Renewed — and Renewable — Hope

This post was written by Noelle Nyirenda ’19

Row upon row of solar panels reflect the Zambian sky while they silently and cleanly produce enough electricity to power over fifty thousand homes. Walking the solar plant that covers almost 50 hectares in the special economic zone outside the capital city, I am exhausted but filled with hope. Renewable energy is no longer a niche technology that “serious” business people don’t even consider but the preferred source of electrical energy for most countries.

I am at the Bangweulu Solar plant where I have been contracted as the commissioning engineer to ensure that the project can be handed over to the client and be ready to be brought online at an inauguration ceremony that will be attended by the president, US ambassador and other dignitaries.

This is grueling work, and the timeline is stressful, I only had four hours of sleep after flying in from Vermont before I had to be onsite for a planning meeting and hit the ground running. However, I know that this project marks a significant time for me and the company I am working worth. This project is about more than handing over yet another installation successfully to our client, it’s about capacity building and developing skills to make Zambia’s energy infrastructure more sustainable. The Bangweulu project was made possible by a financing structure that brought development partners and private business together.

This belief in the idea that value can be created at the confluence of social development and business enterprise is what brought me to The Sustainable Innovation MBA program at UVM.

How to Decrease the Single-Use Plastics in Your Life

This post was written by Shea Mahoney ’19

With so much focus throughout The Sustainable Innovation MBA curriculum on the complex, pressing sustainability challenges across the globe it can start to feel claustrophobic and overwhelming to think about how to address these issues from as individual in terms of personal consumer behaviors. One place I have been trying to minimize my own ecological impact is by reducing my consumption of single-use and disposable consumer plastics products wherever I can. These attempts have made it clearer than ever how hard it is to break up with plastic, it is so ubiquitous in most of the products we all use on a daily basis. Fortunately this is an issue gaining traction, highlighted by Burlington’s recent vote on Town Hall Meeting Day to ban single-use-plastic bags, and with higher scrutiny towards how prevalent these products are in our lives there is a broadening new market for more sustainable substitutes to help tamper plastic use.

By looking at the plastic products I use most frequently I have been able to identify some good alternative products to replace those, allowing me to reduce my reliance on them. One source of plastic waste that might not immediately jump to front of mind is plastic toothbrushes, but with their daily use they tend to be replaced fairly regularly and over one’s lifetime toothbrushes can account for a significant amount of plastic waste. Many companies have sought to offer a more sustainable option, with biodegradable bamboo toothbrushes being a common alternative. Bamboo is a very low agriculturally intensive crop, requiring relatively little land surface area for cultivation and no fertilizer use. However, not all bamboo is created equal and with the rising popularity of the crop for myriad uses it can take a bit of digging to verify whether or not a bamboo toothbrush (or any product made with the eco-fiber) is actually sustainably grown or rather being greenwashed as a more eco-friendly option.

Another area of single-use plastics that can be reduced through investing in more eco-friendly substitutes is produce bags. While it has become pretty common practice for many to bring reusable grocery bags to the store, many of us still rely on plastic produce bags for packaging our perishable fruits and vegetables. However, there are many alternative, reusable mesh bags that can be easily used to replace the flimsy plastic ones so ubiquitous in grocery stores. These also make for a relatively simple addition to any already ingrained reusable bag habits. While the need for more substantive, paradigmatic shift in the way we as a society views the use and disposal of plastics remains a daunting and pressing concern, there are many ways at the individual level to curb your consumption and make small but meaningful changes. Investing your dollar votes in sustainable products that provide longer term solutions instead of reaching for single use plastics when convenient is one way we can all contribute to the larger, collective groundswell of change.

Sources:

https://goodonyou.eco/bamboo-fabric-sustainable/ https://www.wcax.com/content/news/Move-to-ban-single-use-plastic-bags-gaining-momentum-5 06765721.html

Photo by Patricia Valério on Unsplash

Single-Use Plastic: Why Recycling is Not Enough

This post was written by Meg Nadeau ’19

During a recent Driving Sustainable Change class, we implemented the methods of Design Thinking to try to answer the difficult question, “How might we reduce the consumption of single-use products at UVM?”

This is a question I have tried to answer for myself on many occasions: How can I change my behavior so that I can reduce my consumption of single-use products? By single-use products I mean any product designed specifically to be used once, then discarded, simply to be replaced by another single-use product.

