🌎 #284: How to beat plastic

Quinn Emmett
July 15, 2022
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Welcome back, Shit Givers.

Thank christ for Lizzo today.

TL;DR:

  • Manchin fuels more heat waves
  • COVID reinforcements on the way
  • India and California fight plastic
  • How we fight monkeypox
  • Wow Ring doorbells are not great

Reminder: You can read this issue on the website, or you can 🎧 listen to it on the podcast (shortly).

🕛 Reading Time: 11 minutes


Book of the Week

My book recommendation this week is Thinking Like An Economist by Elizabeth Popp Berman (Bookshop, Libro, Libby).

The title isn't intended as a compliment, interestingly enough; the book provides a fascinating review of how and why the policy choices of the past twenty five years or so focused more on market efficiencies and not, you know, people.

CLIMATE CHANGE

Wildfire
Unsplash

Manchin sets us back, where have we made gains?

The news: US Senator Joe Manchin, the single biggest recipient of fossil fuel money in Congress over the past two years, set fire to congressional climate action once again late last night.

This, as hurricane, heat, and wildfire seasons -- or as the Union of Concerned Scientists has dubbed the combined entity, "Danger Season" -- come into full effect around the world.

In the US:

  • A heat dome means tens of millions of people across the midwest are wilting and millions of very, very hot Texans face the ongoing threat of rolling blackouts
  • A train derailed outside San Francisco last month because the tracks were too damn hot
  • It might hit 115 in Phoenix this week, so
  • Meanwhile, La Niña refuses to GTFO and could drive even more hurricanes

Europe is heating up faster than other hot spots:

  • Italy's facing its worst drought in 70 years (oh god not risotto)
  • The UK, Spain, and France are breaking heat records with energy prices (and coal use) skyrocketing alongside them

And in Asia, blistering heat waves are buckling roads in northern China while the south floods.

But there's good news: Despite a 5x increase in global natural disasters in the last 50 years, deaths from them have dropped almost 2/3, even with a much larger population living more often in places where we shouldn't.

WTF?

Well, to start, a proven program of mostly unheralded and not-really-sexy-but-should-be structural improvements have made it so we're at least less surprised.

Early-warning systems for hurricanes, tsunamis, and rain, heat waves and even seasonal fire outlooks make use of next-gen satellites and AI, bundling data from weather patterns to vegetation density and moisture levels, all of which have made people at least aware of what's coming.

And there's so much more we can do, including letting the insurance industry use catastrophic modeling to better price offerings (if not refuse them entirely).

I'll keep banging the drum about a standardized heat wave naming system (and, say, wastewater monitoring for communicable diseases), but it's important to understand early warnings aren't everything: so much suffering happens after a disaster has hit, and our responses are devastatingly inequitable. We pay firefighters basically nothing, we don't have nearly enough nurses, FEMA's a bit racist.

So we've got orgs like World Central Kitchen, and in New Orleans, basically abandoned after Katrina, grassroots coalitions are using solar and batteries to mitigate power losses in inevitable future disasters.

Our approach -- from unilateral executive branch mitigation efforts, to early-warning systems and disaster response -- has to be vastly more systemic, and our agencies better funded, measured, and held to a higher bar. 

⚡️What We Can Do: Vox has an excellent guide to community planning for natural disasters and heat. Check it out, and if you're a Member, discuss it with us right here.


COVID

Nahid Bhadelia
NAHID
Vaccine equity update: Just 19.4% of people in low-income countries have received at least one dose, and 33.3% of people worldwide have received zero doses.

COVID's next moves (and ours, too)

The news: BA.5 continues to pummel countries worldwide, but reinforcements are coming (if not in the form of public attitudes).

  • While the White House fights to renew the public health emergency declaration, the FDA has finally authorized the more traditional protein-based (so not mRNA) Novavax vaccine, which may actually sway some vaccine holdouts.
  • Friend of the pod and global pandemic preparedness Dr. Nahid Bhadelia joined the White House COVID response team this week as senior policy advisor for global COVID response, which, to be clear, has been lacking.

I want to be crystal clear here: Our decision (it continues to be a decision) not to vaccinate the world, and to reduce public mitigation efforts to almost nothing fueled the rise of BA.5 (and whatever comes after it), new infections and re-infections, flight cancellations, worker shortages, and relatively higher hospitalizations.

