Glass, plastic, or PLA? Dairies struggle to replace single-use bottles

But one aspect of its operation remains contentious: the packaging. Like most dairy products in the U.S., Alexandre Family Farm’s milk and yogurt are sold in plastic jugs and containers, to the chagrin of some customers. Most plastic packaging is made from fossil fuels and more than 90 percent of it is not recycled. Instead, it fills our landfills, ends up as tiny particles in our soil and our bodies, and more than 8 million tons of it is dumped into oceans annually.As more dairies turn to organic and regenerative practices, consumers are pushing for packaging that eliminates single-use plastics, and dairies like Alexandre are actively looking for new solutions. But, it turns out, there is no simple fix. Switching to glass milk bottles is one approach that has become popular among some consumers, but it comes with the potential for high carbon emissions and logistical challenges. New technologies, including containers made from plants, aren’t yet optimized for holding liquids. And, even if they were, our waste systems can’t process them, meaning most end up in landfills.“We’re not happy to use plastic . . . but there aren’t yet alternative solutions, especially for beverage companies,” said Robert Brewer, Alexandre’s chief operating officer, who has been focused on finding new packaging since he was hired two years ago. “We just can’t continue to put billions of pounds of waste into the ocean and expect to have life on earth.”“We’re not happy to use plastic, but there aren’t yet alternative solutions, especially for beverage companies.”The dairy industry’s pursuit of new packaging also reflects the ongoing debate about whether society’s focus should be on inventing and refining disposable single-use packaging that is compostable or biodegradable or on improving recycling and reinforcing a circular economy that continues to rely on plastic. The makers of plant-based milks (almond, oat, rice, and soy)—many of which are also sold in plastic bottles—face similar conundrums.Retailers, Distributors Refuse Glass Milk Bottles Regardless of how milk is produced, in the U.S. most of it is sold in plastic containers made from virgin high-density polyethylene, also known as HDPE or No. 2 plastic. Nearly two-thirds of milk containers sold in North America are HDPE bottles, followed by cartons (24 percent) and plastic bags (7 percent). In recent years, some dairy companies—including Alexandre Family Farm—are turning to containers made from transparent, sturdy polyethylene terephthalate, which is also known as PET or No. 1 plastic, and commonly used in water bottles.Reba Brindley, a project manager at the University of California, San Francisco, said she gave up on buying Alexandre’s milk specifically because it came in plastic bottles—a choice she finds incompatible with the farm’s other values.“I am impressed by their work and dedication,” Brindley said of Alexandre. “But considering how little plastic is recycled and what an inefficient process it is, I don’t see how they can be held up as an environmental example when they pump out plastic bottles . . . I just can’t handle throwing out a plastic bottle every week.”Brindley switched to milk from the Straus Family Creamery, which comes in reusable glass containers. “There is so much emphasis on recycling when I think we need to move towards reuse and reduce,” said Brindley.Brindley is not alone in believing that glass—once the material of choice for milk bottles—is the dairy industry’s best shot at sustainability. Over the past decade, glass manufacturers have seen a resurgence of glass milk bottles across the U.S., particularly among small dairies and creameries. Some companies offer old-fashioned glass milk delivery to consumers’ doorsteps, while others offer reusable glass bottles that and can be returned to grocery stores, as in the case with Straus.“There is so much emphasis on recycling when I think we need to move towards reuse and reduce.”But while using glass may keep plastic out of landfills, prevent some toxic chemicals from leaching into our milk, and cater to our nostalgia and notions of improved taste and freshness, it’s not a panacea. Each packaging system has environmental impacts that go beyond the issue of solid waste, said Gregory Keoleian, professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Systems at the University of Michigan. Those environmental impacts stem from material production, manufacturing, use, and end-of-life processing and include energy, greenhouse gas emissions, and water use.“There will be tradeoffs with respect to these impacts and also between packaging performance and cost,” Keoleian said.Glass bottles weigh much more than other containers, so they take more energy to transport and result in higher transport-based emissions per volume of packaged milk. Extracting raw materials for new glass is also energy intensive, fueled mainly by natural gas. And only 31 percent of all glass containers are recycled—most end up in landfills, where they will take more 1 million years to decompose. Despite these drawbacks, when Keoleian and his colleagues studied milk packaging systems, they found that glass refillable bottles can outcompete single use containers such as plastic HDPE milk jugs and gable-top cartons with respect to energy and carbon footprints as long as they are reused at least five times—and the savings increases at higher reuse rates.Keoleian’s research also found that refillable plastic bottles—which are not used much today— can have an even lower environmental impact than glass because they can have higher reuse rates. But the most sustainable choice for milk packaging? He says it’s lightweight plastic pouches, which are used mostly in Canada and have a significantly smaller environmental impact than reusable glass or plastic. Aluminum, which is recycled at very high rates, could also serve as a sustainable packaging for milk.But most consumers want traditional bottles, Alexandre’s Brewer said, hence his dairy’s search for an alternative to standard plastic. Brewer was vice-president of sales and distribution for Straus from 2004 to 2008, overseeing its glass bottle reuse system. At the time, a significant number of retailers and distributors were willing to offer glass bottles, Brewer said. Today, it’s difficult to get them into large grocery chains.The system, he adds, is a logistical nightmare. Straus buys the glass bottles, made of approximately 30 percent recycled glass, sanitizes, fills, and counts them. They are then sent to a distributor, who is charged a deposit. The distributor delivers the bottles to retailers who, in turn, are charged another deposit, and retailers then sell the milk to customers, who get charged yet another deposit. The whole process is then repeated backwards, until the used bottles are returned to Straus for sanitizing and refilling. In all, it entails six different accounting steps, Brewer said. In addition, the bottles can break during shipping, increasing costs.So while Straus bottles are reused an average of five times before they are recycled (that number is primarily driven by the consumer return rate, which prior to the pandemic was close to 80 percent, and by ink wearing out on bottle labels), it’s a limited retail niche.“It’s not a bad system, it’s just that we were told clearly by retailers and distributors that they were not willing to do it,” Brewer said. “They told us, ‘If you want to come into our stores, you have to put the milk in plastic bottles.’ So the choice was existential.”A spokesperson from Straus Family Creamery, which has bottled its milk in reusable glass since 1994, told Civil Eats that “it may take longer for some stores to adapt and implement new sustainability programs.” But, the creamery added, the bottle logistics and accounting are not onerous once in place and “when retailers realize that there is demand among their shoppers . . . they are willing to invest time in developing the program with us and our distributor partners.” The creamery’s analysis has shown that its glass reuse program prevents approximately 500,000 pounds of milk containers and plastic out of the landfills each year.

