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The Science of ‘growing’ Peat

Claudia Baldwin

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This is an excerpt from “Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the From Swamplands: Tundra Beavers, Quaking Bogs and the Improbable World of Peat,” by Edward Struzik Copyright 2021 by the author. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

In 1991, the Johnson and Johnson Company introduced a peat-based sanitary pad that promised to be thinner, lighter and more environmentally friendly. More than $40 million was spent over a 15-year period to develop it. They spared no expense promoting it in major daily newspapers like theNew York Times and the Wall Street Journal.

Company officials described it as being made from “a honey-colored plant” (sphagnum moss) that is “grown in the cold, clear waters of Canada.” The moss, they said, was once used by Native American women in its raw form as sanitary protection and for diapering babies. It was also harvested during the First World War, when sepsis, a potentially lethal reaction to infection, threatened to exhaust the supply of cotton used for bandages and uniforms. Medical experts tried everything from treating the wounds with chlorine solutions to making bandages out of carbolic acid, formaldehyde, mercury chloride and cotton. They settled on sphagnum, which Irish soldiers used to treat wounds during the Battle of Clontarf in 1014.

This wasn’t the first time a company saw profit in peat that might serve the hygienic needs of nonnative women. When the First World War ended, a company based in Portland, Oregon, created a napkin called Sfag-Na-Kins, which was manufactured with paper and sphagnum moss. The venture lasted only a year because of competition from cheaper, cellulose-based products.

The peat that Johnson and Johnson used for their product, sold in 85 countries, was extracted from a bog twice the size of Central Park in the Saint-Fabien-sur-Mer region of Quebec. The company, however, decided to stop producing the napkins in the late 1990s, partly out of concern that the environmental message it was promoting might backfire if women learned that the products they were using resulted in the draining of a wetland.

Restoring peatlands is a promising way of storing terrestrial carbon, regulating climate … and protecting low-lying coastlines from rising sea levels.

Faced with the need to restore the bog once the project ended, Johnson and Johnson looked to Dale Vitt, one of the first peatland ecologists in North America, to restore a peatland extraction site to an ecologically functioning state. A serendipitous moment put them in touch with Line Rochefort, a Canadian scientist who had done graduate work with Vitt before joining the faculty at Laval University in Quebec City. She was ideal because she spoke French and was much closer to the bog site.

Restoring peatlands is a promising way of storing terrestrial carbon, regulating climate, filtering water, mitigating floods and protecting low-lying coastlines from rising sea levels and storm surges that are extending their reach inland. It may also be the best way for peat moss companies, already banned from extracting peat in many parts of Europe and the United Kingdom and increasingly in some parts of North America, to stay in business.

The science of “growing” peat is a centuries-old work in progress that continues to be elusive, depending on the criteria used to measure success. There are those like Dutch peatland ecologist Hans Joosten who insist that restoring peatlands to their original functioning state cannot be done, and those like Rochefort who are convinced that success is already at hand and that near perfection may not be far off as scientists strive to better understand how the interactions among water, vegetation, microbial communities and climate promote the growth of moss, the building block in peat production. For Joosten, the solution is to stop extracting peat altogether and rewet peatlands that have been degraded. For Rochefort, its conservation as well as helping the peat industry achieve sustainability.

The idea of growing peat began sometime around 1658, when Martin Schoock, a professor in the Dutch city of Groningen, wrote the first book on peat. In one chapter, Schoock asks: “An material cespitita effossa, progressu temporis restaurari possit?” Roughly translated, this means: “Can this excavated combustible matter, after the course of time, be restored?”

It was an important question. Two-thirds of Central and Northern Europe was once covered in trees. After most of those trees were felled, peat extracted from bogs and fens replaced wood as a primary source of energy. As time went by, many in the Low Countries, Germany and elsewhere in the North Sea region feared that if peat extracted from fens and bogs were to be exhausted someday, there would no longer be a reliable source of energy, nor the revenue that came from the sale of peat. It was akin to concerns that arose during the energy crises of 1973 and 1979, when the shortage of oil and gas sparked fears of economic collapse.

Because the Dutch were so skilled at draining peatlands for energy and agricultural purposes, the country now known as the Netherlands was well on its way to becoming a superpower in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was wealth from peat that gave the Dutch a dominant navy, control of the silk and spice trade, colonies in North America, South America, Africa and Asia, and the affluence to support renowned artists such as Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516), Pieter Brueghel (c. 1525-1569), Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669), Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), and Jacobus Mancadan (c. 1602-1680). No other country as small has been so dominant in so many ways since the Dutch Golden Age ended with a series of disastrous events that followed the Franco-Dutch War in 1672.

