Cape Town’s Water Crisis Should Be a Warning to the World

Cape Town’s Water Crisis Should Be a Warning to the World

Jonah Shepp

Cape Town, South Africa, a city of 4 million people, is just weeks away from becoming the world’s first major city to run entirely out of water — but of course, it won’t be the last.

South Africa’s second-largest city after Johannesburg, Cape Town was not an obvious candidate for that dubious distinction. In 2014, its dams were flush with rainwater and its water-conservation strategy was award-winning. Then came the worst drought South Africa had seen in a century, lasting three whole years. Now, the Theewaterskloof Dam, the city’s main reservoir, is at just 13 percent of capacity.

Climate change is obviously a factor in Cape Town’s water crisis, as South Africa faces a hotter and drier future, but it’s not the only one. Politics and misgovernment have played a role as well.

Even as the city government enacted its aggressive and remarkably successful water-demand-management strategy over the past decade, the national government allocated too much water to agriculture and declined to fund the development of new water sources and water recycling systems, David W. Olivier, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of the Witwatersrand, explained in December. The ruling African National Congress and the opposition Democratic Alliance, which governs the Western Cape province, have taken to playing the blame game as the crisis looms.

Cape Town’s water system depends almost entirely on six dams, of which the Theewaterskloof is the largest. When supply throughout this system falls to 13.5 percent of capacity, the local government will turn off the taps throughout the city, excepting schools, hospitals, and other essential services. After “Day Zero,” water, already rationed at 50 liters per person daily, will only be available at 200 collection stations throughout the city, and the ration cut by half again. Day Zero is currently forecast for sometime in May.

At the moment, Day Zero is still avoidable. Cape Town has already cut its daily water consumption significantly by lowering pipe pressure and instructing residents to conserve water, threatening fines for those who exceed the limit and publicizing household water consumption so people can find out if their neighbors are overusing. Conscientious Capetonians are currently taking measures such as bathing and doing laundry less often, limiting showers to two minutes, and recycling the water they use to wash food, do dishes, or brush their teeth as gray water for flushing their toilets.

In a deeply unequal city, home to mansions, resorts, and shantytowns alike, the impact of the shutoff will be felt very differently from one neighborhood to the next. So far, however, people appear to be banding together to keep Day Zero from happening with admirably communal spirit. If the city can hold out until the start of the rainy season in May — and if the rainy season starts on schedule — it may still escape a total shutoff. Here’s hoping it does, as the consequences otherwise are practically unthinkable.

The government has warned that it will be the most serious crisis a major city has faced since World War II or the September 11 attacks. The expense and logistical challenges of delivering water via distribution centers aren’t even the half of it, though: What’s really got Capetonians worried is the possibility of Day Zero leading to a breakdown in social order. How does one manage a crowd of 20,000 thirsty people lining up at a collection point for water? How will the authorities police the collection of water from natural springs? What happens to people who can’t get there, or have no means of carrying their water rations home? What happens when sanitation fails or diseases break out?

Nobody really knows, because no city of Cape Town’s size has ever had to deal with a crisis of this magnitude. Water shortages are a familiar challenge for large cities in India, Indonesia, Mexico, and Brazil: São Paulo, a city of 12 million people, came within 20 days of a complete shutoff in 2015, but was saved in the nick of time by rains. Even that close call led to the looting of emergency water trucks. In the Middle East, home to some of the world’s most water-poor countries, growing populations, overexploitation of resources, and mismanagement by authorities have led to similar crises: Conflict over scarce water resources is already a fact of life in war-torn Yemen.

As for the developed world, Australia and California are no strangers to drought: Melbourne, for example, could run out of water as soon as 2028, assuming the worst effects of climate change on supply and population growth on demand. Fortunately for Melbourne, however, it has a robust water strategy, the resources to implement it, and a government that recognizes the dangers of inaction.

California recently weathered a five-year drought without any major cities running dry, though some small, rural communities did (and Governor Jerry Brown was forced to implement the first mandatory restrictions on urban water use in the state’s history). Between the success of conservation efforts and the vast, diversified network of water resources on which California cities draw, experts say it would take a much longer drought to bring about water-based anarchy in Los Angeles.

Then again, the way things are going, nobody can guarantee that such a drought won’t happen, and that’s the first lesson the world should heed from Cape Town: It’s not a question of whether major cities will start to run dry, but rather when and where.

The other lesson is that this problem cannot be solved at the local level alone. After all, Cape Town was already doing nearly everything right when disaster struck, but was prevented from taking the measures needed to prevent this crisis by a lack of political will at the national level.

Competing local, state, and federal policies have also contributed to water-management problems in California, a problem that is only bound to get worse as Sacramento attempts to deal with climate change while Washington insists on plugging its ears and undermining any such efforts. As South Africa’s missteps show, if governments don’t take these threats seriously until catastrophe is on the horizon, it will be too late to do anything about it.

Dangerously Low on Water, Cape Town Now Faces ‘Day Zero’

Cape Town may seem a world away but it is not. Climate change is to blame for the drought in Cape Town and similar situations will abound near and far if we are not mindful of the limits of our planet in warmer world.

Cape Town is a city of 4 million people. Homes with children and the elderly. Hospitals. Businesses. Manufacturing. Food processing. Restaurants. Hotels. Vineyards. The coffee machine at work. The toilet. A bowl of pasta. Break it down from the birds eye view to your own and try to imagine half of NYC waiting in line for water to drink, bathe and cook for a family; a restaurant trying to maintain lunch rush as people continue to go to work; tourists standing in line for water to drink rather than visiting the Empire State Building. And no one here has a car. How are you supposed to carry 13 gallons of water to survive every day life on the subway? That is one of the challenges facing the millions in Cape Town.

Some of the issues facing Cape Town is poor planning for the anticipated “Day Zero” and more emphasis put on building desalination plants rather than looking for alternative sources of water. Only 54% of the population complied with the water restrictions. A city of extreme poverty and wealth, some will be able to make it to one of the 200 water distribution areas, and then what? Not everyone has a car. How do you get it all back? Every day?

I imagine Soylent Green and Fury Road rolled into one. Our imaginations have brought us the vision of such an event and now it is here. We did this. And there will be more. How to stop it? Be mindful of your water intake before an emergency arises. Conservation is the best defense against drought. Don’t wait until there is too late because there is no good technological fix for this. Water is all there is. We will perish without it.

