TRENTON, Maine — At the height of tourist season, the recycling bins in this coastal town used to swell with glass and plastic, office paper and piles of cardboard from the local boatyard. But the bins are gone, and their contents now join the trash, destined either for an incinerator to generate electricity or a landfill.Trenton is one of many Maine towns that had to cut back or close their recycling operations after events both global and local. In 2018, China, which used to take much of America’s plastic waste, banned most of those imports. Last year, a plant in Hampden, Maine, that promised to provide state-of-the-art recycling for more than 100 municipalities shut down.With mountains of boxes and bubble wrap from online pandemic shopping now going in the trash, lawmakers are trying to make Maine the first state to shift some of the costs of its recycling onto companies — not taxpayers. If the bipartisan bill passes, Maine will join several Canadian provinces, including neighboring Quebec, and all European countries, which have for decades relied on so-called extended producer responsibility programs, or EPR, for packaging.“It’s good that the bottom fell out,” said state Rep. Nicole Grohoski (D-Ellsworth), the bill’s Democratic sponsor, whose district includes Trenton. She doesn’t think the old system of shipping products halfway around the world to China makes sense as countries try to reduce their carbon footprints.“We have to face this problem and use our own ingenuity to solve it,” Grohoski said.The proposed legislation, which is vehemently opposed by representatives for Maine’s retail and food producing industries, would charge large packaging producers for collecting and recycling materials as well as for disposing of non-recyclable packaging. The income generated would be reimbursed to communities like Trenton to support their recycling efforts. EPR programs already exist in many states for a variety of toxic and bulky products including pharmaceuticals, batteries, paint, carpet and mattresses. At least a dozen states, from New York to California and Hawaii, have been working on similar bills for packaging.“Ten years ago, this would have been unthinkable,” said Dylan de Thomas, vice president of external affairs at the Recycling Partnership, who said he is seeing far more openness to EPR bills from such corporate giants as Coca-Cola and Unilever than in the past.“It’s a reflection of the pressure they are seeing from corporate investors,” said de Thomas, who anticipates there may be similar shifts in national policies.“That’s the big enchilada,” he said.EPR programs for packaging, which accounts for about 40 percent of the municipal waste stream, have worked well in other countries, said Scott Cassel, CEO of the Product Stewardship Institute, who said benefits include new jobs as well as reinforcing the circular economy — or continual reuse of resources.“These are tried-and-true strategies,” he said. “None of these first bills will be perfect. But this is a path that we need to start down in the U.S.”In Maine, the bill’s opponents raise concerns about the logistics retailers might face policing the new policies and the potential for food costs to rise for consumers who are just emerging from the pandemic. They cite a study from Toronto’s York University, which analyzed New York’s EPR bill and estimated an additional $36 to $57 per month in grocery costs for the average family of four. EPR advocates contest those findings, saying there is little evidence of significant costs ending up with consumers in other countries.For many rural Mainers who don’t enjoy the benefits of free curbside waste collection, the debate over recycling seems irrelevant. They haul their own trash to transfer stations to avoid the $6 weekly charge for having it collected.“I’ve never been one to recycle,” said Penny Lyons, a Trenton resident, although her family has a stash of bottles and other beverage containers on a flatbed trailer that can be turned in for cash. Her husband, who works in car sales, is able to dispose of their solid waste at work, she said.Chocolate maker Kate McAleer, who owns Bixby & Co., said that to follow federal food safety guidelines her company uses metalized film that is a challenge to recycle but protects against pests, air, sunlight and tampering. Changing that would affect her products’ shelf life.She said legislators don’t understand the complexity of food safety. “I think they think there are solutions that there aren’t,” Bixby said.Christine Cummings, executive director of the Maine Grocers and Food Producers Association, said her primary concern is “the unknowns” for businesses in a state that sits at the end of distribution routes and relies heavily on incoming goods.“What is this going to do on our supply chain?” she asked.Grohoski dismisses such concerns.