The petrochemical industry is convincing states to deregulate plastic incineration

The petrochemical industry has spent the past few years hard at work lobbying for state-level legislation to promote “chemical recycling,” a controversial process that critics say isn’t really recycling at all. The legislative push, spearheaded by an industry group called the American Chemistry Council, aims to reclassify chemical recycling as a manufacturing process, rather than waste disposal — a move that would subject facilities to less stringent regulations concerning pollution and hazardous waste. 

The strategy appears to be working. According to a new report from the nonprofit Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, or GAIA, 20 states have passed bills to exempt chemical recycling facilities from waste management requirements — despite significant evidence that most facilities end up incinerating the plastic they receive.

“These facilities are in actuality waste-to-toxic-oil plants, processing plastic to turn it into a subpar and polluting fuel,” the report says. Tok Oyewole, GAIA’s U.S. and Canada policy and research coordinator and the author of the report, called for federal regulation to crack down on the plastic industry’s “misinformation” and affirm chemical recycling’s status as a waste management process.

Chemical recycling is an umbrella term that refers to a handful of different processes. The most common ones, pyrolysis and gasification, start by melting discarded plastics under high heat and pressure, either in a low-oxygen atmosphere (pyrolysis) or by using air and steam (gasification). Both processes produce an oily liquid that can technically be re-refined back into plastic. However, despite decades of experimentation, the petrochemical industry has never been able to overcome economic and technological barriers to do so at scale. 

Instead, the fuel produced by most chemical recycling facilities ends up being burned — either onsite or after being shipped to cement kilns and waste processors across the country. This allows companies to generate energy from the discarded plastic, but at great cost to the environment and public health: According to one recent investigation from the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council, a single chemical recycling facility in Oregon produces nearly half a million pounds of benzene, lead, cadmium, and other hazardous waste per year, along with hazardous air pollutants that can cause cancer and birth defects. The report also found that, of the eight chemical recycling facilities currently operating in the U.S., six are located near communities whose residents are disproportionately Black or brown. Five of these facilities are primarily “plastic-to-fuel” operations, two are turning plastic into chemical components whose end uses aren’t disclosed, and one claims to be turning carpet into nylon.  

If pyrolysis and gasification can’t turn plastic back into plastic — not economically or at scale, anyway — why does the petrochemical industry want to pass legislation that calls it manufacturing?

Plastic bales stacked with blue sky in background
Sorted bales of plastic.
Getty Images

Lee Bell, a policy adviser for the International Pollutants Elimination Network, a coalition of more than 600 nonprofit organizations, said there are a couple reasons. First off, it’s a great PR move. What the industry wants, he explained, “is some sort of leverage to prevent regulation, and currently that’s what chemical recycling is.” By convincing lawmakers that they’re giving new life to old plastics, petrochemical companies may be able to stave off more stringent policies to crack down on plastic production. For example, in its opposition to a major plastic-reduction bill that recently passed in California, the American Chemistry Council cited its investments in chemical recycling. 

The other reason is more immediate. Waste management facilities are usually subject to tighter public health and environmental regulations than manufacturing facilities — both at the federal level and by individual states. They may be required to submit toxic air contaminant inventories to regulators, or they may be subject to more stringent pollution caps.

Chemical recyclers don’t want to have to meet these regulations, said Veena Singla, a senior scientist for the NRDC. “They’re trying to duck those requirements and go for the more lax requirements for manufacturing.”

Jed Thorp, state director for the Rhode Island chapter of Clean Water Action, an environmental nonprofit, said he’s seen this firsthand in his own state, in a recent bill that proposed exempting new chemical recycling facilities from waste management regulations. Doing so, Thorp said, would have absolved the facilities’ operators from having to hold public hearings, accept comments from community members, and disclose the plants’ projected pollution.  

The Rhode Island bill, which passed the state Senate in June, was ultimately rejected by House legislators, although Thorp expects it to return next year — potentially with smarter messaging from its petrochemical industry backers. Thorp said he expects groups like the American Chemistry Council to “reinvent the whole argument and talking points on this to be able to better sell it in the future.” 

In response to Grist’s request for comment, the American Chemistry Council rejected the characterization of chemical recycling as incineration and pledged to continue advocating for it to be regulated as a manufacturing process. Matthew Kastner, a spokesperson for the trade group, said that solid waste regulations are often “irrelevant” to the processes involved in chemical recycling and that plastic-to-fuel is “no longer the focus” of most facilities.

A sandpiper in a marsh with plastic water bottle nearby
A sandpiper feeds in a marsh near a plastic water bottle.
Getty Images

According to GAIA’s report, lawmakers have proposed legislation to exempt chemical recycling from waste management regulations in at least five other states, including Michigan and New York. Other bills not tracked by GAIA may provide financial incentives to build more pyrolysis and gasification facilities or explicitly count them as “recycling” in states’ extended producer responsibility laws. (These laws require plastic makers to foot the bill for recycling the products they make.)

The news isn’t all bad, however. GAIA identifies some positive trends, including legislative efforts in Oregon and Minnesota to accurately define pyrolysis, gasification, and other “chemical recycling” processes as incineration — aka waste management. Those bills were ultimately unsuccessful, but Oyewole said they suggest policymakers are catching on to the petrochemical industry’s strategy. 

“Some legislators are learning more and not letting the wool be pulled over their eyes about what these processes are,” she said. 

Another potentially positive sign: The Environmental Protection Agency announced last November that it had begun to consider whether chemical recycling should be regulated under Section 129 of the Clean Air Act. This would define chemical recycling processes as “incineration” once and for all — potentially delivering a forceful blow to the petrochemical industry’s state-by-state legislative strategy, although Oyewole said it’s unclear whether the agency’s determination would override existing state legislation.

Besides restricting plastic production — which is ultimately the most important solution to the plastic pollution crisis — Oyewole suggested some additional actions lawmakers could take to keep chemical recycling in check. For example, they could ban the burning of toxic chemicals that are frequently found in plastics, such as PFAS. Prioritizing environmental justice could also help. One bill introduced in Arizona, for example, would create an environmental justice task force to ensure community-wide participation and input in proposals to build industrial facilities — like chemical recycling plants — in low-income communities and communities of color. 

Expanded public education may also be needed, Oyewole added, in particular to offset the petrochemical industry’s inaccurate use of the word “recycling.” “Thus far, the plastic industry has succeeded in presenting these facilities as positive and necessary by using the misleading labels of ‘chemical’ or ‘advanced recycling,’” GAIA said in its report. 

Singla, with NRDC, offered an alternative way to refer to the process, joking that she should have used “waste-to-fuel” throughout her own organization’s report. That way, “we could have abbreviated it WTF.”


Cigarette butts: how the no 1 most littered objects are choking our coasts

Cigarette butts: how the no 1 most littered objects are choking our coasts

Cigarette filters are gathered by Israeli volunteers taking part in a mass beach clean up during a one-day operation for beach cleaning in October 2020.

An estimated 4.5tn tobacco filters are littered each year and many end up in oceans with deadly consequences

Some count long stretches of powdery white sand, others are fringed by dramatic cliffs. But no matter the beach or its location, there’s little escape from the blight that plagues many of them: cigarette butts.

Spain’s nearly 5,000 miles of coastline are no exception. “On beaches where smoking is allowed, unfortunately cigarette butts continue to rank as the most found waste product and the one with the most significant impact,” says Inés Sabanés a Spanish lawmaker with the Más País–Equo governing coalition.

The coalition was the driving force behind a new legal framework that came into effect in April, which allows local councils to ban smoking on their beaches and impose fines of up to €2,000 (£1,700).

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The oceans swirl with plastic. More than 8m tonnes pour into the seas every year, spewed out via rivers, dumped on coastlines or abandoned by fishing vessels. Plastic even contaminates the air: in many places, it literally rains plastic.

However, while ocean pollution suggests bobbing plastic bottles or straws, these make up only a fraction of the total. In this series, the Guardian’s Seascape project is looking at what is in this plastic avalanche to find out where it comes from, the harm it causes and what can be done to fix it.&nbsp;

The type of plastic that proliferates through ocean ecosystems depends on where you look. While bags and food wrappings dominate the shoreline, further out it is abandoned fishing gear and plastic lids.

Some sources of plastic pollution are less obvious, such as cigarette butts and sachets. Then there’s the vast, unseen churn of microplastics – trillions of tiny fibres and beads that are now so much part of our water systems that every week most people&nbsp;drink a credit card’s&nbsp;worth of it.

Microplastic itself has many sources. It comes from&nbsp;clothes fibres, released in washing machines, and from nurdles, the building blocks for many plastic goods that are&nbsp;often spilled&nbsp;in their billions from ships, causing as much damage as oil spills (though still not classified as hazardous).

And it comes, in huge quantities (representing about a quarter of all microplastic in oceans), from tyre dust – the residue generated as people drive their cars ( and even bicycles) down the street.
Chris Michael, Seascape editor

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Q&A

Plastic in the depths

Show

The oceans swirl with plastic. More than 8m tonnes pour into the seas every year, spewed out via rivers, dumped on coastlines or abandoned by fishing vessels. Plastic even contaminates the air: in many places, it literally rains plastic.