Dangerously Low on Water, Cape Town Now Faces ‘Day Zero’

Norimitsu Onishi and Somini Sengupta

A roadside car-wash operator in Delft, a township on the outskirts of Cape Town, was fined the equivalent of about $250 for illegal water use. Joao Silva/The New York Times

CAPE TOWN — It sounds like a Hollywood blockbuster. “Day Zero” is coming to Cape Town this April. Everyone, be warned.

The government cautions that the Day Zero threat will surpass anything a major city has faced since World War II or the Sept. 11 attacks. Talks are underway with South Africa’s police because “normal policing will be entirely inadequate.” Residents, their nerves increasingly frayed, speak in whispers of impending chaos.

The reason for the alarm is simple: The city’s water supply is dangerously close to running dry.

If water levels keep falling, Cape Town will declare Day Zero in less than three months. Taps in homes and businesses will be turned off until the rains come. The city’s four million residents will have to line up for water rations at 200 collection points. The city is bracing for the impact on public health and social order.

“When Day Zero comes, they’ll have to call in the army,” said Phaldie Ranqueste, who was filling his white S.U.V. with big containers of water at a natural spring where people waited in a long, anxious line.

It wasn’t supposed to turn out this way for Cape Town. This city is known for its strong environmental policies, including its careful management of water in an increasingly dry corner of the world.
The empty Westridge public swimming pool in Mitchells Plain on the outskirts of Cape Town. Joao Silva/The New York Times

But after a three-year drought, considered the worst in over a century, South African officials say Cape Town is now at serious risk of becoming one of the few major cities in the world to lose piped water to homes and most businesses.

Hospitals, schools and other vital institutions will still get water, officials say, but the scale of the shut-off will be severe.

Cape Town’s problems embody one of the big dangers of climate change: the growing risk of powerful, recurrent droughts. In Africa, a continent particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change, those problems serve as a potent warning to other governments, which typically don’t have this city’s resources and have done little to adapt.

For now, political leaders here talk of coming together to “defeat Day Zero.” As water levels in the dams supplying the city continue to drop, the city is scrambling to finish desalination plants and increase groundwater production. Starting in February, residents will face harsher fines if they exceed their new daily limit, which will go down to 50 liters (13.2 gallons) a day per person from 87 liters now.

Just a couple of years ago, the situation could not have looked more different here. In 2014, the dams stood full after years of good rain. The following year, C40, a collection of cities focused on climate change worldwide, awarded Cape Town its “adaptation implementation” prize for its management of water.
The Theewaterskloof Dam, source of roughly half of Cape Town’s water, is at just 13 percent of capacity. NASA

Cape Town was described as one of the world’s top “green” cities, and the Democratic Alliance — the opposition party that has controlled Cape Town since 2006 — took pride in its emphasis on sustainability and the environment.

The accolades recognized the city’s success in conserving water. Though the city’s population had swelled by 30 percent since the early 2000s, overall water consumption had remained flat. Many of the new arrivals settled in the city’s poor areas, which consume less water, and actually helped bring down per capita use.

The city’s water conservation measures — fixing leaks and old pipes; installing meters and adjusting tariffs — had a powerful impact. Maybe too powerful.

The city conserved so much water that it postponed looking for new sources.

For years, Cape Town had been warned that it needed to increase and diversify its water supply. Almost all of its water still comes from six dams dependent on rainfall, a risky situation in an arid region with a changing climate. The dams, which were full only a few years ago, are now down to about 26 percent of capacity, officials say.

Cape Town has grown warmer in recent years and a bit drier over the last century, according to Piotr Wolski, a hydrologist at the University of Cape Town who has measured average rainfall from the turn of the 20th century to the present.
Residents collected water from a communal tap in an informal settlement in Mitchells Plain. Joao Silva/The New York Times

Climate models show that Cape Town is destined to face a drier future, with rains becoming more unpredictable in the coming decades. “The drier years are expected to be drier than they were, and the wetter years will not be as wet,” Mr. Wolski said.

As far back as 2007, South Africa’s Department of Water Affairs warned that the city needed to consider increasing its supply with groundwater, desalination and other sources, citing the potential impact of climate change.

Mike Muller, who served as the department’s director between 1997 and 2005, said that the city’s water conservation strategy, without finding new sources, has been “a major contributor to Cape Town’s troubles.”

“Nature isn’t particularly willing to compromise,” he added. “There will be severe droughts. And if you haven’t prepared for it, you’ll get hammered.”

Ian Neilson, the deputy mayor, said that new water supplies have been part of the city’s plans but “it was not envisaged that it would be required so soon.”
Mark Bleloch inspected his water tanks in Constantia, a wealthy suburb of Cape Town. Joao Silva/The New York Times

Cities elsewhere have faced serious water shortages. Millions of Brazilians have endured rationing because of prolonged droughts. Brasília, the capital, declared a state of emergency a year ago. Experts say the water shortages in Brazil, which have affected more than 800 municipalities across the country, stem from climate change, the rapid expansion of agriculture, bad infrastructure and poor planning.

Here in Cape Town, the water shortages have strained political divisions, especially because much of the responsibility for building water infrastructure lies with the national government led by the African National Congress.

“The national government has dragged its feet,” said David Olivier, who studies climate change at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Global Change Institute.

The national government controls the water supply to Cape Town, other municipalities and the province’s agricultural sector, including the large wine industry east of Cape Town. In the first two years of the drought, experts say, the national government failed to limit water supplies to farmers, intensifying the problem.

But the city made mistakes, too. Last year, instead of focusing on “low-hanging fruit” like tapping into local aquifers, the city concentrated on building temporary desalination units, said Kevin Winter, a water expert at the University of Cape Town’s Future Water Institute.
Residents waited to collect water from a spring in Newlands, Cape Town. Joao Silva/The New York Times

“It takes a lot of time to build desalination modules, three to five years, and at considerable cost,” Mr. Winter said. “They’re even costlier to build during a crisis.”

Mr. Neilson, the deputy mayor, acknowledged that “some time was lost.” The city, he said, had now “shifted our efforts dramatically.”

The city is stepping up its efforts to cut consumption. With water and time running out, Mr. Neilson said he was “acutely aware” of needing to scare people into changing their behavior without causing them to panic, adding, “I don’t think we quite got that right yet.”

So far, only 55 percent of Cape Town residents have met the target of 87 liters per day.

Helen Zille, the premier of Western Cape Province, which includes Cape Town, wrote in The Daily Maverick last week that she considers a shut-off inevitable. The question now, she said, is, “When Day Zero arrives, how do we make water accessible and prevent anarchy?”

