Category Archives: Plastics

Can We Be Optimistic? (2021 installment)

I’ve written posts like this at the end of the last few years. I’ve even copied the title from the previous versions. (What? You expect originality from a professor who’s bleary eyed from grading papers at the end of the semester?) It’s difficult to be the EcoOptimist these days when there is so much news on the negative side. I won’t – and you probably don’t need me to – start enumerating it. And I’d be violating my self-anointed title and role.

So, instead I’m focusing here on some of the more positive news – news that perhaps will help motivate us for the coming year. Here’s a selection.

I have a post in the works, btw, on how unexpected types of legal actions, here and elsewhere, are having an impact. I’ll try to make use of the holiday downtime to finish that one. Meanwhile…

from Gizmodo
December 15, 2021
Microbes May Be Evolving to Eat Plastic:
The latest research findings from our dystopian present

plastic waste

Image: Chalmers University of Technology

EcoOptimism’s Take: From my favorite environmental-blog-that-isn’t-an-environmental-blog, comes this news about the tiny organisms that may eat our way out of our century of plastics. There have been other reports of forms of life with a diet of plastics, but this sounds like a hopeful step.

There’s a bit of SciFi dystopianism here in that the study says these microbes didn’t just naturally have this appetite – they’re evolving that way.

“We found multiple lines of evidence supporting the fact that the global microbiome’s plastic-degrading potential correlates strongly with measurements of environmental plastic pollution — a significant demonstration of how the environment is responding to the pressures we are placing on it,” according to Prof Aleksej Zelezniak at Chalmers University of Technology 

In other words, our environmental failings have altered the DNA of bacteria.  Dunno about you, but I find that a bit scary.

Putting my Jurassic Park paranoia aside, the downside here, and it shouldn’t outweigh the positive, is that, as the article mentions, this does not mitigate the issue; it doesn’t help stop the problem from occurring. It merely deals with what we already have and what will still be produced. This is an unfortunate byproduct of well-intentioned ’solutions.’ It’s the problem with, for example, geoengineering. While it’s arguable that we have reached the point (pardon my non-ecooptimism) where we will need to do this to address the climate emergency, it doesn’t stop carbon emissions and, in fact, can worsen the problem by leading us to think that we don’t have to.

Still, I welcome the idea of providing sustenance to these – hopefully friendly – critters. Bear in mind that, given the amount of plastics out there for feasting upon, we might be welcoming our new microscopic neighbors everywhere.

And then there’s this different approach to remediating plastics using nature:

from Microfiber Innovation Challenge
Squitex
Seaming, Coating and fibers from self-healing materials

image of squid

image: WSTale.com

EcoOptimism’s Take: Biomimicry, design inspired by nature, gets us to some of the coolest ideas – things we mere humans, who have just a tidbit of the knowledge gained by nature over 3.8 billion years, could never come up with on our own. In this case, it’s a self-healing fiber that can reduce microfibers in the ocean, made from squid’s tentacles combined with genetic resequencing (arguably something nature has been doing all along in the form of evolution, or so it seems to this non-scientist). So addressing the problem of microfibers in the waters might come from creatures who live in that water.

Will squid become our next octopuses: creatures far smarter than we thought?

from Reuters
September 29, 2021
Democrats weigh first nationwide fee on plastic in U.S. budget negotiations

Snapple sign boasting about switching to plastic

photo: David Bergman

EcoOptimism’s Take: Does this have a chance in an intractably partisan Congress that can’t even accept the urgency of the climate crisis? And where any fee, even one that seems to be a capitalist laissez faire approach that internalizes those pesky externalities inherent in single-use plastics, is dead on arrival? Prove me wrong. Please. Don’t make me become an EcoRealist.

from Gizmodo
December 14, 2021
Dell’s Concept Luna Could Be the Future of Laptop Design

image of modular laptop

Image: Framework

image of modular mobile phone

image: Fairphone

EcoOptimism’s Take: Right to repair laws have been all the rage (well, perhaps that’s an overstatement) this year. But to really make those work, products have to be repairable – and not have things like batteries and RAM soldered in as many Apple and other manufacturers do. That goes hand in hand with making electronics modular so that items like those as well as screens, keyboards and motherboards are removable and replaceable.