However, while ocean pollution suggests bobbing plastic bottles or straws, these make up only a fraction of the total. In this series, the Guardian’s Seascape project is looking at what is in this plastic avalanche to find out where it comes from, the harm it causes and what can be done to fix it. 

The type of plastic that proliferates through ocean ecosystems depends on where you look. While bags and food wrappings dominate the shoreline, further out it is abandoned fishing gear and plastic lids.

Some sources of plastic pollution are less obvious, such as cigarette butts and sachets. Then there’s the vast, unseen churn of microplastics – trillions of tiny fibres and beads that are now so much part of our water systems that every week most people drink a credit card’s worth of it.

Microplastic itself has many sources. It comes from clothes fibres, released in washing machines, and from nurdles, the building blocks for many plastic goods that are often spilled in their billions from ships, causing as much damage as oil spills (though still not classified as hazardous).

And it comes, in huge quantities (representing about a quarter of all microplastic in oceans), from tyre dust – the residue generated as people drive their cars ( and even bicycles) down the street.
Chris Michael, Seascape editor

Photograph: Andrey Nekrasov/Rex Features

The move has catapulted Spain to the forefront of countries seeking to crack down on what the UN describes as “the most discarded waste item worldwide”: the estimated 4.5tn cigarette butts littered each year.

Whether flicked on to beaches, tossed in parks or dropped on to streets, many of the tiny, lightweight butts end up in bodies of water, swept there by rainfall and storm water systems.

Few are aware of their persistent and potentially harmful effects on marine environments, says Kari Martin of New Jersey-based Clean Ocean Action.

“It is part of the plastic problem,” said Martin. “Many people don’t know that the cigarette filters themselves are made out of plastic fibres.”

These plastic filters – estimated to be a component in more than 90% of commercial cigarettes – are made of cellulose acetate. “Plastics don’t break down over time, they photodegrade, which means that the light breaks them into smaller pieces but they don’t eventually go away,” says Martin.

As these bits of plastic and microplastic are carried along coastlines and waterways, there is little to prevent them from becoming food for animals. “The cigarette butts themselves look like little fish,” said Martin, citing a photo snapped on a Florida beach in 2019 that showed a Black Skimmer gingerly feeding a cigarette butt to its chick.

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Disturbing Photo Shows a Black Skimmer Feeding a Cigarette Butt to Its Chick https://t.co/DfSY6T05vZ #audubonsociety #nature #birding #birds #audubon #earth pic.twitter.com/m6nIJqQUZ9

&mdash; istockhistory (@istockhistory) August 2, 2019

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Disturbing Photo Shows a Black Skimmer Feeding a Cigarette Butt to Its Chick https://t.co/DfSY6T05vZ #audubonsociety #nature #birding #birds #audubon #earth pic.twitter.com/m6nIJqQUZ9

— istockhistory (@istockhistory) August 2, 2019

In an ocean brimming with plastic litter, cigarette butts stand out as a particularly potent form of waste, said Mitch Silverstein, the policy coordinator for the San Diego chapter of the ocean conservation organisation Surfrider.

“They’re the No 1 most littered item in the world,” said Silverstein. “They’re made of non-biodegradable plastic and full of hazardous waste that harms both the Earth and the ocean.”

Tobacco smoke contains more than 7,000 identified chemicals, including at least 70 that are known to cause cancer in humans and animals. Among those who have long warned of the impact these chemicals could have on marine life is the World Health Organization.

“This toxic waste ends up on our streets, in our drains and in our water,” the organisation noted in a 2017 report. “Research has shown that harmful chemicals leached from discarded butts, which include nicotine, arsenic and heavy metals, can be acutely toxic to aquatic organisms.”

A 2011 study by San Diego State University suggested that the chemicals leached from one smoked cigarette butt were capable of killing half of the fish present in a one-litre bucket of water, while researchers at the UK’s Anglia Ruskin University found cigarette butts significantly hindered the growth of terrestrial plants.

Others have delved into the longer-term effects of the chemicals in cigarette butts, finding that after 28 days of exposure freshwater rainbow trout ended up weighing less while Mediterranean mussels absorbed 22 compounds, including some classified as potentially toxic to humans or wildlife.

The results hint at the broad consequences that this often-overlooked waste product could pose for those who rely on fishing for their livelihood as well as anyone who consumes seafood products.

“Humans are the top of the food chain – we pollute the ocean and then use it as a source of sustenance,” said Silverstein. “We’re just eating our trash, we’re eating our own toxins.”

A man on a beach holding a plastic bag full of cigarette butts leans over to pick another cigarette butt from the sand.

After years of nudging smokers to responsibly dispose of cigarette butts, Silverstein has shifted his focus in recent years. “We were trying to mop up the floor rather than turn off the taps,” he said. “We need to point the finger at the real source of the problem. Tobacco companies need to stop putting single-use plastic filters on the trillions of cigarettes they produce.”

A ban on cigarette filters is a logical next step after reviews, carried out by bodies that include the US surgeon general and the National Cancer Institute, suggested cigarette filters are little more than a marketing tool, said Tom Novotny a professor emeritus of public health at San Diego State University.

“One might say, well, doesn’t the filter do some good?” Novotny said. “No it doesn’t.” Studies have instead linked filters to the deeper inhalation of smoke, potentially increasing the risk of an aggressive form of cancer known as lung adenocarcinoma, he adds.

Novotny’s view is backed by the WHO, who recently said that the plastic filters – added to the cigarettes in the 1950s to assuage fears over the emerging links between cancer and smoking – have done little to protect smokers.

“As we now know, claims that filtered cigarettes were ‘healthier’ were fraudulent,” the organization noted in 2017. “The only thing filters may have done is make smoking easier and less harsh, increasing both the risk of addiction for smokers and the overall burden of the non-biodegradable and toxic cellulose acetate filters in our environment.”

The years of mounting evidence against cigarette filters have propelled Novotny to become one of the leading voices in the push to ban single-use cigarette filters in the state of California. “There’s so much more concern about plastics these days,” he said. “And this one particular kind of plastic has no function except to sell cigarettes which kill people and cost our health care system a lot of money. So why do we want to even tolerate it?”

When contacted by the Guardian, tobacco companies Philip Morris International and Imperial Brands said they were exploring alternatives to plastic filters.

“We also intend to tackle the issue at the source, continuously working to replace the plastic in filters with better, more sustainable alternatives,” a spokesperson for Philip Morris said in a statement.

Imperial Brands, previously known as Imperial Tobacco Group, said it was testing paper filter alternatives in Germany and Finland. “Consumer acceptance and emissions regulation have meant that we are yet to find an adequate alternative substitute for the traditional cigarette filter,” it added.

British American Tobacco said it was working on “a number of initiatives in different parts of the world, including public-awareness raising initiatives, that have been shown to be effective in reducing cigarette butt littering”.

The statements did not address the Guardian’s question on the health impacts of cigarette filters.

Despite years of campaigning, three attempts in California to ban the butt have made little progress. Instead, inroads have been carved out at the local level; San Francisco began adding a “litter abatement fee” on packs of cigarettes in 2010 while last year Beverly Hills and Manhattan Beach banned the sale of all tobacco products within their city limits.

Others have followed suit. France’s environment minister said last year the country was set to charge tobacco manufacturers €80m annually to clean up the estimated 23bn cigarette butts littered each year across the country while governments in the Gambia, Chad and Benin have imposed environmental taxes of up to 4% on packs of cigarettes.

Some companies have been more creative; earlier this year a Swedish firm said it was recruiting crows for a pilot project aimed at picking up cigarette butts.

A crow with a cigarette in its beak

The efforts to address plastic cigarette filters, while crucial, is only part of the vast environmental impact of smoking, say environmentalists. As the use of e-cigarettes swells in the US, so has the presence of discarded vape pens and plastic cartridges along seashores.

“People discard them just as easily as cigarette butts,” said Martin of Clean Ocean Action.

The experience in Spain – where in recent years 550 of the country’s more than 3,000 beaches have moved to ban smoking – suggesting that progress in addressing the issue is unlikely to be linear. In July, after nearly two years of prohibiting smoking on all of its beaches as part of its measures to contain Covid-19, the northern region of Cantabria said smokers would once again be allowed to light up along its coastlines.

“It’s a pity,” said Sabanés, the Spanish lawmaker. “It’s always like that. You take a step forward, but of course you always have to keep on fighting.”

Learning more about the ocean's problems can inspire solutions

It’s easy to take the ocean for granted. The deep blue is crucial to things we do every day without thinking. We breathe. We eat and drink. We buy something that’s made far from where we live. The ocean contributes to all those things. Not thinking about what the ocean does for us would be okay if its gifts were limitless. But they are not. And the actions of humans — nearly 8 billion of us — are threatening resources we can’t do without.

