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Most plastic waste in Minneapolis is not recycled, a new report has found, but instead is burned at a downtown incinerator adjacent to low-income communities of color, perpetuating a system in which vulnerable groups are exposed to high levels of pollution.
A mere 11 percent of plastic waste in Minneapolis is ultimately recycled, according to the July report, published by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, an international organization that seeks to shut down garbage-burning-to-energy facilities such as the Hennepin Energy Recovery Center, better known as the HERC.
The report, “A Tale of Five Cities: Plastic Barriers to Zero Waste,” is a deep dive into plastics recycling in Minneapolis; Baltimore; Detroit; Long Beach, California; and Newark, New Jersey. Minneapolis ranks favorably among these cities. The report’s authors found that its municipal curbside single-sort recycling service ranked best in the group and the city’s recycling contractor, the nonprofit Eureka Recycling, was among the best in the nation.
Despite the success of Minneapolis’s recycling program, most plastics aren’t finding their way into the system to begin with. “Despite that infrastructure and despite the efforts, it’s still demonstrating that the majority of plastic in the waste stream either isn’t recyclable in the first place or it’s not being recycled and is being burned or landfilled,” said Akira Yano, an organizer with Minnesota Environmental Justice Table, a nonprofit group that advocates for vulnerable communities across the state.
Globally, 91 percent of all plastic produced is not recycled, according to the July report. And while around 35 percent of plastic in municipal waste streams in the United States has the potential to be recycled, just 8.8 percent of it actually is.
“Most plastic is designed to be dumped and burned,” said report author Denise Patel, U.S. Program Director with the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.
What can be recycled is determined by what substances have a viable resale market, according to Lynn Hoffman, co-president of Minneapolis-based Eureka Recycling, which has contracts for residential recycling with Minneapolis, St. Paul, and several other communities.
The resale markets for glass, paper, and metals are robust. But for plastics, the viability of the market depends on the base resin used to form the particular plastic. Plastic types #1 (think water or soda bottle), #2 (think milk jug or laundry detergent container), and #5 (think yogurt cups), have resale value and are typically recycled into new products.
But for less common plastics–such as types #3, #4, #6, and #7, used to make products like cling wrap, takeout containers, and CDs–there’s no real resale market, and the substances will likely be burned or landfilled. Plastic film used to make shopping bags is also largely non-recyclable and is only typically collected for reuse at grocery stores.
Despite the fact that only certain types of plastic are in demand and can be economically recycled, packaging and products that fall outside the desirable categories are often labeled with the recycling symbol of three arrows. That can be deceiving to consumers who believe the product they are tossing in a bin can be reused.
“It’s a huge challenge we have in communications,” said Kellie Kish, recycling coordinator for the city of Minneapolis.
Many recycling haulers attempt to simplify the process by telling people to put all types of plastic in their bins, Hoffman said. But Eureka requires its partner-cities to clearly state which types of plastic can be accepted: types #1, #2, and #5. In Minneapolis, that appears to be working. The Five Cities report found that 88 percent of plastic collected in the city’s single-sort system is recycled.
For Eureka, the biggest challenge is posed by plastic bags. The company spends countless hours and an estimated $75,000 per year sorting out and disposing of plastic bags, which can get caught in the sorting axles, and even catch fire, at their facility. Black plastics also are non-recyclable, because the laser reader Eureka uses to sort materials can’t determine which type of plastics they are,and they have a lower resale value on the market.
Packing wrap from companies like Amazon and Hello Fresh might be covered in the three-arrow symbol, but it’s not actually recyclable, Hoffman said. “That is egregious.”
A breakdown of where plastic waste in Minneapolis ultimately goes shows that most is destined for the trash. Source: Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives.
Connecting the dots
The Minnesota Environmental Justice Table is actively campaigning to shut down all seven garbage incinerators in the state, most prominently the HERC in Minneapolis. In Minnesota, incinerators that burn trash to make steam, which is converted into energy, are considered renewable energy sources, which experts say is misleading.
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Incinerators produce toxic air pollutants with demonstrated links to asthma, lung disease, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Environmental justice advocates have organized against the HERC for decades, citing its location on the edge of downtown, near north Minneapolis.
The HERC emits pollution—including arsenic, chromium, and particulate matter–onto north Minneapolis, a community where the majority of residents are people of color, and an area already exposed to a disproportionate level of air-borne toxins. Some of those toxins come from burning plastic, according to the Five Cities report, since about 88 percent of all plastic in Minneapolis ends up in the trash.