For the Netherlands, the extraction of peat was often more valuable than the harvesting of grain. Wheat, oat and barley did not grow well on peatlands that had been drained as had been done progressively since 1050, when people in Delft in South Holland began mining peat in the estuary of the Maas and Rhine rivers. The remaining peat eventually lost its buoyancy, sank and compressed the underlying layers of peat below the water table.

Grain crops literally drowned in those wet conditions. (Cows did not, which is perhaps the reason why cheese and other dairy products became another measure of the country’s considerable wealth.) By some estimates, peatlands were three times more valuable than farmland. So the Dutch continued to do what the residents of Delft taught them when they finished draining the bogs: they canalized the water from the polders and the mires, and they built cities on top of them.

For the Netherlands, the extraction of peat was often more valuable than the harvesting of grain.

This went on for the next three centuries. Municipal officials who attended a general meeting of cities in Holland in 1453 were so concerned about the possibility that the country’s reservoirs of peat might one day disappear that they proposed banning the export of peat altogether. In 1514, 14 cities in Holland informed tax officials that they derived all their income from this one resource.

No one seriously listened, as Hans Joosten, water historian Petra J. E. M. van Dam and others have documented so succinctly in several books and essays describing the demise of the hoogvenen and laagvenen, Dutch words for the raised bogs and low bogs that so dominated the country’s landscape at one time. There was simply no alternative to peat.

By the 17th century, the peat in the bogs and fens around Amsterdam was almost exhausted, forcing miners into wet, sodden outbacks such as Groningen in the lowlands of the northeast, where scholar Martin Schoock penned his book on peat and where artist Jacobus Sibrandi Mancadan put his brush to one of the first paintings of peat being harvested. (German artist Albrecht D?rer is thought to have painted the first in 1495.) Holland in the 17th century was like Alberta in the 1960s, when conventional oil reserves were in decline and the provincial government was offering energy companies generous subsidies to find a way to extract bitumen from the oil sands in peatland country.

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Is Climate Tech the Hottest Corner of the VC Business in the 2020s?

Claudia Baldwin

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This is an excerpt from “Climatenomics: Washington, Wall Street, and the Economic Battle to Save Our Planet” (Rowman & Littlefield, 2022). Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

While government policies and leadership from Washington can help accelerate change, there’s another place that can accelerate change much faster: Silicon Valley.

In 2003, as a national technology reporter for a chain of newspapers, I visited the Mountain View, California campus of Google to meet with cofounder Sergey Brin. At the time, Google was still a private company, though there was widespread speculation that it would launch an initial public offering soon. The moment I pulled into the company parking lot, I got a taste that Google wasn’t a typical company. Covering many of the parking spaces were canopies made from solar panels, something that’s commonplace today but back then was pretty unusual. Even more unusual were the thick power cords hanging down from the panels over nearly every parking space, something that didn’t make sense until Brin and team later explained it to me. At the time, electric vehicles were even more uncommon than solar parking lot canopies (the first Tesla wouldn’t hit the streets for another five years). But Google knew EVs were coming someday soon, and it wanted to be ready. Google also wanted employees and other visitors to think about the possibilities that could come with solar-powered parking lots and cars that you could plug in to refuel.

Two of the forward-thinking people responsible for Google’s early solar deployment were Chris Sacca, who as the company’s corporate counsel and later head of special initiatives was involved in Google’s energy purchase agreements, and Andrew Beebe, who was chief commercial officer at solar company Suntech, which helped Google go solar.

“There really wasn’t any corporate interest until those guys stepped up and said, ‘Please build solar arrays all over our campus,'” Beebe recalled during a GreenBiz VERGE [climate] tech conference in October 2021. “But (Google executives) also said, ‘Set it up so we can have Walmart and Cisco and Microsoft and all of our competitors come over and see what we have done.’ They obviously had a hugely catalytic role in making all this happen.”

Both Beebe and Sacca would go on to become successful venture capitalists, Beebe with Obvious Ventures, the firm that helped launch companies such as Medium, Beyond Meat and electric bus maker Proterra, and Sacca with his firm called Lowercase Capital, which funded companies such as Twitter, Uber and Instagram. For about three years, Sacca also was a “guest shark” on the ABC television show “Shark Tank,” where budding entrepreneurs bid for the favor — and the funding — of millionaire investors. But it didn’t take long before Sacca was feeling unfulfilled by funding kitchen gadget start-ups on “Shark Tank” or electronic-gaming companies back in Silicon Valley. He, like Beebe, turned his attention almost fully toward clean-energy and climate-related investments.

