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Sustainability R.O.I.

Issue 6: September 2018

Hi <<First Name>>,

Welcome to the September 2018 edition of Valutus Sustainability R.O.I., a quick-hit summary of things that caught our attention along with some observations and intelligence. This month our Intelligence section is all about plastic neutrality.

We hope you find it valuable. If you do, please consider forwarding to your colleagues.

Thanks for being part of making the world a better place.

Warm regards, 

Founder, Valutus
The Value of Values


Fresh Water + Edible Crops = Biofuel? Not Good
Or...We Could Just Vacuum Carbon From The Air...
The Green Play’s the thing
Upside Down Politics in Australia
Is California Dreaming about Falling Emissions?
Intelligence - The Need for Better Metrics on Plastic-Neutral


So we know the bad news, and more just keeps coming.

But do we know the good news? Is there any good news?

Like Doolittle’s mythical Pushmi Pullyu (an early attempt at autocorrect?) we find ourselves buffeted this way and that, as we learn of a bold new initiative that could preserve our world on Tuesday only to see it shot down on Thursday by politics, economics, ignorance, greed, apathy and war.

So often we know not if the day be ours or no, to echo Henry V.

Yet there are so many projects underway, so many innovators, so many governments—with one gigantic exception—who are surging us forward and producing incredible results. Individually most initiatives are small, though their global impact may turn out to be vast. Collectively the planet is a seething geyser of sustainability innovation. Necessarily we feel the need to report the news that catches our eyes, good and bad. In this issue and in those to come we will explore this quest for true sustainability, to see if we can actually take more than a few steps in the right direction.

Fresh Water + Edible Crops = Biofuel?
Not Good

Seawater + Marine Yeast = Biofuel + Fresh Water?


Cartoon by Stuart Carlson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Most of us who spend time in the Brewing Science building of a major university are thinking of ‘bio-fuel’ using terms like Hefeweizen, Pilsner or I.P.A. But when Dr Abdelrahman Zaky, of the University of Nottingham, UK, goes there he is examining the possibilities for ethanol made from seawater and some very unusual fermenting agents, according to a new study detailed in the journal Scientific Reports and reported in Science Daily. “I am working on marine yeast,” his academic blurb reads. My aim is to employ marine yeast in bio-ethanol production."

Marine yeasts? Who knew? Yet Dr. Zaky has apparently fulfilled his mission and now these microscopic organisms can be mixed with a few minerals and seawater to whip up a batch of bioethanol as easily as you and I brew a tasty lager. A previous process required metric tons of fresh water to produce a few liters of fuel whereas Zaky’s method is H2O-positive.

Zaky’s process uses abundant seawater and, as a by-product, produces precious, clean, potable fresh water. "Current fermentation technologies mainly use edible crops and freshwater for the production of bioethanol,” said Dr. Zaky. “With an
ever-growing population and demand for biofuels and other bio-based produces(sic), there are concerns over the use of the limited freshwater and food crops(sic) resources for non-nutritional activities.”

Yes. What he said. More food, water and fuel—and less carbon. Win, win, win, win.

Or...We Could Just Vacuum Carbon From The Air...

Photo: Bill Cotton/Colorado State University via Science Daily
A major hole in the wind/solar/hydro paradigm is transportation, fueling ships and cars and buses. Meanwhile, there is carbon aplenty in our atmosphere generated by that same transport sector. What if...hmmm. Could we capture the carbon in the skies and use it to fuel engines? Airplanes? Shipping? Up to now the answer has been ‘maybe but it would be far too expensive.’ Carbon Engineering Co., of British Columbia, isn't buying it and has developed a gizmo—a small word for something so enormous—that uses Direct Air Capture (DAC) of carbon from the air via hydro power and uses it to make reliable and—soon they hope— affordable biofuel.  Other companies are in the game also using similar methods.
So how does this gizmo work? The Center for Carbon Removal says that it “can be thought of as artificial trees. Where trees extract CO2 from the air using photosynthesis, Direct Air Capture systems extract CO2 from the air using chemicals that bind to CO2 but not to other atmospheric chemicals (such as nitrogen and oxygen).”
Clean fuel generated at Carbon Engineering’s pilot plant
in Squamish, British Columbia

For a cool video from Climeworks, another direct air capture company, detailing the process, click here. Less carbon, more fuel seems like a winning combo. The goal, according to C|Net, is to bring the price of direct capture down to, “between $94 and $232 per ton,” of carbon captured. As a Vox analysis points out, carbon is much less expensive from other sources, “around $18 a ton in Europe right now, which is pretty far below the $94,” which explains why there’s so little carbon capture operating commercially up to now. However, this analysis leaves out the end product—high quality, high-carbon biofuel, made directly from the atmosphere, that is clean and affordable, and which can be sold to run cars and other vehicles. This may bring prices down closer to competitive levels.

                 The Play’s The Thing, According to Hamlet... But What Does He Know?

The Green Play’s the thing

With entries like Mean Girls and He Brought Her Heart Back in a Box vying for Broadway slots, one would not think the world of theater was a particularly fertile field for sustainability. As Romeo breathlessly intoned while Juliet wondered about that new LED light breaking through yonder window, theater’s “livery And none but fools do wear it; cast it off!”  So much for sustainability in Shakespeare’s day but, “as truth is truth, to the end of reckoning,”  the truth here is that stage and movie productions have been going green for some time.
Image Source: The Green Theater /

This may take the form of plays that actively promote environmentally sound principles, known as Ecotheater, or it may involve the actual carbon footprint of the entire production: sustainable sets—including lumber sourcing, prop and costume reuse and recycling, food, transportation, lighting, power use… in short, anything that will lower carbon use. Organizations such as the Broadway Green Alliance, a cooperative open to all productions, and many others like it have proliferated. According to The Guardian, London, a major hub for live theater, has fully embraced sustainable plays and has even created a Guide for green theater.

