Points of Progress: Breakthrough in plastic recycling, and more

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Places where the world saw progress, for the May 11, 2020 Monitor Weekly.

1. United States

The bald eagle continues to make its comeback from the brink of extinction in the United States, particularly across the Upper Midwest, where states are reporting record high numbers of the national bird. In Minnesota, the eagle population has climbed from 1,312 in 2005 to around 4,000 by the latest estimate. The continued increase in individual birds, as well as the record number of nests documented this year, is credited to the care afforded by the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act and the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. The ban of toxic pesticides such as DDT and conservation efforts have also contributed to the comeback. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the number of nesting pairs in the continental U.S. rose from 487 in 1963 to 9,789 in 2007, when the bald eagle was taken off the endangered species list. (ABC News, St. Peter Herald, The Chronotype)

2. Brazil

Why We Wrote This

This is more than feel-good news – it's where the world is making concrete progress. A roundup of positive stories to inspire you.

Literacy rates have risen dramatically over the past few years to 92% in Sobral, one of the poorest municipalities in Brazil, while the number of families living in extreme poverty declined by 89%. This is a result of a movement to improve education in Sobral, which started in 1997 with renovating school buildings, furnishing them with computers and resources, and boosting public spending on education. “People think it’s magic and it’s not. It is persistence and a lot of hard work,” says Ivo Gomes, Sobral’s mayor. Now, the city tops 5,000 districts in Brazil’s education development index. Similar initiatives are being replicated across the country. Work has begun in 25 municipalities across five states. (The Guardian)

3. Nigeria

Makoko, the world’s largest floating slum, is being given a place on digital maps of Nigeria, a sign of recognition and inclusion of a place that is home to an estimated 250,000 people. The project, launched by the nonprofit organizations Code for Africa and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap in September 2019, is another step toward helping residents create an infrastructure that supports community development. Residents were taught how to pilot drones and populate the map with images from the community. Established nearly a century ago after fishermen from neighboring countries settled there, Makoko has been ignored by the Nigerian government or threatened with regular eviction notices. A navigable digital map aims to enable development of health care, electricity, and education services for the residents of Makoko. (CNN)

4. United Kingdom

Phil Noble/Reuters/File
After decades of operation, SSE’s Fiddlers Ferry electricity power station in northern England shuttered on March 31, 2020.

Two energy companies have shut down two coal-fired power operations ahead of the U.K.’s ban on coal-fired power beginning in 2025. The closures leave only four coal plants in the country. After almost 50 years, the U.K.’s leading energy corporations, SSE and RWE, shuttered their coal-fired plants on March 31. SSE’s plant, designed in 1973 to serve 2 million customers, had been losing £3 million ($3.68 million) per year. Coal plants are going out of business largely because of a hefty government tax on carbon that aims to cut emissions in half, and competition from less expensive renewable energy sources. Four years ago, coal powered almost a quarter of U.K. electricity. In 2019, coal-fired electricity only made up 2.1% of U.K. energy output. (The Guardian)

5. Hong Kong

Tyrone Siu/Reuters/File
Giant pandas Le Le (top) and Ying Ying at Ocean Park mated for the first time in 13 years in the privacy of Hong Kong’s pandemic lockdown.

Two giant pandas successfully mated for the first time during the coronavirus lockdown after living together for 13 years in a Hong Kong zoo. Ocean Park, home to Ying Ying and Le Le, shut down on Jan. 26, freeing the amusement park of its usual crowds. The species is known for its reluctance to mate and difficulties with fertility. Female pandas are fertile for only 24 to 72 hours a year, which makes matters more difficult for animal conservationists working to reverse the population decline of the vulnerable species. In 2014, the World Wide Fund for Nature estimated that there were only 1,864 giant pandas remaining in the wild. Pregnancy is more likely through natural mating over artificial insemination, and after 10 years of trials and lessons, zookeepers and experts say this is a cause for celebration. It is not yet known if a cub is on its way. (The Guardian, The New York Times)

Worldwide

Scientists have created a mutant bacterial enzyme that can break down PET, which is used to make plastic drink bottles. Originally discovered in compost, the enzyme can break down plastic to its chemical building blocks within a few hours. The chemicals then can be used to make new food-grade plastic bottles. The research, published in the journal Nature, is the product of screening 100,000 microorganisms. Carbios, the company behind the breakthrough, intends to reach industrial-scale recycling within five years. It partnered with companies such as L’Oréal and Pepsi to speed up development. Other scientific efforts to find biological ways to break down major plastic are underway, including using wax moth larvae to break down polyethylene. (The Guardian, Nature)

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