“I had to jump over the side of the boat with a knife, like a pirate. We had ropes, fishing nets, pieces of garbage stuck around the hydrofoils.”Will Harris is a British sailor competing for Team Malizia in The Ocean Race, which finishes this week in Genoa, Italy, after a 60,000km circumnavigation of the globe over the past six months.The teams have combined navigating what is considered one of the longest and toughest professional sporting events in the world with also doing their bit for climate impact research.The boats are gathering information on plastic pollution, rising ocean temperatures and the amount of carbon dioxide and salt in the seas.”This garbage has been in the ocean for 40 or 50 years,” says Harris. “They end up a combination of rope, plastic – which isn’t degrading – and sea life which has tried to grow on it.”Imagine what it’s going to be like in 300 years time. It’s really scary and really eye opening.”The amount of plastic found in the ocean is increasing, with some areas showing a 20% rise from the last race in 2018. Plastic is just one of the growing environmental impacts on our oceans, which Harris and the five teams competing have witnessed.”I’ve seen things like sargassum seaweed clogging up the Caribbean,” adds Harris. “We’ve seen less and less wildlife in particular, such as birds in the ocean and the storms that we experience at sea are getting more and more intense. “So it’s interesting that even in the few years I’ve been doing this racing, we’re starting to see changes already. And often it’s not for the better.”Ocean temperatures hottest on recordGlobal warming is causing ocean temperatures to rise as well, with record temperatures already reached this year.The North Atlantic ocean around the UK, which is an area of concern, has seen some of the most intense marine heat increases on Earth.Oceans and seas cover 70% of the world’s surface, absorb more than 90% of heat from the sun and drive weather systems, so the speed of the warming effect is far-reaching. Dr Marilena Oltmanns specialises in ocean and climate at the National Oceanography Centre and told the BBC the increase in ocean temperatures were “unprecedented” and “very alarming”.In the past 10 years the distance sailed in The Ocean Race has increased by 30%, with an exclusion zone around Antarctica being moved 1,000 miles further north due to more melting ice and the risk of icebergs.Harris adds: “There’s lots of stories now about huge icebergs ending up on South Georgia Island [in the South Atlantic Ocean] and they’re going to potentially wipe out some pretty crucial wildlife spots.”The bigger that this ice exclusion zone gets, the longer our race course ends up being because we have to sail further around Antarctica.”Boats doing their bitAll the boats competing in this 14th edition of the race have been fitted with scientific monitoring equipment to take readings in some of the most remote parts of the world’s oceans and deliver data to scientists at the UK Oceanography Centre to study. Results have found even in the most remote areas of the planet the presence of microplastics is pervasive.Dr Katsiaryna Pabortsava is studying the results from the boats’ data at the National Oceanography Centre.”Every sample that we analysed so far had microplastics in it. And we are seeing more microplastics in the samples from this year’s race in comparison to the last race that took place in 2017-2018,” she says.Dr Pabortsava adds some samples showed the quantity of microplastics was “20 times higher”, but the methods used were “a lot more sensitive”.
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Black Americans struggling to live through a water crisis are urging the rest of the country to recast what is viewed as violence.
“People just don’t get the big picture,” says Brooke Floyd, coordinator for the Jackson People’s Assembly, a social justice organization in Jackson, Mississippi. “There are a lot of things that are making [the water crisis] a bigger storm. People [have] lost their lives.”
Ultimately, when someone doesn’t have access to clean water, or water at all, that’s a consequential choice being made by those in power, explains LaTricea Adams, the founder of Black Millennials 4 Flint. And while the reasons driving the crisis look very different depending on where you live, the bottom line is the same: You can’t survive without water.
Without access to clean water, families’ food options and hygiene practices are limited. The ways that people are able to share space with one another are tainted, and community violence levels sometimes rise as this form of divestment in Black communities persists. And residents fear the long-term effects.
“We’re scared that this is going to last forever,” Floyd says. “We are here and we deserve to thrive, just like everyone else does. Our people here deserve the best of everything, and they deserve water, just like everyone else does.”
But Black communities refuse to stop fighting for their right to access clean water. Some have dedicated years to advocating for themselves and their neighbors, while others have learned to just stop depending on the water trickling through their hoses. Of the roughly three dozen Southern residents that Capital B interviewed, just two people regularly consumed the tap water in their home.
For weeks, Capital B traveled across the South to understand how the country’s water crisis is affecting Black life. Here’s what they told us:
Opelousas: ‘I’m not really safe here’
Just the night before, Xavier Bryant, a 22-year-old Black man, was shot and killed down the street from the home of Nyla Belton’s family. It was the fifth fatal shooting in the rural city of 16,000 in the first three months of 2023.
Only 14 years old, Belton has already come to terms with the realities of living in Opelousas, Louisiana, where she says gun violence and governmental neglect are normal.
An abandoned gas station in Opelousas, Louisiana.
Rita Harper / Capital B
Louisiana has the country’s second-highest gun violence rate, with Black residents dying at a rate more than eight times higher than white people. Excluding a small town of just 600 residents, Opelousas has the state’s highest violent crime rate.
But the city’s violence isn’t only at the hands of weapons; it also looks like the brown water trickling out of her faucet, the crumbling roads and sidewalks, and a lack of educational opportunities. Opelousas’ water system is one of 64 — out of 954 statewide — that received an “F” grade from Louisiana’s Department of Health for water issues in 2022.
“It makes me feel unsafe and unsanitary and that everything is dirty,” she says. “The water companies and the government don’t really care.”
The lack of investment in her neighborhood has left the teenager dreaming of moving out of the city to “explore the world.” She wants to move to Texas after she graduates from high school.
“There is not a lot to do or people that you can trust out here. I’m not really safe here,” she says.
While many factors lead to communal violence, water contamination and lack of access to water play significant roles, studies have shown. Both instances alter how the brain processes and rationalizes information and are associated with sudden bouts of anger.
As such, a lack of access to water also dictates how people within these communities relate to one another.
Urban planners and environmental activists have increasingly pointed to the “cues to care” theory, which explains that if there is visible maintenance, care, and investment into communities, social cohesion follows.
Community organizers Eric and Marie Williams have seen it firsthand. For the last several years, the couple has dedicated themselves to lowering the city’s gun violence rate after witnessing two family members lose their lives after an argument led to a gunfight. “We lost twice,” Eric says, “one to the graveyard, one to the prison system.”
The couple hosts regular “peace walks” where residents march throughout the city advocating for people to put the “guns down and power up.” They’ve also begun partnering with local schools and have spent much time in the city’s public housing complexes. There, they began to make the connections between public health, a lack of community investments, and the violence they were so often seeing.
They’ve noticed how it’s impacted life-or-death issues, like people’s food options and how people feel about themselves. “[Water contamination] really is an issue, sometimes every other day. We have to buy water to cook even,” Eric says.
“We even have a dog; we give him bottled water. That’s how sick it is,” Marie adds. “People have babies they have to feed — c’mon.”
Lake Charles: ‘It has been killing us for 60 years’
Debra Ramirez took a sip from her plastic water bottle every few minutes while sitting at a table inside Leonard’s Food Quarters in Lake Charles, Louisiana. In between gulps and bites that she snuck out of a styrofoam container stuffed with a Southern-sized heaping of baked chicken, she pointed to a homemade laminated poster and read from a decades-old newspaper clipping.
Debra Ramirez sits in front of her home in Lake Charles, Louisiana in April. She says she’s faced violent threats while ringing the alarm about her home’s water woes.
