Chemical recycling grows — along with concerns about its environmental impacts

St. James Parish, located on a stretch of the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans dubbed “Cancer Alley” due to the high concentration of petrochemical plants, is home to the country’s largest producer of polystyrene — the foam commonly found in soft drink and takeout containers.

Now, the owner of that plant wants to build a new facility in the same area that would break down used foam cups and containers into raw materials that can be turned into other kinds of plastic. While there’s limited data on what kinds of emissions this type of facility creates, environmental advocates are concerned that the new plant could represent a new source of carcinogens like dioxin and benzene in the already polluted area.

The proposed plant comes as the U.S. federal and state governments and private companies pour billions into “chemical recycling” research, which is touted as a potential solution to anemic plastics recycling rates. Proponents say that, despite mounting restrictions on single-use packaging, plastics aren’t going away anytime soon, and that chemical recycling is needed to keep growing amounts of plastic waste out of landfills and oceans.

But questions abound about whether the plants are economically viable — and how chemical recycling contributes to local air pollution, perpetuating a history of environmental injustices and climate change.

Skeptics argue that chemical recycling is an unproven technology that amounts to little more than the latest PR effort from the plastics industry. The Environmental Protection Agency is deciding whether or not to continue regulating the plants as incinerators, with some lawmakers expressing concerns last month about toxic emissions from these facilities.

“They’re going to be managing toxic chemicals…and they’re going to be putting our communities at risk for either air pollution or something worse,” Jane Patton, a Baton Rouge native and manager of the Center for International Environmental Law’s plastics and petrochemicals campaign, told EHN of the proposed new plant in Louisiana.

The air of St. James Parish, where the new plant will be located, has among the highest pollution levels along the Mississippi River corridor dubbed “Cancer Alley.” A joint investigation in 2019 by ProPublica, The Times-Picayune and The Advocate found that most of the new petrochemical facilities in the parish –including the recycling plant– will be located near the mostly Black 5th District.

What is chemical recycling?

chemical recycling to reduce ocean plastics  pollution

In the U.S., less than 10% of plastics are actually recycled. Credit: Hans from Pixabay

When most of us picture recycling, we picture what industry insiders call “mechanical recycling:” plastics are sorted, cleaned, crushed or shredded and then melted to be made into new goods.

In the U.S., though, less than 10% of plastics are actually recycled due to challenges ranging from contamination to variability in plastic types and coloring. “No flexible plastic packaging can be recycled with mechanical recycling — the only real plastic that can be recycled are number one and number two water bottles and milk jugs,” George Huber, an engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin and head of the multi-university research center for Chemical Upcycling of Waste Plastics, told EHN.

Enter chemical recycling –– processes that use high heat, chemicals, or both to break used plastic goods down into their chemical building blocks to, in theory, make more plastics. Proponents say that chemical recycling can complement more traditional recycling by handling mixed and harder-to-recycle plastics.

“An advantage of advanced recycling is that it can take more of the 90% of plastics that aren’t recycled today, including the hard-to-recycle films, pouches and other mixed plastics, and remake them into virgin-quality new plastics approved for medical and food contact applications,” Joshua Baca, vice president of the plastics division at the American Chemistry Council, told EHN.

A long and winding history

The technology has actually been around for decades, with an initial wave of plants built in the 1990s, but it didn’t take off then because of operational and economic challenges. Huber said some factors have changed, like a significant increase in plastic use and China’s refusal to accept other countries’ waste, that make chemical recycling more viable this time around.

Yet a 2021 Reuters investigation found that commercial viability remains a major challenge for chemical recyclers due to difficulties like contamination of the incoming plastic, high energy costs, and the need to further clean the outputs before they can become plastic.

“It’s one thing in theory to design something on paper — it’s a whole huge challenge to build a plant, get it operational, get the permits and for it to perform like you think it would,” Huber said.

Tracking down just how many chemical recycling plants operate today in the U.S. is tricky — and depends in part on what one counts as “recycling.”

Potential climate impacts

Most of the plants in the U.S. are pyrolysis facilities, which use huge amounts of energy to heat plastics up enough to break their chemical bonds, raising concerns about their climate impacts if that energy comes from burning fossil fuels. An analysis from Closed Loop Partners found that, depending on the technology, carbon emissions from chemical recycling ranged from 22% higher to 45% lower than virgin plastics production.

“It’s a very promising technology to tackle the problem of (plastic) waste, but if you don’t concurrently tackle the challenge of where the energy is coming from, there’s a problem,” Rebecca Furlong, a chemistry PhD candidate at the University of Bath who has conducted life cycle assessments of plastics recycling technologies, told EHN.

A life cycle assessment study prepared for a British chemical recycling company found that chemical recycling has a significantly lower climate impact than waste-to-energy incineration — but produced almost four times as many greenhouse gas emissions as landfilling the plastic.

The American Chemistry Council, or ACC, says that there are at least seven plants in the U.S. doing plastics-to-plastics recycling, although many of those facilities also turn plastics into industrial fuel. For example, according to records reviewed by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, or GAIA, in 2018 a facility located in Oregon and owned by one of the companies planning to build the Louisiana plant, converted 216.82 pounds of polystyrene into the plastics building block styrene, sending roughly the same amount to be burned at a cement kiln.

The ACC, European Union regulators and Furlong and her advisor, Matthew Davidson, say plastics to fuel shouldn’t count as recycling. “Clearly digging oil out of the ground, using it as a plastic, and then burning it is not hugely different from digging it out of the ground and burning it,” Davidson, director of the Centre for Sustainable and Circular Technologies at the University of Bath, told EHN.

Unknowns about environmental health impacts

petrochemical industry and plastics recycling

Depending on the type of plastic waste the facilities are processing, the plants can generate hazardous compounds.

Depending on the type of plastic waste the facilities are processing, the plants can generate hazardous compounds. Credit: Frauke Feind from Pixabay

Chemical recycling saw a boost under the Trump administration, including a formal partnership between the federal Department of Energy and the American Chemistry Council, which lobbies on behalf of the plastics industry, to scale up chemical recycling technologies.

There’s limited information, however, on the environmental health impacts of chemical recycling plants. Furlong said she had not included hazardous waste generation in her life cycle assessments because of a lack of data. Tangri said there have been few studies outside the lab, in part because there are relatively few chemical recycling plants out there. Additionally, the ones that do exist are either too small to meet the EPA’s pollution reporting threshold, or are housed within a larger petrochemical complex and so don’t separately report out their air pollution emissions.

Earlier this year, the Natural Resources Defense Council released a report looking at eight facilities in the U.S. The environmental group found that one facility in Oregon sent around half a million pounds of hazardous waste, including benzene and lead, to incinerators in Washington, Colorado, Missouri and three other states. Hazardous waste incinerators can release toxic air pollution to nearby communities. Additionally, some hazardous waste incinerators in the U.S. have repeatedly violated air pollution standards and the EPA has recently raised serious concerns about a backlog of hazardous waste piling up due to limited incineration capacity.

The Oregon facility, which is supposed to break down polystyrene into styrene, also sent more than 100,000 pounds of styrene in 2020 to be burned in waste to energy plants rather than recycled back into new plastics, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council’s report.

Plastics contain a range of additives, like phthalates and bisphenols, that have serious health concerns. The European Chemicals Agency expressed concerns in a 2021 report about the extent to which chemical recycling could eliminate these chemicals, especially “legacy” additives like lead-stabilized PVC that the EU no longer allows, and prevent them from showing up in new plastic products.

