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by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer

Dear Earthtalk: Where do the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination stand on environmental issues? -- Susan Wollander, Raleigh, NC

In recent decades, Republicans have certainly been far less sympathetic to environmental causes than the Democrats, and this year’s batch of candidates for the party’s Presidential nomination is no exception.

Donald Trump has remained skeptical of environmentalists and the issues they care about. In 2012 he tweeted that the Chinese created climate change to suppress the American economy. More recently, he called climate change “a hoax” on Fox News. He is also notoriously supportive of getting rid of any tax on oil, “the lifeblood of the economy.” While Trump may look bad on climate change, at least he has a track record of working well with environmentalists on some of his development projects.

Ben Carson rejects the significance of climate change, deeming it distracting and irrelevant. He does support some development of alternative energy sources, but only so much as it reduces dependence on foreign oil. Likewise, he supports drilling both offshore and in Alaska to both create jobs and put economic pressure on Middle Eastern terrorists. Despite his lack of climate concern, Carson does feel strongly about conservation, saying in his 2012 book, America the Beautiful, that “mindless consumption” leads to unnecessary pollution and that we should all take care to protect the health of the planet.

Marco Rubio is no fan of government intervention, and would prefer to see the free market dictate how we protect the environment. He publically stated in 2014 that human activity is unrelated to the warming climate trend, such that any laws would be ineffective and bad for our economy. His plan to keep energy prices low consists of continued exploration of domestic energy sources. He supports expansion of wind and solar energies, but also favors increasing production and consumption of coal, oil and natural gas.

Jeb Bush started out his political career with negative views on environmental regulations, but after re-election as Florida’s governor in 1998 he changed his tune to say that conservation is the purview of the states (not the federal government). He’s well known for spearheading a $2 billion program to protect and restore the Everglades, and opposes oil drilling in his own state. He favors continued oil consumption, but he would also like to see 25 percent of U.S. energy derived from renewable sources by 2025.

Carly Fiorina supports clean alternatives to fossil fuels, but maintains that every potential energy source should be explored (including nuclear and “clean” coal). She believes the best strategy for cutting carbon emissions is global action. Conveniently, this position makes any federal action by the U.S. pointless. In keeping with her antipathy for big government, Fiorina would like to see the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency downsized and its role in policy making diminished.

For the most part, the rest of the still-crowded Republican field shares similar views about climate and environment. If any of these candidates makes it to the White House, Americans should buckle up for a rough ride that could include approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to bring Canadian tar sands oil across U.S. soil, a pull-back from any emissions reduction commitments made by the Obama administration at the upcoming Paris climate talks, and a weakening of federal powers when it comes to environmental oversight of air and water quality and conservation initiatives in general.

CONTACTS: Donald Trump, www.donaldjtrump.com; Ben Carson, www.bencarson.com; Marco Rubio, www.marcorubio.com; Jeb Bush, www.jeb2016.com; Carly Fiorina, www.carlyforpresident.com.

Dear Earthtalk: Is recycling still worthwhile given the expense and emissions associated with it?
  -- Michael Vitti, Norwalk, OH

Americans generate about 254 million tons of trash and recycle and compost about 87 million tons of this material, which adds up to a 34.3 percent national recycling rate. Recycling and composting prevented the release of approximately 186 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2013, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, comparable to taking over 39 million cars off the road for a year.

Aluminum cans are currently recycled more than any other beverage container in the U.S, which is good for business and the environment, says the Aluminum Association, because making a can from recycled aluminum saves not only aluminum but 92 percent of the energy required to make a new can. A 2015 analysis by the Aluminum Association and the Can Manufacturers Institute determined that if all of the aluminum cans in the U.S. were recycled, we could power four million homes and save $800 million per year. Aluminum cans are also the most valuable to recycling companies, with a value of $1,491 per ton compared to $385 per ton for PET plastic. “Cans are recycled at the highest rates, and drive recycling programs across the country because of the high value of aluminum compared to other packaging materials,” said Heidi Brock, President and CEO of the Aluminum Association.

