despite the coal exit, that would cut the ground out from under the AfD.”

In 2020, China built more than three times more new capacity for generating power from coal than the rest of the world combined. Last year, despite recurring pledges to start corralling carbon emissions, the country produced a record four billion tons of coal, up nearly five per cent from the year before.

Defenders of coal in Germany like to point to figures like this, along with the fact that Germany’s greenhouse-gas emissions constitute a mere two per cent of the global total. Why should Germany be putting its economy at risk for such relatively slight gains?

Such arguments have stood little chance against Germany’s vigorous climate-activism movement. Activists and energy analysts told me that the country bears a special responsibility to reduce emissions. As a major industrial power, it produced a significant share of historical emissions; as manufacturing has shifted to Asia, the nation’s consumers are relying on goods produced elsewhere, making them partly responsible for emissions there, too; and, as a wealthy nation, Germany has the resources to demonstrate a better path.

“It makes a huge difference if well-off, industrialized Germany manages to transition away to a different system that sustains its prosperity without causing massive emissions,” Benjamin Wehrmann, a Berlin-based correspondent for Clean Energy Wire, said. “Most people in the industry agree that its signalling effect is much larger than the actual effect.”

This exceptionalism has, however, complicated the effort to leave coal. Germany has long been home to a strong anti-nuclear movement, partly as a result of its fears of being caught in the middle of a Soviet-U.S. nuclear war. In 2000, the governing coalition of the Social Democrats and the Green Party, whose roots lay in anti-nuclear activism, agreed to phase out nuclear power.

Chancellor Angela Merkel reversed this stance in 2009, after her center-right Christian Democratic Union regained power, but in 2011, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, she announced that the country would close all seventeen of its nuclear power plants within eleven years. To replace the lost energy—nearly a quarter of the country’s load at the time—Germany would ramp up renewable energy. Thus the Energiewende accelerated.

Since then, the country has greatly expanded its wind and solar capacity. The dramatic shift toward renewables in a country of eighty-three million people helped drive down prices worldwide for wind and solar equipment, fulfilling the country’s self-conception as a market leader. (This plunge in prices came at a cost, though, as cheap Chinese solar panels put many German panel-makers out of business.)

But the expansion has slowed in recent years, owing to a combination of state-level restrictions on siting wind turbines, resistance to turbines and transmission lines among conservationists and local residents, and a reduction in subsidies for wind-power developers. In the first half of 2021, coal was back to providing more of the country’s electricity than wind.

Most experts estimate that, to meet its renewable-energy goals, Germany needs to quadruple its wind production, to the point where turbines cover two per cent of the country’s landscape. And Germany is already contending with some of the highest electricity prices in the world, a source of consternation for domestic manufacturers seeking to remain globally competitive.

This was the daunting context in which the government convened its commission for the coal exit—Kohleausstieg—in June, 2018. Germany’s per-capita carbon emissions were still significantly higher than the E.U. average. Activists were demanding a fast response—hundreds of them had, since 2012, occupied Hambach Forest, a patch of woods in western Germany that was threatened by the expansion of a brown-coal mine.

But the country needed to time the exit so that it could be assured of having enough power not only to replace both coal and nuclear energy but to add capacity, in order to handle the coming transition to electric-powered vehicles. (Tesla recently built a manufacturing plant outside Berlin.)

The thirty-one-member Commission on Growth, Structural Change, and Employment consisted of environmentalists and scientists, industry representatives and trade unionists, and residents and elected officials from the coal regions. It met regularly in Berlin and visited some coal towns. In January, 2019, after its final meeting, which ran until almost 5 A.M., it voted nearly unanimously in favor of a plan to exit coal by 2038.

In July, 2020, the Bundestag passed a law with closure dates for various mines and power plants, and specific sums for compensation: 4.4 billion euros for the power companies, five billion euros for older workers to retire a few years early (separate funds would cover younger workers while they looked for new jobs), and, most important, forty billion euros for the mining regions, to help them with their economic transformation, a process known as the Strukturwandel.

It was a remarkable achievement, an example of postwar Germany’s consensus politics. “At a fundamental level, that all these different branches of society were able to come together around a coal exit is very significant,” Ingrid Nestle, a Green member of the Bundestag, told me. Climate-change experts in the U.S. looked on with admiration.

“They got the environmental community, labor community, and business community together to hash it out,” Jeremy Richardson, an energy analyst and a West Virginia native formerly with the Union of Concerned Scientists, told me. “You have to get people together, and you have to invest.”

But it did not take long for the good feelings to fade. Environmental groups and Green Party leaders began arguing that the country needed to move up the exit date if it wanted to meet the European Union’s new, more ambitious goal of cutting emissions by fifty-five per cent from 1990 levels by 2030. In April, 2021, Germany’s Federal Constitutional Court ruled that the country’s existing climate efforts did not go far enough to stave off disaster.

And, in July, heavy rains caused devastating flooding in western Germany, near Belgium. The floods killed at least a hundred and eighty people and destroyed entire towns, drawing greater attention to the possible effects of climate change.

As the election to replace Merkel got under way during the summer, climate change was central. Having sat through countless American Presidential TV debates where the subject was barely mentioned—and where politicians couldn’t even agree on whether climate change is real—I was astonished to see it take up twenty minutes in each of the three German debates that I watched, and to see the candidates toss around Klimaneutralität and Kohleausstieg as if they were household terms.

The Social Democrats’ candidate for Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, agreed with his Green rival, Annalena Baerbock, on the urgent need to reduce carbon emissions. On Election Day, September 26th, the Social Democrats won more votes than Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats, putting them in a position to form a government with the Greens and the pro-business Free Democrats.