“We won’t be out on a limb for long,” she said, anticipating that if her bill passes, other states will soon follow suit.In the meantime, some communities are paying a premium to continue recycling programs by shipping materials south to Portland, the state’s biggest city. Others are devising ways to process and sell recyclable materials.In Unity, about 90 miles north of Portland, Steve Wright and Jeff Reynolds are running an eight-town sorting operation, feeding paper and plastics into giant green balers and glass into a machine that grinds bottles into a glistening powder that can be used for insulating boxes around lithium batteries or with aggregate to make driveways.Each of the surrounding towns pays according to its population — Unity has 2,000 residents — and individuals from further away can join for an annual fee of $30.The pandemic has increased the piles of cardboard, particularly from pet owners leery of going inside stores, Wright sad..“We’ve seen a lot more Chewy boxes,” said Wright.The operation is powered by 40 solar panels and has room to expand — particularly if the EPR goes through.“We have to move now,” said state Rep. Stanley Paige Ziegler (D-Montville), whose district includes Unity and who has worked alongside Grohoski to advance the EPR bill.Sarah Nichols, Sustainable Maine director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, sees the bill as the logical next step for a state that has led the way in environmental policies. Maine passed one of the first bottle bills in the 1970s and in 2004 the first laws requiring manufacturers to pay the entire cost of recycling computers and televisions. In 2019, the legislature passed the nation’s first statewide ban on Styrofoam food containers that will soon go into effect.“Maine is seen as a national leader in environmental policy,” Nichols said. “That’s why people move here and visit. It’s part of our state’s personality.”Nichols points out that Department of Environmental Protection estimates show it can cost 67 percent more to recycle than dispose of packaging. Taxpayers pay at least $16 million annually to manage packaging material through recycling or disposal — costs they have no control over.Nichols argues that the EPR bill would give manufacturers an incentive to reduce packaging and design it so it is more easily recycled.Old recycling habits die hard at the transfer station in Southwest Harbor, which takes Trenton’s trash. The facility, with its stunning views over the forested slopes of Acadia National Park, goes by the name EMR, or Eastern Maine Recycling — an echo of what used to happen here.Residents drive up to pitch their waste into bays still bearing green signs reminding them of the old days when they sorted their waste: Glass, tin, aluminum and plastic in one; magazines, catalogues and other paper goods in another.The baler that used to package up paper hasn’t been used for a couple of years, said the site’s owner, Mark Worcester. Instead, Worcester is sending out a 25-30 ton container of trash — sometimes two — every day, usually to be incinerated for electricity.“We get tons and tons of cardboard,” Worcester said.On a busy Saturday morning, car after car pulled up loaded with packaging materials, folded ready for the recycling that would not happen.“It’s a reflex,” said Jon Zeitler, as he broke down a box and chucked it into the bay that used to be for paper goods.”Mentally, I have to,” said Jonathan Quebben as he, in turn, pitched his cardboard in.Susan Raven, a third-grade teacher, said she has made a point of telling her students how to be responsible custodians of the earth. But it’s hard for them to put that into practice, she said, as she pulled out of her car’s trunk the plastic boxes her family of four always used to sort their recycling and then pitched it all into the trash.“We can’t break the habit,” she said.
Since the early 1950s, the world has created 8.3 billion tonnes of plastics, with most of it now languishing in landfill or the environment. The weight alone is equivalent to one billion elephants, according to a 2017 study published in the journal Science Advances.Despite this, the petrochemical industry, home to the world’s favourite fossil fuel giants such as ExxonMobil, Dow Chemical, Chevron and Shell, plans to double plastics production over the next 20 years, and according to a 2020 report from Carbon Tracker, will be investing $400 billion in the next five years alone.
Carbon Tracker estimates that as a result, “the carbon footprint of plastics [will] double by the middle of the century to around 3.5 gigatonnes”. This is completely at odds with the Paris Agreement, which requires global CO2 emissions to halve by 2030.This infographic from the Carbon Tracker report illustrates the costs to society of virgin plastics production:
Recycling or greenwashing?
Even though less than 10% of all the plastic produced since the 1950s has been recycled, still the government and industry focus on recycling as the solution to tackling the mountain of waste.
Jane Bremmer, the secretary of Zero Waste Australia and campaign director for the National Toxics Network told MWM that this was simply greenwashing.
