Opinion: If we stop burning fossil fuels, will we end up with more plastic and toxic chemicals?

As the United States comes to grips with the climate crisis, fossil fuels will slowly recede from being primary sources of energy. That’s the good news. But the bad news is that the petrochemical industry is counting on greatly increasing the production of plastics and toxic chemicals made from fossil fuels to profit from its reserves of oil and gas.That transition is why the challenges of climate, plastic pollution and chemical toxicity — which at first might each seem like distinct problems — are actually interrelated and require a systems approach to resolve. The danger is that if we focus on only a single metric, like greenhouse gas emissions, we may unintentionally encourage the shift from fuel to plastics and chemicals that are also unsafe and unsustainable.Already, according to a 2018 report from the International Energy Agency, petrochemicals, which are made from petroleum and natural gas, “are rapidly becoming the largest driver of global oil demand.”Petrochemicals are ubiquitous in everyday products, and many of them are poisoning us and our children. Stain repellents, flame retardants, phthalates and other toxics are contributing to cancer, falling sperm counts, obesity and a host of neurological, reproductive and immune problems, research has shown.Epidemiological studies over the past decade have found, moreover, that exposure in utero and in childhood to chemicals used as flame retardants, called polybrominated diphenyl ethers, or PBDEs, has been linked to significant declines in IQ. These chemicals, widely used since the 1970s in the United States, were largely phased out in recent years. But they have persisted in the environment. And the push to phase out PBDEs led to “regrettable substitutions,” as the authors of one study put it, replacing one type of phased-out toxic flame retardant with another one that is also harmful.And plastics, of course, are inundating the planet.Global chemical production is predicted to double by 2030, according to the United Nations. Plastic production could jump three- to fourfold by 2050, according to a World Economic Forum report in 2016. By that year, the ocean is expected to contain, by weight, more plastic than fish.Garbage, including plastic waste, at a beach in Panama City in April.Uis Acosta/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesPlastic waste at Zikim Beach, near Ashkelon, Israel, in 2019.Amir Cohen/ReutersA recent study by the Minderoo Foundation, which is working to end plastic waste, found that single-use plastics account for over a third of plastics produced every year. Ninety-eight percent are made from fossil fuels, according to the study.Fracking and cheap natural gas have made the United States one of the most profitable places in the world to make polyethylene — a common plastic used primarily for packaging. New ethane cracker plants are planned for Pennsylvania and Ohio. These plants turn ethane, a cheap byproduct of natural gas, or naphtha, a crude oil product, into ethylene to make single-use and other plastics.These facilities will depend on fossil fuels as their feedstock, and the resulting production of plastics will generate more greenhouse gases. More than nine million tons of additional annual ethylene capacity is coming online globally in 2021, according to the consulting firm McKinsey.If we think we have too much plastic now, we may well be drowning in it in a few decades. The petrochemical industry’s misleading messaging is that plastic waste gets recycled; if not, it’s the consumer’s fault; and the chemicals used in plastics are harmless.The reality is that plastic waste is often exported to places in Africa and Asia and elsewhere lacking the capacity to recycle or manage the waste. In the United States, this waste often ends up as garbage in landfills and as trash in rivers, along the sides of roads and in oceans. It also accumulates in the bodies of marine mammals, sea birds and humans.It doesn’t have to be that way. The federal government and industry have made large investments to create low-carbon fuels in recent decades. Similarly large investments are needed to develop safer chemicals and alternatives to plastics.With the Biden administration, which is committed to combating climate change, we have an opportunity to turn the ship around. An initial step should be to end subsidies to the oil and gas industry. This would raise the price of fossil fuels and the cost of producing petrochemicals, making renewable energy sources more competitive and potentially apply a brake to the growth of the petrochemical industry.President Biden should push for legislation in Congress that would pause the issuance of permits by the federal government for new or expanded plastic production facilities, refineries, incinerators, waste-to-energy plants and other petrochemical facilities. A pause of up to three years, as called for in the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act, would allow the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Academies of Sciences to study the cumulative impact of these facilities and to propose guidelines and standards aimed at protecting human health and the environment.We can draw on lessons from the European Union. The European Commission, the E.U.’s executive arm, recently proposed an aggressive plan to become carbon-neutral by 2050. It also has developed a plan to build a circular economy based on the reuse and recycling of products and to address the presence of hazardous chemicals in those products. Instead of building more plastic and chemical production facilities, companies should invest in innovative technologies to achieve circular production and reuse.We now have the leadership to combat the three-headed hydra of climate change, plastic pollution and toxic chemicals threatening us and our ecosystems. Now we need strong legislation and continued investment in research and technology to achieve a healthier planet for our children.Is one of your favorite places in your country being affected by climate change?Describe that place — a beloved campsite, the levee you run, a local market, the woods you explored as a child — and tell us in a brief voice mail why you love it: (+01) ‪405-804-1422‬. What does this place mean to you, how is it changing, and how do you feel seeing it reshaped by environmental issues?We are interested in hearing from the global community. Please include your country code with your phone number in your message so that we can reach you with any questions. We may use a portion of your message in a future article.Marty Mulvihill is a co-founder of the venture capital fund Safer Made and helped create the Center for Green Chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley. Gretta Goldenman is an environmental consultant and the board chair of the Green Science Policy Institute, where Arlene Blum is the executive director.The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Twitter (@NYTopinion) and Instagram.

