Unwrapping Sustainability: Tackling Produce Overload in a Plastic-Clad World

Breaking the Plastic Mold: Navigating the Green Challenge in Produce Packaging

Also: Climate scientists are tired of repeating themselves. Our planet is changing. So is our journalism. This weekly newsletter is part of a CBC News initiative entitled "Our Changing Planet" to show and explain the effects of climate change. Keep up with the latest news on our Climate and Environment page. Sign up here to get this newsletter in your inbox every Thursday.

This week: For years, Susie Murphy has been on a quest for an alternative to plastic packaging for the organic greens she cultivates and sells. The co-owner of Big Barn Little Farm in Antigonish, N.S., has actively sought to minimize plastic use in their farming operations. However, one challenge persists: how to market greens without resorting to single-use plastics.

Murphy attempted selling greens in bulk, encouraging customers to bring their containers, but the idea failed to gain traction. She struggled to find a cost-effective plastic alternative that would biodegrade in the local composting facilities. "All we've come up with is a plastic bag — and everyone's trying to get rid of single-use plastics in every other aspect of our lives," she lamented.

For Myra Hird, a professor in the School of Environmental Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., Murphy's dilemma is a "very general and common problem." Hird, an expert in waste studies, suggests that individuals should redirect their energy away from feeling guilty about their waste or packaging consumption, as much of it is beyond consumer control.

Hird emphasizes the importance of reduction over recycling, noting that plastics are derived from fossil fuels. Even in recycling, the process requires additional oil or gas. "When we're recycling plastics, we are using oil and gas," she cautioned.

In the European Union, the Packaging Waste Directive shifts the responsibility from consumers to companies producing plastic-packaged products. Germany's VerpackG law, for instance, holds companies legally accountable for their packaging, incentivizing them to adopt eco-friendly packaging designs swiftly and effectively.

As the quest for sustainable solutions gains momentum, the challenge remains: how can businesses like Big Barn Little Farm break free from the plastic mold and embrace a greener future for produce packaging?

Revolutionizing Packaging: Pioneering the Path to Compostable Alternatives

The landscape of packaging is on the brink of a transformation, driven by a fundamental shift in responsibility. The notion that manufacturers should take charge of collecting, disposing of, or recycling their packaging is gaining momentum. Why? Because if a company bears the burden of managing its packaging lifecycle, the incentive to produce less, or craft more biodegradable and compostable options, becomes paramount.

Tackling this challenge head-on are companies like Erthos, a Canadian-based innovator founded by Nuha Siddiqui, a visionary who started the venture as a side project during her time at the University of Toronto. Erthos collaborates with manufacturers globally to forge materials that could serve as substitutes for conventional petroleum-based plastics.

Nuha Siddiqui, Erthos' co-founder and CEO, acknowledges the complexity of completely eliminating plastic packaging, particularly in settings like grocery stores. However, Erthos is pushing the boundaries by designing raw materials that utilize plants and bio-based ingredients to replace traditional plastics. "We've designed various different raw materials that leverage plants and bio-based ingredients to replace traditional petroleum-based ones," Siddiqui explained.

The company's ongoing projects include alternatives to film plastic and clamshell packaging commonly used in grocery produce sections. Siddiqui emphasizes that these materials are intentionally designed to compost and return to the earth, addressing a significant challenge faced by many existing products claiming to be biodegradable. Erthos is actively partnering with compost facilities to test their products in real-life conditions, ensuring they break down efficiently once discarded.

The end goal is clear: to design plastic alternatives that balance longevity during use while ensuring swift compostability once disposed of. Solutions of this nature hold the potential to significantly aid businesses, like that of Susie Murphy, striving to eliminate plastic from their operations.

As the pursuit of sustainable packaging gains momentum, Erthos and similar innovators are at the forefront, ushering in a new era where compostable alternatives redefine the future of packaging. — Molly Segal

Old issues of What on Earth? are here. The CBC News climate page is here. Check out our podcast and radio show. This week: a dad's fight for a safe future for his child with Down syndrome. Meet Glen Hoos and find out why his daughter nominated him as a climate champion. What On Earth drops new podcast episodes every Wednesday and Saturday. You can find them on your favourite podcast app, or on demand at CBC Listen. The radio show airs Sundays at 11 a.m. ET, 11:30 a.m. in Newfoundland and Labrador. Watch the CBC video series Planet Wonder featuring our colleague Johanna Wagstaffe here. Thomas Wolstenholme.