“Industry is selling plastic recycling to the world as the solution … but they know full well this is greenwashing designed to maintain business as usual as they drip feed relatively small quantities of recycled plastic into the virgin feedstocks.”
Take PET (primarily plastic drink bottles) plastic, which is the easiest of all plastics to recycle. Even so it cannot compete with virgin plastic because it is between 83% and 93% more expensive to recycle into a new bottle than to produce a new one from raw materials. A 2019 Greenpeace report notes that “half of the PET sold is never collected for recycling, and only 7% of those bottles collected for recycling are turned into new bottles”.
Plastic waste in Australia
As outlined in Australia’s 2020 National Waste Report, the price of virgin plastic has fallen substantially, which has flow-on effects for the commercial viability of recycling plants.
For most recycling companies, “the money they can make from kerbside recycling will now be less than the cost of providing the service”. According to the most recent ‘Australian Plastics Recycling Survey’, in 2018-19, Australia recovered just 11.5% of the 3.5 million tonnes of plastics it consumed that year. Consumption of plastics was also the highest it has been in the last five years:
The recycling survey report issues four key findings:
A total of 3.5 million tonnes of plastics were consumed in Australia;
Some 393,800 tonnes of plastics were recovered, including 72,000 tonnes sent to energy recovery;
the national plastics recovery rate was 11.5%; and
of the 393,800 tonnes of plastics collected for reprocessing, 203,100 tonnes (52%) was reprocessed in Australia and 190,700 tonnes (48%) was exported for reprocessing.
The chart below breaks down the consumption rates and recovery rates of plastics in 2018-19 into the main industry sectors.
Consumer packaging was the largest user of plastics, and although recycling rates in this sector were the second-highest, they were still just a paltry 27%.
The automotive industry recycled a tiny 1.9 per cent, while the electrical and electronics recycling rate was only marginally higher at 4.5%.
Levies on plastics producers
The Minderoo Foundation, established by Australian businessman Andrew Forrest and wife Nicola, released a report in May which found that in 2019 just 20 companies “accounted for more than half of all single-use plastic waste generated globally – and the top 100 accounted for 90 per cent”. ExxonMobil generated the most waste, followed by Dow Chemical, Sinopec, Indorama Ventures and Saudi Aramco.
The report recommends a levy on the production of virgin plastics and the establishment of a global treaty to “address the problem at its source, with targets for the phasing out of fossil-fuel-based plastics”.
In its 2019 National Waste Policy Action Plan, the Federal Government announced plans to “stimulate demands for recycled materials relative to virgin materials” but did not provide any specific policies. Its 2021 National Plastics Plan pushed a similar line, prioritising recycling ahead of reducing production.
And while the Greens policy focuses on phasing out single-use plastics and encouraging consumers to buy less plastic, they too champion recycling ahead of levies on companies producing virgin plastic.
Saved by a Kit Kat
A spokesman for federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley told Michael West Media: “The Morrison Government is taking unprecedented action to manage plastic packaging waste so we can reduce its impact on the environment.”
This included targets to achieve 20 per cent average recycled content in plastic packaging by 2025.
The spokesman pointed to Nestle producing a Kit Kat wrapper from soft plastics collected through kerbside recycling.
In response, Jane Bremmer noted,
“It is simply disingenuous of the federal Environment Minister to suggest that Nestle’s new recycled Kit Kat wrapper is a game changer. Nestle is perpetuating a single use plastic packaging model through recycling soft plastics.
This tokenistic action by one of the biggest plastic polluters on the planet won’t be enough to address [the problem], for which they have played a major role in creating.”
The 2020 Break Free From Plastics report found Nestle was in the top three highest global plastic polluters for consumer brands for the third year in a row, alongside Coca-Cola and Pepsico.
Peak body sings Government’s praises
Unsurprisingly, industry peak body Australian Council of Recycling (ACOR) welcomed the Federal Government’s 2021 National Plastics Plan.
Asked whether levies should be introduced ACOR president Peter Tamblyn said this wouldn’t increase recovery rates.