Thankfully, a growing number of people are focused on safeguarding the ocean. Scientists, lawmakers, businesses and nonprofit groups are among those raising awareness of problems such as plastic pollution, bycatch and ocean acidification. They aren’t only highlighting problems, however. They are developing solutions. Small success stories are building hope and encouraging more people to get involved.

We created a special collection of KidsPost stories because we know that when you think about the ocean, you realize how valuable it is. We have proof. Readers recently answered our request for short ocean appreciations, several of which we feature below. Reflecting is a good first step. We hope the additional stories and photos deepen your understanding of the ocean’s problems and inspire you to be part of the solutions.

Reflections by young writers

What I appreciate most about the ocean is the diversity of life it supports, from enormous blue whales to tiny, but ever so important, corals. I love the beauty, architecture and liveliness of all the animals, plants and others who dwell under the sea.

Brice Claypoole, 14, Longboat Key, Florida

Treasure, transportation and food. All of these good things come from the ocean. The ocean lets us explore and express ourselves. It gives us food and all of these amazing things that come from the ocean. It allows us to show the world what we can do together!

Owen Bairley, 9, Fredericksburg, Virginia

I appreciate ocean animals. They’re fun to watch! I’ve seen a movie called “Soul Surfer,” and in it, somebody’s attacked by a shark. That made me realize ocean life is hard. They struggle to survive. That made me appreciate them even more because, like me, ocean animals face many struggles.

Hailey Somsel, 10, New York, New York

An Ode to the Ocean

Evolution begins

The ocean is always changing

Creatures evolve

Octopus carrying shells, the horseshoe crab

Coral reefs, puffer fish, sharks, eels

Medicine and food

To the past, to the present, to the future

It will always be there tomorrow, if you take care of it today.

Thomas Gallagher, 9, Potomac, Maryland

I appreciate the beauty and the diversity of marine animals, the waves that make the most amazing sound as they crash ashore, the fish that give us food when we don’t give anything in return, but most of all the memories and fun that we have at the beach.

Layli Ziraknejad, 12, Reston, Virginia

The ocean is vital for us human beings. Without the ocean we couldn’t survive. Not only do 12 percent of people need the ocean for food, but a whopping 50 percent of the world’s oxygen comes from phytoplankton in the ocean. The ocean’s my MVP for being the human race’s life support.

Colin Sellers, 10, Sarasota, Florida

The ocean is a happy place for all. Anyone can go at anytime. In the summer you can cool down and relax in the sun. In the winter you can watch the waves crash fiercely on the sand. The ocean never closes its doors. It gives us so much.

Madelyn Legeer, 10, Silver Spring, Maryland

What I appreciate most about the ocean is that it gives a home to one of my favorite animals, manta rays. They are very calm and peaceful, but they are endangered. When I grow up, I want to be a scientist so I can help them not be endangered anymore.

Lily Guder, 7, Alexandria, Virginia

Whether it is dolphins jumping out of the water, droplets like diamonds as they hit the sun, or it is evening sunsets that fade from burning yellow to brilliant purple, I love the ocean’s beauty.

Sara Husain, 13, Ruskin, Florida

A Mysterious World

Underneath the ocean waves, there is a whole world of mysteries waiting to be explored. Some kinds of marine life like the giant squid are very rare, and we barely have any photos or evidence. Scientists are still working hard to learn things we don’t know about.

Juno Wu, 11, Falls Church, Virginia

I love the ocean because it’s the perfect place for me to think when I’m mad. I just love the clear blue water and the ocean sounds. It really calms me, and I just think the ocean animals are lovely.

Charlie Miller, 9, Odenton, Maryland

The ocean is a beautiful place that should be protected. The different colors of the water, the size of the waves, no two beaches are the same. All of these put together make me eager to go to the beach — to swim, to see the water, to enjoy.

Eric Toop, 12, Westerville, Ohio

I like that the mama whales protect baby whales from predators. I like the clownfish’s home. I like how the scuba divers save the fish.

Doreen Wills, 6, Duluth, Minnesota

I appreciate the ocean because I like to see the sea turtles and dolphins. I like to listen to the waves that are on the beach. It sounds peaceful and helps me relax. The ocean also brings shells up to the beach that I can find.

Maxton McCarthy, 6, Tampa, Florida

Replacing lead water pipes with plastic could raise new safety issues

Replacing Lead Water Pipes with Plastic Could Raise New Safety Issues
A plumber with Chicago’s department of water management attaches a copper service line to an existing lead service while he and others worked to replace water main lines in 2016. Credit: Anthony Souffle/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
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A landmark federal commitment to fund the elimination of a toxic national legacy—lead drinking water pipes—promises to improve the public health outlook for millions of people across the U.S. But it also presents communities with a thorny choice between replacement pipes made of well-studied metals such as copper, steel or iron and more affordable but less-studied pipes made of plastic.

Under a $15-billion allocation in last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, dedicated funding has started flowing to U.S. states to pay for removing and replacing so-called lead service lines—pipes that connect underground water mains with buildings and their plumbing systems. The funds could cover the replacement of about a third of the nation’s estimated six million to 10 million such lines.

In March the anticipated surge of lead-pipe-replacement work prompted a group of 19 health and environmental advocacy organizations headed by the nonprofit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) to publish a set of guiding principles for lead-line replacement. Amid numerous recommendations related to community involvement, safety and economic justice, the document takes a stand against swapping in pipes made of plastic and calls for copper lines instead.

Although there is a consensus in the health and biomedical community that lead service lines should be replaced, many water quality and health questions about plastic drinking water pipes in the U.S. are unresolved or have yet to be addressed, a number of experts say. Some industry representatives disagree with recent findings that suggest links between plastic drinking water pipes and health issues. The situation could prove frustrating and confusing for utilities and consumers as communities receive federal funds for replacements—and must then consider the many dimensions of choosing the safest and most suitable new pipes for their region.

Service lines are commonly made of copper, iron, steel or one of several types of polyethylene or polyvinyl chloride (PVC), according to various sources. In the next decade up to 35 percent of U.S. utilities’ spending on drinking water distribution will go toward plastic pipes, says Bluefield Research, a firm that provides analyses of global water markets. Plastic materials such as PVC and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) are typically less expensive to purchase up front than more traditional materials such as copper, ductile iron and steel. So when measured in miles of distribution pipe, plastic is forecast to make up nearly 80 percent of the nation’s water pipe inventory by 2030, according to Bluefield.

It is very clear that there is no safe level of lead exposure, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and many medical and public health leaders. Taking in even low levels of lead from paint and drinking water causes several types of health issues, including intellectual deficits, particularly in children, as well as neurological and reproductive problems and increased risk of cardiovascular death.

With plastic pipes, the matter of potential drinking water contamination is less clear-cut. In the NRDC-led group’s lead-line-replacement principles, the copper-not-plastic item points to recent research suggesting that plastic pipes can potentially contaminate drinking water in three ways. The first is the release of chemicals into water from the pipe material, a process called leaching, which has been documented in several studies. The second route, called permeation, involves pollutants such as gasoline that can seep from groundwater or soils through the walls of plastic pipes, which has been noted in reports by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Water Research Foundation (formerly the Awwa Research Foundation). And finally, plastic pipes exposed to the high heat of wildfires are at risk for melting and other thermal damage. Plastic pipes damaged in wildfires could release toxic chemicals into drinking water, the NRDC document suggests, citing an October 2021 EPA fact sheet. The high heat of fires can degrade plastic pipes, valves and meters in drinking water distribution systems, potentially releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into drinking water, the EPA document states. A 2020 study arrived at more explicit findings by revealing in lab tests that plastic pipes exposed to wildfire temperatures can release benzene, a carcinogen, and other VOCs into water.

Pipe material-related factors beyond those in the principles document can also contaminate drinking water. A July laboratory study by civil and environmental engineer Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech and his colleagues revealed that the growth of Legionella pneumophila, the water-borne bacterium that causes Legionnaires’ disease, varied with the pH of water, whether that water was in contact with cross-linked polyethylene (PEX) or copper pipes, and the presence of phosphate, which is used to control corrosion.

Some organizations associated with the plastic pipes industry are skeptical or dismissive of findings that link these pipes with potential drinking water quality and health concerns. Bruce Hollands, executive director of the Uni-Bell PVC Pipe Association, points to a 2015 environmental product declaration (EPD) that followed an assessment of seven PVC water and sewer pipe products by the International Organization of Standardization (ISO), a voluntary, nongovernmental standards organization. The declaration states, “PVC pipe and fittings are resistant to chemicals generally found in water and sewer systems, preventing any leaching or releases to ground and surface water during the use of the piping system. No known chemicals are released internally into the water system. No known toxicity effects occur in the use of the product.” An update due out in a few months will contain the same statement, Hollands says.

A similar position is held by a nonprofit organization called NSF (originally founded as the National Sanitation Foundation), which is one of several organizations to offer testing that can lead to certification of manufacturers’ drinking water pipes and other system components under a standard called NSF/ANSI/CAN 61 Drinking Water System Components–Health Effects, or Standard 61. “We are not aware of credible evidence that would discourage the use of plastic pipe or other products that are certified to NSF/ANSI/CAN 61 in drinking water systems,” NSF said in a statement to Scientific American.

