Ottawa recently announced it will phase out some single-use plastics by 2025, but finding sustainable alternatives is trickier than you might think.The ban, which targets six categories of plastics, is part of an effort by the Liberal government to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030. A study commissioned by Environment and Climate Change Canada showed that, in 2016, Canadians threw away three million tonnes of plastic waste, only nine per cent of which was ultimately recycled. The rest ended up in landfills, waste-to-energy facilities or the environment, where it can harm wildlife while taking hundreds of years to break down.One of the single-use items on the banned list is the plastic checkout bag that many Canadians use for groceries and other kinds of shopping. Up to 15 billion plastic checkout bags are used every year in the country, according to government data.They’re also one of the major sources of plastic litter found on shorelines. In 2021, almost 17,000 plastic bags were collected during community cleanups.Even before the federal government’s move, some jurisdictions including P.E.I., Nova Scotia and a number of B.C. communities had already banned single-use plastic bags. Some major retailers such as Sobeys and Walmart have also stopped offering them.The majority of Canadians are shifting away from single-use plastic bags, too. In a 2019 survey, 96 per cent of respondents said they used their own bags or containers when grocery shopping, though only 47 per cent of those said they always did so.Examining the full life cycle The challenge for eco-conscious shoppers is that alternatives to single-use plastic bags also leave an environmental footprint.A 2020 study by the UN Environment Program analyzed the findings of seven life cycle assessments (LCAs) on shopping bags published since 2010. An LCA assesses the environmental impacts of a product or services from, essentially, cradle to grave. This includes: Raw material extraction.Production.Logistics and distribution.Use.End-of-life.The study found the environmental ranking of bags varies depending on which criteria you consider. For example, one type of bag may score well in cutting down on litter but be a poor option when it comes to water and land use to make it.The number of times a reusable bag is used is also crucial, the study found. On the lower end, a paper bag needs to be used four to eight times to have less impact on the climate than a single-use plastic bag. Meanwhile, a cotton bag needs to be used 50 to 150 times to be environmentally superior, according to the study.Given the impacts from all life cycle stages, one of the best options for shoppers would to skip the bag altogether whenever possible, said Tony Walker, an associate professor of environmental studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax.”Reducing consumption of anything and everything is key because everything requires resources and energy to produce,” said Walker, who advised the federal government on its Zero Plastic Waste Agenda and Oceans Plastics Charter.If you do need a plastic bag alternative, here’s a closer look at the pros and cons of some common options.Cotton bagThe cotton bag has greater environmental impacts than other types of bags during production due to the high amount of energy required to grow, irrigate and fertilize the cotton.However, its durability lends itself to hundreds, even thousands, of uses, which makes it an environmentally friendly alternative, says Walker.As well, cotton bags are made from a renewable resource and are degradable at end of life, though the 2020 UN study notes it matters how it is disposed. Waste incineration for cotton bags is climate neutral and therefore a better option than landfilling, where the study says degradation of the cotton releases methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming.Paper bagPaper bags have a few things going for them: they can decompose easily, they can be put in compost bins depending on your jurisdiction and they can be recycled as paper, says Walker.However, like cotton, they demand quite a bit of energy to produce. They also require forestry products as raw materials and take more fuel to transport than other, lighter materials.Tony Walker, an associate professor of environmental studies at Dalhousie University in Halifax, advised the federal government on its Zero Plastic Waste Agenda and Oceans Plastics Charter.
The United States creates more plastic trash than any other country and ranks third among coastal nations for contributing litter, illegally dumped trash, and other mismanaged waste to its beaches. Yet, even with such an abundance of disposable plastic—scientists measured 46 million tons in 2016—the U.S. manages to recycle just under 9 percent every year.So, when California’s sweeping legislation on plastic waste was signed by Governor Gavin Newsom last week, the moment was heralded as a transformative shift that may redefine how the nation at large deals with the growing amount of plastic waste.“The magnitude of this legislation really can’t be overstated,” says Anja Brandon, a plastics policy analyst at the Ocean Conservancy, which participated in the lengthy negotiations to craft the bill. “This is the first legislation anywhere in the world that requires a simple reduction in the amount of plastic.”The new law aims to accomplish several big things at once. Most significantly, it requires a 25 percent reduction of plastics in single-use products in California by 2032—a first in regulatory efforts in the U.S. to restrain the growth in plastic manufacturing, which globally is forecast to triple by mid-century to 32 million tons a year. The reduction can be achieved by shrinking the size of packaging and shifting to refillable containers or packaging made from other materials, such as recyclable paper or aluminum. By the Ocean Conservancy’s calculations, those packaging reductions would eliminate nearly 23 million tons of single-use plastics over the next decade. Californians throw away about 4.5 million tons of plastics yearly, according to CalRecycle, the state’s waste management agency.The new law also requires 30 percent of plastic to be recycled by 2028, increasing to 65 percent by 2032—a giant leap. It further requires the industry to create a $5 billion fund over the next decade to help low-income communities impacted by the effects of plastic pollution.Finally, it transfers the cost of recycling to the industry from municipalities and their taxpayers. The practice, known as extended producer responsibility, (EPR) has been in use in the European Union (EU) since the 1990s, and is credited with boosting higher recycling rates in western Europe, which hover around 40 percent.Canada began such an EPR program last year. Other countries, including India, are in the process of writing EPR regulations. In the U.S., EPR has been introduced in Congress, but so far has failed to gain approval. California’s shift to EPR follows Oregon, Maine, and Colorado, which have passed slightly different versions.“It’s been a long time for the dam to break in the U.S.,” says Ted Siegler, a waste expert and partner at DSM Environmental Services in Vermont. He has worked with nations across the globe to develop waste management systems, and has long supported requiring industry to finance the cost of processing the trash their products become. “It will take several years before we will see if any of these EPR laws here are going to work.”California’s long reachThe new law is expected to prompt change in the plastics industry far beyond California’s borders. As the most populous state and the world’s fifth largest economy, California influences markets in ways that other states can’t. Auto manufacturers, for example, agreed to follow California’s fuel emissions standards, which are stricter than federal standards. In plastics, experts predict that product packaging lines, for example, will be adapted to California’s standards no matter where the products are sold.