Environmental Law Centre calls for independent review of proposed B.C. petrochemical, plastics complex

Lawyers at the University of Victoria Environmental Law Centre are calling for an independent assessment of three proposed petrochemical and plastics facilities in Prince George, B.C., that they say pose “profound risks to the global environment.” The request filed with Minister of the Environment and Climate Change Strategy George Heyman asks him to refer West Coast Olefins’ proposals for Prince George to an independent panel of experts that can assess the project in its entirety.  UVic Environmental Law Centre legal director Calvin Sandborn said he’s optimistic Heyman will agree with the filing “because it would be irrational to proceed with the largest project in Prince George history without an independent panel conducting public hearings.” Calgary-based West Coast Olefins Ltd. has been quietly forging ahead with their plans for the $5.6 billion complex, putting together proposals for review by the B.C. Oil and Gas Commission and the Environmental Assessment process.  The company’s website says an investment decision on the project will be made in 2022 and that the Environmental Assessment is in the early stages of determining the scope of information the company will be required to provide. A diagram of West Coast Olefins’s interconnected plants proposed for Prince George. The first would recover propane, butane and natural gas condensate (known as natural gas liquids or NGLs) from an existing gas pipeline then process NGLs into separate feed stocks. The second ethylene plant would process recovered ethane for use in a third plant to manufacture polyethylene, or plastic, products.

Fully recyclable paper cups? They exist, but you won’t find them at Starbucks

A new campaign draws attention to the fact that Starbucks cups are not truly recyclable due to a coating of polyethylene plastic on the inside of the cup.Starbucks has made several pledges to produce recyclable cups dating back to 2008 — but its cups are still unable to be recycled economically.Solutions already exist for fully recyclable cups, including a coating for paperboard barrier packaging that uses 40-51% less plastic. When you order your Venti-sized espresso macchiato at Starbucks, it will arrive in what looks and feels like a cardboard cup topped with a plastic lid. After you finish your drink, you might think about dumping your cup into a paper recycling bin. But you shouldn’t. Starbucks cups are actually lined with polyethylene plastic coating that makes it nearly impossible to recycle, experts say.
“Paper recycling is designed for recycling paper — not plastic,” Will Lorenzi, president of packaging engineering company Smart Planet Technologies, told Mongabay in an interview. “There’s a whole variety of products that have plastic coatings on it … and when those products hit the pulper [in a recycling plant] they block it up. It’s almost like a storm drain. If there’s a few leaves, a branch maybe, the storm drain is going to be fine. But if you get too many leaves and too many branches, all of a sudden the whole drain clogs up.”
It’s estimated that 1.6 million trees are logged each year to produce Starbucks cups, and that 4 million of these cups end up in landfills, according to Stand.Earth, a group that started
in 2016. Starbucks itself actually pledged to create a fully recyclable paper cup back in 2008, but nothing resulted from this commitment.
“So many people have confessed to us that they feel at least a little bit guilty about ordering a single-use coffee in a paper cup that came from critical forests,” Jim Ace, a senior campaigner and actions manager at Stand.Earth, told Mongabay in an email. “Many feel even worse when they learn it’s lined with polyethylene plastic, whether they are concerned for their own health or the health of the planet. Most consumers don’t realize Starbucks cups have been uneconomical to recycle, in part because they are lined with plastic, so they’ve ended up in landfills.”
Activists campaigning for Starbucks to produce a fully recyclable cup. Image by Stand.Earth.
According to a recent survey conducted in the U.S. by the SEAL Awards, which recognizes companies for their sustainability and environmental leadership, 83% of Starbucks customers actually believe that Starbucks cups can be recycled.
“At heart, the cup problem is a moral and leadership issue,” Matt Harney, founder of SEAL, said in a statement. “Like the 83% of consumers we surveyed, I recently thought that paper cups were, in fact, recyclable.”
Stand.Earth ended its campaign in 2019 when Starbucks partnered with other industry giants to support the NextGen Cup Challenge, which called on innovators to create a recyclable and compostable cup. Twelve winners were chosen, but two years later, the problem has still not been solved.
“Starbucks committed itself to solving its cup problem and have taken steps to develop solutions, but the majority of its customers still leave the store with single-use, disposable paper cups that are lined with plastic, which end up in the landfill,” Ace said. “Until that is solved, Starbucks still has a responsibility to address the problem.”
A commercially viable solution is already here, Lorenzi said. In 2016, his company, Smart Planet Technologies, developed EarthCoating, a film for paperboard barrier packaging that uses 40-51% less plastic than conventional plastic coating barriers.
“We came up with something that would basically be recyclable, and at the same time, work just as well as the current packaging we have,” Lorenzi said. The coating uses a special mix of minerals and resin so that the coating can easily be separated from the cardboard during the recycling process, and sink to the bottom of the pulper along with dirt and other residue, he added. 
Several big companies, including United Airlines and Taco Bell in Australia, already use recyclable products with EarthCoating, Lorenzi said. Yet Starbucks has not adopted this technology, despite Smart Planet Technologies reaching out to Starbucks on several occasions.
Coffe cups lined with EarthCoding. Image courtesy of Smart Planet Technologies.
“They pretend we don’t exist,” Lorenzi said. “They pretend it’s not happening. They continue to do their own thing.”
On Starbucks’ website, the company pledges to “double the recycled content, recyclability and compostability, and reusability” of its cups and packaging by 2022.
Yet Lorenzi said he is not convinced this is a definitive goal. “It’s about the fifth date they set,” he said. “They started in 2008 — they were going to do it by 2012. And in 2010, they said they’d do it by 2015. In 2015, they said they’d do it by 2020. They’re now with the next one, which is 2022.”
Starbucks did not respond to Mongabay’s request for comment.
This month, the SEAL Awards Impact Team launched a campaign called #UpTheCup to call on Starbucks to truly adopt a recyclable cup. An accompanying petition has already garnered more than 60,000 signatures.
“In reality, as a society, we entrust leaders to make decisions — like the type of cup used — in a truly responsible way, even if that issue has gone undetected by the general public,” Harney said. “To quote C.S. Lewis, ‘Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.’”
Banner image caption: Discarded food and beverage packaging. Image by Jasmin Sessler / Unsplash.
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How to fight microplastic pollution with magnets