“It’s more appropriate to [promote] the production of recyclable materials, to put a positive spin on things.
Tamblyn said ACOR had invested “$2 billion in new technologies [for recovery facilities] and more recycling infrastructure”. When asked how that would improve recycling rates, he said, “I haven’t got an answer for that … I don’t think there’s one thing that’s better than anything else.”
Tamblyn described an app ACOR will be releasing later this year that “helps people understand what [recycled waste] goes where” in regard to local council areas. However, these databases already exist.
He rejected the idea that there was little demand for recyclable goods compared with virgin plastics. “There’s a huge demand for recycled PET … we can’t get enough of it.”
The Louisiana Legislature has sent Gov. John Bel Edwards a bill that could double the punishment for people who fly drones over petrochemical facilities, pipelines or grain elevators. (“Drone and Moon” by Don McCullough is licensed under CC BY 2.0)
A bill that would increase penalties for flying drones above petrochemical facilities, pipelines and grain elevators is headed to Gov. John Bel Edwards’ desk for his signature.
HB265, by Rep. Ken Brass (D-Vacherie), increases the maximum fine for the second offense of flying a drone above critical infrastructure from $2,000 to $4,000 and increases the possible prison sentence from one year to two years. Jeff Hirsch, a lieutenant detective for the St. Charles Parish Sheriff’s Office, said that the threat from drones became evident in 2017.
That year, drones were seen flying over Dow Chemical and Occidental Chemical in St. Charles Parish, Hirsch said. The Sheriff’s Office researched equipment that could be used to detect the drones. Four antennas were installed in the parish last October to spot drones and identify pilots.
Since then, the Sheriff’s Office has detected 58,000 drones and has had conversations with 32 drone operators to inform them that they cannot fly over industrial facilities. “Everybody is surprised when we knock on their door, because they don’t think they can be found,” Hirsch said at a House Administration of Criminal Justice Committee meeting last month.
Many of the drone operators identified by officers have been young kids. “To date, we’ve only had one second offense, and the father sold the son’s drone,” he said. St. James Parish has also installed a drone detection system. “Essentially our goal is to have a net of protection that follows critical infrastructure along the Mississippi River,” Hirsch said.
There have been two arrests in St. James Parish that involved drone operators who continued to fly the unmanned aircraft over facilities after being told not to do so, Hirsch said. A first offense will remain a misdemeanor under HB 265. “We’re still defaulting more times than not to (believing) it was accidental,” he said.
In 2018, legislators passed a law adding pipelines to the list of infrastructure considered critical. Doing so increased the legal penalties for those who trespass, or protest near pipelines. At least 15 people have been booked with breaking the law: a journalist and 14 protesters. Some of them filed a lawsuit in 2019 challenging the law, arguing that it inhibits free speech. Last month, a federal judge allowed the challenge to move forward.
Bill Quigley, a professor at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law, is one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. “Felony prosecutions for sending a drone over grain elevators is ridiculous,” he said of HB 265.
The Louisiana Chemical Association, Louisiana Airport Managers and Associates, Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association, BASF and the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry supported the bill.
The Louisiana House passed the bill 98-0, and the Senate passed it 36-0.
A family leaves church in October, 1998, in Lions, Louisiana. Credit: Andrew Lichtenstein Getty ImagesAdvertisement
After four years of an agenda that favored polluters, a new day is dawning at the Department of the Interior. In March, communities across the country rejoiced in Secretary Deb Haaland’s historic confirmation to lead the biggest and most powerful land management agency in the country. Now, she’s taking the opportunity to pursue real reforms of the broken oil and gas leasing system that has prioritized fossil fuel CEOs for too long. The possibilities for a cleaner, more equitable future are before us.
This will not be easy, but it is possible. Already, the Biden administration has turned its attention to the broken federal oil and gas leasing program by pausing all new leases on public lands. While this pause is in effect, I implore Secretary Haaland and the Department of the Interior to undertake an environmental justice review of the leasing program in order to address the racial discrimination within oil and gas operations.