This May, the Cannes Festival featured their third-annual panel discussion on Green Film Production. And such Production companies are indeed ramping up their sustainability programs. Movies such as the new blockbuster, Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again have devoted incredible resources to sustainable practices boasting a 99% diversion rate for on-set waste, power from cooking oil-based biofuel for savings of almost 50 metric tons of carbon and much more according to Studios online magazine.

Still, not all on Broadway or in Hollywood have embraced this ethos so it’s once more unto the breach, dear friends, until the job is done. (C’ didn’t think we’d end without one more, did you?)

Upside Down Politics in Australia

Image Source:

The New York Times just reported yet another setback from a highly developed nation, Australia, whose embattled Prime Minister has pulled climate change legislation from his agenda due to political pressure. The Times is unclear about where exactly the quids, pros and quos rest, and on whom, but what is clear is the fear of rising electric costs has scuttled a climate-change agenda for a continent uniquely vulnerable to global warming.

The Great Barrier Reef—and the bleaching and imminent death thereof—is the sad poster child for this, however in a country more than a third of which is desert and almost three-quarters of which is semi-arid at best, a warming climate could be devastating. As Australia’s reported, 2018 sported the driest Autumn on record.

Photo Source: Wikipedia

Is California Dreaming about Falling Emissions?
No Longer. It’s Here. Two Years Early.

So you want some good news, do you? How about this? California, that giant semi-autonomous nation-within-a-nation has, according to multiple sources, just hit its ambitious greenhouse gas emissions goals.

Consider this:

  • A rocketing economy, up 26%
  • Dropping emissions, down 13%
  • Planned targets hit years ahead schedule

How can this be when we’ve been told growth is the enemy of sustainability? Legislation drafted and signed during the Schwarzenegger administration set the nation’s most aggressive emissions standards, which now have greenhouse gases falling below peak (2004) to a level not seen since the mid-’90s. This is the real thing, people. If the world’s fifth-most-robust economy can reduce emissions with production at insane capacity, can others follow suit? 


Image Source: Greenhouse Gas Inventory Data (CARB, 2015)
via Center for Climate and Energy Solutions
The answer appears to be ‘yes.’ Here’s how they did it:
  • Created the most aggressive emissions reduction targets in the nation
  • Massively increased solar production (up 33 percent in 2016 according to The Guardian) with new regulations mandating solar use by power companies
  • Mandated more emphasis on hydro (with an assist from some long-overdue rainfall)
  • Reduced Natural Gas use by 15%
  • Instituted an incredibly successful Cap and Trade program
With the fourth-largest such program on earth, California is proving that a massive economy can use markets and incentives to hit steep targets using programs in which, “polluters that want to increase their emissions must buy permits from others willing to sell them.”
Transportation is clearly the next big hurdle in emissions reduction (see chart above). Cali has more electric cars than any other state but it’s still in the mere tens of thousands.  This must be handled as their goals for 2030 and 2050 are designed to reduce by 80%! Still, as promised there is plenty of real, solid, honest-to-goodness good news here. Now if they could just do something about rush-hour on the freeways…


So how do we manage this Pushmi Pullyu of daily life in sustainability? Perhaps the best option, amid this tangle of potential realities, is to cling to the Stockdale Paradox, named after the highest-ranking naval officer to enjoy the delights of what was affectionately known during the Vietnam conflict as the Hanoi HIlton. Eight years of torture and solitary confinement gives a man time to think and Admiral Stockdale, best known for his failed vice-presidential bid as Ross Perot’s running mate, slowly thought through his paradox while rotting in solitary. He found that the pure optimists in his prison, certain of early rescue, crumbled and broke when no such release took place. The pure pessimists also faltered, and many didn’t make it. Stockdale found a middle way. Later researchers have framed it as follows: You must retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties. At the same time, you must confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.

Staring clear-eyed at the brutal truth yet 'retaining faith that we will prevail in the end' might almost be the motto of Sustainability.


The Need for Better Metrics on Plastic-Neutral

We’re all familiar with carbon neutrality and we know not all greenhouse gasses are created equal. We know that CO2, for example, is the baseline gas, with a Global Warming Potential (GWP) value of 1. Not good – but consider Methane, with a value near 28. Keep going through the list of GHGs and eventually there’s SF6, a man-made greenhouse gas with a GWP more than 23,000 times that of CO2. Yikes!

In the grand scheme both must be curbed, but in terms of pound-for-pound impact, it's no contest. When thinking about carbon footprint, we have come to understand that one cannot simply offset emissions without asking pointedly, "which emissions?" and, as a result, carbon footprint calculations take impact into account.

That transition is just underway in the growing plastic neutrality movement as a more sophisticated and nuanced view of plastics is emerging.

Currently, the standard for plastic-neutral is to recycle the same weight of plastic a company uses: a ton made, a ton recycled. Yet as with greenhouse gases, the actual reclaimed plastics may not be the ones with the greatest potential damaging impact. Plastics that have the most impact are those heading towards rivers, streams and oceans where they do far more damage than similar loads bound for landfill. Capturing this reality is important but hasn’t yet been accomplished. We have to change the way we measure impact for plastic as we've done for carbon.

How, exactly, do we manage that? Watch this space. There's a growing understanding regarding how plastics should be classified, and which types of offsets have the greatest value. (Full disclosure: Valutus is working with Plastic Bank, the leader in the plastic neutrality movement, on this issue).

More to come in future issues about the demand for more sophisticated metrics - in plastic neutrality and elsewhere – and what it means for sustainability practitioners.

Copyright © 2018 Valutus, All rights reserved.

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