Category Archives: Recycling

Plastics in the Time of COVID:

Are Single-Use Plastics a Global Scourge or Necessity?

The answer, on this 50th anniversary of Earth Day occurring during a pandemic, is both. Single-use plastics have always had pros and cons, but the scale has temporarily shifted. Yes, SUPs are a serious problem. It’s tempting to say they should just be eliminated. (And I have, here and here, as well as keeping track of places where they have been.) The evidence of the problem is overwhelming, from heart-wrenching images of animals killed or maimed (turtles and albatrosses especially) to beaches covered in detritus. And then there is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Moreover, there are ways we can eliminate virtually all of our use of SUPs. After all, we did pretty well without them until a few decades ago.

The major exception has been medical applications. Yes, hospitals and doctors’ offices functioned without them in times past, but medical care has changed and SUPs in the form of things such as biohazard containers and IV bags would be difficult if not impossible to replace. And in many cases, finding ways to sterilize used items is simply not cost-effective, which makes their existence even more crucial in this pandemic. No one has seriously suggested eliminating those applications of SUPs.

In fighting COVID-19, those who have reduced or removed SUPs from their lives face a distasteful choice in order to preserve those lives. Plastic bags and disposable gloves surround us, and it’s difficult in this moment to eliminate them from our daily lives, let alone admonish others.

When I received a grocery delivery (yes, we got a delivery slot after a week), it came in a trunk load of plastic bagged items. Compounding this evil was the fact that those bags had – finally – just been banned in New York State, where I live. But it was hard to argue with the appropriateness of the packaging, much of it double-bagged. And we were, if not overjoyed, at least relieved to see our tomatoes and carrots bagged in plastic within the plastic. In fact, thinking of the at-risk elderly parents we are isolating with, we selected produce that was pre-packaged in those clamshell plastic containers or sealed plastic bags in the theory that they had been handled less than loose items.

You could see this as putting ourselves selfishly ahead of the planet, an equation that had been written much differently until now. We could rationalize that it wasn’t actually selfish, that we were contributing to the health of others who, despite carefulness and social distancing, we might put at risk.

In order to partially justify those grocery bags, we sequestered them for a few days so that we could reuse them. They’ve become handy for uses like safely handling the mail.

plastic bags decontaminatimg

sequestering plastics bags so we can reuse them

The question is what our attitude toward plastic bags and take-out utensils will be when this is all over. Will, for instance, that NYS plastic bag ban that took years to achieve be revoked? Will the recent resistance to plastic straws – even though they have little to do with contagion – be lost? Or, will the need to return to normalcy also mean moving ahead with environmental movements that had been becoming mainstream? And another possibility: that we will see climate change for what it is, a slow-moving pandemic. (The bad news: we have a president who has called both of them a hoax.)

Is it “too soon” to start talking about this? Perhaps. But whether the answers are ones that we want to hear or not, it’s important for our own and everyone’s wellbeing, emotionally as well as environmentally, that we think beyond our temporary crisis.

New York Joins the Ranks of the War on Single-Use Plastics

plastic bag sign

Today marks the day that the New York State ban on plastic bags takes effect (as well as New York City’s $.05 fee for paper bags). I haven’t yet been to any stores to check on compliance. I hope someone who’s more intrepid on a cold Sunday morning than I am is taking up that task. But as of yesterday, shoppers I saw in a supermarket and a drug store were being offered and were taking plastic bags. I guess they were feeling they didn’t need any practice, despite the signs that have been there for the last couple of weeks. And cashiers were still surprised when I refused them.

And there is the predictable backlash. In the New York Post, one shopper was quoted: “Not good for old people, for disabled people. Where do you put your groceries if they’re not in a bag? So it sucks.”

Seniors have been a factor. The city tried to impose a fee on plastic bags in 2017, but it was defeated by the state legislature. When I called my state senator’s office to complain about him voting against the small fee, his office told me that his vote had been based on extensive complaints by seniors that they couldn’t afford the $.05. I’m willing to bet that the plastic bag lobby sent staffers to senior facilities where they could persuade people en masse to call their legislators. (He was voted out of office at the next election. I’d like to think his opposition to the fee was the cause of his defeat, though I’m sure it wasn’t.)

Perhaps it was for the best as the state’s outright ban is better than a fee by the city.