We made this mess.

So, another new wave of infections, and reinfections. On the one hand, a reputable pre-print study says reinfections in isolation seem to be less severe, especially if you were previously infected from another Omicron strain. 

But another study indicates that multiple COVID infections could mean a higher risk for long COVID symptoms, to say nothing of protections and vulnerabilities among the immunocompromised.

And that's kind of the key here. Sure, deaths are a tenth of what their peak, just 300 a day. But that's still 100,000 dead Americans a year, almost certainly inequitably distributed, and focuses only on deaths, not the millions living with some hellish potpourri of long-term symptoms, keeping people out of work, with some percentage of those folks being prescribed antibiotics that not only don't work, but further antimicrobial resistance, or "super bugs" -- to say nothing of the millions of burned out health care workers required to treat them.

So I'm glad Nahid is on the team, I'm tentatively excited about Novavax uptake, and that Paxlovid can now, sort of, be prescribed by pharmacists. We need more marketing behind it, to prevent bad outcomes among the highest-risk, and we need more access to it. 

You're a Shit Giver, but there's a boatload of people who simply don't care about getting infected, or if other people do.

But this virus will continue to evolve, and we inexplicably continue to half-ass compete on a very unequal playing field, one where we're still breathing stale air on one another, partially protected by old shots and infections from old variants.

We can Do Better Better.

⚡️What We Can Do: Order more free tests here, get your booster here, track your wastewater here, sign up for the RECOVER Long COVID study here.


FOOD & WATER

Plastic bottles
Unsplash

Cracks in the plastic wall

The news: Plastics are the last, hugely defensible bastion of fossil fuel majors, but we're beginning to take our shots.

Understand it: Two of the world's largest economies moved virtually in tandem this week to eradicate single-use plastics:

  • California, the greenest state with the dirtiest air, set a 10 year ticking clock for all single-use packaging to be recyclable or compostable
  • And India, a country awash in plastic pollution, decided to include straws in the ban despite intense lobbying efforts

Maine and Oregon set the pace last year by transferring the costs of plastic recycling (however effective) from you to packaging manufacturers, and Australia and France have varying levels of plastic bans (I'm sure I'm missing others), while other countries manage to actually recycle way more than we do here.

We have a very long way to go, but all in all, Coke and Pepsi aren't pleased -- and it's not difficult to see why. From Bloomberg:

"Each year, beverage companies in the US produce about 100 billion plastic bottles to sell their soda, water, energy drinks, and juices.

[...] Just 26.6% of PET bottles were recycled in the US in 2020, with the rest incinerated, stuffed into landfills, or tossed aside as litter, according to the National Association for PET Container Resources (NAPCOR).

[...] Coke, Dr Pepper, and Pepsi pledged to source a quarter of their plastic packaging from recycled materials by 2025, with Coke and Pepsi vowing to hit 50% by 2030. (Today, Coke is at 13.6%, Keurig Dr Pepper Inc. is at 11%, and PepsiCo Inc. is at 6%.)"

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel majors making all that plastic are not only building new US plants with Saudi money, but fighting solar plants, too, because fuck it, why not.

Like everything we talk about here, many things can be true at once. Plastic is popular because it is incredibly useful, and eliminating it will require new innovations. What are the tradeoffs of plastic bans in a world where food waste is a huge problem, too?

Weighing those truths, and truly measuring our externalities (like, I don't know, microplastics in fetuses) is our job, now.

⚡️What We Can Do: Check out the Reloop Dashboard to understand waste trends and how your city can begin to ban plastics.


HEALTH & BIO

Monkeypox tests
The Guardian

What you need to know

The news: It's time for a monkeypox update.

TL;DR: Still probably won't be as widespread as COVID, but we are applying next to zero lessons learned and we're behind the 8 Ball.