Rita Harper / Capital B
All the items were made with plastic, some probably containing polymers — a key component of plastic — that were produced just a few miles away from where she sat.
Plastic has made life seemingly more convenient, but its production, water usage, and pollution are life-threatening. In Lake Charles, these plants have dumped toxins into the soil and rivers, bayous, and lakes for generations. Tests have shown that the chemicals have found their way deep into the groundwater the city depends on for drinking water.
George Orphrey, a Lake Charles resident and former chemical plant worker, has seen it up close. One day, he was tasked with digging a “big ol’ hole” in a channel. He believed they were dredging the area to “bring a boat in through the river.”
“What we were actually doing was putting a drainage pipe in to dump the chemical byproduct directly into it,” he explained. For obvious reasons, he and his wife, Wanda, don’t drink the water in their home.
As Ramirez has jumped between communities in the Lake Charles area, she doesn’t remember the last time her water wasn’t murky. In the previous six decades, she’s seen a rainbow of colors drip from her faucet: brown, green, and even pink.
Since the 1980s, she has worked hard not to normalize the situation, having advocated for remediation and climate reparations for decades. Sometimes the advocacy has placed her in danger, she says. Not too long ago, just days after she began making public information about an ongoing pollution event from one of the chemical plants in her area, a brick came crashing through her window in the middle of the night.
“You’d be surprised, people don’t know that these things go on,” she says. “People get hurt.”
She believes the water contamination has helped contribute to high cancer rates and premature death throughout the region. Governmental and academic surveys and studies back up her assertion.
“You can’t survive without water, you can’t survive without air, and you can’t survive without land,” Ramirez says plainly on a morning in March, alluding to the different ways the chemical plants in her backyard have contaminated the earth around her.
She argues that even if the water is tested, treated, and cleaned, its “cleanliness” only lasts so long because the chemicals have seeped and spread throughout the area.
“[The Environmental Protection Agency] says the water is safe to drink, but when it comes down to it, it has been killing us for 60 years,” Ramirez said, standing next to a sign that read “WARNING: Brine Pipeline,” one of the many chemical solutions infiltrating the region’s groundwater.
Beaumont: ‘Shit Falls’
Chris Jones and his neighbors in the Charlton Pollard neighborhood of Beaumont, Texas, jokingly call the highway underpass that connects their community to the rest of the city “Shit Falls.”
The joke isn’t funny for too long, though, he says, because then reality sets in. Due to an aging sewer system, the city’s waterways are inundated with feces, including the Neches River, one of the city’s two primary drinking water sources.
Not only is the river overfilled with bacteria, but it’s also an industrial dumping ground where sulfur and chloride are found. Of the roughly 140 refineries operating in the U.S., Exxon Mobil’s Beaumont Refinery dumped the third-most unregulated pollutants into the nation’s waterways in 2021, with over 103 million pounds of discharge.
The discharge makes clean water hard to find in the majority-Black city because the salts and pollutants corrode the equipment at water treatment facilities, requiring the city to update equipment much sooner, but funds are rarely available.
Instead, they’re left with “Band-Aid” solutions, like regularly flushing out their municipal water lines into the street to clear them of chemicals, residual chlorine, and the occasional unintentional blob of feces.
The corrosion is so bad, Jones says, that city officials have acknowledged that water lines have been completely eviscerated in some neighborhoods.
At one point, his water was so brown it looked like “a dark cognac” or like he had “tea on tap,” prompting him to bring the issue to the City Council. When the water department director visited Jones’ home, he says, the city worker told him plainly that the water line “was no longer there.”
“It was just the cavity in the ground,” Jones recalls. “So the sewer pipe was contaminating and infiltrating the allegedly potable water.”
In December, Beaumont officials announced a $25 million plan to stop brown water from flowing through residents’ sinks, but it may be coming too late. The decades of neglect have created significant distrust between residents, the city government, and water in general. For years, those residents who were fortunate enough to afford to leave the city have, while those who remained turned to fend for themselves.
Some residents don’t even trust bottled water now.
“We’ve been stopped drinking [tap] water,” Beaumont resident Tara Bettis says. “They say to drink bottled water instead, but I’ve been told that some companies just use tap water in the bottle.”
“I don’t know what to trust.”
“Cancer Alley”: Dealing with the cards given
Travis London is still reeling from video footage that captured a white worker at a Donaldsonville water plant urinating into a huge tank holding the city’s water supply.
A pile of water bottles sit on the floor of a trailer home in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.” More than half of Black Americans exclusively drink bottled water rather than tap water.
Adam Mahoney/Capital B
“That was crazy, and then no telling how many times he did it,” says the Donaldsonville resident about the situation in March.
The white worker, who looked directly into the security camera, was arrested on two counts of criminal damage to critical infrastructure and two counts of contaminating the 85% Black city’s water supply. The motive behind the worker’s actions hasn’t been made public, but for residents, it’s just another drop in the bucket of disregard at the hands of city leaders.
“It’s horrible. Water is life, and the water system not being right is like you taking away the life I deserve, my family deserves,” London says.
It’s not the first time in recent memory that the city’s water was contaminated. In 2016, when a private company ran the water plant, errors at the plant left five times the EPA’s limits of chlorine dioxide in the water, leading to a state of emergency declaration. The water contamination forced schools to shut down, and an annual Easter lunch for the city’s elementary students was canceled, with 600 baked chicken and mashed potatoes lunches thrown in the trash.
In the years since, London has seen his water alternate from a Hulk green color to a muddy brown. He believes that elements of racism have allowed the city’s water issues to fester, especially given the town’s location in the heart of “Cancer Alley,” where residents have some of the country’s highest cancer rates from living close to hundreds of oil and chemical plants.
Many Black residents in the town, and all throughout Cancer Alley, have called Louisiana home for centuries, working and watching the land as it changed from plantation country to oil country. As a result, he believes that some residents have normalized the mistreatment, not understanding that they deserve better resources.
“[Donaldsonville residents] are so used to it that now they don’t have a problem with not having a drink of water,” London says. “They got to the point where they kinda lost hope and just deal with the cards given.”
Memphis: Climate change taints world’s ‘sweetest water’
In Black Soulsville, a neighborhood in South Memphis, the feeling of community is all-encompassing. From morning until night, folks gather on their porches, playing music, shouting jokes at passing cars, and playing slightly contentious games of spades.
Memphis, Tennessee, which is now the country’s largest majority-Black city, is facing the impacts of decades of divestment.
Adam Mahoney/Capital B
Don’t get it wrong, though; Memphians will let you know how tough the city is, hardened by decades of segregation and divestment. While the neighborhoods are full of energy, it’s typical for people to have abandoned and crumbling structures as neighbors and to travel long distances for fresh food.
Despite the hardships, according to most residents you’ll talk to in the city, one thing is for sure: Memphis has the best and cleanest water in the world.
“Our water has always been the best, everyone knows that since birth,” says Chris, a Black Soulsville resident who did not feel comfortable sharing his last name. “Now, if you drive 15 minutes out of Memphis into Mississippi, you know you can’t trust it. You have to boil your water.”
It’s a statement you’d only make with a certain kind of pride and love for your home, but at one point, there was real, if not slightly subjective, science backing the assertion.
As of late, however, the claim has lost its validity, the product of climate change and industrial pollution. Climate change has made severe weather events more common, and the city’s aging infrastructure hasn’t been able to keep up. It has also heightened the likelihood of contamination as industrial pollutants have infiltrated the region’s groundwater, made easier by fluctuating water levels.
