Biden Administration to support efforts to create a circular economy

By Will Atwater

Distance runners must develop two critical traits: mental toughness and the ability to focus on the big picture when obstacles such as fatigue set in. These are characteristics that runner and problem-solver Crystal Dreisbach has found valuable in her career tackling environmental issues.

Dreisbach is involved in a decade-long marathon to establish in Durham something called a  circular economy, which would divert plastic and other waste from landfills and local waterways. She draws parallels between distance running and her environmental work.

“[If] I hit a wall at mile 18 or whatever,” she said, “I know from experience that I’m going to feel like I’m done … But if I just push through that wall, when I get to the other side, I’ll feel better. So it’s like the knowledge that if you overcome a challenge, it is better on the other side. Just keep going.”

The Environmental Protection Agency defines a circular economy as one that “keeps materials, products and services in circulation for as long as possible” to slow climate change. If fewer single-use materials, such as plastics, are produced, it lowers CO2 emission from fossil fuels used to make plastics, and it reduces emissions from plastic waste decomposition. 

At this stage in the race, Dreisbach is garnering support for an ordinance that would reduce plastic waste in Durham by imposing a 10 cent fee per bag paid by retail customers needing  bags for purchases. If established, Dreisbach believes the regulation will reduce the plastic waste polluting the environment — including on the land, in waterways and in the bodies of marine animals and people.

And she’s getting a boost from the federal government. On April 21, the Biden administration published a draft plan for reducing plastic waste at the source, cleaning up the recycling process and removing litter from the environment. The administration’s action signals that the federal government is ready to lead in addressing this environmental challenge.

Finding the money 

Despite the daunting task she’s taken on, Dreisbach is willing to share her vision with anyone who’ll listen. She recently traveled to Washington, D.C., where she spoke to an engaged audience for an Earth Day event titled “From Single-use to Reuse: The Growing Reuse Movement.” 

The World Wildlife Fund and Upstream, an organization that works with businesses and institutions to eliminate waste, organized the event. It was attended by more than 100 people, including representatives from federal agencies. 

Crystal Dreisbach, founder of Don’t Waste Durham, talks with students about the benefits of a circular economy, including eliminating single-use plastic waste. Credit: Don’t Waste Durham

“This is the first time in my career [that] we put out our recycling strategy the same day that we got funding in the bipartisan infrastructure law,” said Nena Shaw, EPA acting director, resource conservation and sustainability division. “The president signed it, and we have support from industry and nonprofits and others that are all trying to work towards the same end.”

Dr. Priscilla Johnson, interim CEO at Upstream, says there’s an opportunity to reduce plastic waste and boost local economies by creating jobs and adopting a circular economy, which the federal government can support.

“I think funding is the biggest barrier,” she said, “so the federal government’s role in catalyzing private industries, like banks, to direct their funding to these types of efforts that solve systemic problems [is needed]. When you look at how plastic and plastics are manufactured, they have a deleterious upstream effect on the most vulnerable communities. And that happens throughout the entire world.”

Curbing waste is also on the minds of North Carolina lawmakers. In February, NC Health News  reported on the NC Managing Waste Act of 2023. The bill, introduced by Rep. Harry Warren (R-Salisbury), seeks to reduce the amount of non-recyclable waste generated by state agencies.

A race we must win

Oceana, an organization that states its mission is to “protect the world’s oceans,” says it’s critical for humanity to address the global plastic pollution problem. 

“Plastic is everywhere. It’s choking our oceans, melting out of Arctic sea ice, sitting at the deepest point of the seafloor, and raining onto our national parks,” reads a statement on the organization’s website. “It’s in the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. It’s greatly contributing to the climate crisis and disproportionately polluting communities of color and low-income communities ….” 

Oceana reports that roughly 33 billion pounds of plastic is deposited into the ocean annually. More than 14.5 million tons of plastic debris were dumped in landfills in 2018, according to the EPA, and a 2021 UN Environment Programme report states that the annual global cost associated with plastic pollution was $19 billion in 2018.  

A 2019 study commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund found that humans digest roughly 5 grams, or a credit-card size amount, of microplastics weekly. While there is no consensus on whether there is a link between microplastic ingestion and human disease, research is underway. One study found that people with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) had a higher quantity of microplastic particles in their feces than healthy people. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis are two forms of IBD.

Plastic waste that is not recycled often ends up in landfills and releases greenhouse gases as it breaks down into smaller particles. Greenhouse gases trap heat in the atmosphere and contribute to global warming. 

And due to the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, it’s highly likely “that at least one of the next five years, and the five-year period as a whole, will be the warmest on record,” according to a recently released report by the World Meteorological Organization. 

“This report does not mean that we will permanently exceed the 1.5°C level specified in the Paris Agreement, which refers to long-term warming over many years. However, WMO is sounding the alarm that we will breach the 1.5°C level on a temporary basis with increasing frequency,” said WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas.

A 2016 EPA climate indicator report states that people 65 and older, African Americans and children are more susceptible to heat-related illnesses and deaths than the general population.

‘Following the North Star’

Dreisbach says her training as a public health professional and her experience in the Peace Corps and working on international campaigns for international public health contractor FHI 360 gave her the skills that she now uses to take on Durham’s waste problem.

Crystal Dreisbach (second row, third from the right) stands with colleagues, including federal officials, for a group photo during the “From Single-use to Reuse: Earth Day Event,” held in Washington, DC, on April 21, 2023. Credit: Uptream

On her journey toward a circular economy, Dreisbach has endured pushback from critics and delays, including the changeover of mayors and council members along the way, reminding her to view this effort as a marathon, not a sprint.  

“Ten years ago, everyone was laughing at me. But now they’re putting me in front of the White House, you know? So, clearly, I’ve been following the North Star.”

Dreisbach’s mission led her in 2013 to form Don’t Waste Durham, a nonprofit organization “that creates solutions that prevent trash,” according to its website. 