To rehash:

  • It's not smallpox, it's rarely fatal, like a very annoying cousin
  • It's not new, it's old, it's named because it was discovered in lab monkeys in the 50's
  • It's typically found in Central and West Africa, but it's more or less everywhere now, because we're morons
  • Folks would historically get it from animal bites or scratches, but now we're mostly passing it around via close, skin to skin contact, or sharing infected clothes or bedding, and via respiratory droplets, too
  • Symptoms show up within 6-13 days-ish of exposure and include fever, headaches, body aches, being exhausted, swollen lymph nodes, and a painful rashes
  • You're probably not infectious anymore once your lesions (like big pimples) scab over, like 2-4 weeks
  • It's a DNA virus and again it's old news, so it evolves much slower than an RNA-virus like COVID, but it also may have changed a little? We're not sure yet. #science
  • But like COVID, this whole debacle -- almost 10,000 global infections and counting -- may be from increased zoonotic spillovers, because we ignored early warning signs, and also because we're all finally traveling again
  • There's a new-ish, safe vaccine, it's useful before and after you get infected, and we're starting to roll it out but we don't have nearly enough of it (yet, and some might be on the way from a freezer in Denmark (I know))
  • And lots of people born after 1980 didn't get the old one, so immunity is a bit low
  • It is 10000% not a "gay disease" -- but we should protect folks with infected or even multiple partners ASAP

So. The risks are low, but growing. We're behind, but unlike COVID, we can make progress, and quick by:

  • Funding 10x vaccine production
  • Funding state and community health centers, pharmacies, and bathhouses, to execute a ring vacation strategy in hard-hit areas, and
  • By (back on my soapbox) marketing the shit out of it

⚡️What We Can Do: If you or someone you know needs the vaccine ASAP, get tested at your doctor, and then Google your nearest health department and then call to ask about vaccine supply and eligibility. I wish I had a better tool, I couldn't find one -- let me know what I'm missing.


BEEP BOOP

Ring doorbell

You're being watched and sold

The news: Amazon, the everything store that sells a smart doorbell called Ring, gives away your doorbell data for free to cops, and this week it was revealed they have been doing so without a warrant or even your permission.

From The Intercept:

"Although Ring publicizes its policy of handing over camera footage only if the owner agrees — or if judge signs a search warrant — the company says it also reserves the right to supply police with footage in “emergencies,” defined broadly as “cases involving imminent danger of death or serious physical injury to any person.”
Markey had also asked Amazon to clarify what exactly constitutes such an “emergency situation,” and how many times audiovisual surveillance data has been provided under such circumstances. Amazon declined to elaborate on how it defines these emergencies beyond “imminent danger of death or serious physical injury,” stating only that “Ring makes a good-faith determination whether the request meets the well-known standard.” 

Huseman noted that it has complied with 11 emergency requests this year alone but did not provide details as to what the cases or Ring’s “good-faith determination” entailed."

We have very quickly normalized mass surveillance, and it's unclear what your privacy rights are if caught on camera doing...anything, from driving across state lines to get an abortion to...whatever.

From the ACLU:

"Individuals have a First Amendment right to take photographs of things that are plainly visible in public places, including government facilities, infrastructure, and police officers in public (all of which rights we at the ACLU have defended in court after individuals were illegally arrested). They certainly have a right to photograph their property in front of their front door. 

All that said, more pervasive private cameras do erode our privacy, and it is dismaying to see two powerful institutions in American life (Amazon and law enforcement) so actively and concertedly pursuing their mutual interest in saturating American communities with surveillance cameras."

The UK's vaunted new online safety bill just got put back on the burner, and in the US, only a few states have similar bills, while the FTC is flailing to regulate a location data marketplace that can best be described as "anything goes."

It sucks when we've got to protect ourselves against these massive entities, but remember: systemic action requires using every tool available to us.

⚡️What We Can Do: If you own a Ring device, you can turn on end-to-end encryption here. It's not the default, that's by design, and it's bullshit, but you should do it.


Got feedback or thoughts on this issue? Members can comment here. Not a Member yet? Get engaged right here.


10 THINGS FROM MY NOTEBOOK

  • Emily Atkin is back and HEATED is growing -- help fund her new reporter
  • There may be an over the counter birth control pill soon
  • Tesla's AI chief just quit and he's not the only one
  • GM's building a nationwide charging network
  • Could old poop cure you of future diseases?
  • Starting tomorrow, dial 988 for mental health support
  • Doctors using AI catch breast cancer more than either does alone #teamwork
  • Doctors in New Zealand are using a new version of CRISPR to tackle high cholesterol
  • Microdosing works!
  • A bunch of Harvard bioengineers built the first biohybrid (Robocop? Cylons? Data?) of human heart ventricles. I managed to get through this entire newsletter without accidentally deleting something important.

Thanks for reading, and thanks for giving a shit. Have a great weekend.

-- Quinn

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