Standard 61 is determined by a committee of manufacturers, toxicologists, water utilities and federal and state regulatory officials, said NSF (which is unrelated to the U.S. National Science Foundation). The standard is recognized by the nonprofit American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Standards Council of Canada (a federal “Crown corporation”). The EPA “has supported the development of independent third-party testing standards for plumbing materials” under Standard 61, the agency says. Its only safety requirement for pipes and other plumbing materials is that they are free of lead. Nearly all U.S. states require utilities to use pipes and other water distribution system products that are certified to Standard 61.

Consumers with questions about the safety of pipes that are in contact with drinking water should focus on individual products that are certified to appropriate standards rather than the materials that pipes are made of, NSF wrote in its statement to Scientific American. Some material-related trends have emerged in examinations of specific contamination routes, however.

Permeation of metal pipes is “extremely rare,” says Edwards, who in 2015 pinned down the cause of high lead levels amid Flint, Mich.’s water crisis. In contrast, gasoline and solvents can permeate polyethylene pipes, and pure benzene and other dangerous organic compounds also permeate PVC pipe without rubber gaskets (although gasoline does not), a Water Research Foundation report states. In a 2009 document, the Plastics Pipe Institute, a trade organization, called the conclusions of the report “inconclusive and perhaps misleading.”

All pipes can leach their constituent materials to some extent, according to a 2006 National Research Council report. Corrosion control can help to manage copper that leaches from pipes made of that metal, Edwards says. Various types of plastic pipes can release compounds that are potentially toxic or carcinogenic, studies have found. Yet the EPA has set no legally enforceable federal standards for many of these contaminants if they turn up in drinking water (under the Safe Drinking Water Act, state standards for contaminants must be at least as stringent as federal ones). The current questions that need to be answered are which pipe-related contaminants get into drinking water, the extent to which they might affect water quality and human health, and whether any industry-independent researchers or government regulators are looking for specific concerning contaminants at all, especially in the case of plastic pipes.

Rather than advocating for one material over another for these service lines, many U.S. environmental engineers say the choice of material for any given underground water pipe should depend on factors such as whether a pipe will be flushed before use; how regularly the pipe will be used; whether the pipe is going in near an underground tank storing gasoline, sewage or other harmful material; and conditions such as the water pH and temperature.

For example, in a 2020 study funded by the EPA, environmental engineer Patrick Gurian of Drexel University and his colleagues found statistically significant higher concentrations of total organic carbon (TOC), a nonspecific water quality measure, in some PEX pipes than in copper ones. Organic carbon in a water supply can come from decaying leaves and other natural sources and can leach from synthetic sources such as a plastic pipe.

But the characteristics of the study’s two individual water systems (in Philadelphia and Boulder, Colo.) varied by water source, disinfectant used and average pH, among other factors. Such variations are unavoidable across water systems. “Plastic pipe can leach TOC, but this can be addressed through quality control measures such as proper testing and certification,” Gurian says. “Engineering is about managing risks and making tradeoffs. I am not aware of information that would justify banning all plastics from use as pipe materials.” The Plastic Pipe and Fittings Association, a trade association, wrote in a statement to Scientific American that “plastic pipe has been extensively studied for all sorts of supposed maladies since the early 1980s.”

Some researchers say plastic pipes in the U.S. have not yet undergone the same degree of water quality and health scrutiny as pipes made of copper, iron, steel and cement. With these so-called legacy materials, methods to prevent or remedy leaching, permeation and other issues are well known, says environmental engineer Andrew Whelton of Purdue University. But that is not the case with plastic pipes. Colleges and graduate schools that train civil engineers and public health researchers have historically ignored the chemistry and manufacturing of plastic in their curricula on water quality issues, Whelton says.

Scott Coffin, a research scientist at California’s State Water Resources Control Board, studies the impacts of microplastics in drinking water on human health, as well as the potential health impacts of endocrine-disrupting additives in water distribution systems. He agrees that more research is needed on water quality and plastic drinking water pipes. “Drinking-water-distribution-system contaminants resulting from plastic pipes are not explored very often,” Coffin says. “It’s sort of forgotten about, honestly, in the water industry.”

Whelton and his colleagues have actively pursued questions about potential contaminants in the water carried in plastic and other types of drinking water pipes. In a 2014 study, the team identified 11 PEX-related organic compounds, including toluene—one of 90 or so contaminants for which the EPA has set legal limits in drinking water—in the water that was in contact with PEX pipes installed in a six-month-old “net-zero energy” building. The compounds were not found in water entering the building. Two years later the team published a study that compared contaminants released by copper pipes and by 11 brands of a total of four types of plastic pipes. Microbial growth thresholds were exceeded in water in contact for the first three days of exposure with three of the brands of PEX pipe. Then, in a 2017 study, Whelton and other colleagues found that heavy metals, including copper, iron, lead and zinc accumulated as sediment and formed scales inside PEX drinking water pipes in a home’s one-year-old plumbing system.

None of these three studies, all funded by the U.S.’s NSF (the National Science Foundation) and performed with pipes marked as certified to Standard 61, was designed to make direct health claims, Whelton says. Instead they were meant to reveal potential contaminants—some of which could hold implications for water quality and health—that could be produced by interactions between drinking water and plastic pipes.

Each of the studies, however, drew the pointed attention of the other NSF (the nonprofit testing and certifying organization), which reported $123 million in revenue in 2020. On a voluntary basis, manufacturers of products ranging from water system components to microwave ovens may pay fees to NSF, or any of several other competitors, to assess whether products meet standards (which are often set in collaboration with NSF) and whether they merit certification. Such certification indicates that “an independent organization has reviewed the manufacturing process of a product and has independently determined that the final product complies with specific standards for safety, quality or performance,” according to NSF’s website.

In 2018 NSF released a document addressing Whelton and his colleagues’ 2014, 2016 and 2017 studies of plastic drinking water pipes, stating that the conclusions and data “have contributed to misinformation and confusion about these products.”

Whelton says there is no misinformation in the studies, each of which was peer-reviewed. NSF “claimed information was not included in the studies when it actually was,” he says, adding that the organization’s document itself “is an example of misinformation and should be ignored.”

When it comes to drinking water safety and plastic, that is largely what the organizations that signed onto the lead-service-line-replacement principles headed by NRDC have done, putting their trust elsewhere than the plastic industry and pipe testing and certification organizations. The NRDC-led group’s document of principles links to studies and reports by the EPA, the Water Research Foundation and academic researchers. And the document states that its call for copper replacement pipes rather than plastic ones draws on recommendations and concerns from the Healthy Building Network, the International Association of Fire Fighters and United Association, a plumbers’ and pipe fitters’ union. As Yvette Jordan of the Newark Education Workers Caucus, an organization that signed the document, puts it, “When you have so many people—so many organizations, especially—when they agree…, shouldn’t you take notice and say, ‘Okay, we should probably reexamine this … and use copper and not plastic’?”


Rights & Permissions

Greece's islands are zero-waste laboratories

Before the tiny Greek island of Tilos became a big name in recycling, taverna owner Aristoteles Chatzifountas knew that whenever he threw his restaurant’s trash into a municipal bin down the street it would end up in the local landfill.

The garbage site had become a growing blight on the island of now 500 inhabitants, off Greece’s south coast, since ships started bringing over packaged goods from neighboring islands in 1960.

Six decades later, in December last year, the island launched a major campaign to fix its pollution problem. Now it recycles up to 86 percent of its rubbish, a record high in Greece, according to authorities, and the landfill is shut.

Chatzifountas said it took only a month to get used to separating his trash into three bins — one for organic matter; the other for paper, plastic, aluminium and glass; and the third for everything else.

“The closing of the landfill was the right solution,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “We need a permanent and more ecological answer.”

Tilos’ triumph over trash puts it ahead in an inter-island race of sorts, as Greece plays catch-up to meet stringent recycling goals set by the European Union (EU) and as institutions, companies and governments around the world adopt zero-waste policies in efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

“We know how to win races,” said Tilos’ deputy mayor Spyros Aliferis. “But it’s not a sprint. This is the first step (and) it’s not easy.”

The island’s performance contrasts with that of Greece at large. In 2019, the country recycled and composted only a fifth of its municipal waste, placing it 24th among 27 countries ranked by the EU’s statistics office.

That’s a far cry from EU targets to recycle or prepare for reuse 55 percent of municipal waste by weight by 2025 and 65 percent by 2035.

Greece has taken some steps against throwaway culture, such as making stores charge customers for single-use plastic bags.

Still, “we are quite backward when it comes to recycling and reusing here,” said Dimitrios Komilis, a professor of solid waste management at the Democritus University of Thrace, in northern Greece.

Recycling can lower planet-warming emissions by reducing the need to manufacture new products with raw materials, whose extraction is carbon-heavy, Komilis added.

