Worse Air Quality In Phoenix Communities Of Color Could Mean Higher COVID-19 Risk

As coronavirus spreads across the country, it’s hitting certain demographic groups disproportionately hard, and air quality is likely playing a role on which communities are hit hardest.

COVID-19 is riskiest for people who have underlying health conditions such as asthma. And the list of conditions that can make the respiratory virus more deadly closely overlaps with the kinds of conditions made worse by exposure to air pollution.

And in the Phoenix area, air quality is very poor.

“Maricopa County is actually one of the most contaminated counties in the country,” said Laura Dent, executive director of Chispa, a Latino-focused environmental organization.

Chispa has focused efforts on air pollution in the Valley for years, but Dent is especially concerned right now.

“In some of these harder-hit areas, the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis will be even more exacerbated,” Dent said.

A new study from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health shows exposure to air pollution worsens outcomes for COVID-19. An increase of just one-millionth of a gram of fine particulate matter per cubic meter of air increases the chance of death from the virus by 15%.

All of Maricopa County experiences air pollution. But busier streets and topography that causes pollution to settle contribute to even dirtier air in south and west Phoenix. And residents of those heavily polluted neighborhoods are primarily Latino or African American.

Air quality is likely playing a role on which communities are hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Paul Atkinson/KJZZ)

“Latinos and communities of color, in Arizona, but across the country are disproportionately impacted by respiratory issues related to contamination and pollution and there’s so much history that leads to that,” Dent said.

Decades of discriminatory housing practices, for example, meant people of color in Phoenix were very limited in which parts of the city they could live.

Darshan Karwat is an aerospace engineer at ASU. His research gives a score to Phoenix neighborhoods based on access to services and environmental factors.

“Research has shown over decades that when communities are burdened with one thing, they’re probably burdened with a lot of different things,” Karwat said.

Karwat’s research shows correlations between neighborhoods’ poverty levels, percentage of minority residents, and pollution levels. And those correlations appear to have health implications. High-poverty Phoenix neighborhoods see more asthma hospitalizations.

Dr. Joanna Andujar is a pediatrician with Mountain Park Health’s clinic in West Phoenix’s Maryvale neighborhood. She sees those effects firsthand.

“When the air quality gets worse we do see more kids coming in with an exacerbation of asthma,” Andujar said.

As coronavirus spreads, its impact on different communities has been similarly uneven. Across the country, African Americans are dying of COVID-19 at disproportionately high rates. In Arizona, some Native American reservations have been especially hard-hit.

“COVID-19 is a lens through which we see even better what has happened as a result of the lack of being concerned about health disparities,” said Olga Davis, a professor at ASU’s Hugh Downs School of Human Communications. Davis has researched public health issues among Phoenix African Americans.

Race and location data on Arizona coronavirus cases is still incomplete. But Davis fears lower income communities of color may eventually prove to be disproportionately affected in the Phoenix area too. She said, unfortunately, these outcomes are predictable.

“I’m very sad that it is still a reality after so much has been done so much has been written,” Davis said.

Dozens of factors, from educational opportunities to access to healthy food, create public health disparities across demographic groups. Air pollution is only one component, but it’s something Karwat said has the potential to improve.

With so many cars off the road as people stay home during the pandemic, Phoenix’s air has been much cleaner for the past few weeks. (Photo courtesy of Storyblocks)

With so many cars off the road as people stay home during the pandemic, Phoenix’s air has been much cleaner for the past few weeks. Karwat sees that as a rare opportunity for air quality research along with ASU colleague Jennifer Vanos.

“If we can measure it, then we can manage it better, then we can potentially fix it and see, could we get back to cleaner air? What policies made the biggest changes?” Vanos said.

Vanos and Karwat are applying for grant funding, hoping to be able to place dozens of air quality monitors around the city while air is cleaner than usual. Then, as social-distancing orders are gradually lifted, they’d be able to track which policy changes make the biggest impact on which neighborhoods—information that could be helpful for addressing disparities in Phoenix pollution levels in the future.