In recent years, however, recycling companies are struggling with higher processing costs, due in part to newer, larger recycling bins that don’t require user sorting and thus become increasingly contaminated with garbage. When the District of Columbia replaced residents’ 32-gallon bins with ones that were 50 percent larger last year, the extensive amount of non-recyclable material put into the bins drove up the city’s processing cost for recyclables and cut profits from selling recyclables by more than 50 percent.

“Our biggest concern and our biggest challenge today is municipal solid waste and contamination in our inbound stream,” James Delvin, CEO of ReCommunity Recycling, which operates 31 facilities in 14 states, told Green is Good Radio. “It’s an economic issue if you think about we go through all this effort to process this material, and roughly 15 to 20 percent of what we process ends up going back to the landfill. It’s incredibly inefficient to do that.” In a 2014 survey by the National Waste and Recycling Association, nearly one in 10 Americans admitted to throwing their waste in recycling bins when trash cans were full; one in five said they will place an item in a recycling container even if they are not completely sure it is recyclable.

“People refer to this as ‘wishful recycling,’ that’s just when in doubt, put this in the bin because there’s an outside chance they might be able to recycle it,” Delvin notes. “So you see Styrofoam. You see PVC. You see batteries and those types of things….” This mixing of waste with recyclables, he says, makes it very difficult to extract the true recyclable commodities that are there that have value.
Improved education regarding the proper materials to recycle is needed to allow recycling plants to remain economically feasible. The pros and cons of recycling are heavily debated, but there’s never an argument over the environmental benefits of limiting disposable packaging and utilizing more durable reusable goods, like shopping bags, coffee thermoses and water bottles, to name a few, in daily life.

CONTACTS: Aluminum Association, www.aluminum.org; Can Manufacturers Institute, www.cancentral.com; Green Is Good Radio, www.greenisgoodradio.com; National Waste and Recycling Association, www.wasterecycling.org; ReCommunity Recycling, www.recommunity.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Are green groups using the campaign finance system like other “special interests” through Political Action Committees (PACs) or otherwise? -- Wilson McClave, Washington, DC

As a matter of fact, green Political Action Committees (PACs) emerged as major funders last fall in the run-up to the 2014 Congressional elections, and look to play an even larger role in next year’s Presidential and other races. According to the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), PACs are political committees, typically representing specific business, labor or ideological interests, organized for the purpose of raising and spending money to elect and defeat candidates. They must register with the Federal Election Commission and are limited to donations of $5,000 to any given candidate per election—but can also contribute $5,000 annually to any other PAC and up to $15,000 annually to any national political party. PACs can receive as much as $5,000 from any one individual, PAC or political party per calendar year. 

Meanwhile, so-called Super PACs aren’t beholden to fundraising or spending limits, but can’t make contributions directly to candidates or political parties like regular PACs. “They do, however make independent expenditures in federal races—running ads or sending mail or communicating in other ways with messages that specifically advocate the election or defeat of a specific candidate,” reports CRP, which produces the OpenSecrets.org website scrutinizing what PACs are spending and on what.

The biggest among the new breed of green PACs is billionaire hedge-fund manager Tom Steyer’s NextGen Climate Action super PAC, which poured some $50 million toward battling climate “deniers” in races across seven key states in 2014. NextGen has already committed upwards of $5 million into the 2016 election cycle, with much more likely to come over the next several months in an effort to “disqualify” presidential candidates who deny that climate change is real or caused by human activity. 

“The effort will be called Hot Seat, and NextGen Climate says it will involve media and on-the-ground campaigns in key electoral states aimed at linking Republican deniers to the Koch brothers and other interests that seek to undermine climate science,” reports Kate Sheppard in The Huffington Post. “The idea...is to force candidates skeptical of climate change to defend their views right out of the gate.”

Another big player is the League of Conservation Voters’ super PAC, which pledged $25 million alongside NextGen in 2014. The next two biggest green super PACs to date are the Sierra Club’s Independent Action and the Environment America Action Fund, both which spent roughly $1 million to influence 2014 elections. The Defenders of Wildlife Action Committee spent $350,000 on 2014 elections.