The agency also cautioned that, depending on the type of plastic waste the facilities are processing, pyrolysis and gasification plants can generate hazardous compounds such as dioxins, volatile organic compounds and PCBs. Dioxins are considered “highly toxic” by the EPA as they can cause cancer, reproductive issues, immune system damage and other health issues. Volatile organic compounds can cause breathing difficulties and harm the nervous system; and some, like benzene, are also carcinogens. The agency noted that companies are required to take measures, like installing flue gas cleaning systems and pre-treatment of wastewater, to limit emissions.

Additionally, experts interviewed by the EU highlighted an overall lack of transparency about the kinds of chemicals used in some of the chemical recycling processes.

The American Chemistry Council, or ACC, says that emissions from most chemical recycling plants are too low to trigger Clean Air Act permits, citing a recent report from consultant Good Company and sponsored by the ACC that found that emissions from four plants in the U.S. were on par with those from a hospital and food manufacturing plant.

The trade group claims the plants are “designed to avoid dioxin formation with many interventions, the primary one being that the plastic material is heated in a closed, oxygen-deprived environment that is not combustion,” and that the facilities would be subject to violations or operating restrictions if dioxins were formed.

Policy debate

As the EPA decides what to do about chemical recycling plants, 20 states — including Louisiana, where the new plant could be built — have already passed laws that would regulate the facilities as manufacturers rather than solid waste facilities, according to the American Chemistry Council — a move that environmental advocates say could lead to less oversight and more pollution. “Whenever I see a big push for exemptions from environmental statutes, I get a little concerned,” Judith Enck, director of the anti-plastics advocacy group Beyond Plastics, told EHN.

Advocates in Louisiana fear the new law will exempt the new facility from being regulated by the state Department of Environmental Quality, something the ACC says won’t happen. However, it is unclear in the text of the law which state agency will oversee its environmental impacts (the state Department of Environmental Quality didn’t respond to our question).

In a recent letter to the EPA, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and more than 30 other lawmakers requested that the agency continue to regulate pyrolysis and gasification plants as incinerators. Additionally, they also urged the EPA to request more information from these facilities on their air pollution and climate impacts.

“Communities located near these facilities need to know what chemicals they are being exposed to, and they need the full protection that Congress intended the Clean Air Act’s incinerator standards to provide,” wrote the lawmakers.

The American Chemistry Council contends that chemical recycling plants take in plastics waste that is already sorted, and that regulating these facilities as solid waste facilities, with measures like odor and rodent controls, does not make sense. The ACC adds that, like other manufacturing facilities, chemical recycling plants would still be subject to air and water pollution and hazardous waste regulations.

Tangri, from GAIA, said that the U.S. should also follow in the footsteps of the EU and not count plastics to fuel as chemical recycling.

Overall, environmental advocates would prefer to see stronger measures taken to reduce plastic use and require that manufacturers take more responsibility for plastic packaging — a concept known as “extended producer responsibility.” Enck suggested that there be mandatory environmental standards for packaging similar to auto efficiency standards. “We really need to move to a refillable, reusable economy,” she said. “Do we need all these layers of packaging on a product? Do we need multi-material packaging?”

From Your Site Articles

Related Articles Around the Web

U.S. seeks allies as split emerges over global plastics pollution treaty

WASHINGTON D.C., Sept 27 (Reuters) – The United States is seeking to form a coalition of countries to drive negotiations on a global plastic pollution treaty, weeks after a similar group involving several other G7 nations was launched, according to a document seen by Reuters.

The move underlines its desire to keep the treaty’s focus on the efforts of individual countries in a model similar to the 2015 Paris climate accord, rather than provide new universal rules favoured by other major nations, according to six government and civil society sources involved in the talks.

United Nations members agreed in February to create the world’s first treaty to tackle the scourge of plastic waste which extends from ocean trenches to mountain tops, with the aim of finalising it by the end of 2024.

Register now for FREE unlimited access to

In August, 20 countries, including Britain, Canada, France, Germany and several developing nations at the sharp end of the environmental crisis, formed a “High Ambition Coalition To End Plastic Pollution” advocating for the treaty to include global standards, bans and restrictions on plastic.

Now, the United States is seeking to form its own group with a different approach, and has invited several countries to join including Australia and Japan, the sources said.

A concept note for its coalition seen by Reuters says “the development of national action plans” should be “the primary mechanism” for countries to contribute to the treaty, an approach environmentalists say will not be robust enough to curb the runaway problem.

The U.S.-led coalition aims to launch at or before the first round of treaty negotiations scheduled to take place in Uruguay from Nov. 28 to Dec. 2, the draft document says.

The State Department did not directly answer questions about the proposed coalition.

In an emailed statement, Monica Medina, the U.S. official leading its treaty negotiations, said the country was committed to ending plastic pollution by 2040.

“The best way is through a Paris-like agreement that helps countries take ambitious action and holds them accountable, let’s them be innovative on finding solutions, and leads to action now and not later,” she said.

The United States was a key architect of the country-driven approach of the Paris agreement, a landmark international deal to limit global warming to at least 2 degrees Celsius. But that deal has faced criticism for having no enforcement mechanism as countries have missed deadlines to ratchet up their climate actions.

Japan’s vice minister for global environmental affairs, Hiroshi Ono, said he knew of a proposed coalition on plastic involving the United States but declined further comment. Australia’s environment department said in a statement it was aware of different coalitions forming, without elaborating.


Environmentalists say measures taken by individual countries must be complemented by more top-down measures like coordinated curbs on virgin plastic production and universal design standards to increase the recyclability of plastics.

Plastic production is forecast to double over the next 20 years while the amount of plastic flowing into the ocean will triple. That will cause widespread environmental damage, destroying sensitive ecosystems and putting some species at risk of extinction, according to a World Wildlife Fund study.

“We don’t need a treaty for countries to decide themselves what their national actions should be. We need a treaty that can actually add on top of that,” said Eirik Lindebjerg, global plastics policy manager at WWF, calling such an approach a “light touch.”

However, Ono, the Japanese environment official, said that the treaty cannot take a “one-size-fits-all approach” as countries have different “national circumstances” and “priorities” towards upstream measures, like plastic production, or downstream measures, like waste collection.

Calls for tougher global measures such as those focused on plastic production have also met resistance from the powerful oil and petrochemical firms that make plastic. Industry groups have been lobbying governments, including the U.S., to reject any deal that would limit plastic manufacturing, Reuters reported in February.

John Hocevar, a campaign manager for Greenpeace, and two other sources who requested anonymity told Reuters that U.S. officials had privately said they are wary of agreeing to any global rules that would likely be rejected by its divided Congress.

That is why the United States is keen to pursue a Paris-like deal, the sources said, which did not have to be ratified by Congress because it largely relies on voluntary commitments based on national laws.

“If we are working from the position of we are only going to negotiate what we can get done at home, we’ve lost before we’ve even started,” said Jane Patton, a U.S.-based campaign manager for plastics and petrochemicals at the Centre for International Environmental Law.

Register now for FREE unlimited access to

Reporting by John Geddie and Valerie Volcovici; Editing by Marguerita Choy

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Can reducing plastic production ease the energy crisis?

Plastic production relies on oil and gas, yet reducing output has not been put forward as a response to the energy crisis. Until now. A new report says this is the moment for bold action.

That our collective relationship with plastic is unhealthy, has been well documented. It’s a relationship we have come to take for granted and from which we struggle to move on despite its often toxic nature. 