For now, those economic and environmental inequalities remain Dent said coronavirus is making them alarmingly clear.

“All of these challenges come together to hurt and impact populations in a really different way,” Dent said.

She hopes that frame is part of the way we seek policy solutions, when coronavirus is behind us.

Why the Air in Metro Phoenix is Fresher These Days

PHOENIX – The Phoenix area is famous for its warm spring days and wealth of outdoor activities, but it’s also known for something less flattering: some of the worst air quality in the country.

The American Lung Association ranked the Phoenix-Mesa area as the seventh worst for ozone pollution, behind Los Angeles, San Diego and other California cities.

Evidence of that ranking is the brown cloud that often hovers over metro Phoenix, but because of a looming cloud of a different sort – COVID-19 – many residents are staying home and out of their vehicles.

“We’re seeing less of the emissions that come out of the back of cars,” said Nancy Selover, the state climatologist. “So the brown cloud, the brown cloud is very much reduced in the Phoenix area.”

In just one week’s time, daily traffic delays plummeted approximately 32% across Maricopa County, which is home to more than 4 million people.

The time that commuters spent in traffic fell from nearly 56,000 hours a day during the second week of March to about 38,000 hours in the third week, according to a travel time delay index by the analytics company INRIX. This means that on average the time Maricopa County travelers spent in their cars to get to a destination decreased.

Data from Descartes Labs in New Mexico also suggests a downward trend in Maricopa County’s mobility through its m50 index. This index looks at the median distance people in a given area travel from where they started the day. This lack of mobility is something Selover has noticed as well.

“Because the traffic is less, we’re seeing less air pollution,” she said.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality is collecting data on how COVID-19 has impacted emissions as people drive less. Gov. Doug Ducey on March 19 ordered gyms, bars and most restaurants in Maricopa County to close their doors to contain the spread of COVID-19, and on Monday extended the stay-at-home order to all 15 Arizona counties. That means people must remain at home unless they need to access essential services, such as the grocery store or the pharmacy.

“Vehicles driving on the roads are the biggest contributor to the man-made ozone in the Phoenix area and produce the majority of nitrous oxides (NOx) that are needed to create ozone,” Erin Jordan, ADEQ’s public information officer, said in an email.

Not all ozone is bad. Ozone higher in the stratosphere is produced naturally, and it’s necessary to protect against ultraviolet light. It’s the man-made ozone, produced by cars, manufacturing and power plants, that causes problems in the lowest level of the atmosphere.

Jordan said metro Phoenix was below average for moderate ozone days for the month of March, but she noted there could be many factors, including Phoenix’s recent wet weather, which can wash pollutants out of the air.

Other agencies, such as the South Coast Air Quality Management District in California, are detecting similar trends. Air quality has been good in the Los Angeles area, said Bradley Whitaker with the South Coast district, but weather factors into this, too.

“There’s been a lot of day to day changes in the weather and weather tends to be the most important factor that impacts air pollution concentration,” he said. “I would say, just generally, levels of emissions tend to drop during times of reduced economic activity, which we’re certainly in right now.”

And better air quality isn’t just being seen in Phoenix and Los Angeles but across the globe. Countries hardest hit by COVID-19, such as China and Italy, have seen significantly lower emissions. In China, emissions have gone down by more than 25% since the initial outbreak in late December in Wuhan, a major commercial hub.

That trend isn’t new. Emissions have historically dropped in times of crisis, for instance, wars and periods of economic uncertainty. During the Great Recession, economic activity slowed and emissions dropped, Whitaker said.

The brown cloud usually seen over metro Phoenix this time of year has been reduced in part because people are driving much less due to the coronavirus. In fact, March saw below average moderate ozone days, according to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality. (Photo by Adam Fagen via Flickr/Creative Commons)

Although more time is needed to study how COVID-19 has impacted emissions, Selover said this decrease will be just a blip on the radar when it comes to the larger impact on climate in Arizona – at least for the immediate future.