I recently had to buy a new laptop because one of the keys became stuck. The repair shop told me it would be too expensive to be worthwhile. (The laptop was just out of warranty, of course.) Similarly, on the previous laptop that caused me to purchase the one that then developed a hatred for the letter A, a cracked screen was not worth replacing. (It valiantly, if expensively, gave its life by breaking my fall when I fell backwards onto the backpack it was in.)

Modular electronics offer the hope of being both repairable and upgradeable, which help keep electronics from becoming ‘e-waste.’ Efforts to accomplish this date back to a student project at Stanford ‘s School of Design Thinking (as if other school’s design programs don’t include thinking!) quite a few years ago. And Motorola’s original modular phone, Project Ara, was a great idea, but never caught on. Its less adventurous successor, the Moto Z is still finding its feet.

But its concept has been replaced by Fairphone, which, unfortunately is not available in the US. Nor is their more recently released Framework modular laptop. (Crossing my fingers it will be more available when my current laptop decides to develop a small but insidious problem that defies economical repair.) But now, signaling the mass market potential, Dell is taking a shot at the idea. It’s a shame that my Dell with the malfunctioning keyboard came out a couple of years too early.

from NPR
December 14, 2021
The largest city in the U.S. bans natural gas in new buildings

image of cooktop with both gas and induction burners

Image: ABT

EcoOptimism’s Take: Banning gas appliances is a concept that took root, of course, in California. Those appliances, ranging from stoves to boilers and heat pumps, have both environmental and health issues. Their use emits carbon dioxide, which contributes to the fact that 40% of the country’s carbon emissions comes from buildings. (It’s even higher – 50% – in NYC because using public transportation instead of cars emits less carbon, and that means buildings are a higher percentage of the total.)

And from a health point of view, combustion gases in enclosed spaces like kitchens are also deadly for us humans, not merely bad for the atmosphere. They’re the reason we have carbon monoxide detectors in our homes.

Banning gas appliances in new buildings is a big deal. Many people still prefer gas stoves, though. Fortunately, induction cookers and electric ovens are darn good alternatives. They still require energy, but local emissions are reduced because the electricity needed comes from power plants which are usually located outside cities and are more efficient. 

Here’s yet another way to look at it: energy efficiency. With a gas stove, you’re heating not just the food, but the area around the stove as well. Not so with an induction cooktop. It heats only the pot or pan. It’s also what makes it safer.

Now I just have to convince my chef client to forget the “now we’re cooking with gas” slogan, which originated as a natural gas industry campaign in the 1930s and that, unfortunately, implies doing a good job.

“Can we be optimistic?” has an implied negative tone to it. Wouldn’t it be great if I can change that title for my 2022 end of the year EcoOptimism post?

Plastic Free July, with some updates to my list of bans

This having been Plastic Free July (it’s not too late to make your Plastic Free commitments!), I’ve updated the EcoOptimism list of Plastic Bans Worldwide.

screen shot of Plastics Bans webpage from EcoOptimism

screen shot from EcoOptimism’s Plastic Bans Worldwide

Australia has a fragmented policy that, for instance, stresses reducing plastics at beaches. On a more advanced level, they are attempting to ban microbeads. However, the phaseout is voluntary. But the most interesting part is that they are including bioplastics in the plastic phase out plans, acknowledging that bioplastics are not the great solution most people think they are. While it’s nice that they aren’t petroleum-based, their compostability is misleading. Despite being (mostly) plant based, they don’t break down in standard compost facilities, instead requiring higher heat and sunlight. Furthermore, they muck up recycling streams when they get included with other plastics and it may be impossible to tell them from other plastics because they are included in the catchall number 7 “other” plastics category.

New York State is banning (by Jan 1, 2024) those little bottles of toiletries used in hotel rooms. (But they were so cute!)

There are many bans in effect or going into effect in European countries, but the EU as a whole is taking on some measures including a target for recycling of 90% of plastic bottles by 2029 and 50% of plastic packaging by 2025.

I don’t know if it’s coincidence (I doubt it) that Mattel announced earlier this month the “Barbie Loves the Ocean” line. In their writeup, Inhabitat says it’s made from 90% recycled ocean-bound plastic parts sourced within 50 kilometers of waterways in areas that are lacking formal waste collection systems. But like Lego’s announcement a couple of years ago that it would make parts from recycled plastic, this is somewhat misleading in that it is only a small part of their production. (To be fair, according to Mattel, “The launch is in line with Mattel’s goal to achieve 100% recycled, recyclable or bio-based plastic materials across all its products and packaging by 2030.”)

image of Barbie Loves the Ocean

Image from Mattel website

Perhaps more significantly, they also announced a takeback program called PlayBack. Though less press-worthy at first glance (which, after all, is what gets press – and therefore notice), it’s their start of what’s called Extended Producer Responsibility, a concept that’s becoming less conceptual in which manufacturers take responsibility for their products throughout the product’s lifetime, including the end of life, so that fewer things end up in landfills.