“A national or global company in all likelihood will make those changes globally or nationally, and not just for the state of California—or Maine,” Siegler says. But he also sounded a cautionary note against counting on the new law to live up to its effusive praise as landmark: “My experience with waste reduction measures is they have always failed to meet reduction targets written into the legislation. It would be great if they were able to (in this case). Proof will be in the implementation.”Stricter regulations elsewhereThe EU remains the world leader in regulating plastic products, packaging, and waste. It has banned 10 types of single-use plastic products, including food and beverage containers made of expanded polystyrene or foam, straws and beverage stirrers, and certain biodegradable plastics. The EU also is in the process of revising regulations in order to reduce all packaging. And, to support the use of recycled plastic, it is considering setting mandatory targets for recycled content required in packaging, vehicles, and construction products.Other nations also have taken a national approach. India’s national ban on single-use plastics, announced with fanfare last fall, took effect July 1. More than three dozen countries, most of them in Africa, have banned plastic shopping bags, the world’s most-used consumer product.In the U.S., efforts to curb plastic waste have been scattershot. Eight states have banned plastic shopping bags. Five states have banned expanded food containers made of expanded polystyrene, or foam. The plastics industry has succeeded in persuading lawmakers in more than a dozen states to pass laws preventing such product bans.Federal legislation, which includes a provision calling for a fee on production of virgin plastic used to make single-use plastics, is tied up in Congress. The provision is aimed at leveling the playing field for plastic production: In the U.S., making plastic from virgin plastic is far cheaper than making it from recycled plastic, and those economics contribute to the growing accumulation of plastic trash around the world. Meanwhile, the Biden administration announced last month a plan to phase out single-use plastics in national parks and other public lands by 2032.California already leads the nation in regulating plastics, having banned bags statewide and expanded polystyrene in 128 cities. Last year it outlawed the use of the common circular recycling symbol, found on the bottom of packaging, in cases where the packaging is not actually recyclable.Still, efforts to pass more comprehensive legislation eluded lawmakers until this year. Success this time came largely because the plastics industry joined other proponents to craft a compromise that kept a more stringent plastics initiative, known as the “anti-plastics” bill, off the November ballot.There’s no pleasing everyone Even so, not everyone was happy with the outcome. The American Chemistry Council, an industry trade group that lent support in an effort to derail the ballot measure, nevertheless gave the new law praise, however faint. In a statement, Joshua Baca, the group’s vice president of plastics, said the law is “not the optimal legislation to drive California towards a circular economy,” but pledged to work with California lawmakers to refine several provisions.Judith Enck, a former EPA regional administrator and founder of the activist group, Beyond Plastics, faulted lawmakers for failing to ban expanded polystyrene, and for not closing loopholes that she says may allow plastics producers to avoid meeting their targets. “When the dust settles, there will be some remorse,” she says. “Better than nothing is not a good strategy.”Enck also criticized the EPR program for allowing the industry to organize the EPR procedures and collect fees, though the final authority to oversee the program lies with CalRecycle, the state agency. “Environmental policy makers would not put the fossil fuel industry in charge of reducing greenhouse gases, so why are we putting the packaging industry in charge of reducing packaging?” she asks.Recology, the San Francisco-based recycling company that provided seed money to get the citizen’s initiative on the ballot, praised the new law for its EPR provisions and efforts to reduce plastic packaging, but said in a statement even more legislation and additional funding will be required.“As a recycling company, Recology is doing everything we can, but manufacturers and their packaging companies are producing too many plastics in total and too many different kinds of plastics,” the company said.Recology, which provides recycling and composting service to nearly 150 communities in the three West Coast states, does advise consumers to do their part: “Each time we avoid plastic when shopping, we send direct messages to brands and their packaging companies. If we don’t buy it, they won’t make it.”In the end, what sets the new California plastics law apart is the requirement that reduces plastic production, says George Leonard, the Ocean Conservancy’s chief scientist.“It goes to the heart of the question—the growth of plastic production as a driver in environmental change. Is it everything? No. But it’s going to bend the curve in a more practical way than anything that came before.”
The landmark legislation also restricts single-use plastics. Because California’s economy is so big, experts say, the law could have far-reaching effects.In one of the most ambitious statewide attempts to reduce dependence on plastics, California instituted a new requirement that makers of packaging pay for recycling and reduce or eliminate single-use plastic packaging.The law, signed by California’s governor on Thursday, is the fourth of its kind to be passed by a state, though experts say it is the most significant because it goes further in requiring producers to both make less plastic and to ensure that all single-use products are recyclable or compostable. Last summer, Maine and Oregon passed the country’s first such requirements, known as producer-responsibility laws.A key tenet of the laws: The costs of recycling infrastructure, recycling plants and collection and sorting facilities, will be shifted to packaging manufacturers and away from taxpayers, who currently foot the bill.The California law requires that all forms of single-use packaging, including paper and metals, be recyclable or compostable by 2032. However, this is most significant when it comes to plastic products, which are more technologically challenging to recycle. In addition, it is tougher for people to figure out which plastics are recyclable and which aren’t.Unlike in other states, California will require a 25 percent reduction across all plastic packaging sold in the state, covering a wide range of items, whether shampoo bottles, plastics utensils, bubble wrap or takeaway cups.“We know that to solve our plastic pollution crisis, we need to make less plastic and reuse more of the plastic we do have,” said Anja Brandon, a policy analyst at the Ocean Conservancy, an environmental nonprofit group, and a contributor to the text of the bill. “This is the first bill in the country to tackle both issues.”Recycling is important for environmental reasons as well as in the fight against climate change. There are concerns that the growing global market for plastics, which are made from fossil fuels, could support demand for oil, contributing to the release of greenhouse gas emissions precisely at a time when the world needs to wean itself from fossil fuels to avoid the worst consequences of global warming. By 2050, the plastics industry is expected to consume 20 percent of all oil produced.According to one estimate by her team at the Ocean Conservancy, Ms. Brandon said that the new California law would eliminate 23 million tons of plastic in the next 10 years.Under the state’s law, manufacturers would pay for recycling programs and will be charged fees based on the weight of packaging, the ease of recycling and whether products contain toxic substances, such as PFAS, a type of virtually indestructible chemicals that have been linked to increased risk of some cancers.It follows other attempts in California to improve recycling. Last September, California became the first state to bar companies from using the “chasing arrows” symbol — the common symbol, three arrows forming a circle, often thought to mean that something is recyclable, although that’s not necessarily the case — unless they could prove that the material is in fact recyclable in most California communities.In addition, the law requires plastics manufacturers to pay $5 billion into a fund over the next 10 years that would mitigate the effects of plastic pollution on the environment and human health, primarily in low-income communities.“For far too long, plastic waste has been a growing burden for humans, animals, and the water, soil, and air we need to exist,” Ben Allen, a Democratic state senator and an author of the bill, said in a statement.Understand the Latest News on Climate ChangeCard 1 of 5Logging.