Workers sort through municipal waste at a Polygreen factory located on the island of Tilos, Greece, on June 30, 2022. Credit: Thomson Reuters Foundation / Sebastien Malo

Getting rid of landfills can also slow the release of methane, another potent greenhouse gas produced when organic materials like food and vegetation are buried in landfills and rot in low-oxygen conditions.

And green groups note that zero-waste schemes can generate more jobs than landfill disposal or incineration as collecting, sorting and recycling trash is more labor-intensive.

But reaching zero waste isn’t as simple as following Tilos’ lead — each region or city generates and handles rubbish differently, said researcher Dominik Noll, who works on sustainable island transitions at Vienna’s Institute of Social Ecology.

“Technical solutions can be up-scaled, but socioeconomic and sociocultural contexts are always different,” he said.

“Every project or program needs to pay attention to these contexts in order to implement solutions for waste reduction and treatment.”

High-value trash

Tilos has built a reputation as a testing ground for Greece’s green ambitions, becoming the first Greek island to ban hunting in 1993 and, in 2018, becoming one of the first islands in the Mediterranean to run mainly on wind and solar power.

For its “Just Go Zero” project, the island teamed up with Polygreen, a Piraeus-based network of companies promoting a circular economy, which aims to design waste and pollution out of supply chains.

Several times a week, Polygreen sends a dozen or so local workers door-to-door collecting household and business waste, which they then sort manually.

Antonis Mavropoulos, a consultant who designed Polygreen’s operation, said the “secret” to successful recycling is to maximize the waste’s market value.

“The more you separate, the more valuable the materials are,” he said, explaining that waste collected in Tilos is sold to recycling companies in Athens.

On a June morning, workers bustled around the floor of Polygreen’s recycling facility, perched next to the defunct landfill in Tilos’ arid mountains.

They swiftly separated a colorful assortment of garbage into 25 streams — from used vegetable oil, destined to become biodiesel, to cigarette butts, which are taken apart to be composted or turned into materials like sound insulation.

Organic waste is composted. But some trash, like medical masks or used napkins, cannot be recycled, so Polygreen shreds it, to be turned into solid recovered fuel for the cement industry on the mainland.

More than 100 tons of municipal solid waste — the equivalent weight of nearly 15 large African elephants — have been sorted so far, said project manager Daphne Mantziou.

Setting up the project cost less than 250,000 euros ($255,850) — and, according to Polygreen figures, running it does not exceed the combined cost of a regular municipal waste-management operation and the new tax of 20 euros per ton of landfilled waste that Greece introduced in January.

More than ten Greek municipalities and some small countries have expressed interest in duplicating the project, said company spokesperson Elli Panagiotopoulou, who declined to give details.

No time to waste

Replicating Tilos’ success on a larger scale could prove tricky, said Noll, the sustainability researcher.

Big cities may have the money and infrastructure to efficiently handle their waste, but enlisting key officials and millions of households is a tougher undertaking, he said.

“It’s simply easier to engage with people on a more personal level in a smaller-sized municipality,” said Noll.

When the island of Paros, about 200 km (124 miles) northwest of Tilos, decided to clean up its act, it took on a city-sized challenge, said Zana Kontomanoli, who leads the Clean Blue Paros initiative run by Common Seas, a UK-based social enterprise.

The island’s population of about 12,000 swells during the tourist season when hundreds of thousands of visitors drive a 5,000 percent spike in waste, including 4.5 million plastic bottles annually, said Kontomanoli.

In response, Common Seas launched an island-wide campaign in 2019 to curb the consumption of bottled water, one of a number of its anti-plastic pollution projects.

Using street banners and on-screen messages on ferries, the idea was to dispel the common but mistaken belief that the local water is non-potable.

The share of visitors who think they can’t drink the island’s tap water has since dropped from 100 percent to 33 percent, said Kontomanoli.

“If we can avoid those plastic bottles coming to the island altogether, we feel it’s a better solution” than recycling them, she said.

Another anti-waste group thinking big is the nonprofit DAFNI Network of Sustainable Greek Islands, which has been sending workers in electric vehicles to collect trash for recycling and reuse on Kythnos island since last summer.

Project manager Despina Bakogianni said this was once billed as “the largest technological innovation project ever implemented on a Greek island” — but the race to zero waste is now heating up, and already there are more ambitious plans in the works.

Those include CircularGreece, a new 16-million-euro initiative DAFNI joined along with five Greek islands and several mainland areas, such as Athens, all aiming to reuse and recycle more and boost renewable energy use.

“That will be the biggest circular economy project in Greece,” said Bakogianni

Pika wants to makes cleaning reusable diapers as easy as throwing out disposable ones

Babies use 6,500 disposable diapers before they’re potty trained, and cloth diapers are labor intensive to clean. Pika hopes to eliminate both that waste, and all that work.

This system aims to make cleaning reusable diapers as easy as throwing out disposable ones
[Photo: courtesy Pika]

After his daughter was born, Alon Cohen couldn’t stop thinking about the number of diapers the family was sending to landfill. In the past, he and his wife had taken out the trash once a week; now it was every other day. “I started digging into the numbers, and it was overwhelming for me to find out that each baby is using around 6,500 disposable diapers,” he says. One baby’s diapers, cumulatively, create nearly 1.5 tons of plastic waste.

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[Photo: courtesy Pika]

The family started experimenting with cloth diapers but found them challenging (and somewhat gross) to use. The process involves scraping poop into the toilet, storing 20 or more dirty, stinky diapers, and then a messy wash in the laundry machine. “It took us a lot of time every day to deal with cleaning them,” he says. “As new parents, everything is new, and time is very limited. All you want is to allocate time to be with your new baby.”

Cohen, who lives in Israel, decided to design an alternative. His startup, Pika, now makes a system that’s intended to make cleaning reusable diapers as easy as throwing out the disposable version. A small pod, like a miniature washing machine, hooks up to water and a drain. Parents throw the used diapers inside—without any pre-cleaning—and then use custom cleaning tablets from Pika that can dissolve feces and urine, unlike standard detergent. The design of the machine itself also helps clean the diapers. “We conducted lab tests showing that the diapers come out completely clean and sanitized,” Cohen says.

The company calculates that using the system can cut energy use by 96%, compared to disposable diapers, and reduce waste by nearly 99%.

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The first group of customers is using the diapers now in Israel, and the startup plans to soon launch a pilot in the Bay Area. It plans to sell a subscription model that includes the machine and 30 cleaning tablets—each of which can clean a load of 10 diapers—for $99 a month, with diapers sold separately. Though Pika sells its own diapers, any type of cloth diaper can be used. (The number of diapers babies use per month varies, but the plan is supposed to cover a month’s average use.)

The current cost in Israel is a little higher than disposable diapers, says Mor Sidi, one mother who has been testing the service, but it has some advantages beyond the environmental benefit. “You have to go to the store to buy [disposables], make sure they don’t run out,” she says. “With Pika, you don’t run out.” When the baby is later potty trained, the machine goes back to the company, which wants to make sure that the equipment isn’t thrown away.

[Photo: courtesy Pika]

The company plans to install its machines in daycares, so babies can keep using cloth diapers while they’re away from home, and is also working on the design of a biodegradable bag in which to carry used diapers in other situations. Ultimately, Cohen is convinced that it could be possible to eliminate disposable diapers.

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“Parents [used] cloth diapers for many years before disposables came to the market in the ’50s and became the main diaper product,” he says. “I believe that cloth diapers can become the common choice for every parent when parents are provided a more convenient way to use cloth diapers that are more sustainable, as easy to use as disposables, and more affordable. It is a much better option for our babies and our planet.”

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Collision course: Will the plastics treaty slow the plastics rush?

The interlacing pipelines of a massive new plastics facility gleam in the sunshine beside the rolling waters of the Ohio River. I’m sitting on a hilltop above it, among poplars and birdsongs in rural Beaver County, Pennsylvania, 30 miles north of Pittsburgh. The area has experienced tremendous change over the past few years — with more soon to come.

The ethane “cracker plant” belongs to Royal Dutch Shell, and after 10 years and $6 billion it’s about to go online. Soon it will transform a steady flow of fracked Marcellus gas into billions of plastic pellets — a projected 1.6 million tons of them per year, each the size of a pea. From this northern Appalachia birthplace, they’ll travel the globe to make the plastic goods of modern life, from single-use bags to longer-lasting sports equipment.

A massive plastic factory sits next to a river on the right and a wooded hill on the left.
The factory. Photo: Tim Lydon

The plant’s construction has lifted a hardscrabble local economy, but it also embodies an epic global struggle.

Earlier this year and half a world away, United Nations negotiators meeting in Kenya pledged to draft a legally binding international plastics treaty by 2024. Many hope it will cap global plastics production while also addressing plastic’s impacts on environments and people. When treaty talks begin later this year, they’ll have everything to do with plants like this one and hundreds like it popping up around the world.

But the plants, and their powerful backers in the plastics and fossil fuel industries, will also shape the talks.

“They will work very hard to make sure that the treaty is not effective,” says Judith Enck, former EPA regional administrator in the Northeast and president of Beyond Plastics, a nonprofit that seeks to stem plastics pollution.