For three years, a concrete plant in Black Soulsville dumped toxins in the water as an environmental consultant forged documents about testing the area’s water sources.
Chris was unaware that this happened, but it didn’t change his opinion of the city. “I like Memphis water.”
A few miles southwest of Black Soulsville, another community struggles with a similar situation. Every day, dump trucks carrying highly toxic coal ash make 120 trips between a recently shuttered coal-fired power plant to this semi-rural neighborhood in South Memphis.
For decades, coal ash, the waste composed of mercury and arsenic left behind by burning coal, seeped from the plant into Memphis’ deep soil, threatening the city’s only water source. A recent report named the plant the 10th worst contaminated site in the country.
To ensure the coal ash does not continue to find its way into the aquifer, the plant operators have been ordered to move it to a landfill nestled in a majority-Black neighborhood already overburdened by the city’s growing trucking and logistics industry, home to the likes of Amazon.
It’s an omen for the future, says Memphis resident Anthony Copeland.
“I haven’t seen a change in my water yet,” he said. “But we got these warehouses, and the winter storms, and the [coal plant] trying to mess all that up.”
Researchers have found microplastics in 90% of frogs sampled from the Bengal Delta in Bangladesh.The finding raises concerns about the freshwater ecosystem health and rice cultivation, given that frogs are a key “natural insecticide” keeping pest numbers in check.The study adds to a growing body of literature on the prevalence of microplastic pollution in Bangladesh.Nearly a tenth of the 8,000 metric tons of trash generated daily in the country is plastic waste, for which there’s no proper disposal. DHAKA — Studies on the hazards of microplastics have tended to focus on their presence in the food chain and risks to human health. A new study now shows they also pose a threat to the quality of freshwater environments by impacting a wide range of frog species.
The study of 27 frogs from nine species collected around the Bengal Delta in Bangladesh found a substantial presence of microplastics in the gastrointestinal tracts of 90% of them. Microplastic ingestion can cause severe health damage and even death, says the study, the first of its kind in the country.
Plastics are ubiquitous in Bangladesh, as in many other Global South countries, and tend to be disposed of directly into the environment, including dumped in rivers and other water bodies As they move downstream, they break down into increasingly smaller pieces, ending up as microplastics that animals like frogs ultimately eat.
“Ingestion of plastic damages the frog’s stomach and leads it to collapse. Frogs that have been exposed to plastic die as a result,” said study co-author Shafi Mohammad Tareq, a hydrobiogeochemist at Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka.
A yellow-striped frog (Hylarana tytleri), commonly found in pools, lakes, marshes, and artificially flooded agricultural areas. Image by abinashbiswal via iNaturalist (CC BY-NC 4.0).
Biodiversity and agriculture under threat
Frogs are an essential component of a healthy wetlands ecosystem, protecting biodiversity and native ecological balance, and serving as an indicator of ecosystem health. In Bangladesh, they’re also essential for rice cultivation, serving as a natural pest control by feeding on the larvae of insects that would otherwise damage the crop.
But their existence has long been at threat from human-caused factors, including the overuse of fertilizers and pesticides in rice cultivation, plastic pollution, and loss of habitat and breeding grounds. The threats at one point including harvesting of the frogs so that they could be butchered and their legs exported as a delicacy. But Bangladesh banned this practice when it became apparent that declining frog numbers in rice-growing areas coincided with a drop in rice yields.
The worry is that this same cycle could be playing out again, this time with microplastics as the main culprit, Tareq said.
“Frogs play a role in crop protection and production by eating harmful pests and insects. That’s why frogs are also called ‘natural insecticides.’ So, we can say that the endangered frog directly threatens crop production,” he said.
Bangladesh is home to 47 species of frogs, of which nine are threatened and six near-threatened, according to the IUCN, the global wildlife conservation authority.
The study calls for planned actions to conserve frog populations and thereby protect the environment and ensure a safe food supply. It warns that when frog populations decline due to exposure to microplastics, the ecosystem will be severely disrupted.
A 2022 study analyzing the ecological risk of microplastics on aquatic ecosystems found an abundance of the pollutant in surface water and underlying sediments of several lakes and peripheral rivers of Dhaka. The Bangladeshi capital is one of the world’s most populous cities, generating much of the 8,000 metric tons of waste produced daily across the country. Nearly a tenth of this solid waste is plastic, for which there’s no proper disposal.
The study, on which Tareq was also a co-author, found microplastics present in water and sediment samples from across Dhaka and surrounding areas, at levels higher than in the same type of ecology in Shanghai, the largest urban area in China.
Banner image: A Bengal whipping frog (Polypedates taeniatus). Image by avrajjal via iNaturalist (CC BY-NC 4.0).
Microplastics plus organic pollutants equals 10 times the toxicity, study finds
Shetu, M. H., Parvin, F., & Tareq, S. M. (2023). Identifying the presence of microplastics in frogs from the largest delta of the world. Environmental Advances, 11, 100355. doi:10.1016/j.envadv.2023.100355
Parvin, F., Hassan, M. A., & Tareq, S. M. (2022). Risk assessment of microplastic pollution in urban lakes and peripheral rivers of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Journal of Hazardous Materials Advances, 8, 100187. doi:10.1016/j.hazadv.2022.100187
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Agriculture, Amphibians, Biodiversity, Environment, Freshwater Animals, Freshwater Ecosystems, Frogs, Herps, Microplastics, Plastic, Pollution, Rice, Waste, Wildlife
In just three years, Michele Klimczak has picked, hauled, weighed, documented and sorted more than 32,000 pounds of garbage from the shores of Fisher’s Island, New York. She finds plastics stamped with product expiration dates going back two decades washed up all around the roughly four square mile stretch of land in the Long Island Sound.
For Michele, collecting marine garbage is literally a full-time job, one she holds with the Fisher’s Island Conservancy, a non-profit tasked with caring for the island’s natural resources. There is no off-season—her job is year-round, through rain, snow and heat, to counter a ballooning waste problem. She’s collected garbage on the island for about two decades, full-time since 2018.
But despite her long efforts, she’s only watched the problem grow.
“I’m a total optimist, but it never works out that way,” Michele says. “I leave my truck with my bags and I’m thinking ‘I wonder if I’ll find anything today?,’ which is ridiculous.”
She says she’s never failed to fill her bag.
”But the next day I just have the same attitude—hoping I’m going to find less—but unfortunately that really hasn’t been the case.”
On Earth Day, Michele collected 62 pounds of trash over the span of roughly one-twentieth of a mile—a section she cleaned about a month earlier. A few volunteers helped that day, but she normally collects just as much single-handedly.
An assortment of the trash collected on Earth Day 2023. Bottle caps, balloons and balloon string, straws, polystyrene, miniature liquor bottles, lighters, tampon applicators, plastic utensils and more are commonly found throughout the brush and sand on Fisher’s Island beaches. Credit: Devin Speak
A few days later, I helped Michele collect about 100 pounds of trash on a beach further up the coast. We returned the very next day to the same stretch of sand and gathered nearly 150 pounds more. Even then, after hours of picking up garbage and with no space left in our bags, we left a lot behind.
“It’s so hard, it’s so hard [to stop] when you’re passing stuff and you’re like ‘there actually is no room left in these big sacks,’” Michele says. “It makes me nuts.”
Despite the weight, much of the garbage Michele finds are tiny plastics: balloon strings, bottle caps, lighters, indistinguishable objects broken down into tiny bits of assorted colors, and countless styrofoam beads strewn about the sand and brush. It all accumulates into synthetic rainbows piled high like monuments to our love affair with polymers.