Cutting back is a difficult message to convey in one of the world’s most unequal societies, where access to water reflects Cape Town’s deep divisions. In squatter camps, people share communal taps and carry water in buckets to their shacks. In other parts of the city, millionaires live in mansions with glistening pools.
Some in sprawling townships like Mitchells Plain wondered how they would manage to carry water from distribution points. Joao Silva/The New York Times

In vast townships like Mitchells Plain, residents without cars wondered how they could even carry water containers home from a collection point.

Faried Cassiem, who works as a cleaner but does not have a car, said his wife would have to fetch water for his household of eight.

“There are so many guys just standing around, with no jobs, so I’ll just give them two rands to carry the water,” he said, referring to the equivalent of about 17 cents.

As Day Zero looms, some were stocking up on water at two natural springs in the city. Others were buying cases of water at Makro, a warehouse-style store.

In Constantia, a suburb with large houses on gated properties with pools, some residents were installing water tanks in their yards.

At one house, Leigh De Decker and Mark Bleloch said they had reduced their total water consumption from the city to 20 liters a day, down from 500 liters a day before the drought. Instead, they now draw from two 10,000-liter tanks of treated well water, and were waiting for two additional tanks to be delivered.

Several weeks before Day Zero, their use of city water should come down to zero, they said, estimating that it will cost them about $4,200 to become completely self-sufficient.

“It allows you to have a certain lifestyle without drawing on resources that other people need,” Ms. De Decker said.

In green communications, fear and hope have different uses

In green communications, fear and hope have different uses

Fear and hope are opposing emotions that are frequently employed in social-issues marketing, and particularly when communicating the threat of climate change.

But are there instances in communicating issues relative to climate change where one sentiment is more effective than the other?

Research we published in the December issue of the Journal of Advertising Research tackled this issue and compared the effectiveness of fear and hope appeals in green communications when the issue of climate change was framed as either global or local. We presented the findings in an article titled What Sells Better in Green Communications: Fear or Hope?

Results showed that when the message was framed as global, an appeal based upon fear enhanced viewers’ attention, engendered a more positive attitude toward the green issue and changed behavioral intention more than a hope-centric appeal did. However, when the issue was presented in a local context, a hope-focused appeal was more effective.

“We discovered that environmental problems are perceived as more worrisome and important when they happen at greater distances.”

In our research among Taiwanese, we discovered that environmental problems are perceived as more worrisome and important when they happen at greater distances. People tend to be more concerned about increasing temperatures caused by global warming than temperature increases in their own city.

When a threat is portrayed and believed to be serious and relevant as a global issue, people become scared. Audiences who tend to perceive environmental issues positively are typically more sensitive to local problems. In contrast, viewers of advertising who tend to have a negative reaction to environmental issues may be more concerned about global problems.

To support this idea, we used Greenpeace as a hypothetical advertiser in our research and tracked results according to the attention respondents paid to the ads in terms of eye tracking, the attitude of participants towards the messaging and behavioral intention of the participants, including potential donation amounts to Greenpeace. (Greenpeace was not involved with the research.)

In the global ad using the “hope” appeal, the headline stated, “Doing the Right Things Reduces the Danger to Polar Bears,” which was followed by a drawing of a polar bear crouching on a rapidly melting ice cap as debris floats in the water around it. The copy read, “Reducing the amount of trash protects the ecological environment, allowing polar bears to thrive on Earth!”

In comparison, the global ad featuring the “fear” appeal ran a headline that read, “Doing the Wrong Things Puts Polar Bears in Danger,” followed by the same polar bear drawing and copy that said, “The increasing amount of trash destroys the ecological environment, and sadly, polar bears will disappear from this Earth!”

“The ‘fear’ technique was more effective in achieving the desired response from participants in the global ad campaign.”

The “fear” technique was more effective in achieving the desired response from participants in the global ad campaign.

On the local level, the ads using the “hope” approach replaced the drawing of the polar bear with a drawing of the Formosan black bear, the largest known mammal in Taiwan, crouching on a small swatch of terra firma and surrounded by polluted water. The headline claimed: “Doing the Right Things Reduces the Danger to the Formosan Black Bear.”

The copy continues, “Reducing the amount of trash protects the ecological environment, allowing the Formosan black bear to thrive in our country!” The “fear” version of the local-themed ad read, “Doing the Wrong Things Puts the Formosan Black Bear in Danger.” Additional copy read, “The increasing amount of trash destroys the ecological environment, and, sadly, the Formosan black bear will disappear from our country.”

Here, the “hope” approach was found to be more effective when the environmental issue was framed as a local concern.

Green communications aren’t always an easy sell to the public because climate change and other ecological issues aren’t immediately tangible or easily explained. Therefore, it is essential to understand when to use a message of fear versus hope in ads dealing with environmental issues, as they both influence people differently on a global and local level.

Ultimately, green marketers must remember that the key to successfully increasing people’s willingness to take action is tied to the type of emotional appeal and messaging context contained in environmental ads.


Enlightened self-interest as a tool in sustainability leadership

Over the last couple weeks I have added several articles on different ways businesses are working on climate change. The running theme is you can’t go it alone.

Consider the partnership of Proctor and Gamble teaming up with NGO TerraCycle to reduce waste “by creating the Ocean Plastic Bottle for P&G’s line of Fairy dish detergent. It is the first commercially available consumer-grade bottle made entirely from recycled (90 percent) and marine (10 percent) plastic. Organic Valley entered into a “”first-of-its-kind” community solar partnership in collaboration with the Upper Midwest Municipal Energy Group (UMMEG), a joint action agency representing 15 electricity providers from Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota.” Walmart continues to be a benchmark in sustainability by “cultivating enlightened self-interest”.  What does that mean? “Simply replacing outdated computers and installing energy-efficient light bulbs can save companies up to $1 billion, and some of the world’s biggest brands found that sustainable investments give them an edge in both product innovation and brand image.”

This attitude, I think, exemplifies the need to reduce the bottom line while protecting the resources that one depends on while remaining relevant in the field. The below article highlights a handful of examples from around the sector that can be used to illustrate how to remain at the top of your field without sacrifice. Cross-sector collaboration, partnerships, re-framing the question to take the heat out of it, and listening. You learn a lot by listening.

“When organizations come together and aggregate their buying power, they move markets,” said Elaine Hsieh, VERGE program director with GreenBiz, during the panel discussion. “Money talks.””