During the past decade, initiatives developed by Don’t Waste Durham to eliminate waste include “Boomerang Bags” made by volunteers out of recycled T-shirts. The bags are free at checkout counters in participating retail shops. Customers who need a bag can borrow a bag to carry purchases home and return it later, or keep the bag to use for future purchases.

Another initiative established by Don’t Waste Durham is “Green-to-Go,” a fee-for-service program available in selected restaurants and retail outlets that offers customers the option of replacing single-use food containers with reusable containers to transport food home. Once the customer finishes using the container, it is collected and brought to a washing center, sterilized and returned to the restaurant.

Don’t Waste Durham is also working with the Durham Public Schools, and other city and county agencies, on environmental efforts such as improving education around recycling and replacing disposable food containers with reusable stainless foodware, among other initiatives.

Hard-earned recognition

Dreisbach’s work is not going unnoticed. In 2021, she was recognized as the “Activist of the Year” during the National Reuse Awards, held virtually and sponsored by Upstream and Closed Loop Partners, a circular economy-focused investment firm and innovation center, according to a release.

“Never has recognition of heroes in the reuse movement been more crucial as we experience the multiple effects of climate change and plastic pollution in the air, on land and in our oceans,” said Matt Prindiville, former CEO at Upstream. “The recipients of The Reusies are true trailblazers and game-changing innovators of the growing reuse economy.” 

Dreisbach’s work is also receiving support from local colleagues. 
Sign up for our Newsletter
.gform_body,.gform_footer{transition: opacity 200ms;}.amp-form-submitting .gform_body,.amp-form-submitting .gform_footer{opacity: 0.5;}.amp-form-submit-success .gform_body,.amp-form-submit-success .gform_footer{display: none !important;}

“She doesn’t see boundaries, she sees hurdles that need to be overcome,” said Tobin Freid, Durham County sustainability officer. “And she goes after [hurdles] tenaciously. If that doesn’t work, she pivots to find another way around it.” 

In 2019, Don’t Waste Durham became a client of the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, where the organization worked with law students and staff to draft policy that supports a reuse economy such as the proposed plastic bag ordinance.

“I wish there were 100 Crystals doing what Crystal is doing in Durham,” said Nancy Lauer, staff scientist and lecturing fellow at the law clinic. “Her vision is where we need to be going.” 

Michelle Nowlin, co-director of the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, agrees with Lauer’s take on Dreisbach.

“Crystal has tremendous passion and vision for more environmentally sustainable ways of structuring our society and our economy.”

Running uphill

Dreisbach says the next leg in Don’t Waste Durham’s journey toward establishing a circular economy is to get the city council to vote on the proposed 10-cent-per-bag ordinance. However, there’s a significant barrier to overcome before a vote happens.

Credit: NC DEQ

City officials have said that they’re only willing to vote on the proposed ordinance if the upcoming budget includes line items for an educational outreach coordinator and a code enforcement officer, according to Dreisbach. 

Allegedly, the city manager is only willing to have the two positions in a proposed budget with the policy in place.

“So we’re like in this chicken-and-egg situation,” Dreisbach said. “[The city manager] won’t recommend the two positions unless the policy has passed.”

Don’t Waste Durham and its supporters are working diligently to address council members’ concerns before June 20, when the vote for the upcoming budget is expected.

Shaw acknowledges that establishing a coalition of stakeholders to eliminate single-use plastic waste can be a challenging, but worthwhile endeavor.

“We don’t all agree on everything, but at the same time, the momentum is there,” Shaw said. ”There’s a huge desire on the part of the young people, certainly of today, pushing us in that direction because they’re not satisfied with the status quo — and they shouldn’t be.”

Republish This StoryRepublish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Reimagining healthcare to reduce pollution, tackle climate change and center justice

PITTSBURGH — Hospitals save lives — but they’re also complex ecosystems that generate toxic waste, rely on fossil fuels and instigate health problems due to harmful emissions.

Change comes hard to healthcare institutions, but a growing movement of doctors, nurses, medical school students and hospital system executives are working to clean up the industry.

Around 650 health care professionals from around the world gathered in Pittsburgh last week to strategize about ways to reduce waste and air pollution, disinvest from fossil fuels, better integrate communities, drive down the industry’s climate-warming emissions and hear success stories from people on the front lines of this work.

“[This] is not just a conference — we’re intentionally building a movement,” said Gary Cohen, president and co-founder of Health Care Without Harm, the organization that hosts the CleanMed conference, during his opening remarks. “This is the work of our lifetime. Are we ready to get going?”

Healthcare’s environmental toll

Ironically, the healthcare industry takes a significant toll on the environment in ways that negatively impact human health. The sector accounts for an estimated 4.4% of total global greenhouse gas emissions and up to 9.8% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.Related: Visiting health care professionals take “environmental justice tour” of PittsburghHealth damages from the U.S. healthcare sector’s pollution – including greenhouse gasses, carcinogenic emissions and other toxic air pollutants – from 2003-2013 are estimated to have cost Americans more than 400,000 years of full health, defined as years lived free of disease or disability. It’s estimated that nearly eight million, or one in five deaths globally, are caused by air pollution — more than the number of deaths caused by AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.Institutional investments are also problematic: The U.S. has more than 1,200 private hospital systems, which invest an estimated $10 billion in fossil fuels.