Navigating the Chill: Unveiling the Realities of Heat Pumps in Canadian Winters

We appreciate the detailed breakdown of the heat pump diagram and its workings. However, as an experienced engineer with a history of specifying these devices, it's crucial to shed light on a critical aspect often overlooked. In the frosty expanse of most Canadian climates, reliance solely on air-to-air heat pumps becomes a challenge, especially as the mercury dips.

Over the years, advancements have indeed elevated the performance of these devices, especially with the integration of low ambient temperature options. Yet, a stark reality persists: most air-to-air heat pumps struggle to provide adequate heat when outdoor temperatures plummet to around –20°C, either delivering insufficient warmth or mercilessly pushing their compressors to the brink.

The go-to solution for many in such situations is an auxiliary heat source, commonly electric heating coils. Personally, despite having a heat pump for years, I augment it with a high-efficiency gas furnace for extreme cold spells. This season, my furnace has seen minimal use, emphasizing the strides made in reducing reliance on fossil fuels during critical heating periods.

While the carbon offset from using heat pumps during milder seasons is noteworthy, it's essential to debunk the misconception that auxiliary heat sources are unnecessary. Especially in Canada, where temperatures can test the resilience of mechanical systems, having a backup plan is imperative. Contrary to some assertions, these contingencies aren't just a luxury, especially for those living in colder regions.

It's a fact that mechanical contrivances, irrespective of advancements, can face glitches. Much like automobiles, even the most cutting-edge electric cars aren't immune to occasional malfunctions. Simple logic dictates the need for a backup, particularly in the face of a heat pump failure during a bone-chilling cold spell.

Editor's note: The insights shared by the letter writer provide valuable context to the dynamics of using heat pumps in Canada. Adding to this, it's worth noting that traditional furnaces can also falter, emphasizing the prudence of having a backup heat source, as some insurance policies mandate. While contemporary air-source heat pumps can brave temperatures as low as –30°C, the need for contingency plans remains a prudent consideration. Share your thoughts with us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Do you have a compelling climate change story to tell? Pitch a First Person column here.

Subaqueous Spycraft: Unveiling the Covert Battle Against Invasive Carp in the Great Lakes

The infiltration of invasive fish species, particularly carp, has long been a concern in Canadian waterways. However, in recent years, wildlife officials have adopted a clandestine approach, akin to underwater espionage, to curb the spread of this aquatic menace in the Great Lakes.

Four species of carp — bighead, black, grass, and silver — earned their invasive status after being introduced to the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s. Originally brought in to tackle algae, weeds, and parasites in southern fish farms, these carp found their way into the Mississippi River and gradually migrated northward. The consequences are profound, as carp, with their size and voracious appetite, often outcompete native species and wreak havoc on the delicate ecosystems they invade.

Recognizing that carp tend to gather in specific areas during the spring and fall, researchers devised a clever strategy: turning the carp into unwitting double agents. The process involves catching the fish, implanting transmitters, and releasing them back into the water. By tracking these transmitters, researchers and commercial anglers can pinpoint the hotspots where the invasive carp congregate, enabling targeted removal efforts.

"The sooner we can find them, the greater the chance we have of actually stopping them or minimizing their impact in the Great Lakes," emphasizes Aaron Fisk, a researcher with the Great Lakes Institute of Environmental Research at the University of Windsor.

In the ongoing battle against invasive carp, this underwater espionage not only aids in curbing their spread but also serves as a proactive measure to protect the delicate balance of the Great Lakes' ecosystems.