But it’s also one that is little understood.

Findings released Tuesday by the global Break Free From Plastic movement and the non-government Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) show the dynamics at play and how using less plastic would leave more energy to heat homes. 

In their study ‘Winter is coming: plastic has to go’, CIEL and Break Free From Plastic, which counts more than 1,900 NGOs among its members, say scaling back on single-use plastics and packaging is a concrete step decision-makers could take to contribute to the overall effort to reduce fossil fuel consumption.

It is, the authors write, time for the EU to “confront the petro-elephant in the room: plastics.”

The link between gas, oil and plastic

Derived from fossil fuels, produced in energy-intensive processes, and whether dumped, incinerated or recycled after use, plastics go hand-in-hand with emissions at every stage of their life.  Yet their production in Europe increased from 0.35 to 55 million tons between 1950 and 2020, and plastic is the EU petrochemical industry’s largest market.

According to Tuesday’s report, in 2020 nearly 15% of overall EU gas and 14% of oil consumption was used to make petrochemicals. The majority of that went towards the manufacture of plastics. The findings note, for example, that as much gas was used to make plastics, as was consumed overall by the Netherlands. 

Equally, the countries that consume the most oil and gas to produce plastics — Belgium, Germany, Spain, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Poland — are also responsible for 77% of all EU plastic packaging waste.

Against that backdrop and in light of the scramble to source gas from outside Russia, Delphine Levi Alvares, European Coordinator of Break Free From Plastic, says it is a serious oversight not to include the sector in the EU’s Save Gas for a Safe Winter proposal aimed at securing heat and power across the bloc in the coming months. 

“While families and small businesses are facing skyrocketing energy bills, the petrochemicals industry is wasting scarce resources to produce unnecessary single-use plastic, fueling the EU energy crisis,” she said on publication of the study. 

Three birds, one stone

Andy Gheorghiu, a climate campaigner who was involved in the report, says the fact that people are being told to shower cold and heat less while “we continue to feed this monster called the petrochemical and plastic industry with large amounts of oil and gas” reveals a serious disconnect between the expectations on individuals and industry. 

But he also stresses how tackling single-use plastics at this juncture offers a genuine opportunity to “address three crises at once: the plastic crisis, the climate crisis and the energy crisis.”

Carrots in a plastic bag next to unpackaged ones

The authors are calling for a ban on unnecessary packaging

The report lays out a raft of recommendations to that end. They include EU states putting a decreasing cap on overall packaging allowed to enter its markets, a limit to the volume of plastics produced globally and a halt to the construction of new fossil fuel infrastructure including petrochemical facilities.

The authors also call for ambitious and binding prevention and reuse targets of 50% by 2030 and 80% by 2040 and bans on unnecessary packaging such as single-serving sachets and the wrapping of fruit and vegetables.

Plastic lockdown in Europe?

But Gheorghiu goes a step further. 

“I personally would say now is the time for a lockdown of the plastic industry in Europe.” 

In other words, he would like to see an immediate and complete stop of virgin plastic production. At least for the winter. He also advocates for a thorough European-level analysis based on the findings of the report. 

“It should include expanding our research and going through the petrochemical industry and listing what kind of products they are producing to see if they are essential or not.”

Plastic sachets of food and hygiene products

An estimated 855 billion plastic sachets were produced in 2018 — they can rarely be reycled

As things stand any such lockdown doesn’t appear to be in the offing.

In a statement to DW, press spokesman Adalbert Jahnz said the European Commission was, however, “implementing a comprehensive plan for a transition towards a regenerative economy,” which would address “the use of all resources, including fossil fuels for plastics through numerous actions such as legislating.”

Though Europe has taken some steps on plastic, including its 2018 strategy, subsequent ban on certain single-use items, and current role in working towards an internationally binding agreement on ending plastic pollution, the report notes that the bloc has yet to take any steps to directly stop the production of new plastic.

Reducing plastic production vs. high energy bills

Gheorghiu hopes that besides highlighting the correlations between the plastic, climate and energy crises, the new research will “kick-start a debate around virgin plastic production and the need to further reduce single-use packaging in Europe.”

He is optimistic that the prospect of the coming winter means the findings will resonate with both policy-makers and the general public. 

“I think it is much easier for a politician to implement measures that tackle single-use plastics than it is to implement other measures that tackle things like heating systems in people’s homes or that increase energy bills.”

Edited by: Sarah Steffen

New biodegradable materials could be the answer to plastic pollution

As plastic pollution continues to be a global problem affecting both human and environmental health, scientists have developed new biodegradable materials which could help to rectify this.

Plastic is now so widespread it has been found at the bottom of the deepest oceans and near Everest’s peak, while microplastics have even been found in our blood.

Hoping to solve this issue, scientists at the University of California San Diego have developed materials which have been proven to biodegrade in compost and seawater by a study published in Science of the Total Environment

Working alongside the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, the team found their polyurethane foam, developed over the last eight years, was colonised by marine microorganisms and biodegraded back to the starting chemicals.

These microorganisms, which were mainly bacteria and fungi found in natural marine environments, then consumed these chemicals as nutrients.

‘Improper disposal of plastic in the ocean breaks down into microplastics and has become an enormous environmental problem,’ said Stephen Mayfield, professor in UC’s School of Biological Sciences and director of the California Center for Algae Biotechnology. ‘We’ve shown that it’s absolutely possible to make high performance plastic products that also can degrade in the ocean. Plastics should not be going into the ocean in the first place, but if they do, this material becomes food for microorganisms and not plastic trash and microplastics that harm aquatic life.’

The researchers used the Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier and Experimental Aquarium which allowed them to test the materials in a natural near ecosystem, exactly like the environments plastics tend to end up in.

They also exposed foam samples of the material to tidal and wave dynamics, tracking molecular and physical changes, and found that it started degrade in as little as four weeks.

Microorganisms found in six marine sites around San Diego were also discovered to be capable of breaking down and consuming the polyurethane material.

‘No single discipline can address these universal environmental problems but we’ve developed an integrated solution that works on land—and now we know also biodegrades in the ocean,’ said Mayfield. ‘I was surprised to see just how many organisms colonize on these foams in the ocean. It becomes something like a microbial reef.’

It’s hoped this could go some way to helping to tackle the global plastic crisis, as researchers estimate that eight billion kilograms of plastic enter the ocean each year, collecting in locations such as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

In the UK, the Big Plastic Count found Brits collected 1.8 billion pieces of plastic within a week, leading organisers to call for an end to single-use plastics.

Photo by Daniel Zhen, Algenesis Inc.

Bye, bags. Montreal plastic bag ban now in effect

As of today, Montreal businesses are no longer allowed to distribute disposable plastic bags. That includes everything from retail stores and supermarkets to takeout and delivery.

And that’s just fine for Janou McDermott who has been collecting different types of reusable grocery bags for years.

“The more people you see with reusable bags, the more it’ll lead by example,” she said. 

“I think that more people will follow suit and I think once there are no more alternatives, you’ll have to get onboard.”

In a news release, the city says only 16 per cent of bags are recycled while the rest often end up in the environment, taking up to 1,000 years to break down. 

The plastic impacts ecosystems and the film contaminates the paper bales in sorting centres, the release says. The ban will significantly impact the quality of sorted paper at recycling centres, it says.

“The fight against climate change is everyone’s business and we hope that this strong gesture can equip other municipalities to follow suit,” Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante is quoted as saying in the release. 