So, New York is now added to my database of plastic bans and fees worldwide. In fact, just two months into 2020, I’ve added several entries. Some are just bans on plastic bags while others are more extensive bans on single-use plastics: China (plastic bags by the end of 2020 and other single-use plastics to follow), Thailand, Jamaica, Belize, Barbados, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Bahamas.

A bill in the US Congress, sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), would address the issue of single-use plastics nationwide. One groundbreaking part of the bill, according to EcoWatch, “requires plastic producers to take responsibility for their waste. The bill would shift the burden of waste collection and management from local governments and taxpayers to the manufacturers of items like packaging, containers, food service products and paper, who would be charged with designing and funding recycling systems.”

That’s a good thing because bans are only as effective as the compliance with them. As long as recycling places the onus on the public, this will be a problem. And it’s not always because of our laziness. It’s often just plain difficult. Even after researching it (and how many people do that?), I’m still uncertain what types of plastic can be recycled here in NYC. (Cardboard milk cartons, according to the posters, get recycled with plastics, not paper. Go figure.) The city says all hard plastics – not the flimsy stuff – can go in the recycling bin. But Beyond Plastics and Greenpeace say that much of that can’t actually be recycled, even if a company’s label sometimes says it can be. The city is just trying to make it simpler for us. Sort of.

That Greenpeace report found that:

  1. Only some PET #1 and HDPE #2 plastic bottles and jugs can be legitimately labeled as recyclable in the U.S. today.
  2. Common plastic pollution items, including single use plastic food service and convenience products, cannot be legitimately claimed as recyclable in the U.S.
  3. Plastics #3-7 have negligible-to-negative value and are effectively a category of products that municipal recycling programs may collect, but do not actually recycle. Plastic #3-7 waste collected in municipal systems across the country is being sent to landfills or incinerated.
  4. Many full body shrink sleeves on PET #1 and HDPE #2 bottles and jugs make them non-recyclable.

Remedying this would require something called “extended producer responsibility,” the concept that a manufacturer’s responsibility doesn’t end when the product goes out their door. That’s what that US congressional bill would address.

EPR could go beyond simple plastic recycling. Imagine if Dell or Apple had to take their laptops back at the end of their useful lives. Or if Whirlpool had to pick up your dead refrigerator or washing machine. Not only would it simplify recycling, it would also mean companies would want to design their products keeping in mind that they were going to have to deal with them later on. That’d be incentive to incorporate something call “design for disassembly” in order to make recycling easier.

That would be a breakthrough. It would reverse that shift of responsibility. A more direct approach in the meantime is a good old-fashioned lawsuit. Gizmodo’s environmental arm, Earther, reports that the Earth Island Institute is suing “ten companies—including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle, and Procter and Gamble—on Wednesday, alleging that the companies pollute waterways, coasts, and oceans with the millions of tons of plastic packaging they produce. A 2018 report found that globally, Coke, Pepsi, and Nestle account for 14 percent of plastic pollution.”

Ideally, we stop the scourge of single-use plastics. But that’s going to take a while and, meanwhile, we already have an unfathomable amount of plastics ending up in landfills or the oceans. While it’s better, I always tell my sustainable design students, to prevent a problem from occurring in the first place rather than have to deal with it afterward, we have to do both in the case of plastics. There are companies like Terracycle and Smile Plastics that are making things from that stream of detritus. An Israeli startup is working on taking all sorts of garbage – plastics, dirty paper and food waste – and making into a kind of plastic pellet that can then be made into other products. It would solve a multitude of problems including diminishing the amount of methane, a greenhouse gas, produced by landfills.

As great as that could be, it still addresses the problem after the fact. Single-use plastics are a perverse use of an otherwise wondrous material. Because plastics last such a long time, let’s use them for products that last a long time. Not flimsy bags and soda bottles and packaging.

EcoOptimistic News for the End of an Environmentally Crappy Year

We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered political opinion, denial is an alternative fact and the word “protection” in the Environmental Protection Agency’s name is a cynical leftover from its original mission. And while I don’t want to gloss over the issues – there isn’t enough paint in the world to do that – I offer here The Distillery, a weekly (or thereabouts) selection of posts to help offset the PTSD of our current nightmare.

The posts I pick will be “real” in the sense that they aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as fun as those can be, but are evidence of EcoOptimism.

Yeah, we’ve all heard about the UN IPCC report that gives us 12 years to get our shit together. And then we got that surprisingly frank White House “National Climate Assessment” that, despite the Trump regime’s best efforts to bury it, made headlines. Plus, of course, there was devastating evidence of climate change already rearing its head in the form of a sometimes record-breaking series of hurricanes and typhoons.

