Living on Earth: Beyond the Headlines

Air Date: Week of June 4, 2021

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A humpback whale off the shore of the Gold Coast in Australia. (Photo: Steve Austin, Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0)
On this week’s trip Beyond the Headlines, Environmental Health News editor Peter Dykstra joins host Bobby Bascomb to talk about the resurgence of humpbacks in Australian waters. Then, a look at a Sri Lankan beach covered in 2 feet of plastic pellets called nurdles. Finally, the pair check the history books for a story where a nuclear power plant was converted into a massive park and solar-generating station.

Transcript

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.
BASCOMB: And I’m Bobby Bascomb.
BASCOMB: It’s living on Earth. I’m Bobby Bascomb. It’s time for a trip now beyond the headlines with Peter Dykstra. Peter’s and editor with Environmental Health News that’s ehn.org and dailyclimate.org. Hey there Peter, what do you have for us this week?
DYKSTRA: Hi Bobby. A little good news, bad news item from Australia. And we’ll get the bad news out of the way quickly. And first, the mild Australian winters that have happened in the last several years have helped cause a population explosion of crop eating mice all over the southeastern part of the country, the state of New South Wales. Farmers are desperate to control them. They’ve turned to a banned pesticide to try and control these mice. And that climate change and all those mild winters are a part of the cause.
BASCOMB: Oh man, that sounds like a problem. Well, what’s the good news from Australia?
DYKSTRA: The good news is really cool. And that’s that humpback whales, once seriously endangered in the southern hemisphere, have made an absolutely spectacular comeback. Experts estimate there are about 40,000 humpbacks that migrate each year between the southern oceans around Antarctica and the oceans around Australia. And there are 40,000 there used to be 1500 a half century ago, mostly wiped out due to wailing.
BASCOMB: Wow, that’s an amazing recovery though 1500 to 40,000 in just 50 years. How do they do it?
DYKSTRA: No whaling is a big help. Whaling was banned in Australia in 1978. The fleet’s from the former Soviet Union and Japan that used to go down to the Antarctic, no longer touch humpback whales. Japan is the only nation that goes down there at all. And humpbacks have been completely protected from hunting. Their food source is mainly krill, those tiny little crustaceans, and although krill are under some threat from fishing, in the southern oceans around Antarctica, humpbacks have still been able to get their fill of krill. And so they’re doing well.
BASCOMB: Wow, that’s amazing. Let’s hope that trajectory continues. What else do you have for us this week?
Sri Lanka braces for beach pollution as ship burns. #AFP ???? @lakruwan7https://t.co/LyVqeU4piY pic.twitter.com/Npe2RxLhIb— AFP Photo (@AFPphoto) May 27, 2021

DYKSTRA: We go over to the beaches of Sri Lanka. They are facing what some have called the worst beach pollution problem in history. All from a wrecked freighter, the MV Express Pearl registered in Singapore. It’s sinking and burning off the coast of Sri Lanka and releasing a big part of its cargo. Those little plastic granules called nurdles. The nurdles are washing up on the beach and in some areas of the beach they’re reportedly two feet thick. Now you live in New England two feet of snow isn’t a big deal and the snow goes away on its own. But how about nearly two feet of plastic nurdles that only go away if humans shovel it away.
BASCOMB: Oh my gosh, what a disaster. I mean, it’s both an ecological disaster as we know fish and all sorts of marine life eat those little plastic nurdles, mistaking them for food and then I would think the fishermen I mean, how you gonna make a living if the fish are polluted and the beaches are full of plastic.
DYKSTRA: And it’s a global problem. You know, I first saw tons of nurdles on a beach, a once pristine beach in Costa Rica back in 1986. And I had no idea that it would become as big a menace microplastics in all sorts of animals in our own diets as it’s become, it could be a twin menace with climate change.
BASCOMB: Yeah, it’s certainly right up there. Well, what do you have for us from the history books this week?
DYKSTRA: June 7th 1989 voters in that referendum in the city of Sacramento, California, voted to close the municipally owned Rancho Seco nuclear power plant. And today that site is a 400 acre park with a sizable solar generating station.
BASCOMB: Wow, that’s amazing. So the ratepayers themselves decided to get rid of nuclear in favor of solar.