Some stores offer alternatives you can buy, such as brown paper bags or reusable bags. Stores that continue to offer plastic bags can be fined as much as $1,000 for a first offence and up to $2,000 for repeat offences. 

Janou McDermott checks a label while carrying her reusable shopping bags in a grocery store in Montreal’s west end. (CBC)

Montrealer Kito Lampard-Virga says plastic bags have other uses.

“I will take one grocery bag and I will use it for weeks,” he said. “If it’s dirty, I will wash it. I will put my clothes in it. I bring it back and forth to work. Sometimes, I want to carry something dirty, so I will put it in a plastic bag when I get home.”

Ready for change

But as useful as they can be, staff here at Le Marché Esposito, a supermarket in the city’s west end, say they’re ready to do away with plastic bags.

Assistant manager Normand Shannon said pollution is leading to climate change.

“Without the plastic bag, we won’t have that pollution,” he said. “That’s going to help a lot.”

Coun. Marie-Andrée Mauger is the executive committee member responsible for the city’s ecological transition and the environment. She says the city is encouraging merchants to promote the use of reusable bags.

“We’re confident that things will go smoothly. We are at this turning point where people accept that we need to reduce the number of bags that we use every day in our daily lives,” she said.

The Plante administration is striving to achieve zero waste, and another step toward that status will be enacted in March 2023 when eight single-use plastic items will also be banned. 

This will include trays (except those for meat and fish), plates, containers and their lids, cups or glasses and their lids, stirrers, straws and utensils.

The city is also planning an awareness campaign that will start at the end of October to educate the public about reducing their waste.

Federal government also banning plastic

While Montreal continues to make strides on a local level, Ottawa isn’t far behind.

The federal government is banning companies from importing or making plastic bags and takeout containers by the end of this year, from selling them by the end of next year and from exporting them by the end of 2025.

The move will also affect single-use plastic straws, stir sticks, cutlery and six-pack rings used to hold cans and bottles together.

“Our government is all-in when it comes to reducing plastic pollution,” Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault said earlier this year.

The Liberal government has set 2030 as the target date for halting the flow of plastic waste that ends up in landfills or as litter on beaches, in rivers, wetlands and forests.

Federal data show that in 2019, 15.5 billion plastic grocery bags, 4.5 billion pieces of plastic cutlery, 5.8 billion straws, three billion stir sticks, 183 million six-pack rings and 805 million takeout containers were sold in Canada.

The recycling app that supports displaced women

A four-year-old tech startup in Nigeria is hiring internally displaced women to recycle waste, as part of a growing number of recycling initiatives in the country.

Founded by Rita Idehai, a geologist and environmental expert, Ecobarter is attempting to reduce dumpsites blocking waterways, drainages and gutters, in an effort to prevent deadly and costly flooding in the Nigerian capital of Abuja.

“The problem of waste management in the Federal Capital Territory (FCT) requires urgent attention,” Mark Chukwuemeka Ebisike, an environmental expert consulting the Nigerian government, tells Next City. “Dumpsites are everywhere, and not much has been done about it. The incessant flooding in the FCT can be linked to this.”

Janet Peni, Deputy Director of Information & Communication at the Abuja Environmental Protection Board, agrees: “The flooding in the FCT is partly our fault: we, the residents of the FCT, have a poor attitude to waste disposal.”

Ecobarter is working to change such attitudes by allowing residents of Abuja to create value from everyday waste: The company rewards waste pickers with cash for collecting recyclables, and hires Nigeria’s internally displaced women to transform collected waste into fashion and household items.

Work opportunities

Khadijat Annayim, 32, is one of 150 internally displaced women working with Ecobarter. After her husband was killed in 2014 by Boko Haram insurgents, she was forced to flee Nigeria’s northeastern Borno state with her four children.

“It has not been easy to be here,” Annayim says. “We used to struggle even to eat. Since I started work in Ecobarter, I have been getting some money to take care of my needs.”

Through Ecobarter, Idehai aims to not only address local environmental and infrastructural crises but also provide a measure of financial security for internally displaced people, or IDPs, who are effectively refugees within their own country.

“I’ve been that child that always wanted to make an impact,” Idehai says. “IDPs are some of the most disadvantaged members of our community, and their living conditions clearly needed some improvement. I felt they would be able to do a lot for themselves if they are financially empowered.”

The company pays the IDP women based on their output. Each yard of weaved fabric earns them NGN 1,000 to 1,500 ($2.40 to $3.60). Some women weave two to three yards daily.

“Ecobarter rented a large plot of land on which the recycling site is situated. The remaining portions of land are used by the women for farming,” explains Hauwa Mahmoud, a 40-year-old literacy coach volunteering to teach the women at Ecobarter to read and write.

“When they are not weaving, they work on their farms, cultivating maize, beans, yams, soy, and groundnuts,” she says. Organic waste collected from local markets is used to produce compost for the farms. “They consume almost all the crops they harvest, and sell the rest,” she adds.

Collecting waste

Around 100 scavengers collect waste for the company. “They are the young boys you see everywhere picking waste from dumpsites and people’s bins,” Idehai explains.

“Per kilogram of plastic we pay about NGN 40-50, of paper or carton NGN 50-60, and as much as NGN 150-200 for metal,” she adds.

“We also collect waste directly from households and sensitize people so that individuals understand the importance of recycling,” Idehai says.

Ecobarter recently launched a mobile app to offer waste pickup services to users across Nigeria, and not just Lagos and Abuja.

“The waste is weighed and credited to the Ecobarter wallets of the subscribers,” Idehai explains.

Lack of awareness

In four years, Ecobarter has generated NGN 15 million with no help from the government. “When we started, we were collecting 2,000kg of waste per month, now it’s between 20,000 and 30,000kg,” the founder says.

Ebisike, who advises the government on environmental issues, believes the government needs to partner with the private sector. The Abuja Environmental Protection Board is slowly beginning such public-private collaborations.

“This partnership has been very helpful,” Peni says. “If not for their contribution, it would have been very difficult for us to deal with waste management. We give them our best support, but because of cash constraints, we cannot supply them with all their needs.”

The cost of logistics and the low level of awareness about the importance of sustainable waste management remain a major challenge, however.

“We have to spend a lot of money on educating people, designing campaigns and incentivizing them to understand the importance of recycling and the dangers of indiscriminate waste management,” Idehai says.

“It is important for us that there is a behavioral change towards how people manage their wastes in their homes.”

This article has been published in collaboration with Egab.

Chidi Nwachukwu is a freelance journalist in Nigeria.

Antarctica's tourists are turning into citizen scientists to clean up the continent

Antarctica is one of Earth’s last largely pristine places. A decade ago, about 33,000 tourists visited the southern continent each year; today, that number has more than doubled to over 74,000 [PDF]. But with them come non-native species that can disrupt fragile ecosystems, further damaging highly trafficked areas and increasing pollution.

To lessen visitors’ impacts in Antarctica, scientists and polar tour operators are balancing the risks to the delicate environment with the need to foster stewardship of the remote region—by engaging the tourists themselves.

A 2012 study found that each Antarctic visitor distributes an average of 9.5 non-indigenous seeds across the continent. However, these hitchhikers aren’t limited to those clinging to humans; more recent research found that small marine organisms from all over the world catch rides on ships bound for Antarctica. These may not seem like big problems—in other oceans, commercial cruise liners leave oil, plastic waste, and sewage in their wake—but any invasive species has the potential to disrupt a habitat in which it has no natural predators. Over time, foreign plants and animals brought by humans can become established in their new environment and crowd out the endemic species [PDF].