Enck describes plastics as a “Plan B” for fossil fuels, at a time when renewables and efficiency erode industry profits. To Shell and its peers, plastics production can secure assets like Pennsylvania’s seemingly bottomless Marcellus gas field, which might otherwise go untapped as the world retreats from fossils in the face of climate change.

plastic waste
Plastic waste collects in a drainage ditch in 2021. Photo: Ivan Radic (CC BY 2.0)

But Enck notes that plastics also drive climate change. A 2021 Beyond Plastics report estimated that U.S. plastics production now puts out heat-trapping emissions equivalent to 116 coal-fired power plants. With more facilities like the one in Pennsylvania coming, the report says, U.S. plastics could exceed the climate impact of domestic coal-fired energy by 2030.

The International Panel on Climate Change and others echo the concern, saying that global plastics production could reach 20% of oil consumption in the coming decades, surpassing concrete, food waste, and other heavy heaters. Today the United States, China, Saudi Arabia and Japan lead the trend as the world’s top producers of plastic.

Waste is another concern. With little plastic ever recycled, it’s now found from the deepest oceans to the highest mountains. One estimate has its volume in marine waters surpassing that of fish by mid-century. And while images of plastics in the bellies of birds, fish and whales have become old news, new research shows microplastics ingested by trees, deposited on Arctic sea ice, and entering the developing brains of human babies.

Plastic waste also emits greenhouse gases as it breaks down or when it’s incinerated.

Enck also calls it an environmental justice issue, with plastics production and disposal disproportionately impacting poorer communities.

But Enck sees rising awareness, too.

“I have met climate change skeptics, but I have never met a plastic pollution skeptic,” she says. People see the problem firsthand and want governments to act.

To her, one solution to the crisis is a binding international treaty that addresses plastics production, use and disposal.

My hilltop perch sits near new townhomes, and residents of the community come and go. They include two older men who grew up nearby and have come to release happy birthday balloons, which they then watch fade into blue sky through binoculars.

Around the same time Jeff Coleman, candidate for lieutenant governor, arrives with local officials to film a campaign spot. They discuss “downstream” manufacturers that could spring up near the plant, which itself will soon employ 600 people.

Below us the plant dominates the landscape. Neatly squeezed onto 400 acres, it hosts its own gas power plant, a string of cylindrical polyethylene reactors, and miles of convoluted pipeline, along with warehouses, offices and room for more than 3,000 railcars to shuttle the tiny pellets away.

To build it, Shell remediated an old zinc smelter, redirected a local highway, built a railroad spur and laid the 97-mile Falcon Ethane Pipeline to access nearby Marcellus gas. During construction, more than 8,000 workers clocked in every day.

Land clearing
Land clearing at the Shell site in 2016. Photo (uncredited) via Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

“It put our county on the map,” says Beaver County commissioner Jack Manning.

He says construction sustained pandemic-strapped businesses and attracted investment in hotels, malls and even housing, like the new townhomes overlooking the plant. Manning also expects years of both direct and indirect job creation.

For many community leaders of this one-time manufacturing epicenter, which has struggled since steel moved away in the 1980s, these are welcome developments.

But others counter Manning’s rosy assessments, pointing to continued economic stagnation in the region since construction began. Still, state and local governments have bet big on Shell by awarding it the largest corporate tax break in Pennsylvania history.

The government support matters. In the United States and other countries that will soon negotiate the global plastics treaty, local investment translates into political power for plastics. That was clear when then-President Trump gave a 2019 campaign-style speech at the Shell plant, touting his commitment to U.S. manufacturing.

Manning says that behind such support are real benefits for the community, including the young families he sees buying townhomes and reinvigorating local communities.

As for environmental effects, Manning, who spent 35 years in the petrochemical industry, believes Shell’s state-of-the-art technology will protect local air and waters. He shares activists’ broader concerns about climate change and ocean pollution, but says the pellets made here will create products that improve lives, such as replacement knee joints, lightweight parts for electric cars and packaging that prevents food spoilage.

And he’s confident a global plastics treaty won’t hurt locally. If anything, global initiatives to reduce plastic production could secure demand from existing plants by limiting the construction of new ones, he says.

Jace Tunnell of the University of Texas Marine Science Institute offers another take.

In 2018 Tunnell discovered plastic pellets — called nurdles in the plastic-waste world — washed up on local beaches. When he learned they came from nearby plastics facilities, he created the nonprofit Nurdle Patrol to enlist citizens in monitoring pellet pollution along the Gulf of Mexico. The work is raising awareness and contributing to stricter permitting rules.

plastic waste on a beach
Nurdles and other plastic waste at a beach cleanup event. Photo: Hillary Daniels (CC BY 2.0)

Groups in Beaver County have since taken similar action to gather baseline environmental data before the Shell plant goes online.

“I haven’t seen a facility yet where there aren’t pellets in the environment,” says Tunnell. Their small size enables dispersal by wind, rain, storm drains and the pneumatic equipment that blows them onto railcars at production facilities. They can also wind up along railroad routes, at shipyards and in the ocean, depending on shipping practices.

Tunnell offers the example of former Gulf of Mexico shrimper Diane Wilson, who in 2019 won a $50 million settlement from a Formosa plastics facility in Texas that discharged billions of pellets and other pollutants.

And he points to a 2021 Sri Lankan cargo ship disaster that left beaches knee-deep in nurdles.

“They’re still cleaning them up,” he says.

Events like that have contributed to a tide of negative press that — along with inflation, the pandemic and other factors — have slowed the plastics boom. That’s evident in Pennsylvania. Only a few years ago, plastics makers had sketched out five new plants for the region to tie into Marcellus gas, plus two ethane-storage facilities. But three plants are now canceled, and neither storage facility has been built.

Governmental pushback, including momentum toward a global treaty, is also mounting, as seen by China’s 2017 decision to stop importing plastic waste for recycling. That policy change stranded plastic waste in U.S. communities and has contributed to federal and state efforts to hold retailers of single-use plastics accountable for the waste, something the European Union achieved in 2021.

For its part, the plastics industry claims a positive economic impact and commitments to environmental safety, which include its voluntary Operation Clean Sweep, designed to minimize pellet pollution. Shell representatives in Pennsylvania did not respond to interview requests but cited their participation in Clean Sweep and directed questions to their website, which describes mitigations for noise, air pollution and other plastics production issues.

But for Enck, industry-led initiatives fall short. She believes they distract from climate, equity, and other broader problems that she hopes are addressed in upcoming treaty talks.

As the treaty framework came together last February, industry allies pushed for an emphasis on waste management, including mitigating marine debris and improving recycling, which remains technologically difficult.

But delegates from Rwanda and Peru successfully advanced a more ambitious resolution that will consider the full life cycle of plastics, including production, disposal and its pollution impact on all environments, not just oceans. The resolution’s inclusion of a possible cap on virgin plastics production was supported by letters from international scientists and corporations such as Walmart and Coca-Cola.

In March delegates from 175 counties approved the Rwanda-Peru framework. Procedures and timelines were established at June meetings in Senegal, and negotiations are slated to begin in Uruguay in November. Although a treaty is expected in 2024, its true effect will depend on ratification from the United States and other top plastics producers and whether member nations will adhere to it.

In the meantime, political and market forces will continue determining how many more facilities like Pennsylvania’s Shell plant are built.

As I leave my Beaver County hillside, I ask the two men what will become of the balloons they’re releasing. They look at me for a moment, then one tells me with a shrug that they’ll eventually explode and fall to the ground.

That reminds me of something Enck said: “We’re leaving a mess for future generations.”


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How to Turn Off the Tap on Plastic Waste

Creative Commons


writes from Alaska on public-lands and conservation issues. He has worked on public lands for much of the past three decades, both as a guide and for land-management agencies, and is a founding member of the
Prince William Sound Stewardship Foundation. His writing has most recently appeared in The Revelator, Yes Magazine, Hakai Magazine, The Hill, High Country News, and elsewhere.

Environmentalists say policies limiting single-use plastics are necessary to curb North Carolina's growing microplastics problem

By Will Atwater

An environmental advocacy group in Durham has been pushing for a county-wide proposal to put a 10-cent fee on single-use plastic bags. Activists across the state have been eagerly watching to see if Durham’s local government officials will move forward on what would be the only policy on the books in North Carolina aimed at preventing plastic waste from entering the environment. 

Advocates had hoped to see the issue discussed at a Durham Joint City-County Committee meeting on Tuesday, but due to a technical issue, it seems the bag fee proposal will be pushed off to a later date. Meanwhile, environmentalists say these are the kinds of policies needed statewide to combat the ever-growing microplastic waste problem. 

“We have to all work together, but I’m sick of just the continual focus on mitigation. Can we please also spend equal energy on prevention?” said Crystal Dreisbach, founder of Don’t Waste Durham, the nonprofit organization behind the bag fee proposal which works to prevent trash at the source.

