Michael D. Pulliam
MAINE TAXES PLASTIC PRODUCERS
In July 2021, Maine became the first U.S. state to officially hold corporations fiscally responsible for their own plastic waste.
A new state law in Maine instituted what is essentially an import tax on packaging, shifting the cost of recycling facilities and services away from residents and municipalities. If a company ships products into Maine that are not packaged in an eco-friendly material, they must pay a fee for each ton of potential waste they introduce. Fees are collected by the newly-established Stewardship Organization, responsible for administering the initiative. The Stewardship Organization keeps a tally of the cost and volume of recycling programs throughout the state and uses the fees collected to reimburse various localities accordingly.
Sarah Nichols, Director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, hypothesizes that companies will try to avoid the tax by either creating more eco-friendly packaging or including clearer recycling instructions on their products. “It’s really designed to help tackle our waste crisis,” Nichols said, “[and] get us to finally reach our goal of recycling 50% of our waste…. Now with this law there’s going to be more clarity, more incentives to have more clear labeling on a package to help consumers put things in the right bin…. We’ll finally have some uniformity around the state with what’s recyclable and what’s not.”
Smaller businesses, who make less than $2 million or one ton of waste per year, are exempt from the regulation, to avoid over-burdening the small-business sector. And while Maine was the first U.S. state to pass a law like this, Oregon is already considering a similar regulation. Nichols is sure Maine “won’t be the last.”
This law is part of a larger global movement for Extended Producer Responsibility, a policy approach to holding manufacturers and large corporations accountable for the waste their products generate.
NEW STORAGE BATTERIES A “HOLY GRAIL” FOR RENEWABLE ENERGY
After years of work, a Massachusetts-based tech startup has unveiled plans to mass-produce “the battery you need to fully retire coal and natural gas plants.” Abandoning rare minerals and harsh acids, the prototype by Form Energy runs mainly on iron and air. They call it The Holy Grail.
One of the main issues facing renewable energy sources like wind and solar is storing energy for use when and where there’s no wind or sun. Most storage batteries on the market today require destructive extraction of uncommon metals (especially lithium) and/or highly acidic chemicals inside the battery cells. However, the renewable energy storage sector is currently seeing what the Wall Street Journal calls a “Cambrian Explosion” — referring to the event in evolutionary history where life on Earth rapidly transitioned from microscopic, basic organisms into a multitude of large, complex, and diverse life forms. Part of this explosion of ideas is Form Energy’s iron-air battery system.
The Holy Grail battery harnesses the chemical reaction responsible for rust: mixing iron and oxygen. When oxygen reacts with iron, the iron oxidizes and changes form, releasing energy; when oxygen is removed from the system, the iron-oxide returns to its original iron form. This is called ‘stage transition,’ and controlling this process for thousands of tiny pieces of iron inside the battery cells allows the unit to be charged and discharged.
The Form Energy company website states, “Our first commercial product using our iron-air technology is optimized to store electricity for 100 hours at system costs competitive with legacy power plants. This product is our first step to tackling the biggest barrier to deep decarbonization: making renewable energy available when and where it’s needed, even during multiple days of extreme weather, grid outages, or periods of low renewable generation.” Company president Ted Wiley adds, “We’ve completed the science. What’s left to do is scale up from lab-scale prototypes to grid-scale power plants.”
They’re planning their first 1-Megawatt pilot project in Minnesota, and aim to be operational by 2023.
UGANDA GOES SOLAR AFTER DARK
Jinja City, second-largest city in Uganda, has been installing solar-powered street lights along its major routes, cutting costs on electricity and maintenance and increasing public safety, economic stability, and tourism.
In 2016, Jinja City had run up an overdue power bill equivalent to $3.5 million, so the energy distributor disconnected the city’s street lights. Even before the power cuts, many of the city’s 870,000 residents had little to no public illumination: only the colonial-era city center was equipped with street lights, and quite a few of those were in disrepair. A common pattern in sub-Saharan Africa’s largest cities is for a hub to be surrounded by informal suburban development, which the metropolis incorporates and absorbs as it grows. This can sometimes result in inconsistent city planning, as in Jinja City, making power grid installations tricky and highly expensive.
Looking to the successful solar lighting program in Uganda’s capital city of Kampala, administrators in Jinja City began investing in solar street lights with mini battery stations, and by 2019 they had installed over a hundred. Their first stretches of lighting (1.5 miles of Main Street, a hospital, market square, etc.) had immediate and obvious benefits: lower installation costs than conventional lighting, around 60% less maintenance cost, lower electricity bills, new advertising space on light poles, and more. All these savings and new revenue streams were diverted to other priorities, like improving parks and waste collection services.
As solar lights continue going up around the area, businesses are able to thrive and grow, operating on later hours. Locals and visitors report feeling more secure about visiting shops and restaurants at night, and employees feel safer walking home. Before Uganda had closed its borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic, international tourists would visit the “adventure capital of East Africa” for boating on Lake Victoria, bungee jumping over the Nile, or attending music festivals. Kennedy Kibedi, a social media marketing specialist who works in tourism in Jinja City, said before the pandemic, “We have seen the numbers [of tourists] grow tremendously, and I believe street lighting has something to do with that because you can now find tourists walking in the streets at night.”
A World Bank program called Uganda Support to Municipal Infrastructure Development has devoted about $510 million in infrastructural and technical support for the country until 2023, including Jinja City’s solar installations. Jinja City Councilor Bernard Mbayo reports a recent allocation of funding to finish lighting the central business district, and has shared Jinja City’s successes with administrators in other large cities, hoping to spread solar street lighting around the subcontinent. In 2019, the Senegalese government launched an initiative to install 50,000 solar street lights throughout their nation — the work was slowed by the pandemic, but is now around halfway complete.