The International Antarctic Association of Tour Operators (IAATO), founded in 1991, promotes “environmentally responsible” tourism to the frozen continent. That includes hypervigilant efforts to stop the arrival and spread of non-native species and incorporating the latest science into their tourism policies. Such proactivity and foresight are critical for the continent’s health and their own bottom line.

IAATO and its affiliated research scientists are now encouraging these tourists to have a positive impact on the South Pole—and the entire planet.  

Group of tourists in Antarctica listening to a lecture from a scentistGroup of tourists in Antarctica listening to a lecture from a scentist

Tourists learn about Antarctica’s geology during a scientific lecture in the field. / Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

“Instead of passively telling visitors about the research that goes on in Antarctica, we can get them to participate through citizen science programs,” Allison Cusick tells Mental Floss. “It’s an immersive experience.”

Cusick , a Ph.D. candidate in biological oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, co-founded the FjordPhyto initiative to investigate how melting glaciers are affecting phytoplankton communities along the western Antarctic Peninsula. She and her colleagues have enrolled more than 4000 Antarctic tourists as citizen scientists to sample the waters and gauge the productivity of the marine ecosystems while they’re on their bucket-list trips.

FjordPhyto collaborates with the Polar Citizen Science Collective (PCSC), a clearinghouse for scientists wanting to launch citizen science projects at the poles and tour operators who want to offer the experience to their guests. In addition to FjordPhyto, the PCSC has helped polar researchers connect with citizen science volunteers for studies ranging from cloud surveillance to marine mammal identification. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. “With citizen science, we researchers can expand our scope of questioning, and it keeps people curious about the world around them,” Cusick says. 

Tourists inspect a glacier from an inflatable Zodiac boatTourists inspect a glacier from an inflatable Zodiac boat

Tourists inspect a glacier from an inflatable Zodiac. / Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Antarctic visitors have a role after returning home as well. IAATO’s members encourage their clients to become “Antarctic ambassadors” by sharing stories about their experiences there and advocating for conservation.

It’s not just about giving visitors the trip of a lifetime, Daniela Cajiao tells Mental Floss, “but how we can make these life-changing experiences last.” Cajiao, who recently earned a doctorate at the Universidad Autónoma de Madrid, co-authored a study earlier this year that examined what happens after Antarctic tourists concluded their visits. She discovered that, while guides show tourists that they have a role in supporting policies protecting the fragile landscape, the efforts don’t always translate to environmental actions.

Today’s Antarctic visitors are attuned to the social aspects of exploration and more likely to learn from interactive activities, like citizen science initiatives, than on-board lectures, Cajiao explains. Her study suggests that citizen science projects and adventures tailored to these attitudes are correlated with tourists acting for the environment after their vacations end. This is extremely important in the context of Antarctic conservation, she says; action, not thoughts or feelings, is what will help preserve the polar ecosystem.

“Why do we care about this giant ice desert?” Cusick asks rhetorically. “Because it’s crucial for the health of the entire planet.” And caring about what happens at the South Pole shouldn’t be limited to scientists., experts say.

When we’re inspired to learn about a place and experience its beauty, we form a deep connection to something bigger than ourselves. The key is instilling a sense of wonder so profound it stays with Antarctica’s tourists long after they return home.

‘We can’t recycle our way out’

From chemical recycling to plant-based alternatives, scientists size up the most promising solutions to plastic pollution

By Samantha Wohlfeil / InvestigateWest

When dealing with the life cycle of plastic, hundreds of solutions await, from alternative bioplastics that might be able to degrade themselves through the magic of fungus, to complex chemical recycling that can break plastics down to become other petroleum products or to be rebuilt good as new.

A reporting project by InvestigateWest examining one of the most problematic pollutants of the 21st century: plastic. This series was funded in part by the Sustainable Path Foundation.

But as promising as chemical recycling and next-generation plastics may sound, experts also say some of the most realistic solutions to plastic pollution involve eliminating it from packaging as much as possible.

Decision-makers are asking: How can manufacturers design their plastic packaging to be recycled more easily after consumers are done with it? Should packaging all be the same color of plastic to avoid dye-based contamination in recycling processes? Could markers on different types of plastic help imaging robots at sorting facilities do their jobs better when diverting containers by type? Which products could avoid using plastic altogether?

Currently, the vast majority of plastic recycling is done by mechanical methods. First, post-consumer plastics are divided by number; for example, the PET plastic (polyethylene terephthalate) commonly used for beverage bottles needs to be separated from the HDPE plastic (high-density polyethylene) that’s often used for laundry detergent containers. Each group is then often shredded and melted into pellets that can get remelted and formed into new packaging. Or different plastics can be repurposed into boards for outdoor decks or processed into fibers for carpets and clothing. 

But because heat can degrade the polymer chains (strings of repeating molecules) in plastic, there are limits to the number of times plastic can be “recycled” in the truest sense of being made into a new product.

With those limitations in mind, many people, from those working for the largest oil and chemical manufacturers (think BP and Dow) down to individual entrepreneurs, are experimenting with chemical recycling as a potential way to recycle even more plastic. Less than 10 percent of the stuff actually gets recycled, but chemical recycling offers the promise of rebuilding the molecule chains that are broken down with heat, as well as the possibility of converting plastics into fuels and other compounds.

Whether some of the newer chemical recycling proposals will actually succeed is a question. Common constraints include the high costs of building and powering processing facilities, the purchase of expensive chemicals, and the challenge of reliably sourcing materials uncontaminated with food scraps, dyes, or other types of plastic or garbage. Other concerns center on the greenhouse gas emissions of the chemical recycling process and, in the case of turning plastics into fuels, burning the end products, and whether those climate costs are less than those caused by creating virgin plastic.

Meanwhile, innovators of all ages are developing plastic alternatives made from things like fish skin, vegetable starches and other biodegradable substances that offer the promise of rapid decomposition when disposed of properly, a sharp contrast with the thousands of years that traditional plastics may linger in the environment. 

As people figure out whether chemical recycling or plastic alternatives can prevent plastic pollution — which has already tainted air, water and land around the globe — local governments around the country are still getting a grasp on the recycling options that already exist.

Washington state’s wakeup call came about five years ago when China stopped accepting highly contaminated bales of recycled materials from around the world. Washington lawmakers, responding to the loss of a market that took upwards of 60 percent of the state’s recycled materials, created the Recycling Development Center in 2019. Lawmakers instructed the state Department of Ecology, via the new center, to help create domestic markets for the state’s recyclable materials. 

Washington was on course to lead the way in tackling big recycling problems surrounding plastics and other materials, but the Recycling Development Center got off to a slow start as the COVID-19 pandemic caused agencies to shift to remote work and Gov. Jay Inslee froze  unnecessary hiring. The center’s 14-member advisory board, made up of scientists, manufacturers, environmentalists and more, started meeting virtually in 2020, later offering grants to pilot recycling projects and funding studies that identified recycling options and issues.

Truckloads of plastic bottles, cardboard, glass and newspaper run along an intricate set of conveyor belts and bins to be sorted at Waste Management’s Spokane Materials and Recycling Technology (SMaRT) Center. (Young Kwak/Inlander)

“We had resources from the Legislature that we couldn’t use to hire a consultant, so we set up a little grant program for local governments and universities,” says Kara Steward, director of the Recycling Development Center. 