Cleaning up the healthcare sector

People who have successfully initiated new sustainability programs or policies at their organizations shared tools and tips.Credit: Kristina Marusic for Environmental Health NewsThe doctors and nurses attending CleanMed were joined by operations managers, sustainability directors, budget analysts, medical device providers and health-care-strategy consultants, along with people in numerous other roles.People who have successfully initiated new sustainability programs or policies at their organizations shared tools and tips.Elizabeth McLellan was one of those people. In the early 2000s, while working as a nurse administrator at Maine Medical Center, she was troubled by the huge volume of unused supplies like gloves, gowns, gauze, bandages and masks going into the trash because they’d been left in a patient’s room or opened in an operating room. McLellan had lived and worked abroad and knew there was a dire need for these supplies in other parts of the world, so she started collecting them. There was nowhere on site at her hospital to store the supplies she saved, so she took them home. By 2009 the bottom floor of her house was filled with about 11,000 pounds of rescued medical supplies, which she eventually figured out how to warehouse, ship and donate to hospitals in need around the world. After running the project entirely by herself for years, McLellan scaled the operation into a regional nonprofit, Partners for World Health, with 10 staff members and 800 volunteers, that has saved more than 180,000 pounds of medical supplies from landfills and shipped them to countries in need including Ukraine, Syria, Turkey, Zambia, Haiti, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Kenya.[embedded content]“It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than for permission,” she said in a session about hospitals making progress toward becoming zero-waste. “That has worked my whole career, and it worked for this project, too.”In one of two talks about reducing single-use plastics, Dr. Sara Angelilli, director of perioperative education at the Allegheny Health Network, talked about implementing reusable respirators. Dr. Preetri Preeti Mehrotra, a senior medical director at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, shared tips on finding the people who “can help pull the levers,” and discussed both infection control and financial benefits in switching to reusable products. And Daniel Vukelich, president of the Association of Medical Device Reprocessors, cautioned about the false promise of “chemical recycling” of single-use plastics, which is associated with a host of climate and environmental health concerns. Health Care Without Harm is also calling for the global plastics treaty currently in its second round of talks this week in Paris, to not allow medical exemptions. Other health care professionals shared advice about incorporating environmental justice and community health advocacy into clinical care by setting and meeting renewable energy goals, managing hazardous pharmaceutical waste, getting clinicians involved in climate action and increasing patient access to healthy and sustainable foods inside hospitals and at home. Health Care Without Harm partners with hospitals around the world to help them meet these types of goals through its Practice GreenHealth program.“In the last year or two, hospitals are increasingly looking beyond their four walls when talking about community resilience and environmental health,” Paul Bogart, executive director of Health Care Without Harm, told EHN. “They’re starting to think about economic drivers of community health and social determinants of health — things like housing, transportation, employment and exposure to polluting facilities.”“That type of work, for many health care institutions, is just beginning,” Bogart added. “Those relationships with community leaders are just beginning.”

Why Pittsburgh?

Walking along the Allegheny River with scenic views of the city’s iconic yellow bridges, the group learned about how pollution from the steel industry was once so bad that Pittsburgh was nicknamed “hell with the lid off.”Credit: Kristina Marusic for Environmental Health News Attendees representing at least 15 countries, including Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Japan, Nepal, South Korea and Taiwan attended the CleanMed conference.Previous conferences have been held in cities across the U.S. and across the world, and conference organizers connect what’s happening locally with the broader movement.Related: A guide to environmental health in southwestern PennsylvaniaIn Pittsburgh, that meant acknowledging the city’s industrial history, discussing ongoing problems with air pollution and childhood lead exposure and addressing the significant role that extractive industries, particularly fracking and petrochemical development, play in shaping the region’s health. It also meant asking questions about the health care industry’s obligations to communities impacted by these problems.“The fossil fuel and petrochemical industries require externalizing harm,” said Cohen during a plenary on building partnerships between health care institutions and community advocacy. “We need to understand who is harmed by an economy that’s based on fossil fuels and toxic chemicals … What does it mean for the health care industry to truly partner with these communities to help build community health, wealth and resilience?”

Recycling plastics “extremely problematic” due to toxic chemical additives: Report

Plastics contain toxic chemicals that can enter products and interact to create new harmful substances during the recycling process, a new report from Greenpeace and the International Pollutants Elimination Network (IPEN) shows.

The report comes as negotiators from more than 180 nations meet in Paris this week to discuss a global plastics treaty, developing regulations to address the plastic pollution crisis. The backdrop is stark: Plastics production is currently on track to triple by 2060, causing harm to human health and the environment throughout its lifecycle from creation to disposal.

Capping plastics production is a key point of debate. Fifty-eight countries, aligned in a group called the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, want to see a treaty that slows production. Industry groups and countries that stand to profit from plastic production want to focus on waste management and recycling instead, according to scientists and advocates.

Plastics manufacturing is one of the largest industries in the U.S., but the country is still committed to a treaty with “strong binding provisions, not only voluntary actions,” said Jose Fernandez, under secretary of state for economic growth, energy and environment, at a High Ambition Coalition briefing. The U.S. is not a member of the coalition, instead calling for the treaty to direct nations to develop individual action plans.

Current plastic recycling systems “mold this unknown cocktail of potentially harmful substances together,” Melanie Bergmann, a biologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute and a member of the Scientists’ Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty, who was not speaking on behalf of the coalition, told Environmental Health News (EHN).

That chemical cocktail can harm workers and communities around recycling sites and leach from recycled plastic products, the Greenpeace and IPEN report found.

Chemical additives in plastic

A resolution on plastic is passed at the first round of global plastic treaty talks in March 2022. Credit: UNEP/ Cyril VillemainOnly 9% of plastic is recycled and the rest is burned in incinerators, left to pollute nature or tossed in landfills that are often located in low and middle-income countries. But increasing recycling isn’t a viable solution, scientists and advocates point out. Plastics contain toxic chemicals, such as bisphenols (like BPA), phthalates and per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), and can also absorb materials from other products in the wastestream, like pesticides and pharmaceuticals, which can later leach out of the plastic. IPEN and Greenpeace advocate for limiting plastic production alongside eliminating toxic chemicals added to plastics to make safe recycled products feasible.Related: UN plastics treaty should prioritize health and climate changeFossil fuels are the raw material that makes plastic, and more than 13,000 chemicals are added to change durability, flexibility, color, UV-protection and more. Roughly 3,200 of those chemicals are considered a concern for human health, and an additional 6,000 have never been screened, according to a report from the United Nations Environment Program. “Six thousand with no data is like driving blind,” Bjorn Beeler, international coordinator at IPEN, told EHN. Many chemicals added to plastics are linked with health risks including cancers, hormonal system disruptions and reproductive harms.

