Is ‘chemical recycling’ a solution to the global scourge of plastic waste or an environmentally dirty ruse to keep production high?

Diplomats negotiating guidelines for an international convention on hazardous wastes this month in Switzerland debated a new section on the “chemical recycling” of plastic debris fouling the global environment. 

The 1989 Basel Convention, which seeks to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects of hazardous wastes, was updated in 2019 when 187 ratifying nations agreed to place new restrictions on the management and international movement of plastic wastes—and to update the treaty’s technical guidelines.

Since then, the plastics industry has tried to quell mounting anger over vast mountains of plastics filling landfills and polluting the oceans by advancing chemical recycling as a means of turning discarded plastic products into new plastic feedstocks and fossil fuels like diesel. 

Scientists and environmentalists who have studied the largely unproven technology say it is essentially another form of incineration that requires vast stores of energy, has questionable climate benefits, and puts communities and the environment at risk from toxic pollution. Some of them even view the inclusion of the chemical recycling language in the implementing guidelines as a threat, although it remains to be seen what that language will ultimately say.

“The text is nowhere near settled,” said Sirine Rached, the global plastics policy coordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), which with the Basel Action Network has called chemical recycling of plastics “a fantasy beast that has yet to establish its efficacy and economic viability, while already exhibiting serious environmental threats.”

Rached said the group’s “priority is for the guidance to focus on environmentally-sound management and to refer to technologies only on the basis of sound peer-reviewed references, and not on industry marketing claims, and this involves not speculating on how technologies may or may not evolve in future.”

“The solution is making less plastic,” Judith Enck, founder and president of the environmental group Beyond Plastics and a former EPA regional administrator, told a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works at a hearing on Dec. 15. 

U.S. lawmakers are weighing their own ideas for addressing the plastics crisis. “We need to cut plastic production by 50 percent in the next 10 years, and we can do it,” she told them, adding that chemical recycling produces “more fossil fuel and the last thing we need is more fossil fuel.”

Such a dramatic cut in plastic would devastate the economy, said Matt Seaholm, chief executive officer of the Plastics Industry Association, which represents companies that produce, use and recycle plastic. “Our industry wants to recycle more,” and deploying more mechanical recycling and  chemical recycling will help, he told lawmakers. “We love plastic,” he said. “We hate the waste. We need to collect, sort and ultimately reprocess more material.”

Wide agreement exists that the 11 million metric tons of plastic pollution that enters the oceans every year “is devastating,” Erin Simon, head of plastic waste and business for the World Wildlife Fund, a conservation group that operates in 100 countries, said in an interview.  “It’s wreaking havoc on our species, our ecosystems and in the communities that depend on them.

“You really do need this coordinated global structure” that treaties can provide, she added. “Because it’s clear that it’s not going to happen just with voluntary initiatives alone.”

Writing Guidelines for Chemical Recycling

The world is making twice as much plastic waste as it did two decades ago, with most of the discarded materials buried in landfills, burned by incinerators or dumped into the environment, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a group that represents developed nations. Production is expected to triple by 2060. Globally, only 9 percent of plastic waste is successfully recycled, according to OECD.

Nearly all of the plastic that gets recycled goes through a mechanical process involving sorting, grinding, cleaning, melting and remolding, often into other products. But mechanical recycling has its limits; it does not work for most kinds of plastic and what gets recycled, such as certain kinds of bottles and jugs, can only be recycled a few times.

Chemical recycling consists of new and old technologies, hailed by the industry but seen as an unproven marketing ruse by environmentalists, that governments must now study and regulate if they are to successfully confront a menacing problem that spans the Earth and has even invaded our bodies with microplastic particles.

A Basel Convention committee met in the second week of December in Switzerland to debate whether the Basel treaty’s technical guidelines should be updated to include chemical recycling, which is also sometimes referred to as “advanced recycling,” and if so, under what terms.

The debate occurred within the framework of the Basel Convention and any language on chemical recycling that makes it into its technical guidelines will be seen as acceptable tools for managing plastic waste. The guidelines are likely to carry over into the negotiations over the next two years on an international treaty governing plastic pollution and ongoing plastics manufacturing.

Those treaty talks have barely begun, with a first negotiation session among delegates a few weeks ago in Uruguay. 

The technical guidelines for the Basel Convention are supposed to represent the best available technology for protecting humans from various hazardous wastes, said Lee Bell, an Australia-based policy advisor for the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN). He is also the  co-author of a 2021 IPEN study that detailed how chemical recycling generates dangerous dioxin emissions, produces contaminated fuels and consumes large amounts of energy.

“Many parties and observers are of the view that there is no proof that chemical recycling is what you would call best available technology … or best environmental practice,” he said. 

The concern, he said, is that chemical recycling’s inclusion in the technical guidance “becomes a sort of formal endorsement by the (Basel) convention, and therefore by the U.N.”

It then would be possible for advocates of chemical recycling to point to the Basel technical guidance and say, “‘let’s just adopt those wholesale as part of the new plastics treaty,’” Bell said. “And I think this is exactly what’s going on.”

Stewart Harris, senior director of global plastics policy for the American Chemistry Council, said it’s too soon to say what role chemical recycling might play in a global plastics agreement. But, he said, the Basel Convention technical guidance is important.

“The Basel Convention guidance on the environmentally sound management of plastic waste is a key resource for all countries looking to support the transition to a more circular economy for plastics,” Harris said. “Properly classifying chemical recycling will help governments assess how these technologies fit into national waste management plans.”

In a joint release with the International Council of Chemical Associations following the first round of plastics treaty talks, held Nov. 28 to Dec. 2 in Uruguay, the two industry groups favored an agreement that “moves nations closer to a future where plastics remain in the economy and not in the environment.”

Industry opposes caps on soaring plastic production, which Enck and other environmentalists say is the only way to ultimately solve the environmental crisis that is plastic waste and pollution.

Judith Enck, founder and president of the environmental group Beyond Plastics, speaking at a Bennington College seminar in August. Credit: James Bruggers

In the United States, the fight over chemical recycling has occurred in statehouses, local communities, in Congress and inside the Environmental Protection Agency. The American Chemistry Council, a leading industry advocate for chemical recycling, this year celebrated adoption of legislation by 20 states over the past five years aimed at easing regulatory pathways for chemical recycling.

“The appropriate regulation of this is really critical if you want to scale advanced recycling, and you want to use more recycled material in your products,” Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics for the chemistry council, told Inside Climate News.

But plastics were never designed to be recycled, and environmental advocates have been fighting back, trying to block new chemical recycling facilities that have been proposed in various states across the country.

In Pennsylvania, a Houston start-up called Encina has proposed a $1.1 billion chemical recycling plant for plastic waste in Point Township that has left local officials and professors at Pittsburgh universities perplexed about whether the company’s plans were at all feasible. Nearby residents, meanwhile, worried about impacts to air, water and quality of life. 

In northeast Indiana, Inside Climate News found Brightmark Energy struggling to get its chemical recycling facility, using a technology called pyrolysis, up and running. The company could not precisely say what percentage of plastic waste it would actually turn into fuel or plastic feedstocks.

Jay Schabel, president of the plastics division at Brightmark, stood amid some of what he described as 900 tons of waste plastic at the company’s new plant in northeast Indiana at the end of July. The plant is designed to turn plastic waste into diesel fuel, naphtha and wax. Credit: James Bruggers

And while Fulcrum BioEnergy does not market its waste-to-jet fuel plant proposed for Gary, Indiana, as chemical recycling, it would employ a similar technical process, gasification. Inside Climate News found that the company’s plans to use municipal solid waste are complicated by an anticipated 30 percent plastic in its feedstock, which reduces carbon benefits and can gum up the production process. In Gary, an environmental justice community, residents have filed a Civil Rights Act complaint with the EPA against the state regulators who approved the Fulcrum air permit.

“Technologies that worsen the climate crisis, perpetuate a reliance on single-use plastics, and adversely impact vulnerable communities cannot be viewed as viable solutions moving forward,” a group of 35 members of Congress wrote in July, urging the EPA to fully regulate chemical recycling emissions and to stop working to promote the technology as a solution to the plastics crisis.

A Global Solution

Plastic waste is a global problem and the countries of the world are working on a global solution.

In March, against the backdrop of what U.N. officials described as a “triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature loss and pollution,” the United Nations Environmental Assembly voted to start two years of negotiations for a treaty to end global plastic waste.

Keep Environmental Journalism AliveICN provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going.Donate Now

Is ‘chemical recycling’ a solution to the global scourge of plastic waste or an environmentally dirty ruse to keep production high?

Diplomats negotiating guidelines for an international convention on hazardous wastes this month in Switzerland debated a new section on the “chemical recycling” of plastic debris fouling the global environment. 

The 1989 Basel Convention, which seeks to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects of hazardous wastes, was updated in 2019 when 187 ratifying nations agreed to place new restrictions on the management and international movement of plastic wastes—and to update the treaty’s technical guidelines.

Since then, the plastics industry has tried to quell mounting anger over vast mountains of plastics filling landfills and polluting the oceans by advancing chemical recycling as a means of turning discarded plastic products into new plastic feedstocks and fossil fuels like diesel. 

Scientists and environmentalists who have studied the largely unproven technology say it is essentially another form of incineration that requires vast stores of energy, has questionable climate benefits, and puts communities and the environment at risk from toxic pollution. Some of them even view the inclusion of the chemical recycling language in the implementing guidelines as a threat, although it remains to be seen what that language will ultimately say.

“The text is nowhere near settled,” said Sirine Rached, the global plastics policy coordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), which with the Basel Action Network has called chemical recycling of plastics “a fantasy beast that has yet to establish its efficacy and economic viability, while already exhibiting serious environmental threats.”

Rached said the group’s “priority is for the guidance to focus on environmentally-sound management and to refer to technologies only on the basis of sound peer-reviewed references, and not on industry marketing claims, and this involves not speculating on how technologies may or may not evolve in future.”

“The solution is making less plastic,” Judith Enck, founder and president of the environmental group Beyond Plastics and a former EPA regional administrator, told a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works at a hearing on Dec. 15. 

U.S. lawmakers are weighing their own ideas for addressing the plastics crisis. “We need to cut plastic production by 50 percent in the next 10 years, and we can do it,” she told them, adding that chemical recycling produces “more fossil fuel and the last thing we need is more fossil fuel.”