Huge amounts of plastic ends up rivers and oceans every year, harming the environment and potentially also human health. But what if we could pull it out of water with the power of magnets?As a child, Fionn Ferreira spent hours exploring the coastline near his hometown of Ballydehob in south-west Ireland. But the more time he spent on the sheltered, shingle-strewn coves nearby, he grew increasingly shocked by the large amounts of plastic litter he found strewn across the beach and in the sea.
“It didn’t look nice to me – the coloured bits of plastic all along the shore,” he says. 
Around the world, humans produce an estimated 300 million tonnes of plastic waste every year, and at least 10 million tonnes end up in our oceans – the equivalent of a rubbish truck load every minute.
But it was the plastic that Ferreira couldn’t see which really concerned him. Microplastics are fragments smaller than five millimetres and either come directly from the products we use or are created as larger plastic objects break down in the environment. They are ubiquitous – they have been found at the bottom of the world’s deepest ocean trench and lodged in Arctic sea ice.
“I got really anxious when I found out about microplastics,” says Ferreira, who is now aged 20 and a chemistry student at Groningen University in the Netherlands. “These plastics are going to be in our environment for thousands of years. We are going to be dealing with them long after we stop using plastic.”  
As he learned more about the environmental impact of microplastics in the environment, Ferreira began to look for ways to combat them. And it was a serendipitous discovery on his local beach that gave him the idea for a new way to remove these tiny, omnipresent plastics from the oceans.Some shower products contain tiny plastic beads that when washed down the drain can escape into the environment where they are difficult to get rid of (Credit: Alamy)Microplastics are found in our clothes, cosmetics and cleaning products. One load of laundry can release an average of 700,000 microplastic fibres. Less than a millimetre in length, these fibres make their way into rivers and oceans, where they are eaten by fish and even corals. Because of their tiny size, microplastics are able to pass through filtration systems, making it very difficult to avoid them.
One 2018 study, plastic contamination can also be found in bottled water, with 93% of 259 bottled water samples the scientists examined containing microplastics.
According to recent research, we constantly inhale and ingest microplastics during our daily lives. One study in 2019 by researchers at the University of Newcastle found that globally people ingest an average of 5g of plastic every week – the equivalent of a credit card. The impact that this diet of microplastics has on our health, however, is still poorly understood.
Chemicals used in plastic have, however, been linked to a range of health problems including cancer, heart disease and poor foetal development. Studies have found that human exposure to microplastics could cause oxidative stress, inflammation and respiratory problems.
“The urgency of the plastic problem has not yet hit people,” says Ferreira. “Plastic pollution is a public health issue. You are not just drinking the plastic, but also the chemicals that are added to it. Plastic attracts heavy metals and brings these into our system.”
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Another concern is that plastics could help transport pathogens which bind themselves to the material. A 2016 study found the pathogen Vibrio cholerae, which causes cholera in humans, attached to microplastics sampled from the North and Baltic Seas.
“It is not just a problem of the health of our environment, but really a problem that concerns all of us and our health,” says Ferreira.And the amount of plastic in the environment is projected to get much worse. Plastic production is expected to increase by 60% by 2030 and triple by 2050. By then, there could be more plastic than fish in the ocean, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a UK non-profit that promotes the circular economy where materials are reused rather than thrown away.
At the age of 12 years old, Ferreira became determined to find a solution to remove microplastics from water. He started by designing his own spectrometer, a scientific instrument that uses ultraviolet light to measure the density of microplastics in solutions.
“I could see there were a lot of microplastics in the water and they weren’t just coming from big plastic breaking down in the sea,” he says. “There needed to be a way to combat this.”
It was on his local beach that Ferreira came up with a solution that could extract microplastics from water. “I found some oil spill residue with loads of plastic attached to it,” he says. “I realised that oil could be used to attract plastic.”
Ferreira mixed vegetable oil with iron oxide powder to create a magnetic liquid, also known as ferrofluid. He then blended in microplastics from a wide range of everyday items, including plastic bottles, paint and car tyres, and water from the washing machine.
After the microplastics attached themselves to the ferrofluid, Ferreira used a magnet to remove the solution and leave behind only water.
Following 5,000 tests, Ferreira’s method was 87% effective at extracting microplastics from water.
Ferreira is currently in the process of designing a device which uses the magnetic extraction method to capture microplastics as water flows past it. The device will be small enough to fit inside waterpipes to continuously extract plastic fragments as water flows through them. He has also been working on a system that could be fitted to ships so they can extract plastics on the oceans.Microplastics are found in a wide range of cosmetics and toiletries, but can also come from synthetic clothing and larger plastic items as they break down (Credit: HP)”There is no current effective solution to remove microplastics in natural waterways,” says Anne-Marieke Eveleens, who created another device known as the Bubble Barrier, a tube device that can be installed on canals and rivers to trap larger plastic waste with a stream of bubbles that guides it to a catchment area, preventing it from entering the ocean. “Our Bubble Barrier is very effective at catching macroplastics and can catch microparticles of plastic as small as 1 mm. Fionn’s innovation has the capacity to remove all types of microplastics.”
In 2019, Ferreira presented his invention to a panel of expert judges at the Google Science Fair, which led to him winning the competition and receiving an educational scholarship of $50,000 (£36,400).
“He observed and tackled a problem he saw locally which has vast global significance,” says Larissa Kelly, Ferreira’s former science teacher at Schull Community College and his mentor for the Google Science Fair entry. “His invention, based on very simple components, is groundbreaking. It has powerful potential to provide solutions that will contribute to the worldwide effort to remove microplastics from the environment.”
“I started out as a lonely inventor,” says Ferreira. “After the Google Science Fair, I could all of a sudden speak to scientists – they gave me credit for what I had done. My idea was no longer a toy invented by a child.”
After receiving funding from the Footprint Coalition, which was founded by actor Robert Downey Jr, Ferreira started scaling up the technology so it could be used at wastewater treatment facilities and prevent microplastics from escaping into the ocean.
He is currently working with US company Stress Engineering to fine-tune his invention and design a device out of stainless steel, glass or recycled plastic. “We’re trying to make something where we are not creating more plastic pollution,” he says.Humanity produces millions of tonnes of plastic waste every year and a large amount of it escapes to pollute natural habitats (Credit: Andrey Nekrasov/Getty Images)The technology is “very quick, cheap and low energy,” he says, adding that it can easily be integrated into existing facilities and is able to handle normal flow rates of water.
Ferreira is also developing a consumer-focused device which can be installed inside pipes in homes, cleaning the water as it enters and leaves the house. The aim is to provide people with water that is both safe to drink and sustainable.
“I don’t want to be drinking plastic every day,” he says. “By building this device in our homes, we are not only protecting our health, but also raising awareness.”
He is testing the devices in different water bodies around the world and hopes to commercialise both within the next two years.
But Ferreira says he has encountered scepticism throughout his journey as a young inventor and hopes that inventions such as his will help change that attitude. And as his generation inherits problems created by those that came before them, the world is likely to need more imaginative solutions.
“A lot of people don’t trust young inventors,” he says. “That needs to change. Youth have the power to come up with new creative ideas, they aren’t trained to look down just one tunnel.”