Air Date: Week of July 1, 2022
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Researchers at Sichuan University have developed a fishbot that could help clean up microplastics in the ocean. (Photo: Naja Bertold Jensen on Unsplash)
Environmental Health News Editor Peter Dykstra joins Host Steve Curwood to discuss the statistic that less than 50% of our world’s annual grain production is eaten by humans. They then review the innovative microplastic-removing “fishbots” coming out of a research group at Sichuan University and finish up with an anniversary for the Hoover Dam, a massive source of water and hydropower approved for development 93 years ago.
CURWOOD: Well, it’s that time in the broadcast when we turn to Peter Dykstra. For a look Beyond the Headlines, Peter is an editor with Environmental Health News. That’s ehn.org and dailyclimate.org. He’s on the line now from Atlanta, Georgia. Hey, Peter, it’s been pretty hot here. What about down south with you?
DYKSTRA: Last week, we hit 100º a couple of times; this week, it’s a little bit lower than that. But it’s still summertime hot in Georgia.
DYKSTRA: Well, Steve, let me tell you a couple of things that I found interesting this week. According to the World Food Program, most of the world’s grain is not eaten by humans. We produce just under 3 billion metric tons of grain a year. And more than half of that goes to feed animals or is used as biofuels like ethanol.
CURWOOD: So even in this time of grain shortage, because we’ve got this war going on with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and of course, the recurrent hunger problems, we’re not eating half of what we produce, and it’s going to animals?
DYKSTRA: Yeah, we’re talking about all of the common staple grains: corn, wheat, millet, rye, oats. And the world is desperate to feed itself. Ukraine and Russia have more than complicated the situation. But all of that grain that goes to feed animals, in turn, those animals are used to feed us, which creates health problems, climate problems, and more.
According to the World Food Program, humans eat less than 50% of the grain we produce. The majority of grain goes to animal feed and biofuel. (Photo: Kees Streefkerk on Unsplash)
CURWOOD: Peter, since most of the grain isn’t eaten directly by humans, but goes to livestock, if we cut down on our eating of meat as a species, we will not only help the climate – because there’s a lot of climate related gas emissions associated with all that meat – we also help lessen the shortage for other people on the planet who need to eat.
DYKSTRA: That’s right. And if I can say this in the politest way possible, we could use a little bit less meat eating here, where of course other parts of the world don’t get enough food and don’t get enough nutrition.
CURWOOD: So, there’s plenty of grain to go around for people to eat directly as long as we make the right choices. Heya, what else do you have for us today?
DYKSTRA: The word for today is: fishbots. There was a study published last week in the journal Nano Letters. Researchers in China at Sichuan University created a fishbot made out of composite material that can draw microplastics to itself as it swims. The Sichuan University team thinks that the new bot could be used to transport microplastics to another location where they can be collected and properly disposed of.
CURWOOD: Hey, Peter, just give me a little tech lesson. How exactly does this fish bot attract microplastics to it?
DYKSTRA: These fishbots react to a near-infrared light laser. Blinking the laser on and off causes the fishbot tail to flap back and forth acting like a fish. And as it moves along, plastic material sticks to the body of the fishbot.
CURWOOD: This would be an amazing solution to a huge problem. I mean, we’re literally choking the oceans with microplastics. But it sounds like this isn’t exactly an inexpensive device.
DYKSTRA: Not necessarily inexpensive, not necessarily efficient, and certainly not necessarily something that’s going to rid the world of the microplastics problem. But it’s an innovation. And if we have 1000 innovations, we might be able to put a dent in the huge problem of plastic pollution.
On June 25th, 1929, President Herbert Hoover authorized construction of the Hoover Dam (originally Boulder Dam). Today, overuse and drought threaten the American Southwest’s water supply. (Photo: Ryan Thorpe on Unsplash)
CURWOOD: Okay, well, I like that, a sign of hope to deal with the plastic problem. Hey, what do you have from the annals of history for us today?
DYKSTRA: On June 25th, 1929, President Herbert Hoover authorized the construction of a huge dam at the Boulder Canyon near the very small town of Las Vegas, Nevada. The Boulder Dam was eventually renamed the Hoover Dam, and it supplies water and electricity to farms and homes in Nevada, Southern California, and Arizona.
CURWOOD: There doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of water in the Colorado River system now to keep operating the Hoover Dam the way it once operated.
DYKSTRA: The Colorado River and the Southwestern US is in crisis over water. LA, San Diego, Orange County, Las Vegas, Phoenix. And even before you get to watering the populations in the cities or providing hydropower for them, about 70% of what comes down to the Hoover Dam is used for agriculture. So, the Hoover Dam is going to have to work overtime. And they’re going to have to find more new ways to conserve water and to find water to keep the American Southwest powered and watered.
