Study finds human-created microplastics in Flathead Lake

A recent study conducted at the University of Montana’s Flathead Lake Biological Station confirmed microplastic pollution in Flathead Lake, which can be traced back to various types of human activity. The study, while not the first to identify microplastics in Flathead Lake, made important findings surrounding how much microplastic pollution is in the lake and where it originates. The research was led by FLBS visiting researcher Dr. Xiong Xiong from the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Hydrobiology.

According to the study, which was recently published in the journal Environmental Pollution, Flathead Lake carries microplastic pollutants at levels similar to or higher than other lakes in similarly populated areas. Although the levels remain low in comparison to more populated regions, such pollution should still be of concern for residents of the area who drink, bathe and recreate in the water, researchers say. While microplastic levels are not yet high enough to indicate immediate human danger, the new findings are a sign of a growing problem that could have lasting implications for the Flathead’s ecosystems.

The National Ocean Service defines microplastics as “small plastic pieces less than five millimeters long which can be harmful to our ocean and aquatic life.” Once ingested by fish and other animals, they can carry toxins into the aquatic food chain and human food products. Significant concentrations of microplastics have also been found in drinking water systems. In the Flathead’s wide-ranging bodies of water, these pollutants have many origins.

Landfills and plastic waste disposal sites are the largest source of microplastic contamination at the mouth of the Flathead River. Microplastics are often picked up from these sites by water particles and carried into the water system. In addition to waste disposal, the researchers found that the everyday laundry cycle is dumping microplastics into the lake. Much of today’s clothing is made of synthetic fabrics that break into microscopic plastics in the wash. These plastics are transported into the water supply through home septic drain fields and community water treatment plants. Human activities in the water that involve plastic boats, ropes, floats and fishing line can also be cause for concern. Many of these recreational supplies are prone to degrading, adding further microplastics to the water.

“Plastics are a part of our daily lives and they’re embedded in all of the things that we do—in our economy, in our lifestyle. A consequence of that—because plastics don’t degrade—is that they show up everywhere we look,” UM Flathead Lake Biological Station director Jim Elser told the Beacon.

Despite these concerning findings, the researchers say there are many actions that can be taken to remedy increasing levels of pollution.

On an individual scale, adopting in-line washing machine filters, reducing one’s consumption of synthetic fiber materials and limiting single-use plastics can help decrease pollution. The study also suggests larger reforms such as improving plastic waste disposal procedures, strengthening education on the dangers of plastic pollution and improving wastewater treatment systems.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Interior Department announced that it will phase out single-use plastics at national parks and other public lands over the next ten years, a move that will curb plastic consumption in Northwest Montana. While the announcement addresses certain pollution sources mentioned in the FLBS research, the policy is limited to enforcement on federal lands.

To ultimately see larger scale changes, Elser said, “we need to start switching away and using less plastic.”

Can a future fleet of robotic fish clean up microplastic pollution in the ocean?

Microplastics are a menace. They’ve been found everywhere from the top of Mount Everest to melted Antarctic snow. Microplastics have even been found circulating in human blood. But perhaps the place where they are having the worst impact is in Earth’s oceans. Plastic is the single most common debris in the sea—often breaking down over time into tiny bits that are consumed by fish and capable of wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems.That’s why scientists have been working on a new method of getting rid of them for good: fish-shaped robots that can actually clean up the oceans while swimming.In a study published Wednesday in the journal Nano Letters, researchers at Sichuan University in China created a fish-bot made of a light-activated material that can absorb microplastics as it swims in water. The team believes the new bot could be used to transport pollutants to another location where they can be collected and properly disposed of. It could also be used for detecting and monitoring microplastics in harsher environments that humans can’t explore easily like the frigid waters of the arctic.“The proof-of-concept robot is demonstrated to emphasize its maximum swimming speed of 2.67 body length per second, whose speed is comparable to that of plankton,” the study authors wrote, adding that the speed outperforms similar soft robots.The fish-bot is made of a composite material that’s safe for marine environments and physically reacts when a near-infrared light laser is pointed at it. Blinking the laser on and off can cause the robot’s “tail” to flap back and forth, allowing it to mimic a real fish and swim. As it moves, microplastic material sticks to its body, much like suckerfish do to whales and sharks. On top of that, the material the Sichuan University researchers used can repair itself when cut—which means it’s effectively self-healing.While we’re still a long ways away from schools of fish-bots roaming the seas, this is still an innovative solution to the persistent problem of microplastics in our polluted oceans. It could one day provide a novel way of ridding some areas of the pollutant—just don’t eat one if you catch it on your line.