Bright Sparks Sustainability
This article is part of BBC Future’s Bright Sparks: Sustainability series, which sets out to find the young minds who are finding new and innovative ways of tackling environmental problems. They are the next generation of engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs who are taking control of their own future by seeking solutions to climate change, pollution, biodiversity loss and over-consumption.

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Appalachian communities talk gas, plastics, and inequity with federal energy officials

The U.S. Department of Energy held an online public meeting on Tuesday to find out how frontline communities in Appalachia are impacted by the growing ethane and petrochemical industries. Ethane is a byproduct of natural gas development and can be used to make plastics. 
Sean O’Leary, senior researcher with the Ohio River Valley Institute, told the DOE that on balance, natural gas development, including pipelines and the ethane cracker being built by Shell in Beaver County to make plastic, are doing more harm than good. 
“The environmental burdens currently being placed on the region, by the natural gas industry, and…by expansion of the petrochemical industry, are not only damaging to the well being of residents but have also failed to produce growth in jobs and prosperity,” O’Leary said in a presentation during the DOE meeting. 
At the request of Congress, the Energy Department is producing a study on the environmental, health, and local impacts of ethane processing and distribution. It will also look at the potential economic benefits of increasing production, including more exports. 
Following Pennsylvania Gas to Scotland

Amanda Woodrum, a researcher at Policy Matters Ohio, spoke on behalf of the coalition called ReImagine Appalachia. She told the DOE that Appalachia is rich in coal and natural gas, and has benefitted from union coal jobs. Still, she said it has been a resource curse. “Where Appalachia has essentially been providing the raw materials for the rest of the country, while itself has been left in poverty,” Woodrum said. 
Woodrum pushed DOE for new infrastructure investments in the region. 
Biden’s Effort Toward Environmental Justice and Climate Action
“We are determined to tackle these inequities,” said Dr. Jennifer Wilcox, DOE Acting Assistant Secretary of the newly renamed Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management, which is leading the ethane report for Congress. 
“For too long, frontline communities have suffered the negative health and social impacts associated with fossil energy infrastructure built through and around their neighborhoods,” she said. “And at the same time, they’ve been denied the energy access and economic benefits enjoyed in wealthier areas.”  
The administration’s goal is to invest in communities impacted by fossil fuels, create good-paying jobs, and tackle climate change, according to Wilcox.
When it comes to ethane, U.S. production has nearly doubled since 2013, according to the Energy Information Administration, and demand is expected to continue an upward trend. 
Climate and environmental groups are concerned about carbon emissions from this production. 
“Deep decarbonization is the cornerstone of the president’s strategy,” Wilcox said during her opening comments at the ethane meeting. Biden has the goal of cutting carbon emissions in half by 2030 and creating a net-zero carbon economy by 2050. “And it means that we have to look at every sector across our economy: energy, transportation, and manufacturing,” she said.
The DOE ethane report, which will include comments from this meeting, is expected to be completed by the end of the year.