Michele scours the beach on her hands and knees picking up all the small bits because they’re easy to overlook, but incredibly detrimental to the natural environment.
Small bits of plastic are easily ingested by wildlife and wreak havoc on habitats.
“A lot of fish and birds, they may be actually looking for certain [foods] that are, you know, white and buoyant, and a lot of plastic would fit this and look like fish eggs, say rising at the surface,” said Syma Ebbin, a professor at the University of Connecticut and researcher with Connecticut Sea Grant. Even scientists can confuse tiny bits of plastic with organic matter, she added.
“[Plastic] can also act as a vector for [disease and chemical] contaminants that could then bio accumulate in the organisms that are ingesting them,” Ebbin said.
Michele Klimczak selects pieces of trash to give to artists for use it in their work. Duke Riley, one of those artists, has an exhibition in the Brooklyn Museum through July 16th, 2023, showing art made with the trash Michele collects . Riley was the first to give Michele the affectionate ‘Sisyphus of trash’ nickname. Credit: Devin Speak
A broken boat that washed up on Fisher’s Island, New York, becomes a trash hauler for Klimczak, who fills the vessel with larger pieces of rubbish as she drags it across the beach. She often improvises ways of moving larger objects by using the garbage she finds, like the polypropylene rope tied off to the bow of this boat. Credit: Devin Speak
Marine waste is not unique to Fisher’s Island. But the island serves as a haven for rare and threatened plants and wildlife, making the effects of all that garbage particularly worrisome.
Fisher’s holds nearly unscathed expanses of habitat offering a natural refuge for many species away from busier shores in the Northeast. Its waters host a substantial amount of the remaining seagrass that has declined from much of the Long Island Sound; an abundance of bird species nest around the island, including the threatened Piping Plover and formerly endangered Osprey.
Part of that is thanks to Michele, but possibly the largest factor has to do with the wealth present on the island.
Much of Fisher’s Island is gated, with multi-million dollar summer homes that are occupied just a few weeks or months each year. It’s nearly vacant outside of the summer season, when a few thousand people fill the island. The last census pegged the year-round population at just 58, although many residents place the number somewhere over 200. That year-round population keeps the island functioning, with many serving as caretakers for mansions.
Flower beds and well-manicured hedges and lawns, like these near the Fisher’s Island ferry terminal, define many of the homes of Fisher’s Island. Credit: Devin Speak
Unlike other havens for the affluent like nearby Martha’s Vineyard or the Hamptons, many seasonal residents endeavor to keep tourists out and preserve the island as a relative secret.
There are no attractions for those who don’t have a home on Fisher’s Island—no hotels, no year-round cafes or restaurants, just one small market with spotty hours, and a top-rated golf course tucked into the access-controlled east end of the island. According to year-rounders, the summer residents hold tight control over the island and its doings.
That isolation crafted the beauty that drew Michele to the island decades ago. And it prompted her to begin picking up beach garbage.
Michele Klimczak with a selection of the rubbish she finds during her daily cleanups of the beaches of Fisher’s Island, New York. Credit: Devin Speak
“I do it because the first time I came here, this place was my soul. It’s so untouched,” she said. “There’s no McDonald’s, no Dunkin Donuts, none of that here, no stoplights. It’s just so preserved and natural. And when I saw how much garbage was on the shoreline, I couldn’t help but pick it up. And then I couldn’t stop seeing it,” she says.
The island’s exclusivity has made for excellent wildlife habitat, and the year-round residents love the beauty and isolation. But Fisher’s also shows the flipside of environmental injustice—while poverty can correlate to poor environmental conditions, wealth can create green safe havens reserved for the elite.
Even Michele is a symbol of the disparity. For many places, collecting beach trash is a volunteer job and it’s certainly not full-time or year-round. The Island’s seasonal residents are capable of funding a healthy conservancy, which had assets exceeding $1 million in 2020 according to ProPublica, and bankrolling important jobs like the one Michele fulfills. The same level of financial investment to environmental safeguarding is not likely available to most communities.
Michele Klimczak gathers trash from a Fisher’s Island beach while golfers play on the greens of the Island’s private golf course above her. Credit: Devin Speak
So the fact that the island serves as a sanctuary for critical ecosystems is good and needed, but the wealth inequity that makes that possible is ultimately unsustainable if the end goal is reversing environmental degradation.
Wealth can also fund pricey climate adaptation measures to protect the world’s top earners, even as they are responsible for the lion’s share of the activities driving climate change.
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You’re reading The Checkup With Dr. Wen, a newsletter on how to navigate covid-19 and other public health challenges. Click here to get the full newsletter in your inbox, including answers to reader questions and a summary of new scientific research.After my column last week urging the health-care sector to consider the environmental costs of medical care, many readers wrote to ask why I didn’t address the “elephant in the room.” As Bob from Oregon wrote, “Every time I go to the hospital, I see plastic everywhere. Everything’s wrapped in plastic, and then it’s all thrown away. Why aren’t we calling for the health-care industry to reduce their plastics use?”Bob is right. Every day, U.S. health-care facilities generate 14,000 tons of waste. One patient being hospitalized results in nearly 34 pounds of waste every day. Of that waste, up to 25 percent is plastic.Plastics are ubiquitous in health care today, but it wasn’t always that way. Several decades ago, medical supplies were commonly made of metal, cloth and glass. Now, it’s hard to find items that aren’t made of plastics or wrapped in them.The reasons behind that change were justifiable: Busy clinicians prioritize efficiency, and it’s convenient to open a package and find a procedure kit that’s new, sterile and ready to use. Economics played a major role, too, as it’s often cheaper to purchase disposable plastics than to run reusable items through sterilization procedures.But as I discussed before, it should be a major concern to the health-care industry that medical care itself is perpetuating the climate crisis. The pollution the sector causes harms not only the planet but also the health of our patients.Some hospital leaders are showing that cutting single-use plastic use is possible. One bright spot is the switch from disposable plastic gowns to those that can be laundered and reused 75 to 100 times. One study found reusable gowns reduced solid-waste generation by 84 percent and cut greenhouse gas emissions by 66 percent. Another found that these gowns are clinically superior to disposable ones; they are less likely to break and tear and increase infection protection for the wearer.Many hospitals are making this switch. UCLA Health was using 2.6 million disposable isolation gowns every year, generating more than 230 tons of landfill waste. By switching to reusable ones, it dramatically reduced waste and saved an estimated $450,000 annually.As an added bonus, because the UCLA system altered its practice before the pandemic, it did not experience the cost surge of single-use gowns during the height of covid-19 fueled by the global supply-chain disruption and the nationwide run on protective equipment. UCLA hospitals also avoided the critical shortage of gowns faced by other health-care facilities.The Virginia-based Carilion Clinic similarly avoided shortages by stopping its dependence on single-use gowns. Over the first three years after the switch in 2011, it eliminated nearly 515,000 pounds of waste and saved more than $850,000. Another set of Virginia hospitals, the Inova Health System, partnered with a sports apparel company to design and produce custom reusable gowns that are reportedly better fitting, more comfortable temperature-wise and easier to put on and take off.If such changes are better for the environment and reduce costs without negative impacts on patient care, what’s preventing more widespread adoption? One reason is the misconception that reverting to reusable materials will incur more costs or result in greater inefficiencies. Providers and administrators from institutions that have successfully implemented changes should widely share their stories and best practices.Another reason is that incentives are not aligned in favor of the change. Here’s where regulatory agencies can nudge the health-care sector. The Food and Drug Administration can help motivate manufacturers to switch to reusable materials, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services can be more aggressive in pushing hospitals to meet sustainability goals.There are many single-use plastic products that don’t have an affordable and clinically comparable reusable alternative. Research should focus on designing resilient materials that can be disinfected and reused like metal and glass instruments.As the smoke from the Canadian wildfires has recently reminded us, there is a close tie between the environment and human health. The health-care sector needs to do more to decrease its impact on worsening the environment — and, in so doing, help safeguard our patients’ well-being.Do you know of specific innovations in the health-care sector that are helping to reduce their impact on the environment? I’d love to hear from you. Please keep sending me your comments and questions.