Fossil fuels are refined into ethane and propane and used to create plastics. Because plastic stems from fossil fuels like crude oil and gas, the Minnesota Environmental Justice Table sees the zero waste movement as being directly tied to the resistance against the Line 3 oil pipeline being constructed in Northern Minnesota. Both the construction of the pipeline through Ojibwe land and the burning of plastics near vulnerable communities of color exacerbate existing inequalities in who suffers from pollution, said organizer Yano.
“The fight against Line 3 and the fight against the HERC are linked, because the construction of Line 3 would reinforce the use of fossil fuels to continue creating unsustainable plastic products,” Yano said.
Move to zero waste
Clearly, the status quo of plastics recycling is bad for the planet, but experts and advocates believe a zero waste future is possible.
“What we do now with the plastic waste, it’s not sustainable,” said Professor Muhammad Rabnawaz, who studies plastics at the Michigan State University School of Packaging.
Rabnawaz’s research looks at alternatives to plastic packaging, which is a growing field in the United States. In 2018, China stopped accepting plastic waste from the U. S., forcing the government and scientists to reexamine how to manage excess plastic. Rabnawaz believes the federal government is moving in the right direction on plastic recycling.
Finding value for types of plastic beyond #1, #2, and #5, is key to improving recycling. Rabnawaz said regulating the number of plastic types that can be used on one product would be an important step, because some items have multiple plastic categories and are impossible to recycle.
Increased community education is key to reducing plastic waste, Rabnawaz said. He favors an approach that provides tax incentives for using plastic alternatives and requirements that reintroduce recycled plastic into manufacturing.
“It’s all about engaging all stakeholders to envision and create a new future with plastic designed for recycling and biodegradability and where possible using paper and metal as alternatives,” Rabnawaz, a PhD originally from Pakistan, told Sahan Journal.
Eureka has advocated for Minnesota lawmakers to institute a statewide plastic bag ban and would like to see national legislation on truth-in-labeling so companies can’t greenwash their packaging with deceptive recycling symbols. Hoffman, the company’s co-president, said she also favors laws like one passed recently in California that require all plastic bottles to be made with at least 40 percent recycled material.
In Minneapolis, Kish and other city staff are conducting active outreach to educate residents about recycling best practices and the harms of plastic waste. Many city residents are serious about avoiding plastic and putting pressure on companies to use less, which helps.
In July, Maine signed the nation’s first extended producer responsibility law for packaging, which aims to incentivize companies to use packaging that is easier to recycle and mandates producers make payments to environmental stewardship organizations. Kish said that model is an exciting development in the fight against plastic waste.
For community advocates like Environmental Justice Table, pressuring Hennepin County to close the HERC is seen as a major step toward getting serious about reducing plastic pollution and moving to zero waste. If the HERC closes, Yano said, further action will follow.
“There needs to be increased transparency in how our waste is handled in the first place,” he said.
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Plastic pollution: we all know it’s a problem. In 2015, we produced almost 450 million tons of plastic, with that number expected to double by 2050. Think that it’s all managed? Think again: less than 10% is recycled. And every year more than 8 million tons make their way into our oceans.
Plastic pollution in the ocean
Credit: Naja Bertolt Jensen/Unsplash
Plastics make up 80% off all marine debris — from what’s floating on the surface to deep-sea sediments.The amount of plastic ending up in our oceans is sobering — by 2050, there is expected to be more plastic pollution than fish, by weight, in the ocean.
How plastics end up in the ocean
Credit: Brian Yurasits/Unsplash
Plastic debris ends up in the ocean in a variety of ways, making the quest to stop plastic pollution much more difficult.Some of these paths to the water include:Litter, including plastic bags, take out containers, packaging, which are swept down storm drains into local waterways, working down rivers into the ocean;Plastic products, including litter but also fishing nets, lost or thrown overboard at sea.This is not the main culprit: more than 80% of plastic ending up in the ocean comes from land-based activities;Illegal dumping or poor waste management of trash on beaches around the globe;Microplastics from cosmetic and hygiene products, or clothing in our washing machines going down the drain;Industrial byproducts from improperly conducted or managed production processes.