Plastic production cap

One solution involves simplification and transparency of ingredients in plastics. Lists of approved and unsafe chemicals could guide production and improve the safety of the end material, Bergmann said. Full transparency of ingredients could also help improve recycling and reduce the risk of creating new toxics.

But, “the single most important measure that we need to take is a cap on plastic production,” she said.

A statement released Friday by the High Ambition Coalition echoed this, saying the treaty must reduce plastic production and consumption. “We need to first close the tap by addressing the unsustainable sourcing and extraction of raw materials to make plastics,” Sir Molwyn Joseph, Antigua & Barbuda’s minister of health, wellness and the environment said at a briefing that day.

He emphasized that, as with climate change, developing countries contribute little to the plastic pollution crisis but bear the brunt of the impact. “We have a very small window to address and arrest the severe damage being done by plastics not only to the environment but to human health,” he said.

The mandate for the treaty was agreed on in March 2022, and is currently in its second of five weeks of discussions, spread across three years. The first meeting in late 2022 focused on procedures for the talks, and this week negotiators are expected to dive into substantive issues.

So far, some countries including Saudi Arabia, Russia, India and China have held up talks with procedural issues, opposing the possibility of a vote on a final treaty if consensus can’t be reached. These are countries that profit significantly from the production of fossil fuels, plastics or petrochemicals.

Countries’ ability to agree on a treaty objective will be the measure of success for the week, Beeler said. He hopes to see an objective to protect the environment and human health from adverse impacts at all stages of the plastic lifecycle.

“We are now more than one year into negotiations,” said Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya, Rwanda’s minister of environment, at the High Ambition Coalition briefing. “However, since then more than 400 million tons of new plastic have been produced and another 22 million tons of plastic waste has ended up in nature…We need to move quickly into treaty-making mode.”