Such a dramatic cut in plastic would devastate the economy, said Matt Seaholm, chief executive officer of the Plastics Industry Association, which represents companies that produce, use and recycle plastic. “Our industry wants to recycle more,” and deploying more mechanical recycling and  chemical recycling will help, he told lawmakers. “We love plastic,” he said. “We hate the waste. We need to collect, sort and ultimately reprocess more material.”

Wide agreement exists that the 11 million metric tons of plastic pollution that enters the oceans every year “is devastating,” Erin Simon, head of plastic waste and business for the World Wildlife Fund, a conservation group that operates in 100 countries, said in an interview.  “It’s wreaking havoc on our species, our ecosystems and in the communities that depend on them.

“You really do need this coordinated global structure” that treaties can provide, she added. “Because it’s clear that it’s not going to happen just with voluntary initiatives alone.”

Writing Guidelines for Chemical Recycling

The world is making twice as much plastic waste as it did two decades ago, with most of the discarded materials buried in landfills, burned by incinerators or dumped into the environment, according to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, a group that represents developed nations. Production is expected to triple by 2060. Globally, only 9 percent of plastic waste is successfully recycled, according to OECD.

Nearly all of the plastic that gets recycled goes through a mechanical process involving sorting, grinding, cleaning, melting and remolding, often into other products. But mechanical recycling has its limits; it does not work for most kinds of plastic and what gets recycled, such as certain kinds of bottles and jugs, can only be recycled a few times.

Chemical recycling consists of new and old technologies, hailed by the industry but seen as an unproven marketing ruse by environmentalists, that governments must now study and regulate if they are to successfully confront a menacing problem that spans the Earth and has even invaded our bodies with microplastic particles.

A Basel Convention committee met in the second week of December in Switzerland to debate whether the Basel treaty’s technical guidelines should be updated to include chemical recycling, which is also sometimes referred to as “advanced recycling,” and if so, under what terms.

The debate occurred within the framework of the Basel Convention and any language on chemical recycling that makes it into its technical guidelines will be seen as acceptable tools for managing plastic waste. The guidelines are likely to carry over into the negotiations over the next two years on an international treaty governing plastic pollution and ongoing plastics manufacturing.

Those treaty talks have barely begun, with a first negotiation session among delegates a few weeks ago in Uruguay. 

The technical guidelines for the Basel Convention are supposed to represent the best available technology for protecting humans from various hazardous wastes, said Lee Bell, an Australia-based policy advisor for the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN). He is also the  co-author of a 2021 IPEN study that detailed how chemical recycling generates dangerous dioxin emissions, produces contaminated fuels and consumes large amounts of energy.

“Many parties and observers are of the view that there is no proof that chemical recycling is what you would call best available technology … or best environmental practice,” he said. 

The concern, he said, is that chemical recycling’s inclusion in the technical guidance “becomes a sort of formal endorsement by the (Basel) convention, and therefore by the U.N.”

It then would be possible for advocates of chemical recycling to point to the Basel technical guidance and say, “‘let’s just adopt those wholesale as part of the new plastics treaty,’” Bell said. “And I think this is exactly what’s going on.”

Stewart Harris, senior director of global plastics policy for the American Chemistry Council, said it’s too soon to say what role chemical recycling might play in a global plastics agreement. But, he said, the Basel Convention technical guidance is important.

“The Basel Convention guidance on the environmentally sound management of plastic waste is a key resource for all countries looking to support the transition to a more circular economy for plastics,” Harris said. “Properly classifying chemical recycling will help governments assess how these technologies fit into national waste management plans.”

In a joint release with the International Council of Chemical Associations following the first round of plastics treaty talks, held Nov. 28 to Dec. 2 in Uruguay, the two industry groups favored an agreement that “moves nations closer to a future where plastics remain in the economy and not in the environment.”

Industry opposes caps on soaring plastic production, which Enck and other environmentalists say is the only way to ultimately solve the environmental crisis that is plastic waste and pollution.

Judith Enck, founder and president of the environmental group Beyond Plastics, speaking at a Bennington College seminar in August. Credit: James Bruggers

In the United States, the fight over chemical recycling has occurred in statehouses, local communities, in Congress and inside the Environmental Protection Agency. The American Chemistry Council, a leading industry advocate for chemical recycling, this year celebrated adoption of legislation by 20 states over the past five years aimed at easing regulatory pathways for chemical recycling.

“The appropriate regulation of this is really critical if you want to scale advanced recycling, and you want to use more recycled material in your products,” Joshua Baca, vice president of plastics for the chemistry council, told Inside Climate News.

But plastics were never designed to be recycled, and environmental advocates have been fighting back, trying to block new chemical recycling facilities that have been proposed in various states across the country.

In Pennsylvania, a Houston start-up called Encina has proposed a $1.1 billion chemical recycling plant for plastic waste in Point Township that has left local officials and professors at Pittsburgh universities perplexed about whether the company’s plans were at all feasible. Nearby residents, meanwhile, worried about impacts to air, water and quality of life. 

In northeast Indiana, Inside Climate News found Brightmark Energy struggling to get its chemical recycling facility, using a technology called pyrolysis, up and running. The company could not precisely say what percentage of plastic waste it would actually turn into fuel or plastic feedstocks.

Jay Schabel, president of the plastics division at Brightmark, stood amid some of what he described as 900 tons of waste plastic at the company’s new plant in northeast Indiana at the end of July. The plant is designed to turn plastic waste into diesel fuel, naphtha and wax. Credit: James Bruggers

And while Fulcrum BioEnergy does not market its waste-to-jet fuel plant proposed for Gary, Indiana, as chemical recycling, it would employ a similar technical process, gasification. Inside Climate News found that the company’s plans to use municipal solid waste are complicated by an anticipated 30 percent plastic in its feedstock, which reduces carbon benefits and can gum up the production process. In Gary, an environmental justice community, residents have filed a Civil Rights Act complaint with the EPA against the state regulators who approved the Fulcrum air permit.

“Technologies that worsen the climate crisis, perpetuate a reliance on single-use plastics, and adversely impact vulnerable communities cannot be viewed as viable solutions moving forward,” a group of 35 members of Congress wrote in July, urging the EPA to fully regulate chemical recycling emissions and to stop working to promote the technology as a solution to the plastics crisis.

A Global Solution

Plastic waste is a global problem and the countries of the world are working on a global solution.

In March, against the backdrop of what U.N. officials described as a “triple planetary crisis of climate change, nature loss and pollution,” the United Nations Environmental Assembly voted to start two years of negotiations for a treaty to end global plastic waste.

Keep Environmental Journalism AliveICN provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going.Donate Now