An aerial photograph in 2007 of Rancho Seco nuclear power plant, no longer in operation. (Photo: Hajhouse, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

DYKSTRA: Because at that particular plant, they were paying too much rate. The plant was very inefficient. It averaged about 40% of capacity. voters had had enough and the anti-nuke forces beat the pro-nuke forces in the campaign. And won by six points.
BASCOMB: Well, that was a pretty close vote and now they have a park to show for it.
DYKSTRA: They do and a solar station.
BASCOMB: Yeah. Hey, that’s great too. Peter Dykstra is an editor with Environmental Health News. That’s ehn.org and dailyclimate.org. We’ll talk to you again real soon.
DYKSTRA: All right, Bobby, thanks a lot. Talk to you soon.
BASCOMB: There’s more on these stories on the Living on Earth website. That’s loe.org.
 

Links
AP News | “Plague of Ravenous, Destructive Mice Tormenting Australians” Voice of America | “Australian Humpback Whale Numbers Surge but Scientists Warn of Climate Change Threat” Australian Broadcasting Corporation | “Sri Lanka Faces ‘Worst Beach Pollution’ in History from Burning Ship” Read more on Rancho Seco Recreation Area

Ontario’s recycling revamp falls short, critics say

Ontario finalized changes to blue box recycling Thursday, aiming to shift costs away from municipalities and taxpayers by making companies that create waste pay for the program. The revamped rules are a “bold step” that would standardize recycling across most of Ontario, keep more types of packaging away from landfills and encourage industry to be more efficient, provincial Environment Minister Jeff Yurek said. But critics say the new targets aren’t high enough and might leave costs in the hands of consumers.“Ontarians will still be dealing with messes of plastic packaging we can’t recycle,” Environmental Defence plastics program manager Karen Wirsig said.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.Right now, recycling in Ontario happens through more than 250 local programs, many with differing rules. That system is largely stalling: nearly three-quarters of the province’s waste ends up in dumps, and a significant portion of it is exported to landfills in Michigan. “The system obviously wasn’t working,” Yurek told reporters Thursday. “The goal of the regulation is to ensure our blue box program remains convenient, affordable and right for communities.”The new program ⁠— to be phased in from 2023 to 2025 in all communities outside of the Far North ⁠— will combine the patchwork of systems into one with consistent standards. It would also accept more commonly used items, like paper and plastic cups and straws.Shifting the costs of that program to packaging producers would save municipalities an estimated $156 million annually, the province said. Dave Gordon, a senior policy adviser with the Association of Municipalities of Ontario, said the change would be a boon for local governments struggling with the economic downturn caused by COVID-19.“I think it’s a big win for both the environment and the economy,” he said. Ontario’s new recycling system is a “bold step” that would shift costs to industry and keep more packaging away from landfills, the province says. But critics say the burden could be passed to consumers, and that new targets are too low. #onpoli Mike Chopowick, the CEO of the Ontario Waste Management Association, which represents the recycling sector, said the change is a crucial step. The province is running out of landfill space, but is facing an opportunity to do much better, he added.“We don’t really have a choice,” Chopowick said. “We need to find innovative ways to recycle and reduce the amount of waste that we currently dispose of, and blue box is a big part of that.”A Coke bottle on a beach in Skye, Scotland. Photo by Will Rose / GreenpeaceLow-income communities could bear the brunt of costs, researcher saysOntario initially announced its plans for overhauling the program last October. The government has since lowered several targets after consulting with industry, Wirsig said, and what’s included won’t be enough to force serious change.She also said a clause in the regulation allowing companies to label certain plastics as compostable could be a significant loophole ⁠— most existing facilities can’t actually process that material. The regulations would only see companies audited once every three years, and although the government has signalled it intends to create penalties for companies that don’t meet their targets, those don’t currently exist.“It’s flawed and not enough,” Wirsig said.Calvin Lakhan, a research scientist at York University’s faculty of environmental studies and urban change who has examined Ontario’s recycling program, says it’s likely that companies will pass the costs from the new set of rules on to consumers. That could result in higher grocery bills.“I think it was very dangerous for the government and municipalities to move forward with this because of the potential impact on consumers, particularly during a time where inflation is skyrocketing,” he said.The burden would disproportionately fall on people living in northern Ontario and lower-income communities, Lakhan said. Food needs more packaging to stay fresh when transported over a longer distance. And in lower-income communities ⁠— where many can’t afford to invest in things like reusable tote bags ⁠— people often seek out packaged foods because they last longer. “I characterize it as environmentalism for the affluent, where the barrier for participation is income,” Lakhan said. “These legislative changes are mostly borne by the people who have the least ability to absorb those costs increases… The idea that it’s OK to do this because we’re improving recycling flies in the face of sustainability.”Speaking to reporters Thursday, Yurek said he believes any cost increases would be minor, and the public is willing to take them on. “Most people are going to be OK with that knowing that less literal waste is going to the landfill,” he said.Not all will be able to shoulder it, Lakhan said: “You have families literally on the margin that can’t afford an extra $10 to $15 a month.”It might be more effective to reduce the amount of waste created in the first place, Lakhan said. And recycling isn’t the end-all of sustainability, he added ⁠— the process creates carbon emissions, and depending on what’s recycled, the end product might not be worth it. Plastic cling wrap, for example, can be turned into air bubble film that helps cushion packages, but it cannot be recycled. “Reduce, reuse, recycle is not just a catchy phrase, it’s the order in which we’re supposed to do things,” he said.“We’re conflating recycling with sustainability.”