Ocean plastic pollution impacts
You may have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch: a collection of large and small plastic debris that has accumulated in the Pacific Ocean, corralled by ocean currents and currently covering at least 1.6 million kilometers of the ocean surface. The patch is overwhelming due to discarded plastics from countries around the Pacific Rim and is a stark visual reminder of the massive problem. It isn’t the only one, either. There are plastic patches growing in every one of our oceans.Additional impacts of ocean plastic pollution:Death of marine lifeMany marine animals such as turtles and dolphins mistake plastic fragments for food. Ingesting plastic is often fatal to animals, as the plastic blocks their digestive tract and causes them to starve.Many seabirds, seals, turtles, and whales also get entangled in plastic matter and suffocate, drown, or become easier prey for predators.Impact on the food chainTests done on some marine species have shown that endocrine-disrupting chemicals in plastic have affected their reproductive systems. For example, oysters impacted by plastic-saturated environments produce less eggs. These tests have raised new questions about the impacts of plastic on our food supply as animals ingest plastic from the first days of life.The far reaches of microplasticsOnce plastics enter the sea, sun, wind, and wave activity break them down into smaller and smaller fragments. These fragments, called microplastics, have been found in all corners of the globe, from within Arctic sea ice to the slopes of Mount Everest. Microplastics are swept up in the water cycle, returning to land via precipitation and impacting soil quality. Microplastics are also ingested by wildlife, impacting not only their biological systems but also contaminating our food supply.The health impacts of ingesting microplastics are still relatively unknown. However, they are chemically active materials and can bind to other compounds that can harm human health.
What can be done?
Credit: OCG Saving The Ocean/Unsplash
Once in the ocean, it’s extremely difficult to retrieve plastics. Efforts, however, are under way. The Ocean Cleanup is an organization working to develop new technologies that make ocean plastics cleanup possible, with a goal to eliminate 90% of ocean plastic waste.However, once the debris breaks down into microplastics, recovery is virtually impossible.So what can be done?The most impactful solution is to stop plastic waste from entering our oceans in the first place. This is easier said than done, and has a lot more to do with national and corporate practices than the individual. Improved waste management systems, recycling processes, and the reduction of single-use plastics would play a significant role in pollution reduction.As an individual, however, you can do your part to make a difference:Sign up for EHN’s plastic pollution newsletter to stay up to date on the latest on plastic waste.Avoid single-use plastics. Use reusable shopping bags, takeout containers, travel mugs, straws.Limit your purchasing of plastic products. Most things plastic come in a more natural material — glass food storage containers instead of plastic, bulk foods and toiletries instead of smaller-sized, heavily packaged products, etc.Wear clothing made from natural materials such as cotton, linen, or wool. Many microplastics that enter the ocean come from our clothing! Clothing made with synthetic materials — polyester, nylon — shed microparticles in the wash that then enter our water systems.There are now products available to catch microfibers that are shed from your clothing. Do some research on microfiber filters and find a product that fits your lifestyle.Clean up around your community! Grab a bag and collect litter from the side of the road, parks, fields, sidewalks, and more. Collecting plastic before it finds its way into a gutter or a body of water is an easy way to help mitigate the pollution.Petition for change. If this matters to you (and it should!), let others know. Find like-minded people in your community, speak to local legislators, and/or call your senators and representatives.
The university’s PR team got ahead of itself.Over the past day or so, lurid headlines about the sex lives of crabs have popped up across the web.The Washington Post: “Hermit crabs ‘sexually excited’ by plastic pollution in ocean, researchers say.”The Week: “Plastic waste ‘sexually exciting’ crabs.”Sky News: “Hermit crabs ‘sexually excited’ by toxins from plastic pollution.”AdvertisementAdvertisementBut as it turns out, the story may have been the product of an overenthusiastic marketing team and a trigger-happy news cycle.It’s true that team of scientists from the University of Hull in the UK examined hermit crabs and found that they may be affected by oleamide, a chemical that leaks from plastic waste.But while oleamide is known to be a sex pheromone for certain marine species, the team behind the study tells Futurism that contrary to the outrageous headlines, their new research does not establish that it’s affecting crabs sexually.“Unfortunately, we had a misunderstanding with our press office,” co-author and Hull researcher Paula Schirrmacher told Futurism. “Previous work carried out at the University of Hull identified oleamide as a component of the sex pheromone bouquet of cleaner shrimp. This study, however, found that hermit crabs react to oleamide in a matter comparable to a food cue.”AdvertisementAdvertisementIn defense of WaPo‘s reporting, the original press release does appear to have been quite sensational.“Love Island fever has gripped the nation in recent weeks, as romance and drama take centre stage in living rooms everywhere,” it read, according to Sky News, which quoted it extensively. “But far away from Casa Amor, a research team at the University of Hull has been studying a very different type of attraction, happening in waters off the Yorkshire coast. Their conclusion? Hermit crabs may be ‘sexually excited’ by an additive released by plastics in the ocean.”Now, a revised version of the statement removes any mentions of “sexually excited” hermit crabs, as well as all other sexual content beyond noting that oleamide is known to be a sex pheromone in shrimp.According to the researchers’ paper, published in the journal Marine Pollution Bulletin this month, the hermit grabs were indeed excited by the presence of oleamide. But while it caused their respiration rate to increase, indicating excitement, the finding was simply that the crabs were misidentifying the substance as a food source.AdvertisementAdvertisementIn other words, they got giddy about a potentially delicious snack.