With billions in climate cash flowing, companies that burn trash race to rebrand

The trash burning industry was eager to show it is not a polluting relic but a pioneering clean tech sector worthy of millions of dollars in new federal subsidies. But its invitation to the Environmental Protection Agency to visit a Michigan “waste-to-energy” facility needed to be timed right.“I don’t think we want EPA in the plant while we are setting off explosives in the boiler,” said a September email exchange between executives at Covanta Energy regarding the facility, which was about to go through the messy maintenance procedure. “The air will be filled with Ash dust and it may not have great optics.”As the Biden administration allocates billions of dollars in new climate subsidies, environmentally challenged industries are sharpening their green pitches. The companies argue they are just as entitled to lucrative federal incentives as solar farms or electric carmakers, and are working to frame their businesses as global warming solutions. The money up for grabs from the Inflation Reduction Act and other programs are in amounts large enough to guide whether they thrive or go the way of leaded gasoline and asbestos.A quiet lobbying campaign by waste incineration operations is documented in emails disclosed through public records requests, filed by the nonprofit Friends of the Earth. They offer a glimpse at how one beleaguered legacy industry is maneuvering to qualify for these federal dollars, saying their plants can help stop climate change at the same time environmental justice groups in the communities they serve are trying to shut them down.“How can this be a climate solution at all?” said Maria Lopez-Nunez, a Newark activist working to close the waste-to-energy plant there, and a member of the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. “They are discharging mercury, arsenic, lead. I hope no one falls for this scam.”Covanta, the incineration company that sent many of the emails, told The Washington Post that the timing of the EPA visit to a plant it operated until earlier this year was not meant to mislead regulators, but to plan for a routine yet dusty process during which plants are typically closed for tours.Companies that burn municipal waste are not the only ones working on their green credentials as regulators lean into the energy transition. Oil companies are pressing the case that a chemical process of melting down plastic and repurposing it for things such as jet fuel is not incineration at all, but “advanced recycling.” The embattled ethanol industry, burdened with scientific findings that its product has a heavier carbon footprint than gasoline, is positioning itself as the linchpin of climate friendly air travel.The waste-to-energy industry is asking to be folded into a potential expansion of the Renewable Fuel Standard program, a huge alternative fuels incentive that the EPA may modify to include producers of clean electricity that power electric vehicles. The companies that burn garbage are also eager to be certified as an energy provider for production of “green hydrogen,” a fuel that must be made with zero-carbon emissions electricity to fetch generous new subsidies.It all hinges on regulators embracing the industry’s accounting methods for its carbon footprint.How a pricey taxpayer gamble on carbon capture helps Big Oil“We are starting to push EPA and the White House,” said a February email from Paula Soos, head of government relations at Covanta Energy, which operates more than 30 U.S. plants where trash is burned to make electricity. She was writing Darwin Baas, the director of the public works department in Kent County, Mich., which has its own large incinerator. “This obviously would be a significant revenue stream to Kent [County] DPW,” Soos wrote.Soos declined to be interviewed. But Baas and a Covanta spokesperson told The Post that it is too early to say how big that potential revenue stream is. Data in the records obtained by Friends of the Earth suggest the EPA subsidies could bring in more than $3 million annually for a similar plant in Pennsylvania.Such revenue could be crucial to the survival of an industry that helps power millions of homes and businesses by burning trash to create steam used in electricity generation.Four dozen incinerators across the United States have closed since 2000, according to the nonprofit Energy Justice Network, as community activists and national environmental groups target the technology as particularly harmful to the environment and public health. More than 80 percent of the remaining 60 facilities in this country are located in places where many residents are people of color or low income, according to a mapping project by the Tishman Environment and Design Center. Federal data shows they are emitters of toxins linked to medical problems, including particulate matter, dioxins, lead and mercury.Industry officials claim the technology is more sustainable than landfills, which create a huge climate problem as rotting trash releases potent greenhouse gas emissions while slowly decomposing. Covanta said in an email to The Post that burning trash for electricity has cut landfill greenhouse gas emissions by 30 million tons per year, making the electricity they produce even more climate friendly than “traditional renewable like wind and solar when viewed from a lifecycle perspective.” It pointed to studies concluding the plants are not a public health hazard.But arguments that turning the trash into electricity is a tidy, “circular” solution to the waste problem are increasingly met with skepticism by regulators in the United States and Europe.California last year revoked a long-standing law that allowed trash burned at its two incinerators to be counted toward the state’s recycling and reuse goals, with lawmakers championing the change pointing to studies — disputed by Covanta — that found burning trash drives at least as much global warming as sending it to a landfill. A few years earlier, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) also cited climate and environmental justice worries when he vetoed provisions of a waste reduction law that would have allowed food manufacturers to comply by shipping their waste to incinerators that produce energy.Denmark, where a trash-to-energy incinerator in Copenhagen is a national landmark, complete with a downhill ski run built into its sloped roof, is now decommissioning nearly a third of its trash burning capacity, citing climate concerns. Scotland has placed a moratorium on new incinerators in its bid to meet climate goals.How a tax break meant to curb climate change could make it worseOne potential lifeline for the industry in the United States is the Renewable Fuel Standard. The industry is hoping to be awarded proposed electric “renewable identification numbers,” or e-RIN credits, that fossil fuel producers could purchase to meet EPA mandates in lieu of making their own alternative fuels.Emails show Covanta worked to keep its push for alternative fuel subsidies off the radar of environmental justice advocates. As part of that strategy, Covanta in February urged its allies to delay engaging in a separate battle in the administration over incineration pollution.“We strongly believe if a letter goes out now … it will create a significant public uproar on [waste to energy], right at the very time we are trying to convince EPA that they can include [waste to energy] in the [Renewable Fuel Standard] without a lot of backlash,” said the email from Soos. “I think the timing is way off, and public controversy will undermine our e-RIN efforts.”The EPA would not answer questions about its site visits and other engagement with the industry, saying in a statement only that it is working to finalize new rules for the alternative fuels program by mid-June.Worries about the environmental justice optics emerge throughout the industry email exchanges. One Covanta official expressed concern that the group is highlighting the pollution controls in a York County, Pa., facility as part of its lobbying campaign. “I feel we need to include a facility that mirrors York that is an [environmental justice] community to show them we aren’t just careful in white communities,” he wrote.In the shadow of the large waste-to-energy plant in Chester, Pa., a predominantly Black city, the air is heavy with an odor so foul that residents wear masks when they step out of their houses into the open air. Local activist Zulene Mayfield shows reporters the shell of a row home she said she abandoned when conditions on the perimeter of the 30-year-old plant became unbearable. Those that remain tick off the ailments they and their children are experiencing.“This is dangerous,” said Darlynn Johnson, 40, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood. Three of her four children, she said, have been diagnosed with asthma. The remaining child is one-year-old. “With him being out here, I know he is going to be diagnosed next,” Johnson said. “This is not okay.”The health problems of the area, where children have asthma at five times the national average, are well documented, as are some of the harmful emissions that have come out of the plant over its lifetime. But the facility sits in an industrial hub, leaving researchers unable to link specific plants to clusters of disease. Covanta says pollution from the plant has been cut considerably over the years, and that its emissions are far below what federal standards allow.In its email to The Post, Covanta said its goal is to get some of the same subsidies available to landfills that convert their emissions into energy. In a separate email, Baas said the federal money the industry is seeking would help keep his Kent County plant financially viable, at a time when it needs $40 million in upgrades and the energy it generates fetches lower prices on the electricity market than it did 30 years ago.Unleash the deep-sea robots? A quandary as EV makers hunt for metals.The corn ethanol industry has a similar problem. As the Biden administration writes the rules for generous new subsidies for climate-friendly jet fuels, corn ethanol may not make the cut. Several studies show that for much of the ethanol supply, emissions offer no improvement over fossil fuels.Ethanol industry groups make the case that those studies are outdated and otherwise flawed. If the administration uses stricter standards, the ethanol industry group Growth Energy warns, “rural communities will be locked out from contributing to a cleaner climate, and our ability to decarbonize the airline fleet will suffer.”But the Environmental Defense Fund and other advocacy groups say the industry’s arguments are exaggerated and often unsupported by science.“If we get this wrong,” said Mark Brownstein, senior vice president for energy at EDF, “the taxpayer is not going to get fundamentally lower carbon fuel.”The plastics industry is engaged in its own green branding blitz.The industry has filed 17 permit applications with the EPA to make fuels from discarded plastics. The products could eventually be sold as sustainable aviation fuel — depending on how the administration drafts regulations — making them eligible for a raft of subsidies.But the process typically used — called pyrolysis — is highly toxic, according to EPA data. The Natural Resources Defense Council describes it as “fraught with health, environmental, social, and economic concerns.” The plastics industry contends it’s safer than incineration and has another way of describing it: “Advanced Recycling.” ExxonMobil and other oil and chemical companies are promoting this process through a group called the “Alliance to End Plastic Waste.”At the Plastics Industry Association “Refocus” conference in Minneapolis earlier this month, Melanie Bower, an ExxonMobil senior sustainability adviser, told colleagues in the sector to push the talking point that the process should no longer be subject to the same strict Clean Air Act rules as waste incineration, according to a recording of the panel shared with The Post by an attendee.“It’s sad in a way that in the U.S. we’re faced with this false narrative that advanced recycling is incineration or burning of plastic,” Bower said. Congressional regulators see it differently than Bower. An advisory addendum the House Appropriations Committee sent President Biden along with the latest federal budget bill urges the EPA not to bend to the industry on Clean Air Act rules.“These chemical recycling technologies do not result in the recovery of plastic materials to advance a circular economy,” the note said, “and the facilities contribute to climate change and impose disproportionate health burdens on the communities where they are located.”

