Single-use plastic plates and cutlery could be banned in England

Single-use plastic plates and cutlery could be banned in England Ministers launch public consultation and will also investigate limiting wet wipes, tobacco filters and sachets Single-use plastic items such as plates, cutlery and polystyrene cups could be banned in England as the government seeks to eliminate plastic waste. Under proposals in a 12-week public consultation, …

‘Drowning’ in waste: Australia recycled just 16% of plastic packaging last year

‘Drowning’ in waste: Australia recycled just 16% of plastic packaging last year Report described as ‘sharp wake-up call’ finds recycling has flatlined since voluntary plan was introduced in 2017 Get our free news app; get our morning email briefing Australia is failing to meet its own plastic reduction targets, with just 16% of plastic recovered …

US throws support behind treaty to curb plastic

Issued on: 18/11/2021 – 10:04Modified: 18/11/2021 – 08:59

Nairobi (AFP) – The United States on Thursday threw its support behind negotiations on a treaty to curb plastic pollution, ending a key holdup in international efforts to clean up the planet’s oceans and save marine life.


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On a visit to the United Nations Environment Programme in Nairobi, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States would back talks in the Kenyan capital in February on a treaty to address plastic.”Our goal is to create a tool that we can use to protect our oceans and all the life that they sustain from growing global harms of plastic pollution,” Blinken said.”As we know, our health — our survival — is bound up in the health of our oceans. We have to do more to protect them,” he said.About eight million tonnes of plastic end up in the oceans each year, killing or injuring one million birds and more than 100,000 marine mammals, according to UN figures.Blinken’s statement is the latest US effort to ramp up environmental protection under President Joe Biden, who has made the fight against climate change a key domestic priority.Likely mindful of political realities in divided Washington, where treaties need ratification by the Senate, Blinken called for a plastic treaty in which countries would come up with their own plans of action.The United States, however, has seen bipartisan calls to clean up oceans with former president Donald Trump signing an act aimed at curbing plastic pollution in the oceans.But environmentalists say that the previous administration stymied international efforts by opposing a treaty and blaming the problem squarely on China — a major source of plastic processing but of material often coming from the West.In 2019, the United States did not join around 180 governments which agreed in Geneva to create a legally binding framework to regulate plastic waste.The United States did not vote as it is not party to the Basel Convention, a UN treaty reached in 1989 that regulates the movement of hazardous waste.
© 2021 AFP

COVID's retail riddle: Is e-commerce better for the environment?

.cms-textAlign-left{text-align:left;}.cms-textAlign-center{text-align:center;}.cms-textAlign-right{text-align:right;}.cms-magazineStyles-smallCaps{font-variant:small-caps;}As millions of Americans hunkered at home during Covid lockdowns, the internet became more than a way to do their jobs or pass the time — it became a central way they shopped for goods like groceries, hot meals, furniture and clothing.
The pandemic, in effect, hit overdrive on a decadeslong shift toward online shopping. E-commerce sales jumped nearly 32 percent in 2020 compared to the prior year, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. So far this year, online sales are on track to outpace that record. To meet the demand, delivery companies such as Amazon, FedEx, UPS and food delivery services wrapped millions of purchases in layers of cardboard and plastic and hired thousands of new drivers to bring them to our doorsteps.

Now, cities, climate scientists and companies are trying to figure out the consequences for the planet.