Canada is banning single-use plastics by the end of the year

Canada is banning the manufacture and importation of single-use plastics by the end of the year, the government announced on Monday, in a major effort to combat plastic waste and address climate change.
The ban includes checkout bags, cutlery, straws and food-service ware made from or containing plastics that are hard to recycle, with a few exceptions for medical reasons.
It will come into effect in December 2022, and the sale of those plastic items will be prohibited as of December 2023, the government said.

Restaurants and grocery stores worry about a supply of alternative products as the government announces details of its ban on single-use plastics. in Toronto. June 20, 2022.
Steve Russell | Toronto Star | Getty Images

Canada is banning the manufacture and import of single-use plastics by the end of the year, the government announced on Monday, in a major effort to combat plastic waste and address climate change.
The ban will cover items like checkout bags, cutlery, straws, and food-service ware made from or containing plastics that are hard to recycle, with a few exceptions for medical reasons. It will come into effect in December 2022, and the sale of those items will be prohibited as of December 2023 to provide businesses in Canada enough time to transition and to deplete existing stocks, the government said.

Single-use plastics make up most of the plastic waste found on Canadian shorelines. Up to 15 billion plastic checkout bags are used each year and approximately 16 million straws are used every day, according to government data.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who vowed in 2019 to phase out plastics, said the ban will eliminate more than 1.3 million tons of plastic waste over the next decade — the equivalent of 1 million garbage bags of trash.

Restaurants and grocery stores worry about a supply of alternative products as the government announces details of its ban on single-use plastics. in Toronto. June 20, 2022.
Steve Russell | Toronto Star | Getty Images

“We promised to ban harmful single-use plastics, and we’re keeping that promise,” Trudeau wrote in a tweet on Monday.
Canada will also prohibit the export of those plastics by the end of 2025 to address international plastic pollution.
“By the end of the year, you won’t be able to manufacture or import these harmful plastics,” said Steven Guilbeault, the federal minister of environment and climate change. “After that, businesses will begin offering the sustainable solutions Canadians want, whether that’s paper straws or reusable bags.”

“With these new regulations, we’re taking a historic step forward in reducing plastic pollution, and keeping our communities and the places we love clean,” Guilbeault said.

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Canada’s effort comes as countries begin to impose bans to combat the problem of plastics, which are made from petroleum and can take hundreds of years to decompose.
The United States is the world’s largest contributor of plastic waste, according to a 2021 congressionally mandated report. This month, the Interior Department said it will phase out the sale of single-use plastic products in national parks and other public lands by 2032.
Sarah King, head of Greenpeace Canada’s oceans and plastics campaign, said in a statement that Canada’s ban is a critical step forward, but “we still aren’t even at the starting line.”
“The government needs to shift into high gear by expanding the ban list and cutting overall plastic production,” King said. “Relying on recycling for the other 95% is a denial of the scope of the crisis.”

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Canada to ban single-use plastics to combat climate change, pollution

Canada will ban the manufacture and importation of “harmful” single-use plastics by the end of the year, the government said, in a sweeping effort to fight pollution and climate change.Most plastic grocery bags, cutlery and straws would come under the ban, with a few exceptions for medical needs, Canada’s Environment Ministry said Monday.“The ban on the manufacture and import of these harmful single-use plastics, barring a few targeted exceptions to recognize specific cases, will come into effect in December 2022,” it said in a statement.“To provide businesses in Canada with enough time to transition and to deplete their existing stocks, the sale of these items will be prohibited as of December 2023.” It will also stop exporting such plastics by the end of 2025, to prevent international pollution, it added.This Styrofoam-eating ‘superworm’ could help solve the garbage crisisPrime Minister Justin Trudeau, who first promised to phase out hard-to-recycle plastics in 2019, hailed the move as a boost to Canada’s efforts to tackle climate change. “We promised to ban harmful single-use plastics, and we’re keeping that promise,” he tweeted.“Over the next 10 years, this ban will result in the estimated elimination of over 1.3 million tonnes of plastic waste and more than 22,000 tonnes of plastic pollution. That’s equal to a million garbage bags full of litter,” he added.We promised to ban harmful single-use plastics, and we’re keeping that promise. The ban on the making and importing of plastic bags, cutlery, straws and other items comes into effect in December 2022 – and selling these items is prohibited as of December 2023.— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) June 20, 2022