The AfD saw its nationwide numbers sag, but, in the coal towns of Lusatia and the nearby regions of eastern Saxony, the Party did even better than it had four years earlier.

I encountered an AfD voter at a wind-turbine factory in Lauchhammer, on the western edge of Lusatia. The Danish company Vestas had opened the plant in 2002, and it seemed to embody the ideals of the Energiewende: a century earlier, Lauchhammer had been home to one of the first brown-coal mines in the region, and now it was making the machinery of renewable power.

But, a week before the election, Vestas announced that it was shutting down the factory, a decision widely attributed to the slowing growth of wind power in Germany. It will lay off the plant’s four hundred and sixty employees early this year.

I arrived at the factory one weekday evening at dusk, and waited in a light rain in a parking lot. After a while, a young man emerged, headed for his car. Cornell Köllner, a genial thirty-one-year-old, had worked at the plant for five years as a mechanic, advancing to a supervisory role.

He enjoyed the work, and did not know what he would do next. The only other major employer in this part of Lusatia was B.A.S.F., the chemical company, which had a plant in nearby Schwarzheide that would soon be expanding into battery production. He could look for work outside the region, but he had recently bought a house, and he did not want to leave his family. “I’ve got to look for work here in the area,” he said.

The confounding nature of it all—shuttering a wind-turbine factory at a time when the country was supposedly ramping up renewable energy, and doing so in the region that was supposed to be targeted for extra assistance in managing the transition—had only confirmed for Köllner his preference for the AfD. “Not because of ‘Nazi,’ God forbid,” he said.

“But because AfD is proposing something completely different.” I pressed him on what, exactly, that was, what the Party would do to help Lusatia or people like him, but he stuck to generalities. “They would change things,” he said. “They would really change things.”

Reluctance to leave in search of work elsewhere was widespread in Germany. “We work where we live,” Klaus Emmerich, the chief worker representative at the Garzweiler mine, in the western region, told me. “Where we live, that is our Heimat”—the German word that expresses something stronger than just “home” or “home town.”

Again, the echo was strong from U.S. coal regions, where residents, especially younger ones, constantly wrestle with the question of whether to stay or go. “It’s just home,” John Arnett, a marine veteran who worked for a closing coal-fired plant in southern Ohio, told me, in 2018. “I’ve been a bunch of different places, different countries. I’ve been across the equator. And now this is where I want to be, or I’d have stayed somewhere else. It’s the most beautiful place in the world, these hills.”

The people who remained often took offense at the economist’s or the pundit’s counsel that the only thing to do for regions that had lost their former economic rationale was to give people a bus or plane ticket out. In the U.S., the rate of people moving across state lines has in fact dropped by half since the early nineties, a trend attributed to, among other things, the cost of living in higher-opportunity cities and the breakdown of the traditional nuclear family, which leaves people dependent on extended family for child care or elder care.

The stay-or-go question is particularly sensitive in eastern Germany, because of the flight of younger people that occurred in the years after reunification. Die Zeit estimates that 3.7 million people, a quarter of the population of the former G.D.R., eventually left. One night, at a tavern in Hoyerswerda, I talked with Jörg Müller, a fifty-six-year-old man who worked at the B.A.S.F. plant, making paint for German car companies, and who had in his youth done cleaning jobs at the mine where his father worked as an engineer.

Müller, who had brought up his children alone after his wife died young, of cancer, was worried about the impact that higher energy prices could have on B.A.S.F.’s prospects. But his main preoccupation was his grown children, who had left the area—one to study in Dresden, one to work in Kassel, in the former West Germany. I asked him how often he saw them. “Once or twice a year,” he said.

To coal’s opponents in Germany, such laments about home-town decline are undermined by the fact that the industry has been demolishing home towns for decades. The extent of the destruction is all the more striking in a culture that generally idealizes the village. Even amid all the devastation wrought by the coal industry in Appalachia—the mountaintop-removal mining, the coal-slurry spills—coal companies have not had to wipe entire towns off the map, as happens in Germany.

The week after the election, I travelled to the western brown-coal region, known as the Rhenish district, which has become the primary front for climate activists seeking to halt mining via direct action. They had succeeded in sparing Hambach Forest, and many had now moved to a new encampment, in a tiny hamlet called Lützerath that was on the verge of being claimed by the Garzweiler mine.

Part of the hamlet had already been demolished by R.W.E., the German energy company that owns all the western region’s mines and power plants, which employ about nine thousand people. The only villager still living in Lützerath was a fifty-six-year-old farmer who was fighting the company in court and had welcomed more than a hundred activists to set up camp on his property.

An R.W.E. spokesperson told me that the company “will continue to try to find an amicable solution with the landowner.” The spokesperson added that R.W.E. works closely with those affected by its plans and stands by its promises.

On October 1st, the day that the company was allowed to resume removing trees there, I cycled from the town of Erkelenz through fields of harvested sugar beets to reach Lützerath, where several dozen advocates had joined the occupiers to launch the defense. It made for a jarring juxtaposition:

There were the remaining trees around the hamlet, festooned with tree houses and anti-coal banners; a narrow strip where the advocates were arrayed to speak; and, behind them, a vast pit, with excavators churning away at the edge of it. “If Lützerath falls, then the 1.5-degree limit falls,” Pauline Brünger, an activist with the youth movement Fridays for Future, said. “It lies in our hands—1.5 degrees is nonnegotiable. Lützerath must stand.”

I wandered into the encampment, where activists were breaking down pallets to build huts and more tree houses while others held an orientation session for new arrivals. Many wore balaclavas to try to hide their identities; others wore covid masks that served the same function. When I took pictures, a young woman came over to stop me.