Recently, the center has been able to support business accelerator competitions, such as NextCycle Washington, which aims to identify innovative ideas that can create a circular economy for materials like plastic. People with promising ideas will get help pitching to investors and connecting with groups that have far deeper pockets than a state program, Steward says. 

“We’re really excited because this is not the kind of thing the Department of Ecology does,” Steward says. “We’re about keeping human health and the environment clean, and I’m over here going, ‘But wait, I want to give money to businesses!’ Everybody around me is like, ‘You can’t do that.’ ‘Yeah, actually, I think I can.’”

New ideas that focus on solutions outside of the recycling system are also welcomed, as packaging innovations may better reduce the waste we create.

“We can’t recycle our way out of the plastic problem,” Steward says. “We’ve recycled 8 percent of the plastic manufactured since the beginning of plastic. We’ve got to think outside the box, do new things, and NextCycle Washington is a great way to try and give a boost to those innovations that just need a little bit of help.” 


In a 2021 report funded by the Recycling Development Center, research professor Karl Englund and a civil and environmental engineering team at Washington State University outlined existing chemical and thermal recycling options for plastic — such as heat-intensive solutions like pyrolysis and gasification, or catalyst-based solutions like glycolysis — and assessed their viability to operate in the Pacific Northwest.

Chemical recycling can create new plastics, syngas (made from hydrogen and carbon monoxide from wood, plastics or other sources), bio oils and other products.

The report found there could be enough post-consumer plastics in either eastern Washington or the Puget Sound region to support a chemical recycler on either side of the state if consumer recycling rates were to increase significantly — from a current rate of about 8 percent to 50 percent. But the report also notes that the costs to open a new facility can be prohibitive, especially as the market prices for end products can vary.

“There is a definite need to secure investment dollars to make any recycling process a success,” the report states. “Having investors that are educated and informed about the recycling supply chain is a must for them to be comfortable to invest in what can be a somewhat risky venture. Without sufficient investment management, smaller companies and start-ups will have a difficult time securing investments and mitigating risks.”

The research team also compiled a database of hundreds of existing recyclers. Though it was updated in spring 2022, the list could already be updated with 100 new companies trying to work on plastic recycling, Englund says. Maintaining a reliable list is a challenge, as companies often make a big splash when they announce their promising new recycling process, but some fade away if their process doesn’t pencil out or get funding, Englund says. 

Massive multinational companies such as Dow or BASF, which make additives that help in the more popular mechanical recycling processes, are more likely to stick around, as their products are readily available and backed with more finances, Englund explains. 

Even when new facilities do open, they don’t always work as intended. One company in recent years offered Boise, Idaho, the ability to recycle its plastic films like bags and peel-back container tops into diesel fuel, but much of what was collected ultimately ended up getting burned for energy rather than converted to fuel, Reuters reported last year. The company said the switch was due to high levels of contamination in Boise’s recycling stream, but Reuters noted that multiple other “advanced recycling” projects around the world had also failed or been significantly delayed in recent years, largely due to high costs. 

Plastic Recycling Terms

Pyrolysis: In this process, waste such as plastic is heated in an environment without oxygen. This can break plastic down into crude oil and gases.

Glycolysis: This process breaks down plastic through the use of catalysts that break certain molecular links.

Gasification: Combining plastic with heat, oxygen and steam (or a similar combination), the material can be turned into syngas.

Syngas: Synthesis gas is made from many materials that can create a combination of hydrogen and carbon monoxide. When made from plastic (using heat and oxygen or steam), syngas can be used for several things, including fuel for fuel cells to generate electricity.

Polyethylene terephthalate: Also known as PET or PETE, this plastic is used widely for beverage containers and is the most recyclable.

High-density polyethylene: Also known as HDPE, this plastic is often used for things like laundry detergent containers and is also known for being easier to recycle than some other plastics.

Polyvinyl chloride: A type of plastic also known as PVC.

Polystyrene: Also known as Styrofoam, this plastic has historically been less easy to recycle because its lightweight, bulky nature makes shipping adequate supply to recyclers difficult. However, some chemical recyclers have taken on the material.

However, Englund says that while many news outlets may focus on the recycling failures, scientists and businesses are making significant progress to advance chemical recycling.

“The guys in the plastics world are busting their butt to make this happen,” Englund says. “Do we all need to do more? Yeah. But at least we’re taking steps in the right direction, and I am cautiously optimistic.”

New alternatives need to be assessed to ensure they’re a better option than continuing to churn out new plastic.

For example, say that a store switches to glass bottles that can be returned for a deposit, washed, refilled and put back on the shelf. Does the weight of transporting those glass containers in vehicles contribute to worse gas mileage and a larger carbon footprint than lightweight, recyclable plastic containers? How much water is needed to clean the containers versus produce new ones? 

Chemical recycling can create new plastics, syngas (made from hydrogen and carbon monoxide from wood, plastics or other sources), bio oils and other products.

For advanced recycling, companies have to calculate whether the energy needed to chemically break down and rebuild plastics is higher than the greenhouse gas emissions of creating new plastics.

Upstream, packaging design decisions can also help make products more recyclable.

Take a plastic container that holds bleach wipes. If the body of the container is white, the top of the container is another color, and the label is printed directly onto the plastic, those dyes can “contaminate” the process when recyclers are trying to achieve one homogenous color, Englund says.

“When we develop that plastic at the very beginning, we’ve got to look and say, ‘How can I get this back to this form at the end of its life?’” Englund says. 

A better design for that container of wipes might be as simple as using one color for the entire container and printing the label on paper, which is far easier to remove before the chemical recycling process and also could be separately recycled, he says.

Englund also wonders whether other design features such as symbols imprinted with infrared ink could help materials recovery facilities more easily sort the different materials. 

There may also need to be changes on the consumer side, he says, as a lot of design is based around consumer preferences for package appearance.

“How do we as a society learn to accept things not in a million different colors [with] all these cool things added to it?” Englund asks. “You know, hey, it’s just milk.”

Some states are helping tip the scale in favor of circular systems by requiring higher percentages of post-consumer recycled materials in packaging in coming years. Some are also passing “extended producer responsibility” rules that require manufacturers to pay for the recycling of their products at the end of their life cycle. Those policies could make some plastic recycling methods pencil out, as manufacturers will be more inclined to buy the recycled products to meet state mandates.

As a high school freshman and sophomore in Spokane, Wash., Anna Armstrong studied the potential of fungus to enhance composting. (Paul Conrad/InvestigateWest)


Amazingly, you don’t need to work in a multimillion-dollar lab backed by a massive corporation to design a plastic alternative. 

For 18-year-old Anna Armstrong, the desire to help solve the world’s plastic problem started particularly young. Early in her freshman and sophomore science classes at Ferris High School in Spokane, Armstrong studied the potential of fungus to enhance composting. As she saw how difficult it was to compost bioplastics that are already available in the grocery store, she wondered if she could invent an alternative.

She researched some of the options being explored, such as using the skin of invasive fish species to make bioplastics, which tackles two environmental problems at once. But working with smelly fish skins wasn’t exactly appealing.

Her compost work led her to a specific fungus, Aspergillus oryzae, and she wondered if it could be used to break down the types of plant starch-based plastics, such as compostable trash can liners, that are becoming more popular in the plastic-alternatives field.

“Aspergillus oryzae is found in Asia a lot of the time in food management because it is used for fermenting rice,” Armstrong says. “I was looking into what it does, and it kind of links to the starch and starts to eat away at it, which helps the fermentation process. So I cross applied that to plastic degradation to see how I could fix a separate problem.”