In Canada, up to 15 billion plastic grocery bags are used every year, and approximately 16 million straws are used daily, according to government figures, with such single-use plastics making up most of the plastic litter found across Canada’s shorelines.“With these new regulations, we’re taking a historic step forward in reducing plastic pollution, and keeping our communities and the places we love clean,” said the environment and climate change minister, Steven Guilbeault.Global efforts continue on how to tackle the material that takes centuries to break down.Kenya, Chile, the United Kingdom and the European Union have all put in place various bans on single-use plastic goods — while Canada’s neighbor, the United States, ranks as the world’s leading contributor of plastic waste, according to a congressionally mandated report released last year.The United Nations, earlier this year, laid the foundations for an ambitious, legally binding treaty to reduce plastic waste. The global treaty to “end plastic pollution” could result in caps on plastic production or impose rules to make plastic easier and less toxic to repurpose.However, the treaty proposals are tentative and have received pushback from the oil and petrochemical industries.U.N. adopts historic resolution aimed at ending plastic pollutionThe coronavirus pandemic was also seen by environmentalists as a step back in the global plastic crisis for many nations. The use of disposable masks and personal protective equipment led to a sharp rise in pollution, with some 8 million metric tons of pandemic-related plastic waste created by 193 countries, according to a global study published last year. Much of the waste has ended up in oceans, threatening to disrupt marine life and pollute beaches.Here’s the plan 👇✅ 2022: ban on the manufacture and import of these single use plastics✅ 2023: ban on the sale✅ 2025: ban on the export Together these actions will eliminate more than 1.3 MILLION tonnes of plastic waste. pic.twitter.com/9uMFdM5rVZ— Steven Guilbeault (@s_guilbeault) June 20, 2022

Greenpeace Canada welcomed Ottawa’s move but said the country still had to do more.“The release of the regulations is a critical step forward, but we still aren’t even at the starting line,” Sarah King, head of the environmental group’s oceans and plastics campaign, said in a statement. “The government needs to shift into high gear by expanding the ban list and cutting overall plastic production.”The Sierra Club Canada Foundation, an environmental charity, also called on the Canadian government to implement “even faster action to stem the tide of plastic pollution.” It said public pressure was growing and suggested the list of goods be expanded to include drinking cups, cigarette filters and single-serve packets.Biden team sees climate ‘emergency,’ but powers are limitedThe United States contributes more to the polluting deluge than any other nation, generating about 287 pounds of plastics per person annually.Piecemeal efforts have been put in place by some states, with New York implementing a ban on single-use plastic bags in 2020. Earlier this month, a California bill was introduced to reduce plastic production for single-use products like shampoo bottles and food wrappers by 25 percent starting next decade.The Biden administration issued an order this month to phase out single-use plastic products and packaging on public lands by 2032, according to a statement by the Interior Department. That includes plastic and polystyrene food and beverage containers, bottles, straws and cups, it said.

It’s high time to put a lid on plastics

In summary

Plastics recycling has largely failed us, and the consequences for our environment and health are significant. California leaders are considering ways to curb the use of polluting plastics.

By Betty Yee, Special to CalMattersBetty Yee is the controller of California and a member of the California Ocean Protection Council.

Plastic waste is the legacy we are leaving our children. It is everywhere: In remote alpine lakes, in deep sea trenches, and even inside us. Studies show we consume up to a credit-card worth of plastic every week.

The latest stunning research has found microplastics in every single sample of freshly fallen Antarctic snow.

Meanwhile, the production of plastics is warming the planet. In 2019, the Center for International Environmental Law estimated the production and end-of-life management of plastics globally contributes the equivalent of 850 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere annually. That  figure is projected to grow as production increases unabated.

Sadly, plastics recycling has largely failed us, and the consequences for our environment and health are significant. For years, consumers have been led to believe that through their diligence, plastic waste could be managed responsibly and even contribute to a circular economy — that is, be reused and eliminate waste. The plastics industry has enthusiastically supported this idea.

We now know that many single-use plastics are difficult and uneconomical to recycle, resulting in a dismal 5% recycling rate for all plastic waste in the United States. The rest ends up in landfills, burned, leaked into our environment as litter or, eventually, as microplastics, polluting our air and water.

Colorado, Maine and Oregon recently have passed legislation to curb the proliferation of nonrecyclable packaging and other single-use plastics. It is time for California to reclaim its position of environmental leadership when it comes to plastics and put in place a meaningful and durable solution.