Suddenly, a cry went up from the entrance to the encampment: two large excavators were approaching the hamlet. A couple of dozen activists marched down the road to block them. One of the drivers climbed out, saying that he and his colleague were only doing land-reclamation work on the older portion of the mine, and were coming to park their equipment for the weekend. The activists refused to let him through. “Hey, have a lot of fun sitting!” he called out angrily as he reversed back down the road.

Soon afterward, two large pickups approached from the other direction, loaded with concrete blocks and metal fencing, and rolled into the main assemblage of protesters; they were bringing the materials for an added security perimeter, and had taken a wrong turn, right into the enemy camp.

The activists fell upon them and unloaded the blocks and fencing to build their own security perimeter, preventing access to one of the hamlet’s roads. The drivers sat helplessly in their cabs, watching the expropriation. Finally, a handful of police officers arrived and, after some cajoling, arranged for the materials to be returned and for the trucks to be allowed back out.

Nearby, five larger villages were also threatened with destruction by R.W.E. Most families had already sold their homes to the company and moved out, many of them to new developments on the outskirts of Erkelenz which had been built to house relocated families, and had even been named for the marked villages—Kuckum-Neu, Keyenberg-Neu, and so on.

Tina Dresen, twenty-one, and her family were still holding out in Kuckum, and she told me how strange it had been to grow up in the shadow of Garzweiler and to see other villages falling to the bulldozers, one by one. “On the right side of my home was the hole, and life ended there,” she said. “I didn’t know anyone who lived there, and the bus stopped driving there, and the villages were destroyed there. I lived only to the left.”

She told me that some of the vacant homes in Kuckum were being used to house families who had lost their homes to the recent flooding. The irony was overpowering: people rendered homeless by a disaster likely exacerbated by climate change were now living in homes made available by the looming displacement of the coal mining that was contributing to climate change.

That evening, I rode my bike to Kuckum and found one of the displaced families. Anja Kassenpecher had been relocated to the village with her son, four cats, and two dogs, after the flooding destroyed her beloved half-timber house in the town of Ahrweiler. “What happened in the flood catastrophe, that was nature, and one couldn’t do anything against that,” she said. “But the dismantling of the coal here, one could do something about that.”

In 1945, the victorious Russians removed a thirty-kilometre stretch of rail between Cottbus and the town of Lübbenau, to take back to the Soviet Union, one of many such claims made throughout eastern Germany. The rails were never replaced, and the single track in that stretch has meant that trains run between Cottbus and Berlin only once an hour—less than ideal by German standards. Part of the Strukturwandel’s forty billion euros will be used to replace the missing track.

But, toward the end of 2021, reports kept appearing in the local and national media of the questionable ways other portions of the fund were being put to use by federal agencies and by the obscure provincial councils that were overseeing much of the spending: a techno festival, a zoo, new streetcars in Görlitz.

Coal defenders and opponents alike told me how wrong they thought it was to spend three hundred and ten million euros on a new branch of Germany’s public-health agency in an exurb of Berlin sixty miles from Cottbus, or millions more on the renovation of a cultural center in a town thirty miles from Dresden, far from the coal towns.

In November, eleven mayors met to express their frustration with the spending decisions and to demand that communities closest to the coal mines get more of a say. “If it goes on like this, the pot will be empty,” Tristan Mühl, the mayor of the village of Krauschwitz, told me afterward. “The perspective of the community is missing.”

Part of the challenge for the appropriators was structural: under European Union rules, they were forbidden to use the money to subsidize new or existing businesses in the region. Instead, the discussion was of funding research institutes for renewable energy, including innovations in hydrogen power, that might eventually lead to job creation.

René Schuster, a Cottbus-based representative of the environmental group Grüne Liga, told me that it was doubtful whether such ventures would ever come close to replacing the jobs that would vanish in the coal exit. “I doubt you’re going to get a boom in new jobs that will replace what you’re losing from coal,” he said. “That you’re going to get seven thousand jobs, that’s not going to happen.”

But it was still wrong to think of the coal jobs as somehow sacrosanct, he added. “It’s often discussed as if coal workers have a fundamental right to their job. There’s no right to an income. You have a fundamental right to your property. Whoever gets relocated, their property rights are being encroached on. But whoever wants to live off that relocation, well, they have no fundamental right to that.”

After the election, Olaf Scholz and his counterparts in the Greens and the Free Democrats began negotiating the coal-exit terms for their coalition pact, including whether to move the 2038 date to 2030. Adding pressure was the concurrent climate summit in Glasgow, where a major focus was whether to mandate a global end to burning coal.

The talk of an earlier exit prompted more consternation in Lusatia, where many viewed it as a breach of the commission’s compromise. “By 2030, little of this will have got started,” Christine Herntier, the mayor of Spremberg, said of the Strukturwandel.

Every day or two, I checked an app called Electricity Map, which shows the sources from which countries are drawing their electricity. Invariably, coal was Germany’s largest source, with wind a distant second or third. The plan was to use natural gas as a bridge to the expansion of renewables, but that would require building more gas power plants, fast, and would also mean making Germany even more dependent on Russia, one of its biggest gas suppliers.

Recently, Russia built a controversial pipeline to Germany through the Baltic Sea, called Nord Stream 2. As a last resort, Germany could buy nuclear-based electricity from France, which has remained staunchly committed to nuclear power, or coal-fired electricity from Poland, but not without hypocrisy, given its own disavowal of both sources.

On November 24th, the coalition released its governing agreement, which called for “ideally” moving up the coal exit to 2030. The rhetorical wiggle room satisfied neither side, and reflected the bind in which the country has found itself. Germany had set out to be an example of how to relinquish the dirty-energy source that had enabled modernity.