But fortunately for the holidays – and perhaps for our sanity and our therapy sessions – we can snag some happier news. So I started compiling EcoOptimistic articles a few months ago, though some of it is from earlier in the year, when I realized that, now more than ever, we need to counterbalance the daily litany of the-end-is-nigh headlines.

It’s not that I don’t believe those headlines. Rather, it’s that I won’t give in to the fatalism of them. Many of us, sometimes  – OK, often – including me, feel the despair coupled with the frustration and anger at those who avert their eyes, who won’t listen to fact or reason, who pursue blind self-interest, or who rationalize it in desperate ways. (No, it won’t cost jobs.) But letting them rule the news is infuriating and letting them determine our future is unacceptable.

FIRST, A SUMMARY…

From Earther
Dec 4, 2018

“The Rare Environmental Victories of 2018”

EcoOptimism’s take: The headline, I think, is self-explanatory.

Perhaps one of the most (eco)optimistic events of the year was the surprise election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the House of Representatives. Her “Green New Deal,” which combines environmental issues with job issues, is creating a politically appealing scenario that’s garnering more and more support with both local officials and voters.

And combined with this poll, perhaps the political “climate” may have turned a corner.

From Yale Environment 360:
April 18, 2018

“Americans Who Accept Climate Change Outnumber Those Who Don’t 5 to 1”

EcoOptimism’s take: Chew on that, Fox News. 

From the Washington Post:
Dec 13, 2018

“The Energy 202: Why 2020 candidates will be talking a lot more about climate change”

And then there’s this:

From the Guardian:
Dec 19, 2018

“Environment, Jaffa Cakes and Kylie Jenner star in statistics of the year”

EcoOptimism’s take: Um, OK. No entirely sure what to make of this, but nevermind.

While it’s a bit cliché to refer to the younger generation taking the reins, there has been some notable news on that front, too. The suit by a group of teenagers against the federal government is continues to move forward despite the administration’s efforts to get it thrown out of court. A Swedish 15-year-old made headlines at the recent UN climate change conference, lecturing the officials, “You are not mature enough to tell it like it is.”

I’ve mentioned before that Teen Vogue has been consistently taking up environmental topics, most recently taking up the issue of ocean plastics here and here. (See more on that topic below.)

RENEWABLE ENERGY IS COMPETITIVE WITH – AND SOMETIMES CHEAPER THAN – FOSSIL FUELS… 

One of the first items in that Earther post above notes the falling prices of renewable energy. “Beautiful, clean coal” is not cutting it financially despite the administration’s best efforts. And there are some significant milestones accompanying it. It’s been happening all year, not just in the last few months.

From Business Insider:
May 8, 2018

“One simple chart shows why an energy revolution is coming — and who is likely to come out on top”

From Earther:
June 14, 2018

“Solar Just Hit a Record Low Price In the U.S.”

A Same-Day Twofer from Forbes:
Dec 3, 2018

“Plunging Prices Mean Building New Renewable Energy Is Cheaper Than Running Existing Coal”

“Coal Power Plants Lose Their Cost Advantage Over Clean Energy”

EcoOptimism’s take: So much for “The sun don’t always shine and wind don’t always blow.”

We’re seeing some of the results

From EcoWatch:
Nov 6, 2018

“Britain Achieves the ‘Unthinkable’ as Renewables Leapfrog Fossil Fuel Capacity”

From Yale Environment 360:
Oct 15, 2018

“10 States Now Get At Least 20 Percent of Their Electricity from Solar and Wind”

From Think Progress:
Apr 24, 2018

“Wind, solar deliver stunning 98 percent of new U.S. power capacity in January, February”

AND RENEWABLE ENERGY GOALS ARE BEING MET AHEAD OF SCHEDULE… 

From Gizmodo:
July 12, 2018

“California Is Way Ahead of Schedule for Cutting Greenhouse Gas Emissions”

From Treehugger:
Aug 24, 2018

“Sweden to reach its 2030 renewables target 12 years early!”

EcoOptimism’s take: Yes, we may need our rose-colored glasses here, but it’s evidence of – don’t get too choked up here – “yes, we can.”