The answer isn’t clear-cut. Consumers drove fewer miles to and from stores, while delivery companies drove more — so what was the net effect on greenhouse gas emissions? Offices and restaurants generated less waste, but all that food and packaging delivered to homes added to trash pickups from residential neighborhoods. Which is worse for landfills? And does it even matter, when overall we are consuming more than ever before?
“People have been asking this question since the Internet was invented,” said Scot Case, vice president of corporate social responsibility and sustainability at the National Retail Federation. “But it probably isn’t helpful, because e-commerce is happening, period, and people are shopping online, in-store or some hybrid of the two. So, I think the real question is, how do we make all of those options as sustainable as possible?”
In the decade or so prior to Covid, fewer than 10 academic studies explored whether e-commerce or in-person shopping is better for the environment. In general, the studies that were done found that online shopping produced fewer carbon dioxide emissions than traditional brick-and-mortar retail.
However, few accounted for the enormous variability in those supply chains, from consumer behavior to logistics to waste. For instance, whether an in-store shopper bought one or multiple items affects the climate calculations. So does the type and amount of packaging, along with whether those items were later returned. The distance to and from stores and distribution hubs is key, as is the mode of transportation: A gas-powered vehicle, a bike, or an electric car? What if that electric car was powered by a grid running on fossil fuels? What is the different impact of heating and cooling stores and warehouses?
These questions became more urgent during Covid as people shopped more and, perhaps paradoxically, became more concerned about sustainability.
Online shopping surged during the pandemic
E-commerce sales, as a percentage of total retail sales
The most recent research is starting to incorporate more of the complexities of retail. In January, MIT’s Real Estate Innovation Lab published a study that simulated hundreds of thousands of those kinds of scenarios and found online shopping to be more sustainable than traditional retail 75 percent of the time.
But consumers today aren’t choosing one or the other, underscoring just how tricky this assessment is. So the MIT researchers recommended how shoppers and policymakers could instead help reduce carbon footprints at various steps of the supply chain, because either way, people are buying more.
“This is so much more complicated than, ‘E-commerce is better than brick and mortar,’” said Andrea Chegut, director of the lab. “We’re not on a good trajectory, because everyone is using both strategies. So on the aggregate, there will be more emissions.”

However theoretical it might seem, the question of the environmental impact of shopping has real consequences. The entire supply chain of everything we consume — from the extraction and processing of natural resources into products that are shipped to us and then used and disposed of — accounts for half of global emissions, according to the United Nations. The U.N. also estimates that global material use could double in the coming decades.
Brands and retailers are at the nexus of those supply chains. And only recently have major companies started mapping the entire carbon footprint of their sprawling networks, identifying sources of emissions and setting goals to reduce them. For many, third-party suppliers and customers account for the majority of their climate pie.

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There are millions of retailers in the U.S. Of those, nearly 40 top companies have either set science-based targets to slash their total carbon footprints in alignment with the Paris agreement, or pledged to do so, the National Retail Federation found. Those retailers include Amazon, H&M, Ikea and Walmart.
At first brush, it appears that there are three key areas where e-commerce and traditional retail diverge: the last mile (whether a product was delivered or a consumer made a trip to buy it), the buildings (storefronts or warehouses) and the packaging waste.
Most research suggests that ordering goods for delivery is more beneficial for the environment because it means people are making fewer individual shopping trips. The average U.S. consumer goes to the grocery store at least 300 times a year. If they drove there, it was likely in a gas-powered vehicle. Plus, there tends to be higher energy demands at storefronts compared to warehouses.
But that scale “could easily tip in the other direction,” according to a study of the U.S. market published last spring by the sustainable investment firm Generation. The firm’s researchers found that e-commerce is 17 percent more carbon efficient than traditional retail, but could change with a few tweaks to their assumptions, such as the number of items purchased in a single visit, the amount of packaging and the efficiency of last-mile delivery.
In January, the World Economic Forum also found that growing demand for delivery could spike emissions and traffic congestion by more than 30 percent in the world’s top 100 cities by the end of the decade. The report accounted for the emissions saved from fewer individual shopping trips but didn’t consider packaging, and recommended that companies switch to electric vehicles, consolidate hubs for packages and boost nighttime deliveries.
But increasingly, the lines between online and in-store are getting blurred.
A lot of e-commerce growth is within the “omni-chain,” the supply chain shared by both in-store and online components, said Mark Matthews, NRF’s vice president of research development and industry analysis. Retailers are selling products via multiple channels, and consumers are using all of them — items bought online can be delivered to doorsteps or to a physical store for pickup. Americans might return it online or bring it back to the store. The way companies report that data makes it difficult to parse what is truly online and what is blended, Matthews added. He also noted that the second quarter of 2021 marked the first-time brick and mortar sales grew faster than online in decades.
It might be why climate advocates have focused less on the impacts of online shopping, and more on decarbonizing specific industries in the supply chain.
“It’s not really about which one is better, because both have pluses and minuses,” Boma Brown-West, director of consumer health at the Environmental Defense Fund, said. “We’ve seen momentum from companies, but I do think there is more to do in terms of turning sustainability commitments into real results.”