This review is an important first step in recognizing the injustices in the system, listening to the people who are impacted by them and hearing what their ideas are for reform. As the executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice (DSCEJ), I work with communities along the lower Mississippi River, between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, that are harmed by environmental racism and face serious health threats from the more than 100 polluting facilities that release a deadly cocktail of poison each day. Throughout my nearly 30 years in this work, I have witnessed how the oil and gas industry has dominated the Gulf Coast region at the expense of Black communities, engulfing our neighborhoods with massive amounts of toxic pollution from oil refining and manufacturing.
This pollution flows through our backyards, school grounds and recreation centers, threatening our access to clean air and water and jeopardizing our health. But all too often, the communities hit hardest by these dangers are ignored and left out of the conversation. We deserve better, and this leasing pause is the opportunity to give Secretary Haaland the chance to hear from us and to center justice and equity in reforms of the oil and gas program.
The environmental injustices our communities face are numerous. In 2019, the Environmental Protection Agency published a report that found the petroleum sector released over 11 million pounds of pollution in 25 Louisiana parishes, with many of these facilities operating in close proximity to Black residents. Within this pollution were chemicals widely known to cause cancer and damage heart and lung functions, making it difficult to breathe and often leading to premature death. And now, as studies show that air pollution exacerbates the impacts of the COVID-19 virus, the threat that oil and gas facilities pose to our communities is only being magnified.
Unfortunately, air pollution is not the only concern. In coastal communities, redlining, oil spills and offshore drilling add to racial inequality. Following the BP oil drilling disaster, massive amounts of oil waste were disposed of in landfills next to Black communities, jeopardizing our water supplies. And as offshore drilling continues, our coastlines are deteriorating, leaving many areas without natural defenses to extreme weather events. To make matters worse, greenhouse gas emissions from the oil and gas industry are massive contributors to the climate crisis, which disproportionately affects our communities where floods, heat waves and other climate-induced disasters have become the norm.
Communities in the Gulf Coast region are advocating for equitable energy solutions that create new, good-paying jobs, keep our air and water clean and our climate safe—but we need the support of the federal government. The existential threat of climate change and the troubling health disparities in Black communities are among the egregious impacts of reckless oil and gas development.
President Biden has made it clear that reforming the leasing system is a top priority for his administration. Now, with the leasing pause presenting an opportunity to complete a comprehensive review, it is imperative that the administration and Secretary Haaland join forces with us to prioritize an environmentally and economically just transition from fossil fuel development. We are counting on it.
This is an opinion and analysis article.
Rights & Permissions
ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)Beverly L. Wright, PhD., is the founder and executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. She is also an environmental justice scholar, author and professor of sociology.
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MANILA, Philippines — The Philippines was the largest contributing country to the plastic waste that reaches the ocean, with the Pasig River ranked as the most polluting river in the world, a study by a Dutch nonprofit showed.
According to a study of The Ocean Cleanup published in Sciences Advances last April, the Philippines is home to 28% of the rivers responsible for ocean plastic pollution.
The Philippines had 466 rivers out of the 1,656 rivers that accounted for nearly 80% of plastic inputs to the ocean.
The 27-kilometer Pasig River, which flows through the capital region, was identified as the most polluted by plastics.
In 2019, President Rodrigo Duterte abolished the Pasig River Rehabilitation Commission, which was tasked to ensure the rehabilitation of Pasig River to its “historically pristine condition conducive to transport, recreation, and tourism.”
Previous studies found the Yangtze River in China—the third longest in the world—as the highest plastic emitting river but it only ranked 64th in the recent study.
Other rivers in the Philippines that dumped the most amount trash and plastic into the ocean were the following:
Rio de Grande de Mindanao
Cagayan de Oro
Earlier studies ranked the largest rivers in the world as the top contributors to marine plastic pollution.
But The Ocean Clean study identified small and medium-sized rivers that flow through coastal cities in emerging economies as the most polluting.
“Coastal cities associated with urban drainage and paves surfaces presented the highest emission probabilities, particularly in regions with high precipitation rates,” the study read.
View the map here.
The Philippines, an archipelagic nation, was frequently listed among the top contributors to marine plastic pollution along with China, Vietnam and Indonesia.