CURWOOD: I think you’re right, Peter. I mean, we’re facing a real crunch there, thanks to the climate and thanks to the development that we’ve brought to the desert southwest. Thanks, Peter for all these stories. Peter is an editor with Environmental Health News, that’s ehn.org and dailyclimate.org, we’ll talk to you again real soon.
DYKSTRA: Okay Steve, thanks a lot, talk to you soon.
CURWOOD: And there’s more on these stories on the Living on Earth webpage, that’s loe.org.
The Economist | “Most of The World’s Grain Is Not Eaten by Humans” The Daily Beast | “Can a Future Fleet of Robotic Fish Clean Up the Ocean?” PBS | “Building the Hoover Dam”
NEW DELHI — India on Friday became the latest country to impose a ban on most single-use plastics, part of a growing but patchy global effort to tackle a leading source of pollution. The challenges of enforcement are enormous, experts say, but so are the potential gains.Only a small fraction of the plastic produced globally is recycled. Most is single-use, or disposable. It often winds up in landfills, rivers and oceans, or is burned, a significant contributor to air pollution in developing nations. Though these plastics are used only briefly, they can take hundreds of years to decompose. By 2050, there will be about 12 billion tons of plastic waste in the world, the United Nations estimates.Plastic debris is ubiquitous in India: stacked along roadsides, floating in waterways and choking drainage systems. The country is the world’s third-largest producer of plastic waste, trailing only the United States and China, according to a recent report from Australia’s Minderoo Foundation.U.S. is top contributor to plastic waste, report showsIndia announced its ambitious initiative last year. Now, the manufacture, sale or import of widely used items such as plastic cutlery, ice cream sticks, and film on cigarette packs and candy boxes are banned. Plastic bags, another major pollutant, are not on the list for now, but the government has mandated an increase in thickness to make them easier to reuse. Some plastic packaging used for consumer food products will be excluded from the ban, but manufacturers are tasked with ensuring that it is recycled.Experts say bans are only a first step and must be followed by stringent, long-term enforcement.“Plastic is cheap and a poor man’s commodity,” said Anoop Kumar Srivastava, founder of the Foundation for Campaign Against Plastic Pollution. “Such campaigns take years of sustained efforts. The gains are going to be enormous over a period of time.”Legal manufacturers of single-use plastic are likely to shut down as the ban takes effect, he said, but unlicensed ones may spring up to meet demand, making vigilant monitoring imperative. Pollution- control bodies at the state and local levels are primarily tasked with enforcing the ban. Violators will be fined and can face jail time, the Economic Times reported.“The large users of plastic packaging need to work with the supply chain on how they can shift to alternatives without affecting their financial bottom line,” said Suneel Pandey, director of environment and waste management at the Energy and Resources Institute in Delhi.But consumers have a role to play as well. “Awareness is a big issue,” Pandey said. “If [consumers] get alternatives, they would switch. Otherwise, they will use what is convenient.”Plastic manufacturers are already up in arms. They say that the government did not give them enough time to make the transition and that thousands of jobs are at stake.“For so many units to change their product, their machinery, their manpower and adapt to newer technologies is a very big task that cannot happen in a year,” said Kishore Sampat, president of the All India Plastic Manufacturers’ Association. The ban will impact more than 80,000 companies making single-use plastic items and lead to billions of dollars in losses, he estimated.India takes its place in a slow but building global movement away from plastics. China announced in 2020 that it would phase out plastic bags nationwide by the end of this year. A ban on single-use plastics in Canada will go into effect in December. There is no national ban in the United States, but California, New York and Oregon have limited the use of plastic items.Canada banning single-use plastics to combat pollution, climate changeMore than half a dozen state governments in India have passed similar regulations in the past, with mixed results. But there are small success stories that could serve as a model for the rest of the nation.Twenty years ago, Supriya Sahu, a young government official charged with oversight of Nilgiris district, a popular destination in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, saw a seemingly impossible problem. Tourists left behind mounds of plastic that would find its way into streams and forests and be eaten by animals. She joined forces with civil society groups, municipal bodies and village representatives to work toward a solution.Before seeking a broad ban, she persuaded local councils to pass resolutions against plastic use. Her team distributed cloth bags to tourists at the district borders. To raise awareness, images of animals with plastic stuck to their intestines were displayed widely. Finally, authorities began to fine consumers and close shops using plastic bags.“It worked like magic,” Sahu said. “There was absolutely no way that we could handle all the plastic” that was being generated.Tamil Nadu later adopted many of these practices and banned most single-use plastic items in 2019. The state has seized 1,768 tons of plastic in the years since and collected $1.28 million in fines.“It is not an easy decision for any government to take,” Sahu said. “But somewhere we have to start.”
The legislative path to reducing plastic waste in California became significantly clearer on Tuesday when the Assembly Natural Resources Committee voted 9-0 to approve a bill that targets the production of single-use plastic packaging and foodware in the state over the next decade.
No plastic manufacturers spoke out against Senate Bill 54 at a hearing before the vote, and all three Republicans on the committee voted for its passage. Supporters of the bill said privately that the vote could indicate a similarly lopsided outcome when the measure goes to the full Assembly on Thursday. The bill has already passed the state Senate, but it would have to go back to the upper house for concurrence on amendments that have since been written into the legislation.
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A plastic-reduction ballot initiative has already qualified for the November election. Some of the state’s major business groups as well as two of the largest plastic producers in the country oppose the California Recycling and Plastic Pollution Reduction Act and are raising millions of dollars to defeat it, assuming it goes forward. Dow Inc., the parent company of Dow Chemical, contributed $10 million to the opposition campaign on June 21. The next day, Dart Container Corp. gave $1 million. If the Legislature does not approve SB 54 by a Thursday deadline, the initiative would proceed to the ballot.
Under the terms of SB 54, plastic manufacturers would create their own “producer responsibility organization” to achieve reductions in single-use plastic of 25% by 2032. Producers would also put $500 million a year for 10 years beginning in 2027 into a plastic waste mitigation fund. The organization would operate under an advisory board made up of environmentalists and representatives from California cities, waste management companies, recycling advocates, disadvantaged communities and rural associations. The California Department of Recycling would regulate and monitor the producer group.