During the last two years of her high school biomedical innovation classes — much of the time working remotely due to the pandemic — she researched sustainable sources for arrowroot powder, vinegar and vegetable glycerin that could create thin sheets of plastic similar to those found wrapped around products on store shelves, and set to work creating her own prototypes. 

“I tried probably 30 or 40 recipes before I actually landed on one that I could use,” Armstrong says. “The ratios can be pretty tricky.”

She also tried to adjust her methods to make the prototypes more transparent and with as few visible imperfections as possible, because consumers can be picky. 

Armstrong took her bioplastic to the Eastern Washington Regional Science and Engineering Fair, where she took first place for her invention and went on to compete virtually in the International Science and Engineering Fair in Atlanta, Georgia, where she placed fourth in the world in the environmental engineering category this year. Judges there helped her talk through how to reduce water usage when creating the bioplastic film and coached her on how to describe her work.

Anna Armstrong’s bioplastic placed fourth in the world in the environmental engineering category this year at the International Science and Engineering Fair in Atlanta, Georgia. (Paul Conrad/InvestigateWest)

This fall, she’s starting college at Western Washington University, where she plans to major in environmental science and minor in environmental justice. Ultimately, she wants to get her PhD in mycology (the study of fungi, such as mushrooms) as she continues developing her product, which she hopes to see on store shelves one day.

“I want to prove that it isn’t impossible to make a plastic that actually works and is environmentally friendly,” Armstrong says. “If I can do it at 17, then scientists who have been working forever in the environmental engineering field should be capable of making it with years of experience.”

Part of her passion also stems from growing up with fears of how climate change will impact the planet in her lifetime. She says scientists are trying everything they can to get the world to heed their warnings, but it doesn’t seem like anyone is taking action.

“I really want to live in a world [where] I don’t have to worry about what the future generations can look like, and not even future generations of humans, I’m talking about all the flora and fauna that lives in the world and depends on the environment around us,” Armstrong says. “Fear isn’t an excuse to be complacent. Because other people haven’t done it doesn’t mean you can’t.” 

FEATURED IMAGE: Joseph Lopez of Seattle and other volunteers collected marine trash at Golden Gardens Park in Seattle. (Dan DeLong/InvestigateWest)

InvestigateWest ( is an independent news nonprofit dedicated to investigative journalism in the Pacific Northwest. Visit to sign up for weekly updates. This story was made possible with support from the Sustainable Path Foundation.

Rob Kaplan: If we want a global treaty to actually prevent plastic pollution give companies and investors seats at the table

I get it. If industry has caused so much of the plastic problem, how can we expect them – or even trust them – to be part of the solution? But I believe that if we finally want to achieve a global agreement on plastic pollution that actually ends plastic pollution, we have to give companies and investors seats at the table because public policy is most effective when designed with all stakeholders.

To be honest, ideas like this used to get me laughed out of the business school classroom. One side of the class would say “the role of business is to make money, not improve society” and the other side of the class would say “once the government passes a law, business will just have to get in line, so why bother?” The notion that businesses had not only a positive contribution to make, but also were critical players never won me any friends on either side of the room.

But what if the industry believed that policies designed to reverse decades of externalities were actually good for their business in the long-term? What if they were incented to keep those policies enacted to level the playing field?

That is the opportunity we have in front of us with the global plastics treaty. For the first time, 150+ countries are negotiating a global treaty to end plastic pollution. We cannot squander the moment. To maximize the effectiveness of any treaty we need the private sector involved in the solution. Why? Time and again we’ve seen that we cannot rely on government regulation alone to get us there.

A case in point — attempts in the US to regulate cleaner air are fraught with complications and frustrated ambitions. In 1970, the US government enacted the Clean Air Act (CAA), a landmark legislation that empowered the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to regulate air pollution, especially things like acid rain and toxic emissions from coal fired power plants. Fast forward more than 30 years to 2003, and the Bush Administration enacted the Clear Skies Initiative, which almost overnight changed how the CAA would be implemented, and reduced the EPA’s ability to enforce the law. This was such a shock and so antithetical to the spirit of the CAA, that the EPA’s top enforcement officer (the guy responsible for enforcing the law) resigned in protest. (Full disclosure: Eric Schaeffer, the EPA’s top cop at the time, became one of my first clients as well as an inspiration and mentor to me.) Most recently, this past year the US Supreme Court further reigned in the EPA’s ability to reduce air pollution by deciding it can’t regulate carbon emissions.

So, it took more than a generation, but what was once viewed as a massive victory for environmental policy has now been reduced to a mere shadow of its potential. We’ve seen the same thing happen with other supposedly settled policy battles, like abortion and gun control.

This is the impermanence of government. And it’s an inconvenient truth for policy advocates in the US and around the world. I started my career in Washington, DC because I believed policy was the key solution pathway to the problems that I cared about. However, I left Washington years later and transitioned to the private sector because I realized that policy is insufficient by itself. If industry is dragged kicking and screaming by regulation, the regulations will ultimately not have the desired outcome. Industry will always act in its own best interest and when the policies are viewed as opposing that interest, they won’t give up until they ultimately prevail, as we’ve seen in so many of these instances. We can’t afford for this to happen when it comes to plastic pollution.

Why We Need A More Nuanced View of Industry

It’s clear that we need a more holistic approach to solving these complex problems, and part of the solution lies with getting industry involved to help identify, create and finance scalable solutions. But getting to this point means we have to take a more nuanced view of industry. In fact, plastic pollution is perhaps the only environmental area where we have nearly universal vested interest and built-in alignment to solving the problem – think consumer packaged goods companies, chemical companies, beverage companies, NGOs, government bodies, banks, multilateral institutions, and on and on. Nobody wants plastic in the environment.

We need engagement from industry players for lots of reasons – not just for their investment dollars. My company’s work in Asia has proven that you can find investible enterprises that are innovating new ways and scaling proven ways to tackle the plastic waste problem. Institutional investors and corporates can provide valuable investment dollars but equally as important is helping integrate the operations of these young enterprises into the global supply chain; advising on product design; helping ensure greater transparency in the system – all with a view to building a circular economy for plastics. These are key insights and realities on the ground that can inform effective policy.

Earlier this week, 80+ organizations including businesses from across the plastics value chain, financial institutions and NGOs joined a coalition convened by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and WWF to call for and support an ambitious, effective and legally binding UN treaty to end plastic pollution (*Circulate Capital is part of this coalition). Many corporates are already demonstrating that they are leading government and regulatory action on a number of our most critical climate issues, so it’s not a stretch to see the value they could provide to developing a global treaty on plastics pollution that has tangible, meaningful results. We’ve already seen in the face of the US Supreme Court decision gutting the spirit and legal impact of the EPA that many corporates, from the leading global automakers to multinationals like Amazon, Danone, Meta, Microsoft, Netflix, PayPal, Tesla and a host of others, are going to continue to pursue their climate targets.

The bottom line is that a piecemeal or myopic approach to tackling our climate challenges won’t work, and this goes for the global plastics treaty, as well. There is no single silver bullet or magic wand that is going to miraculously solve such a significant global crisis. We need business, governments, NGOs, entrepreneurs and, yes, corporations, working together alongside institutional capital – so critical to scaling climate solutions – if we have any hope of quickly stemming the tide. I urge negotiators to ensure that companies as well as investors have seats at the table to develop a global treaty on plastic pollution – not as a party to negotiate against – but as an ally in ensuring the treaty’s success.