In this season of generosity towards our family and friends, being generous to the Earth should be included on our list. We can show our gratitude for what we have received by improving our relationship with the resources that provide us with all we have.

Tips for staying nimble as sustainability leaders

“If you want something you’ve never had, you must be willing to do something you’ve never done.” This adage rings particularly true in the impact sector, where we know that the business of change is not easy. It requires us to constantly stretch ourselves in order to drive sustainability forward.

Technology is advancing rapidly, and the growing costs of climate change make quick action increasingly imperative. Amidst rapid change and with the health of our communities and planet at stake, how do we stay nimble as sustainability leaders? How do we sharpen ourselves in order to be successful in our work? A recent panel discussion held at the Greenbuild International Conference and Expo — Staying Nimble in Your Sustainability Career — sheds light on some key influences.

Cross-sector collaboration: As organizations work to meet aggressive goals and science-based targets, acting together yields stronger results than acting alone. The rate of collaboration is increasing between local governments, nonprofits and private companies.

For example, in renewable energy, partnerships such as the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance leverage the expertise of nonprofits such as the World Resources Institute and World Wildlife Fund along with the buying power of companies such as Procter & Gamble, Marriott and REI. “When organizations come together and aggregate their buying power, they move markets,” said Elaine Hsieh, VERGE program director with GreenBiz, during the panel discussion. “Money talks.”

“Know your audience. Figure out what matters to them and then keep it simple.”

Resilience: Cities and businesses see both financial risks from climate-related events and economic growth opportunities from preparing against those risks.

The city of Boston’s Climate-Ready Boston plan notes that by 2070, over 11,000 buildings and 85,000 people may be exposed to extreme flooding each year, resulting in annualized losses of $1.39 billion. To combat those risks, Boston creates projects that yield multiple benefits, such as flood barriers that also provide open recreational space or developable land.

Similarly in North Carolina, public-private collaborative Envision Charlotte has enabled Charlotte businesses to save $26 million in energy costs and reduce 57,000 tons of GHG emissions by leveraging smart data, the behavioral expertise of Duke Energy and analytics insights from University of North Carolina Charlotte — with support of a Department of Energy grant.

Re-framing the question: Corporate responsibility historically has been measured by efforts to reduce negative environmental impacts such as carbon emissions and waste. However, today leading organizations are building their strategy around a different model. “It’s no longer about ‘How do we do less bad?'” said Kirk Myers, senior sustainability manager for REI. “The question is now, ‘What should be better in the world as REI grows and thrives?'”

With this new compass, REI’s sustainability program goes beyond just addressing the impacts of its operational footprint and it also addresses creating outdoor access for everyone, through efforts such as advocating for public lands.

So, in today’s context, how do we prepare ourselves as professionals to be successful in this work? These foundational strategies can propel us forward:

Partnerships: As change agents, our success is driven by our ability to bring people together. “It’s about considering, ‘What’s beyond just me?'” Hsieh said. “In order to create new ways of doing things that truly change the game, we have to work with others and learn how we’re interconnected with others inside and outside of the organization.” Driving change means identifying how a multi-disciplinary network of players are connected and creating successful partnerships where incentives are aligned and everyone wins.

Storytelling: Because sustainability work is built on systems thinking and complex concepts, our ability to deliver a clear message is critical. Curt Radkin, senior vice president and sustainability strategist for Wells Fargo, said: “Know your audience. Figure out what matters to them and then keep it simple. Frame the concepts in a way that will be meaningful to them, knowing that it will be different for different players in the organization and you have to be ready to adapt.”

Listening: Lastly, never underestimate the power of listening. Often influence is won not by a practiced pitch but by giving others the stage. Said Myers: “In working with executives, ask them, ‘What does sustainability mean to you personally?’ Starting a conversation this way can be somewhat surprising and unexpected, but it helps people reground in the bigger mission.” In inviting others to share in this way, you’ll learn what they really believe in. And in turn, they’ll believe in you, too.

Whether you’re designing one green building, piloting a new technology or revamping a large-scale global supply chain, these timeless strategies apply. Through partnerships, effective storytelling and listening, we can create the space and opportunities to be nimble in our work and to drive the change we want to see in the world.

TerraCycle, P&G partner in a love-hate relationship with trash

Tom Szaky, the Hungarian-born CEO and founder of TerraCycle, dreams of chewing gum, cigarette butts and ocean plastic. His Trenton, New Jersey-based company aims to accelerate the so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution, a breakthrough in materials science, energy storage and other technologies, by cleaning up after heaps of waste and inventing inputs for items spurned by ordinary recyclers.

This year, TerraCycle, with Procter & Gamble, reached a major recycling milestone by creating the Ocean Plastic Bottle for P&G’s line of Fairy dish detergent. It is the first commercially available consumer-grade bottle made entirely from recycled (90 percent) and marine (10 percent) plastic.

Starting in 2018, P&G will sell 320,000 of these bottles, with plans to extend the initiative to Dawn, Yes, Dreft and Joy brands. The effort evolved from the first shampoo bottle made from 25 percent recycled beach plastic, an iteration of the Head & Shoulders bottle engineered by TerraCycle, P&G and French recycling company Suez.

For this effort, the United Nations will present TerraCycle an award during COP 23 climate talks in Germany this month.

Through 15 years of growth, TerraCycle has tried to solve the existential question of why trash exists. Here are some of Szaky’s key takeaways about scaling the crusade against waste by proving its economic viability.

Keep it simple

The company got its start in 2002, when Szaky, then a student at Princeton, began selling fertilizer, composted from the university’s cafeteria, to Home Depot and Walmart. Now, it partners with major brands such as L’Oreal, Huggies, Kleenex and Bausch + Lomb to recycle over 100 bottom-of-the-barrel consumer waste streams. This year, for example, TerraCycle helped Target collect 80,000 car seats, totaling more than a million pounds of secondary material.

“We’ve seen a lot of growth and operate in 21 countries around the world, and we basically ask three questions that are our three business units,” said Szaky. “The first question is what we’re most known for: Is your product or your package recyclable?”

If the answer is no, TerraCycle’s 10-person R&D team figures out how to physically collect and recycle something. A company pays monthly for TerraCycle’s zero-waste box to be set up in its stores or factories, and employees or consumers can drop their used goods, such as chewing gum (which can be turned into a polymer for frisbees), in it for no extra cost. Depending on the type of waste collected, boxes can run up to $300 to $400. No-cost recycling programs are also available for municipalities.