Plastic straw ban not helped improve ocean environmental health

Most major fast-food corporations in the West have banned plastic straws and replaced them with paper ones. (Getty Images)The world is going through multiple simultaneous crises that compound one another and have one thing in common – their damaging consequences are caused by human hands.Capable of the worst, but also the best, our species has become a living force able to do dire harm to the natural environment of our planet.Even so, an army of conscientious thinkers is scrambling to find a solution that repairs the damage done by others, a result that is sadly less common than we would like to believe.In fact, some of the policies we enthusiastically pursue to lessen or reverse these anthropogenic effects do not work at all, and seem to be aimed only at appeasing our guilty consciences.There are multiple examples of such impulsive behaviours, as unhelpful as they are well-intentioned, that demonstrate our continued failure to plan on a grand scale, and that ‘seeing the big picture’ is too often beyond our means.Is it feasible to combat the energy crisis by covering a large area of the Sahara Desert with solar panels? (Getty Images)Let me explain this with a very simple example. From time-to-time, someone suggests combating the energy crisis by covering a large area of the Sahara Desert with solar panels. The efficacy of the idea is apparently so simple that it is hard to see any drawbacks.However, doing something like this would alter the Earth’s albedo, which is the level of radiation that light surfaces (such as snow or sand) bounce back into space due to their refractive nature. The usually dark solar panels would trap more radiation, raising the average temperature of the desert. This, paradoxical as it may seem, would increase the level of rainfall in the Sahel, eventually turning the desert into a kind of orchard.However, since the planet turns out to be an interconnected ‘whole’, the butterfly effect would cause an identical but opposite effect to appear on the other side of the Earth, let’s say the Amazon, which could end up becoming a desert, trapping Brazil in everlasting droughts (something that is already beginning to be seen due to the deforestation encouraged by Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro).Story continuesRead more: Three years after the EU demanded single-use plastic ban by 2021… has it worked?But important as this issue is, another much closer to home is the epidemic of paper straws that has flooded fast-food restaurants, cafes and bars. The idea, like that of solar panels in the Sahara, appeared unimpeachable.The little plastic tubes with which we have traditionally – and quite efficaciously – sipped our drinks were ending up in the oceans, polluting the environment and causing horrific damage to beautiful and vulnerable creatures like sea turtles.What else was there to do but pile into a crusade that would involve using paper straws that turn into toilet-flavoured mush at the first sip?Let’s start, however, with the story of the turtle, as it is extremely interesting and a textbook example of the emergence of habits that apparently favour sustainability, but which, when it comes down to it, do not pass the scientific test.The myth of the environmental efficacy of today’s absorbent straws, famous for self-destructing in three seconds, started in the place where all things happen lately – on social media.In 2015, a biologist named Christine Figgener uploaded a video to Facebook that she had recorded while conducting fieldwork in Costa Rican waters for her PhD, a study on the migratory patterns of olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea).Biologist Christine Figgener uploaded a video to Facebook showing the struggle to remove a plastic straw from a turtle.In the extremely unpleasant video, Figgener and her expedition companions are seen struggling to remove a plastic object embedded in a turtle’s nostril. The video of the chelonian, which visibly suffers and bleeds during the extraction, immediately went viral and has now been watched more than 44 million times on YouTube.The social reaction to the moving scene was instantaneous. Most major fast-food corporations in the Western world banned plastic straws and replaced them with paper ones, and the movement resonated among most of our governments as well (the EU banned plastic straws earlier this year).It is impossible not to empathise with the turtle while watching the video. In fact, it is so unbearable that one tends to think that we are the cancer of the planet, and that the plastic straws thrown in the rubbish by some guy from Madrid, Vancouver or Sydney at his local burger joint will invariably end up killing a turtle in the distant tropics.Read more: How much damage is eating red meat doing to the environment?Really? Well, no, not at all. I’m afraid that our chewing of wet cellulose as we sip our gin and tonic is little more than foolishness, and I’m going to explain why.According to a study published in 2017, 95% of all plastic in the Earth’s oceans comes from only 10 rivers. Eight of them are in Asia and the other two are in Africa. Another group specialising in ocean conservation similarly estimated that most of the plastics reaching the sea come mainly from five countries: China, Indonesia, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam.I’m sure some people think that these studies have a pro-Western bias, and that the aim is to hide the problem by blaming less developed countries, but think about one thing. The straw that your child throws in the rubbish bin at the burger joint ends up with others in a bag in a container for plastic recyclingMost developed countries are developed because, among other things, they manage their waste efficiently. So even if the straws don’t end up being recycled, they will end up buried under tons of soil in a location where they are unlikely to reach the oceans.Unfortunately, the straw that Figgener and her colleagues so painfully extracted from the turtle in the video almost certainly came from an Asian country where rubbish is not managed correctly.Some 95% of all plastic in the Earth’s oceans comes from only 10 rivers. Eight of them are in Asia and the other two are in Africa. (Getty Images)At the same time, we have also identified another major problem. Most of the plastic that ends up in the oceans, forming floating islands that continue to grow in size, comes from fishing or shipping gear that ‘falls off’ merchant ships.Indeed, this is the origin of some 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is already three times the size of France. Unfortunately, until this gear breaks down into small pieces, it can cause the death of many marine creatures.We therefore have reliable information we can use as a basis for solutions that are not as far-fetched as adopting paper straws. It would be enough to create programmes in developing countries in which fishermen and seafarers would be paid for their old gear, thus discouraging the easy and destructive solution of throwing it into the sea when it is no longer of use.As for the treatment of waste in the five most polluting countries, the solution would be to provide funds to their emerging economies so that they can invest in efficient waste management systems.So easy, yet so complicated.Watch: Should we get rid of single-use plastic items?