Energy Secretary Pushes Jobs in Coal and Natural Gas Communities From Climate Action

Video: As the World Grapples with Plastic Pollution, Pa.’s Ethane Cracker Promises More Plastic

Experts laud Montreal's plan to cut back on single-use plastics but say Canada has far to go

MONTREAL — Environmental experts are praising Montreal’s decision to ban some kinds of single-use plastics, but they say Canada is still a long way from being plastic-free despite government promises. Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante announced on Wednesday that the city would ban retailers and restaurants from distributing plastic bags in the city by end of August 2022. Six months later, a number of other single-use items will be banned, she said, including takeout food containers, cups, lids, utensils and stir sticks made from unrecyclable or hard-to-recycle plastics.Plante described her city’s plan as the most ambitious in North America, and she said what sets it apart is the focus on reducing plastic at the source. Get top stories in your inbox.Our award-winning journalists bring you the news that impacts you, Canada, and the world. Don’t miss out.”For some cities, recycling is priority No. 1,” she said. “For us, it’s reducing, reducing, reducing.” The mayor added that the urgency was heightened by the fact the city’s only landfill is expected to be full by 2029.Ashley Wallis, a plastics pollution expert with environmental charity Oceana Canada, described Montreal’s initiative as a “great step,” and she had particular praise for the decision to include drink cups on the list of banned items — something other governments, including Ottawa, have stopped short of doing.”We do know that 47 per cent of Canada’s plastic waste is from single-use plastics and plastics packaging, so I think there is a huge opportunity by focusing on things like these single-use takeaway items,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday. What people are reading However, Wallis said that despite cities’ best efforts, Canada is still far away from a plastic-free future.In 2019, the federal government announced it intended to ban several single-use plastic items, including plastic bags, straws, stir sticks, six-pack rings, cutlery and hard-to-recycle takeout containers — a list Wallis described as “too narrowly scoped.”Ottawa has also promised to impose recycled-content requirements. As well, the federal government has discussed making some companies responsible for collecting their products made of plastic when they aren’t useful anymore, as part of a goal to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030. But those regulations, which were promised by end of 2021, have yet to be unveiled and could be derailed by the upcoming federal election, Wallis said.Federal legislation on plastic ought to include takeout cups, she said, as well as all forms of polystyrene and oxo-degradable plastics, which break down quickly. Longer term, she said, what’s needed is a comprehensive, sector-by-sector plan to reduce and reuse plastic, with manufacturers being given the main responsibility for collection and recycling.Even Montreal’s plan contains some omissions. It doesn’t include cardboard takeout containers with plastic coating and excludes non-profits that distribute food, for example. More importantly, it can’t affect anything outside the city’s jurisdiction, which includes grocery store items because they’re packaged outside city limits. Environmental experts are praising Montreal’s decision to ban some kinds of single-use plastics, but they say Canada is still a long way from being plastic-free despite government promises. #PlasticBan #cdnpoli Plante said she was hoping the city’s action would “influence in a very positive and proactive way the other levels of government.”Karen Wirsig, the plastics program manager for advocacy group Environmental Defence, says more federal and provincial action is needed to push back against a plastics industry that is reluctant to change. The most effective way to do that, she said, is to “make the people who produce those things responsible for them at end of life,” and make sure they can’t just bury or burn them.While that’s largely a provincial and federal effort, she said cities, too, have a role to play in plastic reduction.In addition to banning plastic items, as Montreal has done, she said cities can create more local infrastructure to help businesses and restaurants offer reusable containers. “Nationwide standards are important. But for things like infrastructure, those really need to be local,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday.Wirsig acknowledged that the COVID-19 pandemic has represented a setback for plastic reduction efforts, but she said it was also an opportunity for creative thinking.On one hand, takeout and online ordering have skyrocketed, creating more waste. Originally, the pandemic led to fears — now largely debunked, she said — that the disease could be spread on containers. On the other hand, she said the pandemic has also led many people to question their relationship to their local environments and they may be ready for positive change.”There’s no question that the pandemic put us back, but I think it’s also been a moment where people are rethinking their relationship with their surroundings, their relationship with their local environment, and it may be a great moment to change some of those old ways we had,” she said.This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 19, 2021.

