Tag Archives: single-use 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

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.

[Update: since writing this post, the necessity of bagging food in plastic bags has been disproven. It’s disappointing that most people and delivery services are still using plastic. I was happy to see the other day that our chain drugstore offered only paper bags and charged 5c for them, per NYS law. But that seems, so far, to be an exception.]

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.