The bill also bans polystyrene foodware by January 2025 unless manufacturers demonstrate that they can recycle 25% of it.
“When the Senate voted to move SB 54 out to this house earlier this year, I committed to only bringing forth a bill that was flexible enough to address the concerns raised by industry but also strong enough to win the support of environmental and business groups backing a statewide ballot initiative,” SB 54 author Sen. Ben Allen of Santa Monica testified at Tuesday’s committee hearing. “I truly believe that we did that and more.”
Allen said the bill “will put California at the front of the pack in addressing the critical issue of plastic pollution, and doing it in a way that offers the certainty and specificity needed for industry to succeed.”
According to the bill analysis, California disposes of 42.2 million tons of plastic waste a year, only 9% of which is recycled. Worldwide, some 8 million metric tons of plastic winds up in the ocean. Most of the nonrecyclable waste breaks down into microplastics that can then enter the human body and create assorted health problems, according to the analysis.
In recent weeks, environmental groups split over revisions of SB 54 that emerged in months-long negotiations in Sen. Allen’s office. Much of the disagreement centered on the authority of the producer responsibility organization. Some groups said in letters to Allen that the revisions took away too much of CalRecycle’s power to oversee the reduction provisions. More recent amendments seem to have mollified those concerns, and at least one environmental group, Californians Against Waste, switched its position to support the bill.
“The amendments that were taken late Friday allayed most of our concerns,” said Nick Lapis, director of advocacy for Californians Against Waste. “With the various guardrails and backstops added to the bill, it will really be a game changer for California.”
The final decision on whether to go ahead with the initiative in November lies with three people who circulated the petitions to qualify the measure for the ballot. They are Michael Sangiacomo, the former CEO of the San Francisco waste management firm Recology; Caryl Hart, an attorney, environmental activist and member of the California Coastal Commission; and Linda Escalante, another Coastal Commission member who is the Southern California legislative director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
On Tuesday, the NRDC, which also had opposed SB 54, declared in a letter that it would now support the measure, pending further amendments to clarify the bill’s protections against potentially hazardous forms of recycling and narrow the list of materials exempted from the bill’s provisions.
A spokesman for the committee that is raising money to defeat the initiative if it goes to a vote declined to comment on where the opponents stand on the revised SB 54.
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June 28, 2022 — Think about the last time you went to the grocery store. Maybe you bought a gallon of milk, a carton of strawberries, a box of granola bars, a jar of peanut butter. Each of these food or beverage products likely came in plastic or glass packaging. Humans have become heavily reliant on packaging for two key reasons: convenience and safety. Doing so has had huge implications for the environment — from the carbon-emitting fossil fuels used to make packaging to the habitat-harming trash it becomes when we’re done.
Which is why many consumers and producers are looking for “sustainable alternatives” to lessen the harmful impact on our planet. Between 2016 and 2020, Google searches for sustainable goods increased by 71%. But can packaging really be sustainable? Well, it’s more nuanced than you might think.
Glass vs. Plastic
The Oxford English Dictionary’s definitions of “sustainable” include “capable of being maintained or continued at a certain rate or level” and “designating forms of human activity (esp. of an economic nature) in which environmental degradation is minimized.” The question of what constitutes sustainable packaging often focuses on two common materials: glass and plastic. Plastic has been demonized in recent years due to its origins in fossil fuels and its finite life in a recycling plant. Images of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch often depict piles of single-use water bottles and other plastic debris floating in the ocean.
Many consumers consider plastic an unsustainable option, in part because of how much of it ends up in landfills or in nature. Photo courtesy of United Nations Development Programme in Europe and CIS from Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
Given these myriad issues associated with plastic and plastic waste, many consumers think of glass as a safer, more sustainable alternative. Glass can be recycled indefinitely without degrading. Surely it is better for the environment, right?
Despite the common assumption that glass outweighs plastic in environmental benefits, some recent life-cycle assessments (LCAs) show a more complicated story.
In 2020, researchers at the University of Southampton looked at the relative environmental impacts — from raw material extraction through use and final disposal — of glass and plastic used in beverage packaging. The LCA assessed 1-liter (1.06-quart) beverage containers into three categories: fizzy drinks, fruit juice and milk. It examined glass bottles, aluminum cans, milk cartons, Tetra Pak, and two types of plastic bottles, polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high-density polyethylene (HDPE).
Although glass can be recycled indefinitely without degrading, it has its own environmental issues. Photo by jasper benning on Unsplash
The assessment focused on 11 “impact categories” within the three beverage groupings, ranging from eutrophication to global warming potential to toxicity for humans. The glass bottle had a higher negative impact than the typical packaging alternatives for each beverage across nearly all impact and beverage categories.
An older LCA, published in 2014 in The International Journal of Life Cycle Assessment by researchers from GE and LCA consultant EarthShift, compared glass and plastic bottles for holding contrast media used in X-ray procedures. The LCA suggested that the plastic bottle had lower environmental impacts across all designated impact categories, including greenhouse gas emissions, impact on ecosystems and impact on resources. Adding in the impacts of the packaging containing the bottles yielded less clear results, however.
Also in 2020, researchers in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the Politecnico di Milano in Italy published an LCA comparing reusable glass bottles to single-use glass bottles. The LCA concluded that the refillable glass bottle is “by far preferable” to the single-use glass bottle. However, as the study notes, the distance a refillable bottle travels affects how well (and, at large distances, whether) it has a lower overall environmental impact than the single-use option.
According to Packaging Sustainability author Wendy Jedlička, the weight of glass has a heavy impact on its carbon footprint. In the United States, the manufacturing of glass and glass products was responsible for 15 million metric tons (16.5 million tons) of carbon dioxide equivalent greenhouse gases in 2018.
Is Plastic Any Better?