You might not know that cigarette filters are made of plastic. The small, spongy end pieces look a bit like cotton wool, and indeed, some have been made using cotton. But now they’re almost exclusively made of cellulose acetate, a type of plastic. And they’re everywhere.Holly Newman Kroft: Quartz Smart Investing Part 2OffEnglishIn his new book Wasteland: The Secret World of Waste and the Urgent Search for a Cleaner Future, Oliver Franklin-Wallis notes that 480 billion plastic bottles are sold worldwide every year, a number that, laid end-to-end, would circle the globe more than 24 times. That’s a vast number, but, he adds, “It’s not even the most numerous. That dubious honour goes to the four trillion plastic cigarette filters flicked to the ground and stamped out annually.” AdvertisementAs Franklin-Wallis told Quartz, a fairly large proportion of plastic bottles are recycled, at least in the global North, though their material degrades, so it usually can’t be made into new bottles again. But cigarette filters aren’t recycled. And very often, they don’t even make it into the trash: People drop them straight on the ground. “It’s the last remaining acceptable form of littering,” Tom Novotny, an epidemiologist at San Diego State University who has studied the environmental impact of cigarettes, told National Geographic.One reason for this might be the mistaken belief that cigarette butts are biodegradable. In a 2022 study of some 7,500 college-age adults in the US, around a third thought the filters were biodegradable, and a further third didn’t know if they were. The study cites two pieces of observational research on smoker behavior in New Zealand that respectively found almost 99% and 76% of subjects threw their cigarette butts on the ground.AdvertisementAdvertisementCigarette filters and the oceanThe World Health Organization has an even higher number for estimated cigarette butt litter: 4.5 trillion annually. One source for that statistic is beach sweeps, which regularly collect thousands of filters in small stretches of sand. The used ends leach nicotine and heavy metals into the environment, kill marine animals, and damage plant growth. AdvertisementAre there solutions to the problem? Ideally, people need to change their behavior, treating cigarette butts like other forms of plastic waste by throwing them in appropriate bins—though this still won’t make them biodegrade. Europe and some other places are considering banning cigarette filters in an effort to cut both pollution and smoking rates. But before anyone switches to vaping as a less-polluting alternative, that industry is also causing problems. National Geographic noted in 2019 that plastic, single-use vapes and their constituent parts were already piling up on beaches. Franklin-Wallis points out that vapes are now finding their way into recycling so often that they’re causing major problems for the waste industry: When the tiny batteries inside them are crushed or heated, they explode, leading to disastrous fires at recycling facilities.
ASHLEY, Ind.—Two years ago on a Friday evening in May, Kory Kistler was getting ready to leave work at a recycling plant marketed by its owners as being on the front line in a global war against plastic waste.
Then all hell broke loose. Flammable, 700-degree vapors began spewing from a valve on a pump at the plant.
“All of a sudden my operators on the ground started screaming over the radio,” recalled Kistler, a former Marine and a resident of Fort Wayne, 35 miles to the south. “It was hard to understand anything they were saying. So I was like, ‘I’ll go down, check it out and see what’s going on.’ And as soon as I walk outside, I see clouds of vapor in the sky.”
Then, he recalls, the vapors ignited, setting off an uncontrolled fire that was also fed by a type of oil made from plastic waste in a heated, pressurized chamber. As a black cloud of smoke billowed into the sky, local firefighters raced to the plant, set among farm fields and grain silos in Steuben County along Interstate Highway 69 in northeast Indiana, just west of Ashley, population 1,000.
The plant’s owner is San Francisco-based Brightmark, a company that also works with dairy farmers to capture methane from manure. The plan here, though, is to store, shred and chop plastic waste and extrude it into pellets inside a cavernous building. Those pellets are then fed into pressurized “pyrolysis” chambers—the plant has six of them—that use extreme heat to produce a synthetic gas and a dirty “pyrolysis oil,” in what the chemical industry markets as a type of “advanced recycling.”
Plastic waste at the Brightmark plant in northeast Indiana awaits chemical processing. Credit: James Bruggers
Jay Schabel, president of the plastics division at Brightmark, holds plastic pellets in the company’s new chemical recycling plant in Indiana at the end of July. The pellets are made from plastic waste and sent into chemical processing equipment to make diesel fuel, naphtha and wax. Credit: James Bruggers
The plastics industry champions the process as something that makes plastics sustainable, even green, by turning old plastic containers, packaging and the like into new plastic products without the need to extract more fossil fuels to create new plastic feedstocks. But many scientists and environmentalists say pyrolysis is anything but sustainable, describing it as energy-intensive manufacturing with a large carbon footprint that incinerates much of the plastic waste and mostly just makes new fossil fuels.
“I got down onto the unit and walked over to it,” Kistler recalled, as he described the night of the fire. “There’s just basically a jet fire coming out, so I run as fast as I can screaming for my operator up in the control room to shut the pump off, open everything to the (emergency) flare so we can release dangerous vapor safely and prevent the build-up of pressure.”
But for a while, Kistler said, the pressure kept building and “we started losing all control of the unit along with our safety protocols.”
Eventually, firefighters helped extinguish the flames, and plant operators wrested back control of the plant, according to accounts by Kistler, the Ashley fire department chief and another former Brightmark employee, who was Kistler’s supervisor.
Kistler said he and other plant workers who were in the area when the fire broke out are lucky to still be alive.
“If I had been another foot and a half closer, I probably would not be here talking to you today,” he said on a recent balmy evening sitting outside at a Fort Wayne restaurant. “We were in survival mode.”
For its part, Brightmark calls its proprietary process “plastics renewal,” and its Ashley plant a “circularity center,” using buzzwords that are intended to give it an air of environmental responsibility and sustainability. The company markets itself with children using plastic toys and touts a partnership to remove some plastic waste from the ocean.
But reporting by Inside Climate News reveals the May 2021 fire is just one of several environmental health or safety challenges the company has faced since it began testing its plant in 2020 while struggling to fulfill its promise of operating “the world’s largest plastics renewal facility” on a commercial scale.
An earlier fire in July 2020 threatened the lives of at least three plant workers, according to Kistler and his former supervisor, Roy Bisnett. And an oil spill at the plant in August 2022 took weeks to clean up, public records show.
Another former worker complaining of clouds of plastic dust has sued the company in federal court, claiming lung damage. And a local fire chief says his small volunteer department needs training and new equipment to handle the kinds of fires that occur at refineries and chemical plants, something they had not experienced before.
Company officials declined a request for an interview. In written responses to questions about the fires, the oil spill and plastic dust in the air, company officials said they take environmental health and safety matters seriously.
“The safety of our employees is our top concern,” the statement said. “Because of the nature of our work, we have developed detailed procedures to ensure everyone’s safety, including robust training on critical areas such as operator procedures, emergency response, and lifesaving protocols. We also run tests regularly to identify other improvements.”