SINGLE-USE PLASTICS ARE IN THE CROSSHAIRS… 

In some previous years, I’ve nominated a word of the year. (2012, 2013, 2014) This year, Collins Dictionary did it for me, choosing “single-use.” 

Spurred by a graphic and very disturbing video of a turtle having a plastic straw removed from its nose, the nascent movement to regulate or ban SUPs got a jump start. EcoOptimism has been charting the international movement

Along with bans have come alternatives. We’re not talking about bioplastics, which while interesting have their own issues, but about reducing or replacing demand.

From EcoWatch:
Dec 4, 2018

“Corona Becomes First Big Beer Brand to Trial Plastic-Free Rings”

And from The Guardian:
Sept 6, 2018

“Carlsberg to replace plastic ring can holders with recyclable glue”

Images: Beverage Daily

EcoOptimism’s take: We know Brett Kavanaugh “likes beer,” though probably not for this reason.

AND FINALLY…

The subtitle of this blog is “Finding the Future We Want.” A great example of that is “turning lemons into lemonade.” 

From The Washington Post:
Oct 24, 2018

“Where does your recycled plastic go? Perhaps into future highways.”

EcoOptimism’s take: There isn’t a much bigger lemon than all that plastic waste and, while we may have mixed feelings about roads (unless they’re for non-fossil-fueled vehicles and don’t encourage more sprawl), here’s some lemonade.

From Yale Environment 360:
Nov 23, 2018

“A Former UK Coal Plant is Being Redeveloped Into an Eco-Village”

EcoOptimism’s take: Re-use of decommissioned power plants may be emblematic of the possibilities, making this a good story to end on.

We Need to Dispose of the Word Disposable

I’ve often written here [1, 2, 3, 4] about how word choices can affect how we see things. Problematic connotations can sometimes arise by stigma and sometimes by subtle associations. A classic environmental example is how we refer to global warming. In the 90s, the Republican strategist Frank Luntz encouraged rebranding it as climate change because it seemed less frightening and would therefore make it less of an issue. (The irony is that it’s actually a more accurate term. But because it minimizes perception of the problem, as Luntz desired, many of us prefer to call it something more emphatic like climate disruption.)

In a similar vein, years ago, before the advent of LED lights, when improved fluorescent lights were the most energy-efficient technology, I wrote in a guest column in a lighting industry magazine that the word “fluorescent” had too many negative associations with its older, uglier versions. So, to get people to come around to the newer, more pleasing fluorescent bulbs, I wrote that they needed to be renamed.

The impetus for this current thought about words that can have misleading connotations occurred as I was sitting in a waiting room that had a coffee station. In need of caffeine – I had forgotten my coffee travel mug – I grabbed a cup. As I finished making my fix, I looked at the counter and saw the disposable Styrofoam cup, the disposable “K-cup” coffee pod and the tiny – you guessed it, disposable – milk container. My “garbage guilt” set in.

Those little ketchup squeeze tubes are another pet peeve. My order of fries inevitable needs a half dozen or more of them. They make a messy pile of garbage that can be neither recycled or composted. Plus they get all over your hands. They’re a rare example of something both disposable and inconvenient.

The litter atop that coffee station caused me to ponder the word “disposable.” For many people, disposability connotes convenience (finger-coating Ketchup pouches aside). You don’t have to bring stuff – containers, utensils, plastic bags – with you and you don’t have to worry about cleaning or taking care of them. Just toss it. No problem. Disposability is seen as a positive thing, reinforced by the “able” suffix.

The word makes the use of disposable things and the resulting garbage seem OK. They’re meant to be guiltlessly thrown away because that’s how they’re designed and perceived.

When I advocated for renaming fluorescent bulbs, I couldn’t come up with a replacement term. I’d like to do better here, especially as single-use plastics are being increasingly recognized as a major problem. (The issue is being addressed in part by bans and fees – see my “Status of Plastic Bans” list – but even then, there’s pushback by both users and producers.)

So, how can we retitle disposability? My first thought was an obvious one. Just call it what it is: “landfill.” But that doesn’t work as an adjective in front of “cups” or “bags” (or with the current fixation on straws).

Next, I attempted to channel Stephen Colbert’s coining of “truthiness” with “disposiness.” But I’m not as clever as Colbert and it didn’t feel like it solved the problem.  There was, though, some, er, truth to it as the garbage never really gets disposed of. It’s still here, just relocated. When we throw things away, there is, as Bill McDonough is fond of saying, no “away.”

