Tag Archives: plastics

For New Years Day, giving credit where credit – the good and the bad – is due

I source and update the information for my Status of Plastic Bans Worldwide from many places. (Just last week I added an entry about UK schools being strongly “encouraged” to stop using single-use plastics.) But one of the most useful sites for my updates is EcoWatch and, for their end of the year wrap up, they posted “2018: A Year of Fighting Plastic Waste.” In my own end of the year post last week, “EcoOptimistic News for the End of an Environmentally Crappy Year,” I included single-use plastics as one of the leading topics, so obviously I agree with them.

Embed from Getty Images

There was plenty of news on other environmental fronts, as I wrote in that post. Most notably, climate change took a beating under our rogue president, but that beating, as I’ve been noting in several posts (here and here), has engendered a backlash in which other institutions (local governments, NGOs, businesses and even the military) have been taking up the mantle.

Similarly, the rapidly increasing awareness of the scale of our plastics problem has resulted in a correspondingly rapid escalation of attempts to address the problem. Hence my continuing tabulation of the bans and taxes worldwide on single-use plastics – and my desire to acknowledge EcoWatch for their reporting.

On the flip side, George Monbiot writes in The Guardian: “We won’t save the Earth with a better kind of disposable coffee cup.” In it, he touches on two points. The first is one that I try to make in all my classes and involves taking a step back to see if you are asking the right question. Regarding disposable coffee cups, he writes:

[S]ome people asked me, “So what should we use instead?” The right question is, “How should we live?” But systemic thinking is an endangered species.

The version of this I usually pose in my classes asks: if you were tasked with challenging the plastic waste generated by toothbrushes, what would you do? The usual answers are to make it of recycled plastic or biodegradable plastic or design it with replaceable heads, etc. But the “right” question to ask, instead, is: is there a better way to clean our teeth? This opens up a different realm of possibilities in which, maybe, we don’t need toothbrushes at all.

The second point Monbiot makes is a “structural” one. In the case of plastics and many other materials, the solution to waste, we’re told, is to recycle. But as I and others have written, this puts the responsibility in the wrong hands, purposely shifting it from corporations to consumers, i.e. us.

Writing this weekend in The Guardian “The plastic backlash: what’s behind our sudden rage – and will it make a difference?,” Stephen Buryani goes into some depth about the origins of this:

Following the failure of legislation loose alliance of oil and chemical companies, along with drinks and packaging manufacturers, pursued a two-part strategy that would successfully defuse anti-plastic sentiment for a generation. The first part of the strategy was to shift responsibility for litter and waste from companies to consumers. Rather than blaming the companies that had promoted disposable packaging and made millions along the way, these same companies argued that irresponsible individuals were the real problem. This argument was epitomised by a 1965 editorial in a US packaging trade journal headlined “Guns Don’t Kill People”, which blamed “the litterbugs who abuse our countryside” rather than the manufacturers themselves.

This was memorialized in the famous “Crying Indian” television commercial in which the supposed Indian (he was actually Italian) sheds a tear about littering, saying “People start pollution; people can stop it.”  Corporations may be considered people, but that’s obviously not whom the makers of the commercial were referring to.

Monbiot continues his point:

This represents the mistaken belief that a better form of consumerism will save the planet. The problems we face are structural: a political system captured by commercial interests, and an economic system that seeks endless growth. Of course we should try to minimise our own impacts, but we cannot confront these forces merely by “taking responsibility” for what we consume.

He casts a much wider, more foundational outlook:

One-planet living means not only seeking to reduce our own consumption, but also mobilising against the system that promotes the great tide of junk. This means fighting corporate power, changing political outcomes and challenging the growth-based, world-consuming system we call capitalism.

Disposable coffee cups made from new materials are not just a non-solution: they are a perpetuation of the problem. Defending the planet means changing the world.

While this would appear to negate much of what we are doing, the more profound questioning leads to EcoOptimistic responses that look at how to not simply address a problem in short-term, limited ways, but instead to change things – concepts, systems, thinking (i.e. systems thinking) – to get to the core and truly address causes.

Putting the cost of recycling onto manufacturers is a response to this. In England, there’s a proposal to force retailers to pay the cost of collecting and recycling packaging materials. Germany has had a version of this since 1991, and it’s getting expanded. (The EPA had a webpage about packaging regulations employed by other countries but – no surprise – it’s been removed. You can find some of it preserved by the Internet archive Wayback Machine.)

You could look at this as a New Year’s resolution for us: challenge ourselves to challenge the others who create problems by selfishly shifting responsibility. Many of us make resolutions to go the gym more often. The problem is that, aside from rapidly letting the well-intended resolution fall by the wayside, it doesn’t really address the causes of the problem such as fast food (which is largely a creation of big business) and sedentary lifestyles, which are in part of product of suburban sprawl (sitting in cars) and in-home entertainment. You could make an argument that cars, television and single-use plastics are a result of consumer demand, but what created and then encouraged that demand?

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.

Plastic Bans Update

Along with some Good News Disguised as Bad News

People take part in a demonstration in front of the European Parliament on October 23. Credit: Frederick Florin/AFP via The Telegraph

It may not be as evocative and disturbing as that image of the turtle with a straw stuck in its nose, or the even more disturbing video  (warning: it’s very graphic and hard to watch), but recent stories about not just the environmental impacts of plastics, but the human health impacts as well, are serving to further the worldwide restrictions and bans on single-use plastics.

As with the turtle image, the realization that we are all affected by the proliferation of plastics carries a bit of what I’ve been calling “good news disguised as bad news.” Admittedly, in virtually all the instances I’ve cited previously – and now here – as examples of this, it’s hard to put a positive spin on such disturbing images and impacts, but the result is often a strong and visceral reaction that can kick us into action. A prime example of this is the infamous burning of Lake Cuyahoga in 1969 that resulted in the Clean Water Act and was responsible, in part, for the creation of the EPA.

In my “Good News Disguised as Bad News” post, I wrote about the countering, galvanizing response that is emerging from the rampant destruction of both environmental and health protections enacted by this administration (including the decimation of the EPA). A case in point: a pre-election post in ThinkProgress about a climate change-denying Congresswoman’s difficult re-election campaign asserted “Even climate and environmental issues, frequently relegated to the back-burner, have made it onto the radar in 2018 due to the administration’s rejection of climate science and assault on environmental protection.”

Still, conveying the urgency, or even the importance, of environmental issues can be difficult and explains, in part, why public support lags. Taking a cue from the women’s marches’ “pussy hat,” perhaps a hardhat made to look like a turtle shell or tee shirts emblazoned with the Chris Jordan photo of the albatross that died from consuming plastic waste may be the emblem we need to further awareness of the global problem of single-use plastics.

The health impacts of plastics are harder to convey. How do we conjure an image to depict microbeads in our food? Or plastics in salt and our poop? (Let’s skip the imagery of the last one. I don’t think it will help our cause.)

Nonetheless, even without a rallying image, regulations and bans of single-use plastic are spreading almost as fast as ocean plastics, and so my “Status of Plastics Bans Worldwide” continues to be updated. Just this month I added bans ranging from Jamaica to England to the entire EU. And 250 companies, governments and other organizations around the world signed “The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment,” pledging to eliminate by 2025 all plastic packaging that isn’t recyclable, reusable or compostable. The signatory companies alone, which include the likes of Coca-Cola and Unilever, represent 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally.

If you know of bans or fees that aren’t on the list, please let me know.

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.

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?