But to an independent oil and gas industry expert like Jan Dell, an engineer who has consulted in more than 45 countries, the environmental, health and safety problems at Brightmark can be expected in a new industry populated by small, start-up companies grappling with difficult-to-impossible technical challenges and highly combustible plastic residues. They are an indicator, Dell said, of why “advanced” or “chemical” recycling of plastics won’t work and actually risks lives.
“They are dangerous chemical facilities that should be regulated as dangerous chemical facilities,” said Dell, who founded and runs The Last Beach Cleanup, a Southern California nonprofit that fights plastic pollution and waste. “They are putting workers, firefighters, and the community at risk.”
In Two and a Half Years, Dashed Hopes
Brightmark broke ground on its Ashley plastics plant in 2019, after purchasing the technology from Ohio-based RES Polyflow the year before. Ashley is about a half mile west of the plant. Its main drag is lined with aging storefronts and American flags. A bright yellow water tower featuring a smiley face and bowtie rises from a city park.
Ashley, Indiana, is known for its yellow smiley face water tower. The Brightmark chemical recycling plant is nearby. Credit: James Bruggers
A Brightmark billboard near Ashley, Indiana. Credit: James Bruggers
Last summer, on a tour of the plant, Jay Schabel, president of the plastics division at Brightmark and the former RES Polyflow CEO, described his hope to “change the world.”
The facility has three main parts. There is a 120,000-square-foot warehouse where hundreds of tons of mixed household and industrial plastic waste is collected, picked through and sent into a mechanical process to make the pellets. Then, the pellets are sent into pyrolysis chambers, where they are heated to as much as 1,500 degrees in a zero-oxygen environment by burning natural gas and synthetic gas made from plastic waste to make “pyrolysis oil.” The pyrolysis oil then goes to a refinery behind the warehouse, where it’s separated into low-sulfur diesel fuel, liquid naphtha that can be used as a feedstock for new plastic and wax for industrial uses or candles.
In a December 2020 year-end wrap-up, Brightmark founder and chief executive officer Bob Powell celebrated a milestone and promised big things—and quickly.
“We have now financed and built our $260 million, first-of-its-kind plastics renewal facility in Ashley, Indiana,” he wrote. “Our plant is now producing liquids, which was a huge moment for our team. Beginning in (the first quarter) next year, the plant will accept 100,000 tons of plastics each year for conversion into new products – a vastly greater scale than any other facility of its kind in the world.”
But the plant is still trying to move beyond the start-up phase.
Former company employees said in interviews that they believe the company has a poor environmental health and safety record. They said they’re afraid that current employees could be at risk and they questioned whether Brightmark will live up to its promise. They describe an internal culture in which managers allegedly resisted the development of written procedures, took shortcuts that compromised safety and gave short shrift to the kinds of safety procedures common in a chemical plant or refinery run by a large, established company.
One of them, Roy Bisnett, was hired in 2020 to run the plant’s chemical and refinery operations. A Toledo-area resident, his experience was in oil refining and managing environmental health and safety initiatives, working on staff with oil companies or as a consultant.
“I thought this was a very, very interesting thing,” Bisnett said of what Brightmark was trying to accomplish. “There’s a plastic waste issue. I’m in the refining industry, and we can turn this waste into a fuel. It sounded great.
“They said it was proven technology, right? It was already built for the most part. We’d bring people in and train them to get it operating,” he recalled.
Bisnett said he was excited about the company’s ambitions to take the technology to other parts of the United States and the world, which made it seem like a good opportunity for career growth, Bisnett said.
It didn’t work out that way.
“Fast forward two and a half years, we were still in the same boat but with a lot of mistakes,” said Bisnett, who said he resigned in 2022 because of differences in philosophies over environmental health and safety matters.
He also said it was hard to reconcile the company’s environmental marketing with its environmental and safety performance, citing fires, the handling of the 2022 oil spill, the plastic dust issues and a lack of attention to what he called process safety management and improvement.
“Over the course of my time in the refining industry, we have always strived to learn from past mistakes, in an effort to not repeat them,” he said. “At Brightmark, this was not the case.”
The Brightmark chemical recycling plant in Ashley, Indiana. Credit: James Bruggers
For his part, Kistler worked for the company about as long as Bisnett in the same department and was, as Kistler described, Bisnett’s “right hand man.” Brightmark fired Kistler in late 2022, and on May 25, Kistler filed a lawsuit in Indiana state court, claiming wrongful termination and retaliation over a worker’s compensation claim that stemmed from a shoulder injury he suffered on the job.
In an interview, Kistler said Brightmark fired him in part “because I started asking questions and making noise about health, safety, environmental and personnel issues.”
Brightmark said it does not comment on legal matters.
But the company defended its technology, which it says “has been refined over 20 years, making the company a veteran among more nascent technologies in the marketplace. Our circular solutions play a unique role in recapturing the value in waste plastics and returning those raw materials into the circular economy, reducing dependence on virgin fossil fuels for manufacturing products that require plastic.”
Spectacular Blazes With More Intense Heat
Plastic is made from fossil fuels, and fires at plastic recycling facilities can produce spectacular blazes with intense heat and billowing black, toxic smoke, as residents of Richmond, Indiana, in the southwest part of the state, found out in April. There, a stockpile of plastic waste burned for days and 2,000 people were told to evacuate their homes.
So far, the fires at Brightmark have been associated with its chemical plant operations, not its stockpile of waste plastic in the warehouse, according to interviews with former employees and a local fire official.
Nevertheless, the plant has kept the Ashley Hudson Fire Department of about 20 members busy, responding to at least six or seven fires since 2020, at least one producing a plume of smoke that could be seen 35 miles away in Fort Wayne, said its Fire Chief Dave Barrand.
“They were in the middle of start-up testing. They were changing out some components and it started spontaneously, combusted and burned up a brand new forklift,” Barrand recalled of the July 2020 fire.
Bisnett said the fire broke out during one of the first tests of a pyrolysis chamber, sending a jet of flames “out the end of the pyrolysis reactor.” The fire could have been avoided by first conducting a safety check under common industry protocols known as process safety management, he said.
The fire could have been much worse, causing serious injuries or death, Bisnett said, “if the employees hadn’t changed their location just prior to the blowout.”
One of Bisnett’s concerns at the time, and today, is that local firefighters, who are more accustomed to fighting house or small commercial building fires, do not have the training or equipment needed to fight fires at chemical plants or refineries, such as the Brightmark facility. Water can make chemical fires worse, he said. And sometimes a chemical plant fire can be extinguished, but the source, a fast-blowing stream of flammable vapors, can remain, creating a new explosion hazard, he said.
Austin Acker, a volunteer firefighter, cleans a fire truck at the Ashley, Indiana volunteer fire department firehouse in May 2023. Credit: James Bruggers
Barrand agreed and said his department could use a new, larger ladder truck, which could cost as much as $1 million, to reach higher areas in the Brightmark facility, he said. That would allow firefighters to also stay farther away from the heat, which can be more intense in a chemical plant fire, he said. Also, the department could benefit from more fire-retardant foam to fight chemical plant fires and specialized training.
“It’d be kind of nice for all of the department to go and get some kind of refinery training,” Barrand said. “I think I was looking at right around $30,000 or $40,000 to send five people to Texas to get trained.” That would be $120,000 to $180,000 for the department.
He said there has been “some conversation” with Brightmark about the company paying to help with the costs of being ready to fight fires at their plant. “I don’t know how far that went,” he added.