'It makes you sad’: Tourists and fishermen leave Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay covered in trash

Ha Long Bay is one of Vietnam’s most beautiful nature site. But the UNESCO world heritage site threatened by deluge of plastic waste.
Squinting in the bright light of a hot summer morning, Vu Thi Thinh perches on the edge of her small wooden boat and plucks a polystyrene block from the calm waters of Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay.It’s not yet 9am, but a mound of styrofoam buoys, plastic bottles and beer cans sit behind her.They are the most visible sign of the human impacts that have degraded the UNESCO World Heritage Site, famed for its brilliant turquoise waters dotted with towering rainforest-topped limestone islands.”I feel very tired because I collect trash on the bay all day without much rest,” said Thinh, 50, who has been working for close to a decade as a trash picker.”I have to make five to seven trips on the boat every day to collect it all.”Waste threatens spectacular Ha Long BaySince the beginning of March, 10,000 cubic metres of rubbish – enough to fill four Olympic swimming pools – have been collected from the water, according to the Ha Long Bay management board.The trash problem has been particularly acute over the past two months, as a scheme to replace styrofoam buoys at fish farms with more sustainable alternatives backfired and fishermen chucked their redundant polystyrene into the sea.Authorities ordered 20 barges, eight boats and a team of dozens of people to launch a clean-up, state media said.Do Tien Thanh, a conservationist at the Ha Long Bay Management Department, said the buoys were a short-term issue but admitted: “Ha Long Bay… is under pressure”.More than seven million visitors came to visit the spectacular limestone karsts of Ha Long Bay, on Vietnam’s northeastern coast, in 2022.Authorities hope that number will jump to eight and a half million this year.But the site’s popularity, and the subsequent rapid growth of Ha Long City – which is now home to a cable car, amusement park, luxury hotels and thousands of new homes – have severely damaged its ecosystem.Conservationists estimate there were originally around 234 types of coral in the bay. Now the number is around half.There have been signs of recovery in the past decade, with coral coverage slowly increasing again and dolphins — pushed out of the bay a decade ago — coming back in small numbers, as a ban on fishing in the core parts of the heritage site expanded their food source.But the waste, both plastic and human, is still a huge concern.”There are so many big residential areas near Ha Long Bay,” said conservationist Thanh.”The domestic waste from these areas, if not dealt with properly, greatly impacts the ecological system, which includes the coral reefs.”Ha Long City can now handle just over 40 percent of its wastewater.”Single-use plastic is now banned on tourist boats, and the Ha Long Bay management board says general plastic use on board is down 90 percent from its peak.But trash generated onshore still lines parts of the beach, with a team of rubbish collectors not able to block the eyesore from tourists.‘Plastic pollution crisis’ in Ha Long BayPham Van Tu, a local resident and freelance tour guide, said he had received a lot of complaints from visitors.”They read in the media that Ha Long Bay is beautiful, but when they saw a lot of floating trash, they didn’t want to swim or go canoeing and they hesitated to tell their friends and family to visit,” he said.Rapid economic growth, urbanisation and changing lifestyles in communist Vietnam have led to a “plastic pollution crisis”, according to the World Bank.A report in 2022 estimated 3.1 million tonnes of plastic waste are generated every year, with at least 10 per cent leaking into the waterways, making Vietnam one of the top five plastic polluters of the world’s oceans.The volume of leakage could more than double by 2030, the World Bank warns.Larissa Helfer, 21, who travelled to Vietnam from her home in Germany, said Ha Long Bay was beautiful but the trash problem would be one of her strongest memories of the trip.”Normally you (might say) ‘Look at the view! Look at the fishing villages!” she told AFP.But here “you have to talk about the trash, (you say) ‘oh god… look at the plastic bottles and things in the sea.’ And it makes you sad.”Thinh, the trash collector, grew up in Ha Long and remembers a very different bay.”It didn’t look so terrible,” she said.”Of course, a lot of work makes me tired and irritated,” she admitted. “But we must do our work.”

UN talks on a treaty to end global plastic pollution open in Paris

PARIS (AP) — A United Nations committee met in Paris Monday to work on what is intended to be a landmark treaty to bring an end to global plastic pollution, but there is little agreement yet on what the outcome should be.The Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee for Plastics is charged with developing the first international, legally binding treaty on plastic pollution, including in the marine environment. This is the second of five meetings due to take place to complete the negotiations by the end of 2024. At the first meeting

After a plastic bag ban, Kenya takes another shot at its pollution problem

In the sprawling dump in east Nairobi, Emmanuel Lucy rummages through glass, metal, leftover food and dirt. The 25-year-old waste collector sorts quickly, picking out plastic bottles with one gloved hand, and throwing them into a large woven sack with the other.Lucy is one of thousands of workers who sort through Kenya’s street and landfill waste for recyclable materials. On a good day at the Dandora dump, he makes 350 Kenya shillings (£2) for several kilograms of plastic bottles, which he sells to recyclers through agents. It’s familiar work – he has done it on and off since he was eight years old.The production of plastic products has exploded over the past decade. Nairobi, Kenya’s capital – with a population of nearly 4.4 million – generates more than 2,400 tonnes of solid waste every day – a fifth of which is plastic.“The amount of plastic waste is quite significant,” says Jane Mutune, an environmental studies lecturer at the University of Nairobi.Kenya banned single-use plastic bags in 2017 – a move that was lauded as groundbreaking. The national environmental authority says 80% of the public have complied with the ban. In 2020, single-use plastics were prohibited in protected areas such as parks and forests.Despite the success of the bag ban, it has not been enough to eliminate the country’s struggles with pollution, as it did not include many other forms of plastic, including bottles, rubbish bags and takeaway containers.“We need to be careful that we don’t defeat the essence of the ban by allowing so much [plastic waste] by primary packaging,” says the environmental activist James Wakibia, who pushed for the ban on plastic bags.“Going down to the river and seeing so many plastic bottles and other kinds of plastic garbage … it frustrates me a lot,” he says. “We need to broaden the campaigns and fight against plastic pollution.”On the roads to Dandora, plastic litter lines the streets, threatening to block drains during heavy rains.“The dumpsite is a real menace,” says Gregory Ngugi, who runs a local youth group, the Dandora Youth Multipurpose. “Many of the trucks transport the garbage exposed, so it goes spilling on the road.”The air around the site is filled with the smell of rancid waste. Garbage collection services in the neighbourhood are informal and woefully inadequate, says Ngugi, so residents often litter or dump household waste by the roadside.Waste pickers such as Lucy, who play a significant role removing plastic from the streets and landfill, face a tremendous amount of stigma due to their work. The work exposes them to cuts, bacterial infections and diseases such as cholera. Those who sleep and eat at the dump risk coming into contact with toxic substances.“We are exposed to death every day,” says John Chweya, the chair of the Kenyan National Waste Pickers Association. “Waste pickers do most of the work out of the pollution that companies are bringing to the environment. But we hardly get anything out of the job.”skip past newsletter promotionafter newsletter promotionDandora residents fear the expansion of the 12-hectare (30-acre) landfill in the coming years. The land on which it sits used to host a kids’ play area and a bar called Peru.A sustainable waste management law, which will come into force in July, will require companies to reduce the pollution and environmental impacts of the products they introduce into the Kenyan market – either individually or through collective schemes. Previously, businesses were not obliged to take part in waste collection and recycling schemes such as Petco, an initiative created in 2018 after authorities threatened to ban the production and sale of plastic bottles. Only a few companies signed on, and its membership has remained dismal.“We have over 1,000 companies that are producing bottled drinking water in the country, yet our membership … is [only] about 13 or 14 companies,” the Petco CEO, Joyce Gachungi, told the Guardian.Environmental activists have welcomed the new producer-responsibility legislation. Regulations outlining how the new law will work will be introduced by 2024.“For the longest time, industries have been running away from responsibility, so this law will put them to task,” says Wakibia.