While these LCAs may have surprising conclusions about glass for some readers, writing previously in Ensia, freelance writer Karine Vann noted, “[LCAs] tend to privilege the impacts of production (which, for example, materials like plastic score well on because they are lightweight and low-carbon to produce) over the impacts of disposal (a measure for which, being difficult or impossible to recycle, plastics score poorly).” One study found that 79% of plastic ends up in a landfill or in nature, potentially harming wildlife. And according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, in 2018 just 2 million tons (1.8 million metric tons) of plastic containers and packaging were recycled — 13.6% of the amount generated that same year.
Cumulative plastic waste generation and disposal (in million metric tons). Solid lines show historical data from 1950 to 2015; dashed lines show projections of historical trends to 2050. Copyright © 2017 The Authors, “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,” some rights reserved; exclusive licensee American Association for the Advancement of Science. No claim to original U.S. Government Works. Distributed under a Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial License 4.0 (CC BY-NC). Click image to expand.
Beyond that, the chemicals that make up plastics can pose their own health risks to humans. Nearly two decades ago, Scott Belcher, a research professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at NC State University, and colleagues found that bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical that serves as a building block for certain plastics, can disrupt the function of hormones, interacting with estrogen receptors. BPA also has been associated with alterations of cells of the nervous system during development and with heart arrythmias.
Although many plastic products for sale today are marketed as “BPA free,” that doesn’t mean they are free of harmful chemicals. “The question that consumers need answering is, ‘What’s being used instead of bisphenol-A?’ And this gets to this idea of regrettable substitution,” Belchers says. “A lot of these substances look chemically a lot like BPA. There’s BPS [bisphenol-S], BPAF [bisphenol-AF] — all of these other bisphenols can have similar or even more activity than BPA. And because the specifics of their use are often hidden as confidential business information, we don’t know how — or how widely — substituted chemicals are used.”
And BPA and its substitutes aren’t the only chemicals found in plastic packaging. Belcher also expresses concerns regarding PFAS chemicals, which are commonly used in takeout boxes, microwave popcorn bags and other food packaging materials that repel grease. And flame retardants, colorings and other materials go into plastics as well.
Jane Muncke, environmental toxicologist and managing director of the Food Packaging Forum, a nonprofit organization focused on chemicals in food packaging, has found that potentially harmful chemicals can move from plastic packaging to food due to four main factors: temperature, storage time, type of food and materials used in the packaging.
Through years of study, researchers have been able to determine that various chemicals found in plastics are associated with adverse health effects, such as cancer, infertility, diabetes, obesity, neurodevelopmental issues, immune system problems and asthma. “Exposure to hazardous chemicals contributes to premature mortality and to increased chronic disease,” says Muncke.
“[The] ideal that we’re shooting for is to get rid of the chemicals that impact your body,” Belcher says.
All that said, Muncke suggests the big sustainability issue with food might not be the packaging at all, but the products themselves. She points to providing nonseasonal food products in the winter. “There’s always the example of organic cucumbers grown in December in southern Spain, where they’re pumping out fossil aquifers, nonrenewable groundwater aquifers, to produce organic cucumbers that then get flown to central Europe so that we have fresh cucumbers in December. And then, the argument is always ‘Yeah, well we don’t want to have food waste,’ so we shrink wrap it in plastic,” Muncke says. “Then people say it’s sustainable packaging. The point is that it is a product that is not sustainable. It doesn’t matter if you wrap it in ‘sustainable packaging’ or not, it’s a product that shouldn’t exist. People shouldn’t be making and buying that product.”
Some experts point to the products themselves, not necessarily the packaging, as an issue that should be dealt with. One such example is nonseasonal food. Photo © iStockphoto.com | Esben_H
Muncke calls for examining why we need certain products in the first place. “It’s kind of a straw man argument, it’s like shifting the discussion away from where it needs to be,” she says. “How do we produce, how do we consume foods, and then, once we’ve clarified how that should be happening we can talk about how to package them.”
Still, Muncke says we can’t change the entire economy and stop shipping fresh vegetables across the globe without a transition. So, as a tool for those in the food business who deal with packaging decisions, Muncke and industry, nonprofit and technical partners developed the Understanding Packaging (UP) Scorecard, which helps businesses reduce the adverse health and environmental impacts of food packaging and containers. The scorecard compares packaging across six categories: climate impact, water use, plastic pollution, chemicals of concern, recoverability and sustainability of sourcing — with the goal of transitioning to more sustainable systems.
Culture Is Key
Sustainability in packaging requires not only systems thinking but also a consideration of culture, says Packaging Sustainability author Jedlička. Systems thinking takes a holistic approach that brings together different elements of society, such as people, the economy and the environment. In packaging design, systems thinking looks at addressing human needs while also considering impacts to the planet.
Including culture into a systems thinking methodology makes for a more useful tool, Jedlička says. For example, she notes that for years train passengers in India would drink chai tea out of unfired clay cups, then toss the cups out the window to the side of the tracks, where they would degrade. When plastic cups were introduced the habit continued, littering the landscape.
“I can look at a list of [materials] and go, ‘Yeah, that’ll work.’ But is that appropriate? Does it fit the community?… How does it fit into the bigger scheme of things?” —Wendy Jedlička
“Culture is really key,” says Jedlička. “That’s one of the things that the systems thinking methodologies don’t directly address. They look at profitability, which is great; they look at people, fair trade, and the environment, which is super important. But that culture aspect, that’s what makes everything else sink or swim.”
In other words, sustainability is based on the context. “I can look at a list of [materials] and go, ‘Yeah, that’ll work,’” Jedlička says. “But is that appropriate? Does it fit the community?… How does it fit into the bigger scheme of things?”
She offers The Beer Store in Ontario, Canada, as an example. In 2021 they collected 98% of the refillable glass bottles sold in their home province, reusing each 15 times on average. This system works because it has become part of the culture.
The Beer Store is one of many companies across the world that follows the “milkman” model, where packaging is reused. Loop is a global reuse platform that works with companies to help build a circular economy. It partners with retailers like McDonalds, brands like Coca Cola, and operational partners like FedEx to enhance adoption of multiuse packaging.