I used to believe that as long as I recycled the plastic I was using, I was doing my part. However, I have realized that recycling is not enough. There is a reason why the phrase goes reduce, reuse, and recycle. Reducing and reusing come before recycling because that is how to make the most positive impact.

Recycling is better than not recycling, don’t get me wrong, but the current recycling process has many inefficiencies. First, containers must be clean of contaminants. In a full bin of recycling, items that are not recyclable — contamination — weaken the marketability of that material, and those items wind up in a landfill anyway. If the plastic does end up going to a recycling facility, it takes large amounts of energy and resources to transform it into a product that can be used again. Monitoring and collection, transportation, and the recycling manufacturing process itself all contribute to this energy and resource consumption.

The molecular makeup of plastics makes it very difficult for it to be broken down and transformed back to its original product, like a water bottle being turned back into a water bottle. Instead, recycled plastic is usually used for secondary reprocessing which turns the recycled plastic into a plastic product that cannot be recycled. This repurposing of plastic is better than just throwing it in landfills, but its footprint should not be minimized. There must also be demand for the recycled material for this process to really be effective. Many recycling programs are operating at a cash loss on a regular basis, which is not sustainable for the long-term.

So, what is the solution to this? Recycling used to be seen as the solution for all of our waste. But, that is just not enough if we plan on saving the planet. The real solution is to not create the need to recycle in the first place. Reduce your consumption of single-use plastics, or better yet, don’t use single-use plastic at all. Nobody is perfect, so if you do buy plastic try to reuse the item as many times as you can. Get creative with it! How many new uses can you get out of a plastic product? But, since the goal of this post is to reduce the consumption of single-use products, I am going to leave you with some tips that have helped me.

  1. The Grocery Store: Single-use products are everywhere here, from lettuce wrapped in plastic, to eggs in plastic casings, to meat packed in plastic bags. Become mindful of your purchases at the grocery store. Start your grocery shopping the right way by remembering to bring your own shopping bags- this will set you up for a successful grocery shopping trip right from the start! Put your produce in these reusable bags instead of putting them into the small plastic produce bags and try to buy produce that is not already wrapped in plastic. Choose cardboard over plastic whenever possible. Cardboard is generally easier to recycle and tends to biodegrade more easily. So go for the eggs in the cardboard casing, or the pasta in a box instead of in a bag, or detergent in a box instead of a bottle.
  2. The Bathroom: Look in your shower and count how many plastic containers are in there. Is there a way you can change your purchasing behavior to find products that don’t come in plastic? Can you refill glass containers with shampoo, conditioner, and body wash? There are companies, like Lush, that are selling solid shampoos and body washes that do not have to be contained in a bottle at all. Instead of buying disposable razors, try switching to a razor that lets you replace the blade or, even better, get a straight razor. Instead of shaving cream, try coconut oil. And if you really want to commit to a sustainable shaving experience, don’t shave at all! There are many alternatives to your plastic toothbrush, as well. Try going with a wooden toothbrush, one that you can just throw in the fire when it is time to get a new one. While we are on the topic of teeth, have you ever tried tooth powder? You can make your own at home with baking powder, salt, and essential oils for flavoring. You can also buy pre-made tooth powder from brands like Uncle Harry or Aquarian Bath.
  3. The Kitchen: Plastic has inundated our kitchens in the form of plastic baggies, plastic wrap, and plastic storage containers. Instead of using plastic wrap, use jars or glass containers. There are also some innovative companies, like Bee’s Wrap, that are coming out with reusable food storage solutions. Instead of plastic baggies or plastic containers, why not use a glass or stainless steel bento box? If you’re feeling extra brave, bring these out with you when you know there will be leftovers. Instead of relying on a restaurant to provide you with a single-use container to-go, complete with a plastic bag, opt to put the food in your own container that can be reused over and over again. Try switching to wash cloths instead of paper towels. Paper towels come wrapped in plastic and can only be used to clean up one mess. Wash cloths can be used over and over again and just get thrown in with the rest of the dirty laundry when they need to be washed.

“Hunter is disruptive…”

This post was written by Henry Vogt ’19

“Hunter is disruptive” is the phrase we first saw as we walked into our second guest lecturer of the semester.

Earlier this Fall we had the pleasure of hosting guest speaker Hunter Lovins. Suffice it to say, she knocked our socks off. I had heard Hunter’s name before, but wasn’t very familiar with her work or legacy. It became apparent right away that we were in for a unique and inspiring experience.