Microplastics are wreaking havoc on human cells

This story was originally published by The Guardian and appears here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.Microplastics cause damage to human cells in the laboratory at the levels known to be eaten by people via their food, a study has found.The harm included cell death and allergic reactions and the research is the first to show this happens at levels relevant to human exposure. However, the health impact on humans is uncertain because it is not known how long microplastics remain in the body before being excreted.Get top stories in your inbox.Our award-winning journalists bring you the news that impacts you, Canada, and the world. Don’t miss out.Microplastics pollution has contaminated the entire planet, from the summit of Mount Everest to the deepest oceans. People were already known to consume the tiny particles via food and water as well as breathing them in.The research analyzed 17 previous studies which looked at the toxicological impacts of microplastics on human cell lines. The scientists compared the level of microplastics at which damage was caused to the cells with the levels consumed by people through contaminated drinking water, seafood and table salt.They found specific types of harm — cell death, allergic response, and damage to cell walls — were caused by the levels of microplastics that people ingest.“Harmful effects on cells are in many cases the initiating event for health effects,” said Evangelos Danopoulos of Hull York Medical School, U.K., who led the research published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials. “We should be concerned. Right now, there isn’t really a way to protect ourselves.” What people are reading Future research could make it possible to identify the most contaminated foods and avoid them, he said, but the ultimate solution was to stop the loss of plastic waste: “Once the plastic is in the environment, we can’t really get it out.”Research on the health impact of microplastics is ramping up quickly, Danopoulos said: “It is exploding and for good reason. We are exposed to these particles every day: we’re eating them, we’re inhaling them. And we don’t really know how they react with our bodies once they are in.”The research also showed irregularly shaped microplastics caused more cell death than spherical ones. This is important for future studies as many microplastics bought for use in laboratory experiments are spherical, and therefore may not be representative of the particles humans ingest. “We should be concerned. Right now, there isn’t really a way to protect ourselves,” says lead researcher Evangelos Danopoulos of Hull York Medical School, U.K. #PlasticWaste #Health #Microplastics “This work helps inform where research should be looking to find real-world effects,” said microplastics researcher Steve Allen. “It was interesting that shape was so important to toxicity, as it confirms what many plastic pollution researchers believed would be happening — that pristine spheres used in lab experiments may not be showing the real-world effects.”Danopoulos said the next step for researchers was to look at studies of microplastic harm in laboratory animals — experiments on human subjects would not be ethical. In March, a study showed tiny plastic particles in the lungs of pregnant rats pass rapidly into the hearts, brains and other organs of their fetuses.In December, microplastics were revealed in the placentas of unborn babies, which the researchers said was “a matter of great concern.” In October, scientists showed that babies fed formula milk in plastic bottles were swallowing millions of particles a day.

EPA-linked consultant undercuts agency's PFAS concerns

An industry toxicologist promoting artificial turf fields has repeatedly cited her work for EPA while downplaying the risks of “forever chemicals” used to produce plastic grass blades, making contentious claims often at odds with the agency’s own findings.
Laura C. Green has often referenced her role as an EPA special government employee while advocating for artificial turf fields in New England.
In public meetings and written emails, Green has also sought to undercut concerns about the health risks of per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances known as PFAS. That includes comments made at a September meeting on Nantucket, where Green asserted, “There is no reliable evidence that PFAS harms human health.”
EPA has in fact recently targeted some PFAS for regulation due to a mounting body of evidence of negative health effects. Just last month, the agency singled out a compound called PFOA as a “likely carcinogen,” in addition to noting the chemical’s links to lower immune response and other health risks (E&E News PM, Nov. 16).
When E&E News asked about Green’s statements, EPA disavowed them.
“EPA considers harmful PFAS to be an urgent public health threat facing communities across the United States,” a spokesperson said. “The agency does not support or agree with any of the statements attributed to Ms. Green that you cited in your questions.”
EPA also said Green “has not ever” worked on PFAS issues for the agency. Rather, she has assisted with peer reviews conducted by the agency’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Chemicals and the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act Scientific Advisory Panel. Green “was not conducting work” for those panels when she made her comments about PFAS to New England communities this fall, the agency said.
Just days after its response to E&E News, EPA ethics officials emailed Green to “clarify” how she references her work for the agency in public settings.
The term “special government employee” refers to a temporary service in which workers are recruited for their expertise to serve as consultants or on advisory committees, but cannot work more than 130 days of the year for the government.
In the email, a copy of which was obtained by E&E News, EPA Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention Deputy Ethics Official Hayley Hughes told Green that if she mentioned her EPA work at public meetings, she had to clarify she was only speaking in her personal capacity and not representing the agency.
Hughes also wrote that Green “may not” use her work for EPA “to bolster your personal presentation or specific points contained in any remarks, or imply that the EPA or the federal government endorses your personal views.”
Green did not respond to questions from E&E News about her role with EPA or the agency’s correspondence with her about it. However, she said she stood by her comments that there is no reliable evidence that PFAS harms human health. That statement, she said, is “not inconsistent” with EPA’s finding that PFOA is a likely human carcinogen. Green said the agency’s declaration only “means that there is reliable evidence in rats and mice,” though such studies are routinely used to consider chemicals’ health impacts.
She also said that if there was evidence that PFAS harmed humans, specifically, EPA would have already regulated them in drinking water.
“Why do you think they never came up with drinking water standards?” she said.
Green herself has pushed back on proposed standards for multiple PFAS at the state level. In comments to Massachusetts and Wisconsin regulators, she and colleague Edmund Crouch countered findings related to PFOA and PFOS specifically and argued against the standards being recommended.
Green, a board-certified toxicologist, holds a bachelor’s degree in chemistry and a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where her focus was nutrition, according to her resume. That document also shows how extensively she has worked with industry, dating back decades.
Meanwhile, Green has often made controversial statements about the health of workers at DuPont and 3M who were exposed to PFAS.
Surveys of workers at PFAS manufacturing plants owned by DuPont and 3M exposed to PFOA have shown increased incidents of liver damage and testicular cancer for decades. But Green told attendees of the September School Committee meeting on Nantucket that workers who manufacture PFAS for the two companies “seem to be fine.”
“There doesn’t seem to be any evidence that workers who are up to their eyeballs in this stuff are actually harmed by it,” Green said.
She has repeated those assertions in writing.
In emails to Nantucket resident Ayesha Khan, whose firefighter husband blames his testicular cancer on PFAS exposure at work, Green compared levels in firefighters’ blood to those found in workers at PFAS manufacturing plants. She again repeated that workers “who were literally up to their elbows in these materials … do not appear to be at excess risk of cancer.”
Green emailed Khan several more times, blaming her husband’s diagnosis on other chemicals firefighters are exposed to, and sending her studies about testicular cancer survival rates.
“It was shocking,” Khan said.
In another email to Emma Green-Beach, director and biologist of the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group, who is also now on the Oak Bluffs, Mass., select board, Green cited the now-infamous environmental crisis in West Virginia, where PFOA contamination led to the largest PFAS human health study to date. Popularized in the movie “Dark Waters,” the contamination was discovered after a local farmer drew attention to his tumorous, dead cows.
In her email, Green theorized without evidence that the cows in question were likely stricken, not by PFAS exposure, but by molybdenum-based catalysts used in the manufacturing of Teflon products.