As for regular PACs, those already amassing their funding war chests for 2016 include the League of Conservation Voters, the Center for Coastal Conservation, Ocean Champions, Environment America, The NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) Action Fund, Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund, Environmental Defense Action Fund, and the Sierra Club. Other green PACs are expected to join the fray.

While not a PAC per se, Crowdpac gives everyday people the ability to research candidates based on their own values and priorities and provides an easy online mechanism for making direct campaign donations. The website’s founders view Crowdpac as a tool for democratizing the U.S. election and campaign finance processes. Maybe you don’t have to be a billionaire to influence politics in America?

CONTACTS: CRP’s OpenSecrets.org, www.opensecrets.org; NextGen Climate Action, www.nextgenclimate.org; Crowdpac, www.crowdpac.com.

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the latest in cutting-edge, hyper-efficient solar cells? Are we really moving beyond huge photovoltaic panels anytime soon? -- Michael Williams, Hartford, CT
Many people still consider environmentalists’ favorite black panels as the cutting edge of renewable energy. However, the burgeoning solar industry has spent the last four decades refining these original photovoltaic panels, giving way to an entirely new generation of solar technology.

Most of us could hardly recognize some of the new solar collectors. Researchers at Michigan State University specifically responded to the aesthetic critics of solar panels by creating transparent solar cells. Well, not totally transparent--they actually have thin strips of traditional solar panels to convert the infrared light being reflected by the entire panel. This technology could effectively turn any sheet of glass into a solar energy producer, from the windows of your office building to the screen of your cell phone.

This could spell the end for space-intensive solar plants. Currently the cells cannot convert light into electricity at efficient enough levels to be productive, but researchers hope to achieve efficiency closer to that of existing photovoltaic panels in coming years. Though less effective than older technology, the sheer scale of utility of the new model makes it a much more substantial potential energy source.

Beyond the collection of solar energy, storage continues to be a problem. Modern batteries are typically inefficient and expensive, making solar energy only useful during daylight hours. Researchers at Ohio State University are working to solve this problem and recently debuted a photovoltaic panel with a built-in battery. If the new design is successful, fusing the battery and panel into one could be a game-changer. The design has already shown to make batteries 20 percent more efficient and 25 percent less expensive.

Another area of solar innovation has been ingenuity of application. Thinking outside the box has helped establish potential ways to industrialize the production of solar energy without consuming an excessive amount of acreage in the process. The Dutch have already pioneered solar roadways, in which highways are lined with solar panels. This saves clearing more land and makes use of land that is otherwise entirely unproductive. Another effort to limit land use involves constructing solar plants in the 70 percent of the planet that is covered by water. Experiments have already begun in France, England, India and California. 

And while seemingly far-fetched, generating solar power from space is another area being examined. Satellites could capture significantly more sunlight than earthbound panels, as they could be positioned to collect solar radiation all the time. The first proposal and tests of this idea began over 40 years ago. The challenge is to create satellites that can capture sunlight, convert it to microwave energy, and beam it back to Earth. The exciting potential of this idea has led to large-scale investment by India, China and Japan. 

No doubt we are only at the beginning of the age of alternative renewable energy, and the next few years and decades will be an exciting time to follow the growth of solar power from a fringe sector to a dominant player in the global energy mix.

CONTACTS: “The World’s First Solar Road is Producing More Energy Than Expected,” http://thinkprogress.org/climate/2015/05/11/3657220/solaroad-producing-energy/; “New design brings world’s first solar battery to performance milestone,” https://news.osu.edu/news/2015/08/03/%E2%80%8Bnew-design-brings-world%E2%80%99s-first-solar-battery-to-performance-milestone/.

EarthTalk® is produced by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer and is a registered trademark of Earth Action Network Inc. View past columns at: www.earthtalk.org. Or e-mail us your question: earthtalk@emagazine.com. 

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