While Plastic-free July is well and good, the idea of a plastic-free month strikes me as similar to meatless Mondays. Why only one month of no single-use plastics or only one day a week of no meat?

This UN banner from back in May gets it right: “No More Single-use Plastic.” Period.

photo of UN single-use plastic banner

Photo credit: David Bergman

Pandemics and US deregulation be damned. Plastic bans are not getting derailed.

NYS's plastic bag ban now enforced

It’s back, baby

As I wrote about several months ago, single-use plastic bans and fees have taken a back seat to the urgency of the COVID pandemic. First, there was the mistaken idea that plastic bags were necessary for sanitary reasons. Bag manufacturers did their best to take advantage of this. (As they have for decades as shown in the appropriately if cutely titled report, “Talking Trash: The Corporate Playbook of False Solutions,” from the Changing Markets Foundation.) And then there was just the fact that there have been more pressing things for governments to deal with.

The glut of oil resulting from less travel and manufacturing has created a need for the fossil fuel industry to find other ways to utilize those “stranded assets,” and the primary direction is to increase plastic production, whose raw material is oil. But in Earther, Gizmodo’s sub-blog, Bruce Kahn documents the potential for “peak plastic” and a counterreaction in which governments are creating more bans and fees. (The US has, unsurprisingly, given our current regime, been an exception, but one hopes that will begin to change on January 20th.)

As evidence – maybe – of this, the U.S. Plastics Pact has brought together some of the major users of plastics, Coca Cola, Nestle and Unilever, with notable environmental organizations such as the Ocean Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund to phase out unnecessary plastic packaging and make sure other single-use plastics are recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. Forgive my cynicism, but I’m both dubious of this actually happening and suspicious of the terms recyclable, compostable and reusable.

But this blog is about optimism.

The big news this week, here at least, is that New York State’s ban, delayed from earlier in the year, is finally going to get enforced. Celebrating this belated event, I’ve added a few more entries in my Plastics Bans Worldwide database.

Canada’s ban moves forward: https://environmentaldefence.ca/2020/10/09/canada-ban-six-single-use-plastic-items-next-year/

England bans single-use plastic straws, stir-sticks and cotton swabs with plastic stems: https://www.treehugger.com/plastic-straws-banned-in-england-5080319

Scotland goes further and bans plastic straws, plates, knives and forks and polystyrene cups: https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/scotland-ban-plastic-single-use-straws-cutlery-cotton-buds-england-b990587.html

New Jersey’s comprehensive plastic ban, called “This is the single most comprehensive plastics and paper reduction bill in the nation,” by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Regional Administrator and Beyond Plastics President Judith Enck, is a step closer to becoming law: https://www.ecowatch.com/new-jersey-plastics-ban-2647824015.html?rebelltitem=2#rebelltitem2 New York State’s plastics ban also calls for a 5-cent fee on paper bags. NJ goes a step further with a ban on them.

Foam packaging and containers haven’t, until recently, been as scrutinized, but that’s changing. NYC banned Styrofoam takeout containers and packaging peanuts last year, but it has sizable loopholes and enforcement is spotty. The latest ban, the first one by a state, comes from Maryland: https://www.ecowatch.com/maryland-foam-container-ban-2647845717.html

California, ever the environmental leader, is adding a new approach. Not exactly a ban and a bit off the mark considering the problems of plastic recycling, is incrementally requiring recycled content in liquids containers: https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/09/25/california-passes-first-in-nation-plastics-recycling-law/

The Return of Bioplastics

What’s old is new again

Was there a time when plastics were not made from petroleum? You wouldn’t know it from the plastics we’ve used – and unsuccessfully discarded in mass quantities – since the 1950s. But the origins of plastics were from plants. Indeed, one of the first plastics, cellophane, invented in 1900 (or 1908), was named for the plant fibers, cellulose, that it was made from. Henry Ford famously wanted to make a bioplastic car (made from hemp or soybeans, depending on who you ask) and even prototyped one. It would have been lighter and, he said, safer than metal cars and would have addressed a metal shortage during World War II.