“Oleamide also has a striking resemblance to oleic acid, a chemical released by arthropods during decomposition,” Schirrmacher said in the revised statement. “As scavengers, hermit crabs may misidentify oleamide as a food source, creating a trap.”Despite the PR mishap, the research is only a small part of a much larger and far more worrisome picture. It’s true that plastic pollution in the oceans has hit a critical level. For instance, the World Wildlife Fund has found that every second marine turtle has ingested plastic. A study published last month found that plastic pollution is approaching a tipping point at which it will become impossible to reverse our unmistakable footprint on the world.But there’s no evidence — yet, at least — that it’s driving crabs into a sexual frenzy.AdvertisementAdvertisementAdditional reporting by Jon Christian.More on plastic pollution: Scientists Say World Is Approaching Non-Reversible “Tipping Point” in Plastic PollutionShare This Article
LONDON — Oceans around the world are facing a plastic pollution crisis. But there’s one species that may be getting a little too excited about it: hermit crabs.A chemical that is leaked from plastic dumped in the ocean is probably arousing hermit crabs, according to researchers studying the impact of climate change, plastic and other molecules in the ocean on marine species.The team of scientists from England’s University of Hull examined 40 crabs found in the waters off the Yorkshire coast and found signs that the crustaceans may be “sexually excited” by oleamide — an additive released by plastics found under the sea.Oleamide elevates the respiration rate of hermit crabs, which indicates excitement, researchers said, adding that the product is already considered to be a sex pheromone for some insects. “Our study shows that oleamide attracts hermit crabs,” PhD candidate Paula Schirrmacher said in a statement released Tuesday.“Respiration rate increases significantly in response to low concentrations of oleamide, and hermit crabs show a behavioral attraction comparable to their response to a feeding stimulant,” she said.Schirrmacher noted that oleamide has “a striking resemblance to oleic acid, a chemical released by arthropods during decomposition,” which may explain way it is mistaken for food and ingested by animals — which potentially increases their consumption of microplastics.The new findings come as governments around the world continue to grapple with the major issue of climate change and its impact on the planet.At a recent three-day summit in Cornwall, England, leaders from the Group of Seven gathered to discuss the growing crisis along with other pressing topics. During the June meeting, leaders pledged more-ambitious climate goals and reaffirmed their support to be carbon-neutral by 2050.Without action, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050, a study published by the World Economic Forum in 2016 warned.More than 8 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans every year, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which estimated that at least 90 percent of birds have plastic in their stomachs and that 1 in 2 marine turtles have consumed plastic — including bags and straws.“The problem of plastic in nature, particularly in our oceans, is a global crisis,” the organization said in 2019 as it called on people to work together to help nature become plastic-free by 2030.Read more:
If you’ve been to the beach this summer, whether in the UK or abroad, the chances are your charming vista will have been spoiled at some point by a piece of plastic litter: a disused face mask buried in the sand or ring can floating in the shallows.
Such is the scale of the world’s plastic waste problem that microplastics – tiny plastic fragments, particles or fibres – have been detected in the most remote corners of the planet, from Antarctic glaciers to deserts. One survey estimates that somewhere between 15 and 51 trillion particles are floating around in the world’s oceans.
For many years microplastics were largely considered an environmental issue, with scientists mainly concerned about their impact on the ocean’s fragile ecosystem. But their growing omnipresence has steadily increased the risk of human exposure.
Microplastics from waste dumped at sea, and even from our swimming costumes and suncreams, are working their way into the water cycle, and being consumed by the animals and fish that ultimately end up on our plates. Oceanographers have found microplastics in high quantities in shellfish such as mussels and scallops. Last month, research by the University of Portsmouth found microplastic levels in seafood may be underestimated – tests showed that when the plastics are covered in the microbes they attract in the ocean, they are more likely to be ingested by oysters and other edible marine species.
They’re working their way into our bodies in other ways too – in tap and bottled water, or meals microwaved in plastic containers. Tiny plastic fragments have been found to be ubiquitous in the air of many cities. The weathering of car tyres, clothing, paint coatings, and the leakage of pellets and powders from factories all contribute to a fine plastic dust being continuously released into the atmosphere. Based on current surveys, we are likely to be consuming or breathing in anywhere from dozens to more than 100,000 microplastics each day.
Now concern is growing over just what microplastics are doing to our health.
As a professor of public health at Imperial College, London, Frank Kelly has devoted much of his career to studying the impact of air pollution. But over the past five years, Kelly has become increasingly concerned by the threat of microplastics.