Guatemala landfill feeds ‘trash islands’ hundreds of miles away in Honduras

An estimated 20,000 metric tons of trash from the Guatemala City landfill flows down the Motagua River into the Caribbean each year, where it washes ashore on Honduran beaches and forces residents to form cleanup efforts.While cleanup efforts are a good temporary solution, the root cause of the problem is poor waste management infrastructure at the landfill, something that has proven extremely difficult to address due to complex social issues and the cost of relocating waste disposal sites to other parts of the country.The trash also comes from illegal dumping along the river.As a stopgap, some stakeholders are focused on catching the trash in the rivers before it can reach the ocean. GUATEMALA CITY — After heavy rains, hotel workers and other residents in Honduras walk up and down beaches picking up everything from plastic bottles to toys to medical waste. They’ve become experts at garbage cleanup. It piles up in the sand if they don’t move quickly, and then tourists might complain or even stop coming, which could be disastrous for the many residents who rely on work in local hotels and shops.
Some towns on Honduras’s Caribbean coast have banned single-use plastics and implemented more rigorous recycling plans. But the trash keeps coming. A lot of it, it turns out, doesn’t come from the locals, but rather from landfills and illegal dumping sites hundreds of miles away, in inland Honduras and neighboring Guatemala.
“It goes into the food chain and even disrupts coral,” says Jenny Myton, the conservation program director at the Coral Reef Alliance. “This affects everything — animal life and health, but also the economy and tourism.”
Guatemala’s 485-kilometrer (300-mile) Motagua River is one of the biggest conduits of this torrent of waste. An estimated 20,000 metric tons of trash from the Guatemala City landfill and illegal dumping sites flows into the river on its way to the Caribbean each year. Ocean currents push it northeast, where it washes up on the beaches of Tela and other Honduran towns. The rest of it can stay floating out at sea for as long as six months before sinking to the bottom.
The problem has elicited cleanup efforts, recycling programs and garbage divergence plans by everyone from local communities to international NGOs. But many of them also admit that these are only temporary solutions. The root cause of the problem — garbage collection and storage at landfills across the region — will be much harder to make right.
“A new waste management plan must be set up for Guatemala and Honduras, including both citizens and industries,” a 2020 study on waste management in the region said. “Recycling and integrated waste management systems should be implemented everywhere within a country (including smaller towns and villages in the mainland).”
Fixing the landfill
The Guatemala City landfill is located in the Zone 3 neighborhood in the city’s north, and takes in everything from food waste to plastic to medical equipment — and not just from the city proper. Thirteen surrounding municipalities also rely on the landfill as their principal disposal site, which then feeds into the local watershed and ultimately pollutes the Caribbean hundreds of miles away.
Landfills may just look like simple holes in the ground where waste piles up. But they’re actually complex operations with sophisticated technology, intended to prevent waste from creating public health issues and environmental harm. Modern landfills usually include multiple “cells” for controlled dumping, a drainage and rainwater collection system, and a network of pipes and vents to prevent the buildup of methane gas, which is emitted as organic waste breaks down over time.
But the landfill in Guatemala City is decades behind technologically. Garbage piles up dozens of meters high, so unstable that it can shift like an ocean current, swallowing up garbage pickers unexpectedly. The lack of methane vents can lead to gas buildup, fires and toxic smoke.
And the lack of a formal water drainage system has led to a naturally flowing river of contaminated liquids moving out of the dump.
“I’ve rarely seen such a blatant and concrete example of unintended consequences,” said Trae Holland, executive director of Safe Passage, an NGO working in the area. “From a sanitation and waste management standpoint, the medieval approach in Guatemala City is transcending its physical location to become an international problem.”
Trash floating in the Caribbean. (Photo courtesy of Caroline Power)
Guatemala City municipal authorities didn’t respond to Mongabay’s request for comment about what it’s doing to actively address waste management at the landfill. Some organizations tell Mongabay they’ve worked closely with officials to improve the situation, saying they want this problem gone as much as anyone else does. Others say there’s little evidence that the government is taking any environmental action whatsoever.
In recent years, the government pushed back the landfill so it wasn’t encroaching on residential buildings. It decorated the entrance gate with flowers. But the prevailing waste management strategies appear to have gone unchanged.
“It’s this Arcadian paradise,” Holland says. “The front looks like the entrance to a university now that the garbage has been pushed away from the front. This is obviously not solving any problems, right? It’s just a PR move.”
But problems at the dump aren’t just technological. They’re also wrapped up in the political and social struggles of the country. It’s expensive and controversial, for example, to create a new landfill somewhere else. Zoning can be complicated, not only because the area must be strategically located to mitigate environmental hazards, but also because nearby residents and businesses would fight back against the plans.
Unregulated dumping has given rise to an entire informal economy for the impoverished residents of Zone 3, with families entering the landfill each day to pick out plastics and other items that can be sold to middlemen recyclers. Children used to pick trash out of the river, a practice that’s now banned. Gangs oversee a lot of what’s bought and sold there, complicating efforts by groups looking to help struggling families.
During the pandemic, the landfill shut down several times, putting so much stress on trash pickers that several households reported suicides by family members, Holland says. Gangs couldn’t collect extortion fees, which led to kidnappings of children and retaliatory violence.
As difficult as the last several years have been, Holland says, the pandemic may have gotten city officials’ attention for the better and may, in the long run, lead to improved waste management.
“The municipality, I can tell you right now, woke up to some of the issues in that community and in that zone that they were ignoring before,” he says. “And I feel very strongly, in fact, that that’s going to be a net positive.”
Temporary solutions
With systematic changes to the Guatemala City landfill slow to come, some stakeholders have shifted their focus downriver, where the trash is freer from the same complex social and political issues.
The Ocean Cleanup, an international organization engineering creative ways to remove plastic from the oceans, came to Guatemala in 2018 in hopes of developing a method for intercepting the trash on the Motagua River.
“If something is done about the source, that would be ideal, but I think we have to recognize that the brunt of this is more complicated than that,” CEO Boyan Slat tells Mongabay. He adds, “We asked ourselves, what is the fastest, most cost-effective way to stop this plastic from going into the ocean?”
Slat, a Dutch entrepreneur, founded The Ocean Cleanup when he was just 18, after having gone viral for a TEDx talk about what innovative technologies can bring to conservation efforts. His organization has raised millions of dollars since then, but has also been criticized for its flawed technology and lack of results.
In Guatemala, its pilot project involved installing “Interceptor 006,” a fence 50 meters (164 feet) wide and 8 m (26 ft) high that’s designed to catch plastic in its mesh while letting the water through.
The Interceptor 006 catching garbage during its trial this year. (Photo courtesy of The Ocean Cleanup)
In a video released by The Ocean Cleanup, the trash fence starts out looking like it’s going to succeed. The trash stops at the fence and starts to build up, with the water passing through free of plastic. But after a while, the sheer magnitude of trash gets to be too much and the infrastructure starts to bend. Then holes form and the plastic pushes through.
“We thought we truly cracked the nut,” Slat says, “that we collected what’s roughly a million kilos [2.2 million pounds] of plastic … and then seeing a big chunk of that disappear again, almost literally slipping through our fingers. In the matter of two hours, we went from the highest high to a substantial low.”
The Ocean Cleanup is working on a new type of interceptor that hasn’t operated anywhere else, and which will look “evolutionary rather than revolutionary” when compared to the previous one, Slat says. However, he doesn’t divulge any details about its design.
He also says the organization is working with local partners to develop recycling and incineration programs as well as methods of waste fraction (the sorting of waste into biodegradables, glass, batteries and other categories).
The Guatemala 2.0 solution, as Slat calls it, should be ready by the end of the first quarter of 2023. And while it won’t solve the waste management issues at the landfill or stop illegal dumping at different points along the Motagua River, it should help slow the amount of trash entering the Caribbean.
Banner image: Trash floats near a boat in the Caribbean. Photo courtesy of Caroline Power. 
Citation: Kikaki, A., Karantzalos, K., Power, C. A., & Raitsos, D. E. (2020). Remotely sensing the source and transport of marine plastic debris in Bay Islands of Honduras (Caribbean Sea). Remote Sensing, 12(11), 1727. doi:10.3390/rs12111727
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Environmental watchdog charges REDcycle operators over secret soft plastics stockpiles

Environmental watchdog charges REDcycle operators over secret soft plastics stockpiles Environment Protection Authority Victoria charges RG Programs and Services, which faces a possible fine in excess of $165,000 Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast The operators behind REDcycle may face a possible fine of more than $165,000 after …