In the United States, no retailer is more synonymous with online shopping and delivery than Amazon, which argues for the environmental benefits of online shopping. In an interview, Amazon spokesperson Luis Davila pointed to findings by company scientists that suggest online shopping produces fewer emissions than driving to shop at a store; for instance, the company estimates that a single delivery van trip can take 100 round-trip car journeys off the road, on average. During the pandemic, customers made fewer trips to Whole Foods Market stores and other brick-and-mortar Amazon locations and shifted to home delivery, which also lowered emissions.
But take a step back, and a bigger, more complex picture emerges.
From 2019 to 2020, Amazon’s U.S. sales jumped 36 percent to $263.5 billion. By the company’s own account, its overall emissions spiked 19 percent, equivalent to running 15 coal plants for one year. More fossil fuel use and investments in buildings, data servers and transportation were key drivers.
That figure reflects its response to consumer demand during Covid-19, but doesn’t capture progress Amazon made, Davila said. He said the company tracks the amount of carbon per dollar of gross merchandise sales — a concept known as carbon intensity — and by that measure, Amazon decreased the amount of carbon per purchase last year by 16 percent. In a blog post in June, a company scientist argued that this metric allows high-growth companies like Amazon to identify efficiencies.
Amazon also reduced emissions from the electricity it bought by 4 percent due to new investments in clean energy, despite expanding its buildings‘ square footage. The company is about two-thirds of the way toward 100 percent renewable energy — a key pillar of the company’s plan to reach net-zero emissions by 2040.
Emissions from deliveries are expected to decrease as Amazon deploys 100,000 electric vans in the coming decade. Davila did not disclose what portion of the company’s fleet that accounts for today.
Big-name retailers such as Target with storefronts across America also are aiming for net-zero emissions by 2040. Target, which has an annual carbon footprint slightly larger than Amazon’s, had an overall increase in previous years driven by rising sales.
While Target has slashed emissions from its own operations and reduced the electricity it buys by 26 percent since 2017, that was not enough to offset the increase from activities in its supply chain — like transportation and consumer use of the products it sells — which jumped 16.5 percent.
To address that, a Target spokesperson said the company remains committed to net-zero emissions. To that end, the retailer is pushing for 80 percent of its suppliers to set their own science-based climate goals by 2023, and is making progress toward its goal of slashing emissions from its own buildings and vehicles in half this decade.
These calculations are top of mind for officials in cities like Santa Monica, Calif., who are concerned about the impact of last-mile deliveries on the environment and public health. There isn’t hard data on that, but Ariana Vito, the city’s sustainability analyst, said anecdotally she’s seen traffic congestion increase, especially during the pandemic.
Southern California is home to the country’s two largest ports. Moving goods is responsible for half of the region’s nitrogen oxide pollution and nearly 11 percent of particulate matter, according to government data. Both are precursors to the formation of greenhouse gases, and long-term exposure can cause the kind of respiratory problems that left so many Americans more vulnerable to Covid-19.
As of October, those ports are running 24/7 to ease supply chain bottlenecks. Companies including FedEx, UPS and Walmart expanded night shifts to get more goods on the road.
Months before, Santa Monica launched the country’s first zero-emissions delivery zone spanning one-square mile of its downtown, where electric delivery vehicles get priority at certain loading zones. They also are testing last-mile deliveries on e-cargo bikes and scooters.
The initiative, in partnership with the Los Angeles Cleantech Incubator, is in the early stages of measuring the effect on emissions, congestion and delivery efficiency. The goal is to expand it to other cities in Southern California before the 2028 Olympics.
“E-commerce is increasing emissions. There is no doubt about it,” said Matt Petersen, CEO of the Cleantech incubator. “It’s no longer just FedEx, UPS and the Postal Service on the road coming once a day. There are multiple deliveries to the same address every day for anything you can imagine.”