“One of the things which worries us is that plastic tends to be very hard to break down,” says Kelly. “In the outdoor environment, it takes decades to fully degrade. So microplastics may accumulate in the body, which probably isn’t good, but we haven’t got any hard evidence at this point that says they’re having an impact on human health. This is what we need to find out.”
Earlier this year, the first concrete evidence that microplastics are lingering in the body was obtained by obstetricians at San Giovanni Calibita Fatebenefratelli Hospital in Rome, who discovered microplastics of different shapes and sizes in placenta samples. At Imperial, Kelly’s research group is now examining lung and intestinal samples from autopsies to see if microplastics can be identified in these tissues as well.
For scientists, this represents the first step towards convincing policymakers that microplastics are a serious health problem.
Most agree that the vast majority of microplastics which get into our body are likely to end up being excreted. The human body is highly capable of filtering out waste. Our immune system contains cells called macrophages, which are specifically designed to gobble up anything potentially harmful. “We evolved in a world of particles,” explains Bart Koelmans, a microplastics researcher at Wageningen University in the Netherlands. “We are creating them and ingesting them all the time.”
However if the doses ingested are particularly high, and the particles are small enough – those 1–10 micrometres or less in size – they could cross the epithelial lining in the lungs and intestines, work their way into the bloodstream, and slowly accumulate in organs like the kidneys and even the brain, a potential risk which has already been demonstrated in experiments with mice. The smallest plastic fragments of all – so-called nanoplastics, less than 0.1 micrometres in size, too small for scientists to even measure with current technologies – could pass directly into our cells.
Early evidence suggests that plastic accumulation may not be at all good for the body. Since 2019, Dick Vethaak, a professor of ecotoxicology at VU University Amsterdam has been leading a series of investigations, looking at the effects of microplastics settling in various human cell types in petri dishes. “We’ve seen inflammatory responses in different tissues, and impaired brain and placental cell function, and impaired airway growth,” he says.
Similar results have been found in other studies which have exposed either human cells or rodents to microplastics, resulting in DNA damage, inflammatory and immune reactions, and neurotoxic effects in brain cells. Kelly also points out that we know that factory workers who consistently inhale large amounts of fine, plastic dust, are more prone to developing lung injuries and cancer.
All these studies have involved extremely high doses of microplastics. Most of us are unlikely to be exposed to such concentrations on a daily basis. As such, scientists are trying to gather concrete data on exactly how many microplastics the average person is consuming each day, how much this varies depending on where you live, and whether continuous exposure can be proven to cause us harm.
To address some of these questions, Kelly is planning to set up the first ever human challenge trials for microplastics. This will involve getting a range of volunteers, from the completely healthy to those with respiratory conditions such as asthma or rhinitis, to inhale different microplastics through their nose.
“By doing that, and then looking at the reaction of the epithelium in the nasal airways, we can start to understand how the body is reacting to these microplastics in comparison to other particles,” he says. “We’ve done this kind of thing in the past, exposing volunteers to the type of diesel exhaust they would experience if they were shopping on Oxford Street, and seeing how normal airways and diseased airways actually responded to that environment.”
Microplastics are not all the same: some may contain pigments or additional chemicals which are far more toxic to the body than others. Kelly says that human challenge trials will enable scientists to identify which microplastics are inert, and which are problematic.
Koelmans is looking to obtain more accurate data on the typical levels of microplastics in our daily diets. So far, scientists have found evidence of these particles in around 20 per cent of the foods one might encounter in a supermarket shop, from fish to honey, but their levels in the remaining 80 per cent – which includes cereals, meat, and vegetables – remains unknown. “We urgently need more solid data on this, if you want regulators to make decisions on the amounts of microplastics which should be allowed in our food,” he says.
There are other possible hazards as well. Some scientists suspect that microplastics could act as transporters for antibiotic resistant bacteria, as well as viruses, making it easier for them to penetrate deep into the body. This remains an area of open investigation.
Governments are beginning to wake up to the urgency of the problem: the EU is financing five new research projects looking at the impact of microplastics on health.
“We need to act quickly,” says Koelmans. “We know we are being broadly exposed to these particles but we need to find out much more about the quantities we’re consuming, and what they’re doing to us.”
The same types of plastic containers EPA blamed for pesticides contaminated with PFAS may also be used to store food, raising alarm bells at the Food and Drug Administration.
At issue are fluorinated containers made of high-density polyethylene, a material widely used in food packaging because it can easily seal out moisture and other temperature changes. The packaging is generally used during the manufacturing process to hold large quantities of ingredients like oils or flavorings.