I’ve concluded that our new term needs to have that suffix “able” in it, but with a prefix that drives the point home. Garbagable? Trashable? Wastable? They still imply, though, that because something has the ability to be thrown out – e.g. it’s trashable – it’s OK. The word needs to communicate that single-use stuff that doesn’t decompose or effectively recycle is NOT okay. It’s wasteful and it’s a problem so it needs to be discouraged. But I don’t usually advocate for guilting people into environmental action. That’s been repeatedly shown to not work. Better to play upon self-interest and desire. “Wasteful” (I rejected “wastable” even though I like creating new words) heads in the right direction – who wants to be wasteful? – but still doesn’t quite get us there.

We need to somehow say you really don’t want to do this. Not an admonishment that you shouldn’t do it.  And it needs to be “sticky,” meaning the word will attach itself to the item the way disposable does.

I’m reluctantly left for the moment with “garbagy.” But it still doesn’t fully meet my criteria. Plus, the English language being what it is, you wouldn’t be sure how to spell or pronounce it.

Maybe I should ask Colbert.

Plastics: A Combined Distillery and EcoOptimism Post, Part 2

Beyond the Ban:
Plastics Alternatives and Mitigation

We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered evil, denial is an alternative fact and the EPA is now what I’m calling the Environmental Destruction Agency. And while I don’t want to gloss over the issues – there isn’t enough paint in the world to do that – I offer here The Distillery, a weekly (or thereabouts) selection of posts to help offset the PTSD of our current nightmare.

The posts I pick will be “real” in the sense that they aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as fun as those can be, but are evidence of EcoOptimism.


In just the short span since our recent post on the scourge of plastics, there have been more announcements of new or proposed bans on plastic straws and other types of plastics. (This week, Starbucks announced it will stop using plastic straws.) Rather than keep enumerating these individually, I’ve created a page, “Keeping Tabs on Plastics Bans,” with a list organized by type of entity – country, locality, company –  and type of plastics – bags, straws, packaging, microbeads. The list provides an easily graspable view of the extent of the movement, and will be updated as additional bans are set.

 

As promised in that previous post, we’re going to focus here a bit on some alternative proposals and materials. Dealing with plastics – as with most environmental issues – can be broken down into two approaches: what to do once the problem is happening versus how to prevent the problem in the first place. These are commonly referred to respectively as adaptation versus mitigation. Years ago, I also heard this described as “front of tailpipe” and “back of tailpipe,” the metaphor being pollution from cars, which can be dealt with either by filtering it in the exhaust pipe (that would be the “end of tailpipe”) by, for example, a catalytic converter, or by modifying the engine so that the pollution is prevented or at least diminished before it occurs. As you can imagine, heading off the problem is preferable to fixing it afterward.

In the case of plastics, we have a combination of damage already done along with a continuing stream of new plastics adding to the damage. Where plastic refuse has accumulated, such as in ocean gyres, the only remedy is to somehow, laboriously, retrieve it. Another adaptive after-the-fact approach is recycling. That at least keeps it out of the waste stream. (In theory, anyway. Less than 10% of plastic in the US is actually recycled. And, as others have noted, recycling shifts the responsibility – environmental and economic – from the actual producers of the plastic onto us, the consumers)

Image: Ocean Cleanup Project via EcoWatch

EcoOptimism’s take: Whether this type of ocean plastic reclamation would actually have a significant impact, given the scale of the problem and size of the oceans, is a topic of debate. But in any case, upstream prevention would be a much better solution, at least in terms of addressing a continuing problem.

The better solution would have been to not produce the plastic in the first place. We’re well beyond that option, obviously. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to avoid further exacerbating the problem through mitigation, meaning let’s not make more plastic if we can avoid it.

Plastic is so ubiquitous at this point that it’s hard to imagine a world without it. But there are indeed alternatives, both mitigative and adaptative.

Some of those solutions exist right in front of us, or at least in other places we can adapt from. A well-known one in some environmental circles is the Indian tiffin box. The tiffin involves a system in which lunches for workers and school children are packed at home in the morning and then distributed through a remarkable system by dabbawalas. The relevant idea here is that the home prepared meals arrive in tiffin boxes made of stacked metal dishes rather than disposable take out containers and, after the meal, are picked up and returned to each family’s kitchen for reuse.