“At this point in time, they’re not going to see those changes and emissions have any immediate impact on climate,” Selover said. “Temperature is not going to drop because of that or any of that kind of stuff.”

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With so many people staying at home, some might expect energy use to go up, but Arizona Public Service – the state’s largest supplier of electricity – reports that home energy use has seen a flat line of services. This means power use is more evenly spread throughout the day, leading to an increased opportunity for solar use during sunlit hours.

“We’re early right now in terms of the load forecast or what we are seeing. We are certainly seeing a decline in overall system load right now,” APS CEO Jeff Guldner said at the March 23 meeting of the Arizona Corporation Commission.

Regardless, some, such as Laura Dent, the executive director of the advocacy organization Chispa AZ, encourage people to think about the role emissions play in their daily lives. She hopes people will learn from this stay-at-home experience, adding that it shouldn’t take a global pandemic to achieve reduced emissions and other sustainability goals.

“We’re coming together for the safety of everyone,” Dent said. “It has been really inspiring to see the collective action across stakeholders in our community, individuals and families. We’d love to see that similar movement, build and grow in relation to this longer-term crisis related to climate change.”

Dent said recognizing the environment’s value is more important now than ever before. She sees that happening with people, who are staying at home to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, now turning to the outdoors as a way to get out of their homes, and remain physically distant from others.

“In the very early stages of self-quarantine, millions of Americans are recognizing the importance of public space and parks,” Dent said. “I think all of us can recognize that there’s so many added values, not only to making sure that our society continues, but also that we have, you know, quality of life and well-balanced for our families moving into the future.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Activists cite rising heat deaths, pollution, fires in asking Phoenix to declare climate emergency

PHOENIX — Meet Claire Nelson, one of several activists who gathered Monday in front of City Hall to call on city officials to declare a climate emergency.

She is also 17.

A fulltime climate activist, Nelson switched to taking all online classes to focus on her work. That’s why instead of sitting in front of a computer screen, she’s standing at a lectern, representing Arizona Youth Climate Strike and acting as master of ceremony for the event.

“We’ve seen that the city of Phoenix hasn’t been taking adequate action on climate change,” she said. “And this is a crisis and it’s affecting our young people and our vulnerable communities.”

Nelson introduced many voices that have an interest in adapting to a warmer, drier climate. More than 10 Arizona organizations endorse the proposal, including the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, Tiger Mountain Foundation and Extinction Rebellion.

The groups came together to draw attention to specific reasons a climate emergency should be declared – citing a rise in heat related deaths, the increasing severity of wildfires and air pollution, and the increased focus on commercial and residential development as among the reasons.

“The proposal entails first of all, declaring a climate emergency,” said Jean Boucher, an environmental researcher at Arizona State University and member of Extinction Rebellion who was at the protest. “So you can imagine if your house is on fire, the first thing you want to do is let everybody know, ‘Hey, fire, the house is on fire.’ And then after that, what are the appropriate actions?”

The push to declare a climate emergency in Phoenix comes on the heels of a similar effort in Flagstaff this year. The City Council is considering passing a resolution later this month after residents petitioned the city. It would establish the goal of making the city carbon neutral by 2030 and would revise the goals of the Flagstaff Climate Action and Adaptation Plan to sync with the U.N. report on global carbon emissions, which scientists say is driving climate change.

For Sandy Bahr of the Sierra Club, the appropriate actions will be determined in conjunction with Phoenix, the fifth largest city in the nation and among the fastest growing. She hopes to meet with city officials this month.

Sydney Perkins, 18, was one of more than a dozen people who gathered outside Phoenix City Hall to ask officials to declare a climate emergency. (Photo by Madison Staten/ Cronkite News)

“A lot of it has to do with doing more sooner, and making sure that what’s in the plans is actually reflected in the budget that they (Phoenix) put together,” Bahr said. “Because that’s often where we see action on many issues, including climate, fall down is that they put together a plan or they sign a resolution, but then they don’t reflect the actions that are needed in the budget.”