Sacca and Beebe represent one of the hottest corners of the venture capital business in the 2020s: climate tech. Some of the companies that investors like them are backing today will likely become the Googles of tomorrow. Only instead of changing the way we search for stuff on the Internet, climate tech companies will change the way we source and store our energy, grow our food, and move from point A to point B, whether on land, water, or air. In doing so, they’ll not only transform our economy, but help save the planet.

In 2021, investments in climate tech companies hit more $31 billion, according to deal tracking firm PitchBook. That was 30 percent more than in 2020 and more than 2.5 times what it was in 2019. Those big numbers will likely only get bigger as federal, state and international clean climate and clean-energy policies are implemented. Quite simply, government policies and funding help reassure venture capitalists and other private investors to put more of their money at risk.

In 2021, investments in climate tech companies hit more $31 billion, according to deal tracking firm PitchBook.

Climate-tech and clean-tech investing is no longer just about solar or wind or even batteries anymore. Those businesses now attract plenty of mainstream investors. They’re almost like investing in restaurants or real estate — they’re too passe for venture capitalists who are more interested in finding more disruptive technologies that can scale quickly and create big returns.

“What we look at every day are energy innovations that are just insane, some of which are doing things that Einstein declared literally would not be possible,” Sacca said at the VERGE conference. “We see stuff happening in synthetic biology, for instance, that’s just nuts.”

Amid the hellish fires in the West, back-to-back hurricanes in the East and scientists everywhere warning that things were only going to get worse, Sacca in August 2021 stepped away from Lowercase Capital, quit “Shark Tank,” and with wife Crystal turned his attention specifically toward figuring out how to fund and support companies trying to do more to address climate change. The couple launched a new investment fund called Lowercarbon Capital. In a matter of days, they raised more than $800 million that Lowercarbon Capital could deploy to try to “un— the planet,” in Sacca’s terms. The fund was so popular, Sacca wrote on Lowercarbon Capital’s blog, that it had to turn investors away. “It turns out that raising for a climate fund in the context of an unprecedented heatwave and from behind the thick clouds of fire smoke probably didn’t hurt,” he wrote.

Since then, Lowercarbon has invested in companies that capture carbon dioxide and turn it into consumer products, reduce carbon emissions from livestock and fertilizers on the farm, and mine materials that are key to batteries and storage in ways that don’t destroy the environment. One such company is Twelve, a Bay Area start-up that “upcycles” carbon dioxide captured from industrial emissions and turns it into everything from jet fuel to sunglasses lenses, replacing fossil fuels and plastic. Another company Sacca was particularly excited about in 2021 was Lilac Solutions, which has raised $150 million to commercialize its lithium-mining technology. Lilac claims it can produce the essential element for batteries 10,000 times faster than conventional methods, using 90 percent less land and water. Lowercarbon Capital has also made numerous major investments in companies at the intersection of agriculture and climate, including start-up Formo, which is following the Beyond Meat and Impossible Burger model to make fine European cheeses that don’t require dairy or cows; Entocycle, which has figured out how to speed up the gestation period for black soldier fly larvae which happen to be some of the world’s fastest converters of food waste to protein; and Nitricity, which uses solar-powered modules placed around farms to literally make fertilizer out of thin air by converting and processing nitrates found in the atmosphere.

If garbage-eating fly larvae and fine cheeses bioengineered in a sterile laboratory don’t sound like appealing business models, think again. According to research group Climate Tech VC, food-and-water-related climate tech was the biggest sector for climate venture funding in 2021, followed by mobility, consumer goods, and clean energy. Tech investors’ take on food and agriculture is yielding new high-tech twists in one of the world’s oldest and most established economic sectors. Seattle-based clean-agriculture start-up Nori, for instance, got its start in 2017 when its cofounders entered a hackathon contest for coders to figure out new ways to use blockchain technology for social good. Far from the nearest farm, what they came up with was a way to use blockchain technology to monitor and track low-carbon agriculture practices and then monetize that by selling farm-based carbon-removal offsets.

In doing so, Nori is incentivizing farmers to use more climate-friendly agriculture practices that don’t just reduce carbon emissions but actually increase the ability of soil and crops to store carbon, while also creating a new marketplace for carbon removal and trading. In 2020, Nori raised more than $5 million in seed funding to launch its platform. “We call it climate-smart agriculture — thinking of carbon removal like a crop,” Christophe Jospe, a Nori cofounder, told E2.