“The second question we ask is how we can we help make that object from recycled material,” said Szaky, in order to provide inputs to integrate recycled materials back into consumer products.

“We now run the world’s largest supply chain for ocean plastic, and we collect ocean plastic from all over the world,” he said. “And [we’ll] integrate that into, for example, the Head and Shoulders shampoo bottle at 25 percent, and most recently, the largest dish soap range in Europe called Sari, at 10 percent.”

“At the core of TerraCycle’s philosophy is to eliminate the concept of ‘disposability’ altogether.”

The third question at the core of TerraCycle’s philosophy is how to eliminate the concept of “disposability” altogether. As a company that works with multinational corporations, does this aim lead to massive complexity within TerraCycle’s operations? Not necessarily.

“To become manageable, every one of these platforms revolves around three things,” said Szaky. “We collect the waste or the material; we process them, whether it’s cleaning or recycling. Third, we have to figure out the business model to make all of these things work. And it’s always those same three questions, whether you’re recycling dirty diapers, cigarette butts or ocean plastic.”

Think outside the zero-waste box

Innovation is inevitable in the recycling industry, where, said Szaky, “the cards are stacked against you.”

Recyclers are going bankrupt due to factors such as high oil prices and a recent ban from China, a major global recycling hub, on imports of waste. For TerraCycle, collecting plastic from oceans, rivers, lakes and beaches in beach cleanups further drive up costs.

And yet, the company employs 150 people worldwide; its profits nearly doubled to $1.4 million in 2016 compared to 2015. It brought in $19.3 million in revenue in 2016 and is estimated to bring in over $20 million in 2017, mostly from corporate and municipal partners. TerraCycle is also working on a platform to help brands switch from disposable packaging to durable alternatives, launching in 2019. Suez recently acquired 30 percent of TerraCycle’s activities in Europe.

“Innovation is inevitable in the recycling industry, where, said Szaky, ‘The cards are stacked against you.'”

“We have to be very creative in getting an organization to be willing to spend a higher price on difficult-to-use material,” he said, despite having a tried-and-true business model. In order to raise $25 million to buy more recycling companies, TerraCycle is turning to a Regulation A securities sale. This allows people that don’t fall into a high earnings bracket to buy a “crowdfunded” stake in the company.

“We think that there’s a really good opportunity, especially now where politics is really helping the environmental movement where private organizations and individuals are seeing that they have to do something [to combat waste] and we’re seeing that echo in a very big way,” said Szaky.

TerraCycle is also expanding its reach by working with technology. In October, TerraCycle announced a partnership with Rubicon Global, a cloud-based technology company that pairs organizations with independent, local haulers to find ways to divert their waste from the landfill. Together, they will be able to provide a wider spectrum of solutions to sustainably manage waste streams, including common recyclables such as mixed paper and cardboard to “more extreme” examples such as candy wrappers, batteries and used cigarettes.

The partnership with Rubicon expands upon TerraCycle’s capabilities to connect secondary materials with end uses and bring in more U.S. clients.

You are a solution, not the solution

Although waste is TerraCycle’s treasure, Szaky called the current state of waste production and management nothing less than “a crisis” and “a catastrophic challenge.”

“Nothing that anyone in the ocean plastics space is doing, including TerraCycle, is the answer in the end,” he said. “The real answer is we have to shut off the stuff going to the ocean and it’s difficult because what’s happening is a macro trend of lightweight packaging, making packaging thinner and lighter.”

This is good for company’s bottom lines because it means cheaper and leaner material use.

“But as you increase lightweight packaging, it becomes less recyclable and more likely to end up in the aquatic system,” he said, pointing out that a quarter of the world’s plastic ends up in the ocean.

Even the Fairy ocean plastic bottle, crafted to bring attention to the crisis of marine plastic, points a finger at the capability of companies with lots of resources to create solutions for a problem they helped create. Efforts by corporations and nonprofits to study how plastic winds up in the ocean are growing, such as the Trash Free Seas Alliance, an effort by Dow, Coca-Cola and the Ocean Conservancy to study how waste washes into the oceans.

Although there is no streamlined solution to definitively scrub the seas, said Szaky, he’s thrilled that TerraCycle is shining a spotlight on the complications of industrialization.


How Mars and Walmart illustrate the future of sustainability

Sustainability carries a lot of buzz these days, whether you’re talking about choices in food, business plans or personal lifestyles. But when Mars Inc. uncovered a troubling flaw in its supply chain, sustainability became an imperative for the brand.

In September, the global food manufacturer overhauled its business operations, vowing to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and improve employee working conditions. CEO Grant F. Reid said he anticipates a long, bright future for his company, but only if it puts sustainability at the core of its business ethos.

“The only way that will happen is if we do things differently to ensure that the planet is healthy and all people in our extended supply chains have the opportunity to thrive,” he said.

As Reid and other CEOs are learning, sustainability isn’t just a “nice-to-have,” especially from a consumer perspective. A recent study indicates that one-third of consumers prefer to buy from brands with reputations for sustainability, so it no longer matters whether your business deals directly with environmental issues: Business leaders must use enlightened self-interest to educate themselves and their teams on sustainability’s benefits in order to implement and scale environmentally sound initiatives.

Cultivating enlightened self-interest

What, exactly, is enlightened self-interest? To me, it’s where your professional and personal goals intersect. Before you successfully can incorporate sustainability into your organization, you need to invest in the concept emotionally. I’m not here to make the virtuous case for sustainability. Moves toward eco-friendly manufacturing and socially conscious business management are ethical; it’s true. But they also help nurture a healthy bottom line.

“Before you successfully can incorporate sustainability into your organization, you need to invest in the concept emotionally.”

Simply replacing outdated computers and installing energy-efficient light bulbs can save companies up to $1 billion, and some of the world’s biggest brands found that sustainable investments give them an edge in both product innovation and brand image. Then there are the tax benefits and sustainability tax incentives, such as income tax credits and property tax abatements, which the government offers companies in order to get them engaged in such initiatives.

Just as important are customers becoming more empowered and eco-conscious. Millennials, especially, do incessant research to assure the products they buy are produced ethically and align with their values. A Nielsen study noted that 55 percent of millennials surveyed say they’d pay more for products sold by socially responsible companies.

Enlightened self-interest can create positive ripples throughout your supply chain. When multiple retailers, manufacturers and suppliers depend on you for customer engagement and distribution, you wield considerable influence that can be used for the greater good.