Mushrooms: 4 uses that benefit the environment

As we look to transition from fossil to bio-based materials, fungi are becoming the ultimate biodegradable building blocks for furniture, fashion, housing and beyond.
Mycelium, the silky thread that binds fungus, is being adapted to create everything from shoes to coffins to packaging and robust building materials. Best of all, it literally feeds on trash and agricultural byproducts, detoxifing them along the way. The biodegradable material that is also grown vertically to save space and uses little water, has emerged as a low emission, circular economy solution in the bid to transition from extractive, carbon-based products. There are up to five million types of fungus that constitute a “kingdom on their own,” says Maurizio Montalti, a Dutch-based designer and researcher who has been working with mycelium for a decade. Fungi are the “fundamental agents that enable the transformation of not only nutrition but also information across living systems. We couldn’t live without it,” said Montalti of what has also been called natures’s internet.  Having experimented with mycelium furniture design, in 2018 Montalti founded Mogu, a company commercializing fungi-based bio-material products — including sound-absorbing tiles created from mycelium grown on corn crop refuse, rice straw, spent coffee grounds, discarded seaweed and even clam shells. But fungi aren’t changing the world just yet. “There is a lot of excitement these days when talking about mycelium,” Montalti said, adding that the challenge is in designing a “product that works and can compete in the market.”  And although shoe and apparel giant Adidas as well as fashion labels Stella McCartney and Gucci have all recently hopped on the fungi bandwagon to try and meet that challenge, mycelium is yet to go mass-scale.  Here are four products that could herald the start of a revolution.   1. Mycelium ‘living cocoon’ coffins “Are you waste or compost?” That is the question according to Netherlands-based mycelium coffin manufacturer, Loop. The company is offering the dead a chance to birth new life via their “living cocoon” coffin, which it claims was the first of its kind. As bodies decompose within a fully compostable mycelium cocoon, they can become part of the solution to reviving biodiversity that has depleted to the point where more than a million species are at risk of extinction.  The mycelium coffin that turns corpses into compost “To be buried, we cut down a tree, work it intensively and try to shut ourselves off as well as possible from microorganisms,” Loop said in a statement in reference to conventional coffins. “And for those that don’t want to be buried, we waste our nutrient-rich body by burning it with cremation, polluting the air and ignoring the potential of our human body. It’s as if we see ourselves as waste, while we can be a valuable part of nature.” 2. Mushroom ‘leather’ shoes Mycotech, based in Bandung, Indonesia, was growing gourmet mushrooms in 2012 before it shifted its business to use fungi to create a sustainable alternative to leather products, especially shoes. Founder, Adi Reza Nugroho says it has great environmental advantages over traditional leather. “We consume less water, we don’t have to kill animals, we can do vertical farming so we can save some space,” he said, adding that it also produces fewer emissions and requires none of the chemicals used in plastic-based materials. Feeding on agricultural waste such as sawdust, it only takes the mycelium a few days to grow to the point where it is ready to be harvested, tanned and further processed. The resulting material is breathable, flexible, robust and can last for years. While Mycotech is still creating limited runs of its fungi shoes, the company has orders up until 2027. And this relatively small-scale start-up is not alone. While leather continues to dominate Adidas’ sneaker lines, the German company is now also marketing mycelium shoes. Released in April, the Stan Smith Mylo is made using the brand’s “Mylo” mycelium material. Fungi-based footwear is also being touted by eco-conscious grassroots designers because the shoes can literally biodegrade — as illustrated by these Mycoflex-based slippers designed by Charlotta Aman.  3. Transforming plastic and toxic waste Since they feed on trash, mushrooms can also detoxify our waste and transform it into usable materials that are non-extractive, offering a neat solution for closing the loop on unrecylable plastic, for example. Established in 2018, US-based Mycocycle uses fungi to remove toxins from building materials like asphalt or petrochemical-based waste. “We are actually using mushrooms to cycle these toxins, make them non-toxic and available for reuse in a closed loop economy,” said company founder, Joanne Rodriguez.  A response to the fact that 85% of landfill space in the US has already been used up, Mycocycle aims to help in the shift to zero waste by decontaminating toxic building materials like asphalt that previously could not be reused. Mycocycle claims that its trash-fed mycelium is fire and water-resistant and can be manufactured into a host of new products such as styrofoam, insulation, packaging and building materials.  “We take trash and make treasure, decarbonizing waste and creating a new value stream in the circular economy,” said Rodriguez. 4. A biodegradable building block A fully compostable, zero-emissions mushroom tower called the Hy-Fy was constructed with 10,000 mycelium bricks in New York back in 2014. Numerous prototypes have been built since but mushroom-building largely remains in the conceptual stage.  “Co-create with fungi,” is the mantra for the My-Co Space, a mycelium tiny house currently being exhibited in Frankfurt’s Metzlerpark. The compostable mushroom My-Co Space is currently on display in Frankfurt. It can also be booked for overnight stays Designed for two occupants, the facade of the 20-square-meter structure has a plywood frame thatched in honeycomb-shaped mycelium blocks grown with a mushroom straw substrate. The intimate, organic shape plays on the fundamental interrelation between humans and fungi. “We want to transform dead plant matter, which comes from agriculture or from forestry, and we want to transform this into composite materials. And we do this with fungi,” explains Vera Meyer, a biotechnology professor at the Technical University of Berlin and founder of the MY-CO-X collective that created My-Co Space. For Meyer, fungi are the “most important microorganisms” that can help make the transition from fossil to bio-based resources.

Corps will take closer look at Formosa plant's impact on environment, minority residents in St. James

Construction on an enormous $9.4 billion plastics plant proposed in St. James Parish must be delayed so the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can do a more extensive and lengthy review of the facility’s impacts on the environment and nearby minority communities, a top Army official said Wednesday.Jaime A. Pinkham, acting assistant secretary of the Army for civil works, said the new review of the Formosa Plastics complex would have a particular focus on any environmental justice concerns. The proposed plant would be located near the largely African American community of Welcome on the parish’s west bank.In a two-page memo, Pinkham didn’t offer many details for the reasons behind the decision. But the Corps of Engineers already acknowledged to a federal judge late last year that an earlier, less intensive review for the permit had errors in part of its analysis.At the time, the Corps had suspended that original, flawed permit, which would allow Formosa to fill in wetlands on the more than 2,300-acre site along the Mississippi River. Proposed by an affiliate of Formosa Plastics, the Sunshine Project has been praised by Gov. John Bel Edwards and many other government leaders for the thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in economic development it will bring.But it has become a lightning rod for some other local leaders and environmental and community groups, who have criticized its toxic air emissions, risk of accidental release of plastic pellets, the ramp-up in plastics production it represents, and its proximity to antebellum graves that may hold deceased slaves.The project, announced in spring 2018, has already hit other slowdowns because of high Mississippi River water and state and federal litigation. 

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to temporarily suspend a permit critical for the construction of a $9.4 billion chemical complex propos…