The growing number of deliveries arriving in cardboard boxes, plastic bags and other packaging has raised an alarm that online shopping leads to more waste, like the garbage patches floating in the world’s oceans.
Chegut, the director of MIT’s Real Estate Innovation Lab, said one of the most striking findings from her team’s research concerned packaging; they found that cardboard boxes accounted for some of the largest carbon pollutants in the system regardless of the method of delivery. Removing layers of packaging, changing boxes or even removing them altogether could slash carbon emissions by up to 36 percent, the report found.
The packaging problem is exacerbated by the fact that America’s waste infrastructure is ill-equipped to handle all these materials. Most food and packaging ends up in a landfill or is burned to produce energy, generating 105.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide last year, according to federal data. These facilities are often located in marginalized communities disproportionately exposed to the pollution that incineration creates.
By some estimates, the U.S. may have produced less waste in 2020 because of shutdowns on the commercial and industrial side, from office buildings and restaurants to manufacturers. Those sectors are rebounding, however.
Waste Management, the largest trash and recycling hauler in North America, has more than 4,000 contracts with municipalities across the country and recently reported that it collected fewer tons of waste last year. The company said only about 13.5 percent of it was recycled — a slight boost over the previous year in part because Waste Management has recently invested in recycling facilities.
Brent Bell, the company’s vice president of recycling, said the online shopping craze during the pandemic generated the most amount of cardboard he’d ever seen. There were a lot more bottles and cans and plastic films and takeout containers, too.
While paper and cardboard are recycled at the highest rate of any materials nationwide — 68 percent — plastic is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Only about 9 percent of it is recycled, according to federal data. That’s because flexible plastic films and pouches and many take out containers still aren’t recyclable. Neither are plastic bags, unless consumers bring them to the grocery store. Only then can Waste Management bail them up and sell them to be made into new bags.
Local officials from Baltimore to Minneapolis told POLITICO they saw similar trends last year.
Covid overtaxed Baltimore’s sanitation system. By August of 2020, the city’s waste haulers were overworked, falling ill with Covid, and trash was piling up in neighborhoods across the city. Officials halted curbside recycling for six months so truck drivers could focus on trash collection; all that recycling instead ended up in landfills or was incinerated.
The city got its curbside recycling up and running again in January and hopes a new $9 million investment in new blue recycling carts will boost recycling rates.
In Minneapolis, local processor Eureka Recycling handled 35 percent more aluminum, nearly 24 percent more cardboard and 13 percent more plastic in fiscal 2020 compared to the previous year, according to internal data.
“E-commerce has definitely led to more packaging,” said Kate Davenport, co-president of Eureka.
On the bright side, companies including Amazon, PepsiCo, Coca Cola and Walmart have made promises to buy more recycled materials to use in packaging in the coming years and reduce the amount of material they use, such as virgin plastic, Davenport said.
Amazon’s Davila said the company is working on using as little material as possible, in part by investing in technology that custom-sizes boxes to products so it can eliminate single-use plastic padding.
These are steps in the right direction, but still not enough to create a circular waste stream that eases the strain on natural resources, Davenport said. That will take new public policy.
Eureka and other environmental groups advocate for a policy known as “extended producer responsibility,” which puts companies — rather than taxpayers — on the hook for the costs of cleaning up the packaging and other waste their products create. Maine and Washington enacted laws this summer and at least 10 other states are considering them.
After longtime opposition to extended producer responsibility, business groups such as Ameripen, which represents packaging makers, and the American Beverage Association had a change of heart earlier this year. In order for member companies to achieve their own sustainability goals, they need access to more recycled commodities. That means making sure more of their own products get recycled.
The revenue from the laws could be reinvested into local recycling systems to help process more plastic and other materials. An estimated $17 billion investment over five years is needed to boost recycling rates to at least 70 percent, according to May analysis by The Recycling Partnership.
To date, companies have invested a small fraction of that.
At the end of the day, global consumerism has had the single-largest environmental impact of any human activity and no one actor alone will solve the problem, said Brown-West of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Companies can make a big dent by improving the sustainability of their products and using their enormous influence over supply chains to help decarbonize the energy, transportation and building sectors. They can work with city officials to locate distribution centers closer to people. They also should support new climate policy, Brown-West said.
Consumers also have more power than they may realize, said Chegut of MIT.
In study after study, taking fewer trips to the store, bundling purchases and avoiding returns can all make an impact. Just owning an electric vehicle isn’t a silver bullet.
“We learned that, if you own a Tesla in major coal energy states, that’s almost as bad as going to the supermarket every day,” Chegut said. “So, my biggest takeaway is to be a more mindful consumer. Try not to get in the car to go shop. If you do, make it a big shopping trip to avoid multiple trips. Walking and biking always wins.”
And then there’s simplest solution, regardless of whether we shop online or in person: “We could also buy less,” she said.