Tobacco: Vaping and smoking drive environmental harm from farm to fingertip

Electronic cigarettes heavily marketed via single-use flavored products are increasingly popular. These products require disposal of large amounts of hazardous waste, including huge quantities of lithium, a resource in demand for electric car batteries and rechargeable electronics for laptops and mobile phones.Even as vaping use grows, an estimated 6 trillion “traditional” cigarettes are still smoked annually; 4.5 trillion are thought to be discarded into the environment each year. Researchers and activists emphasize that the tobacco industry is responsible for considerable harm to nature and human health.Traveling along the supply chain, tobacco production and consumption has consequences for forests, oceans, the climate, and for farmers and their families who produce the crop — all to an extent not yet fully known or understood.Efforts are underway to rein in some of these negative impacts against the backdrop of an industry accused of consistently greenwashing to conceal an environmental footprint that is harming both nature and public health. Vaping for a day and tossing it away is all the rage. Electronic cigarette sales have boomed in recent years, with single-use, throwaway devices growing in popularity, particularly among youth in some countries such as the United States and United Kingdom. This new, trendy face of the tobacco industry — touted for creating a smoke-free, but not tobacco-free, world — carries a heavy, and yet unquantified, environmental burden.
A recently published probe by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism found that 150 million disposable vapes are tossed out every year in the U.S. alone. Amounting to five every second, this consumption produces vast amounts of e-waste, sending up to 30 metric tons of lithium to U.S. landfills annually — enough to provide batteries for around 6,000 electric vehicles. Lithium is a vital ingredient in rechargeable electronics, including laptops and cellphones.
Earlier this year, another investigation found that the equivalent of 10 metric tons of lithium is thrown into the trash in the U.K. every year, even as demand for this precious material continues sky rocketing. The International Energy Agency and other bodies have warned that lithium shortages could lie ahead as supplies become stretched.
Vaping is increasingly popular and touted as a means to quit smoking. Long-term health consequences are still poorly understood, say experts. The environmental consequences of thousands of single-use, battery-driven, and plastic-laden devices may make vaping even more environmentally hazardous than standard cigarettes. Image courtesy Lindsay Fox via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
“Little is documented about the harmful effects on the environment brought about by the production of these devices, but the disposal of e-cigarette cartridges and batteries represents a major environmental concern,” reads a report published earlier this year by the World Health Organization. “The majority of plastic e-cigarette liquid cartridges are not reusable or recyclable and end up in gutters, streets and waterways.”
These consumer devices come with an environmental impact that has yet to be fully accounted for, say experts. But it is well established that they use precious resources required for humanity’s transition to green economies. They also are laden with plastics, toxins and metals that represent a burgeoning and potentially explosive waste problem, for which e-cigarette manufacturers have provided little consumer guidance.
As such, e-cigarettes have been classified as a “rising environmental threat,” but they are only part of the global harm linked to the tobacco industry.
Cigarette butts are one of the most commonly found trash items in ocean cleanups. In 2020, the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup program collected nearly 1 million butts, dwarfing the number of plastic bottles, the second-highest trash item. Waste related to electronic cigarettes is a growing concern. Image courtesy of Brian Yurasits/Ocean Image Bank.
Tobacco and its Earth impacts
Long before that moment when a spent e-cigarette is tossed away and discarded in the gutter or in a trash can, tobacco leaves a long trail of environmental damage.
All along its supply chain, from cultivation to post-consumer waste, “tobacco harms our environment, and destroys our forests, uses our safe drinking water, and pollutes our air,” Ruediger Krech, director of public health at the WHO, told Mongabay in an interview. These multiple impacts continue growing, which, “of course, is adding unnecessary pressure to our planet’s already scarce resources and fragile ecosystems.”
According to researchers and activists, tobacco is implicated in adding pressure to violating at least five critical planetary boundaries: impacting Earth’s biosphere integrity, climate change, the release of “novel entities” (including toxic pollutants), freshwater use, and land-system change.
Research by Nick Voulvoulis, deputy director of the Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London, assessed the tobacco supply chain and found that in terms of climate, the industry as a whole emits an estimated 84 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent each year; that’s comparable to a country such as Peru’s carbon emissions.
Water use, too, is enormous: 22 billion liters (5.8 billion gallons) are used along the tobacco supply chain annually, roughly equivalent to the municipal water use of the U.K.
In addition, up to 5% of global deforestation is associated with tobacco farming, either to clear land for new farmland, or for the wood needed to carry out the curing process. A report by the WHO and the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP) estimates that 200,000 hectares (nearly 500,000 acres) are cleared each year for tobacco, driving habitat and biodiversity loss.
Tobacco fields in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh. Tobacco growing accounts for an estimated 30% of the country’s deforestation, according to estimates. Image courtesy of PROGGA.
The brunt of this environmental harm is felt in developing countries — including China, India, Brazil, Indonesia and Zimbabwe — where the majority of tobacco cultivation and cigarette production now occurs: “Tobacco competes with essential commodities for resources and places significant pressures on the health of our planet and its most vulnerable inhabitants,” Voulvoulis’s study states. His research estimated that converting the land currently used for tobacco to food crops could feed 20 million people.
While this research sheds light on a vast range of environmental harm, it is by no means comprehensive. Voulvoulis said his life-cycle analysis likely “underestimated some of the impacts.” Plastic pollution from cigarette butt disposal, for example, was not included, nor were harms related to electronic cigarettes.
Tobacco control experts and researchers say the industry frequently downplays the environmental damage linked to its products along the supply chain, claiming that greenwashing is common and that industry efforts are insufficient in the face of tobacco’s environmental toll.
“We need to unravel these tactics that the tobacco industry is using. Very often they try to greenwash their reputation as a sustainable and eco-friendly industry,” said Krech. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
The industrywide response to such charges can be summed up by what a Japan Tobacco International spokesperson wrote in an email to Mongabay, detailing action to reduce carbon emissions and address other environmental concerns. “As a company, we have a responsibility to operate sustainably, minimize our environmental impact, and contribute positively to the communities we operate in … We aim to reduce the impact of our own operations and our supply chain on the environment, by implementing best practices and encouraging innovation.”
A tobacco warehouse in Malawi. The country grows more than 90,000 metric tons of tobacco per year and is one of Africa’s largest exporters. Production is linked to a range of health risks for farmers along with environmental impacts, such as deforestation. It is estimated that around 30,000 hectares (74,000 acres) of forest are lost due to tobacco per year in Malawi. Image courtesy of Marcel Crozet/International Labour Organization via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
Butts: The most ubiquitous polluter
The world has long been hooked on tobacco, but there are some signs this addiction is waning, if only slightly. Globally, prevalence of tobacco use is falling and now is below 20% of the population, according to the Tobacco Atlas; It estimates there are around 1 billion smokers and 200 million who use “other tobacco products.
“We are definitely seeing overall declines in adult prevalence, which is splendid, and I would say significant declines,” said Jeffrey Drope, co-author of the report and a tobacco control expert at the University of Illinois. “That said, we still have a billion smokers. So, it’s not like our work is done. That’s a lot of smokers.”
Those billion or so smokers puff on an estimated 6 trillion cigarettes per year, mostly using cigarette filters composed of plasticized cellulose acetate. As many as 4.5 trillion cigarettes butts are discarded into the environment, amounting to nearly 800,000 metric tons of waste ending up in streets, on beaches, and in oceans. Contrary to common belief, these filters do not fully biodegrade; instead they break up slowly over time into smaller fibers and microplastics. Thus, experts say, they contribute to an already massive global plastic pollution problem that has sparked urgent U.N. treaty negotiations.
Cigarette butt harm doesn’t stop at the plastic, says Thomas Novotny, co-director of San Diego University’s Center for Tobacco and the Environment. They are packed with thousands of chemicals, toxins, and even heavy metals which continue leaching once disposed of.
Dannielle Green, a marine ecologist at Anglia Ruskin University in the U.K., reviewed the evidence of cigarette butt pollution in terrestrial and aquatic environments, and she underlines the potentially lethal and sublethal impacts these can have on species: “There’s evidence for reproductive rate effects, … changes in growth, malformations and developmental impacts.”
Research has shown nicotine and other chemicals in cigarette butts are toxic to “microbes, plants, benthic organisms, bivalves, zooplankton, fish, and mammals,” but warn that “critical” knowledge gaps remain. Wider ecosystem-level impacts, says Green, are among those. The concern around e-cigarette disposal and their chemical impacts is thus occurring in the context of an already massive load of environmental harm.
Used cigarette filters can contain thousands of chemicals and contribute to global plastic pollution, say experts. They are also widely perceived to hold health benefits for smokers, reducing exposure to toxins and health issues such as cancer: this too is false, say health experts, and is not based on scientific evidence, in what is dubbed “filter fraud.” Image courtesy of Craig Dennis via Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
Producing a green sickness
Smoking sickens and kills people — lots of them. More than 8 million people die due to smoking every year, according to estimates, with massive economic costs attached.
But these health impacts run deeper, and go beyond those who consume the product, say experts. Researchers and activists in tobacco-growing countries describe a situation whereby many tobacco farmers become ensnared in a cycle of farming that is not only potentially damaging to their and their families’ health and the environment, but is also rarely financially viable.
In Brazil, Marcelo Moreno, a public health expert with the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, studies the health impacts of tobacco farming. He explains that tobacco farmers face multiple health issues due to exposure to pesticides and other chemicals at higher rates than other crops, while long, arduous work results in musculoskeletal issues and chronic pain. In addition, a condition known as green tobacco sickness — a form of acute nicotine poisoning — is often prevalent, understudied, and underreported among tobacco farmers in many producer countries — a disease often exacerbated by a lack of suitable protective equipment.
Due to the intensive demands of farming and production of tobacco falling on family farms, child labor is said to be rampant in the tobacco industry, exposing children to these varied health risks.
According to a U.S. Department of Labor report, “Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor,” children on tobacco farms in producer countries such as Indonesia are “exposed to pesticides, work long hours, carry heavy weight, and work in extreme heat, among other activities.” In the U.S., which continues to be a major producer of tobacco, child labor and labor violations are also reported.
Brazil is one of the world’s largest tobacco producers. Data related to environmental harm are limited, says Marcelo Moreno of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, but tracking health issues impacting farmers there gives an indication of widespread and heavy use of agrochemicals. Research by Moreno and others suggests the prevalence of pesticide poisoning and green tobacco sickness grew between 2010 and 2019, but remained underreported. Image courtesy of Marcelo Moreno.
A study published in 2021 from southern Brazil, where most of the country’s tobacco is produced, found “a high prevalence of [green tobacco sickness], pesticide poisoning, respiratory, and musculoskeletal problems” among child workers.
This dangerous form of farming doesn’t result in financial gains in many cases, says Drope: “In some countries, [farmers] are literally going into debt each season, but because they’re in these contractual relationships [with tobacco companies], they’re obligated in the next growing season to continue to grow tobacco,” he said. “So, they’re trapped. They’re trapped in a brutal debt cycle in some countries.”
In a study released last year, researchers in Bangladesh concluded that family labor, land and environmental costs drive down any profitability for farmers, stating that “tobacco cultivation is not as beneficial as popularly perceived.”
According to the Bangladesh-based tobacco control group PROGGA, the list of environmental concerns linked to farming include deforestation, overuse of pesticides, land degradation, and water pollution. Around 30% of the country’s deforestation is estimated to be driven by tobacco, and it contributed to the ecological decline of the country’s Halda River, a vital breeding habitat for Indian carp.
Tobacco farmers in Bangladesh. Research suggests that when accounting for a range of factors, including the impact on the environment, tobacco farming is not as profitable as is claimed. Experts say this is the case in other producing countries. Image courtesy of Magalie L’Abbé via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
This pattern plays out in other producing countries. Experts describe tobacco as a “fickle” crop requiring vast amounts of agrochemicals which over time can deplete soils, and it’s one that demands the use of vast amounts of wood to be burned in the tobacco curing process. To meet and combat wood demand, reforestation efforts have taken place in some locations. In Zimbabwe, for example, a report published earlier this year states such efforts “are not widely implemented” and are “largely inadequate.” Critics argue that tobacco company efforts at corporate social responsibility often amount to little more than industry promotional activities conducted in many producer countries.
Little data exist on the environmental impact of tobacco farming in Brazil, one of the world’s largest tobacco producers, but Moreno says the health impacts are indicative: “We know that tobacco farming is damaging to the environment, but we cannot precisely say how it occurs,” he said. “We can say if these people are contaminated then [the farms] use massive quantities [of agrochemicals] that can obviously contaminate water and soils.”
Kevin Genga, an environmental activist and anti-tobacco campaigner in Kenya, paints a similar picture, underlining that chemicals used by the industry degrade soils. “You find that when they use too many chemicals the soil structure gets to be overutilized,” he said. “After maybe two, three or four seasons of doing that activity, these soils cannot be self-dependent to yield crops that are consumed by the community.”
A past industry-funded report carried out in Bangladesh, Brazil and Kenya sought to identify if tobacco farming prevents “farmers and rural communities from prospering.” “Overall, we found no evidence of this. In fact, among our samples, tobacco growing appears to play an important role in the livelihoods of tobacco farmers and labourers” in the three countries, the report states. “Some issues” were found, including “small-scale land and forest clearance, incidents of child labour and green tobacco sickness.”
Tobacco farmer in Brazil. Experts state that due to a confluence of health hazards, demands on family work, environmental harm, and more, tobacco farming is often barely profitable for farming families in developing countries. Image courtesy of Rachel Gurgel.
Kicking the (cigarette) butt habit
At the opposite end of the supply chain, Novotny and others are categorical in their assertion that to solve the cigarette butt pollution problem, cellulose acetate filters must be banned as a single-use plastic. Tobacco control groups are aiming to have these filters written into the global plastics treaty currently under discussion. Such a move is “perhaps the fastest and easiest” way to address issues of “global public and environmental health,” tobacco control groups said in a recent statement.
That position is not supported by some in the industry: “Banning the use of cellulose acetate filters, before viable alternatives come to market, will do little to help the environment, but will instead risk driving consumers to purchase illegal cigarettes,” wrote the spokesperson from Japan Tobacco International.
Non-cellulose acetate biodegradable filters have been proposed to beat the plastic problem. But while these would reduce plastic pollution, they won’t necessarily solve chemical pollution, says Green, due to leaching of accumulated toxins. In fact, though research on this new type of filter is limited, a study published in 2021 suggests they may contain higher concentrations of metals and metalloids, potentially worsening their impacts.
That’s an issue, acknowledges Tadas Lisauskas, co-founder and CEO of Greenbutts, a biodegradable filter company. But he defends his company’s focus on solving the plastic problem: “If you’re producing fewer metric tons of plastic, that’s automatically going to be a plus for the environment,” he said.
Greenbutts, a corporation, proposes making biodegradable filters as a solution to cigarette plastic pollution. Tadas Lisauskas, co-founder and CEO, acknowledges, however, that the new filters do not solve resulting chemical pollution. His company, he states, is undertaking “joint development projects” with the tobacco industry’s “top three”; conversations spurred on by the ongoing negotiation of a global single-use plastic treaty and measures implemented to curb tobacco-related pollution in the European Union. Image courtesy of Greenbutts.
The only way to eliminate the persisting chemical pollution, he said, would be to “do away with cigarette smoking,” something his company does not advocate: “We don’t want to change people’s behaviors,” Lisauskas explained. “People have been smoking for millennia, that’s not going to change.”
Novotny, who is also the founder of the Cigarette Butt Pollution Project, labels biodegradable filters as a “distraction” from the wider issue: “[T]hese butts are still contaminating the environment with the chemicals that exude from them,” he said. “This solution benefits the tobacco industry and not smokers or the environment. It will encourage people to smoke and to discard toxic butts.”
“We want there to be a global effort to eliminate tobacco use and [eliminate] the enormous health burden that filtered, unfiltered, or biodegradable filtered cigarettes continue to [have] impact[ing] humankind,” he added.
Some critics also call for a ban on disposable electronic cigarettes, for youth-attracting flavors to be outlawed, or for the products to be far more strictly regulated. “First of all, there needs to be much more in the public awareness of how environmentally disrupting these novel products like e-cigarettes are,” WHO’s Krech said. “We think that they need to be strictly regulated as well because they endanger wildlife with the plastics, nicotine, heavy, metals, the lead, the mercury, and the lithium.”
Nicotine expelled from consumers’ bodies can pass into waterways via wastewater; an estimated 80% of the world’s waste flows into the environment untreated. A review published this year states that “despite being in low concentrations and having low bioaccumulation potential, monitoring [nicotine and alcohol] occurrence remains important given their potential toxic effects.” Most nicotine studies are conducted in developed countries and further research is needed “especially in developing countries where most wastewater flows untreated into the environment and where such studies are lacking.” Image courtesy of Aviavlad via Pixabay (Public domain).
Kicking the tobacco-growing habit
To effectively tackle the environmental and social harm done by tobacco growing, advocates say farmers should be supported to find alternative cash crops. That in turn would address food security issues.
Next year’s World No Tobacco Day, to be held May 31, 2023, is centered around possible alternatives to tobacco land use. Redirecting and regenerating land to produce food instead of tobacco is key to providing sustainable solutions for farmers and the environment in many parts of the developing world, said the WHO’s Krech.
Last year, a partnership between the WHO, the World Food Program and the Food and Agriculture Organization launched a “Tobacco-free farms” project to work with farmers to swap their tobacco crops for iron-rich beans. That project has already supported more than 1,000 farmers in quitting tobacco growing across Kenya. By March 2022, more than 135 metric tons of beans were produced, a figure that has now risen to around 400 metric tons, said Joyce Nato, the WHO’s lead on the project.
“We help our tobacco farmers to move away from tobacco farming to alternative livelihoods, and we are ready to support them [all the way] to the market, which has always been an issue,” Nato said in an interview. And these innovative farmers aren’t only harvesting beans. They “can later on choose other alternative value chains they want to grow.”
Plans are afoot to introduce this particular project to other counties, and to launch a similar initiative in Zambia, another major tobacco producer where there’s appetite for change: “So, we feel that this is a big success!” Nato said.
“We must stop tobacco growing, because it is not beneficial to the farmers, it’s only beneficial to the industry,” Nato concluded, adding that what is good for the social and economic well-being of farmers will also benefit the environment — helping protect soils, water, and the climate: “Tobacco is a contributor to that [harm]. Tobacco growing is a contributor to environmental hazards.”
There are more than 1 billion smokers worldwide and a further 200 million or so who consume tobacco by other means, such as electronic cigarettes. Tobacco use is well known as a health hazard. The environmental impacts along the product’s supply chain are less well known but considerable; with effects on forests, biodiversity, water, climate change, and more. Image courtesy of nextpageplease via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).
Banner image: Every year, volunteer beach cleaners pick up millions of cigarette butts; it’s estimated 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are released into the environment each year. Contrary to common belief, standard cigarette filters are not fully biodegradable. Researchers and activists point out that “downstream approaches” such as cleanups are not sufficient to stem the tide of tobacco-related pollution and they’re calling for a ban on filters. Image courtesy of Marevivo Onlus/Ocean Conservancy.
Citations:
Beutel, M. W., Harmon, T. C., Novotny, T. E., Mock, J., Gilmore, M. E., Hart, S. C., … Holden, P. A. (2021). A review of environmental pollution from the use and disposal of cigarettes and electronic cigarettes: Contaminants, sources, and impacts. Sustainability, 13(23), 12994. doi:10.3390/su132312994
Booth, D. J., Gribben, P., & Parkinson, K. (2015). Impact of cigarette butt leachate on tidepool snails. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 95(1), 362-364. doi:10.1016/j.marpolbul.2015.04.004
Dobaradaran, S., Soleimani, F., Akhbarizadeh, R., Schmidt, T. C., Marzban, M., & BasirianJahromi, R. (2021). Environmental fate of cigarette butts and their toxicity in aquatic organisms: A comprehensive systematic review. Environmental Research, 195, 110881. doi:10.1016/j.envres.2021.110881
Fassa, A. G., Faria, N. M., Szortyka, A. L., Meucci, R. D., Fiori, N. S., & Carvalho, M. P. (2021). Child labor in family tobacco farms in southern Brazil: Occupational exposure and related health problems. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(22), 12255. doi:10.3390/ijerph182212255
Green, D. S., Tongue, A. D., & Boots, B. (2022). The ecological impacts of discarded cigarette butts. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 37(2), 183-192. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2021.10.001
Koroleva, E., Mqulwa, A. Z., Norris-Jones, S., Reed, S., Tambe, Z., Visagie, A., & Jacobs, K. (2021). Impact of cigarette butts on bacterial community structure in soil. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 28(25), 33030-33040. doi:10.1007/s11356-021-13152-w
Lencucha, R., Drope, J., Magati, P., & Sahadewo, G. A. (2022). Tobacco farming: Overcoming an understated impediment to comprehensive tobacco control. Tobacco Control, 31(2), 308-312. doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2021-056564
Marynak, K. L., Gammon, D. G., Rogers, T., Coats, E. M., Singh, T., & King, B. A. (2017). Sales of nicotine-containing electronic cigarette products: United States, 2015. American Journal of Public Health, 107(5), 702-705. doi:10.2105/ajph.2017.303660
Meucci, R. D., Fassa, A. G., Faria, N. M., & Fiori, N. S. (2015). Chronic low back pain among tobacco farmers in southern Brazil. International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, 21(1), 66-73. doi:10.1179/2049396714y.0000000094
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A new Shell plant in Pennsylvania will ‘just run and run’ producing the raw materials for single-use plastics