Turf wars
Despite making demonstrably false statements about PFAS, Green continues to consult on issues related to multimillion-dollar artificial turf fields at multiple towns in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont.
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility Executive Director Tim Whitehouse, whose group has been tracking Green’s work, said her repeated assertion that she works for EPA is alarming because of the misinformation she spreads about the safety of PFAS.
“She has been at this for a while, mixing her position as a special government employee with her private work, and that is concerning,” he said.
Public officials in multiple towns that have hired Green did not respond to requests for comment. Nantucket Public Schools officials had agreed to speak with E&E News about the turf fields yesterday morning but canceled the virtual meeting at the last minute without giving a reason. E&E News later learned that the officials found out about EPA’s emails to Green shortly before the scheduled meeting. The officials did not respond to subsequent emails posing questions.
But Nantucket project architect Richard Webb has told the School Committee that he is “aware of the PFAS concerns and considerations” and that the products would be tested for PFAS regulated in Massachusetts drinking water, including PFOA.
In his presentation, Webb said using synthetic turf for the $17.5 million project is necessary because, in the turf’s 12- to 15-year life span, it would require less maintenance than grass fields and would help increase participation in school sports.
Notably, the chemicals used in artificial turf fields are not the same compounds EPA is currently considering regulating.
PFAS are a family of chemicals containing thousands of compounds, many of which are not yet well researched or understood. The most studied chemicals are PFOA and PFOS, which have been linked to kidney and liver problems, among other issues. Those compounds are both toxic to humans at very low levels and stay in human bodies for an extended period of time, making them particularly concerning to public health experts.
As more research accumulates about other compounds, some have been found to have similar health effects as PFOA and PFOS, prompting advocates to call on EPA to regulate all PFAS as a class, rather than individually.
PFAS are used to manufacture turf fields, specifically by preventing plastic blades of grass from sticking to equipment when they are shaped. Green has said publicly that the specific compounds PVDF and PVDF-HFP are used in this process but told E&E News it was only the latter.
As with many PFAS, health effects from PVDF and PVDF-HFP are not widely documented. In public presentations and conversations with E&E News, Green has said PVDF-HFP is an “inert polymer” and does not rub off on athletes, break down in the environment or break down into other types of PFAS.
But one October 2020 study examining fluoropolymers, including PVDF, stated that while those compounds are often deemed “polymers of low concern,” many questions remain about their environmental impacts and health implications. More recent research has shown PVDF has the potential to break down in the presence of prolonged exposure to ultraviolet rays — which could be a concern for turf fields exposed to the elements. It is unclear whether the same is true of PVDF-HFP.
Kristen Mello, a trained chemist and community activist from Westfield, Mass., who has elevated PFAS levels in her blood, said the studies show that PVDF does break down in sunlight.
“[Green] is saying that the PFAS they use is insoluble and can’t come off in water, and the question we are left with is, what does it come off in?” she said. “Once it is exposed to sunlight, the backbone of the compound is broken down into pieces that can more readily be soluble in water.”
Asked about this research, Green stood by her previous comments and told E&E News that PVDF-HFP is a stable compound that does not dissolve in water. Green also suggested that because the chemical is used in surgical sutures and medical devices that have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, it is safe to use on synthetic fields. When E&E News reporters pointed out that sutures on a body would not be subjected to the same conditions as an athletic field, Green replied, “What you are saying makes no sense to me.”
“That’s just not a thing, my friend,” she said.
Jamie DeWitt, a toxicologist with East Carolina University who studies PFAS and polymers, said concerns about how wear and tear might affect the chemicals’ ability to escape artificial turf fields and contaminate athletes or nearby water supplies are legitimate.
“If there is residual PFAS on the turf grass product, and then across time there is sunlight, and heat from the sunlight, and rain and microbes and physical activity, it seems perfectly reasonable and logical,” she said, “that those residual PFAS will slowly disincorporate from the turf and reincorporate either in the water, in the soil or on the bodies of the people using the turf.”

‘There is nothing to see here’
On Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, much of the opposition to artificial turf fields stems from concerns about possible contamination of their sole-source aquifers. The islands already have preexisting PFAS contamination, and Nantucket is part of a class-action lawsuit against firefighting foam manufacturers.
Ewell Hopkins, chair of the Oak Bluffs Planning Board on Martha’s Vineyard currently reviewing permit applications for the fields, worries Green’s experience with EPA helps community members supporting the fields ignore groundwater fears.
“Bringing in a smooth-talking, seemingly credentialed person saying, ‘There is nothing to see here,’ the people who want to feel good about supporting the field have something to stand on,” he said.
Hopkins added that his board’s review process is ongoing and far from over. During a meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., Green alluded to $30,000 for testing for “the synthetic turf being used in Martha’s Vineyard.” At the meeting, Green said the results were not of concern to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, which has already approved the project, but did not mention that Oak Bluffs regulators continue to scrutinize those results.
The comments concerned Hopkins, who has since written to Portsmouth’s mayor over the matter. He is worried that Green is trying to capitalize on Martha’s Vineyard’s reputation in order to convince other communities not to scrutinize turf fields.
“Everyone knows Martha’s Vineyard as the playground of presidents,” he said, adding, “The last thing I want is for people in other communities with less resources to think that if it was good enough for the Vineyard, who are we to question it for our students.”
Nantucket Fire Department Deputy Chief Sean Mitchell shared similar fears. Two years ago, he learned that protective uniforms meant to keep firefighters safe from burns and toxic chemicals actually contain PFAS. For the past 18 months, he has written to turnout gear manufacturers inquiring about safety concerns only to encounter similar misinformation (Greenwire, Feb. 17).
This winter, he sent an email to Nantucket school officials criticizing them for using taxpayer money to hire Green “to gaslight” the community.
“We have come to expect this from industry-funded scientists,” Mitchell wrote. “What we don’t expect is that our own school system would be the reason she’s here in our community, spreading her misinformation.”
Reporter Kevin Bogardus contributed.