Malacañang called the ranking of Pasig River a “badge of dishonor” that could prompt “radical” actions from the government to rehabilitate Pasig River.
The Climate Change Commission said the findings of the study raised “extreme concern” on the issue of mismanaged plastic waste in the country.
“[The study] supports the call of the commission for urgent efforts to solve the plastic crisis by implementing measures to regulate and in turn, halt the production of unnecessary plastics-made straws and stirrers, spoon and fork, and plastic labo, among others,” CCC said in a statement Wednesday.
The House of Representatives recently approved on second reading a bill which seeks to regulate the production, importation, sale, use and disposal of single-use plastic products. At the Senate, counterpart measures are still pending at the committee level.
In February, after 20 years, the National Solid Waste Management Commission included plastic soft drink straws and coffee stirrers in the list of non-environmentally acceptable products.
Plastics are very useful materials. They’ve contributed significant benefits to modern society. But the unprecedented amount of plastics produced over the past few decades has caused serious environmental pollution.
Packaging alone was responsible for 46% out of 340 million tonnes of plastic waste generated globally in 2018. Although plastic recycling has increased significantly in recent years, most plastics used today are single use, non-recyclable and non-biodegradable.
The demand for food will double by 2050. This will probably increase the amount of waste from food and its plastic packaging, putting poorer countries under tremendous pressure to manage waste disposal.
To tackle the issues of environmental damage, we need more sustainable materials that we can recycle or that biodegrade. There’s been a surge in plant-based plastics, but many of these can only be composted using industrial processes, not by people at home.
Now researchers at the University of Cambridge have found a way to make plastic from abundant and sustainable plant proteins. Inspired by spider silk, the film works in a way similar to other plastics, but it can be composted at home.
Types of plastic
Synthetic and non-biodegradable plastics commonly used for food packaging include polythene terephthalate (PET), polystyrene (PS) and crystalline polythene terephthalate (CPET).
There are some processes in place for disposing of PET – namely mechanical and chemical recycling techniques – but most plastic around the world is still sent to landfills. PET can take hundreds of years to decompose and it’s non-biodegradable. This means it can continue to pollute the ecosystem for many years.
Making plastic requires lots of energy. Then, when plastics are thrown away, they cause environmental damage, including global warming, greenhouse gas emissions and damage to marine life.
What happens to the plastic you recycle? Researchers lift the lid
On the other hand, there are some biodegradable plant-based plastics, such as polylactic acid (PLA), polybutylene succinate (PBS), polycaprolactone) (PCL) and polyhydroxyalkanotes (PHAs), which are friendlier to the environment than non-renewable polymers.
PLA polymers are produced from renewable resources and have the advantage of being recyclable and compostable. This makes PLA a much more environmentally friendly material than PET, PS and CPET. However, their long-term durability and stability are lower than their synthetic counterparts.
The new material
The new research has investigated the potential use of a biodegradable and renewable polymer, such as soy protein, to make a new material that could be an alternative to other plant-based plastics.
The researchers created a plant-based plastic and added nanoparticles – particles smaller than one millionth of a metre. This meant they could control the structure of the material to create flexible films, with a material that looks like spider silk on a molecular level. They’ve called it a “vegan spider silk”.
The new material in action.
The team used various techniques, including scanning electron microscopy and transmission electron microscopy to study the structure of the film.
They analysed important properties, such as barrier properties and moisture absorption. They found the nanoparticles helped to increase the various properties – strength and long-term durability and stability – significantly.
By creating a plastic with a more environmentally friendly manufacturing process, made from sustainable materials itself, a significant amount of energy can be saved. This is one of the most exciting parts of this study.
This new material could help solve some of the problems that plastic pollution has caused to the environment – by introducing a material from renewable source with enhanced properties suitable for many engineering applications, including packaging.
The study could help to scale up the production of sustainable packaging materials, using natural resources and less energy consumption, while reducing the amount of plastic going into landfill.
It’s both durable and strong, but also easily breaks down in nature—unlike some other “compostable” plastics.
When it’s no longer needed, the plastic starts eating itself from the inside.
[Photo: Adam Lau/Berkeley Engineering]