John Hocevar: The same polluters destroying our climate are profiting off single-use plastics

Corporate plastic polluters love talking about recycling. That goes for both the petrochemical and fossil fuel industries, as well as the consumer goods and retail sectors. As long as the public views recycling as the primary solution to the plastic pollution crisis, these companies can continue producing endless quantities of single-use plastics. For decades, we have all been told that if we toss our plastic packaging into the blue bin a truck will come take it away and turn it into a new product. This story was created by corporations so they could continue churning out cheap single-use plastics. The reality is that less than 10 percent of the plastic ever created has actually been recycled, and that which is recycled gets downcycled, losing its value over time. For the rare plastic item that does get recycled, it is just a brief stopover between its fracking origins and its inevitable end in a landfill, incinerator or sea turtle’s stomach.For corporations, the strategy has always been to guilt us on pollution. They have worked to make us feel shame for the litter that they themselves produce, coining terms like litterbugs and launching worldwide ad campaigns. These companies knew that if they could get us to focus on cleaning up their mess, then they could avoid responsibility for their own packaging. And it has worked for decades. ADVERTISEMENTFor many of us, recycling has been synonymous with environmentalism since we were young. We put bumper stickers on our cars, wore t-shirts with the chasing arrows symbol and took pride in sorting our waste to do our part. But the companies that continue to market recycling as the solution have always known that it would never be enough to stop our pollution crisis. It has always been cheaper and easier for consumer goods companies and retailers to use virgin plastic. Recycling was their cover to keep producing more plastic stuff. The primary solutions have always been the other two Rs that we learn about as kids: reduction and reuse. That is not to say that recycling does not have its place for certain materials, but for single-use plastics, it is simply never going to solve this crisis. It is time for legislators in Washington, D.C. — and across the country — to stop pushing the industry’s agenda by lobbying for recycling, cleanup or unproven technological solutions to plastic pollution. It is time for legislators to focus on comprehensively tackling this emergency by reducing the amount of plastic we create in the first place. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would do just that by holding corporations responsible for their packaging. This groundbreaking legislation would phase out unnecessary plastic products, pause new plastic facilities, hold companies accountable and expand options for reuse. It tightens the regulations of toxic chemicals found in plastics, establishes minimum recycled content requirements and creates new standards for labeling. And importantly, it takes the burden off of frontline communities by preventing the export of plastic waste to countries that cannot handle it and rejecting false solutions like incinerators. Some corporations are already responding to the growing interest in reusables by testing pilot projects, often in partnership with scrappy startups like Algramo that bring new ideas to retail or consumer goods models. In many cases, global corporations are focusing these initiatives in countries that incentivize reuse or are banning or taxing throwaway packaging.Clearly, regulation can help facilitate the shift to reuse. Policy can also help create common design requirements or support infrastructure to help scale up the reuse revolution. President BidenJoe BidenBiden prepares to confront Putin Ukrainian president thanks G-7 nations for statement of support Biden aims to bolster troubled Turkey ties in first Erdoğan meeting MORE’s American Jobs Plan presents a powerful opportunity to invest in reuse, building for the plastic free future we need rather than trying to subsidize recycling of single-use plastics that need to be phased out as quickly as possible.ADVERTISEMENTThe plastics crisis is not just a litter issue — it is a public health emergency and an ongoing threat to our climate. Low-income communities and communities of color face disproportionate health impacts from living near plastic production and disposal facilities — and have been particularly hard hit along the Gulf Coast and in Appalachia. The same companies that are destroying our climate are relying on the continued use of single-use plastics for profit, jeopardizing our health and well-being. If we truly want to save our seas and the communities most impacted by these crises, we must act holistically and reject failed approaches that corporate polluters have lobbied in support of for decades. Recycling has not and will never solve this crisis. It is time to stop producing so much single-use plastic. Members of Congress who want to make a real difference should support the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act and not failed strategies of years past. And Biden should make the necessary investments for a future centered on reuse to truly “build back better.” John Hocevar is oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA. He is based in Washington, DC.  

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