Phoenix officials have invited the Sierra Club to meet with them to discuss the issue. They point to their heat mitigation programs, and the city’s recent induction into the global C40 Cities Network as concrete action they have taken toward meeting sustainability goals set for 2050.

“Climate change, and a warming planet, threatens public health, infrastructure, and our economy,” Mayor Kate Gallego, told Cronkite News in a statement. “Issues of extreme heat and poor air quality – if unaddressed – will have severe repercussions and hinder our city’s continued success. The city of Phoenix is fully committed to addressing this challenge head on.”

In the meantime, Nelson will continue her efforts going with the Youth Climate Strike, and she implores others to get involved.

“There are a whole bunch of amazing climate organizations,” Nelson said. “The first step would be to follow us on social media. … We can usually direct you to any environmental organization that would fit you best or that you want to work with. There are plenty of ways to get involved.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Buffelgrass Blues: Phoenix Campaign Kicks Off to Combat an Invasive Species

PHOENIX – Every week, thousands of hikers climb Piestewa Peak to take in the views and get in some exercise. In early April, hikers started to see plants splashed with bright blue chalk.

It’s part of an effort to raise awareness about buffelgrass, an invasive species that worsens a problem many Arizonans are already familiar with. Buffelgrass makes excellent kindling for summer fires, and it’s prone to burning fast, hot, and often.

Ranchers introduced the shrubby grass into Arizona in the late 1930s, hoping it would reduce soil erosion and feed cattle. The plant took off in Tucson, and has spread to Pinal, Maricopa and Yuma counties in the decades since. It also has established itself from California to Florida and has been found in New York and Hawaii, the National Park Service says.

Hikers going up Piestewa Peak in north-central Phoenix will see buffelgrass marked with nontoxic blue chalk to draw attention to this invasive species. Buffelgrass was brought to Arizona in the late 1930s from South Africa to control soil erosion and feed livestock. (Photo by Gabrielle Olivera/Cronkite News)

Now the Buffelgrass Blues campaign aims to raise awareness about the problems with buffelgrass. The Phoenix Parks and Recreation Department, the Desert Botanical Garden and the Central Arizona Conservation Alliance are all involved in the effort. Organizers hope to highlight how Pennisetum ciliare, which is native to South Africa, is outcompeting native plants for water and eliminating food sources for native wildlife, including desert tortoises.

Buffelgrass produces many seeds, which are easily spread by wind and water, according to the National Park Service. In addition, each seed has bristles that allow it to hitch a ride on passing humans and animals.

“This grass can have a lot of negative impacts on this landscape,” said Annia Quiroz, with the Buffelgrass Blues campaign. “First and foremost is fire. This grass carries the fireload that is very heavy, and can burn up to 1,600 degrees Fahrenheit, which is pretty much in the same range as lava.”

Since the campaign launched last fall, dozens of volunteers have attended Buffelgrass Bootcamps, where volunteers and Phoenix park rangers learn how to use an app called Collector to map areas where buffelgrass is prevalent so it can be removed on “pulling days.”

Pulling is a bit of a misnomer, though, because removing buffelgrass properly requires a pickax and hours of painstaking labor. Clearing a 10-by-10 foot patch of buffelgrass is a three hour process.

Because it’s such a strenuous process, Buffelgrass Blues won’t hold any pulling days until the fall when it cools down. Buffelgrass Bootcamps and mapping days still will take place over the summer, however.

For removal in the most heavily infested areas, options are limited. There’s chemical spraying by helicopters and manually removal the plants, Quiroz said. But both are expensive and disrupt the local wildlife she explained.

There’s a new education campaign around Piestewa Peak to raise awareness about buffelgrass, which is crowding out native plants and wildlife. It also poses a huge fire risk. (Photo courtesy of Annia Quiroz)

“It’s up to the cities to best determine how they want to handle their invasives problem,” she said.

Sandy Bahr, the chapter president of the Sierra Club of Arizona, has volunteered to remove buffelgrass in the past.

“It will crowd out other plants and before you know it, you have a field of buffelgrass instead of our beautiful Sonoran Desert vegetation, and also creates unnatural fire conditions,” Bahr said. “I guess it’s just a reminder that we need to be careful about what we bring into our environment.”