Two dabbawalas in Mumbai delivering meals packed in tiffin carriers. Image credit: Wikipedia

This system has found a modern interpretation in Brussels where the city has introduced the Tiffin Project. People sign up for the project, purchase tiffin containers and bring them when they purchase take out foods. They even get a 5% discount on their orders.

From Treehugger
April 13, 2018

“Brussels has an ingenious solution to wasteful takeout containers”

EcoOptimism’s take: as optimistic as we like to be, it’s hard to imagine such a system succeeding here. As the Treehugger post notes, the system works best with small, local restaurants and “helps people discover new places to eat.” Takeout food in much of this country tends to come from large chains with familiar menus.

Tiffin boxes, if not the delivery system, have found their way west. You can even buy them on Amazon and elsewhere, with a Western interpretation:

A better-known example of a plastic substitute is, of course, the reusable cloth bag. They’ve become so ubiquitous that you’ll find them for sale (branded, of course) in all kinds of stores – not just the eco-oriented ones like Whole Foods, but conventional stores, too. And they’re an almost inevitable part of events. We have a (reusable) bag full of reusable bags that we’ve accumulated from fundraisers, trade shows and promotions. Too many, in fact.

Image credit: David Bergman

But there are times when a cloth bag just won’t cut it. For those, there are forms of plastic that are not made from oil and that can decompose after use.

The first plastics invented were made from plants. (The word cellophane refers to the fact that it was made of cellulose: plant fiber.) A famous photo shows Henry Ford swinging an axe against the bioplastic trunk of a Model T to show the material’s strength. (The axe was actually covered with fabric but made for an impressive display nonetheless.) As the story goes, he wanted to make his cars with bioplastic, but the steel industry had other ideas about that.

Image from HemmingsDaily

Bioplastics are getting renewed interest for applications such as plastic utensils made from potato starch. The main caveats here are how well they decompose or recycle and that the plant starches not be taken from foods. The solution to the latter is to use crop byproducts such as wheat chaff as opposed to the grain.

Image credit: www.ecoproducts.com

EcoOptimism’s take: In addition to the points above, bioplastics, for now, are not quite as versatile as synthetic plastics, but applications are broadening and have wide potential. 

But there’s now a renewed interest in bioplastics. A case in point:

From Engadget:
March 2, 2018

“Lego will soon make bricks out of sugarcane bioplastics”

EcoOptimism’s take: While it’s exciting to think that all those future Lego creations might not end up buried forever in landfills, this announcement is a bit misleading because, for now, it’s only Lego’s landscape elements, comprising about 1% – 2% of their production, not the iconic bricks.

But it’s not likely that all synthetic plastics can be substituted with bioplastics. And that leads us to a back-of-tailpipe types of mitigation. Among them are technologies that break down plastics.

From The Guardian:
April 16, 2018

“Scientists accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic bottles”

Credit: Still image from video in The Guardian

From Grist:
March 2, 2018

“Mealworms munch on Styrofoam without dying, shock scientists”

Image credit: Geek.com

EcoOptimism’s take: In our Parsons School of Design Sustainable Systems course, we have the students try this out. Though they tend to be grossed out by the mealworms (see photo above!), they get to see that it actually works.

Still, these last two are after-the-fact approaches and, not to belabor the point, we’d be much better off not incurring the problem of more plastics on the first place.

Plastics: A Combined Distillery and EcoOptimism post

I’ve been meaning to do a Distillery post on plastics for a while but, like plastics, the news has been accumulating faster than I can keep up with….

They barely existed until Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite in 1907. In the 60s, they were the future, at least according to the advice Dustin Hoffman was given in The Graduate. Now, of course they’re everywhere. Literally. This thoroughly unnatural human-made detritus has been found in the deepest trench in the ocean.

Plastics are no longer the future. But they’re definitely the past in the sense that all the petroleum-based plastic ever made is still here. And will be for a very long time since they break down excruciatingly slowly.

What’s so insidious about plastic is that it’s in virtually everything. So much so that we don’t even notice it anymore. And it’s perhaps the egregious example of take, make and waste, especially since we tend to use plastic – which essentially lasts forever – for things have only a fleeting life of usage. Consider take out containers. The food goes in and gets consumed, often in a matter of minutes, but then the plastic container may end up in a landfill for hundreds of years or more. Or it may end up in ocean garbage patches of unfathomable size, killing fish and animals that mistake it for food.

The newest topic in plastics is straws. They weren’t on anyone’s radar until now. Among all the other things around us made of plastic, they seem insignificant. But it turns out they aren’t and it just takes some simple visualization to get it.

