The plastic used to make Barbie has a big carbon impact and recycling isn’t a solution. And a Kentucky coal mine gets a new life as a massive solar farm

Recycling plastic isn’t a solution

Everybody’s favorite pink summer blockbuster, Barbie has renewed interest in Mattel’s perennial bestselling plastic toy.

But even as Barbies have become icons of female empowerment, diversity and inclusion, they pose a real problem around sustainability. Every Barbie doll manufactured puts 660 grams of carbon into the atmosphere. And with 60 million Barbies made every year, that number adds up. (1)

In 2019, Mattel made a pledge to use “100% recycled, recyclable or bio-based plastics materials in both its products and packaging by 2030.”(2)

It’s a worthwhile and lofty goal. If Mattel succeeds in reaching it, the company might open a new market for the recycled material, and that’s something sorely needed. It turns out that recycling plastic doesn’t accomplish as much as people expect.

A Greenpeace USA report titled “Circular Claims Fall Flat Again”(3) showed that most plastic in the U.S. cannot be effectively recycled. Released on October 24, 2022, the report states that out of an estimated 51 million tons of plastic waste generated by U.S. households in 2021, only 2.4 million tons were recycled, less than 5%. Furthermore, no type of plastic packaging in the U.S. meets the recyclable standards set by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastic Economy (EMF NPE) Initiative.

According to EMF NPE standards, an item must have a 30% recycling rate to be classified as “recyclable.” However, plastics that most consider recyclable, like PET #1 and HDPE #2, , fall well below the target, coming in at 20.9% and 10.3%, respectively. For other types of plastic, the reprocessing rate is even lower, below 5%.

The report challenges the notion that being accepted by a recycling processing plant guarantees actual recycling. It points out that plastic waste is difficult to collect, challenging to sort for recycling, environmentally harmful to reprocess, often contaminated with toxic materials, and economically unfeasible to recycle.

The data was collected from U.S. residential material recovery facilities and publicly shared to promote transparency regarding “recyclable” claims and labels for plastic products.

The Transformation of Starfire Mine: From coal to solar energy center

Deep in the heart of Kentucky coal country, the Starfire Mine has long been a stand-in for the challenges of pivoting the country to clean energy. It was once a mountain with a deep, rich vein of coal running through it. However, after being mined using the mountaintop removal process, and years as one of the largest coal mines in the country, it’s little more than a stony prairie these days.

But this week, executives from renewable energy developer Brightnight, EV manufacturer Rivian and The Nature Conservancy gathered in the rubble to announce that the former mine would soon become the largest solar farm in the Kentucky, with a capacity of 800 megawatts.(1) The project will power over 170,000 households annually once it reaches completion. With this whopping $1-billion infrastructure investment, the Starfire Energy Center is setting the pace on how the sites of mountaintop-removal mines can be repurposed in the new energy economy.

Collaboration has been at the heart of this venture. Rivian, known for its electric vehicle (EV) pickup trucks, will play a pivotal role by purchasing 100 MW of renewable power from Phase 1 through a power purchase agreement (PPA) with BrightNight. This commitment will enable Rivian to power up to 450 million miles of renewable driving every year.

The Nature Conservancy, a global environmental nonprofit, will also contribute by purchasing up to 2.5 MW of renewable energy credits. Their involvement doesn’t stop there; they have collaborated with Rivian to establish a meticulous competitive process that ensures the project adheres to the principles of an equitable, science-based clean energy transition focused on the “3Cs”:- climate, conservation, and communities. The Nature Conservancy has developed those principles into a guide, Power with Purpose. The guide outlines their strategy and provides tools for industry leaders looking to champion environmentally and socially driven clean energy projects. This blueprint sets the stage for a modern grid that provides reliable, affordable and carbon-free energy to all, setting an inspiring example for future endeavors.

While phase 1 construction is set to commence in 2025, BrightNight, alongside Rivian and The Nature Conservancy, is now actively engaging with the local community throughout the ramp-up process. Identifying community development priorities, procuring necessary land for the transmission line right-of-way, securing additional sources of energy, and employing environmentally conscious site design based on the best available science are among their ongoing endeavors.

At its peak, the Starfire Mine supplied 3 million tons of coal on an annual basis.

The Weekly Sunsong

Dwight Yoakam sings of the Coal Miner’s life