Internal documents unearthed by congressional Democrats reveal an apparent moment of candor two years ago from Shell public relations executives discussing their company’s environmental responsibilities related to the massive plastics manufacturing plant they were building 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh.

The multi-billion dollar Shell plant became fully operational in November after years of construction and has already been cited by state environmental regulators for exceeding its yearly limit of volatile organic compounds, which create lung-damaging smog. The plant along the Ohio River in Beaver County has the capacity to produce as much as 3.5 billion pounds of plastic pellets a year, the building blocks for such products as bags, bottles, food packaging and toys. 

Among the documents made public Dec. 9 was email correspondence within the Shell communications team, where a corporate vice president acknowledged that the company had no answer to questions about its long-term responsibility for making “the raw material with which to produce 30 years of single-use plastics.”

The Shell executive’s comment came in the context of criticizing a New York Times article with a provocative headline—“Big Oil Is in Trouble. It’s Plan: Flood Africa With Plastic.” The Times report noted that oil companies were shifting to plastics production as climate change threatened fossil fuels, and revealed an effort by the American Chemistry Council, a major petrochemical lobby, to promote pro-plastics U.S. trade policies in Africa.

“Frankly, we do have questions to answer about whether we’re going to take any responsibility for where PennChem’s output ends up,” a corporate communications vice president, Rob Sherwin, wrote to another top Shell communications official, Curtis Smith, on Sept. 1, 2020. “This is one that’s gonna run and run … because we haven’t even finished building a facility that will potentially churn out the raw material with which to produce single use plastic for 30 years.”

Another Shell official in the company’s communications shop, Sally Donaldson, chimed in that this was “definitely a topic we need to be on top of.”

The development was previously referred to as the Pennsylvania Chemicals project, according to Shell’s website.

The Shell emails were among a trove of documents from oil companies including ExxonMobil, Chevron and BP made public by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, as part of an investigation into the fossil fuel industry and its role in driving climate change.

Shell officials did not respond to requests for comment.

In recent years, companies have increasingly been pressured into taking responsibility for the plastic waste they produce, or the environmental damage they cause. In 2020, for example, Shell announced it would strive to achieve net-zero carbon emissions and that it had joined a global alliance of companies working to end plastic waste.

But the global plastics problem has turned into a crisis, with oceans choked with plastic and microplastics ubiquitous, and the United Nations looking for a solution.

In western Pennsylvania, the company’s plant—fed by the ethane byproduct of fracked natural gas from the Marcellus and Utica shale regions—has been seen by business advocates as a potential center for a new Appalachian petrochemical hub, and by critics as a source of health-damaging pollution and a driver of climate change.

Environmental advocates in Pennsylvania described the email comments from the Shell officials as both alarming and revelatory.

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Lawmakers push Biden administration to act faster on plastic pollution

A group of 24 U.S. senators and representatives are calling on the Biden administration to set legal standards to reduce plastic pollution at home and abroad.
The letter, sent on December 20, points to the recently introduced “Protecting Communities from Plastics Act” bill, which would require a mandatory reduction in single-use plastics, address pollution in environmental justice communities by pausing plastic facilities’ permitting and implementing stricter rules for current petrochemical plants, and would invest in research to better understand the human health impacts of plastic production and waste.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), builds upon the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, which was introduced in 2020. The four lawmakers also spearheaded the letter to President Biden, which was co-signed by 20 others, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

“These types of actions show leadership and demonstrate that the U.S. is eager and supportive of policies that will meaningfully reduce plastic pollution,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter to President Biden.

The U.S. is the top consuming country of plastic and is one of the “leading drivers of this crisis,” they write.

Plastic pollution treaty 

The letter follows the first meeting of the international Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, a group convened by the United Nations to develop a global plastics treaty, which concluded its first (largely procedural) session earlier this month.“In light of the first meeting of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee, which continues to work to develop an internationally legally binding instrument on plastic pollution, U.S. leadership in reducing environmental harm from plastics has never been more critical,” the members said in their letter.

Plastic pollution and our hormones

[embedded content]The letter also comes on the heels of testimony from Environmental Health Sciences’ founder and chief scientist Pete Myers to the U.S. Senate Committee on the Environment & Public Works last week. Myers warned the committee that chemicals in plastic can block, mimic, increase or decrease our body’s hormones. Properly functioning hormones are vital for our health, and exposure to these chemicals is linked to a host of health problems including cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes, impaired brain development and reproductive issues, among others.“Each year, nearly 11 million metric tons of plastic waste flow into the ocean from land-based sources alone. Without immediate action, that number is expected to triple by the year 2040,” the lawmakers wrote. “There is growing scientific evidence that microplastics, and the toxic chemicals they contain, are impacting human health to degrees not yet understood.”