It had developed a clear timetable, and it had agreed on significant compensation, recognizing that there was a societal obligation to people whose livelihood was being shut down as a matter of policy. The process was undoubtedly superior to what was playing out at the same time in the U.S., where the Biden Administration’s plan to spend five hundred and fifty-five billion dollars on incentives to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, as part of the sweeping Build Back Better package, was foundering, shy of majority support in the Senate.

But Germany was also at risk of being an unintended example, one that could be cited by opponents of the imposition of emissions reductions. (A recent Wall Street Journal editorial was titled “Germany’s Energy Surrender: Rarely has a country worked so hard to make itself vulnerable.”)

The exit from nuclear power was leaving the country much less space to maneuver as it tried to move away from coal. And the lack of transparency and forethought with the regional spending undermined the purpose of the compensation: to convey that, this time around, the rest of the country really did care what happened to its left-behind places.

On my final visit to Lusatia, in November, I met Lars Katzmarek, an employee at LEAG, the coal company, at a coffee shop in Cottbus. Katzmarek, who is twenty-nine, oversees telecommunications at the mines, a job he loves and hopes to keep until things shut down. He was not drifting to the AfD: he is a loyal Social Democrat, he believes in climate change, and he even met with some Fridays for Future activists in 2019.

But he understood the feeling of betrayal in the region. His parents both worked in Braunkohle. His mother lost her job in the nineties and never found steady work again. Cottbus has experienced the third-highest rate of departures to western Germany of any city in the former G.D.R., and nearly all of Katzmarek’s high-school friends have left town. It was hard now to watch a new wave of people leaving the company and the region because they didn’t believe the promises of the Strukturwandel. “The sorrow is gigantic,” he said.

Katzmarek composed rap music on the side, and he had recently produced a single about Lusatia’s plight which included clips of him singing atop one of the turbines at the Vestas plant—before the news came of its closure. “For politics to win back the trust of the people, it has to finally be the case that things are carried out the way they said they would,” he said. “This is the big chance to win back trust.”

What you couldn’t have was a coal exit that led to a decline in German industry because of higher electricity costs. “You can’t have deindustrialization in Germany,” he said. “Industry means prosperity. A loss of prosperity would be absurd. If other countries look to see how Germany has fared, and they see deindustrialization and a loss of prosperity and the people growing discontent and populism gaining a new foothold, who would follow our example?”

His nuanced tone made me wish that we had more time to talk. But he had to catch the hourly train to Berlin, to visit one of his many friends who had left Lusatia.

Source: Can Germany Show Us How to Leave Coal Behind? | The New Yorker


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How Humans Could Live Two Years Longer: Cut Air Pollution

You can’t see particles smaller than 2.5 microns. But they kill 3.4 million people a year. Climate change is going to have profound consequences on human health and survival. Most obviously, a hotter world means more heat stroke and other heat-caused deaths.

A recent study on the mortality cost of climate change found that every 4,434 metric tons of carbon dioxide emitted — about the combined lifetime emissions of 3.5 Americans, the study estimates — will cause a heat-related death this century.

But the situation is even worse than that number suggests. Danny Bressler, the environmental economist who authored the paper, notes his estimate leaves out some other potential climate-related deaths, like those from flooding and reduced food supply. He’s just estimating what higher temperatures alone will do, writing that he “does not consider likely mortality co-benefits of stricter climate policies, such as decreases in particulate matter pollution.”

That’s a technical way of putting it. Here’s a simpler way: When we burn fossil fuels, not all the resulting pollution goes up high into the atmosphere. Some of it accumulates in the air that we breathe every day.

And it kills us. A lot of us. The Global Burden of Disease study, a common benchmark for public health work, estimates that 3.4 million people die prematurely every year due to air pollution. More recent research puts the total even higher, at 10 million a year. A recent paper suggested that 90 percent of the world’s population lives in areas with air pollution higher than World Health Organization guidelines (guidelines that the organization itself is toughening).

The particles in question here are invisible to the naked eye — but their effects are anything wood


The public health threat of particulate matter

This problem goes by a lot of different names — “air pollution,” “low air quality,” “PM 2.5 pollution” — but it is directly tied to our climate problem.

Burning fossil fuels, in a car or steel mill or power plant, produces carbon dioxide and methane, but it also produces other pollutants. The term “PM 2.5” refers to particles smaller than 2.5 microns (or 0.0025 millimeters — tinier than a grain of sand) suspended in the air. Sometimes colloquially called “soot,” PM 2.5 usually comes from burning stuff: wood in fireplaces, propane in generators, coal in power plants, and gasoline in cars.

But PM 2.5 pollution doesn’t just emanate from controlled combustion. Fossil fuels also contribute to PM 2.5 emissions indirectly: Global warming is increasing the frequency and severity of wildfires, which subject people to huge quantities of particulate matter. The largest wildfire in California’s history, the Camp Fire of 2018, led PM 2.5 levels in the nearby city of Chico to increase by about 12 times the EPA limit.

This all matters because PM 2.5 emissions are extremely deadly. Because PM 2.5 particles are so small, they can easily reach the lungs and even the bloodstream, and long-term exposure can cause a variety of serious health problems, like lung cancer, emphysema, strokes, heart attacks, and cognitive decline.

And we have very good causal evidence that high levels of exposure to PM 2.5 pollution lead to a decline in overall health and life expectancy. Some of the early convincing evidence came from the US, particularly an influentialSix Cities Study” released in 1993. That study found significant relationships between levels of air pollution and overall mortality, driven by higher rates of lung cancer and other lung diseases and heart disease.