California has stepped up when called upon to take world-leading action on climate change, air quality and land conservation. As a state, we know how to craft smart, responsible, sustainable solutions to the toughest challenges. It is time for us to lead once again.  

So what does action look like? 

First, we must drastically reduce the amount of plastic we use, starting with single-use plastics and food-service ware. Throughout my tenure as state controller, I have worked to develop a sustainable “blue economy” for California. The foundation of this effort is a healthy ocean, free from plastic debris.

As a member of the Ocean Protection Council, I voted to adopt the world’s first Statewide Microplastics Strategy, calling for comprehensive statewide plastic source reduction, reuse and refill goals by 2023. Industry must lead this effort by reducing packaging; encouraging reusable or refillable alternatives; and substituting difficult-to-manage materials with recyclables such as glass, metal or paper.

Second, we must ensure that remaining plastics are truly recyclable. We must set ambitious targets and timelines for an industry that has long resisted such producer mandates, and we must provide the state with the ability to levy meaningful fines for noncompliance.

Third, we must hold plastic producers responsible for providing the financial resources needed to recycle effectively, and to clean up the mess left behind by years of inaction.

California leaders are considering two potential options to move us toward curbing the use of plastics. 

A ballot initiative titled the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act is scheduled to go before voters in November. This measure would require industry to source-reduce single-use plastics by 25%, and to ensure that by 2030, all single-use plastic packaging and foodware used in California be recyclable, reusable, refillable or compostable.

On the legislative front, Sen. Ben Allen, my fellow Ocean Protection Council member, has just released a new draft of his Senate Bill 54, which would require producers to significantly reduce plastic packaging and ensure all packaging and food-service ware in California is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2032. After years of negotiation, Sen. Allen has rallied a wide range of local governments and environmental organizations in support of this effort.

Whatever path state leaders choose, the one option we cannot afford is continued inaction. Californians cannot wait another year — another day — to address the plastic waste legacy we are heaping upon our children.

_____

Betty Yee previously has written about women on corporate boards.

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Canada sets dates to ban some single-use plastics

The Canadian government is banning companies from importing or making plastic bags and Styrofoam takeout containers by the end of this year, their sale by the end of next year, and their export by the end of 2025. Canada previously announced a ban but environment advocates were dismayed about delays and that Canada’s initial plan was to ban the items at home but continue to ship them abroad. Environment Minister Steven Guilbeault announced the dates Monday.

Read more: Canada to Ban Single-Use Plastics as Early as 2021 In addition to bags and takeout boxes, the ban will affect plastic straws, bags, cutlery, stir sticks, and six-pack rings that hold cans and bottles. The federal government listed plastics as toxic under the Canadian Environmental Protection Act last year which paved the way for regulations to ban some. However, a consortium of plastics producers is suing the government over the toxic designation in a case expected to be heard later this year. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau first promised in June 2019 that his government would phase out the production and use of hard-to-recycle plastic items as it aims for zero plastic waste by the end of the decade. Initially, he said the ban would happen in 2021, but the scientific assessment of plastics that was needed to put the ban in motion was delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Plastic waste has been a growing problem around the world, with an estimated 10% or less of most manufactured plastic recycled. Read more: Is Reusable Packaging Actually Better for the Environment? A research study published by Environment and Climate Change Canada in 2019 found 3.3 million tons of plastic was thrown out, almost half of it plastic packaging. Less than one-tenth of that was recycled. Most of the plastic ended up in landfills, where it will take hundreds of years to decompose. An estimated 29,000 tons ended up as plastic pollution, littering parks, forests, waterways, and shorelines with cigarette butts, food wrappers, and disposable coffee cups.

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The ocean is a critical solution to climate change, groups tell Biden

