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Amazon Ditches Packaging’s Plastic ‘Air Pillows’

Plus: Ocean-based carbon removal is coming to North America; minimizing AI power needs for autonomous driving

This week’s Current Climate, which every Monday brings you the latest news about the business of sustainability. Sign up to get it in your inbox every week.

Amazon announced last week that it was ditching plastic air pillows – those ubiquitous inflated plastic pieces tucked inside delivery boxes – in North America by year end. The company said that it had already swapped out 95% of its plastic air pillows for recycled paper and that it would be completely free of them by the end of December.

The result: A savings of nearly 15 billion plastic air pillows annually, the retailing goliath’s largest such reduction of plastics in North America to date. Pat Lindner, Amazon’s vp of sustainable packaging, said in a statement that the company would “continue to innovate, test and scale in order to prioritize curbside recyclable materials.”

The move to get rid of air pillows is important because plastic is notoriously tough to recycle – worldwide only 9% of it gets recycled – and instead piles up in landfills, which are overflowing with plastic trash. Amazon made a similar commitment to remove plastic air pillows in Europe in 2022. Because Amazon ships a total of 20 million packages a day in 19 countries, any move that it makes is significant.

The announcement comes after years of criticism from environmental groups and employees in an effort to push Amazon to reduce its plastic use. In a statement, Matt Littlejohn, senior vice president of strategic initiatives at Oceana, which has campaigned against Amazon’s vast plastic usage and released a report on the retailer’s plastic waste two months ago, called the move “welcome news for the oceans and the company’s customers.”

Amazon first tested eliminating plastic delivery packaging, including plastic air pillows, at a warehouse in Euclid, Ohio. That allowed the company to make the transition across hundreds of fulfillment centers, a move that required changing machinery and retraining employees.

In a related effort, Amazon has been using AI to reduce packaging waste. It launched its own proprietary AI model in 2019 and has now helped to save at least 500,000 tons of packaging a year, roughly equivalent to the weight of 7,750 Boeing 737 airplanes.


The Big Read

Ocean-Based Carbon Removal Startup Equatic Building $100 Million Plant

Industrial-scale carbon dioxide removal is seen as a critical new industry, along with the growth of renewable energy, to help combat the worst effects of climate change that are already triggering record heat and more intense storms.

Since it spun out of UCLA last year, cleantech startup Equatic’s focus has been to commercialize an affordable way to pull large amounts of CO2 from the ocean, which acts as a planet-wide sponge for greenhouse gas but is soon to be oversaturated. In contrast to companies such as Climeworks that operate large-scale vacuums that suck in CO2 from the ambient air and sequester it underground in solid form, Equatic’s ocean-based approach uses an electrochemical process to render it harmless, while also creating hydrogen and materials like calcium carbonate, or chalk.

Now Equatic is moving to commercialize the system with a large-scale $100 million plant in Quebec. It’s partnering with Deep Sky, a Canadian company that’s developing multiple carbon removal projects, to open its first North American plant on the St. Lawrence Seaway by as soon as 2026. It will be scaled to remove more than 100,000 metric tons of CO2 annually while also generating 3,600 metric tons of hydrogen the company can sell.

“The plant will allow us to get to below $100 per ton [of CO2 removal] by 2030,” Equatic COO Edward Sanders told Forbes, factoring in projected revenue from hydrogen sales. If it does, that will be a quarter of the cost Climeworks is targeting in the same period.

Read more here


Hot Topic

Raquel Urtasun, AI scientist and founder and CEO of Waabi, on minimizing AI power needs for autonomous driving

AI systems use a lot of electricity. As you scale up Waabi’s robotic trucking business will your platform need big AI data centers behind the scenes?

No, not at all. Because it’s built for a sustainable, efficient future. When we talk about responsible deployment, energy, power, etcetera, are part of that responsible deployment. It's not just about safety in terms of the product itself. This has gone into the design for us. What should the future of autonomy look like? It cannot be data centers everywhere in the world. That doesn’t scale.

You were thinking about AI’s power needs before this became a better-known concern?

From the start. If not, at some point you’re going to need to pivot. So instead of that, build what you need from day one. That’s what we have done. And I think you're going to see more and more of a shift – first in academia and then in the industry – to much more [energy] efficient architectures for [large language model AI]. At some point, it's going to be a must.

We understood this. You don’t even need to see it to actually start doing it. You know it’s going to happen. You know it's not going to scale sufficiently. So then go and build the efficient architecture from day one.

It’s not that I started on this yesterday. It’s been 25 years of doing this. That’s a lot of lessons learned and thinking and whatnot. Waabi is the culmination of that. This is what we need. This is what will enable AI to deploy everywhere for self-driving.

Beyond autonomous driving, given the massive costs and energy needs for many AI applications will there be a shakeout for those without a strong business case?

There’s a rush to build AI whatever, and it is amazing what can be done. But now the question: is this economically viable or not? A lot of these models, it's pretty hard to see. You look at the money spent versus adoption and those numbers don’t look very good. So you’re going to need to do a lot of things to maybe make it economically make sense.

There’s no doubt this technology can do amazing things and that it will have tremendous benefits. But from there to make it sustainable from a business perspective, that’s a different step.


What Else We’re Reading

AI can help the shipping industry cut carbon emissions, report says

World falling behind on environment, health and hunger goals, UN report says

Climate change and chlamydia are harming koalas

An Indonesian industrial park with a history of fatal accidents is powering the EV revolution

Extreme heat at hajj pilgrimage blamed for 1,300 deaths

Why this former oil executive is growing giant kelp forests in Africa

A Bangladeshi architect designed a tiny house to tackle climate change

Poisoned trees gave a Maine couple a killer ocean view. The state attorney general is now investigating.


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