Consider Walmart, a top-tier global brand that works with 150,000 suppliers. When Walmart set its sights on adopting more sustainable practices, it insisted that suppliers begin using 100-percent recyclable packaging materials and more efficient packaging methods that would reduce the fuel needed to transport products. More efficient packaging also meant more products with which to stock Walmart’s shelves and create more profit opportunities — that’s enlightened self-interest in action.

“Profits and ethics are not at odds — at least, they don’t have to be.”

The shift toward environmentally sound policies heartened customers, inspired pride in employees and reduced the waste produced by Walmart and its affiliates. It also won over skeptics, such as Pearl Jam guitarist Stone Gossard. Gossard is a well-known environmentalist who didn’t believe me when I told him Walmart was insisting that all CDs sold in its stores be packaged in cornstarch-based wrapping instead of plastic. But he called me one day after hearing that record companies were, in fact, making the shift, and he was delighted to acknowledge Walmart’s new green CD policy.

Profits and ethics are not at odds — at least, they don’t have to be. When you cultivate a mindset of enlightened self-interest, you can help your company thrive while also helping people. And isn’t that the holy grail?

The ultimate win-win

I enjoy sharing the Walmart story because it’s a powerful example of how enlightened self-interest drives change. But it also illustrates another important point, which is that to really move the needle, sustainability must be in a company’s DNA.

Had Walmart merely paid lip service to sustainability or continued to work with suppliers that eschewed eco-friendly practices, it wouldn’t have made much of an impact and might have cost the retailer credibility with environmentally conscious consumers. Instead, it made sustainability a core policy and flourished because of it.

It’s not the only company benefiting from a sustainability-driven philosophy. Disney, one of the most beloved brands on the planet, has been eco- and conservation-conscious since its founding. It operates a state-of-the-art energy management system that saves the brand considerably on energy usage across its many attractions and properties.

Coca-Cola also has a keen interest in environmental operations. As a company that relies on water to produce its marquee products, Coca-Cola invests heavily in water conservation and efficiency, both in its factories and in parts of the world that serve as key water sources — an approach that helps Coca-Cola and is good for the environment. The company also has saved $90 billion by improving its bottle designs and decreasing packaging waste.

As these global giants prove, enlightened self-interest is a win-win. By serving as sustainability stewards, businesses can win customers, reduce costs and ensure the long-term health of their environments — for their businesses and their communities.

What midsize firms can learn from Organic Valley’s community solar deal

In the scheme of things, the power purchase agreement disclosed last month by dairy cooperative Organic Valley isn’t very big — slightly less than 13 megawatts of solar in phase one of the project. That’s exactly why it’s a noteworthy sign of progress for the corporate clean power procurement movement.

Under the deal announced in late October, the organization has entered into what it describes as a “first-of-its-kind” community solar partnership in collaboration with the Upper Midwest Municipal Energy Group (UMMEG), a joint action agency representing 15 electricity providers from Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota.

“These towns wanted to increase their mix, as did we,” said George Siemon, CEO of Organic Valley, in a conversation with GreenBiz. “It’s pretty neat to have this collective make this pledge. We’ve had to learn how to get outside the normal route of procurement to get this done.”

The 25-year-long arrangement will allow UMMEG to start sourcing clean renewable power from multiple solar projects as soon as next year, displacing about 12 percent of its existing generating sources, predominantly coal-fired power plants. Organic Valley, which represents 2,000 farmers in 36 cities, won’t be able to use all the power directly — although it will be able to source electricity from a 2-MW installation planned near its site in Cashton, Wisconsin. There’s also potential for 17 more MWs of construction after the initial phase.

The co-op will buy all the renewable energy credits associated with the sites, all of which will adopt pollinator-friendly designs. The meadows underneath them will include native plants and grasses — the equivalent of 30,000 families creating a six-foot-by-12-foot garden. The RECs will enable Organic Valley to cover all electricity generated by its headquarters, processing and distribution sites with renewable power by the end of 2019, estimated Jonathan Reinbold, head of sustainability for the coop.

“Our hope is that this partnership to install community-scale solar will be replicated by municipal utilities around the country and propel more rural communities toward economic stability and energy independence,” Reinbold said.

Here’s the back story

This is not Organic Valley’s first foray into renewable energy. The company previously teamed up with UMMEG — and Gundersen Health Systems in La Crosse, Wisconsin — to help create a two-turbine, community-supported wind farm on the Cashton Greens next to Organic Valley’s campus there. Each company invested $5 million in the 5-MW facility, taking advantage of tax incentives and creating a limited liability corporation to own and operate the project. Organic Valley, which generated about $1.1 billion in revenue in 2016, also has invested in several small solar installations (about 200 kilowatts in capacity) on roofs of some of its corporate buildings, and it has experimented with some geothermal and solar thermal systems. It has experimented with on-farm biodiesel initiatives.

The expectation was that those investments — a total of $6 million over the past six years — would help the co-op make a “100 percent renewable” claim but the organization’s growth over the past several years made that more difficult, Reinbold said. In 2014, Organic Valley managed to cover about 81 percent of its power needs with renewable wind and solar energy; by the end of 2016, the amount was closer to 50 percent, he estimated.

When it began considering next steps that would help it work toward a carbon neutral future, the co-op didn’t set out in search of a community solar project. It actually was exploring a virtual PPA, but dropped that idea because the pricing and terms would have required review by the public service commission, traditionally hostile to renewables investments.The community solar arrangement with UMMEG didn’t require a special review, and it built on an existing relationship — the municipal group buys all of the wind-generated power from the Cashton Greens project. What’s more, “this had the opportunity to be more impactful” within the region because it enables residential customers and other businesses to source clean power, Reinbold said. Aside from Wisconsin, some projects may be in Minnesota, although the final decisions haven’t been made.

The deal was brokered by OneEnergy Renewables, which focuses on helping develop commercial and institutional projects that range from 2 to 50 MWs in capacity. For example, OneEnergy was behind a certified pollinator-friendly project in Maryland that supplies the Verizon Center and the National Geographic Society headquarters in Washington, D.C. It was involved with projects at General Electric and Ithaca College.

OneEnergy’s participation was instrumental in winning over the Organic Valley executive team responsible for sustainability initiatives, Reinbold said, estimating that the negotiations took about 13 months from start to finish. “That was one of the biggest barriers: demonstrating that this was real,” he said.