This spring, EPA determined that such containers were responsible for contaminating pesticides with per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances, also known as “forever chemicals” and linked to thyroid disease and cancer even at very low levels.
Now, FDA is warning the food industry that unlawful fluorination processes for similar containers could be contaminating food with PFAS, too.
In a letter sent yesterday, FDA reminded the industry that only certain fluorinated polyethylene containers are approved for contact with food. Fluorinating packaging after it has been molded, or in the presence of water, is not allowed. Only fluorine gas and nitrogen can be used during the fluorination process, FDA warned, as using other gases like oxygen or argon can cause those gases to attach to carbon atoms and create PFAS.
“It is the responsibility of food packaging manufacturers and distributors to only market fluorinated polyethylene containers that are manufactured in compliance with FDA’s regulations,” the agency wrote.
FDA has allowed the use of certain PFAS in packaging since the 1960s, as long as they did not exceed certain levels. It wasn’t until 1983 that the agency approved fluorination processes for high-density polyethylene containers. Even at the time, agency documents show, FDA was concerned that manufacturers not use any gases other than nitrogen and fluorine during the process. The documents, obtained by the Environmental Defense Fund under a Freedom of Information Act request and shared with E&E News, also show that the agency was worried about “fluorinated carbons” — now called PFAS — contaminating foods after the fluorination process, but ultimately determined that any contamination would be too small to be of concern.
In the intervening decades, new research has shown that certain PFAS can be toxic to people even at very low levels, in part because they remain in the body for some time and accumulate.
Yesterday’s letter follows an investigation by EPA that was kicked off this winter when the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) revealed the presence of PFAS in certain pesticides (Greenwire, Dec. 8, 2020). EPA then determined that the chemicals were leaching into the pesticides via the barrels that contained them, and warned FDA that some of those containers could also be used for food products (Greenwire, March 5).
“We are concerned that such containers could be used in contact with food,” FDA wrote in its letter.
Yesterday’s letter yielded mixed responses from public health groups concerned about PFAS contamination in food and consumer goods.
Environmental Defense Fund Chemicals Policy Director Tom Neltner has petitioned FDA to revoke its existing approvals allowing PFAS to be used in food packaging (Greenwire, June 3). No fan of the agency’s approach to chemicals, Neltner said he is “really impressed with FDA’s actions.”
“They did a good job, and I don’t normally say that,” he said.
Though Neltner agreed that there are “more steps to be done,” he said the letter was important for clarifying what specific manufacturing practices are allowed or not approved.
Based on the letter, Neltner said, he was able to go online and identify food packaging manufacturers using processes FDA would not approve of.
“We can identify through their marketing materials companies we think may be breaking the law, and if we can do it, I assume FDA can, too,” he said, adding, “The next step is for FDA to investigate.”
Neltner said he hopes FDA will investigate not only whether unlawful containers are being used for food but also whether they are being used for cosmetics, noting that the amount and types of PFAS found in cosmetics from third-party testing would match with contamination from storage containers.
But other groups said the focus on containers is too myopic, and that FDA should be warning the public about which kinds of foods might have become contaminated through their use.
“It seems illogical to ask states to discontinue use of the pesticide that was contaminated, and then not inform the public about which foods might have been contaminated,” said Kyla Bennett, New England director and director of science policy for PEER.
Bennett added that the letter “begs a whole bunch of questions” and leaves the public unclear about which companies and what food might be affected. “If it’s ‘not lawful,’ why aren’t they taking enforcement?” she asked. “Why did this take so long? This entire process has been way too slow, not transparent, and is clearly not protective of human health or the environment.”
The Environmental Working Group similarly panned the letter. In a statement, EWG Senior Scientist David Andrews asserted that FDA should do more to protect consumers.
“Our food should not contain toxic forever chemicals,” Andrews said. “Once again, the FDA has put the needs of the chemical and food companies ahead of the needs of the public.”
Bennett also expressed frustration with what she said is a seeming lack of coordination between agencies. When EPA addressed issues around PFAS in pesticides earlier this spring, the agency said it was in “close communication” with FDA and the Department of Agriculture.
But documents obtained by PEER through a FOIA request shed little light on the issue.
Exchanges shared with E&E News spanning the period between Jan. 14 and March 17 of this year indicate that the three agencies had only one meeting to discuss the problem. On an “ag issues forum call,” members of EPA’s chemicals office provided a brief update, per one email.
Bennett called the documents the “farthest things from ‘close communication’ I have ever seen” and said she worries about the seeming lack of prioritization from the government.
EPA did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Nearly half of the United States population, 150 million other American adults, are coffee drinkers.
Now think about the cups. Unless you’re drinking your brew at home, you’re likelypicking up your java in a paper cup to go.