Good morning and welcome to The Climate 202! Congrats to all the winners of the Covering Climate Now journalism awards 🎉!Exclusive: The ocean is a critical solution to climate change, groups tell BidenA coalition of 93 environmental groups, aquariums and outdoor recreation brands is urging the Biden administration to harness the power of the ocean to fight climate change, according to details shared exclusively with The Climate 202.The groups on Thursday will unveil a detailed blueprint of recommendations to inform the first-ever ocean climate action plan, which President Biden announced on World Oceans Day this month.“The ocean offers powerful solutions to address the climate crisis,” the blueprint says. “A successful ocean climate action plan will leverage both the mitigation and adaptation power of the ocean, coasts and Great Lakes and provide important opportunities for the administration to reach its climate and justice goals.”The groups that drafted the document include the Center for American Progress, League of Conservation Voters, Mystic Aquarium, Oceana, Ocean Conservancy and World Wildlife Fund.Spanning about 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, the ocean has absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat that greenhouse gas emissions have trapped in the atmosphere, threatening marine species and ecosystems.Yet the ocean has the power to provide one-fifth of the emissions reductions needed to meet the more ambitious goal of the Paris agreement: limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels.The blueprint offers recommendations across 12 key policy areas, including:Expand responsibly sited offshore wind to meet Biden’s goal of generating 30 gigawatts of offshore wind energy by 2030.Promote green shipping and ports as part of the High-Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy, which the United States announced plans to join at the United Nations climate summit in Scotland last fall.Protect “blue carbon” ecosystems such as mangroves, salt marshes, sea grasses, coral reefs and kelp forests, which can store more carbon per unit than forests on land.End illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing.Reduce plastic pollution, cracking down on the 14 million tons of plastic that wind up in the ocean every year.Address ocean acidification that is harming many ocean species and contributing to mass coral bleaching.Enhance coastal resilience to protect communities from severe storms and rising seas.Evaluate the potential of ocean-based carbon dioxide removal.“A lot of times what people hear about the ocean is only bad news, like coral reefs and whales are in big trouble,” Miriam Goldstein, senior director for conservation policy at the Center for American Progress, told The Climate 202.“That is true,” she said. “But we want this blueprint to be a message of hope and action: We know what we need to do to make a better future for the ocean and humanity. And here are some actions that can get us there.”House Natural Resources Chair Raúl M. Grijalva (D-Ariz.) praised the blueprint in a statement, saying the document “outlines the bold, meaningful steps we need to take now to ensure a sustainable future for our oceans and planet.”On World Oceans Day, Biden also announced that he would designate the Hudson Canyon about 100 miles from New York City a new national marine sanctuary. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will solicit public comment on the contours of the sanctuary from conservationists, the fishing industry and offshore energy developers, among others.Meanwhile, Biden tasked the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and the Council on Environmental Quality with crafting the ocean climate action plan as co-chairs of the Ocean Policy Committee.“In developing America’s first-ever Ocean Climate Action Plan, we will — based on ideas and input from across the country and the best available science — develop a blueprint for protecting America’s ocean resources from the impacts of climate change, and take advantage of the many climate solutions the ocean offers,” the office and council said in a joint statement. “This new report is welcome input and mirrors the clear scientific findings about the importance of the ocean as a solution to climate change.”On the HillExclusive: 175 House Democrats tell Biden to clinch deal on climate provisions in reconciliationA coalition of 175 House Democrats is urging President Biden to secure a deal on the climate investments in his budget reconciliation bill, which passed the House in November but has stalled in the Senate for months, according to a letter shared exclusively with The Climate 202.“We write to urge you to do everything in your power to reach a deal and sign into law as swiftly as possible a revised reconciliation package that includes the climate investments passed by the U.S. House of Representatives,” the Democrats wrote in the letter. “These investments were some of the many important provisions in that package, and we would support a deal that includes as much of the House-passed bill as possible.”The letter was organized by the leadership of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, New Democrat Coalition and House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition. It was signed by 13 committee chairs.Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (Wash.), New Democrat Coalition Chair Suzan DelBene (Wash.) and SEEC Co-Chairs Gerald E. Connolly (Va.), Paul Tonko (N.Y.) and Doris Matsui (Calif.) will hold a news conference on Capitol Hill today to amplify their message.The budget reconciliation package has stalled in the Senate since December amid opposition from Republicans and Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has continued to meet with Manchin to discuss a possible deal, but Democrats have a narrow legislative window before the July Fourth holiday and the August recess.“The window to achieve a deal is rapidly closing,” the letter says, “and so time is of the essence.”House Republicans ask Biden to rethink solar tariff exemptionsReps. Robert E. Latta (R-Ohio) and Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-Wash.), the ranking member of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, led a letter on Wednesday urging President Biden to undo his recent tariff exemptions for America’s solar industry amid an ongoing Commerce Department investigation into alleged dodging of tariffs by Chinese manufacturers.“Regardless of the outcome of the DOC investigation, the decision to waive tariffs sends a clear message to our foreign adversaries that our trade enforcement laws will not be upheld by your Administration,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter.The Biden administration paused the tariffs this month in the hopes of getting hundreds of stalled solar projects back on track. Commerce’s probe carries the threat of retroactive tariffs, which left the industry fearing crushing costs.Pressure pointsBiden open to using Defense Production Act to boost gasoline outputPresident Biden is willing to use the Defense Production Act to bolster the nation’s supply of gasoline and lower costs at the pump, Ari Natter and Jenny Leonard of Bloomberg News report.“Already, the president has demonstrated his willingness to use that emergency power to lower costs for families,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said during a briefing Wednesday when asked about using the act to increase refinery capacity. “We’re saying that the president has used it before and he’s willing to do that again,” she added, referring to Biden’s recent moves to invoke the Cold-War era law to boost domestic solar power manufacturing and increase the supply of baby formula. Meanwhile on Wednesday morning, Biden urged the CEOs of some of the nation’s largest oil companies to increase production, warning the fossil fuel giants that he is considering invoking “emergency authorities” to boost refinery output, Ben Geman and Andrew Freedman report for Axios. “At a time of war — historically high refinery profit margins being passed directly onto American families are not acceptable,” Biden wrote in a letter sent to the heads of ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP America, Shell, Phillips 66, Marathon and Valero.In response, the American Petroleum Institute and the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers wrote to Biden that “U.S. refineries are operating at or near maximum utilization.” The trade groups noted that U.S. refineries are running at 94 percent of capacity, adding that about half of U.S. refinery shutdowns have resulted from conversions to renewable fuel production.Agency alertToxic ‘forever chemicals’ more dangerous than once thought, EPA warnsThe Environmental Protection Agency on Wednesday announced that a group of human-made chemicals found in products used daily by millions of Americans poses a greater risk to health than previously thought, The Washington Post’s Dino Grandoni reports. The chemicals, known as polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, have been found in drinking water, cosmetics, cookware and food packaging and are linked to infertility, thyroid issues and cancer. While the federal government does not regulate PFAS, EPA’s advisory is aimed at encouraging local officials and utilities to install water filters and take other measures to tackle the toxic chemicals, which can last for years without breaking down. The agency is already slated to propose rules for two of the most common PFAS this fall. And Radhika Fox, head of the EPA’s water office, told reporters during a Tuesday call that the agency is considering more sweeping measures to crack down on the entire category.In the atmosphereThanks for reading!