5 environmental victories from 2021 that offer hope

It’s easy to feel despondent about the state of the global environment in 2021. More than a million species are at risk of extinction, levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere continue to increase, and the planet was rocked by a series of climate change-fueled extreme weather events. Meanwhile, the world continues to grapple with a deadly pandemic that seems like it will never end.But, as the year draws to a close, there are reasons to feel cautiously optimistic about areas in which the environment scored victories in 2021.It’s important to note that even these promising developments involve pledges that may yet be watered down, misleading, or altogether unfulfilled. Still, there are signs of success on this long, difficult road. Here are five reasons to be hopeful.1. Pushback on fossil fuelsCoal is sold on the streets of Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, which then pollutes the air when burned. Countries at November’s Glasgow UN Climate Conference pledged to reduce the amount of coal they produced.Photograph by Matthieu Paley, Nat Geo Image CollectionPlease be respectful of copyright. Unauthorized use is prohibited.Delayed by a year as a result of COVID-19, November’s COP26—the United Nations Climate Change Conference, held in Glasgow—welcomed the world’s second-largest fossil-fuel emitter, the United States, back to the negotiating table after four years of inaction on climate change. By the summit’s end, the U.S. and China had made a surprise joint declaration to work together on meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement.While the level of ambition at Glasgow faced plenty of criticism, particularly in terms of protecting developing countries from climate impacts and supporting their transitions to clean energy systems, the goal of keeping warming to 2.7°F (1.5°C) is arguably more achievable now. Notably, countries agreed to “phase down” their coal use—which fell short of an initial draft to “phase out” coal—and more than a hundred countries agreed to cut their methane emissions 30 percent by 2030.Away from Glasgow, the Biden administration canceled the controversial Keystone XL pipeline and suspended oil drilling leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, though it is also opening up millions of acres to oil and gas exploration. The administration set a goal of generating 30 gigawatts of offshore wind by 2030 and announced its intention to reduce solar energy costs 60 percent over the next decade; the two declarations are part of a plan to have the U.S. powered by a clean grid by 2035. In addition, President Joe Biden in August mandated that by 2030, half of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. be electric.Globally, renewable energy use in 2021 is expected to increase by 8 percent, the fastest year-on-year-growth since the 1970s, while in the U.S., a new report found that it had nearly quadrupled over the last decade.In the Netherlands, a court ordered Royal Dutch Shell to reduce its carbon emissions by 45 percent relative to 2019 levels by 2030, a result one lawyer described as a “turning point in history.”2. Progress on plasticSeveral U.S. states passed legislation in 2021 to reduce the amount of plastic entering the environment; some states send their plastic waste to countries such as the Philippines, pictured here. The U.S. is the biggest plastic polluter in the world.Photograph by Randy Olson, Nat Geo Image CollectionPlease be respectful of copyright. Unauthorized use is prohibited.The last 12 months saw a raft of legislation to reduce growing plastic pollution. In Washington State, Governor Jay Inslee signed a law that bans polystyrene products, such as foam coolers and packing peanuts; requires that customers must request single-use utensils, straws, cup lids, and condiments; and mandates minimum post-consumer recycled content in a number of plastic bottles and jugs, including those for personal care products and household cleaning.California passed landmark bills that, among other things, prohibit manufacturers from placing the “chasing arrows” recycling symbol or the word recyclable on items that aren’t actually recyclable; forbid mixed plastic waste exports to other countries being counted as “recycled,” just so that local governments can claim to comply with state laws; require products labeled as compostable to break down in real-life conditions; and ban the use of extremely long-lasting PFAs, known as forever chemicals, in children’s products.Such actions may be reflected federally following the introduction of the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act; among other things, the proposal by two U.S. lawmakers would ban some single-use plastic products and pause permits of new plastics manufacturing plants.In November, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced that the U.S. would back a global treaty to tackle plastic pollution; the Trump administration opposed it. U.S. support is critical, given that the nation is the world’s largest contributor to plastic waste, as revealed in a congressionally mandated report released in December. The treaty now seems certain to move forward, and the United Nations is scheduled to convene in Nairobi in February to begin formal negotiations.In December, the National Academies of Sciences urged the U.S., which generates more plastic waste than all the European Union states combined, to develop a strategy to reduce it, including a national cap on virgin plastic production.3. Protection of forestsSome local governments in Indonesia are yanking palm oil permits from companies seeking to build plantations in forest.Photograph by Pascal Maitre, Nat Geo Image CollectionPlease be respectful of copyright. Unauthorized use is prohibited.By far the biggest news in forest conservation was the pledge at the UN Climate Conference in Glasgow to end deforestation by 2030; the commitment includes a pledge to provide $12 billion in funding to “help unleash the potential of forests and sustainable land use.” However, the promise was met with widespread skepticism, not least because deforestation rates actually increased following a 2014 agreement with the same goal.However, 2021 did see a number of on-the-ground victories. In October, President Felix Tshisekedi of the Democratic Republic of Congo called for an audit of its vast forest concessions and the suspension of all “questionable contracts” until the audit is done. A few weeks later, the government retreated from a plan to lift a 19-year-old moratorium on the granting of new logging licenses in the Congo Basin Forest. “We don’t want any more contracts with partners who came to savagely cut our forests; we will retire these types of contracts,” said Environment Minister Eve Bazaiba. Environmental groups remain wary, and Greenpeace is calling for the DRC moratorium to be made permanent.The government of the Indonesian province of West Papua revoked permits for 12 palm oil contracts covering more than 660,000 acres (an area twice the size of Los Angeles), three-fifths of which remains forested. Environmental and Indigenous rights groups are urging the government to go further and recognize the rights of Native peoples in those areas to manage the forests themselves. Three of the 12 contract holders continue to fight the government’s decision in court.And Ecuador’s highest court has ruled that plans to mine for copper and gold in a protected cloud forest would harm its biodiversity and violate the rights of nature, which are enshrined in the Ecuadorian constitution. The ruling means that mining concessions, and environmental and water permits in the forest, must be cancelled.4. Restoration of habitatsA male sage grouse in Wyoming. This year, a court overturned a Trump administration decision that impacted the habitat of the sage grouse. Photograph by Charlie Hamilton James, Nat Geo Image CollectionPlease be respectful of copyright. Unauthorized use is prohibited.The Biden administration spent part of its first year restoring habitat protections that had been rolled back by its predecessor. Perhaps the most prominent was the re-establishment of full protection for the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante monuments in southern Utah, as well as the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument off New England.The administration restored protection to more than 3 million acres of old-growth forest in the Pacific Northwest that is critical habitat for the northern spotted owl. It also reversed an effort to weaken the Migratory Bird Treaty that the Trump White House set in motion in its last few days in office. Meanwhile, a court overturned a Trump administration decision to strip protections from 10 million acres, mostly in Nevada and Idaho, to allow mining in critical habitat for greater sage-grouse.In May, the Biden administration unveiled its America the Beautiful initiative, which among other things established the first-ever national conservation goal: conserving 30 percent of U.S. lands and waters by 2030. It reflects a United Nations aim to protect the same percentage of land and ocean, an objective to which more than 100 nations committed in September.In November, Colombia pledged to protect 30 percent of its land by 2022. And Panama took major steps toward the same goal by tripling the size of its Cordillera de Coiba Marine Protected Area. Also in November, Portugal established the largest fully protected marine reserve in Europe.5. Support for wildlifePopulations of giant pandas have recovered enough for China to remove the bears from the endangered species list. Photograph by Ami Vitale, Nat Geo Image CollectionPlease be respectful of copyright. Unauthorized use is prohibited.Populations of some of the world’s most iconic species are showing some improvement as a result of protective measures. In July, China announced that it no longer considers the giant panda, the symbol of the World Wildlife Fund, to be endangered, upgrading its status to vulnerable. Just over 1,800 pandas remain in the wild, an improvement over the 1,100 thought to live in the wild as recently as 2000. Meanwhile, China announced the creation of the Giant Panda National Park, part of a system of new parks that will cover an area nearly the size of the United Kingdom.  The parks are designed to protect native species such as the Northeast China tiger, Siberian leopard, and the Hainan black-crested gibbon.Humpback whales, whose haunting songs helped build support for the “Save the Whales” campaign that ushered in the modern environmental movement, are increasing in number in many parts of their range, including off Australia (where the government is considering removing them from the country’s threatened list) and in their South Atlantic feeding grounds. That said, the number of calves in the Northwest Atlantic population has declined over the last 15 years.Several species of tuna are no longer heading toward extinction, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Two bluefin species, a yellowfin, and an albacore are no longer classified as critically endangered or have moved off the leading international list of endangered species entirely, the result of decades of efforts to limit the impacts of commercial fishing.Three thousand years after the species was eliminated everywhere except its eponymous island, seven Tasmanian devils were born in a reserve in mainland Australia. Scientists hope that if the marsupials one day again become established on the mainland, they could play a vital role in controlling invasive species.And in the U.K., a government report concluded that lobsters, crabs, and octopuses are sentient beings that feel pain, and as a result should be granted protection under the country’s draft Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill.  