A more recent and methodologically strong set of research has focused on China, specifically its “Huai River policy” instituted in the 1950s. The Chinese Communist government had promised free heating in wintertime as a new state-provided benefit, but lacked the resources to offer the benefit nationally. Instead, it only gave free or heavily subsidized coal for heating to households north of the Huai River. The Huai roughly bisects eastern China; Beijing is several hundred miles to its north, and Shanghai slightly to its south.

That meant communities north of the river were exposed to much more particulate pollution from burning coal than communities to the south. Retrospective work comparing lifespans above and below the Huai River suggested that these emissions were incredibly deadly, directly reducing life expectancy by five and a half years for people north of the river compared to those living south of it.

Air pollution is costing millions of lives — and more

Worldwide pollution isn’t quite as bad as it was north of the Huai, but it’s not great either. The University of Chicago’s Air Quality Life Index, which regularly estimates the human toll of particulate pollution, this fall issued a report estimating that the average person on Earth loses 2.2 years of life expectancy due to particulate pollution, compared to a scenario in which every country followed WHO guidelines.

“Alcohol use reduces life expectancy by 9 months; unsafe water and sanitation, 7 months; HIV/AIDS, 4 months; malaria, 3 months; and conflict and terrorism, just 7 days,” researchers Ken Lee and Michael Greenstone write in the report. “Thus, the impact of particulate pollution on life expectancy is comparable to that of smoking, almost three times that of alcohol and drug use and unsafe water, five times that of HIV/AIDS, and 114 times that of conflict and terrorism.”

By their count, lowering air pollution levels below those specified in WHO guidelines would enable people currently alive to enjoy 17 billion more years on Earth, collectively.

And that’s a relatively conservative figure. Shortly after the report’s release, the World Health Organization set stricter guidelines for particulate pollution. Its prior standard, undergirding the UChicago analysis, was that particulate concentration in the air we breathe should be kept to under 10 micrograms (µg, or a millionth of a gram) per cubic meter of air. The new threshold, developed due to evidence that even lower concentrations can be harmful to human health, is half that: 5 µg/m³.

Cutting global air pollution down to that new, lower threshold would save even more millions of life-years.

And the harms of particulate pollution are not limited to life expectancy. Patrick Collison, the entrepreneur and cofounder of Stripe, has taken a research interest in this topic and has a useful compendium of recent work on air pollution harms. Among the studies he highlights:

  • A very small increase in particulate pollution (specifically an increase in PM 2.5 concentration of 1µg/m³) causes, by one estimate, a 0.8 percent reduction in GDP that year, mostly because air pollution increases absenteeism and reduces productivity.
  • Alzheimer’s diagnoses triple when long-term air pollution exposure is substantially increased (by 10 µg/m³). Parkinson’s and dementia diagnoses increase too.
  • Air pollution reduces cognitive functioning in young people. Applying US air pollution standards to China would substantially raise test scores on both reading and math in the latter country, from the median to the 63rd and 58th percentiles respectively.
  • Chess players, baseball umpires, and stock traders all perform worse at their jobs when exposed to more air pollution. Those jobs are unusually easy to quantify, but it stands to reason that people’s performance at other jobs suffers too.

Even if air pollution doesn’t kill you, it probably impedes your cognitive functioning, makes you poorer, and increases your susceptibility to brutal diseases like Alzheimer’s.

How combating climate change can extend life expectancy

Air pollution is a tough problem, but the good news is that we can help solve it by solving another tough problem. Actions to combat global warming can also dramatically cut air pollution deaths.

In 2018, a team of earth scientists at Duke and Columbia universities modeled what would happen to air pollution deaths if the world actually acted to confront climate change. They considered a scenario where 180 fewer gigatons of CO2 are emitted by 2100. That’s roughly the reductions needed to keep warming to 2ºC or below — the goal of the Paris climate agreement.

If we reduce emissions that much, we would prevent about 110 million to 196 million premature deaths by 2100. Averaged over the 80-year period the paper considers, that’s 1.4 million to 2.5 million deaths per year averted. (The improvements would need time to take effect, so more lives would be saved later in the century than in the next 10 years or so.)

The good news is that governments have regulatory levers for reducing air pollution deaths — and some are pulling them. The UChicago Air Quality Life Index report estimates that since 2013, China has reduced air pollution by 29 percent, for an average lifespan extension of 1.5 years for each of its citizens (assuming there’s no backsliding on pollution).

The passage of a stronger version of the Clean Air Act in the US, similarly, was followed by a 50 percent reduction in particulate pollution between 1970 and 1979, aided by a slow economy. Economists Kenneth Chay and Michael Greenstone have estimated that the Clean Air Act caused an immediate and sharp decline in infant mortality in the US.

By their figures, some 1,300 fewer infants died in 1972 than would have if the Clean Air Act amendments of 1970 hadn’t passed. What’s more, research from economists Adam Isen, Maya Rossin-Slater, and W. Reed Walker suggests that the Clean Air Act amendments led children to have higher earnings as adults than they would have had if they’d been exposed to prior levels of pollution.

There are also things you can do at an individual level to mitigate your air pollution intake. My colleague Rebecca Leber wrote about a tool that lets you investigate air quality where you live, and you can help prevent emissions from harming yourself or your loved ones with an electric air purifier (I have two running in my apartment).

But air pollution is not an individual problem, any more than climate change is. The long-term solutions involve setting much stricter regulations or higher taxes targeting particulate emissions, and replacing common sources like coal plants with solar, nuclear, or wind power.