And that’s the problem across the world: nearly 16 billion paper to-go cups are used every year, which leads to 6.5 million trees being cut down and 4 billion gallons of water being wasted. The inside of most paper to-go cups is also coated in a thin layer of plastic, making them unrecyclable.
With these issues in mind, many places, ranging from small towns in England to New Zealand’s most populated city, have introduced a new solution in recent years: deposit-based reusable cup systems. These systems allow consumers to pay a small deposit, use a reusable to-go cup, made of 100% recyclable polypropylene, and then return it for their cash back after they’ve had their morning brew. One of the largest such schemes in Europe is Germany’s RECUP, which is offered through more than 8,000 partner locations across the country.
Florian Pachaly and Fabian Eckert, the organization’s co-founders, started testing their idea for a deposit-based to-go coffee cup scheme in Rosenheim, near Munich, in 2016, with 12 partner locations. A year later, the pair officially launched RECUP, rolling out to 60 additional partners in more cities. RECUP also began offering reusable bowls, called REBOWLs, for to-go meals last year.
For consumers, a RECUP costs 1€ ($1.18), while a REBOWL costs 5€ ($5.91). Both are returnable for the deposit back. Non-returnable multi-use to-go-cup lids are sold for 30 cents. For cafés and restaurants, RECUP charges a monthly service fee, ranging from 25€ ($29.53) to 45€ ($53.15), plus deposits on each cup or bowl the establishment orders. The breakeven point for businesses is an estimated 12 to-go drinks per day.
The feedback from both partners and consumers has been positive.
Bilal Hosni lives in Mainz, a small city near Frankfurt, where there are more than two dozen RECUP partner locations. He started using RECUPs because he thinks they are a “simple and brilliant” solution to to-go coffee cup waste. “It takes a little bit of effort,” he says. “But the more I know [about] the huge impact solid waste has on the environment, the more I appreciate it.”
But while the program is popular in Germany and elsewhere, it is difficult to gauge just how effective it is. Like with any reusable cup, the impact of its use depends on how many times it will be used over its lifetime, how it will be washed after use, and how it will be disposed of when it wears out. Each of those things, in turn, depends on individual consumer behavior, which is difficult to control. “I think models like RECUP have a great opportunity to control and ensure the environmental impact is as low as possible,” says Jonas Bengtsson, CEO and co-founder at Edge Environment, a sustainability advisory company. “But as often is the case, individual consumer behavior and choices are very important.”
The first hurdle is convincing consumers to use a reusable cup. Researchers in Australia, where a whopping 75 percent of the population drinks coffee every day, are conducting the most comprehensive and up-to-date research on effective ways to reduce to-go coffee cup waste and its knock-on environmental effects. One of those researchers, Sukhbir Sandhu, professor of sustainability and ethics at the University of South Australia, says that programs like RECUP are attractive to customers because of their low cost, convenience, and the “virtue-signaling” they allow consumers to engage in.
Sandhu also says that deposit-based systems work better than those offering small financial incentives to customers who bring their own reusable cups or imposing fees on those who don’t. Those programs are less convenient because they require consumers to carry bulky, messy, could-drip-in-your-bag reusable cups around with them. “The majority of consumers want to do the right thing and make environmentally-friendly choices but are often unwilling to sacrifice convenience,” she explains. “Deposit-based systems enable consumers to do the right thing without having to sacrifice convenience.”
Bengtsson notes that for any new solution to be adopted and used correctly, it should be designed with the consumer experience in mind. “The customer must know how to and actually use the cup or system appropriately. [It should be] intuitive, fun, and rewarding,” he says. Lisa Wernick, a member of RECUP’s PR and communications team, admits that at least part of the reason RECUP has been so successful in Germany is that Germans are already familiar with deposit-based systems, which are common in the country for things like bottled beverages and yogurt containers.
Research published last year by Sandhu and colleagues also shows that strong environmental messaging and the pressure of social norms play significant roles in getting consumers to switch to reusable to-go cups. Many interviewed for the study admitted they were swayed by popular Australian docuseries The War on Waste or by the behavior of their family, friends, or colleagues.
Systems like RECUP deliver on some of the tough questions, though, like water consumption and plastic waste. According to research from Edge Environment, if consumers handwash their reusable cups in hot running water every time they use them, they’re likely to consume more energy and emit more carbon than if they had just used a disposable cup. “It seems models like RECUP can significantly influence [this problem],” says Bengtsson. “They can effectively make sure the washing is done efficiently in bulk.”