Other organizations are joining in. The McDowell Sonoran Conservancy and Maricopa County Parks and Recreation also are involved with Buffelgrass Blues. Maricopa County Parks and Recreation calls their program Desert Defenders, but it’s the same training with the same app.

Quiroz will lead a training session for the county at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday, June 1, at the White Tank Mountain Regional Park Nature Center.

Holiday lights lost their glow? You have new options for recycling old strands

PHOENIX – Environmentally speaking, it’s best to reuse your holiday lights for as long as possible, or to donate them.

But for the first time, Phoenix is accepting strings of lights for recycling. Residents can drop off lights at one of two transfer stations, starting the day after Christmas.

“This is the first year that we’ve done this program, so we’re really excited, and we’re hoping to get a lot of residents bring in lights to us to recycle,” said Lucas Mariacher, zero waste coordinator for the Phoenix Public Works Department.

Residents will need to bring along their city services bill when they drop off the lights.

The department’s monthly household hazardous waste events also provide a year-round option.

Some hardware stores accept lights, but not all do, so consumers should call ahead before dropping off those burned-out lights.

A few light retailers, such as Holiday LEDs, will exchange in-store coupons for shipments of lights. But Shellie Gardner of Texas-based Christmas Light Source, which donates its recycling proceeds to Toys for Tots, said local is greener.

“See if there’s a metal recycler in your area that can take lights for recycling,” Gardner said. “And it could just be a matter of making a few phone calls. And then go make a donation to Toys for Tots in your town.”

Recyclers recover valuable copper and glass from the light strings.

In all cases, experts say to turn in only lights — no packaging, no wrapping and no boughs of holly.

Drought, heat and urbanization put the squeeze on lemons in Arizona and California

PHOENIX – Citrus production, one of Arizona’s founding “Five Cs,” predates statehood. But today, the industry is stuck – and for lemons, the market no longer can grow, thanks to drought and urbanization.

Harold Payne is manager of the 2,000-acre Fort McDowell Tribal Farm, which grows lemon trees on just one-tenth of that land, even though prices have been steadily rising.

“So lemons, they are actually the most profitable because a lemon tree will produce three times as much fruit as a navel (orange) tree,” Payne said. “And the prices are higher. So it doesn’t take a lot of math to figure out, if you have a choice, you’d be growing lemons.”

In addition, people are using more lemons in cooking, seasonings, flavorings and beverages. Worldwide demand for lemons is at an all-time high, but growers in Arizona are not producing more lemons to meet the rising demand.

“The problem is there is no more water,” Payne said. “All of the water is allocated, that is, in the rivers in Arizona. It’s actually overallocated.”


Harold Payne of Fort McDowell Tribal Farm shows an irrigation line underneath a lemon tree. He would like to grow more lemons, but “The problem is there is no more water.” (Photo by Heather van Blokland/KJZZ)

Cities and tribes have the highest priority in water rights. Farmers are last in line, which means a smaller lemon crop on limited land with limited water. Add drought, high heat and natural disasters and prices fluctuate even more, said Harold Edwards, CEO of Limoneira, one of the oldest and largest citrus growers in the U.S.

“And so that’s why you saw the price of lemons rise to very, very high prices toward the end of the summer,” he said, “because of the early season and the early harvest of lemons. Combined with the extreme heat in the latter part of the summer, there just wasn’t enough supply to meet the demand.”

Edwards’ groves in Southern California were damaged this year by high temperatures.

“And the lemons on the tree really had a hard time with that, and the trees had a hard time with that,” he said. “And so you had a lot of fruit that was not able to make it through that heat event and fell onto the ground.”

In early June, the average price of a lemon box was $36. By July, it was $55. By mid-September, $70.

Edwards said consumers “tend to be somewhat inelastic from the standpoint of, if you go to the grocery store and that lemon costs 30 cents or you go that same grocery store and it costs 90 cents, consumers typically buy lemons and don’t typically let that price differential influence their decision.”