Microplastics cause damage to human cells, study shows

Microplastics cause damage to human cells, study showsHarm included cell death and occurred at levels of plastic eaten by people via their food Microplastics cause damage to human cells in the laboratory at the levels known to be eaten by people via their food, a study has found.The harm included cell death and allergic reactions and the research is the first to show this happens at levels relevant to human exposure. However, the health impact to the human body is uncertain because it is not known how long microplastics remain in the body before being excreted.Microplastics pollution has contaminated the entire planet, from the summit of Mount Everest to the deepest oceans. People were already known to consume the tiny particles via food and water as well as breathing them in.The research analysed 17 previous studies which looked at the toxicological impacts of microplastics on human cell lines. The scientists compared the level of microplastics at which damage was caused to the cells with the levels consumed by people through contaminated drinking water, seafood and table salt.They found specific types of harm – cell death, allergic response, and damage to cell walls – were caused by the levels of microplastics that people ingest.“Harmful effects on cells are in many cases the initiating event for health effects,” said Evangelos Danopoulos, of Hull York Medical School, UK, and who led the research published in the Journal of Hazardous Materials. “We should be concerned. Right now, there isn’t really a way to protect ourselves.”Future research could make it possible to identify the most contaminated foods and avoid them, he said, but the ultimate solution was to stop the loss of plastic waste: “Once the plastic is in the environment, we can’t really get it out.”Research on the health impact of microplastics is ramping up quickly, Danopoulos said: “It is exploding and for good reason. We are exposed to these particles every day: we’re eating them, we’re inhaling them. And we don’t really know how they react with our bodies once they are in.”The research also showed irregularly shaped microplastics caused more cell death than spherical ones. This is important for future studies as many microplastics bought for use in laboratory experiments are spherical, and therefore may not be representative of the particles humans ingest.“This work helps inform where research should be looking to find real-world effects,” said microplastics researcher Steve Allen. “It was interesting that shape was so important to toxicity, as it confirms what many plastic pollution researchers believed would be happening – that pristine spheres used in lab experiments may not be showing the real-world effects.” Danopoulos said the next step for researchers was to look at studies of microplastic harm in laboratory animals – experiments on human subjects would not be ethical. In March, a study showed tiny plastic particles in the lungs of pregnant rats pass rapidly into the hearts, brains and other organs of their foetuses.In December, microplastics were revealed in the placentas of unborn babies, which the researchers said was “a matter of great concern”. In October, scientists showed that babies fed formula milk in plastic bottles were swallowing millions of particles a day.TopicsPlasticsPollutionHealthReuse this content