Inside the fight to force makers of plastic trash to clean up their mess

The moment may be at hand for Californians to turn the tide on a sea of plastic waste that environmentalists say is destroying life in the ocean, contaminating drinking water and stuffing state landfills.
Already qualified for the November ballot, the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act would force the petrochemical-based plastics industry to make all single-use plastic packaging and foodware items reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2030, while reducing production of them by 25%. 

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 Northern California recycling and waste management giant Recology Inc. put up $3.85 million to get the measure on the ballot. The Corn Refiners Association contributed $250,000 more. The Conservation Action Fund, supported by a half-million-dollar contribution from the Nature Conservancy, is bankrolling the ongoing campaign. And a who’s who of prominent environmental organizations in the state has lent lobbyists and message masters to lead the attack on plastic.
The measure’s supporters describe a frightening scenario of a world overwhelmed by plastic waste — food cups, clamshell containers, straws, bottle-cap sealants and dozens of other single-use items. Plastic trash, the advocates say, now floods the oceans with some 14 billion tons of waste a year that ravages fish and other sea life. On land, plastic refuse breaks down into microscopic particles that are being found pretty much everywhere.
“This isn’t just about marine life,” said Nick Lapis, a lobbyist for Californians Against Waste. “This is being ingested by humans, and we don’t know what the effects of that are. This year, research has come out that showed for the first time that there’s plastic in human blood and human lungs, and there was a study that tested the first bowel movement of newborns, and they had plastic in them. … Babies are literally being born with it in their bodies.”
*   *   *
Under the terms of the measure, the plastics industry — attached at the hip with the fossil fuels industry, a relationship now under investigation by the California attorney general — would be required to pay a one cent fee for each piece of single-use plastic such as a plastic lid, straw and cup sold.
Most of this money would go into a new California Plastic Pollution Reduction Fund that would “support local public works infrastructure and litter abatement activities, composting, recycling, reuse, and environmental restoration,” according to the initiative. The measure also bans polystyrene foam containers widely used in food services.
Opponents of the initiative say it would cost consumers and state and local governments billions of dollars and lead to tens of thousands of workers losing their jobs. They say that the initiative’s wording does allow producers to pass along costs to consumers, only that they can’t itemize it in a receipt or invoice. 