Leadership on plastic pollution 

Beyond the health impacts, the lawmakers point out the plastics sector is set to account for 20% of oil demand by 2050, and remains a key driver of greenhouse gases and climate change.“We need to take leadership and urgent action, starting here at home, to protect our communities, our economy, and our climate from the continued threat from plastics,” the lawmakers wrote. See the full letter.From Your Site ArticlesRelated Articles Around the Web

Plastic pellet pollution can end through coordinated efforts, report shows

Tiny plastic pellets called nurdles are a major source of global pollution, littering waterways, harming ecosystems and threatening marine life.But plastic pellet pollution is preventable, according to a new report by the international conservation group Fauna & Flora International (FFI), and it’s one piece of the global plastic problem that can and should be tackled.Solving the problem will require coordinated efforts by companies, governments and the International Maritime Organization (IMO), according to FFI. The building blocks of almost all plastic items on the planet are little lentil-sized petrochemical-derived pellets, called nurdles, that are melted together and shaped to create larger plastic products. These nurdles are the raw material for making water bottles, automobile parts, food containers and countless other products we use in daily life.
These pellets pose a huge pollution problem long before they are turned into the products we know and use — littering beaches, absorbing and accumulating bacteria from seawater, smothering seagrass meadows and being mistaken as food by marine animals. Yet this pollution is entirely preventable, according to a recent report by the international conservation organization Fauna & Flora International (FFI).
According to Tanya Cox, FFI marine plastics senior technical specialist, the group worked collaboratively with a broad range of academics, trade associations, corporations, NGOs and policymakers to identify different sources of microplastic pollution. They aimed to identify potential improvements in policies and practices through mandatory measures that can help eliminate the pollution sources by preventing pellet loss at all stages of the supply chain.
Plastic pellets are a significant source of microplastic pollution around the globe, accumulating on beaches and coastlines, breaking down into tiny bits from weathering and destabilizing ecosystems. Yet nurdles are not paid enough attention in discussions of plastic pollution, the report stated.
Plastic pellets on a beach at Norfolk, England, in January 2019. Photo by Ed Marshall/Fauna & Flora International.
Coastal countries are particularly vulnerable to cargo vessel nurdle spills, Cox said, because global shipping routes pass close to coastlines. In 2021, the cargo ship MV X-Press Pearl caught fire off the coast of Sri Lanka carrying more than 1,600 metric tons of plastic pellets. The pellets that were spilled, in what is now considered s the largest spill on record, contaminated not only the waters around Sri Lanka, but also far-away shores where ocean currents carried these billions of pellets.
“If there’s another incident like the X-Press Pearl, any neighboring state is vulnerable to the impact that pellet pollution has once it is in the environment,” Cox said.
According to the report, plastic pellets contain toxic additives; they absorb and accumulate bacteria and environmental pollutants from the water in which they float. These contaminants impact biodiversity, marine life and human health.
Frequently, the small pellets are mistaken for food by marine animals. Once ingested, the contaminants act as a “poison pill” for sea life. It is suspected that pellets are harming species across the taxonomic spectrum, the report stated. They are eaten by a wide variety of marine life, from zooplanktons — which are at the base of the marine food web — to migratory birds, sea turtles and mammals such as seals. Microplastics are now ubiquitous: They’re in the food we eat, the water we drink and even the air we breathe. The full potential impact of plastic pollutants on human bodies, however, is still currently being studied.
“This is a preventable source of pollution that is beyond the immediate control of the consumers,” Cox said. “It’s not something that the public can necessarily eliminate by changing their behavior in the same way that plastic bag pollution can be tackled.”
In general, individuals can address the overall plastic pollution problem by reducing plastic bag use or  shifting to more environmentally friendly alternatives. But individuals can do little to reduce plastic pellet pollution since nurdles are leaked into the environment at various stages along the industrial supply chain — before plastic products are made and before consumers buy them.
To end plastic pellet pollution, the FFI report called for a “robust, coordinated regulatory approach from industry, governments, and the International Maritime Organization (IMO).” Pellet pollution is a global challenge and all countries must commit to mandatory measures that prevent pellet loss and spills on land and at sea, Cox said.
“In order to fully tackle this problem, there has to be complementary, coordinated legal measures that require companies to do everything they can to prevent plastic pellet loss,” she said.
Mouth of the Pasig River along Baseco Compound in the Philippines in November 2018. Image courtesy of Ezra Osorio.
Plastic in the Philippines
The Philippines is one of the largest contributors of plastic pollution to Earth’s oceans. It is an archipelagic country, composed of more than 7,000 islands and many densely populated coastal urban areas, where huge amounts of mismanaged plastic waste enter into waterways, estuaries, ports — winding up on beaches and in the sea.
According to a 2020 research paper, marine biodiversity across the entire archipelago is under threat due to microplastics ingested by aquatic organisms. The study found that sardines in the Philippines’ major fisheries are very vulnerable to microplastic pollution; approximately 85% of the sardines examined at various catch landing sites contained microplastics in their stomachs.
Still, studies and baseline data on microplastics in the Philippines are scant. A 2020 research paper by two of the country’s leading microplastics researchers noted that small amounts of plastic pellets were found in surface water at five river mouths in Manila Bay, possibly due to nurdles and microbeads used as cleansing agents leaking from manufacturing facilities.
Floating microplastics in a surface water sample in February 2019. Image courtesy of Ezra Osorio.
According to environmental engineer Ezra Osorio, one of the study authors, these pellets — even though detected in low quantities — can still impact marine biota through ingestion and contribute to global plastic pollution.
Although plastic pellets in those river mouths were not as abundant as secondary microplastics — tiny particles derived from fragmented larger plastics — Osorio said the finding is still significant because the pellets are not leaked from households, but rather coming from industries making or using the pellets.
“The detection of the plastic pellets in the major rivers draining to Manila Bay shows the occurrence of microplastics in waterbodies in the Philippines and the potential contribution of the industry to the microplastic leakage to the environment,” said Osorio.
Osorio’s suggestion was similar to those found in the FFI report. He said a legal framework was needed to regulate and prevent plastic pellet spills into the environment — requiring proper management in the collection, transportation, manufacturing and disposal of pellets.
He recalled, during one of his visits to a recycling plant, seeing pellet residue washed away in a cleaning process that would no doubt end up in sewers. Since there is no sewage treatment to filter that water, those pellets ultimately end up in rivers, estuaries and the ocean.
It is important for people to be aware and care about the plastic pollution issue, Osorio said, because these are now known contaminants. While the effects on people are still being studied, plastics pose a potential threat to human health via the foods we eat, including fish.
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How do plastic pellets leak into the environment?
Plastic pellet pollution results from both chronic and acute loss, according to the FFI report. Chronic losses are small in scale — such as pellets leaking from poorly sealed sacks that are easily ripped or punctured during manual and mechanical handling — while acute losses involve a larger number of pellets entering the environment in one go.
“They were being spilled in large quantities at different points in the supply chain. Because of general lack of awareness and understanding of the risk of impact, there’s not enough attention on proper handling,” Cox said.
Whether small-scale or large-scale, these leaks and spills all contribute to pellet pollution occurring on both land and at sea.
An illustration of how plastic pellets enter the environment and harm wildlife from the FFI report,“Stemming the tide: putting an end to plastic pellet pollution.” Image by Fauna & Flora International.
According to the report, land-based plastic pellet pollution generally occurs during the production, transport and conversion supply chain stages, wherever and whenever there is careless handling, poor training and limited awareness of impact.
Sea-based plastic pellet pollution can happen during maritime transport, when damaged or improperly sealed containers and unsecured containers fall overboard, the report stated. It can also happen during maritime disasters as with the MV X-Press Pearl.
Once in the environment, plastic pellets are costly, time-consuming and difficult to retrieve and clean up. Thus, they’ll likely remain in the environment doing harm for at least hundreds of years.
Preventive measures, said Cox, are the same regardless of the volume of pellets being handled. The bottom line is to institute safety measures all along the supply chain to ensure fewer pellets reach the environment.
A handful of plastic pellets from a small spill in Pineville, Louisiana. Image by Paul L. Nettles via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0).
How can plastic pellet pollution be prevented?
Despite growing evidence documenting the sheer scale of global plastic pellet pollution, attempts to prevent losses and minimize impacts have been limited, as efforts are voluntary and mainly focus on land-based sources, Cox said.
The FFI report outlined pellet loss prevention recommendations that should be applied by industries, governments and the IMO to address the issue across land and sea and at every stage of the supply chain.
The first recommendation: Put regulations in place to tackle pellet pollution on land. FFI urged that all companies handling plastic pellets, regardless of company size or location, be legally required to provide independent, third-party verification that pellet loss prevention measures are implemented and maintained. Moreover, the prevention measures must be monitored for effectiveness at every stage of the supply chain. Standards and certification schemes should meet minimum requirements established in legislation.
The second recommendation addressed a need for improved packaging and labeling of pellets for transport. Legislation should stipulate the use of improved packaging that is resistant to impact, tear and degradation. Moreover, improved communication throughout the supply chain to reduce risk of chronic and acute pellet loss should be done by displaying clear warning labels indicating that the contents are dangerous goods and harmful to aquatic environments.
The third recommendation would put regulations in place to curb sea-based sources of pellet pollution. The report enumerated three key measures that the IMO should take to ensure pellet loss at sea is minimized: Legally classify pellets as marine pollutants, develop standardized disaster response protocols to aid containment and clean-up of future shipping disasters and establish clear protocols or guidance related to liability and compensation claims in the event of accidental loss.
Despite growing evidence documenting the sheer scale of global plastic pellet pollution, attempts to prevent losses and minimize impacts have been limited, as efforts are voluntary and mainly focus on land-based sources. Image by Sören Funk via Unsplash (Public domain).
Some additional measures that should be explored by the IMO, according to FFI, included introduction of minimum requirements for the maintenance of pellet containers and legal limits on the volume of loose pellets transported within containers.
According to the report, these recommendations would allow “the global community to vastly reduce the quantity of pellets” entering the world’s oceans, both through chronic spills and during maritime disasters. It would also ensure that maritime disasters involving plastic pellets were dealt with rapidly and effectively.
Cox said the IMO is exploring options for mandatory measures to eliminate pellet loss from ships. Meanwhile, the European Union is considering mandatory policy requirements for companies handling pellets to prevent loss to the environment.
Additionally, the U.N. Environment Assembly has adopted a landmark resolution to develop the world’s first Global Plastics Treaty that would aim to end plastic pollution through a legally binding international instrument that addresses the full life cycle of plastic, including its production, design and disposal.
“I think that the world is committed to start negotiating the Global Plastics Treaty — looking at tackling plastic pollution at all stages of its life cycle,” Cox said. “We all have a duty to do everything that can be done to prevent plastic pollution.”
According to Cox, dealing with pellet pollution is among the “low-hanging fruit” within a much bigger challenge of tackling global plastic pollution.
“This is an issue and a significant source of microplastic pollution, but it is a preventable one,” she said. “So let’s take steps today to prevent it while we deal with how to solve the other challenges.”
Banner image: An Atlantic grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) on a beach littered with plastic pellets in Norfolk, England, in January 2019. Image courtesy of Ed Marshall/Fauna & Flora International.
Related reading:
In ocean biodiversity hotspots, microplastics come with the currents