Since the Corps of Engineers’ suspension of the Formosa permit in November, all sides of the intense debate over the plant have been waiting to see what the agency’s next step would be.During that time, months of public pressure built on the new Biden administration from environmental groups, political leaders in other states, and a United Nations investigator, all of whom argued that the huge complex would have a disproportionate impact on minority communities located nearby and already breathing poor air. The UN investigator charged it was an example of “environmental racism.”The decision was announced Wednesday in a Tweet from Pinkham, the Army assistant secretary. “As a result of information received to date and my commitment for the Army to be a leader in the federal government’s efforts to ensure through environmental analysis and meaningful community outreach, I conclude an EIS process is warranted to thoroughly review areas of concern, particularly those with environmental justice implications,” Pinkham wrote in a two-page memo dated Aug. 18.An “EIS” is an “environmental impact statement,” a more in-depth review than what the agency previously did for the Formosa project.Pinkham added that the review he was ordering the Corps of Engineers to do would “assess the proposed project’s potential impacts on the quality of the human environment in the region and to support its final decision to modify, reinstate, or revoke the permit.”Pinkham’s memo says that the new review process would “provide opportunities for voices to be heard in an open, transparent, and public way.”A Corps spokesman in Washington, D.C., didn’t immediately return a call for comment Wednesday.Today Acting ASA(CW) Jaime Pinkham directed @USACEHQ to proceed with an EIS for the proposed Formosa Sunshine Project permit in St. James Parish, LA. The permit will remain suspended until the EIS has been completed and the record of decision has been issued. pic.twitter.com/gL40vwtrFT— Assistant Secretary of the Army for Civil Works (@ASACivilWorks) August 18, 2021

Your compostable plastic cups aren't a cure-all

It looks like plastic, it feels like plastic, and it holds your favorite beverage like plastic. But somewhere on the cup you’ve been handed is a label that reads “100 percent compostable”. How is that possible? 

Simply put, this plastic-y material is polylactic acid (PLA), a polymer made from lots of little bits of lactic acid molecules derived from the fermentation of starch like corn, cassava, or potato plants. Single-use cups and take-out containers made from PLA, sometimes called bioplastic or biopolymer, have become increasingly common in recent years, under the assumption that a compostable container is better for the environment than a standard plastic one. In actuality, it depends on where you are and who you ask.Compostable plastics like PLA do generally compost under the right circumstances. But contrary to what you might think, just because it composts, doesn’t mean a product is automatically “green”.[Related: How to start composting at home.]

Composting PLA takes more than a backyard bin

In the greenwashed world of food service products, it’s important to understand that not all labels are equal, says Sego Jackson, a waste management strategic advisor and policy liaison for Seattle, Washington, one of the few cities in the country that requires businesses to use recyclable or compostable products. 

You might come across a clear cup labeled simply “biodegradable,” or encounter labels that say things like “made from plants” or “plant-based”. But this doesn’t mean your cup is compostable or made from anything other than standard plastic, Jackson says. These vague terms can mean any number of things, but often just refers to the fact that some plant-produced starch was mixed into the standard plastic, he adds. This type of plastic may be less durable over the long term and break down into smaller pieces more quickly, but small plastic bits are still plastic and will persist in the ecosystem.

However, if a cup or container is labeled compostable, it probably is under very specific conditions. Most of the compostable PLA products out there have been inspected and certified by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), a non-profit organization that runs independent tests of compostable products to verify that they break down. In Washington state, for instance, BPI certification is required by law before a single-use product can be labeled compostable at all.Still, these very specific composting conditions are tough to come by. Tossing a PLA cup into your home compost pile won’t break it down, says Nora Goldstein, executive editor of BioCycle magazine—a publication covering the organic waste recycling and composting industry. “I put [compostable plastic] cups from NatureWorks in [my home compost] from the early fall of last year, and they’re still there,” she says. The only way to make the cups actually break down, she says, requires a specific set of microorganisms used in industrial composting that need temperatures well above what most backyard heaps reach to thrive. 

The cups and containers have been tested in both the lab and at composting facilities to ensure they break down within an approved timeline, usually six months, to comply with the ASTM International standard, says Craig Coker, owner of Coker Composting and Consulting in Troutville, Virginia and a senior editor at BioCycle.[Related: Will we ever be able to recycle all our plastic?]

Composting isn’t a cure-all

While composting PLA products is certainly better for the environment than tossing them into the trash, there’s still quite a few issues with today’s composting system. To start, there are very few facilities in the US that are set up to handle PLA products. In a survey of composting facilities across the country, BioCycle found that only 49 out of 4,700 composters nationwide accepted compostable plastic products. Although intentions may be good, a restaurant or venue providing compostable cups doesn’t mean much if the local waste system isn’t set up to process them. 

And, there are a few reasons composters are hesitant to change their ways.The first, and most prevalent issue, according to Coker and another BioCycle survey is that PLA and standard plastics are difficult to tell apart. People often confuse one for the other, especially given the ambiguity of the labeling process. As a result, regular plastic contamination can easily make it into the compost stream if a compost manufacturer decides to accept PLA cups, says Jackson. And regular plastic truly will not break down, no matter how hot the compost pile. This plastic contamination can reduce compost value, says Coker, as well as contribute to plastic pollution in the soil and waterways. Further, some industrial composters operate on a faster cycle than what’s appropriate for breaking down PLA, says Coker, and aren’t incentivized to adapt. 

Compost made with PLA containers in the US also can’t be certified organic. This can be a big problem for composters who get the bulk of their revenue by selling to organic growers, says Coker.With so few facilities willing and able to accept PLA, lots of it ends up in the landfill, says Rafael Auras, an associate professor at the Michigan State University School of Packaging. Landfilled PLA doesn’t necessarily break down any faster or better than regular plastic, which can take 100s of years to degrade into small bits that never really go away. And if PLA does happen to end up in hot enough landfill conditions, the microorganism-rich but oxygen deprived environment can cause these “eco-friendly” cups to actually contribute to greenhouse gas emissions by producing methane. While this carbon footprint seems small compared to our food system’s giant methane problem, according to a 2012 study from NatureWorks LLC, landfills remain a less-than-ideal burial ground for compostable PLA. 

PLA can also inadvertently end up in the standard plastics recycling stream, says Auras. There, compostable plastics can cause contamination, necessitating costly sorting interventions for currently unprepared facilities. “The distribution of these products and use and sales outpaces the available infrastructure,” says BioCycle’s Goldstein.[Related: Scientists are making progress with better plastic-eating bacteria.]