Hiding in plain sight: How plastics inflame the climate crisis

Plastic is ubiquitous, filling stores, overtopping landfills and littering shorelines. 
It’s even within us, since residual plastic particles now lace air, water and food. While the hazards posed by microplastics are still emerging, an obvious peril has been hiding in plain sight: Plastic derives from fossil fuels, and worsens climate threats throughout its life cycle.
Look down a supermarket aisle lined with chip bags and soda bottles, and chances are you don’t visualize the flaring gas from a shale drilling operation. That might change if you read “The New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change.” 
This report, commissioned by the Vermont-based nonprofit Beyond Plastics, highlights how much greenhouse gas pollution plastics emit — in fossil fuel extraction, manufacturing, incineration, landfills and long-term degradation (potentially spanning centuries).
Source: Center for International Environmental Law
Climate-disrupting emissions from the plastic industry could surpass those from coal production in the U.S. by 2030, the report warns. Given emissions from more than 130 existing facilities, new plants under construction and other industry sources, U.S. plastics could generate the carbon dioxide equivalent of 143 mid-sized coal-fired plants. 
Yet policy makers and regulators have largely overlooked plastics. Maine’s 2020 Climate Action Plan, for example, holds virtually no mention of plastics, waste reduction, trash incineration or recycling. 
“Massive blind spots in policy at local, state and federal levels have allowed plastics to go under the radar,” said Jim Vallette, president of Maine-based Material Research L3C and author of the recent report. 
It’s time to bring plastic’s climate risks into clear view.
Just another form of fossil fuel
Greenhouse gas emissions from global plastics industries stand just behind those of the worst carbon-polluting nations: China, the U.S., India and Russia. At the recent U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, multinational fossil fuel interests — which include petrochemical and plastics industries — had a stronger presence than any single country, with more than 500 industry representatives (whereas, the U.S. had 165 delegates).
Fossil fuel corporations are pivoting to plastic production to keep afloat, given the existential threat posed by dropping prices of renewable power and increasing electric vehicle adoption. Global plastics production is expected to double by 2040, becoming the biggest growth market for fossil fuel demand, the International Energy Agency (IEA) and BP both forecast. 
U.S. plastic production draws primarily on ethane gas from hydraulically fractured shale, an abundant resource since the fracking boom that began in 2008. For the eastern U.S., the federal Department of Energy in 2018 projected a 20-fold increase in ethane production over 2013 levels by 2025.
Toxic manufacturing clusters
Following pipeline transport from fracked wells, ethane gas is steam-heated in “ethane cracker” plants until it breaks into new molecules, forming the ethylene used in plastic manufacturing. This energy-intensive process generates high levels of carbon dioxide, and pollutants such as volatile organic compounds and benzene.
Credit: Beyond Plastics
Most plastic manufacturing occurs near the Gulf of Mexico in Texas and along Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” a region notorious for its high and growing concentration of petrochemical plants.
The New Coal report found that more than 90 percent of climate pollution reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by the plastics industry is released into 18 communities, noting that “people living within three miles of these petrochemical clusters earn 28 percent less than the average U.S. household and are 67 percent more likely to be people of color.”
The world’s largest ethane cracker plant, a joint venture between ExxonMobil and Saudi Arabia’s state-owned petroleum corporation, is nearing completion outside Portland, Texas. Sprawling across a 1,300-acre site, the plant lies less than two miles from area schools and in full view of a low-income housing complex. Communities have fought against these facilities but with limited success.
The myth of plastic recycling
Many of the ethane cracker plants being built will produce single-use plastics such as bottles, sachets and straws. Plastic items often bear recycling symbols, but few actually get recycled. The latest EPA data from 2018 indicates that fewer than 9 percent of plastics were recycled, while 17 percent were incinerated and 69 percent were landfilled. 
At least 115 towns in Maine currently lack any recycling option, with all household waste either landfilled or incinerated. Maine has three municipal waste incinerators operating: in Portland, Auburn and Orrington. Each was built decades ago, when plastic represented roughly 10 percent of the waste stream. That figure has nearly doubled, Vallette said. 
Higher plastic content adds to the carbon dioxide incinerators emit, and can introduce chemicals that are potent warming agents. Vallette has calculated that fluoropolymers, highly persistent PFAS resins used in wiring insulation, may have up to 10,000 times more potential for global warming than carbon dioxide.
Petrochemical corporations have misled consumers for decades by promoting plastic recycling while knowing it was not feasible. The industry also ran repeated ad campaigns to convince consumers that the problem was not with plastic itself, but with irresponsible litterbugs. 
Changes in Maine, Oregon
Now consumers have caught on. States like Maine and Oregon are taking a new regulatory approach that holds producers responsible for the packaging they produce. 
Maine’s pioneering Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) law will drastically cut the plastic industry’s “greenwashing capability,” observed Sarah Nichols, Sustainable Maine program director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “We’re going to finally get the data we need to make meaningful change. It’s a whole new system.”
Similar programs in other countries have increased recycling rates and reduced waste generation — two measures that could markedly cut Maine’s greenhouse gas emissions. 
Maine has never met its statutory goal for recycling, set in 1989, of 50 percent. Today, only about 36 percent of waste is even collected for recycling (and the percentage getting recycled is likely much less). If the state met its original goal, Nichols estimates, the reduction in carbon pollution would be equivalent to taking roughly 166,000 passenger cars off the road.
Action at all levels — from local to global
“The inevitable, logical next step,” Vallette observed, “is to minimize plastic entering the waste stream.”
Purchasing less plastic, supporting retailers that offer bulk and refillable goods, instituting bans (like Maine’s recent one on single-use plastic bags) and holding producers to account through EPR laws should help. The state also needs to address plastics in the ongoing work of the Maine Climate Council, compensating for the notable absence of waste reduction targets in the 2020 Climate Action Plan.  
A federal EPR bill, the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, has garnered more than 100 co-sponsors already, but given the power of the plastics lobby, its passage is far from assured. Among Maine’s delegation, only U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree has cosponsored the legislation to date.
Congress must also reassess billions of dollars in federal subsidies going annually to the fossil fuel industry. According to a 2020 report by the research nonprofit Carbon Tracker, the global plastics industry receives $12 billion in subsidies annually while paying just $2 billion in taxes and racking up an estimated $350 billion a year in unpaid “externalities” — including marine debris, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. 
“In the next few years,” the IEA wrote in a report earlier this year, “all governments need to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies.” 

Peter Dykstra: Environmental “solutions” too good to be true

I’ve long been fascinated with Thomas Midgley Jr. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, he was on his way to joining Thomas Edison and Benjamin Franklin as one of the GOATs of science and invention.Midgley’s two giant discoveries changed lives – in a good way to start, but then in tragic ways. He discovered that tetraethyl lead (TEL) eliminated engine knock, a scourge of early motorists. And his development of chlorofluorocarbon chemicals (CFC’s) as refrigerants revolutionized air conditioning and food storage.He was a science rock star, until we learned that the lead in TEL was a potent neurotoxin, impairing child brain development; and CFC’s were destroying Earth’s ozone layer.Oops. He’s not alone—all too often we “solve” health and environment problems only to learn we’ve created bigger ones.

Miracle chemicals

Midgley never won a Nobel Prize, but Swiss chemist Paul Müller did in 1948. Müller resurrected a long-forgotten synthetic chemical compound, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT. DDT showed a remarkable talent for eliminating some agricultural pests as well as human tormentors like lice and mosquitos. DDT is credited with enabling U.S. and Allied troops to drive Japan out of tropical forests in the Pacific.Scientist and author Rachel Carson exposed DDT’s other talent: Thinning birds’ eggshells, from tiny hummingbirds to raptors like the bald eagle. Bans in the U.S. (1972) and most other nations saved countless species from oblivion.

The peaceful atom

When nuclear weapons destroyed the Japan cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II, there was little public dissent among Americans. The prevailing argument was that the hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens killed by the blasts would seem like small potatoes compared to the death toll from a land invasion.Into the 1950’s, the USSR strove to catch up to the U. S. Through the 1950s and the height of the Cold War, the “Peaceful Atom” became a civic goal. Atomic Energy Commission Chair Lewis L. Strauss saw a future with “electricity too cheap to meter”. The Eisenhower Administration proposed creating a deepwater port at Point Hope, Alaska, by nuking a crater in the Arctic Ocean.In the 1960’s and 1970’s, fervor to build nuclear power plants grew, then began to wane as concerns about costs, nuclear waste disposal, and safety grew. If the 1979 near-disaster at Three Mile Island chilled Wall Street’s interest in commercial nuclear power, the calamitous 1986 Chernobyl meltdown nearly finished it off.

Bridge fuel?