Bill Eddie, CEO and co-founder of OneEnergy, said the cooperation between Organic Valley and UMMEG was necessary for the deal to happen — and it’s a dynamic he expects to play out again in the future as more midsize companies seek creative ways to invest in clean power.

“Without these two working together, there wouldn’t be these projects,” he said. “What we’re seeing now is a lot more engagement by utilities with their customers.”

Watch this space

Community solar programs are seen as one emerging way for organizations with more modest electricity needs than many of the mammoth companies investing in PPAs to help add renewable, clean power to their operations — either virtually or directly. Initiatives aimed as scaling this mechanism are becoming more common.

Earlier this week, for example, renewables developer ENGIE announced a partnership with Clean Energy Collective (CEC) meant to hasten the spread of this option in the Northeast United States. The two are behind a community solar plan in Massachusetts that includes a portfolio of 17 installations; indeed, they are pursuing dozens of projects across five states. ENGIE is the fourth largest, non-residential electricity provider in the United States with a presence in 14 markets.

“Our relationship with ENGIE, coupled with our unmatched ability to deliver localized, market-specific community solar solutions on a national scale, makes the possibilities for community solar nearly limitless,” said CEC founder and CEO Paul Spencer.

You should also keep an eye out for new services from LevelTen Energy, an almost-two-year-old venture fronted by CEO Bryce Smith, co-founder of OneEnergy.

The startup is working on procurement options that will allow multiple corporate buyers to buy into a portfolio of new projects — a purchasing mechanism he likens to a mutual fund and that helps spread the risk. “If you look at the PPA process to date, there are issues. For starters, 99 percent of corporate buyers are shut out. … It’s extremely hard to buy into a large or economical project,” Smith said.

LevelTen disclosed $6.8 million of Series A financing in early October to gets its platform off the ground. “LevelTen has created the transaction platform of record for this immense, emerging industry,” said Tim Woodward, managing director of Prelude Ventures, one of the participating investors. “In 2012, only 1 percent of the electricity from new wind projects was sold to corporate customers. Fast forward to 2016, and this number increases to 55 percent. LevelTen brings transparency, efficiency and liquidity to a market previously dominated by cumbersome bilateral transactions.”

This story was updated Nov. 2 to clarify that Organic Valley is not a Certified B Corp.

Packaging’s role in Walmart’s Project Gigaton

Earlier this year, around Earth Day, Walmart announced an ambitious plan to work with its supply chain to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by one gigaton. I decided to run the numbers to see what role source reduction, specifically in Walmart’s packaging, could play.

First, what’s a gigaton? A gigaton is 1 billion tons or 1 billion times 2,000 pounds, which equals 2 trillion pounds of greenhouse gases, or GHGs. That represents 20 times more pounds of greenhouse gases than there are stars in the Milky Way.

This is a serious amount of GHG reduction. Because of the scale of this goal, no one product or company can get Walmart to its goal. It will take the hard work of many companies and a multitude of products and operations to achieve.

As a thought experiment, I wondered how changes in packaging could contribute to this goal. We’ve all seen changes in packaging in past decades, especially when it comes to source reduction and use of lighter materials. One example of this shift is pasta sauce. We’re beginning to see a move to lighter-weight glass jars and to PET plastic containers. And while not common in pasta sauce, we’re seeing more sauces in flexible pouches.

Running the numbers

So, how could pasta sauce packaging contribute to Walmart’s goal? First, we need to know how much pasta sauce is sold. According to Statista, 718 million units of pasta sauce are sold in the U.S. each year. The dominant size is 24 ounces, plus or minus an ounce. Yes, there are big 64- and 48-oz jars and some smaller 12- and 15-oz packages, but 24 ounces and glass is the current consumer choice.

According to Andrew Wolf, an analyst at Loop Capital, Walmart has a 21.5 percent market share in grocery, thus we’ll assume it sells 21.5 percent of the pasta sauce in the United States. By weighing a few jars and pouches, plus checking historical weights from ULS Packaging Efficiency Reports from 2007 and 2016, we estimate that a 24-ounce package weighs:

  • Glass: 320 grams
  • PET plastic: 38.6 grams
  • Steel: 80.3 grams
  • Flexible pouch = 15.8 grams (two 7.9 gram 12 oz. pouches)

Next, we need to know the GHG emissions for the various materials. For this, we look to the source reduction values from U.S. EPA Documentation of Greenhouse Gas Emission and Energy Factors Used in the Waste Reduction Model (WARM) — Containers, Packaging, and Non-Durable Good Materials Chapters February 2016 (PDF). Essentially, this resource quantifies how much GHG emissions would be saved if a given material wasn’t produced.

  • Glass: 0.60 MT CO2e/ton of material
  • PET plastic = 2.24 MT
  • Steel = 3.67 MT
  • Flexible Pouch = 1.788  MT(assumes the pouch is a mix of LDPE, PP & PET)

Calculations are provided in the table below. What do they mean? Although steel has a small and shrinking portion of this market and is very recyclable, it doesn’t make sense to switch back. Steel has the highest GHG footprint.

Next, we can see that continuing the transition from glass to PET will more than double the GHG savings for pasta sauce packaging. If we assume all packaging is glass today and we move to PET, it would reduce almost 20,000 tons CO2e every year just at Walmart. If we look at the whole U.S. market it would result in more than 92,000 tons of CO2 being avoided every year.

Finally, our calculations show that moving from glass to flexible pouches would result in a massive 143,000 tons (167,511 – 24,623 = 142,888) reduction. Even though glass emits a lower amount of CO2 on a per-ton basis, the amount of material (or mass) required per unit of glass packaging creates a much larger overall CO2 footprint.

Now, these results make huge assumptions, such as a 100 percent shift from glass to PET or pouches. But we have seen many products shift from steel and glass to plastics and flexibles. While baby boomers are comfortable with traditional packages, millennials are quick to pick up a pouch or a carton if it will help them with convenience.After just seven years, the switch from glass to pouches would save 1 million tons of CO2. It might seem like one little step forward in Walmart’s Project Gigaton. But consider that this is just one package.

What about all those other packages that can be optimized? Source reduction of packaging can play a key role in getting Walmart to its gigaton goal.

Standing at the crossroads of the climate crisis

The following is an edited excerpt from “The Happy Hero” by Solitaire Townsend (Unbound, Autumn 2017).