Opposition spokesman Michael Bustamante said the initiative will cost consumers $4.3 billion a year on the penny-per-plastic-item tax.

 The California Business Roundtable ($350,000) and the American Chemistry Council ($250,000) are the biggest funders of the opposition campaign, Stop the Tax on Working Families. The Dart Container Corp., of Mason, Michigan, has contributed $256,000 in a donation it made through the Business Roundtable. Dart produces polystyrene foam cups and other food service delivery products; in 2012, it acquired the highly visible Solo Cup franchise, famous to Pong players everywhere. The California Retailers Association, the California Manufacturers & Technology Association and the California Taxpayers Association have signed on with the Roundtable and the chemistry council as sponsors of the opposition committee.
Michael Bustamante, the opposition spokesman, said the initiative will cost consumers $4.3 billion a year on the penny-per-plastic-item tax, or $901 a year for a family of four. He says the state will pay an additional $4.1 billion for expanded recycling and related costs, and that the initiative will require another $500 million to replace “noncomplying materials,” for a total cost of $8.9 billion. Moreover, Bustamante said 40,000 workers will lose their jobs, more than half of whom are Latino.
Bustamante obtained the data from a report put out earlier this year by the Center for Jobs and the Economy, the California Business Roundtable’s research arm. The report, however, said that the initiative would only “affect” the jobs, not eliminate them. The report attributed the figures to 2019 state Employment Development Department data for California packaging employment. Among the 40,159 jobs that the report said would be affected, 7,327 of them are actually in the paperboard and paper bag industry.
In an interview, Bustamante said that “ambiguities” in the wording of the initiative might also expose cardboard, glass, paper and aluminum products to the requirements of the initiative, especially if those materials are intermixed with plastic products.
Bustamante also attacked the initiative’s foremost financial backer, Recology Inc., as “corrupt” and “rotten from the core.” He cited the company’s admission to wrongdoing in two long-running bribery cases that were resolved last year with the company paying $136 million in criminal penalties and rate reimbursements. Bustamante charged that Recology launched the initiative primarily as a result of a decision by the Chinese government in 2017 to stop recycling the world’s plastic waste, including the tonnage it had been importing from Recology.
“You know that these guys were shipping their plastics to China,” Bustamante said. “China was accepting them for free, but when China closed its doors in 2017 and said, ‘We’re not accepting any more,’ Recology needed to find a Plan B, and their Plan B was this initiative.”
An employee-owned company that has collected San Francisco’s trash since 1935, Recology now recycles more than 600 million pounds of materials every year along with some 1 billion pounds of compostable food scraps and yard waste in 127 communities in Northern California, Oregon, Washington state and Nevada. 

A Recology spokesman said that the plastics industry “has cynically and dishonestly tried to make Recology the focus” of the campaign “to divert attention away from what is truly at stake.”

 “We are not out to destroy the plastics industry, but we must embrace change,” former Recology CEO and President Michael Sangiacomo wrote in a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed when the company launched the initiative drive in 2018.
Company spokesman Robert Reed, in a statement to Capital & Main, said that Recology has “long grappled with the challenges put out by plastic waste” and that it “proudly put up the seed money” for the initiative. Reed said that the plastics industry “has cynically and dishonestly tried to make Recology the focus” of the campaign “to divert attention away from what is truly at stake: voters’ interest in addressing the dangerous proliferation in our environment, our lands and seas, our flora and fauna, and our own bodies.” Reed asserted that the measure “earmarks no money — zero dollars — to Recology.”
Last Sept. 9 Recology admitted to fraud in a complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office in San Francisco. In a plea deal, the company agreed to pay $36 million in criminal penalties. Also last year, Recology on March 4 settled a case brought by the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office related to the bribery scheme and agreed to pay more than $100 million in rate reimbursements to the city’s residential customers.
According to court documents, the bribery scheme involved two Recology officials who delivered more than $1.1 million in payments to San Francisco’s former public works director, Mohammed Nuru, in exchange for rate increases going as far back as 2013.
Acting U.S. Attorney Stephanie M. Hinds said in a press release that the company is “committed to full cooperation” in the government’s ongoing investigation.
Despite the bad publicity out of San Francisco, initiative supporters have not backed away from Recology. Lapis, the lobbyist for Californians Against Waste, said it has been “a good partner” and called the industry attack on Recology, which is no longer involved in the campaign, “a miscalculation on who they think is driving the ship here.”
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As for the opponents’ allegation that the initiative will cost consumers $4.3 billion, the measure’s supporters are using the figure to bash the plastics industry. They say that the number represents an admission on the industry’s part of the Mt. Everest-sized plastics problem, as well as an acknowledgment that producers have no intention of reducing the amount of nonrecyclable waste that they are pumping out.
At the rate of a penny a piece, the proponents say, the figure suggests the industry is producing and California consumers are throwing away some 430 billion pieces of single-use plastic a year.
“I think what the opposition here is saying with these inflated cost estimates and claims is that they are basically owning up to having no intention of changing their ways or taking responsibility for their products,” said Dr. Anja Brandon, the U.S. plastics policy analyst at the Ocean Conservancy. “They plan to continue business as usual while pushing costs on to consumers, which the ballot measure explicitly prohibits.”
Dart Container Corp. and the American Chemistry Council both promote reuse and recycling on their websites. Brooke Armour Spiegel, vice president of the California Business Roundtable, said in an interview, “The business community is not opposed to recycling and reducing plastic waste. In fact we strongly support it.” Nobody from either Dart or the chemistry council responded to requests for comments. (Dart’s chairman, Kenneth Dart, who is believed to be worth $6.6 billion as of 2013, renounced his U.S. citizenship in favor of Belize to avoid paying taxes, as did his brother, Dart Chief Executive Officer Robert C. Dart.) 