Scotch tape made from cellulose/cellophane

Scotch tape was – and is – made from cellulose fibers. “Made of Cellophane” image: Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0


This month is Plastic Free July. There are many posts out there about what you can do. Just a few: Greenpeace, EcoWatch, MSN, Treehugger,  


But then the success of petroleum-based or synthetic plastics pushed bioplastics aside. Synthetic plastics became ubiquitous due to their affordability and unique properties. One of those properties is its durability, and the durability is both a positive and negative characteristic. The problem lies in its contemporary, perverse use for things that we’d rather not be durable. Most specifically, for single-use plastics: take-out containers, plastic bags, bottled water, six-pack rings. You get the idea. Why use a material that lasts for hundreds of years for something that is used for five minutes?


EcoOptimism has discussed the issue of single-use plastics for a while (here, here, and here) and, in fact, maintains a list of all the bans and fees on them in a database.


Which brings us to the return of bioplastics because, in addition to being made from renewable resources, many of them can decompose quickly. The issue – and the reason for the success of synthetic plastics – is that they are relatively expensive.

Bioplastics, we have to note, are not without controversy and some may not be the savior they are thought to be (and also here). Their claims about biodegradability may be suspect, and they don’t play nicely with other plastics if they get into the recycling stream.

That problem, along with the problem of cost, though, may be on the way out because newer ways to make it, going beyond the corn and potato starch methods, are being rapidly developed. Soooo… here is an accumulated synopsis of the most recent efforts. The fact that it’s so lengthy is testament to the vast potential.

It should be noted that in this era of shrinking demand for petroleum-based fuels, due to diminished travel in the pandemic among other factors, fossil fuel companies are gearing up to expand their production of plastics. The need for inexpensive plant-based plastic is more crucial than ever.


The COVID-19 pandemic has, as I’ve written about,  exacerbated the single-use plastic problem. Latex gloves, for example, can be found trashed everywhere. And just as plastic bags were being banned in many places, they’ve come back because they are perceived as more hygienic. But a recent statement signed by 125 health experts in 18 countries says that reusable bags are safe. No surprise that the Plastics Industry Association says single-use plastics are the only way to go.


The good news is that there’s a lot going on out there. The bad news is that it makes for a long post. But it’s worth it.

From The Guardian:
May 16, 2020
“The end of plastic? New plant-based bottles will degrade in a year Alternatives to Plastics”

EcoOptimism’s take: I’m starting off with this one because, first, it addresses one of the biggest sources of plastics pollution: soda bottles. Second, the materials they are sourcing from are the “usual suspects”: wheat and corn and some other foods such as beets.  The problem, as I note several times below, is that in many cases, these are food, so using them to make bioplastics can impact food supplies.

From EcoWatch:
May 6, 2020
“5 Sustainable Alternatives to Plastics

EcoOptimism’s take: Olive pits, sunflower hulls, fish waste and algae, plant sugars, and mushrooms. It’s all good.

Bioplastics made from olive pits

Bioplastics made from olive pits. Source: Material Connexion

From Australian Geographic:
Nov 1, 2019
“Teen Invents Biodegradable “Plastic” That Decomposes In 33 Days Using Prawn Shells And Silk Cocoon Protein”

EcoOptimism’s take: A Sydney high school student invented this a science project after deciding to not use cornstarch because it would take away from food. “I was at the fish and chip shop getting prawns for dinner and noticed that the prawn shells looked like plastic. I went back to the lab and thought about what exactly made them look like that.”
Note: the original post that I saw this in, with the catchier headline above, seems to have disappeared, but this is the source.

High School student who made bioplastic from prawn shells

Image credit: Louise Kennerley via Australian Geographic

From Smithsonian Magazine:
Nov 14, 2019
“This Bioplastic Made From Fish Scales Just Won the James Dyson Award”

EcoOptimism’s take: More fish. Organic fish waste, to be exact. The inventor was, at the time, a 24-year old graduate student in England and won the prestigious James Dyson Award.

From CNN:
January 17, 2017
“Plastic you can drink: A solution for pollution?

EcoOptimism’s take: “The resulting “100% bio-based” material was biodegradable and compostable, breaking down over a period of months on land or at sea, or instantly in hot water. “I wanted to show this bioplastic would be so harmless to sea animals that a human could drink it,” he says. “I wasn’t nervous because it passed an oral toxicity test.”