This excerpt has been updated since publication.

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Walmart Begins Search for Sustainable Packaging

Claudia Baldwin

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“We don’t have time to waste.” With this imperative tagline, American retail giant Walmart launched its Circular Connector this spring.

The goal: to accelerate innovation in the field of sustainable and circular packaging, creating a bridge between companies looking for packaging that has less impact on the environment and those with new solutions to offer.

Searching for sustainable packaging

That the world’s largest retail multinational is launching an online platform to encourage the circular economy of packaging — even while accounting for some form of greenwashing — is undoubtedly great news.

After all, it’s a fact that consumers are becoming increasingly sensitive to the problem of plastic pollution and in general to any aspect related to the sustainability of products. And Walmart, the retail chain of over 10,000 stores around the world, is held accountable by consumers on a daily basis.

Hence the ambitious commitment that the multinational has set for itself by 2025: to achieve that 100 percent of packaging on its shelves would be either recyclable, reusable or industrially compostable. And hence the rush to find solutions to reach the goals.

It’s a fact that consumers are becoming increasingly sensitive to the problem of plastic pollution… And Walmart is held accountable by consumers on a daily basis.

The Circular Connector was therefore created as an online tool to connect packaging designers and manufacturers with companies in various sectors, from food to cosmetics, from fashion to toys. “Basically,” explains a statement on Walmart’s website, “it’s a platform to accelerate packaging innovation and implementation. We want to make it easier for suppliers and brands to find sustainable packaging solutions, thus enabling all of us to move faster toward waste reduction.”

How does the Circular Connector work?

The Circular Connector is accessed from the multinational company’s sustainability policy site, the Walmart Sustainability Hub. To participate, sustainable packaging manufacturers or designers must fill out a special questionnaire with a series of questions about the functions, materials and recyclability of the candidate packaging. Each proposal will then be reviewed according to Walmart’s packaging sustainability goals and, if compatible, will be posted on the site and made available to brands for possible supply contracts.

Reiterating, pragmatically, that they “don’t have time to waste,” the project leaders also made available the company’s Recycling Playbook, based on the two principles of recyclability established by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Namely: 1. Is there, in practice, a system for large-scale recycling of this category of packaging that guarantees at least a 30 percent recycling rate for over 400 million people? 2. Do the packaging components fit into that system?

Walmart’s handbook also contains valuable guidance on materials, such as those that are difficult to recycle and therefore tend to be excluded from sorting: metallic films, multi-layer materials, PVC or PVDC, PETG in rigid plastic packaging, oxo-degradable plastics and colored PET.

“We need to work together to promote innovative solutions on a large scale,” states Walmart. “Companies with reusable, refillable, recyclable and other sustainable packaging solutions should therefore come forward. There are hundreds of brands striving to achieve their own packaging sustainability goals, just like Walmart, and the Circular Connector is one tool available to them in this journey.”

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Episode 317: Conversations About Circularity

Claudia Baldwin

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This week’s run time is 1:03:05.

CONSIDERING CIRCULARITY (8:50)

Featuring a recap of interviews and stories from Circularity 22, held this week in Atlanta.

INTERVIEW: Jon Smieja, vice president of circularity and senior analyst for GreenBiz, reflects on hot topics and themes
STORY/AUDIO HIGHLIGHT: Planet vs. plastic: Three steps to solving the global plastics crisis (Featuring Keiran Smith, co-founder and CEO of Mr. Green Africa, on how to encourage decisions made at the local level.)
STORY/AUDIO HIGHLIGHT: John Warner: How to do the materials economy right (Featuring John Warner, senior vice president and research fellow of Zymergen, on how green chemistry could enable the leap to a regenerative, circular economy … if we educated chemists.)
CHITCHAT: Textile recycling tech startup triumphs in Circularity 22’s Accelerate competition
AUDIO HIGHLIGHT: Suzanne Shelton, founder and CEO, Shelton Group (On the importance of shifting context; and what that disturbing baby wrapped in cellophane image teaches us about marketing circularity.)

FEATURE
More sustainable consumer goods (47:30)

Interview with new CEO Christy Slay of The Sustainability Consortium, about priorities, circularity and engaging nimble innovators.

*Music in this episode: Lee Rosevere: “Not My Problem” and “Let That Sink In”; ItsWatR: “Awakening Instrumental”

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