The UN wants to drastically reduce plastic pollution by 2040. Here’s how

Inger Andersen:
Let’s think about it, we liquefy a lot of stuff that in just 20 years ago was not liquid, let’s take soap for laundry detergent, it’s largely liquid, certainly in the U.S. market, it used to be powder, and therefore it could be transported in a carton box. Let’s think about soap that we wash our hands with it used to be in a bar. And now we need the convenience of one pump.We have to ask ourselves if all that is worth it, when we understand that that liquid application of the product for our convenience, yes, but it is very, very inconvenient for the environment. So, we need to rethink and redesign the products themselves. We need to make sure that we minimize that wasteful single use plastic bag that we’re going to be using for 10 minutes as we carry five tomatoes home from the store.And then thereafter, depending on the kind of polymer it could be between 100 and 1,000 years in the landfill. That’s just not very efficient use of a scarce resource.But I think that there are certainly industry leaders that are saying, look, this is actually something that if we don’t get it right, it detracts from our shareholder value. And it detracts from the pride that our workers have in this product if it’s fobbing out around in the in the ocean. This is not good for business, it’s not good for the brand. So let’s find solutions to it.

First ‘plastic rain' weather forecast predicts 50 kg of microplastics

Representational image (NOAA)Take it from us, weather forecasting can be a tricky business. Even after rummaging through all the analyses available to derive our inferences daily, there’s always a chance that things will still go differently than predicted.And now, even though we’re still getting used to the indecisive whims of meteorological phenomena, weather forecasters have started adding another factor to their daily forecasts: plastic rain.In 2022, a study made quite the news splash after it confirmed that a colossal amount of microplastics were sprinkling down on New Zealand and the US. We’ve already been aware that these plastic contaminants can make their way inside our bodies, potentially leading to cancer risk and other health and reproductive problems.While we don’t know for certain if someone modified the rain dance to somehow add plastic, there is no doubt that this dangerous phenomenon is prevalent worldwide now. And thus, Paris has begun taking steps to tackle the potential risks associated with it.The French capital will experience billions of microplastic rain during the five-day plastic treaty international discussion on Monday (May 29), their first-ever plastic pollution weather forecast predicts.According to the report, the city will experience about 40-48 kilograms of free-floating plastic bits daily. Scientists warn that this number could skyrocket — even tenfold! — if the rain becomes heavy.Most of these microplastics have originated from nylon and polyester, the researchers reckon. Clothing and tyre bits are the most likely suspects. On an especially windy day, these can make their way inside our bodies through inhalation or ingestion.Advertisement”In our bodies, the plastics we need to be most worried about are probably those between 10 nanometers and 1 micrometre,” notes Christos Symeonides, a researcher at Murdoch Children’s Research Hospital. “They’re the ones most likely to get through our biological membranes into tissues, including the blood-brain barrier,” he told AFP.For reference, human hair is only about 80 microns across, meaning most microplastics of concern are stuff we won’t even be able to spot, hiding in plain sight.Furthermore, the plastic forecast only covers plastics significantly outside this danger range — over 50 microns in length. The microplastics that were detected in human blood were around 700 nanometres, or 0.7 micrometres, in length.While such forecasting practices are a great initial step, we clearly need to cover many such research gaps. Additionally, the report has been developed based on a 2015 research on Paris from samples collected from multiple locations year-round, meaning we probably won’t be looking at this section to grace our weather sections daily.”This should sharpen the focus of negotiators,” said Marcus Gover, head of plastics research at the Minderoo Foundation. “Plastic particles break down into the environment, and this toxic cocktail ends up in our bodies, where it does unimaginable damage to our health.””We’re just now pulling our heads out of the sand when it comes to the health hazards of microplastics,” Symeonides laments.**For weather, science, space, and COVID-19 updates on the go, download The Weather Channel App (on Android and iOS store). It’s free!

On the eve of plastics treaty talks, a youth advocate from Ghana speaks out: ‘we need urgent action’

The youngest voice on a Paris stage Friday had an especially compelling  call for the world to act quickly and decisively to end the global plastics crisis.

That message came from Betty Osei Bonsu, representing the Green Africa Youth Organization, a nongovernmental group, who will be attending next week’s second negotiation session of the United Nations’ effort to develop a legally binding treaty to curb plastic pollution.

“We want to see a just transition to safer and more sustainable livelihoods for workers and communities across the plastics supply chain,” Bonsu told the pre-negotiation gathering that included United Nations officials, delegates from countries large and small and business leaders. 