A crisis always starts with some small shifts in “normal.” A tiny ember burns, the sky fills with cloud, a few pebbles fall. For individuals, a crisis might start when damaging behaviors (like heavy drinking) that have slowly built up suddenly start causing real and visible problems.

On a more global scale, with something like climate change, we can track those little pebbles falling from a long way off. We’ve been burning up carbon for centuries but it’s taken a lot of pebbles and a few rocks to fall before we’ve started to notice anything.

Crisis grows

One of my favorite Albert Einstein quotes is his definition of insanity, which he says is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” As individuals or societies head towards a defining crisis point, which I call the crossroads, things can look a little crazy. More and more people become aware of the crisis, talk about it, argue about it and worry and worry and worry. But they don’t do much differently. This is a familiar stage in crisis theory, especially for individuals. And the signs of intensifying crisis are easy to spot:

  • Growing anxiety: people begin feeling fretful and ineffectual; individuals and
    whole governments seem chaotic and uncoordinated. Everyone feels “at sea” and “lost.”
  • More frustration: we keep trying the same old things and feel increasingly irritated when they don’t work.
  • Anger: some people get defensive and blame others or deny the problem.

Sound familiar? These are the symptoms of any crisis, be it personal or climatic.


Human beings have always known that decision moments are important and that one decision can take you to a radically different destination. That’s why crossroads have a special status in our literature and mythology. Individuals can stand at psychological crossroads for a few moments or can struggle to decide their next steps for years. And there is always a mindset shift before people take a step beyond their crossroads. We are either able to move past our crisis mentally, reset our attitudes and improve our lives, or we succumb to it, lacking the will for change.

To those watching, it may seem obvious what we need to do, but until we’ve seen our own path out, they can’t help us. Happy heroism is the mindset that serves us best when we face a crisis. It accepts the possibility of a better future and puts us in service to that purpose. Attain that mindset and the right actions will follow. As you read through this book, that mindset will slowly develop, until you can pass any crisis you meet.

“Human beings have always known that decision moments are important and that one decision can take you to a radically different destination.”

And the same principles apply to the crisis our entire society faces. Right now, we’re shuffling closer to a big crossroads in terms of climate change. We’re not quite there yet because we’re not fully exhibiting the signs of a society at the very threshold of change, but we’re getting very close. Psychologists have learned how to spot a patient who is ready to change, and their definitions are helpful for any crisis management. We’ll know our collective feet are unambiguously standing at the crossroads when we all feel:

  • Openness: when we have maximum awareness and interest in the crisis, looking for lots of ideas, being open and suggestible to both good (and bad) advice.
  • Energy: when we put all our focus on emergency methods or creative, novel solutions to the problem, trying everything and agreeing on nothing.

Some might argue that we’ve already hit this point in our climate crisis, but I suspect there’s a little more to come (or we need to stand at the crossroads a little longer to fully experience it). Being fully there will feel like a bizarre mixture of panic and calm, frenzy and reflection, everywhere in the world. There are rules for making the right choice, whether as one person or an entire civilization. Both our collective history and individual psychology agree that how you think will dictate what you do. And hard experience shows that at a crossroads there are only three directions to choose.

Be bad

Being bad is the worst and most foolish path. It means pretending there isn’t a crossroads, or saying we’re doomed to walk down only one pathway. In the context of climate change, the bad mindset right now is either denial or doom. They might sound different, but they are both trying to drive us down the same terrible route. And it’s a path with no rewards; all you are left with is a last-ditch fight to survive a certain disaster. This path should have a big “Beware: Dead End Ahead” sign hanging beside it.

Arctic stronghold of world’s seeds flooded after permafrost melts

Arctic stronghold of world’s seeds flooded after permafrost melts

No seeds were lost but the ability of the rock vault to provide failsafe protection against all disasters is now threatened by climate change

By Damian Carrington

The Svalbard ‘doomsday’ seed vault was built to protect millions of food crops from climate change, wars and natural disasters. Photograph: John Mcconnico/AP

It was designed as an impregnable deep-freeze to protect the world’s most precious seeds from any global disaster and ensure humanity’s food supply forever. But the Global Seed Vault, buried in a mountain deep inside the Arctic circle, has been breached after global warming produced extraordinary temperatures over the winter, sending meltwater gushing into the entrance tunnel.

The vault is on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen and contains almost a million packets of seeds, each a variety of an important food crop. When it was opened in 2008, the deep permafrost through which the vault was sunk was expected to provide “failsafe” protection against “the challenge of natural or man-made disasters”.

But soaring temperatures in the Arctic at the end of the world’s hottest ever recorded year led to melting and heavy rain, when light snow should have been falling. “It was not in our plans to think that the permafrost would not be there and that it would experience extreme weather like that,” said Hege Njaa Aschim, from the Norwegian government, which owns the vault.

“A lot of water went into the start of the tunnel and then it froze to ice, so it was like a glacier when you went in,” she told the Guardian. Fortunately, the meltwater did not reach the vault itself, the ice has been hacked out, and the precious seeds remain safe for now at the required storage temperature of -18C.

But the breach has questioned the ability of the vault to survive as a lifeline for humanity if catastrophe strikes. “It was supposed to [operate] without the help of humans, but now we are watching the seed vault 24 hours a day,” Aschim said. “We must see what we can do to minimise all the risks and make sure the seed bank can take care of itself.”

The vault’s managers are now waiting to see if the extreme heat of this winter was a one-off or will be repeated or even exceeded as climate change heats the planet. The end of 2016 saw average temperatures over 7C above normal on Spitsbergen, pushing the permafrost above melting point.

“The question is whether this is just happening now, or will it escalate?” said Aschim. The Svalbard archipelago, of which Spitsbergen is part, has warmed rapidly in recent decades, according to Ketil Isaksen, from Norway’s Meteorological Institute.

“The Arctic and especially Svalbard warms up faster than the rest of the world. The climate is changing dramatically and we are all amazed at how quickly it is going,” Isaksen told Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet.

The vault managers are now taking precautions, including major work to waterproof the 100m-long tunnel into the mountain and digging trenches into the mountainside to channel meltwater and rain away. They have also removed electrical equipment from the tunnel that produced some heat and installed pumps in the vault itself in case of a future flood.

Aschim said there was no option but to find solutions to ensure the enduring safety of the vault: “We have to find solutions. It is a big responsibility and we take it very seriously. We are doing this for the world.”

“This is supposed to last for eternity,” said Åsmund Asdal at the Nordic Genetic Resource Centre, which operates the seed vault.