There is no alternative for lemons when making things like lemonade or lemon meringue pie. Which prompts some people to take matters into their own hands, said Pamela Hamilton, publisher and editor of Edible Phoenix magazine.

“There are actually some people who go and see a tree that isn’t being used and go knock on a door and ask if it can be foraged,” she said, but other people don’t bother to ask for permission.

“I say (that) as someone whose lemon tree was stripped of lemons while she was on vacation last year,” said Hamilton, who bemoans the decline of agriculture in metro Phoenix.

“In the time that I’ve been here, the amount of farmland that’s been paved over and turned into housing developments is astonishing,” she said. “Any farm that’s still a farm, I’m happy to see that continuing.”


Harold Payne among Ft. McDowell Farm’s rows of lemon crops. (Photo by Heather van Blokland/KJZZ)

Urban encroachment is another reason the Arizona citrus industry is in decline.

“Because of urbanization, primarily in the Phoenix area, and a number of years of poor returns, the industry has shrunk to about 12,000 acres,” said Glenn Wright, a University of Arizona Extension horticulturist.

“At one point in the ’70s, the Arizona citrus industry – which wasn’t just lemons, it included oranges – was about 80 thousand acres. Quite a lot of it, maybe 40 percent or so in the Phoenix area, and another 60 percent in the Yuma area.”

Arizona lemons now grow on only 15 percent of the acreage they covered in the 1970s. Arizona’s lemon harvest for 2018 is expected to be its lowest in almost a decade, with production declining to less than half of what it was in 2011.

Intel promises to restore 100 percent of its water use. What does that mean?

PHOENIX – You may be familiar with carbon offsets, where companies or schools try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in one area to make up for emissions elsewhere. More and more, corporations are also trying to offset the water they use.

Intel, for one, announced a water restoration goal last year: to restore a hundred percent of its direct global water use by 2025. They employ about 10,000 in the Phoenix area and have offices around the world.

The company said it already restores about 80 percent of the water they use , and it’s funding projects to make up for that final 20 percent.

One of those projects brought Intel to West Clear Creek, about two hours northeast of Phoenix.

On a warm morning this summer, Kimberly Schonek, Verde River Program Director at the environmental group Nature Conservancy, drove past farm fields bordered by a humming stream. “As you can see, West Clear Creek is flowing today,” she pointed out. “And the reason that it’s flowing is we’ve had lots of monsoons.”

The Nature Conservancy, with Intel and other money, is laying pipe to replace the earthen ditch that diverts creek water to nearby farm fields. A pipe will save the water that’s now seeping into the ground. The saved water can then remain in the creek and make its way to the Verde River.

“If you can put infrastructure in place that reduces [the farmers’] demand for how it gets from the river to their farm, then you’re saving water in that reach of the river,” Schonek explained.

This diversion ditch carries water from West Clear Creek, northeast of Phoenix, to nearby farm fields. Upon completion of a project partly funded by Intel, the Nature Conservancy will have replaced the unlined ditch with pipe. (Photo: Bret Jaspers, KJZZ)

Upon completion, Intel can apply some of the saved water towards its restoration goal. The company is trying to be “water neutral,” so to speak, and has hired an outside engineering firm to help calculate exact progress toward its restoration goal.

“For us, it’s part of our business strategy to make sure that we have access to water,” said Fawn Bergen, Global Sustainability Program Manager at Intel. “But it is broader than that. It’s also our commitment to sustainability and corporate responsibility. It’s not just like a transaction.”

Water is a rising concern for many companies, according to Cate Lamb, Director of Water Security at the environmental nonprofit CDP, which pushes for corporate data disclosure.

“We’re seeing certain organizations and many, many companies facing the reality that that stable supply of water that they need for their business can no longer be guaranteed in many regions,” Lamb said.

Lamb acknowledged, however, that there isn’t one universal standard for what a company is responsible for. Intel’s restoration goal is based on the water it directly uses at its sites. The company isn’t trying to restore the water used in its supply chain – at least not yet. The computer chip maker says it monitors suppliers in other ways to encourage good water practices.