No, vegan leather is not greenwashing

For some consumers, the phrase “vegan leather” tends to conjure up images of cheap, plastic-based materials — unnatural fabrics that threaten to stick around in landfills for an eternity. Thanks to media stories and viral twitter threads that incorrectly use “faux leather” and “plastic-based leather” interchangeably, the narrative of vegan leather wreaking havoc on the environment has taken hold in the minds of many conscious consumers.

Yet as is often the case with internet narratives, the truth is a lot more complicated. There are many different types of vegan leather alternatives on the market, each with a different environmental footprint. Some are indeed plastic-based, emulating the touch and feel of leather, but others are made from more creative ingredients, like mushroom, cactus, cork or even pineapple. 

Tweetstorms on the evils of vegan leather tend to leave out the massive environmental damage caused by the leather industry and cattle ranching, as well as the many leather alternatives on the market beyond plastic.

Animal-based Leather Creates Toxic Byproducts

Creating leather from raw animal hide is a three-phrase process: preparing, tanning and crusting. It’s the second step, tanning, that can cause pollution. Tanning involves soaking the animal hide in chemicals for prolonged periods of time to make it more flexible. The problem is these chemicals can and do leach out into surrounding environments.

Most leather tanneries use a variety of chemicals including chromium III, sulfuric acid, DDT and formaldehyde. One of the most important is Chromium III, which can be oxidized into Chromium (IV), a known carcinogen that has the potential to harm both workers and residents. 

In short? Leather creates lots of toxic waste. 

Researchers estimate that 5.8 millions gallons of chemical waste is pumped into open canals near the Buriganga River in Bangladesh, an area known for leather processing. These chemicals travel through the canals and into the river, making the water undrinkable. Local animals of the Hazaribagh region (which encompasses the Buriganga River) have been found with elevated levels of chromium in their blood. The industry’s hazardous waste has devastated the region, even though the majority of leather produced in the tanneries is exported to western countries, not sold to local citizens. 

The chemicals can also infiltrate more than the water supply. According to a 2006 study, “air and water pollution, widespread odors, poisoning from toxic gas, and unsafe disposal of waste are among the problems that have been experienced to a greater or lesser extent in the tanning industry.” One study linked chromium salts to higher cancer rates in Italian leather workers, especially nasal cancer, since they frequently breathe in the noxious fumes created during the tanning process. 

Finally, though leather biodegrades before plastic, it’s not exactly easily biodegradable. Under perfect conditions, tanned leather may biodegrade in a half century, but can easily last thousands of years. Leather products will likely pop up in landfills for centuries to come. 

Calf Leather Production Adds to Climate Emissions

Leather production is inextricably linked to cattle farming, indisputably one of the most devastating industries to the natural world — the primary cause of deforestation in the Amazon, one of the leading emitters of methane and CO2 and a polluter of rivers and lakes across the world. 

The climate cost alone is stark. Cattle ranching is on of the largest sources of climate emissions when it comes to the food sector and while leather is not always included in agriculture sector studies, the problems caused by beef and dairy production are the same for leather — cattle burp large amounts of methane and require huge amounts of land to raise. 

Per square meter on average, bovine leather has a cradle to gate carbon impact of 73 kilograms, including emissions from transportation, factories, machinery and distribution. By comparison, emissions for cotton are just 8.46 kilograms per shirt.

According to the Higg Sustainability Index, a standardized measure of consumer goods by the nonprofit Sustainable Apparel Coalition, non-animal-based fabrics like cotton, polyester and canvas all have a lower environmental impact than animal leather.

Why Leather Isn’t a Byproduct of the Meat Industry

Many proponents of leather claim the material is a by-product of the meat industry — arguing that using leather is a way to reduce waste from an already existing mechanism. But that leaves out a few key details. 

Byproducts are essentially leftover materials from a manufacturing process that tend to have far less value than the primary product. Leather is a global business worth over 100 billion dollars. Farmers do not treat rawhide as a leftover product. In fact, they take great care to slaughter their cows to keep the hide intact and sell it for a profit. The production of meat and the production of leather is therefore deeply intertwined. Leather is often referred to by industry professionals as a subsidy or co-product, not a byproduct.

Plastic Leather Has Its Environmental Drawbacks 

Plastic-based leather, also called polyurethane or PU, is one of the more common alternatives and it does have its environmental drawbacks. PU leather is not as durable as animal-based leather (however, it is waterproof and sunproof, unlike animal-based leather). It tends to wear down faster and is not biodegradable, meaning it will take up space in landfills.

But it’s not necessarily accurate to call plastic-based leather “vegan” — in fact, it’s often sold in items not identified as vegan. There are also many non-plastic vegan leather alternatives on the market to choose from, with more likely to come in the future. 

Vegan and Non-Plastic Leathers a Better Alternative

Among the more creative alternatives to leather, Mylo is leading the charge. Its products use mycelium, the underground root structure of mushrooms, to create the feel and durability of leather without the environmental concerns. Mushrooms are quick-growing, sustainable and animal-free. Mushroom leather has appeared on the runways of Paris Fashion Week and the lineup of Lululemon. 

Cork is also a fascinating alternative. Even though cork leather is derived from the cork tree, no deforestation is necessary since the process of extracting the bark can be done without killing the tree. The result is a durable material sporting unique tree rings patterns.

Pinatex, a pineapple-based product inspired by traditional Filipino weaving techniques, is also making waves. It takes the pineapple fibers, a waste product of the food industry, and transforms it into a sleek, durable fabric. Not only does this replace the harmful tanning of the animal-based leather, but it also reutilizes a waste product that may otherwise have been burned, saving tons of CO2 from the atmosphere. 

These creative plant-based fabrics, sometimes collectively known as man-made celluloid fibers, are among the most environmentally-friendly products on the market today since they are biodegradable and don’t require massive energy or chemicals to produce. 

Some sustainable leather alternatives can be pricey, but they tend to last longer than plastic, which can mean more bang for your buck long-term. Of course, vegan alternatives to leather don’t always emulate the feel of leather at all, but instead mimic the function. Vegans are known to sport a hemp belt or canvas shoes – all cheaper and more accessible alternatives. 

Ethical Cost of Animal-Based Leathers

Animal-based leather also has a serious ethical concern, irrespective of the environmental impact. Animal-based leather requires the death of cows and the theft of their skin. Cows are known to be incredibly social animals, capable of making best friends and becoming anxious when separated from friends and kin. Cows enjoy play as much as dogs. Since leather is a subsidiary product of the meat industry, leather goods are usually taken from cows killed as young as one year old, less than five percent of their natural lifespan (akin to a human dying at age four). 

To view animals as products is to deny them autonomy, personality, and individualism – all qualities that cows demonstrate in spades. 

Balancing Sustainability, Ethics and Consumerism

It’s extremely difficult to make every clothing choice ethical and sustainable in an economy built on cheap and polluting products. 

Animal-based leathers have the potential to destroy rivers and the atmosphere through corrosive chemicals, while plastic alternatives have fewer carbon emissions but contribute to a growing microplastics problem. 

Some solutions are obvious — buy less clothing. Saying no to the whims of the fast fashion exploitation machine gives less power to their exploitative and unsustainable methodology. Buying thrifted, secondhand or upcycled clothing are all ways to reduce our consumer impact. 

Veganism, sustainability and conscious consumption are all just tools that can be used in tandem to minimize your impact. Becoming more aware of the hidden problems behind your clothing purchases — both environmental and ethical — are one way of nudging the world towards becoming a kinder place.