When asked whether the company feels an obligation to assist local firefighters in upgrading their capacity to fight chemical plant fires, Brightmark spokeswoman Aunny De La Rosa-Bathe said: “Brightmark values all the services our local municipality in Ashley provides to support our mission to reimagine waste. Our flagship Circularity Center is equipped with substantial fire prevention and protection equipment throughout.”
A Slow Oil Spill Response and Lawsuit Over Plastic Dust
In addition to fires, former workers describe oil spills and poor indoor air quality as recurring problems.
Public records show at least one spill was reported to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management on Aug. 7, 2022, with initial and subsequent records showing conflicting accounts of its size, from 170 to 366 gallons.
Barry Sneed, a spokesman for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, said that no violation or fine was issued because the spill occurred within a facility and “a spill response was initiated.”
Both Kistler and Bisnett said they believe the spill was substantially larger.
Kistler said he had found a contractor who could have cleaned up the spill within a week, but was overruled by management that opted for a slower but less expensive response.
Brightmark acknowledged that the availability of a contractor “contributed to the delay. We have since partnered with other third parties to facilitate the process should the need arise. All reportable spills have been reported to required government agencies.”
An oil spill at Brightmark that was reported to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. Credit: Kory Kistler
Poor air quality inside the warehouse was another problem.
Doug King, who lives in Coldwater, Michigan, 30 miles north of the plant, said he worked for Brightmark for about two years, starting in the fall of 2020, and, like Bisnett, had high hopes of being part of a solution to the plastics problem.
He left the company in May 2022, disillusioned, and having a hard time breathing. He has since filed a federal lawsuit claiming lung damage. He claims Brightmark wrongfully terminated his employment after he brought his health and safety concerns to company management.
Brightmark denied King’s claims in a Dec. 15, 2022 court document, writing that the company “acted in good faith at all times, and all decisions or actions regarding (King’s) employment were pursuant to its legitimate business purpose and for non-retaliatory business reasons.”
The case recently went to arbitration, according to court records.
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Cities are turning to “trash skimmers” to rid their waterways of plastic waste. But environmentalists say the boats are more of a Band-Aid than a solution.via City of TampaAs plastics accumulate in rivers and bays, localities across the country are seeking creative, affordable solutions to keep their waterways clean. Many have turned to “trash skimmers,” boats that are designed to remove litter.Tampa, Fla., is one of the latest cities to invest in such a vessel, a $565,000 boat that it has named the “Litter Skimmer.” It skims single-use plastics and other trash — as well as organic materials such as branches and leaves — from the water and onto a conveyor belt that pulls it into a storage area, a city spokesman said.The boat debuted about a year ago and has since gathered about 13 tons of debris, said Alexis Black, an environmental specialist with Tampa’s Department of Solid Waste and Environmental Program Management.As far back as the 1950s, scientists have been warning that marine life was getting stuck in discarded fishing gear and other types of plastic waste. Since then, consumption of single-use plastics has risen to the point where tens of millions of tons of plastic enter Earth’s oceans each year. Over the years, plastics have harmed local ecosystems and disrupted storm water management, leading to flooding.The skimmer is only one method that Tampa is using to remove waste from its local waters. The city also organizes community cleanup events along its waterways and in its parks, and uses tools like baffle boxes and netting to keep debris from leaving storm drains and going into the river.“The introduction of Litter Skimmer was just to add an extra layer of the strategy to combat the litter that makes it into the water bodies,” Ms. Black said. “It’s a great step to capture a lot of the waste that in the past was just left to float down the river in the bay and beyond.”Trash skimmers have long been part of municipal efforts to clean up waterways. Washington, D.C., began using skimmer boats in 1992 and added two more to its fleet in 2017, for $484,000 each. The Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission in New Jersey unveiled its first trash-collecting vessel in 1998 and purchased a second in 2018 for about $653,000.D.C. Water, Washington’s water utility, said that its boats collect 300 to 500 tons of waste each year. The Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission said its boats gather 160 tons of waste annually.Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environment Law, a nonprofit that focuses on environmental issues, said the skimmer boat programs are well-intentioned, but such efforts do little to address the overall problem of plastic pollution.While skimmers are designed to collect larger pieces of floating trash, many plastics are too small for the vessels to capture, Mr. Muffett said. A 2019 study from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and Eckerd College estimated that four billion particles of microplastics — which are less than one-eighth of an inch long — are in the Tampa Bay.Most municipal skimmers also have limited hours of operation, Mr. Muffett said. The skimmer in Tampa, for instance, runs 10 hours a day, four days a week, typically operated by two people.“You begin to understand that this is only a tiny Band-Aid on what is a massive problem,” he said. “What it also represents is the massive investment that cities, counties and states are making in cleaning up this problem.”There isn’t just a policy responsibility; it’s a personal one as well, said John Atkinson, an associate professor of civil, structural and environmental engineering at the University at Buffalo.“We’re a culture that is reliant on plastic,” Professor Atkinson said, adding that “choosing to use a reusable water bottle, while small, can be substantial if everybody chooses it.”Policies that reduce the overall use of plastic, such as bans on single-use disposable plastics, would be more effective, he said.“We cannot scoop, we cannot shovel, we cannot net, we cannot recycle our way out of the plastics crisis,” Mr. Muffett said. “The only way we address the plastics crisis is by producing — and using and losing — fewer plastics.”
Doing right by the planet can make you happier, healthier, and—yes—wealthier. Outside’s head of sustainability, Kristin Hostetter, explores small lifestyle tweaks that can make a big impact. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Oh, the irony. In trying to wash my clothes the green way, I was greenwashed. You might even say I was taken to the cleaners. Or hung out to dry.
Let me explain: more than a year ago, I learned that laundry pods—encased in dissolvable plastic—were bad for the environment. In my quest to find more sustainable, plastic-free household products, I was thrilled to come across laundry “eco-strips,” as an easy swap-out. Instead of the typical plastic jug, the thin compressed sheets are packaged in a recyclable cardboard envelope and marketed as plastic-free. I promptly ordered a year’s supply and told everyone who would listen about my new discovery.
My latest preferred laundry kit, clockwise from top: lavender essential oil, soap nuts in a muslin sack, and wool dryer balls. (Photo: Kristin Hostetter)
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that what holds those innocuous little strips together is a sneaky type of plastic called polyvinyl alcohol, or PVA. It’s the same exact stuff that encases laundry (and dishwasher) pods, and though it’s designed to dissolve as soon as it hits water, it is indeed plastic. A very controversial type of plastic. To learn more about PVA and come up with sustainable alternatives, I connected with Dianna Cohen, co-founder and CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition, a nonprofit working towards a world free of plastic pollution and its toxic impacts.
The PVA Controversy
PVA is a water-soluble synthetic polymer (a fancy word for plastic that readily binds itself to water molecules). You’ll find it on the ingredient list of virtually every laundry or dishwasher pod and every laundry sheet or strip. PVA has excellent barrier properties, so it’s good at holding together liquids and other squishy stuff, like soap. It’s also really good at dissolving. That’s why it vanishes in our washing machines and dishwashers. But does it really disappear? “When you stir a spoonful of sugar or salt into water, it dissolves, but is it gone?” Cohen asks. “Take a taste and you have your answer. It’s the same with PVA.”
The dissolved PVA slides right down the tubes and off it goes to the treatment plant with your dirt, suds, and wastewater. What happens next depends on who you ask.