The Biden administration is moving in the right direction. The Environmental Protection Agency, under Biden’s appointee Michael Regan, is reviewing its air quality standards, last reevaluated in 2012, in response to “the strong body of scientific evidence [which] shows that long- and short-term exposures to fine particles (PM2.5) can harm people’s health, leading to heart attacks, asthma attacks, and premature death.” A scientific panel at the EPA has signaled support for lowering the amount of PM 2.5 allowed in the air by as much as a third.

But this is also a global problem that hits the developing world even harder. Spreading green tech to emerging economies like India and Brazil is not just a climate necessity. It’s a public health necessity too.

Dylan Matthews

Source: How humans could live two years longer: Cut air pollution – Vox


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The Race To Develop Plastic-Eating Bacteria

In March 2016, scientists in Japan published an extraordinary finding. After scooping up some sludge from outside a bottle recycling facility in Osaka, they discovered bacteria which had developed the ability to decompose, or “eat,” plastic.

The bacteria, Ideonella sakaiensis, was only able to eat a particular kind of plastic called PET, from which bottles are commonly made, and it could not do so nearly fast enough to mitigate the tens of millions of tons of plastic waste that enter the environment every year.

Still, this and a series of other breakthroughs in recent years mean it could one day be possible to build industrial-scale facilities where enzymes chomp on piles of landfill-bound plastic, or even to spray them on the mountains of plastic that accumulate in the ocean or in rivers.

These advances are timely. By vastly increasing our use of single-use plastics such as masks and takeaway boxes, the Covid-19 pandemic has focused attention on the world’s plastic waste crisis. Earth is on track to have as much plastic in the ocean as fish by weight by 2050, according to one estimate.

However, experts caution that large-scale commercial use of plastic-eating microorganisms is still years away, while their potential release in the environment, even if practical, could create more issues than it solves.

Overcoming an evolutionary barrier

The scientists working to find and develop plastic-eating organisms must contend with a basic reality: evolution. Microbes have had millions of years to learn how to biodegrade organic matter such as fruits and tree bark. They have had barely any time at all to learn to decompose plastics, which did not exist on Earth at any scale before roughly 1950.

“Seaweed has been around for hundreds of millions of years, so there is a variety of microbes and organisms that can break it down,” said Pierre-Yves Paslier, the co-founder of a British company, Notpla, that is using seaweed and other plants to make films and coatings that could replace some types of plastic packaging. By contrast plastic is very new, he said.

Still, recent discoveries of plastic-eating microorganisms show that evolution is already getting to work. A year after the 2016 discovery of Ideonella sakaiensis in Osaka, scientists reported a fungus able to degrade plastic at a waste disposal site in Islamabad, Pakistan. In 2017 a biology student at Reed College in Oregon analyzed samples from an oil site near her home in Houston, Texas, and found they contained plastic-eating bacteria. In March 2020, German scientists discovered strains of bacteria capable of degrading polyurethane plastic after collecting soil from a brittle plastic waste site in Leipzig.

In order to make any of these naturally-occurring bacteria useful, they must be bioengineered to degrade plastic hundreds or thousands of times faster. Scientists have enjoyed some breakthroughs here, too. In 2018 scientists in the U.K. and U.S. modified bacteria so that they could begin breaking down plastic in a matter of days. In October 2020 the process was improved further by combining the two different plastic-eating enzymes that the bacteria produced into one “super enzyme.”

The first large-scale commercial applications are still years away, but within sight. Carbios, a French firm, could break ground in coming months on a demonstration plant that will be able to enzymatically biodegrade PET plastic.

This could help companies such as PepsiCo and Nestle, with whom Carbios is partnering, achieve longstanding goals of incorporating large amounts of recycled material back into their products. They’ve so far failed to succeed because there has never been a way to sufficiently break down plastic back into more fundamental materials. (Because of this, most plastic that is recycled is only ever used to make lower-quality items, such as carpets, and likely won’t ever be recycled again.)

“Without new technologies, it’s impossible for them to meet their goals. It’s just impossible,” said Martin Stephan, deputy CEO of Carbios.

Besides plastic-eating bacteria, some scientists have speculated that it may be possible to use nanomaterials to decompose plastic into water and carbon dioxide. One 2019 study in the journal Matter demonstrated the use of “magnetic spring-like carbon nanotubes” to biodegrade microplastics into carbon dioxide and water.

The challenges ahead

Even if these new technologies are one day deployed at scale, they would still face major limitations and could even be dangerous, experts caution.

Of the seven major commercial types of plastic, the plastic-eating enzyme at the heart of several of the recent breakthroughs has only been shown to digest one, PET. Other plastics, such as HDPE, used to make harder materials such as shampoo bottles or pipes, could prove more difficult to biodegrade using bacteria.

Even if one day it becomes possible to mass produce bacteria that can be sprayed onto piles of plastic waste, such an approach could be dangerous. Biodegrading the polymers that comprise plastic risks releasing chemical additives that are normally stored up safely inside the un-degraded plastic.

Others point out that there are potential unknown side-effects of releasing genetically engineered microorganisms into nature. “Since most likely genetically engineered microorganisms would be needed, they cannot be released uncontrolled into the environment,” said Wolfgang Zimmerman, a scientist at the University of Leipzig who studies biocatalysis.

Similar issues constrain the potential use of nanomaterials. Nicole Grobert, a nanomaterials scientist at Oxford University, said that the tiny scales involved in nanotechnology mean that widespread use of new materials would “add to the problem in ways that could result in yet greater challenges.”

The best way to beat the plastic waste crisis, experts say, is by switching to reusable alternatives, such as Notpla’s seaweed-derived materials, ensuring that non-recyclable plastic waste ends up in a landfill rather than in the environment, and using biodegradable materials where possible.