Nuke power’s “carbon-free” status kept industry hopes alive for a bit. Then in the early 2000’s, with oil men George W. Bush and Dick Cheney at the helm, came a bold play by the oil and gas industry.Hydraulic fracturing — fracking – was a relatively new take on extracting natural gas from previously unreachable places. Fracking promised a “bridge fuel” that could wean Americans off dirtier fossil fuels en route to a clean energy future.So tempting was the bridge fuel pitch that the venerable Sierra Club took in an estimated $25 million from fracking giant Chesapeake Energy to help Sierra’s “Beyond Coal” campaign. Meanwhile, cheap fracked gas undercut both coal and nuclear in energy markets just as multiple trolls peeked out from beneath the bridge: Fracking’s huge climate impacts from methane releases and its rampant use of water and toxic chemicals.

But wait…there’s more!

Years of clogged landfills and trash-choked creeks highlight the worldwide failure of plastics recycling.Plastic packaging made life easier for all of us. And easier. And easier. According to the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), we now use 5 trillion single-use plastic bags per year. A tiny fraction are actually recycled. The rest find virtually indestructible homes in landfills or oceans. Or, with domestic plastics recycling waning, they’re shipped to the dwindling number of developing nations that will accept them.We’re failing to learn a century’s worth of lessons from Midgley to DDT to nukes to fracking to plastics. Maybe the least we can do is make sure our solutions actually solve things.

Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist and can be reached at pdykstra@ehn.org or @pdykstra.His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.Banner photo credit: OCG Saving The Ocean/Unsplash
From Your Site Articles

David Attenborough’s unending mission to save our planet

WE MAKE LOTS of programs about natural history, but the basis of all life is plants.” Sir David Attenborough is at Kew Gardens on a cloudy, overcast August day waiting to deliver his final piece to camera for his latest natural history epic, The Green Planet. Planes roar overhead, constantly interrupting filming, and he keeps putting his jacket on during pauses. “We ignore them because they don’t seem to do much, but they can be very vicious things,” he says. “Plants throttle one another, you know—they can move very fast, have all sorts of strange techniques to make sure that they can disperse themselves over a whole continent, have many ways of meeting so they can fertilize one another and we never actually see it happening.” He smiles. “But now we can.”Attenborough occupies a unique place in the world. Born on May 8, 1926, the year before television was invented, he is as close to a secular saint as we are likely to see, respected by scientists, entertainers, activists, politicians, and—hardest of all to please—kids and teenagers.In 2018, he was voted the most popular person in the UK in a YouGov poll. So many Chinese viewers downloaded Blue Planet II “that it temporarily slowed down the country’s internet,” according to the Sunday Times. In 2019, Attenborough’s series Our Planet became Netflix’s most-watched original documentary, viewed by 33 million people in its first month, and the NME reported that his appearance on Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage where he thanked the crowd for accepting the festival’s no-single-use-plastic policy attracted the weekend’s third-largest crowd after Stormzy and The Killers.On September 24, 2020, the 95-year-old broke the Guinness World Record for attracting 1 million followers just four hours and 44 minutes after he joined Instagram, beating the previous record holder, Jennifer Aniston, by over 30 minutes. His first post was a video clip where he set out his reasons for signing up. “The world is in trouble,” he explained, standing in front of a row of trees at dusk in a light blue shirt and emphasizing each point with a sorrowful shake of the head. “Continents are on fire, glaciers are melting, coral reefs are dying, fish are disappearing from our oceans. But we know what to do about it, and that’s why I’m tackling this new way, for me, of communication. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be explaining what the problems are and what we can do. Join me.”The public response was so overwhelming that he left the platform 27 posts and just over a month later, after being inundated with messages. He’s always tried to reply to every communication he receives and can just about manage the 70 snail-mail letters he gets every day. Wherever he appears—wherever his team at the BBC’s Natural History Unit point their lenses—hundreds of millions of people will be watching. And right now, in the year of COP26, The Green Planet hopes to do for plants what Attenborough has done for oceans and animals … create understanding and encourage us to care.The Green Planet, as is typical with all Attenborough/BBC Natural History Unit productions, contains a number of firsts—technical firsts, scientific firsts, and just a few never-before-seen firsts. But it also includes one great reprise. Attenborough is out in the field again for the first time since 2008’s Life in Cold Blood, traveling to rainforests and deserts and revisiting some places he passed through decades ago.Two moments stand out. In the first, Attenborough is explaining the biology of the seven-hour flower—Brazil’s Passion Flower, Passiflora mucronate, which opens around 1 am and closes again sometime between 7 am and 10 am. The white, long-stalked flower is pollinated by bats which gorge on its nectar, allowing pollen to brush on the bats’ heads. As Attenborough watches one flower open, a bat appears and flutters up to feed. Attenborough laughs with delight.Later, the series examines the creosote bush, one of the oldest living organisms on Earth at 12,000 years old. A desert dweller, it’s adapted to the harsh conditions by preserving energy and water through an incredibly slow rate of growth—1 millimeter a year. The team at the Natural History Unit used Attenborough’s long experience to illustrate something even the slowest time lapse camera would struggle to capture.“Sir David went to this particular desert and to a particular creosote bush when he did Life on Earth in 1979,” Mike Gunton, the BBC’s Natural History Unit’s creative director, explains. “We’ve gone back to exactly the same creosote bush and had David stand in exactly the same place and matched the shot from 1979 with the shot in 2019. So, we’ve used his human lifetime to illustrate how slowly this plant has grown. We’ve used the fact that he has traveled the world throughout his life on a number of occasions. He bears witness to the changes, and I think it’s rather lovely, actually.”For the rest of the footage the unit turned to what it does best—hacking brand new equipment and pushing it to extreme limits in a bid to film the previously unfilmable and bring the hidden aspects of the natural world to our screens.Previous firsts include the unit using the high-speed Phantom camera, which can shoot 2,000 frames per second, in 2012 to prove that a chameleon’s tongue isn’t sticky but muscular, wrapping itself around its prey rather than adhering to it. Or hacking the RED Epic Monochrome, a black-and-white camera with a sensor that can film 300 frames per second (an iPhone films at 25 frames per second), removing the cut-pass filter, which filters out infrared light from camera chips as it can blur color images. This added sensitivity to a night shoot in the Gobi Desert, allowing the third-ever filming of the long-eared jerboa, a rodent less than ten centimeters long and entirely nocturnal.Plants may seem less complicated—and less exciting—than a near-invisible nocturnal rodent in a vast Mongolian desert, but the unit’s approach intends to prove otherwise. The best place to show this is in a Devon farmhouse with a robot called Otto and a hunter-killer vine that’s slaughtering its prey.“We have cameras that can take a demonstration of a parasitic plant throttling another plant to death. It’s dramatic stuff,” Attenborough says gleefully.