According to the American Cleaning Institute, PVA polymers are “fully biodegraded by microorganisms in water treatment facilities and the environment.” But Cohen, a slew of other leading advocates for clean oceans, and this 2021 study in The International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health which looks at PVA degradation U.S. wastewater treatment plants, say that is simply not the case. “There is a serious lack of unbiased research on the human and environmental health effects of PVA,” says Cohen because existing research was funded by companies with biased interests. “We do, however, know that PVA has been found in human breast milk and in fish, which indicates that it does not simply vanish in wastewater treatment plants. It’s making its way into our bodies and our environment.”
Plastic Pollution Coalition, as well as many other advocacy groups like like Plastic Oceans, Beyond Plastics, and 5 Gyres, contend that we simply don’t know enough about the effects of PVA—which is why the groups have come together to call on the EPA to conduct an independent study to figure it out. “We need the EPA to take swift and urgent action to study the full ecological and health impacts of PVA in order to best protect people and our planet from potential harm,” says Cohen. The group has currently collected close to 23,000 signatures on a petition to get the EPA to conduct extensive tests on PVA biodegradability and its potential impact on the environment and human health. They want a few thousand more. You can add your name here.
Laundry Soaps That Are Truly Plastic-Free
So what’s an environmentalist to do? First, avoid buying detergent in plastic containers. Second, check the ingredient list and if you see a lot of long, chemical-ish words, be suspicious. These things are bad: optical brighteners, chlorine, formaldehyde, synthetic nonylphenol ethoxylates, phosphates, phthalates. Third, if you have a refill shop near you, BYO containers and support it. We need the concept of refill shops to catch on in U.S.
Cohen helped me come up with a few green detergent ideas, all of which are quite affordable.
DIY Laundry Soap
Combine 14 ounces of washing soda, 14 ounces of borax, or baking soda, with 4.5 ounces of natural castile soap flakes. Store the mixture in a sealed glass jar. Use one to three tablespoons per load, depending on size.Cost: about .10 per load.
I’ve been using these for several weeks with good results. Just put five to seven nuts (which are really berries) into the included muslin sack and toss in the wash. The shells contain saponin, a natural soap which releases into the water. Soap nuts don’t generate a lot of suds (because they lack the chemical foaming agents we’re used to) and they’re not for tough stains. But for regular use, they’re pretty cool. You can use soap nuts five to eight times before the saponin wears off. Compost the spent nuts and replace with new ones. I’ve been adding a few drops of lavender essential oil to the bag to give my laundry a light fragrance—the nuts alone are odorless.Cost: about .23 per load.
Meliora Laundry Powder Detergent
This powder also gets my thumbs up. Made with non-toxic ingredients and shipped in curbside recyclable packaging, it comes in several all-natural scents. Meliora also makes a Soap Stick Stain Remover, which I use to rub any tough spots before washing.Cost: about .23 per load
More Sustainable Laundry Tips
Choosing a non-toxic, plastic-free detergent isn’t the only way to green up your laundry process. Here are some other tips.
Wear Clothes Longer
Don’t mindlessly toss clothes into the hamper after a wear. Ask yourself if those jeans really need washing, or can you fold them up and wear them again?
Turn Clothes Inside Out Before Washing
This will make your clothes last longer by protecting colors from premature fading and preventing snags during laundering.
Fill the Machine
Say no to half loads; they waste water and energy.
Use Cold Water
Unless your clothes are really dirty, go for the cold wash. You’ll save money and energy, and your clothes will last longer and shed fewer microfibers, which is another environmental concern.
Like cold-washing, air drying will also save you money and energy, even if you partially air dry and then finish it off in the dryer to release wrinkles.
Skip the Dryer Sheets
Yep, they contain PVA, too. I’ve been using wool dryer balls for over a year and they do a fine job of releasing wrinkles, fluffing things up, and reducing (most, but not always all) static.
Avoid Dry Cleaning
You know that distinctive smell that hits you when you walk into a dry cleaner? Those are chemicals. Most dry cleaners use a host of toxic chemicals and petroleum-based solvents that can be harmful to humans and the environment.
Kristin Hostetter is the head of sustainability at Outside Interactive, Inc. and the resident sustainability columnist on Outside Online.
Plastic production has soared some 30-fold since it came into widespread use in the 1960s. We now churn out about 430m tonnes a year, easily outweighing the combined mass of all 8 billion people alive. Left unabated, it continues to accelerate: plastic consumption is due to nearly double by 2050.Now there is a chance that this huge growth will stop, even go into reverse. This month in Paris, the world’s governments agreed to draft a new treaty to control plastics. The UN says it could cut production by a massive 80% by 2040.Such a treaty – scheduled for agreement next year – cannot come soon enough.The amount of plastic dumped in the oceans is due to more than double by 2040. Producing single-use plastic alone emits more greenhouse gases than the whole UK. And microplastics have been found in human blood, lungs, livers, kidneys and spleens – and have crossed the placenta. No one knows the full effects on the planet – or the impact of the 3,200 potentially harmful chemicals in plastics on our health.Governments finally began to call a halt in March last year, resolving to “end plastic pollution” at a meeting of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and calling for a series of negotiating meetings on a possible treaty. The recent meeting in Paris was the second such “plastic summit”. Three more are scheduled before the end of next year.Whisper it, but – with hard work, determination and a lot of good luck – the plastics treaty might join the Montreal protocol on substances that deplete the ozone layer as a landmark success in environmental diplomacy.It has several important advantages. It is backed by immense public concern – uniting a whole range of issues from litter to the oceans, human health to climate breakdown – which can be translated into political pressure. And no new technology is needed: UNEP says the 80% reduction can be achieved using proven practices.These include simply eliminating much unnecessary single-use plastic packaging, ensuring reuse, and replacing many instances of plastic use with more sustainable biodegradable materials. Governments could also discourage the production of new plastics by taxing it and removing industry subsidies.Crucially, like the negotiations over ozone, it has some strong business support. A 100-strong Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty – which includes giant users of plastics such as Unilever and Coca-Cola – is pressing for tough regulatory measures.And, as in recent successful UN agreements, an alliance of governments committed to change is leading the charge. This High Ambition Coalition includes all G7 countries except Italy and the US. Importantly, Japan – which had opposed a strong treaty – recently switched sides to join it.UNEP also has a good record of cementing treaties. It has brokered a host of pacts, covering issues from wildlife to toxic wastes, and the historic Montreal protocol.That protocol – the first treaty to be ratified by every country on Earth – has phased out the use of nearly 100 substances that attack the planet’s protective ozone. As a byproduct, it has done more to slow climate breakdown than any other international agreement, since many of those substances also heat the atmosphere.None of this means it will be easy. When I was reporting the story, I was told that agreeing the Montreal protocol was so dicey that the text could not immediately be translated from English into the other five official UN languages for fear of upsetting its delicate verbal compromises.Weighty, determined opposition to radical measures comes from a powerful minority of plastic-producing countries including China, India and the US. And companies that have obstructed action on global heating are mobilising. Ninety-nine per cent of plastics are made with fossil fuels and the industry is determined to expand their production to offset what it is losing to clean sources of energy.There are three main sources of contention. The majority of countries want binding global rules, while their opponents insist on voluntary ones. Most countries want to limit plastics production and ban dangerous substances, while the manufacturers focus on recycling what is produced.And the majority want decisions to be made by vote, while many of those opposed want to keep a veto by demanding consensus. This issue held up substantive talks in Paris for two days, and is still unresolved. And beyond all this lies the ever-thorny question of who will pay for the change.All in all, some kind of treaty is likely to emerge. How strong and effective it is will depend on how these issues are settled.
Geoffrey Lean is a specialist environment correspondent and author