Citations:
Fauna & Flora International. (2022). Stemming the tide: putting an end to plastic pellet pollution. Retrieved from https://www.fauna-flora.org/app/uploads/2022/09/FF_Plastic_Pellets_Report-2.pdf
Tanchuling, M. A., & Osorio, E. D. (2020). The microplastics in Metro Manila rivers: Characteristics, sources, and abatement. The Handbook of Environmental Chemistry, 405-426. doi:10.1007/698_2020_659
Palermo, J.D.H., Labrador, K.L., Follante, J.D., Agmata, A.B., Pante, M.J.R., Rollon, R.N., & David, L.T. (2020). Susceptibility of Sardinella lemuru to emerging marine microplastic pollution. Global Journal of Environmental Science and Management, 6(3): 373-384. doi:10.22034/gjesm.2020.03.07

Coastal Ecosystems, Conservation, Environment, Environmental Law, Governance, Marine, Marine Conservation, Marine Crisis, Marine Ecosystems, Microplastics, Oceans, Plastic, Pollution, Research, Water Pollution
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Coffee capsules: Brewing up an (in)convenient storm of waste

Coffee capsules are now ubiquitous: By 2025, the global market for the product is expected to grow to more than $29 billion.These mostly plastic pods are currently popular in Europe and North America, but research predicts their popularity is likely to grow in markets in Asia, particularly China and South Korea.As the global market for coffee capsules grows, so does the waste associated with it: The global footprint of annual coffee capsule waste is about 576,000 metric tons — the combined weight of about 4,400 school buses.Responding to pressure from environmental campaigns like “Kill the K-Cup,” coffee companies have developed capsules made from aluminum or compostable fiber; but progress to ensure that coffee pods don’t contribute to more pollution is still moving at a glacial pace. In 2015, an anonymous user posted a video on YouTube titled “Kill the K-cup.” In shaky footage, the video shows a city overrun by a monster composed of coffee capsules, interspersed with warnings that there are enough K-cups to circle the Earth more than 12 times. “Kill the K-Cup before it kills our planet,” the video warns. After the release of the video, the inventor of Keurig’s K-Cups admitted that he “feels bad sometimes” about creating coffee pods, given their environmental impact.
Coffee capsules are now ubiquitous. By 2025, the global market for the K-Cup and other kinds of coffee capsules is expected to be worth more than $29 billion. More than 40% of U.S. households owned a coffee pod machine in 2020, and in the U.K., the statistics are similar. Coffee capsules are popular in Europe and North America, but research predicts they are likely to spread to markets in Asia next, particularly China and South Korea.
The market for coffee capsules is growing, and waste grows with it. The global footprint of coffee capsule waste is about 576,000 metric tons — the combined weight of about 4,400 school buses. Responding to pressure from environmental campaigns like “Kill the K-Cup,” coffee companies have developed new capsules to move away from plastic, like Nespresso’s aluminum capsules and compostable fiber pods. But progress to ensure that coffee capsules don’t contribute to more pollution is still moving at a glacial pace.

‘A lie built upon a lie’
Keurig, the company responsible for producing K-cups, announced in 2021 that it had converted all its pods from a kind of plastic that’s nearly impossible to recycle to polypropylene, which is recyclable. Consumers are asked to peel the lid off a used capsule, empty the coffee grounds, and deposit the plastic capsules into their recycling bins, which, depending on where they live, are then sent to local recycling facilities. In small print, Keurig adds an important clarification: “check locally, not recycled in all communities.”
A Keurig “K-Cup”. Image by Jan Dell.
The problem is that while some people might put their coffee capsules in their recycling bins, most recycling facilities, called material recovery facilities, or MRFs, are not equipped to sort items smaller than 7.5 centimeters (3 inches). According to a new report by Greenpeace, only one MRF in the U.S. accepts coffee pods made out of polypropylene.
Halo, a competitor of Keurig that sells compostable coffee capsules, estimates that 39,000 capsules are produced every minute globally, and up to 29,000 of these end up in landfills — what it calls an “insane” state of affairs. Small plastics like coffee pods, according to some estimates, can take up to 500 years to decompose in landfills, where they leach chemicals into land and water. In Brazil, only 11% of used capsules were sent to recycling facilities in 2017; while in Hamburg, Germany, coffee pods were banned in 2016 to limit waste and pollution.
Keurig says on its website that through testing with MRFs, it found that small plastics can be recovered, and their tests demonstrate that pods are not too small to be sorted with other plastic containers. Howard Hirsch, a public interest lawyer in California, says that “Big Plastic” — the fossil fuel companies that produce plastic — have sold people on the lie that companies don’t need to keep burning fossil fuels to create new plastics, and that old plastics can be recycled to create new products. “The whole thing is just a lie built upon a lie,” Hirsch says.
In a recent settlement of a class-action lawsuit, Keurig Green Mountain has agreed to pay $10 million to settle the claim that Keurig misled consumers to believe its K-cup pods are recyclable. While Keurig did not admit to anything wrong, as part of the settlement it has agreed to revise its labeling for K-Cup pods, which will now say in larger font: “Check Locally — Not Recycled in Many Communities.”
“We can’t say we won on the merits of the case,” says Hirsch, the lawyer who brought the class-action lawsuit on behalf of consumers in the U.S. “But we can claim victory in so far as we got Keurig to improve the labeling of the products and put up $10 million. I think it sends a strong message to other companies that they should be truthful and accurate in the way they describe the recyclability of their products.”
In early 2022, Keurig Canada also agreed to pay a C$3 million ($2.2 million) penalty for “making false or misleading claims that its single-use K-Cup pods can be recycled.” Keurig did not respond to requests for an interview for this article.
The European Union proposed a new set of rules in November 2022 to drastically cut packaging waste, including coffee pods. The new rules, which still have to be approved by the EU member states and the European Parliament, will require that all packaging be designed in a recyclable way, and companies should ensure it is “recycled at scale“ in reality by 2035.

Are aluminum capsules the answer?
In a paid commercial for Nestlé’s Nespresso brand, George Clooney claims “the sustainability program with Nespresso is surpassed by no one … if you are responsible and want to participate in truly recycling, it’s very easy to do.”
To appeal to eco-friendly consumers, companies like Nespresso started selling aluminum coffee capsules. Nespresso offers recycling bags that coffee drinkers can mail back to Nespresso’s boutiques or their own recycling facility, where it ostensibly “goes back into the aluminum value chain.”
Discarded coffee capsules. Image by Karsten Seiferlin via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).
In the U.S., Nespresso teamed up with the New York City Department of Sanitation and Sims Municipal Recycling so New Yorkers can deposit their Nespresso capsules in their curbside recycling bins. It’s a selling point for Nespresso, but it’s difficult to verify the claims of sustainability.
City contractor Sims runs an MRF in Brooklyn that sorts residential recyclable waste, the stuff that New Yorkers put in blue recycling bins. The city sends all the recyclables from homes and public schools to the facility, which is situated rent-free in an old New York Police Department compound. The facility hums with the sound of breaking glass and a sea of moving metal, plastic and waste being shuffled and sorted together.
Kara Napolitano, the outreach and education coordinator at Sims Municipal Recycling, says the facility has used the $1.2 million from Nespresso to develop specialized equipment that can both sort the small aluminum capsules from other waste and remove coffee grounds in the capsules using a shredder. For smelters to buy used aluminum, coffee grounds need to be separated from the aluminum capsules.
Since coffee capsules are smaller than 5 cm (2 in), the company says, they get mixed with the glass recovery stream. This waste stream is sent to a glass-processing facility where glass is separated using optical sorters, and specialized equipment such as an eddy current separate non-ferromagnetic metals like aluminum.
Small plastic pods are not recycled. “No one will buy small plastics, so we can’t invest in a sore thumb,” Napolitano says. The company declined requests to visit the glass facility where it says the aluminum capsules are sorted, nor did it share data on how many aluminum capsules are being captured.
“We don’t have public information on that data … I wonder if Nespresso will share this data at some point,” Napolitano adds.
Nespresso says its global recycling rate for capsules at the end of 2020 was 32%. But these estimates are not independently verified.
Nespresso says it recycled 32% of its capsules globally in 2020. Image by Elham Shabahat.
Nespresso denied requests for interviews and visits to the facility that recycles capsules. Nespresso also did not provide statistics about its most recent recycling rate for aluminum coffee capsules. James Hoffman, author of “The World Atlas of Coffee,” has described Nespresso as “a black box of a company.”
“The back end of recycling systems is non-transparent,” says Jan Dell, independent chemical engineer and founder of The Last Beach Cleanup, a nonprofit that seeks to end plastic pollution. “Companies should be required to prove that products are actually being recycled before they claim recyclability.”

Which is better: coffee pods or drip coffee?
Coffee companies like Nespresso and Keurig often refer to assessments that suggest the environmental impact of capsules is lower than drip or filter coffee. Greenhouse gas emissions, water and fertilizer use occur primarily where coffee is grown. Brewing coffee can be energy-intensive, especially if people make more coffee than necessary or keep their pot warm for a long time. This is why, according to research commissioned by Nespresso and conducted by Quantis, an environmental consultancy, drip coffee fares worse.
“What the studies show is that the capsule or the packaging is only a small part of the impact,” says Sebastien Hubert, scientific director at Quantis. “The biggest source of impact is producing the coffee. The public perception is often focused on the packaging because that’s what people see in the garbage. There is a cognitive bias … people underestimate the impact of agriculture and overestimate the impact of packaging.”
Scientific literature is divided on the issue. Some peer-reviewed research argues that farming, brewing and packaging of coffee are the most energy intensive processes. But other research also suggests that production and packaging of aluminum or plastic capsules can have higher environmental impacts compared to French press or drip coffee. Another study looking at data from Campinas and São Paulo states in Brazil found that aluminum and plastic capsules use the most energy and water, and generate the most waste compared to other ways of brewing coffee.
Waste and disposal of coffee packaging have significant impacts on carbon footprint. Research looking at coffee consumption in Thailand found that disposal of coffee and its packaging also affects toxicity in freshwater and marine ecosystems. Scientists say there aren’t enough studies or solutions that look at what to do with used coffee capsules, at least in relation to recycling and environmental impact.
Research on coffee consumption in Thailand found the disposal of coffee and its packaging affected toxicity in freshwater and marine ecosystems. (Photo: Goldman Environmental Prize)
Alfred Hill, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Bath, U.K., says there is a lack of data on the merits of coffee capsules over other forms of brewed coffee, based on his research. “There were some preliminary results, but nothing has been peer reviewed or published,” Hill tells Mongabay in an email. “At present there is simply not enough data to assert any claims.”
According to Hubert, life cycle assessments are mostly focused on greenhouse gas emissions, but other impacts matter too. Coffee capsules are made from virgin aluminum. It can take twice as much energy to produce aluminum as opposed to plastic. Mining the bauxite ore to produce aluminum has significant negative impacts. Producing a ton of aluminum can generate 10 to 12 tons of waste, including 3 tons of toxic red mud. Aluminum mining is also associated with human rights violations, deforestation, pollution and poverty in the Brazilian Amazon, Papua New Guinea, India, and elsewhere.
Nespresso did not comment on how many of its capsules are currently produced using recycled aluminum.