That’s not an acceptable answer to Rick Hogeboom, the Executive Director of the Water Footprint Network. He describes the supply chain as “something that many companies are fully unaware of, and also don’t feel very responsible for.”

The Water Footprint Network, a non-profit, came up with a specific metric for calculating the water in a company’s “footprint.” It includes water taken from various sources as well as the water needed to dilute discharges safely into the environment. Hogeboom said without accounting for the water in the supply chain, you don’t get the whole picture of a product.

“I think it’s very important to have this one framework so that we know that we are on the same page, and not have these semantic discussions all the time,” he said.

And yet others caution not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. John Sabo, Director of Future H2O at Arizona State University, said standards by themselves will not change water practices.

“You need a leader like a Coca-Cola, like an Intel, who’s gonna go out [and] invest money outside their four walls,” said Sabo, who has worked as an unpaid consultant with Coca-Cola on water sustainability issues. He said leading companies can “influence other players who may have more money, like other companies and the public sector.”

Lamb agreed, but emphasized that the investors she works with do want real effort made to improve water security.

“At the moment, because there is this lack of standardized approaches and standard definitions of what this looks like, it’s hard to say,” she said. “It’s almost like that’s the next frontier that we’re exploring as a community.”

As water stress increases around the world, water use may move from the frontier of the conversation to the center.

Phoenix hopes to build mill to recycle certain plastics, easing pressure on landfills

PHOENIX – Phoenix may be the first U.S. city to build a mill to remanufacture plastic containers. It’s an effort to clean up one part of a global trash problem that’s been mounting for decades and is only getting worse.

Curbside is where recycling ends for most of us, but for the city, it’s just the beginning of the process.

“Yogurt cups, different things – not the common ones like your water bottles and soda bottles because we have good markets for those – but other types of mixed plastics,” said Joe Giudice, assistant public-works director for the city. He’s has been collecting bids from contractors so Phoenix can remanufacture specific plastic containers into new goods and fuels.

“Phoenix’s approach is, ‘Hey, we want to develop new markets,’ ideally domestic markets, and we want to have something right here in Phoenix,” he said. Proposals were due back to the city on July 18.

It’s been more than six months since China stopped importing most plastic and paper waste from U.S. cities, which it was remanufacturing and selling there. China’s decision, spurred by pollution concerns, has left an immense void. There is no other market in the world as large, that consumes as much as China – not even the U.S. That means the business flow of recycling essentially has come to a stop worldwide, and more paper and plastic are winding up in landfills.

“We’ve produced more plastic in the past 18 years of this century than in the entire century beforehand.”

Adam Freed, Bloomberg Sustainability Desk

In 1950, estimates say, we created 1.7 million tons of plastic. In 2014, the total was 311 million tons, according to Adam Freed, principal at Bloomberg’s Sustainability Desk in New York.

Overfull landfills aren’t the only problem. In a 2015 study, researchers found that 20 countries are responsible for more than 80 percent of the plastic going into the ocean annually.

Odile Madden, a senior scientist with the Getty Conservation Institute in Los Angeles, said plastic consumption and use is a cultural problem.

“We had to be taught, after World War II, to throw things away after using it once,” she said. “In fact, there is advertising that suggests, ‘Hey, don’t be stingy … throw that cup away … and just get a new one.'”

In just the past 20 years, there has been a noticeable rise in “convenience plastic”: water bottles, straws and cutlery, used once and thrown away. It’s a key component of America’s throwaway culture.

Freed said even if the recycling industry eventually finds a way to capture more of what can be recycled, there’s still the problem of landfills reaching capacity. Western states have about 20 years left, he said.

“We’ve produced more plastic in the past 18 years of this century than in the entire century beforehand,” he said, “so it’s just been an exponential increase in our plastic production, consumption and use. … Focusing on recycling once you’ve collected it is kind of like taking a Tylenol after you get the flu and thinking you did everything you could to prevent yourself from being sick. You’ve missed the opportunity to wash your hands, to get a flu shot, to be healthy, to avoid other people who are sick. You know that is the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how cities can more efficiently and productively collect and manage their waste streams.”