Hunter’s body of work in sustainability and climate justice is prolific: from starting numerous influential non-profits, creating successful sustainable MBA programs from scratch, authoring best selling books, founding impact investing firms, and consulting with some of the largest corporations in the world including Unilever and Walmart, Hunter’s influence is extensive. This is augmented by her down-to-earth, Colorado ranch-style demeanor. She tells it like it is, passionately, in an inspirational way. She’s the type of person that understands that solving world problems is best facilitated over a whiskey, face-to-face. Hunter also owns a beautiful ranch in Colorado, where she easily could spend all of her time but instead chooses to be on the move, committed to her mission.

I asked Hunter how she envisions American capitalism evolving and whether she believes it has the capacity to solve the massive challenges facing our planet under current frameworks. She answered by giving a prediction from economist Tony Sebens: “Within 10 years, economics will dictate that the world will be 100 percent renewable. For this to happen, the world’s economy will be disrupted. This will be the ‘Mother of all disruptions.’ In other words, to save the climate we have to crash the global economy.”

If this is, in fact, the case, then the next decade will be tumultuous to say the least. This led our class session to focus on the question of what’s next and how do we collectively begin to prepare for this disruption. While this notion and idea can admittedly be not very uplifting, it was encouraging to hear suggestions from many of my classmates on how we may leverage our global economy and invest in Base of the Pyramid projects to find solutions and begin to strategize on how we may “soften the landing” from major global disruption.

Overall, having Hunter present to us was inspiring and eye-opening. While there are massive challenges ahead, having individuals like Hunter who are disruptive, driven, and committed to finding solutions to these challenges provides hope for the future.

Princeton Review Names UVM #3 Top Green School

The University of Vermont has again been named a Top 50 Green School by the Princeton Review, climbing to the #3 spot this year, up from #4 last year.

This annual ranking of the 399 most environmentally responsible colleges takes stock of the efforts schools are making to adopt sustainable policies,prepare students for citizenship and careers in a world defined by climate concerns, and provide a healthy and sustainable environment on campus.

The Sustainable Innovation MBA is currently ranked the #1 Green MBA by Princeton Review.

Click here to read more.

Sustainable Innovation in Review

 An occasional curation of sustainable innovation and business transformation news, postings, et cetera…

Greener companies outperforming their peers?

Companies sourcing renewable electricity outperform their rivals financially, according to a new report released Tuesday from RE100, the initiative from the Climate Group that encourages firms to commit to using 100 percent renewable power.

Virgin Atlantic flies the first ever commercial flight using sustainable jet fuel

Over at the Virgin blog, Richard Branson informs us that Virgin Atlantic has completed the first ever commercial flight using LanzaTech’s innovative new sustainable aviation fuel.

Appalachian Ohio could get a giant solar farm, if regulators approve

Appalachian Ohio, a region hurt by the decline of coal, may become home to one of the largest solar projects east of the Rockies.

How tech is turbocharging corporate sustainability

At the recent Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS) in San Francisco, 21 companies, including Bloomberg, Cisco, Hewlett Packard, Lyft and Salesforce, announced the launch of the “Step Up Declaration,” a new alliance dedicated to harnessing the power of emerging technologies to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions across all economic sectors.

California’s Solar Shift: Progress, and Some Challenges

This post was written by Ben Hastings ’18

Arguably, California is the country’s leader in climate action, with an ambitious goal of deriving 50 percent of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2030. The state is on its way to achieving 33 percent by 2020 and just made a huge step toward making its goal a reality.

In 2 years, all new homes built in the state will be mandated to either have solar panels installed or be hooked up to shared solar panels that power a grouping of the new homes. New home buyers will have the option to purchase the panels outright where they are included in the price of the home or can be leased. The increasing amount of solar energy to be included in the energy mix is sure to help achieve the state’s aforementioned energy goals, but the requirement for new home owners to purchase rooftop solar has the potential to surface unintended consequences.

The requirement is expected to add $8,000 to $12,000 to the cost of a home. In a state where affordable housing is hard to come by, this mandate certainly would not help that issue. What about those who can’t afford solar?  It’s an interesting problem, as moving towards a renewable energy future is critical, but yet some will not be able to contribute to this shift. Companies like Tesla have acknowledged this issue and made it clear that they are working to make their products affordable for all but say that they must achieve adequate economies of scale before that dream can become a reality.