“The entrepreneur launched a company in 2014 selling cassava-plastic ponchos. Today, Avani Eco produces four tons of material a day [with a capacity five times that] that is used for products including plastic bags, food packaging, and covers for hospital beds.”

From Labiotech:
Nov 20, 2019
“Spanish Researchers Produce Straws Made of Bacterial Bioplastic”

EcoOptimism’s take: Bacteria – the good kind

From Food Manufacture:
June 11, 2020
“EU-funded bioplastic developed”

EcoOptimism’s take: The cool part is that it’s “produced from industry by-products: cheese whey and micro-cellulose from almond shells,” and supposedly fully degrades within 90 days.

From FreshFruitPortal:
March 26, 2020
“New bioplastic developed from fruit residue in Chile”

EcoOptimism’s take: The important thing here is that it’s made from residue not the consumable food part of the plants, unlike this bioplastic made from rice.

From Bio Market Insights:
Feb 22, 2018
“Four years after launching, Tetra Pak’s bio-based packaging hits the half a billion unit mark”

EcoOptimism’s take: These Tetra Pak containers are made from 23% plastic, so on the one hand, converting that to a biopolymer made from sugar cane (which presumably is the edible part) makes sense. But on the other hand, they are still a multilayer composite that can’t be readily recycled – what McDonough and Braungart call a monstrous hybrid.

TetraPak container layers

image source: https://biomarketinsights.com/

Also from Bio Market Insights:
Dec 3, 2019
“Researchers develop banana waste-based bioplastic.”

EcoOptimism’s take: The fruit of the banana tree makes up just 12% of the plant and the rest is waste – or maybe now a byproduct to be made into a bioplastic. One has to cynically wonder, though, what happens if banana blight ruins the Cavendish banana crop.

From PlasticStar Material News:
Aug 22, 2019
“Bioplastic derived from cactus leaves

Photo: Sandra Pascoe Ortiz

And juice from the cactus as well:

From Fast Company:
June 20, 2019
“This new biodegradable plastic is made from cactus”

EcoOptimism’s take: While it’s fun to picture cactus farms, this plastic, unlike some others mentioned here, does use the edible (drinkable, that is) part of the cactus. That BBC video, by the way can be found here.

From New Atlas:
April 7, 2020
“Another possible use for coffee grounds: Biodegradable plastic’

EcoOptimism’s take: I know there’s a pun in there somewhere, but I’m not caffeinated enough to think of one.

The path from coffee grounds to plastic.

The path from coffee grounds to plastic. Image Credit: Yokohama National University.

From Vice:
July 30, 2019
“A Filipino Scientist Made Bioplastic Out Of Mango And Seaweed”

EcoOptimism’s take: Somehow, this article starts out by talking about tardigrades, which immediately caught my attention even though they seem to have nothing to do with the topic.

From Intelligent Living:
June 5, 2019
“Here’s A Truly Biodegradable Algae-based Bioplastic You Can Make At Home!no Scientist Made Bioplastic Out Of Mango And Seaweed”

EcoOptimism’s take: DO try this at home. And the hues come from fruits and vegetables.

Most plastics contain a polymer plasticizer (usually made from petroleum, often toxic) and a dye (usually synthetic). This one’s polymer is algae, the plasticizer is water and the dyes come from fruits and vegetables.

Cool translucent disks made from algae.

Cool translucent disks made from algae. Image source: Intelligent Living

From Fast Company:
Feb 10, 2020
“This biodegradable bioplastic sucks carbon from the air”

EcoOptimism’s take: This one takes us past the category of just avoiding petroleum-based plastics and into the topic of regenerative design: designs that not only “do less harm” but repair the damage the same time.

Plastic that detects spoilage

Plastic that detects food spoilage. Photo: Primitives

From Good News Network:
Feb 16, 2020
“Forget the ‘Best By’ Date; This Compostable Bioplastic Packaging Changes Color When the Food Goes Bad”

EcoOptimism’s take: Also in the category of bioplastics that go beyond just being more environmentally preferable than conventional plastics, this one can help with the major issue of food waste – alerting us when that stuff in the far reaches of the refrigerator needs to be consumed – or thrown out.

Believe it or not, there are bioplastics that didn’t make the cut here. But did you really want me to make this post even longer?