On another note, a rising trend in "virtual" power plants, comprised of rooftop solar panels and backup batteries, presents a promising avenue for cost-effective power generation. Meanwhile, farmers find economic sustenance in leasing their land for wind turbines, turning wind farming into a lucrative cash crop. On the climate front, the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) recent report signals that 2023 may surpass 2016 as the hottest year on record, with global temperatures reaching 1.34°C higher than the 20th-century average in October.

Beyond Groundhog Day: The Weariness of Climate Scientists Amidst a Persistent Warning

In our warming world, the repetitive rhythm of climate change updates often mirrors the déjà vu of Groundhog Day, echoing the same message: Earth's temperature is dangerously rising, imperiling the well-being of billions. Yet, behind the scenes, a growing weariness and frustration are palpable among climate scientists, who tirelessly relay this urgent message.

Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, articulates this sentiment: "Do you have any idea how [frustrated] I am? It's another record. But it's important. And what it tells us is something is going on, and that something is not going to go away until we change society."

Carlo Buontempo, director of C3S, echoes the frustration and acknowledges the emotional toll of consistently delivering grim news. Despite this, there is a concerted effort to reshape the presentation of findings, emphasizing not just the negativity but the agency humanity possesses—the power to make pivotal decisions.

Monthly releases from organizations like C3S and NOAA outline global temperature updates, emphasizing the undeniable trend of Earth's rising temperature. However, amidst the constant focus on breaking records, Peter Kalmus, a California-based climate scientist and activist, warns of a crucial misunderstanding of trends. "When you have a slope over time, every single year, on average, is a new record," he explains. The challenge lies in connecting the dots, understanding the persistent upward trajectory beyond individual records.

Kalmus, willing to risk his career, emphasizes the urgent need for substantive change. Arrested last year for climate change activism, he underlines the continuous rise in global temperatures alongside unabated emissions. The burden weighs heavily on his mind, prompting him to devote three hours a day to meditation, seeking solace and focus in the face of an escalating crisis.

As the worn-out refrain of rising temperatures persists, these scientists grapple not only with the fatigue of repetition but also with the weight of a message that demands society's attention and immediate action.

Navigating the Night: Climate Scientist Finds Solace Amidst Grief

For Peter Kalmus, the weight of climate change and the relentless rise in global temperatures can be crippling. "This is the thing that allows me to sleep through the night and to continue to write stuff and to continue to do science," he shares. Despite a heart heavy with grief, he finds solace in a practice that helps him confront the anxiety threatening to shut him down—meditation.

Kalmus's coping mechanism is a poignant reminder of the emotional toll borne by those at the forefront of climate science. While the message they convey is undeniably repetitive, the monthly or annual updates on Earth's rising temperatures are a responsibility shouldered with utmost seriousness. "I think that we need to continue stating the message," emphasizes Ahira Sanchez, a climate policy adviser to NOAA's senior leadership for climate. Despite the potential weariness, the mission remains vital, driven by the understanding that there are still individuals who may not fully grasp the urgency of the situation.

As the struggle against climate change persists, these dedicated individuals press on, grappling with grief, anxiety, and the weight of their responsibility. Their repetitive message, a clarion call in the face of a changing environment, underscores the ongoing need for awareness, understanding, and collective action.

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In conclusion, the poignant narratives of climate scientists like Peter Kalmus reflect not only the scientific endeavor to communicate the urgency of climate change but also the emotional toll inherent in this relentless pursuit. As the Earth's temperature continues its upward trajectory, these dedicated individuals navigate a delicate balance between the weight of grief and the imperative to convey a message that, though repetitive, remains crucial. The meditation practices adopted by Kalmus serve as a metaphorical lighthouse, guiding these scientists through the night of anxiety and despair.

The responsibility of consistently delivering the disquieting news of rising temperatures is acknowledged and upheld by individuals like Ahira Sanchez, recognizing that the understanding of climate change is not uniform across the global audience. In the face of potential weariness, the commitment to reiterate this message underscores its undiminished significance. The struggle against climate change is not merely a scientific endeavor but a collective call to action, demanding awareness, understanding, and substantive changes in societal attitudes and practices.

As the next issue of What on Earth approaches, these narratives echo the broader call for renewed commitment and global cooperation in addressing the environmental challenges that lie ahead.