“…the requirement for new home owners to purchase rooftop solar has the potential to surface unintended consequences.”

Also, households that don’t have access to smart energy technology in the state could potentially be left in the dust once the new rate structure hits the state next year. Utilities will charge energy customers based on what time of day they use electricity, making it difficult for those without access to this information to know if they are using their electricity most efficiently. The energy supply does not equal demand at many points in the day, and those that have batteries, like the Tesla Powerwall, will be able to store energy until when it could be most effectively utilized. Until these technologies are affordable enough to become a part of more households, consumers may not be seeing the full savings possible from solar. Is now the time for a mandate such as this one, or should technologies that further enhance solar efficiently be developed further?

For further reading:

https://www.nytimes.com/2018/05/09/business/energy-environment/california-solar-power.html

https://www.tesla.com/blog/master-plan-part-deux

Wishcycling: What Really Happens To The Stuff In The Blue Bin

This post was written by Sarah Healey ’18

What happened to that plastic bottle you threw in the recycling? Do you really have to rinse out that milk jug before putting it into the recycling? A little left-over yogurt doesn’t make a difference? Can you recycle plastic bags?

If you are like a lot of people you probably don’t, and you hope or wish that the items you put in the bin get recycled. But this “wishcycling” can actually do more harm than just throwing contaminated or non-recyclable items away. On a recent site visit to Casella Waste Systems‘ Charlestown recycling facility in Massachusetts, I learned a lot about what happens to products after they go into the blue bin.

At the recycling facility we visited, contamination was visible throughout our entire tour. Film plastic bags clogged the machines, small items fell through the cracks, and foreign metal objects damaged equipment. All of these items are not allowed in the zero sort recycling bins, but still manage to find their way in and wreak havoc.

During our tour of the recycling facility we learned more about the challenges that recycling facilities face. One of the major challenges is food contamination in the recycling stream. This can range from unwashed containers to cans still full of food. This has a massive impact on a recycling facility because items are sorted using all sorts of gadgets. To sort plastics the facility uses optic readers that read the type of plastic and send out puff of air to sort plastic. Other parts of the facility use things like magnets to sort material. Because so much of this system is automated and is carefully calibrated to deal with clean materials contaminated items don’t make it through the system.

When non-recyclable items don’t make it through the system they are sent to the landfill or to an incinerator. This includes all of those small plastics, random pieces of metal, plastic bags, and more. This is why it is really important to check with your local recycler to see what products they take in the blue bin and which have special instructions.

The trouble with recycling doesn’t stop at the facility though. The bundles produced by recycling facilities still have some level of contamination. The largest buyer of recycling was China, but they have closed their doors to recycling with contamination levels above 0.5%, which is beyond the technological capability of any recycling facility today.

Ecosystem Services: The Unsung Hero of the Natural World

This post was written by Robert Hacker ’18

Do you ever find yourself enjoying a glass of water, a meal, or maybe even breathing fresh air?

If you answered yes to any of the three activities above, then you may want to thank ecosystem services.

A service is the action of helping or doing work for someone.

An ecosystem is a community of interacting organisms and their environment.

Therefore, an ecosystem service can be described as a community of interacting organisms and their environment that helps to get work done. There are four categories of ecosystem services which are provisioning, regulating, cultural, and supporting services.

I will begin by explaining provisioning services. These services provide a benefit that humans extract from nature such as water, timber, fossil fuels, food and medicine. All of the provisioning services are essential for the survival of human populations and will see negative impacts as a result of climate change.

Next, regulating services provide benefits as a result of an ecosystem process that moderates a natural phenomenon. Some examples are water filtration/purification, pollination, decomposition and carbon storage. Humans have been altering the rates at which these ecosystems are able to operate, therefore increasing the rate of climate change and natural resource depletion.

Third, cultural services are non-material benefits that contribute to the development of people. Some examples include nature-based art, tourism, and recreation. Many indigenous communities have lost these services due to environmental degradation, or development of their once sacred land. Also threatened are many of the outdoor activities all people enjoy such as hiking, swimming or even skiing!

The final type of ecosystem services is supporting services and are classified as a benefit from an ecosystem process that moderates a natural phenomenon. These are arguably the most important because all life could not survive with-out them. Supporting services include photosynthesis, nutrient cycling and soil formation. The second two along with many other services have been altered and degraded since the industrial revolution.

All of these types of services are essential to the survival of human life as we currently know it. Climate change poses a threat to these important services that humans and all other species depend on. We need to begin to take care of our home, Earth!