Whole System Thinking
The scope of sustainable packaging ranges far beyond the debate over glass versus plastic — a conversation that is ongoing — and there isn’t a universal sustainable packaging material. “There’s not one answer, and there’s not one optimal packaging type. I mean, glass is great, but paper is also great, and so are many other materials,” says Jedlička, “in the right context, and preferably as part of a closed-loop system.”
In the perspectives of Muncke and Jedlička, as important as the stuff our stuff comes in, is considering why we need a product in the first place and the culture in which it functions. Taking these additional aspects into consideration allows decision makers — both producers and consumers — to think more holistically about packaging and products, which is more likely to change the systems in which this all occurs, and, in doing so, contribute to finding packaging that is truly sustainable.
Editor’s note: Elise Bernstein wrote this story as a participant in the Ensia Mentor Program. The mentor for the project was Mary Hoff.
Erin Adams steers a refurbished lobster boat down Harraseeket River toward Casco Bay in southern Maine. As she passes the tiny Pound of Tea Island, where sea gulls lounge and a lone red Adirondack chair sits invitingly at the water’s edge, her destination looms in the distance: a 10-acre oyster farm. It’s a windy day and the boat pitches and rolls as Adams slows near a line of floating black oyster cages undulating in the swells.Aquaculture both contributes to and is potentially harmed by the ocean plastics crisis.Adams is harvesting today with her business partner Eric Oransky, who works fast, pulling up oyster bags and tossing them onto the deck. Dumping the contents onto a processing table, they count the oysters in groups of 10, occasionally knocking two together to make sure they’re alive. Then, Oransky sends each group of 10 through a chute and Adams catches them in mesh bags. Voila! They’re ready for delivery fresh off the boat.These mesh bags aren’t made from ordinary polypropylene mesh, however. They’re woven out of string made with 100-percent European beechwood, which is sustainably harvested by thinning forests certified by the Forest Stewardship Council or the Programme for the Endorsement of Forest Certification. They’re the only plastic-free, biodegradable, home-compostable oyster “harvest” bags on the market.Maine Ocean Farms uses roughly 1,200 of these bags every season. The bagging material is sold by Ocean Farms Supply, a business launched last year by Maine Ocean Farms and helmed by Adams. And although the company sells the material to oyster, clam, and mussel growers and wholesale distributors as far away as Mexico, California, and Florida, most of its business is local.Erin Adams and Eric Oransky counting oysters. Adams is cutting a mesh bag from the roll of material in the background. (Photo credit: Meg Wilcox)Already, the company’s bags have replaced the use of 14 linear miles of polypropylene mesh, according to Adams, who adds: “We are just beginning.”Demand for non-plastic aquaculture gear is growing, as evidenced by the hundred or so seafood farmers who packed into a session at the Northeast Aquaculture Conference in April to hear Adams and others speak on the topic.Aquaculture both contributes to and is potentially harmed by the ocean plastics crisis. Much of the industry’s gear, from ropes to cages to flotation devices, are made of plastic. Over time, that plastic degrades, generating millimeter-sized particles that can be ingested by shellfish and finfish, potentially harming their health. While harvest bags are a small part of the plastics used on a typical oyster farm—and in aquaculture more broadly—replacing them with a non-plastic biodegradable material is a step in the right direction.Oysters bagged with material made from sustainably harvested beechwood. (Photo credit: Meg Wilcox)They’re just one in a growing number of emerging innovations that mariculturists—small-scale shellfish and kelp growers—are developing to reduce their contribution to the ocean plastics crisis. Other new products include kelp-based ropes and lobster bait bags, oyster cages made solely from wood and metal, and cotton and hemp-based systems for growing shellfish larvae. While innovators are still grappling with longevity, durability, and the cost-competitiveness of new materials, the trend shows some promise.“If you can create a biodegradable material, or something that’s more benign [for farming shellfish], then you’re improving the health of your product, the quality of your product, and the environment at the same time. It’s a win-win-win,” said Joel Baziuk, associate director, Global Ghost Gear Initiative, at the Ocean Conservancy.Ocean Plastics and Aquaculture Every year, 11 million metric tons of plastic enters the oceans, which are already clogged with an estimated 15 to 50 trillion pieces of plastic that never fully break down, but instead fragment into smaller and smaller pieces. Roughly 80 percent of that plastic comes from land-based sources, including wastewater, according to Britta Baechler, senior manager of ocean plastics research at the Ocean Conservancy.Aquaculture contributes to ocean plastic pollution in three main ways, Baziuk told Civil Eats. Gear is lost from open water cages, wave action and extreme weather abrade plastic ropes, nets, and flotation systems, and single-use plastics used during routine operations can enter the ocean, particularly in regions with poor waste management systems.“We know that [aquaculture] is a major vector, we just don’t know exactly how much, because there’s not enough research,” said Baziuk.“People told us they’d been looking for 15 years,” for a non-plastic packaging material, Oransky said. “It’s amazing that a few mariners, woodworkers, and shipbuilders figured it out.”Some 1,300 marine animal species have been found to ingest ocean plastics, said Baechler. Bivalves filter enormous volumes of water to feed, which means that microplastics can get trapped in their gills or guts and cause blockages. Studies show that microplastics can decrease the ability of clams, oysters, and mussels to create energy; they can hinder muscle function and impair reproduction and growth. Hormone-disrupting chemicals like bisphenols and phthalates, which leach from microplastics, can also change marine animals’ behavior or affect their ability to grow, reproduce, and feed effectively.Little is known about the impacts to humans who consume shellfish contaminated with microfiber, and more research is needed. But that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t consume shellfish, Baechler says. “It’s not a great thing for human health that we’re consuming microplastics, but it’s not a problem that’s specific to shellfish or seafood. It’s across the human food system.”Pandemic-Inspired Innovation Energetic and intense, Oransky grew up in Freeport, Maine, and spent summers sailing in Casco Bay. His passion for the water led him to cofound Maine Ocean Farms in 2017, after working as a woodworker.Like many in Maine’s mariculturist community, Oransky is young, innovative, and environmentally minded. “Those are the people who are driving the interest in reducing plastics and coming up with non-fossil fuel-based technologies,” Sebastian Belle, executive director of the Maine Aquaculture Association, told Civil Eats.