A 2017 comprehensive research study on the history of plastic production says plastics outpace every other manufactured material for the past 65 years.

According to the EPA’s figures, Americans generated 14.3 million tons of plastic waste in 2014, the last year EPA data was made available. Of that, 2.1 million tons, 14 percent, were recycled. But officials from Phoenix, Republic Services and other industry experts put the figure closer to 8 or 9 percent. The 2017 comprehensive found plastic recycling in the U.S. has remained steady at 9 percent since 2012.

According to a report released at Davos by the World Economic Forum, one truck of plastic waste is dumped into the ocean every minute.

Madden says it all comes down to our changing attitudes and expectations of what plastic actually is.

“I’m expecting that container for the soda to be pretty durable, but as soon as I’m done with that soda, I want that container to go away,” she said. “I expect that it will go away. So, it’s a cultural problem, using durable material as if they are disposable and then expecting that they will disappear.”

Just 5 to 8 percent of any consumer plastic gets recycled. The bulk of the remainder gets landfilled, as it has since consumer plastic products became part of society in the 1950s.

Giudice, the public-works director for Phoenix, says building a plastics remanufacturing plant in town is simply about responding to what residents say they want, which is to recycle more.

“The vast majority of plastics that come in have nice domestic markets for those products to made into something else. But these mixed plastics, where we had a market in China, we no longer do,” he said.

Time-lapse video: Phoenix architect on sustainable buildings

On the first day of summer, at solar noon, the roof appeared to float above Phoenix’s Burton Barr library’s reading room while sunlight illuminated the tops of the support columns through circular skylights. After the sun passed overhead, shadows climbed the east wall like a reverse waterfall.

When Burton Barr library was built, the architects prioritized sustainability. Watch a time lapse of the effect — and listen to the building’s architect Will Bruder talk about the role of architecture in sustainability, especially in the desert.

Ozone pollution bad in cities all over West

PHOENIX – The nearly 250 employees who work at Coreslab Structures could have looked up one June morning to see a yellow flag flying on top of their building. It was a signal to the employees, who often work outside, that the air quality that day was acceptable but possibly concerning to those with chronic health problems.

Coreslab, which produces precast-concrete construction materials in southwest Phoenix and 17 other sites in North America, became the first business in Arizona to join the state’s Air Quality Flag Program. More than 200 schools are part of the program, which is open to everyone.

“To me, it kind of seemed like a no brainer,” said Brandon Dickerson, plant safety coordinator at Coreslab. “Everything we do here in the production yard is completely outside.”

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality established the Air Quality Flag Program in 2007 to alert the public to high-pollution advisories. Based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index, there are four colors: red, orange, yellow and green.

“Red, for instance, means we are over a federal health-based standard,” said Timothy Franquist, air-quality director at ADEQ. “Green means that we are in good for the air quality for the day.”

In 2017, Phoenix had 42 days in which ozone levels exceeded the EPA’s recommended limit, which would signal a red or orange flag, according to the ADEQ.

The American Lung Association in April listed the Phoenix area as the eighth most polluted city in the country.

And when it comes to air pollution from ozone, cities in California and Arizona topped the list.

The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality’s Timothy Franquist said certain groups – including people with asthma or other respiratory diseases, children and elderly people – are sensitive to higher ozone levels and particulates.

Individuals who enjoy activities outdoors also are susceptible to the risks of poor air quality.

“We just want to let those community members know what the air quality is like that day so they can take the proper precautions to either limit their exposure or maybe go out at different times of the day,” Franquist said.

In Arizona, most participants in the flag program are schools because children tend to be the most sensitive population, Franquist said.

“The real key to this is this is a voluntary program,” Franquist said. “We have over 200 schools, but it’s open to everybody – businesses, government agencies – the more people that participate, the more we can get the message out to the residents of Arizona.”