The future of coffee pods
While aluminum and plastic capsules remain the most popular containers, compostable coffee pods have entered the market, which some scientists view as a positive step. Compostable coffee pods can be made from plant fibers (like sugarcane bagasse), bamboo or paper — all biodegradable material that people can send to a municipal composting facility or throw in a compost pile at home. Research finds that compostable coffee pods are the least harmful, compared to aluminum and plastic capsules.
But compostable coffee pods are not an easy panacea to the waste problem. Not every industrial composting facility is equipped to deal with biodegradable packaging. Reusable pods are another option, but people prefer the convenience of single-use pods.
Hubert suggests buying organic coffee, reducing energy use while making coffee, and pressuring companies to recycle are the best ways for consumers to influence the industry.
Piotr Barczak, a circular economy expert at the European Environmental Bureau, a network of 180 environmental citizens’ organizations, says focusing on consumer action is the wrong approach.
“It’s not correct to blame consumers for emissions or wastage,” Barczak says. Coffee companies could incentivize people who return capsules for recycling through a refundable deposit fee, he suggests. “These companies benefit from a lack of governance, [weak] environmental policies, a lack of enforcement, and they make huge profits — at the expense of both the environment and people.”
“Companies shouldn’t be making these things, period,” says Dell, the chemical engineer. “They need to innovate better solutions and better material … like fiber and paper.”

Citations:
Maciejewski, G., & Mokrysz, S. (2020). New trends in consumption on the coffee market. Scientific Journals of the Warsaw University of Life Sciences, European Policies, Finance and Marketing, 22(71), 132-143. doi:10.22630/PEFIM.2019.22.71.31
Marinello, S., Balugani, E., & Gamberini, R. (2021). Coffee capsule impacts and recovery techniques: A literature review. Packaging Technology and Science, 34(11-12), 665-682. doi:10.1002/pts.2606
Domingues, M. L. B., Bocca, J. R., Fávaro, S. L., & Radovanovic, E. (2020). Disposable coffee capsules as a source of recycled polypropylene. Polímeros, 30(1). doi:10.1590/0104-1428.05518
Hassard, H., Couch, M., Techa-erawan, T., & McLellan, B. (2014). Product carbon footprint and energy analysis of alternative coffee products in Japan. Journal of Cleaner Production, 73, 310-321. doi:10.1016/j.jclepro.2014.02.006
Brommer, E., Stratmann, B., & Quack, D. (2011). Environmental impacts of different methods of coffee preparation. International Journal of Consumer Studies, 35(2), 212-220. doi:10.1111/j.1470-6431.2010.00971.x
de Figueiredo Tavares, M. P., & Mourad, A. L. (2020). Coffee beverage preparation by different methods from an environmental perspective. The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment, 25(7), 1356-1367. doi:10.1007/s11367-019-01719-2
Phrommarat, B. (2019). Life cycle assessment of ground coffee and comparison of different brewing methods: A case study of organic arabica coffee in northern Thailand. The Environment and Natural Resources Journal, 17(2), 96-108. doi:10.32526/ennrj.17.2.2019.16
Kooduvalli, K., Vaidya, U. K., & Ozcan, S. (2020). Life cycle assessment of compostable coffee pods: A US university based case study. Scientific Reports, 10(1). doi:10.1038/s41598-020-65058-1
Soares, A. P. S., Mothé, C. G., & Mothé, M. G. (2021). Comparative life cycle assessment of coffee capsule recycling process and its composites reinforced with natural fibers. Journal of Polymers and the Environment, 30(4), 1380-1390. doi:10.1007/s10924-021-02282-4
Tonelli, A., Mosna, D., & Vignali, G. (2018). Comparative life cycle assessment of different packaging systems for coffee capsules. Proceedings of the 4th International Food Operations and Processing Simulation Workshop (FoodOPS 2018), 1-9. doi:10.46354/i3m.2018.foodops.001
Samoggia, A., & Riedel, B. (2018). Coffee consumption and purchasing behavior review: Insights for further research. Appetite, 129, 70-81. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2018.07.002

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Banner image: A selection of Nespresso coffee capsules. Image by Wany Bae via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Is there a practical way to utilize mixed “plastic waste?

Most of the “recyclable” plastic we all use ends up in the landfill. Its a logistics and economics problem. There needs to be a better way to handle this massive waste stream. A company called CRDC Global may have a viable solution.

Plastics play a wide range of crucial roles in modern society, but they also represent a major waste disposal challenge. Particularly when it comes to consumer packaged goods (CPG) the practical reality is that only a small fraction of the plastic is actually recycled, and a great deal ends up going to landfills or to even more undesirable “end of life” scenarios such as incineration or release into the environment. The problem was exacerbated in 2018 when China stopped accepting this waste for hand sorting. There are many positive strategies being implemented to deal with this waste crisis including better collection in the developing world, decomposable alternative materials, and fully sorted collection of plastics at the business-level. There is also a new technology based on hyperspectral imaging which can differentiate the various clear or plastics based on how they “look” at light wavelengths outside of the visible range.

There is another innovative alternative that is gaining momentum because it addresses the sorting challenge and also provides a positive value proposition. CRDC Global has developed a way to turn mixed plastic waste into a synthetic lightweight aggregate, a substitute for the sand used in making concrete and asphalt. This option benefits from a geographic alignment between where plastic waste is generated and where most construction is underway – major population centers. From a business perspective this is a push/pull scenario – the CPG industry needs a plastic waste solution, and the construction industry needs an alternative to sand.
If you look on the bottom or side of “recyclable” plastic containers there is a number between 1 and 7. In terms of recycling, only “1s” and “2s” (PET and HDPE) are practical candidates for recycling into new containers and there is an almost zero tolerance for any mixing of types or contamination with labels or organic matter. Plastics marked “3” to “6” are of minimal value for re-use and “7” stands for “other” and has essentially no value. CRDC has developed a process that can take a mixed load including all these plastic categories and turn it into a new plastic resin. The process is the “brainchild” of CEO Donald Thomson. Ross Gibby, COO, creatively named its output “RESIN8.”
RESIN8 Process: mixed plastic waste (upper left), chopped and ground (upper right), heated and … [+] extruded (lower left), combined with cement to make concrete blocks (lower right)Images from CRDC Global, composite by author

The process is as follows: the mixed plastics are chopped, shredded and granulated into small flakes which can include a reasonable degree of organic contamination (e.g. the residue left in a bottle of ketchup or a peanut butter container). At that stage some naturally occurring minerals are added – similar to those that are used for “liming” of agricultural soils. That mixture is melted and extruded as a foam which hardens to something akin to a plastic lava rock. It is finally ground into granules the size and gradation of fine sand. That material can then be added to cement at a ration of 2% to 25% to make concrete for anything from pre-formed blocks to poured structures or surfaces. High quality sand is a scarce resource in many regions, and it is very expensive to transport. A local alternative is a very attractive concept for the construction industry as long as it is functionally and visually equivalent. The RESIN8 concrete checks all those boxes. Not only that, concrete made with RESIN8 has several advantages compared to conventional concrete. It is lighter weight; it provides higher thermal insulation, and it absorbs more noise. It is just as strong and long-lasting. At the end of its useful life, concrete made with RESIN8 can be recycled to be used as aggregate in new concrete.

CRDC execs with community leaders and industry partnersPhoto via CRDC Global
CRDC Global started with seed capital and through loans from the Alliance To End Plastic Waste and its CEO Donald Thompson is motivated by his desire to leave a better world for his grandchildren. They have now shifted to a mix of family office and institutional investors. They have set up 6 small scale facilities during a proof of concept stage, and currently have three large scale facilities running in Pennsylvania, Costa Rica and South Africa. Their vision is to have 20 sites operating within 3 years each producing around 20 thousand tons of synthetic aggregate sand substitute every year.The CRDC Global RESIN8 production plant in PennsylvaniaPhoto via CRDC Global
The company has a global action plan and its board includes individuals from around the globe who meet via Zoom. 27 different countries have expressed interest in starting to use the technology. There is also on-going research about the process at universities in the United States, Costa Rica, South Africa, the UK and Australia.
CRDC Global is cooperating with a major cleanup project in Alaska which has a huge problem with plastic waste, mostly from Asia, crossing the ocean and ending up on that state’s 33 thousand miles of coastline. There is an excellent video presentation about this GoAK project.
There are several models for how this can work. Existing trash hauling players can divert either all their plastic or plastics 3-7 to a CRDC site. They have also worked with a direct consumer connection they called “The Bag That Builds”, often through presentations at schools through which they find motivated children and “soccer moms” and dads who like the idea of helping with the problem. The slogan they teach potential helpers is that most plastic will end up meeting one of three fates– “burnt, buried or built” with the later being a much better outcome.Consumer filled “Bag that Builds” collection sitePhoto via CRDC Global
These voluntary participants are supplied with a supply of labeled green bags which these consumers can bring it to collection points – either by bagging all plastics together or better yet separating out easily identifiable 1s and 2s for one bag and another with any other kind of plastic everything. In the later scenario CRDC is able to generate income through true recycling of the 1s and 2s to help pay for the overall collection system. Consumers are easily trained to accurately identify things that are made of plastic, and in the process, they get a feeling for just how much plastic they need/use. The CRDC process can use things other than CPG containers, in fact the entire post consumer thermoplastic waste stream. Even the foil/plastic used as a wrapper for something like a granola bar can be handled within this system. “Compostable” plastics or fully biodegradable ones will likely be eliminated during the high heat step but can also be part of RESIN8 if they persist.
If this approach is greatly expanded, it could provide a better end of life alternative for the majority of plastics because there is so much potential demand from the construction side.