Even when composted, PLAs bring up a lot of questions

When a compostable cup makes it to the right facility and gets cycled into the soil, there’s still debate about the total environmental impact of these products. In 2019, the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) published a review of life cycle assessments (LCAs) of different types of compostable single-use foodware. Their findings suggested that standard plastics were actually better than compostables for the environment when taking into account compostable alternatives’ dependence on an already fraught agricultural system. Monoculture corn, the major source for PLA production in North America, has lots of well established downsides for the planet. 

Not everyone agrees with the Oregon DEQ’s conclusions, however. In one response, BPI states that many of the studies considered were older than five years, a large time gap for quickly-changing compostable manufacturing technology. Rhodes Yepsen, executive director at BPI says negative impacts from the fossil fuels behind traditional petroleum based plastics, were largely excluded from the review. Another unaccounted for benefit of compostable foodware is its ability to divert food waste away from landfills—leftover food can be just chucked with its container into a green bin without second thought. Food waste is the third largest human-caused source of methane emissions nationwide, and trashed leftovers produce much less methane in the compost than if landfilled.

Oregon has stuck by it’s report, and a coalition of the state’s composters have refused to accept PLAs. However, other studies have ranked PLAs above single-use standard plastics in terms of greenhouse gas emissions and overall climate change impacts. So far, there’s no real clear answer on what PLAs impact on the planet really is.[Related: Can this Colorado man put a dent in our trash problem?]

What needs to be done to make foodware truly green?

If you’re given a compostable cup in Seattle or San Francisco—rejoice! Throw it in the correct bin and it will be composted into soil and used to grow future crops. But if you’re anywhere else in the country, it’s fair to be a little skeptical. Some large venues like stadiums have developed their own composting programs, and  likely have partnerships in place to handle the waste. But your home compost heap certainly doesn’t, and your neighborhood café might not either.

The debate about single-use compostables vs. recyclables may rage on, but reusable items will almost always be better for the environment than either, says Jackson. Although compostable cups might be a useful tool in a pinch, an even better option, he says, is a cup you don’t throw away at all.

Meet the plastic-hunting ‘pirates’ of Cornwall

The pirates’ bounty is melted down to make sea kayaks, which are then used to collect more rubbish

From the tip of Cornwall to the Isle of Skye, with a message of “all aboard”, people are seeking out hard-to-reach marine plastic from the water.
Based on their roving home on the former Dutch icebreaker Annette, Steve Green and his partner Monika Hertlová (main picture) have coordinated more than 300 volunteers, many of them local to their base on the Helford River in Cornwall.
Steve Green is pirate-in-chief of Clean Ocean Sailing (COS), a group of sailors, surfers, swimmers and divers, who are united in their love of the ocean, and sickened by the amount of rubbish it in.

With a fixed crew of the couple’s two-year-old, Simon, and labrador Rosie, the 113-year-old, 55-tonne boat also acts as a mobile basecamp. People disembark in a flotilla of smaller boats to reach the most inaccessible parts of Cornwall’s commanding coastline – and clear them of as much junk as they can.
The group also has a “rapid response unit”, says Green. “People send us a photo or location, and we have about 20 volunteers who are set up and ready to pick up any ‘ghost gear’, before it gets washed out to sea again on the next tide. We have found fish crates and fishing gear from South Africa, China, South and North America. It’s crazy.”

Key to the operation is the 113-year-old, 55-tonne former icebreaker former Annette. Image: Alexander Turner

Since COS began in 2017, the group has recorded and removed 250,000 individual pieces of plastic from their local coves – with a combined weight of over 50 tonnes. Green says that about 85 per cent of this has been recycled and repurposed. Some of it is melted down and pelletised at the Ocean Recovery Project in Exeter, before being donated back to COS in the form of recycled sea kayaks to help them find yet more rubbish.
A system of mutual support built on local friendship is the backbone of COS’s success. Many locals who are unable to donate time instead offer the group goods, such as beers, groceries and pasties, to help keep the boat afloat.
“An awful lot of Cornish people aren’t particularly financially motivated. It’s almost an island attitude: we all lean on each other and look after each other. It is an ideal place for a testing ground for a circular economy,” says Green.

Since COS began in 2017, the group has removed 250,000 individual pieces of plastic. Image: Alexander Turner

In 2018, a boat was crowdfunded by Surfers Against Sewage representatives on the Isle of Skye, Scotland in order to reach the island’s most polluted areas. Working in conjunction with the Highland council, entire skips full of plastic can be removed from a single beach.
Back in Cornwall, Simon Myers and his son Milo are among those who have volunteered with COS. Like many of the group, they believe that their strength lies collectively in tackling global issues on a local scale.
A lot of Cornish people aren’t particularly financially motivated: we all lean on each other and look after each other
“Living in western Europe, we have largely been insulated from pretty much all of the consequences of our actions over the last 50 or 60 years, but we have an emotional attachment to this landscape, coastline and people. These issues – around overconsumption, pollution and climate change – are becoming increasingly personal. We love this part of the world. We grew up here and want to protect it,” says Myers.

“We are standing next to a Jolly Roger, at the mercy of the wind – it’s romantic, it’s under sail,” adds Myers. “There is a need to have quite visible, demonstrable ways to counterbalance a consumer culture.”
For Green, it’s not only about picking up the rubbish: “It’s [also about] other people seeing us doing that and perhaps they start to think about not dropping it in the first place – or even better, not buying it. That’s what’s really going to change the world.”
Main image: Alexander Turner