Judith Enck, a former regional Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator in the Obama administration and the president of Beyond Plastics, a non-profit based in Vermont, pointed to the gradual spread of bans on single-use plastics around the world, from India to China to the EU, U.K. and a number of U.S. states from New York to California.

These are signs of progress, she said, although more and tougher policies are needed. “We can’t wait for a big breakthrough.”

Update: This story has been updated to clarify the timing of a discovery of plastic-eating bacteria by a Reed College student.

Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

I cover the energy industry, focusing on climate and green tech. Formerly I covered oil markets for commodities publication Argus Media. My writing has appeared in The Economist, among other publications.

Source: The Race To Develop Plastic-Eating Bacteria


Related Contents:

Arthur, Courtney; Baker, Joel; Bamford, Holly (2009). “Proceedings of the International Research Workshop on the Occurrence, Effects and Fate of Microplastic Marine Debris” (PDF). NOAA Technical Memorandum.

Maritime Rope May Be a Large Source of Microplastics Pollution

We’ve been hearing a lot lately about how disintegrated waterborne trash is one of the main sources of ocean microplastics pollution. A new study, however, suggests that aging maritime rope could also be making a significant contribution.

Ocean microplastics are tiny particles or fibers of plastic that are suspended in the water, where they get consumed by fish. When those fish are eaten by humans or other animals, the microplastics get passed along into their bodies, potentially causing health problems.

Previous studies have determined that a great deal of microplastics come from plastic packaging and other garbage, which gradually deteriorates after being dumped in or washed into the sea. Other sources include synthetic textile fibers that enter the wastewater stream from washing machines, and even particles of automobile tire rubber that get washed off the roads and down into storm sewers.

All of that being said, scientists from Britain’s University of Plymouth wondered if the polymer ropes used for hauling in fishing nets might also be to blame.

In both lab-based simulations and field experiments, it was initially determined that one-year-old ropes release about 20 microplastic fragments into the ocean for every meter (3.3 ft) hauled. That figure rose to 720 fragments per meter for two-year-old ropes, and over 760 for 10-year-old ropes.

With those figures in mind, it was estimated that a 50-m (164-ft) length of new rope likely releases between 700 and 2,000 microplastic fragments each time it’s hauled in. For older ropes, the number could be as high as 40,000 fragments. It was further estimated that the UK fishing fleet – which includes over 4,500 vessels – may be releasing anywhere from 326 million to 17 billion rope microplastic fragments annually.

“These estimates were calculated after hauling a 2.5-kg [5.5-lb] weight,” says the lead scientist, Dr. Imogen Napper. “However, most maritime activities would be hauling much heavier loads, creating more friction and potentially more fragments. It highlights the pressing need for standards on rope maintenance, replacement and recycling in the maritime industry. However, it also shows the importance of continued innovation in synthetic rope design with the specific aim to reduce microplastic emissions.”

The research is described in a paper that was recently published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

Source: Maritime rope may be a large source of microplastics pollution


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John D. Mather, Special Publications, 2019

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Zhou et al., Fundamental Research, 2021

Chemical Society, American. “Plastics in Oceans Decompose, Release Hazardous Chemicals, Surprising New Study Says”. Science Daily. Science Daily. Retrieved 15 March 2015.

Chalabi, Mona (9 November 2019). “Coca-Cola is world’s biggest plastics polluter – again”. The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved 18 November 2019.

“Global Brand Audit Report 2019”. Break Free From Plastic. Retrieved 18 November 2019.

McVeigh, Karen (7 December 2020). “Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Nestlé named top plastic polluters for third year in a row”. The Guardian. Retrieved 20 December 2020.

“Top 20 Countries Ranked by Mass of Mismanaged Plastic Waste”. Earth 4 June 2018.

Kushboo Sheth (18 September 2019). “Countries Putting The Most Plastic Waste Into The Oceans”.

National Geographic, 30 Oct. 2020, “U.S. Generates More Plastic Trash than Any Other Nation, Report Finds: The Plastic Pollution Crisis Has Been Widely Blamed on a Handful of Asian Countries, But New Research Shows Just How Much the U.S. Contributes”

Science Advances, 30 Oct. 2020 “The United States’ Contribution of Plastic Waste to Land and Ocean” vol. 6, no. 44

EcoWatch, 18 Mar. 2021 “U.S. Continues to Ship Illegal Plastic Waste to Developing Countries”

Lebreton, Laurent; Andrady, Anthony (2019). “Future scenarios of global plastic waste generation and disposal”. Palgrave Communications. Nature. 5 (1). doi:10.1057/s41599-018-0212-7. ISSN 2055-1045. Lebreton2019. the Asian continent was in 2015 the leading generating region of plastic waste with 82 Mt, followed by Europe (31 Mt) and Northern America (29 Mt). Latin America (including the Caribbean) and Africa each produced 19 Mt of plastic waste while Oceania generated about 0.9 Mt.

“Plastic Oceans”. London.

Cheryl Santa Maria (8 November 2017). “STUDY: 95% of plastic in the sea comes from 10 rivers”. The Weather Network.

Duncan Hooper; Rafael Cereceda (20 April 2018). “What plastic objects cause the most waste in the sea?”. Euronews.

