Warming Trends: The Top Plastic Polluter, Mother-Daughter Climate Talk and a Zero-Waste Holiday

A column highlighting climate-related studies, innovations, books, cultural events and other developments from the global warming frontier.

Waste pickers show Coca-Cola branded plastic waste collected in South Africa. Photo Courtesy of Break Free From Plastic
Waste pickers show Coca-Cola branded plastic waste collected in South Africa. Photo Courtesy of Break Free From Plastic

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Warming Trends





A Top Ten List of Plastic Polluters

For the third year in a row, Coca-Cola led the list of plastic product manufacturers contributing to waste pollution, according to an audit conducted by Break Free From Plastic, an activist group working to reduce the prevalence of single-use plastics.  

For the audit, nearly 15,000 volunteers in 55 countries across six continents picked up plastic waste and documented the brand on each item’s label. Of the nearly 350,000 pieces of plastic collected, 13,834 pieces were made under the umbrella of the Coca-Cola company, making it No. 1 among the top 10 plastic-polluting brands. 

The audit relied heavily on local waste pickers, who collect and sell waste products for a living.

Simon Mbata, who has been a waste picker for 23 years and works as the National Coordinator of the South African Waste Pickers Association, said he and other waste pickers are frustrated by plastic products that aren’t recyclable. These items have no value to waste pickers and end up in the landfill. 

Most Coke bottles are made from single-use plastic, Mbata said. “So why brand it in the first place with plastic that cannot be recycled?” 

Coca-Cola responded to the Break Free From Plastic report by highlighting its progress toward reducing plastic in their products by using more paper and 100 percent recycled plastic.

“Globally, we have a commitment to get every bottle back by 2030, so that none of it ends up as litter or in the oceans, and the plastic can be recycled into new bottles,” a spokesman said in an emailed response.





Climate Change is Taking a Toll on Health

Heat waves, wildfires, floods and storms linked to a warming climate are already causing serious health effects around the world, including infectious diseases like dengue and malaria, deaths from extreme weather events and undernourishment.

That’s the conclusion of the 2020 Lancet Countdown Report, an international collaboration involving 35 academic institutions and United Nations agencies and intended “to provide an independent, global monitoring system dedicated to tracking the emerging health profile of the changing climate.” 

The worst consequences to human health will be felt by the most vulnerable people, populations that also contribute the least to global warming, according to the report, released earlier this week. Among other things, a warmer climate can compromise food security and create a more suitable environment for the transmission of infectious diseases. Covid-19, the authors of the report wrote, serves as an example of the kind of health crisis that can be expected as the climate crisis worsens. 

“Concerning, and often accelerating, trends were seen for each of the human symptoms of climate change monitored, with the 2020 indicators presenting the most worrying outlook reported since The Lancet Countdown was first established” in 2016, the report said.

The report looked at climate impacts, adaptation and mitigation plans and economic effects, among other indicators.  

The next five years will be vital if the worst effects of climate change on human health are to be staved off through the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the report said.  





Talking to a Skeptical Mom About Climate: ‘It Was Not an Argument’ 

What if you could have one of those tense conversations with someone who resists the idea of climate action and not wind up with a headache? What if you even emerged with constructive ideas, a hug and an “I love you”? That’s what happened not too long ago on the podcast, Mothers of Invention, which holds that, “Climate change is a man-made problem—with a feminist solution!” Hosted by former Irish President Mary Robinson, comedian Maeve Higgins and producer Thimali Kodikara, the podcast features “game-changing women fighting to save all our lives.”

The stars of the October episode, Oh, My God, Mom, were young activists Nicole Gazo and Gabi Rodriguez of the CLEO Institute, who shared tips on reframing conversations about a subject youth activists regard as a “terrifying, existential problem” but family members—not so much. Gazo shared snippets of some conversations with her mother, who dismisses her idea of putting in solar panels. The MOI team noted how Gazo interrupted and judged her mother, putting her on the defensive and leaving the young activist feeling deflated.

Rodriguez, drawing on the example of women’s suffrage leaders who focused their attention on people who seemed open to listening, advised: “Don’t drill people.” Gazo applied this in her next conversation with her mother and it went smoothly, even evolving into a discussion about advertising campaigns for solar and ending with “I love you” and a mother-daughter hug.  

“It was not an argument,” said Gazo. “It was a brainstorming conversation.”





What Makes a Squirrel a Climate Winner?

Whether a squirrel species can adapt to multiple habitats is a key indicator of whether the species will survive in a changing climate, according to a new study.

The findings suggest that, of the nearly 300 species of squirrels on five continents, those that can adapt to life outside forest canopies may be more successful as climate change and human activity lead to deforestation. 

A grey squirrel looks for food amongst the fallen autumn leaves in Sefton Park, Liverpool. Credit: Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images
A grey squirrel looks for food amongst the fallen autumn leaves in Sefton Park, Liverpool. Credit: Peter Byrne/PA Images via Getty Images

Iris Menéndez, who led the study, published in the journal Mammal Review, said looking at  living squirrels and at fossils and other evidence of historical squirrel species was important for the study. The last time the climate changed, when the climate cooled during the Pleistocene era, glaciers expanded and forests were fragmented.

“The tree squirrels were more restricted and affected, and ground squirrels could expand their distributions,” Menéndez said, “so that was a good thing for ground squirrels at that time.”





A Zero-Waste Holiday

What with decorations, cards, wrapping paper and other holiday items, household waste in the United States can increase by 25 percent during the holiday season, according to some estimates. Climate-warming fossil fuels are used to manufacture plastic packaging, Christmas lights and non-recyclable ribbons and bows. And all are likely to head to the landfill after the New Year. 

One small business owner, Laura Marston, opened a zero-waste store in South Portland, Maine, last year called GoGo Refill. An avid zero-waste shopper herself, she has some suggestions for how to keep the planet in mind while celebrating the holidays.

  • Check How a Product Will Be Shipped

    One of the most frustrating things about shopping for zero-waste items online, Marston said, is when a plastic-free product comes wrapped in plastic and cushioned with styrofoam. Sellers that ship plastic-free sometimes advertise it on their site. But, she said, you can also message a seller to ask about packaging.

  • Give Reusable Products

    One of Marston’s favorite items sold in her store are reusable paper towels, which are colorful and machine washable. “It’s not only beautiful and fun, but you save money immediately,” she said.

  • Give Secondhand

    Lots of local stores are having sales online or on social media. “Don’t be afraid to give second hand,” Marston said. “You can find really unique gifts at vintage stores.”

  • Give Gift Cards

    Gift cards allow recipients to buy exactly what they want. Marston advises supporting local co-ops, low-waste stores, restaurants that use compostable takeout containers and retailers that value sustainability with a gift card purchase.

  • Wrap With What You Have

    Store-bought wrapping is often not recyclable, so repurposing what’s laying around your home is a good waste-free alternative that can still be beautiful, she said.

Judy Fahys contributed to this article.