“The truth is: The vast majority of plastic cannot be recycled and the recycling rate has never surpassed 9%.”
~ California Attorney General Rob Bonta

 Brandon surmised that neither Dart nor the American Chemistry Council are serious about growing what environmentalists call the “circular economy” that other firms, especially those in corn refining, seem poised to pursue. She notes that the plastics industry is deeply connected to the oil industry and views the continued use of petroleum-based single-use plastic as a pathway to profits.
“They see the public’s growing awareness and frustration with single-use plastic pollution as [an] existential [threat] to their business,” Brandon said. “Because, ultimately, getting to a circular economy means not using fossil fuels anymore.”
In April, California Attorney General Rob Bonta’s office served a subpoena on ExxonMobil, the first move in what he said will be an investigation into the petrochemical industry’s alleged misleading of the public about single-use plastic producers’ ability to recycle its products.
“Enough is enough,” Bonta said in a press release announcing the subpoena and the investigation. “For more than half a century, the plastics industry has engaged in an aggressive campaign to deceive the public, perpetuating a myth that recycling can solve the plastics crisis. The truth is: The vast majority of plastic cannot be recycled and the recycling rate has never surpassed 9%.”
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With polls showing state residents overwhelmingly concerned about plastic pollution and ready to do something about it, business groups have recently gone to the table to negotiate their possible legislative accession to a significant plastic waste reduction bill. Talks are underway in Sacramento among business groups, environmentalists and lawmakers, and they must reach an agreement, sources said, or the initiative will go to the voters.
State Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), the author of SB 54, a plastic source-reduction measure that has been pending since December 2020, is mediating the talks. Any likely deal would require the industry committing to and financially supporting a significant level of source reduction, a move to replace more plastics with compostable products and increasing the state’s plastics recycling rate to well beyond its current 9% level. In return, the business side wants more certainty regarding what the state’s recycling agency, CalRecycle, can and cannot order, the source said.
On June 14, 21 environmental groups sent a letter to Allen saying that they could not support a compromise proposal that made it into a bill that is now in print. They contended that the revised SB 54 takes away too much of CalRecycle’s authority to develop the initiative’s reduction and recycling programs and gives it to the producers “who have created the problem,” the letter said.
The initiative’s proposed polystyrene ban and its effect on Dart Container Corp. also has emerged as a major issue in the talks, another source said. Although Dart, the big-time polystyrene producer, is not directly participating in the negotiations, the company, besides its $256,000 contribution to defeat the initiative, has, since 2019, contributed $496,000 to 85 lawmakers in the Assembly who ultimately would have to approve any legislative deal, according to initiative proponents.
Neither side is predicting whether a legislative compromise can be achieved. In anticipation of the possibility that there will not be a deal, proponents announced on June 13 that they had retained one of the country’s leading Democratic campaign organizations, Bryson Gillette, to run the fall campaign, if there is one. June 30 is the deadline for the two sides to reach a deal if they want to remove the measure from the Nov. 8 ballot.    

 Copyright 2022 Capital & Main.
An earlier version of this story identified the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act by an alternative title, the California Plastic Waste Reduction Regulations Initiative.

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