Christian Schmidt; Tobias Krauth; Stephan Wagner (11 October 2017). “Export of Plastic Debris by Rivers into the Sea” (PDF). Environmental Science & Technology. 51 (21): 12246–53. Bibcode:2017EnST…5112246S. doi:10.1021/acs.est.7b02368. PMID 29019247. The 10 top-ranked rivers transport 88–95% of the global load into the sea

Harald Franzen (30 November 2017). “Almost all plastic in the ocean comes from just 10 rivers”. Deutsche Welle. Retrieved 18 December 2018. It turns out that about 90 percent of all the plastic that reaches the world’s oceans gets flushed through just 10 rivers: The Yangtze, the Indus, Yellow River, Hai River, the Nile, the Ganges, Pearl River, Amur River, the Niger, and the Mekong (in that order).

Daphne Ewing-Chow (20 September 2019). “Caribbean Islands Are The Biggest Plastic Polluters Per Capita In The World”. Forbes.

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McCarthy, Niall. “The Countries Polluting The Oceans The Most”. Retrieved 19 July 2019.

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Weisman, Alan (2007). The World Without Us. St. Martin’s Thomas Dunne Books. ISBN 978-0-312-34729-1.

Jang, Y. C., Lee, J., Hong, S., Choi, H. W., Shim, W. J., & Hong, S. Y. 2015. Estimating the global inflow and stock of plastic marine debris using material flow analysis: a preliminary approach. Journal of the Korean Society for Marine Environment and Energy, 18(4), 263–273.[2]

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Reusable Plastic Shopping Bags Are Actually Making the Problem Worse, Not Better

woman at checkout stand paying for groceries that are packed in a reusable plastic bag

Over the past few years, reusable plastic shopping bags began showing up in grocery stores in many parts of the world. They are sturdier than the flimsy plastic bags that have become a symbol of the global movement against disposable plastics, and so can be used many times, lending to their marketing as the ethical choice for the environmentally conscious shopper.

But of course, these thicker bags require more plastic to make. That means they could only improve the overall situation if they led to stores handing out overall less plastic, by volume, than they would without them—by, say, replacing thousands of single-use plastic bags a shopper might otherwise use over the years. Because no matter the style of plastic bag, it will still contribute to the global problem of forever-trash entering the environment, and the greenhouse gases associated with manufacturing the bag from fossil fuels in the first place.

But it seems they haven’t. A 2019 report from the Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) and Greenpeace looking at grocery stores in the UK suggests that the plastic “bags for life” utterly failed to do the one thing they were ostensibly meant to. As of the time of this writing in 2019, the top 10 UK grocery stores reported selling 1.5 billion of these bags, which represents approximately 54 “bags for life” per household in the UK.

For comparison, the top eight UK grocery retailers—representing over 75% of the market—sold 959 million such bags in 2018. Some supermarket chains have seen particularly big spikes in sales. The frozen-food store Iceland sold 10 times more plastic “bags for life” this year, 34 million, than last.

The UK introduced a 5-pence charge for plastic bags in 2015, and the government urged shoppers to instead bring their own reusable “bags for life,” which led to a surge in purchasing of the reusable plastic bags from markets.

“Our survey reveals a huge rise in the sale of plastic ‘bags for life,’ demonstrating the inadequacy of the current policy which is clearly not providing a strong enough incentive for people to stop using ‘bags for life’ as a single-use option,” the report reads.

Food safety

Most reusable bag shoppers do not wash their bags once they return home, and the bags may be leading to food poisoning, according to Dr. Richard Summerbell, research director at Toronto-based Sporometrics and former chief of medical mycology for the Ontario Ministry of Health.[17] Because of their repeated exposure to raw meats and vegetables, there is an increased risk of foodborne illness. A 2008 study of bags, sponsored by the Environmental and Plastics Industry Council of Canada, found mold and bacterial levels in one reusable bag to be 300% greater than the levels that would be considered safe in drinking water.[18][19] The study does not differentiate between non-hemp bags and hemp bags, which have natural antimildew and antimicrobial properties.[20]

A 2010 joint University of Arizona and Limo Loma University study (sponsored by the American Chemistry Council, a trade group that advocates on behalf of disposable plastic bag manufacturers) they found that “Reusable grocery bags can be a breeding ground for dangerous foodborne bacteria and pose a serious risk to public health”.[21] The study found that 97% of users did not wash them and that greater than 50% of the 84 bags contained coliform (a bacterium found in fecal material), while E. coli was found in 12% of the bags.

Overall, those same supermarkets increased the volume of plastic packaging they put out—including the “bags for life”—by 18,739 tons (17,000 metric tons) from 2017 to 2018. “It’s shocking to see that despite unprecedented awareness of the pollution crisis, the amount of single-use plastic used by the UK’s biggest supermarkets has actually increased,” the EIA’s Juliet Phillips told the Guardian. The grocery stores’ plastic-footprint increase was caused in part by the reusable plastic bags.


“We have replaced one problem with another,” Fiona Nicholls, a Greenpeace UK campaigner who is one of the report’s authors, told the New York Times. “Bags for life have become bags for a week.” The bags, the report says, should be banned. Instead, customers could bring their own bags to the market. “When we go shopping, we should remember our bags like we remember our phones.”

Zoë Schlanger

By Zoë Schlanger / Environment reporter




“CTV Toronto – Reusable bags contain bacteria, mould: study – CTV News, Shows and Sports – Canadian Television”. 2008-11-27. Retrieved 2010-03-19.

#Grocerybagcrochet #PLARN #recyclingpolythene A bit of my effort in reducing the use of plastic bags. In this video I tried to show how to Crochet with Grocery Poly bags and how we can re-use poly bags to make a bag for life and can avoid buying poly bags from grocery stores. We can convert poly bags in PLARN (Plastic Yarn) and can make a stylish, beautiful looking and sturdy bag for life using these Polythenes. With a little effort and no extra cost we can make this beautiful looking (& ever lasting) bag and can pay our part in saving mother earth. 🙂
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