When a RECUP starts to wear out after hundreds of washes — they’re built to replace 1,000 disposable cups — or if one breaks, RECUP collects it and transports it to its local production partner for recycling. The organization is also working with Crafting Future and the Institute for Bioplastics and Biocomposites in Hannover to develop a new material for their products that will be less reliant on fossil fuels.
Despite the uncertainties of consumer behavior, experts agree that widespread deposit-based reusable to-go cup systems are a powerful tool for preventing disposable coffee cup use and its negative environmental effects. Based on research from the German Environment Agency, RECUP estimates that its program reduces carbon emissions by 11,000 tons, conserves 1.5 billion liters of water, and saves 43,000 trees every year. Those are results that could be multiplied as more cities and businesses introduce similar programs, including coffee-giant Starbucks, which has promised to offer a deposit-based reusable to-go cup system across stores in 43 countries by 2025.
Plastic debris found in thousands of nests across the north west of Europe poses a serious threat to seabirds in the region, researchers have warned.A four-year study was led by scientists at the North Highland College’s Environmental Research Institute, part of the University of the Highland and Islands.Observers visiting seabird colonies for other monitoring activities were asked to help gather data as a cost effective and environmentally friendly way to conduct the study.Researchers examined 10,274 nests across the UK, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and the Faroe Islands – with 12% of them found to contain plastic debris.Information was collected from 14 seabird species in 84 colonies between 2016 and 2020.Atlantic puffins were found to be the most affected species, with 67% of their nests found to contain plastic.Entanglement Dr Neil James, a post-doctoral research associate at the Environmental Research Institute, was one of the scientists involved in the project.He said: “Marine plastic pollution is an increasing global environmental issue which poses a threat to marine biodiversity.“Seabirds are particularly affected because of the risk of entanglement or ingestion.“Our study found that a significant number of nests included plastic debris, with some species more likely to incorporate it than others.“As well as providing important information about our seabird populations, this type of study can also reveal valuable insights into the prevalence of plastic in the marine environment.”The results of the study are published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin and can be found online at https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpolbul.2021.112706.Related: Plastic in our oceans may have already changed the planet…foreverSince you are hereSince you are here, we wanted to ask for your help.Journalism in Britain is under threat. The government is becoming increasingly authoritarian and our media is run by a handful of billionaires, most of whom reside overseas and all of them have strong political allegiances and financial motivations.Our mission is to hold the powerful to account. It is vital that free media is allowed to exist to expose hypocrisy, corruption, wrongdoing and abuse of power. But we can’t do it without you.If you can afford to contribute a small donation to the site it will help us to continue our work in the best interests of the public. We only ask you to donate what you can afford, with an option to cancel your subscription at any point.To donate or subscribe to The London Economic, click here.The TLE shop is also now open, with all profits going to supporting our work.The shop can be found here.You can also SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER .
Plastic waste imports are ‘unwanted’
Don’t postpone ban, green groups ask
Officials inspect smuggled plastic waste in the cargo container imported from the United States, in Lat Krabang district of Bangkok in 2018. (Police photo)
More than 100 environmental groups have called on the government to prohibit the import of plastic waste and instead encourage the use of domestic plastic waste for recycling as a way to safeguard the environment and promote the circular economy.The network of 107 civil society and environmental activist groups released a joint statement on Thursday demanding agencies formally announce a policy to ban plastic waste imports within the year, as well as amend laws and regulations to seal off legal gaps that allow the use of imported plastic waste in the plastic recycling industry.
The environmental groups are objecting to revisions to a plan to ban plastic waste imports by September 2020 by a subcommittee on plastic waste and electronic waste management.
The subcommittee reversed its resolution and postponed the plastic waste ban for another five years.
Penchom Saetang, director of Ecological Alert and Recovery Thailand (Earth), said despite the Industrial Works Department saying that no new plastic waste import licences had been issued, plastic waste was still flowing into the country, brought in by recycling factories in the duty-free zone, indicating a loophole in the regulations.
“We have found imported plastic waste of up to 150,000 tonnes was brought in in 2020, an increase of 2.69 times on the previous year.
“For this year, around 71,000 tonnes of plastic waste are imported into Thailand up until June,” Ms Penchom said.
She said the legal exemptions and postponement of the plastic waste ban allows foreign recycling factories to make a profit from cheap imported plastic waste at a great cost to Thailand’s environment.
This also jeopardises the domestic plastic waste trade and the country’s circular economy goals.
Meanwhile, Minister of Natural Resources and Environment Varawut Silpa-archa said the ministry is working with the Pollution Control Department to present a control measure for plastic waste imports to the National Environment Board.
The measure would limit the quota for plastic waste imports this year to 250,000 tonnes, before phasing out that quota by 20% every year until reaching a total ban on plastic waste imports in 2026.