We could say something like “if you put every straw end on end it would circle the Earth a million times.”  Never mind the actual number; it’s too abstract. Like the national debt, it’s so big that we can’t grasp it. It’s unrelatable. But make it something we can see, and everything changes.

But the Distillery and this blog are about positive “EcoOptimistic” news and topics. And on the topic of plastics, amidst all the bad news – indeed because of it, which qualifies it as “good news disguised as bad news” – there’s been a strong, almost startling, movement by governments and companies to address this scourge. In Facebook terms, it’s trending. So let’s look at the extent of this overdue but amazing trend.

As evidenced by these posts, the UK seems to be a leader in the movement to eliminate plastics. The “Together We Can” pact involves governments, businesses, local authorities, NGOs and citizens and is described as “is the only way to truly transform the UK’s plastics system.”

From EcoWatch
April 26, 2018

“More Than 40 Companies Sign Onto Historic UK Plastics Pact”

From Treehugger.com
April 19, 2018

“UK could ban single-use plastics as early as next year”

From EcoWatch
February 12, 2018

“The Queen Declares War on Plastic”

That last one also touches on one of the topics “du jour” in plastics, straws, as do the following posts. The first is, again, from England, but the second is from Taiwan and the third lists a number of American cities.

From Treehugger.com
February 27, 2018

“Is the UK about to ban plastic straws?”

From EcoWatch
February 15, 2018

“Taiwan Sets Aggressive Timeline to Ban Straws and Other Single-Use Plastics”

From The New York Times
March 3, 2018

“Bans on Plastic Straws in Restaurants Expand to More Cities”

Grocery store packaging is also one of the biggest culprits:

Source: EcoWatch

From EcoWatch
February 28, 2018

“World’s First Plastic-Free Supermarket Aisle Debuts in the Netherlands”

From CNN
February 28, 2018

“World’s first plastic-free supermarket aisle debuts as momentum builds to reduce waste”

From The Guardian
January 11, 2018

“Theresa May proposes plastic-free supermarket aisles in green strategy”

Amidst this, companies other than supermarkets are getting the message, too. McDonalds is trialing eliminating plastic straws in the UK. There have been many reports about this, but as perhaps a sign of its wide support, here’s one from – get this – Fox News.

From Fox News
March 29, 2018

“McDonald’s working to remove plastic straws from UK restaurants”

McDonalds in the UK, however, is more enlightened than the mother ship here in the US, where the board of directors is fighting a stockholder initiative to get rid of plastic straws.

And then there’s the issue of plastic bags. They, too, have a fleeting useful life, usually less than an hour (unless you reuse them – and the dog-poop excuse doesn’t count). One stat says “Worldwide, a trillion single-use plastic bags are used each year, nearly 2 million each minute.”

Source: Wikimedia

Plastic bag bans have been instituted in various locations around the world, but of course the US is lagging behind. And also, of course, California led the charge last year by becoming the first state to ban them. An effort to curtail usage in NYC by charging five-cents per bag failed last year, but almost exactly a year later, Governor Cuomo is proposing an outright ban rather than a fee. Washington, DC’s five-cent charge imposed in 2010, it should be noted, is credited with reducing usage by 87%.

From The New York Times
April 23, 2018

“Cuomo Announces Bill to Ban Plastic Bags in New York State”

And the most comprehensive approach yet is from a tiny island it the South Pacific, known for its beaches and coral reefs – now being marred by plastic debris.

From EcoWatch
May 14, 2018

“Vanuatu Soon to Outlaw Plastic Bags, Drinking Straws, Foam Containers”

Upcoming soon in the Distillery: some EcoOptimistic solutions

The Distillery: February 2, 2018

We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered evil, denial is an alternative fact and the EPA is now what I’m calling the Environmental Destruction Agency. And while I don’t want to gloss over the issues – there isn’t enough paint in the world to do that – I offer here The Distillery, a weekly (or thereabouts) selection of posts to help offset the PTSD of our current nightmare.

The posts I pick will be “real” in the sense that they aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as fun as those can be, but are evidence of EcoOptimism.


The theme here: good news disguised as bad news

From ThinkProgress:
January 4, 2018

2017’s costly climate change-fueled disasters are the ‘new normal,’ warns major reinsurer

and from The New York Times:
January 4, 2018

2017 Set a Record for Losses from Natural Disasters. It Could Get Worse

And the “Bomb Cyclone” wasn’t even in 2017, so we’re off to an inauspicious start. But there’s optimism here ….