She called for a global agreement that will hold “corporate polluters responsible for the profound damages that is caused by excessive production of plastics,” and said: “We need global leaders to stand up for this fight.”

Bonsu took head-on the chemical industry’s big push for so-called “advanced” or “chemical” recycling, touted by lobby groups such as the American Chemistry Council as a way to use technology such as pyrolysis or gasification to turn plastic waste into fuel or feedstocks for new plastics. 

“No more techno-fixes and false solutions such as chemical recycling or incineration,”  Bonsu said, echoing criticism by some scientists and other environmentalists who have said chemical recycling is a largely unproven technology that requires too much energy, has questionable climate benefits and puts communities and the environment at further risk from toxic pollution. “These are only perpetuating our addiction to plastics,” she said.

Bonsu is from Ghana and serves as the Uganda country manager for the Green Africa Youth Organization, a youth-led and gender-balanced advocacy group that focuses on environmental sustainability and community development.

Her work includes advancing green jobs for rural communities and youth engagement in climate policies while she is pursuing a master’s degree at the United Nations University, a global think tank headquartered in Japan, studying environmental risk and human security.

Bonsu was among 11 people who spoke at Friday’s briefing, which was organized by World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Waste, the Scientists Coalition for an Effective Plastics Treaty and the Business Coalition for a Global Plastics Treaty, in advance of s next week’s negotiation. Delegates are hoping to begin to coalesce around some of the major themes of, or expectations for, a draft treaty.

Bonsu told delegates and others that “young people are recognizing the fact that they are the ones who will be most affected by plastics pollution, particularly those of us residing in the Global South, who are already experiencing the adverse effects of climate change, plastics pollution and biodiversity loss. We need urgent action.”

Last year, 175 nations agreed to find a way to stop future plastic production from choking ocean and land ecosystems and to clean up legacy plastic pollution. They set a goal of reaching an agreement by the end of next year.

In the run-up to next week’s talks, the United Nations Environment Program released one report that detailed the toxic threats from the thousands of chemicals used to make plastic and another that identified a roadmap of potential solutions to cut plastic waste by 80 percent.

Environmentalists, businesses and scientists are also weighing in, issuing reports, statements or letters in efforts to influence the talks, including policy briefs from the Scientists Coalition, a nongovernmental organization based in Norway, on plastics and chemicals, and climate change.

Greenpeace USA also published a report that seeks to make a case that recycling increases the toxicity of plastics.

In March, research published by the Annals of Global Health, a peer-reviewed journal, concluded that plastic causes illness and death across its lifecycle, from production to use and disposal.

The risk can come from being near oil and gas extraction, working in plastic manufacturing plants or living near them, eating food heated in plastic packaging or breathing the air near incinerators where plastic waste gets burned as trash.

The Plastic Industry Association, a lobby group, issued a statement proclaiming the benefits of plastic, calling it “essential to the health, safety, protection and well-being of humanity,” and arguing against limits to plastic production that, it said, would “stifle” innovation. Instead, the business group said, the focus should be on fostering an economy where plastic waste “is valued for what it can achieve.”

The American Chemistry Council’s Joshua Baca said Greenpeace’s proposals “would disrupt global supply chains, hinder sustainable development, and substitute plastics with materials that have a much higher carbon footprint in critical uses.”

A number of countries or coalitions of countries have already put forward their initial positions for the meeting, dividing along certain fault lines. In all, the U.N. has collected more than 60 opening submissions from participating countries, and another 200 written comments from non-governmental organizations, including environmental and business groups.

Some of the countries’ opening proposals are strong and expansive. The European Union, for example, calls for global targets to reduce the production of plastics. The EU and other countries articulate their vision for phasing out risky chemical additives, such as endocrine disruptors like phthalates, which are used to make plastics pliable and are a threat to human health.

The growing, 55-member High Ambition Coalition to End Plastic Pollution, led by Norway and Rwanda, offered a proposal that notes plastic consumption has quadrupled over the past 30 years and that plastic production would likely double over the next 20. Measures and targets for limiting plastic production will be needed to “reduce pressure on the environment globally,” they wrote.

Critics have described the Biden administration’s opening position as weak and vague, or “low ambition,” despite its recognition of a need to end plastic pollution by 2040. It calls for individual national action plans as opposed to strong global mandates.

Friday, a U.S. delegate from the State Department, Jose W. Fernandez, sought to convey the United States’ commitment to solving the plastics crisis.

“Let me start with a clear message,” said Fernandez, the under-secretary for economic growth, energy and the environment in the Biden administration. “Solving the plastic pollution crisis is a priority for the United States,” he said. “The United States is one of the largest producers and consumers of plastic. And we’re also one of the largest generators of plastic waste. We know that the world is watching our actions. And we are determined to lead by example.”

For its  part, the High Ambition Coalition, which includes the European Union, Canada and Japan, issued a new statement on Friday that called for a “comprehensive approach that addresses the full lifecycle of plastics, with a view to end plastic pollution by 2040 to protect human health and the environment from plastic pollution while contributing to the restoration of biodiversity and curbing climate change.”

The coalition called for several binding provisions including those targeting microplastics, which have become ubiquitous in the environment and are found in human blood, placental fluid and feces, and to remediate existing plastic pollution. 

Espen Barth Eide, the minister of climate and the environment for Norway and the co-chair of the coalition, said its efforts should be seen as focused on stopping plastic waste, not combatting plastic.

“As such, we realize that there will be products that will still be made by plastics,” he said. “We realize that that can be done in a much sounder way than today. But we do also recognize that we will have to substitute plastics in certain products, we have to come to an end with the use of single-use plastics, we have to think about reusability and recyclability and in order to do that, we also have to look at the product design.”

Plastic was never designed to be recycled.

That will have to change, he said, adding: “That plastic that shall still be used will need to be designed from the start in such a way that re-use, and later, if necessary, recycling, is possible and sound and healthy.”