The ocean covers about 70 percent of Earth’s surface, yet it is often missing from discussions about tackling climate change, plastic pollution, biodiversity loss and other pressing environmental threats facing the planet.Thousands of scientists and activists hope to shift the conversation at this week’s United Nations Ocean Conference in Lisbon, where leaders from more than 20 nations are set to issue a declaration on protecting the high seas against exploitation and restoring ocean health.“Sadly, we have taken the ocean for granted, and today we face what I would call an ocean emergency,” U.N. Secretary General António Guterres told delegates at the opening of the conference. “We must turn the tide. A healthy and productive ocean is vital to our shared future.”The ocean is a critical solution to climate change, groups tell BidenAlready, the gathering has featured some splashy commitments from governments and the private sector, drawing measured praise from conservationists, who warn that leaders must still do more to protect the ocean for humanity and marine life.Several American officials are attending the talks, including U.S. climate envoy John F. Kerry. And President Biden on Monday signed a memorandum to crack down on illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing — a leading cause of global overfishing that often involves forced labor, human trafficking and other human rights abuses.The United States, Britain and Canada will launch an alliance to improve monitoring of fisheries and “hold bad actors accountable,” according to a White House fact sheet. A working group comprising 21 federal agencies will release a five-year strategy on curtailing illegal fishing, while the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on Monday issued a proposed rule to combat forced labor in the seafood supply chain.“We must continue to work together to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing around the world, which jeopardizes maritime security and livelihoods for law-abiding fishers and communities,” Kerry said in a statement to The Washington Post.Meanwhile, outgoing Colombian President Iván Duque announced Monday that his country had conserved 30 percent of the ocean off its coasts, becoming the first nation in the Western Hemisphere to meet this goal by 2030. (Duque is set to be replaced by President-elect Gustavo Petro, a leftist who won a historic election on June 19 and has pledged to ban new contracts for oil exploration in Latin America’s third-largest country.)President of the Republic of Colombia Ivan Duque Márquez announcing that Colombia has achieved 30% protection of its ocean – 30 BEFORE 30 – the first nation in the Western Hemisphere to achieve #30×30. Enthusiastic applause from #UNOceanConference plenary audience. Congrats! 🌊 pic.twitter.com/XXAs2m3RP8— Jane Lubchenco (@JaneLubchenco46) June 27, 2022
Jean Flemma, co-founder of the think tank Urban Ocean Lab, who is attending the talks in Lisbon, said the mood on the ground there is punctuated by both optimism and a sense of urgency to combat climate change before it’s too late.“There are some big announcements and commitments that have been made, and there’s a lot of enthusiasm,” she said. “But people also feel an urgency, and some of us are worried that we’re not acting fast enough.”In addition to governments, the private sector has poured money into protecting 30 percent of Earth’s land and sea by 2030 — an initiative commonly shortened to 30 x 30. The Bezos Earth Fund, the environmental philanthropy launched by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, on Monday announced its first grants for marine protection, totaling $50 million. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)Grants totaling $30 million will support organizations working to create a network of marine protected areas spanning more than 193,000 square miles off the coasts of Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador and Panama. A $20 million grant will fund the National Geographic Society’s Pristine Seas project, which will conduct research over the next five years in the central and western Pacific Ocean, which contains the highest marine biodiversity on the planet.“The ocean is our planet’s life support system and a major carbon sink,” Andrew Steer, president and chief executive of the Bezos Earth Fund, said in a statement. “Investing in the ocean can be a powerful solution to many major challenges. It can protect vital marine ecosystems, provide jobs, help local communities, improve food security, and address climate change.”On Tuesday, Bloomberg Philanthropies and eight philanthropic partners committed a collective $1 billion to support the creation, expansion and management of marine protected areas. The commitment is roughly equal to all philanthropic giving for marine protected areas and habitat protection over the past decade.The conference is set to culminate Friday in a declaration to facilitate the conservation of the ocean and its resources, according to the United Nations. However, the declaration will not be binding on its signatories.Humanity’s greatest ally against climate change is Earth itselfStill beyond reach, meanwhile, is an international treaty to establish the first-ever legal framework for protecting the high seas. After 10 years of talks, a deal has failed to materialize, although a fifth round of negotiations is scheduled for August in New York.“I love what the U.N. says, but, unfortunately, they can’t really act,” said Clive Russell, a member of Ocean Rebellion, an activist group that staged a protest before the conference to highlight perceived inaction on overfishing. “So the commitments they make don’t really amount to much.”Guterres, the U.N. secretary general, apologized to young people on Sunday “on behalf of my generation, to your generation” for the state of the planet.“In my generation, those that were politically responsible … we were slow or sometimes unwilling to recognize that things were getting worse and worse in these three dimensions: ocean, climate and biodiversity,” he said. “And that even today, we are moving too slowly in relation to the need to reverse the threat, of rehabilitating the oceans, rescuing biodiversity and stopping climate change. We are still moving in the wrong direction.”Since humanity started burning fossil fuels and releasing planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions, the ocean has absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere. The consequences have been devastating for coral reefs, which have been wiped out by mass bleaching events.Sign up for the latest news about climate change, energy and the environment, delivered every ThursdayYet the ocean also has the power to help humanity stave off the worst effects of global warming. By some estimates, the ocean can provide one-fifth of the emissions cuts 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.Offshore wind farms can generate clean electricity to power millions of homes in coastal communities. And “blue carbon” ecosystems such as mangroves, salt marshes, coral reefs and kelp forests can store more carbon dioxide per unit than forests on land.“There has been an incredible recognition of the role the ocean has to play in solving the climate crisis,” said Anna-Marie Laura, director of climate policy for the Ocean Conservancy, who is attending the conference. “Countries are backing that up with specific actions. And there’s even more to be done.”