The bag fee proposal in Durham is the kind of policy advocates at Waterkeepers Carolina, a nonprofit aimed at preserving the state’s waterways, say would be really helpful. The waterkeepers are in a downstream-battle to capture a constant flow of plastic waste before it enters the ocean. And they’re losing. 

The amount of plastic waste entering North Carolina’s waterways and soil is outpacing their capacity to remove it.

“The only way we’re going to make any kind of headway with this type of pollution problem is prevention, prevention, prevention,” said Lisa Rider, director of Coastal Carolina Riverwatch

“And policies are certainly at the top of the hierarchy in doing so.”

Don’t waste Durham’s plan

In 2021, Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic developed the proposed 10-cent bag fee on behalf of the local nonprofit Don’t Waste Durham. A white paper produced by the law clinic and published on the nonprofit’s website states that while customers are given free plastic or paper bags at check-out counters, there are significant costs associated with using these materials.

“These bags have very real costs for our community: they contribute to litter on streets and in waterways, clog storm drains, take unlimited landfill space, and wreak havoc on recycling infrastructure.” 

The white paper also claims that it costs Durham more than $86,000 per year in related fees.

In drafting the plan, Dreisbach wanted to make sure the proposed ordinance did not penalize low-income residents. Durham shoppers who are on an assistance program, such as WIC or SNAP, would be exempt from the bag fee, she explained. 

Don’t Waste Durham also supports an initiative called Bull City Boomerang Bag whose mission is to assist communities in “tackling waste at its source.” Durham businesses such as Part & Parcel, Durham Co-op Market and Pennies for Change are some shops that offer free Bull City Boomerang Bags to their customers. A volunteer staff uses donated fabric to make the bags, which are then given away. 

Crystal Dreisbach, founder of Don’t Waste Durham, poses with a Durham Boomerang Bag in front of her office. Credit: Will Atwater

The goal is that free bags will reduce the burden for both shoppers and participating shop owners, because they will no longer have to stock their stores with plastic bags.  

Communities across the state with similar bag fee proposals — such as Boone, Asheville and Carrboro — will be eyeing what happens with the Don’t Waste Durham proposed ordinance with a sense of urgency.

“The litter that we see today is tomorrow’s microplastic pollution,” said Karim Olachea, communications director for Mountain True, an organization based in the Southern Blue Ridge area that supports communities through planning, policy and advocacy work.

“These policies are common sense ways to stop that pollution from entering our environment at the source.”

A growing problem

Annually, more than 400 million tons of plastic waste are produced across the globe, according to a United Nations Environmental report. Over time, a large percentage of the plastic waste will break down into smaller particles, commonly referred to as microplastics, which are less than 5 mm in length. 

Researchers warn that if current trends continue, by 2050, plastic debris could outnumber marine life in the world’s oceans.

Microplastics are also present on land. One contributing source are the tiny pellets made from pulverized car tires, also known as styrene butadiene, used in the manufacturing of artificial turf for athletic fields. 

Plastic waste isn’t just impacting marine life, but humans as well. A recent study found that 5 grams of plastic particles, which is roughly the weight of a credit card, are ingested by humans on a weekly basis.  

While there is no known link between microplastic ingestion and disease in humans, a study published last year found that people who have Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) had a higher quantity of microplastic particles in their feces than healthy people. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are two forms of IBD. 

In 2021, NC waterkeepers began sampling water from 15 locations across the state to learn more about what types of microplastics are present and how much is accumulating. This year, they installed trash trouts—which are pervious devices that float on the water and collect debris such as styrofoam cups and plastic bottles, for instance— at each site for clean-up and data collection purposes.

Three people dressed in waiters position a an aluminium structued in a creek. The device is tethered to white boeys that will keep it afloat.Three people dressed in waiters position a an aluminium structued in a creek. The device is tethered to white boeys that will keep it afloat.
In May, Tar-Pamlico Riverkeeper, Jill Howell, center, worked with volunteers to position a trash trout in a Jack Smith Creek tributary located in New Bern. The installation is part of a trash audit that’s being conducted by NC riverkeepers. Audit results will be published in 2023. Credit: Will Atwater

“We’ve been able to pull numbers from that trash trout collection to really quantify how much [plastic waste] could be prevented from reaching our streams, if we were to have common sense plastic elimination legislation,” said Emily Sutton, Haw riverkeeper and project coordinator. Sutton said findings from the project will be published early in 2023. 

State legislative efforts

Activists and riverkeepers are not alone in their quest for legislation and policies to minimize plastic waste impacts on the environment.

Most recently, State Rep. Pricey Harrison (D-Greensboro) cosponsored House Bill 959, which called for a ban on single-use and non-recyclable products. However, there has been no recent activity on the bill filed last year.

“HB 959 was referred to Rules after it was filed, which is [the committee] where bills go to die,” Harrison said. “Since we are mostly adjourned from this session, it will not be coming up.”

This was not the first time state lawmakers took interest in preventing plastic waste. In 2009, former Democratic state Sen. Marc Basnight of Dare County introduced legislation that called for a ban on single-use plastic bags in retail stores located in Outer Banks communities. The legislation passed and a ban was set in place from 2009 until 2017, when it was repealed by a Republican-led legislature. 

Critics argued that the ban unfairly taxed merchants who had to offer $.05 cent refunds or other incentives for customers who shopped with reusable bags. They also argued that paper bags were worse for the environment than plastic.  

However, after a period of transition for residents and retailers, there was a noticeable difference in the environment, according to Ivy Ingram, Kill Devil Hills commissioner and mayor pro tempore.

“For years, you could go and not see a plastic bag stuck in a tree or lying  in a drainage ditch that flows [into] our stormwater that flows to the sound and flows to the ocean.”

It’s been five years since the ban was repealed and Ingram says that on a windy day it is not uncommon to see plastic bags clinging to tree branches in the area. 

Incremental change

While there are no single-use plastic bag bans or fees in place in North Carolina at the moment, there are several communities where retail establishments such as restaurants and coffee shops are adopting environmentally friendly policies regarding how they operate.

One example of this is the Ocean Friendly Establishment program (OFE). OFE was established in 2015 in North Carolina Coastal communities. Program participants receive a certification for reducing plastic waste and adopting sustainable practices, according to the OFE website.

Recently, Wegmans, a national grocery store chain, stopped offering plastic bags in its North Carolina and Virginia stores.

“As we’ve encountered plastic bag legislation in numerous markets, we’ve learned there’s more we can do, and a bigger impact we can make, together with our customers,” said company representative, Jason Wadsworth, in a press release.

Nationally, there are 10 states plus Puerto Rico that have instituted single-use plastic bag bans. None are located in the South.  

However, if local municipalities such as Durham, Asheville and others are going to support these initiatives that call for a ban or add a fee to single-use plastic bags, they will need to determine whether they have the legal authority to do so. 

Andy Ellen, president and general counsel of the North Carolina Retail Merchants Associations (NCRMA) does not think the authority rests with municipalities. Ellen says that the North Carolina General Assembly has sole authority to enact fees or bans.

However, ordinance supporters argue that the North Carolina Waste Management Act gives local municipalities the authority to impose fees as a part of waste reduction efforts. 

Until this issue is settled, NC riverkeepers will continue to pull waste out of the waterways and tell anyone who will listen that prevention measures are vital to turning the tide on this growing problem.

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South Florida's baby sea turtles are threatened by plastic and light pollution

The sun has yet to peek its way through the clouds on this windy, rainy morning as I ride along the shoreline in a UTV at Red Reef Park in Boca Raton with David Anderson, the sea turtle conservation coordinator for the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center.

Anderson and his crew come here every morning between March and October to survey sea turtle nesting and hatching activity along this 5-mile stretch of beach.

“So leatherback, loggerhead and green sea turtles all make different looking tracks in the sand and it’s pretty easy to discern actually,” Anderson said.

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We follow the tracks to a small dip in the sand. Anderson tells me a loggerhead laid her eggs here last night. He marked the nest by surrounding the perimeter with orange wooden stakes and tape, then labeled it with today’s date.

“This turtle nest hatched,” Anderson said. “We give each nest three days or 72 hours for the hatchlings to get out on their own. And then we come back and excavate the site.”

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Yvonne Bertucci zum Tobel

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WLRN

A baby loggerhead sea turtle was found while excavating a nest.

While digging out the nest with his hand, Anderson finds a live baby loggerhead.

“The purpose of us excavating nests is to evaluate the hatch success of the nest and see how successful our nests are here on the beach but the bonus is we often find live baby turtles in the nest and those get a second chance,” Anderson said.

This baby turtle will get its second chance tonight — at a hatchling release organized by the nature center. Tickets were sold out months in advance.

Cerridwen Canens lives near Orlando. She bought her ticket in May.

“It’s been a lifelong dream of mine, I’ve always wanted to do this so it’s pretty special to have the opportunity. I’m pretty happy,” she said.

Before the hatchlings are released, I join 18 other guests in a classroom at Gumbo Limbo Nature Center. The 20-acre property in Boca Raton has been promoting sea turtle awareness since 1984, through environmental conservation, research and education.