Lessons and Insights from the Climate Cap Summit

This post was written by Shari Siegel ’18

Four members of The Sustainable Innovation MBA Class of 2018 — Ian Dechow, Andria Denome, Kaitlin Sampson and Shari Siegel — recently headed south to attend the inaugural Climate Cap Summit at Duke University. The Summit was a chance for our travelers to listen to and exchange views with professional investors, bankers, scientists, financial strategists and advisors, corporate executives, academics and MBA students from other schools on a variety of business, finance, political, and social issues related to climate change and other sustainability challenges.

The program opened with a keynote presentation by Scott Jacobs, co-founder of Generate Capital, and a conversation between Jacobs and Greg Dalton from Climate One.  Jacobs posited that the challenge of “clean tech” is not so much about invention as it is about infrastructure: energy, land, water, food and clean air are critical and are made available through infrastructure, which requires substantial capital up-front. Thus, while there are hundreds of infrastructure projects that it might be in economic actors’ rational self-interest to pursue, it is often difficult to get these projects funded.

For the owners/developers of the technology, the “Silicon Valley” funding model (a small investment in a small, early stage company with the potential for rapid growth at exponential returns) does not fit: these companies have proven (potentially improved) technology that requires substantial investment that will yield long-term steady, but not exponential returns. For the potential clean tech customers, investing in a large capital project with substantial up-front costs that turn what was an operating expense into a capital expenditure is a difficult decision to make, especially in the current capital markets environment where there is so much focus on short-term results rather than long-term sustainability.

The solution proposed by Jacobs and his co-founder at Generate, Jigar Shah, is to provide “infrastructure as a service” using project finance structures under which independent developers build and operate infrastructure owned by a special purpose company financed by Generate. It is, in many ways, a macro version of successful strategies studied by students in The Sustainable Innovation MBA in connection with bringing solar power, mobile phone service, and other technology to the base of the pyramid.

The opening discussion was followed by a discussion between Truman Semans, founder and chief executive officer of Element Strategies and Matt Arnold, global head of Sustainable Finance at JPMorgan Chase regarding environmental, social and governance (“ESG”) investing, the UN Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”) and risk management.

Attracting private investment in projects related to the SDGs requires reducing risk for the providers of capital. Among the strategies to further risk reduction is better (more transparent and standardized) disclosure relating to ESG matters.  The speakers noted the ESG disclosure scores promulgated by Bloomberg.  Another risk-reduction strategy is the one put forward in the Blended Finance, Better World discussion paper released for discussion by the World Economic Forum in 2017.[1]  It proposes using multilateral development banks to provide public money which can attract investment of private capital into major infrastructure projects in the developing world to meet the SDGs. Estimates are that investment of approximately US$6 trillion is needed annually to meet the SDGs.

Later panels returned to the subject of assessing ESG factors as part of fundamental long-term risk management.  While in the early days of ESG investing, such a strategy was thought to reflect a willingness to eschew higher returns in exchange for desired impacts, it is becoming increasingly clear that investors ignore environmental, social and governance aspects of a company’s operations at their peril and incorporating ESG factors into an investment strategy likely leads to better long-term performance.  As Ron Temple, head of US Equities and co-head of Multi-Asset Investing at Lazard Asset Management, said, it is “simply irresponsible” not to look at ESG factors in evaluating risk.

Elizabeth Lewis of Terra Alpha Investments, Mark McDivitt of State Street Corporation and Kate Gordon of the Paulson Institute agreed, particularly when talking about climate change. According to the 2017 Global Risks Report published by the World Economic Forum, extreme weather events and natural disasters are two of the top 5 global risks in terms of likelihood to occur and impact; water crises and failure of climate-change mitigation and adaptation are also in the top 5 global risks in terms of impact.[2]  The key to talking about business and climate change is to understand the pricing of climate change risk.

Fundamental risk and opportunity presented by ESG factors, especially those relating to climate destabilization, was hammered home again in a later presentation by Tiiram Sunderland of Bain & Co, who noted that climate change represents the biggest issue affecting business today.  He also noted that unless sustainability is embedded in the core of a business school’s curriculum, the school is failing its students. 

This last point was, of course, happily endorsed by The Sustainable Innovation MBA students.

[1]           See https://www.weforum.org/reports/blended-finance-toolkit.

[2]           See http://reports.weforum.org/global-risks-2017/