Photo: U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Ben Bloker

EcoOptimism’s take: On the face of it, this doesn’t sound like an EcoOptimistic post, but it in fact emphasizes the economic incentive to mitigating and adapting to climate change. Insurance companies – especially reinsurers, the ones who insure the insurance companies – have been concerned with this for a while. The Times article references Munich Re, but Swiss Re has also studied the potential costs of covering insurance losses due to climate change and has been ringing alarm bells.

Arguably, since politicians (American, that is) aren’t onboard, it may be the business world that spurs, finally, US action. Ironically, politicians cling to the belief that environmental action is bad for business.

And if the business case for climate action doesn’t work, maybe the military case can…

From Ecowatch:
February 2, 2018

Climate Impacts Nearly Half of U.S. Military Bases

Photo: Michael Lavender / U.S. Navy / Flickr

EcoOptimism’s take: The US military is a surprisingly staunch advocate for adaptation to climate change. Though Trump ridiculed Obama for saying so, climate change is a national security threat that could both create or exacerbate geopolitical and affect military readiness. This post, though, emphasizes the potential direct cost of climate change. As a military policy, it might even have Trump’s ear and bring him to his senses. But maybe that’s my EcoOptimism speaking.

China is going to stop accepting plastic for recycling, so…

From Ecowatch:
January 15, 2018

America Needs a Plastics Intervention. Now’s the Time.

photo source: Scrap Monster

EcoOptimism’s take: So China’s going to stop taking the world’s plastic waste for recycling. That problem, though, creates the impetus for better recycling, plastics that are more recyclable, and/or plastics bans here and elsewhere. And, of course, to stop shipping our problems elsewhere.

A new twist to “Read My Lips” and taxes…

From Evolution News:
January 27, 2018

Would a Beef Tax Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions?

Photo source: Evolution News

EcoOptimism’s take: : Taxes are bad, right? Not if they discourage consumption of things that aren’t good for us or the environment – and meat is both. Think about, for instance, taxes on cigarettes or alcohol. Or sugary drinks, as is catching on in some places. (Though NYC’s proposed tax didn’t survive a lawsuit. On the other hand, the city’s proposal for congestion pricing which, arguably, is a tax, is getting some traction after a false start.)

Now if we can only institute carbon taxes. Or if not that, maybe at least an increase in the decades old gasoline tax, which has been 18.4 cents since 1993. That means it’s actually decreased significantly due to inflation.

But taxes are bad, right?

 

The Distillery: August 14, 2017

Triangles_Distillery_Text-smr

We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered evil, denial is an alternative fact and the EPA is now what I’m calling the Environmental Destruction Agency. And while I don’t want to gloss over the issues – there isn’t enough paint in the world to do that – I offer here The Distillery, a weekly (or thereabouts) selection of posts to help offset the PTSD of our current nightmare.

The posts I pick will be “real” in the sense that they aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as fun as those can be, but are evidence of EcoOptimism.

August 7, 2017

From EcoWatch:
Costa Rica Wants to Become World’s First Country to Eliminate Single-Use Plastics

EcoOptimism’s take: Only a fraction of plastics gets recycled. The rest of this persistent scourge ends up in the oceans and distant beaches or, at best, in landfills to live on virtually forever.

They’ve even been found in the deepest place on Earth: the Marianas Trench.

And in case that’s not nasty enough, bear in mind this doesn’t take into account the resources (oil!) and energy required to make them.

Marine debris on Kamilo Beach, Hawaii. Credit: Algalita.org

Marine debris on Kamilo Beach, Hawaii. Credit: Algalita.org

August 9, 2017

From ThinkProgress:
America’s Wind Energy Industry Passed a Major Milestone

EcoOptimism’s take:  in 2016, wind energy passed the generating capacity of hydroelectric power became the nation’s top renewable generating source.

For all the talk naysaying renewable energy – it’s too expensive or too unreliable because “the sun don’t always shine, the wind don’t always blow” – it’s now the most rapidly growing and inexpensive form of energy. More efficient solar cells and new types of batteries will only further the trend, and the renewable energy industry is already creating more jobs than fossil fuels are.

Credit: Department of Energy via ThinkProgress.org

Credit: Department of Energy via ThinkProgress.org