During the presentation, Anderson tells us about the three types of sea turtles they find along their beaches — green, loggerhead and leatherback. Anderson says to stay away from single-use plastics. Microplastics make their way into the ocean and get stuck in sargassum seaweed, where baby turtles take shelter for the first several years of their lives. The seaweed provides food and camouflages them from predators.

“Hatchlings, when they go offshore, are very opportunistic feeders,” Anderson said. “They’ll pretty much eat anything in front of their face that looks appetizing, that looks delicious. And you can imagine a tiny, colorful piece of plastic in front of them they will consume. They will also consume plastic bags or shopping bags because those floating in the ocean look like what? Jellyfish.”

Once hatchlings make it to the ocean, they swim 15 miles offshore until they reach the sargassum seaweed mats.

Every single hatchling Anderson and his crew find washed up along the shore has plastic in its belly.

seaturtleinlandlightpollution.jpeg

Yvonne Bertucci zum Tobel

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WLRN

Artificial light pollution from cities confuses baby sea turtles. This photo was taken at Red Reef Park looking north. The ocean is on the right (east) and the light is coming from above the dunes to the west.

For millions of years, hatchlings have crawled toward the ocean. But that’s changed. Florida’s growing coastal population means more artificial light at night. Many cities and residents opt for LED lighting, because it’s more cost effective. But the light is so bright to a sea turtle, that it can seem like the ocean’s horizon.

“It’s more difficult to address the bigger problem, which is artificial light pollution from inland, because you go out on the beach at night and you see this massive glow in the sky and unfortunately, sea turtle hatchlings are attracted to that glow because they think that is the horizon over the ocean,” Anderson said.

In Boca Raton, there are lighting ordinances along A1A, but less than one-fourth of a mile from the beach, street lights brighten the night sky. Anderson said cities and homeowners should use amber-hued light bulbs and lighting fixtures that point down, not up into the sky.

At 9:30 that night, we make our way out to the beach … the 180 active sea turtles they gathered that morning are in buckets.

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Photo courtesy of the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center

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A nighttime hatchling release organized by the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center.

We approach the shoreline and release the hatchlings. Only one in a thousand of these babies will make it to adulthood.

Cerridwen Canens is standing at the shoreline, the waves washing up against her legs. She looks out into the ocean and tells me she’ll be coming back again next year.

“It’s like that really ancient connection to a part of myself that’s lived you know, a thousand lifetimes and it’s the closest feeling I can describe to home really, I just, I needed this, it was really a very special experience,” she said.

sea turtle bucket.jpeg

Yvonne Bertucci zum Tobel

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WLRN

Once excavated from the nest, the baby sea turtles are placed in a bucket for release later that night.

Plastic can take hundreds of years to break down – and we keep making more | Kim Heacox

Plastic can take hundreds of years to break down – and we keep making more

Americans throw away an estimated 2.5m plastic water bottles an hour. We need international cooperation to protect our planet and our health

‘Plastics now jam the stomachs of seabirds, sea turtles, sharks and whales that wash up dead. They litter remote beaches from the Aleutians to Midway to Pitcairn Island.’

Every great movie has at least one scene that stays with you.

In the 1967 classic The Graduate, directed by Mike Nichols, that scene could be when Mrs Robinson (Anne Bancroft) first seduces our protagonist, young Ben (Dustin Hoffman), a newly minted college graduate. Or when Ben, crazy in love, pounds the glass walls of a church. What haunts me, though, is the earlier scene in which one of Ben’s parents’ friends offers him some unsolicited advice. The man tells him that a “great future” awaits him in one word: “Plastics.”

Today, Americans throw away an estimated 2.5m plastic water bottles every hour. Rather than drink from clean streams, or from faucets that once brought us good municipal water, we buy single-use plastic that will take at least 400 years to break down in any significant way. And when it does break down, often from exposure to sunlight, or from heat and other weathering, it becomes microplastics.

Welcome to our largely unregulated, Reagan-inspired, free-market nightmare, where profit and productivity are prized over health; where plastic pollution – a child of big oil – is now found in the deepest oceans, atop the highest mountains, and in fresh Antarctic snow; where microplastics and synthetic microfibers (polyester) exist in our carpets and roughly 60% of our clothing. Where microfibers spew out of our dryer vents by the billions, become air- and water-borne, and find their way into fish and other seafood, into honey, beer, meat, and now, it appears, by various ways into human bloodstreams, especially in people in urban areas.

If that weren’t bad enough, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and flame retardants, already a plague, affix themselves to plastics and become more of a threat. Medical professionals are uncertain what this portends. But it can’t be good. Plastics with chemicals to make them flexible, and those that are biodegradable but have endocrine-disrupting effects, may both increase rates of cancer, infertility and obesity – for starters.

In short, we’re poisoning ourselves.

“With skyrocketing plastic production, low levels of recycling, and poor waste management,” writes Brian Hutchinson for the Oceanic Society, “between 4 and 12 million metric tons of plastic enter the ocean each year – enough to cover every foot of coastline on the planet! And that amount is projected to triple in the next 20 years.” Plastics now jam the stomachs of seabirds, sea turtles, sharks and whales that wash up dead. They litter remote beaches from the Aleutians to Midway to Pitcairn Island. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch – two huge floating masses of plastic debris, each bigger than Texas – is so large (and growing) that Captain Charles Moore, who discovered it in 1997, has said cleaning it up would “bankrupt any country” that tried.

No place is pristine any more.

It looked good in the beginning, though, in the mid-1800s, when a competition to find a substitute for elephant tusk ivory (used to make billiard balls) led to the discovery of celluloid. Then in 1907, a chemist working in a barn in Yonkers mixed carbolic acid with formaldehyde and created the world’s first fully synthetic plastic. Praised as the “material of a thousand uses”, it contained no molecules found in nature, and had the near-mystical property of being moldable under pressure, rigid when cool, heat resistant, lighter than metal, and hardier than ceramics. Soon came nylon stockings – a sensation. And when petroleum chemists converted the simple components of crude oil and gas into synthetic polymers, the building blocks for our modern-day plastics were born, as was an industry that would fight government regulation at all costs.

By the time our college graduate, Ben, got his unsolicited advice, plastics were considered the “miracle” behind modern American life. Saran Wrap, Hula-Hoops, Styrofoam …

Soon, plastics found their way into our hospitals, kitchens, airplanes, trucks and cars.

And what became of it all? Back then, nobody knew. Few people cared.

One who did was the American folk singer Pete Seeger, who lived simply and said: “If it can’t be reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted, then it should be restricted, redesigned or removed from production.”

Many scientists and activists say the best way to fight our modern global plastic scourge is at its source. Halt production. Change packaging.

Early this year, inspired by a French-led “One Ocean Summit”, governments at the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep) officially adopted a mandate to open negotiations for a global plastics treaty to address the full lifecycle of plastics, from oil and gas extraction to product disposal. Then in late June, just prior to the 2022 UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon, additional governments signed on, joining more than 500 signatories across the plastics spectrum.

Sheila Aggarwal-Khan, director of Unep’s economy division, said: “Joining the global commitment is a way to keep the momentum while negotiations are ongoing.” She cited a recent report that said moving toward new economic models will reduce the annual volume of plastics entering our oceans by 80%, and will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25%. This in turn will save an estimated $200bn and create 700,000 net additional jobs.

Only 9% of plastics used in the US are recycled. That’s pitiful, and must change. Patagonia, the clothing company, encourages people to reject fast fashion and buy durable goods. It claims to have diverted and recycled more than 525 tons of discarded, non-biodegradable fishing nets into hat brims, jackets and shorts. Corona, the beer company, is testing six-pack holders made of barley that require less energy and fewer harsh chemicals. Trex says it has recycled 1bn pounds of post-consumer plastic into decks more durable than wood. All three companies deserve praise – and tax breaks.

As for government: the Biden administration should fully engage in the UN global plastics treaty, and pressure Congress to get on board. Americans should vote out any senator or representative who refuses to support a gas tax, a windfall profits tax (on big oil’s highway robbery record profits), and a plastics tax, and any who refuse to end fossil fuel subsidies. Why? Because big oil is killing us on two fronts: climate and plastics.

Every state in the US should follow the lead of Rob Bonta, the California attorney general, who recently accused fossil fuel and petrochemical companies of promoting recycling while knowing it would never keep pace with growing plastic production. “Enough is enough,” Bonta said. “For more than a century, the plastics industry has engaged in an aggressive campaign to deceive the public, perpetuating a myth that recycling can solve the plastics crisis.” His office has subpoenaed Exxon Mobil for information in its alleged role in a “decades-long plastics deception campaign”.

The best way to address this crisis is in all three realms combined: individual, business and government. Step up. Be informed. Start a revolution. Make smart choices.

If not now, when? If not us, who?

“Participation,” Pete Seeger said, “that’s what’s gonna save the human race.”

  • Kim Heacox is the author of many books, including The Only Kayak, a memoir, and Jimmy Bluefeather, a novel, both winners of the National Outdoor Book Award. He lives in Alaska