How does Germany′s bottle deposit scheme work?

German consumers religiously return their bottles under the bottle deposit scheme. But how exactly does it work? And is it a model other countries could follow?
It’s Saturday morning and people are queuing with bags full of bottles and cans at a supermarket in the German city of Cologne. But they’re not buying. Instead, they are returning them. The process is easy. When they bought their drinks, the shoppers paid a deposit on top of the cost of the beverage itself — the so-called Pfand. When they return their bottles and cans to the store, they get their money back. “Before 2003, some 3 billion disposable beverage containers were dumped in the environment every year,” Thomas Fischer, head of circular economy at NGO Environmental Action Germany (DUH), told DW. These days, the country boasts a returns rate of above 98%. “It’s impossible to reach a higher rate,” Fischer said.  There are two types of bottles in Germany’s Pfand system. The first, which have producer-set deposit prices ranging from €0.08 to €0.25 ($0.29), can be reused multiple times and can be made from glass or PET plastic. The second are single-use containers, which as the name suggests, are only used once before they’re recycled. On these, the deposit price is fixed by the government at €0.25. Though for consumers, the Pfand system is a simple case of putting empties into a machine, what happens thereafter is a bit more complex. Adventurous bottles When a refillable bottle of, say, cola, is returned to the supermarket, it marks the start of a long journey. The horizontal white line (left bottle) is a sign that the bottle has been reused A drinks wholesaler transports it to a sorting facility with a truckload of empties, where it is put with other bottles of the same shape before being taken to a producer that uses that particular type of bottle. There, it is cleaned, refilled and delivered back to a shop shelf for repurchase.  Such a glass bottle can be refilled up to 50 times without losing quality, the state-run German Environment Agency (UBA) says. For reusable plastic bottles, it puts the re-use rate at 25.  Single-use bottles follow a different path. Once they’ve been collected in-store, they’re packed off to a recycling plant, where they’re shredded and turned into pellets to be made into new plastic bottles, textiles or other plastic objects, such as detergent containers. Which option is better for the environment? The deposit system for both reusable and single-use bottles saves raw materials, energy and CO2 emissions — mainly because it reduces the fossil fuels used to produce new bottles, Gerhard Kotschik, packaging expert with UBA, told DW. And recycling single-use bottles — as opposed to a sack of mixed plastics — results in food-grade material. On this basis, discount supermarkets, such as Aldi and Lidl, mostly sell single-use containers, claiming their recycling activities are good for the environment.  “Compared to the situation a few years ago, we use up to 70% less virgin PET material,” a Lidl spokesperson told DW. This is what returns machines look like in most German supermarkets This, however, has led to the growing popularity of single-use items. “If we want to be competitive, we have to offer our drinks in discount stores,” Uwe Kleinert, head of sustainability at Coca-Cola Germany, told DW. Coca-Cola’s use of reusable bottles slipped from 56% to 42% in 2015, according to figures from the DUH. The company joins PepsiCo as one of the world’s biggest plastic polluters, found  Break Free from Plastic, a coalition of NGOs working to reduce plastic waste. In Germany, however, many of Coca-Cola’s beverages do appear in reusable plastic bottles, and some in glass.    The Schwarz Group, to which the discounter Lidl belongs, now produces single-use bottles for its own products. According to the company, it uses recycled PET. Only the labels and the lid are not made of 100% recycled plastic, they say.  Nevertheless, environmentalists say that reusable bottles are generally more environmentally friendly than single-use packaging. According to the DUH, single-use plastic bottles made from 100% recycled material still only make up a small share of the market. In addition, material is lost in every recycling process, according to the DUH. There is no closed loop whereby material can be converted into a new product indefinitely without losing any of its properties.  Production of most of these bottles also still requires raw materials derived from fossil fuels. “On average, single-use PET bottles in Germany contain 26% of recycled material,” Fischer said. In addition, reusable plastic bottles are also shredded into reusable PET granules, said Gerhard Kotschik of the UBA. This happens when a bottle has reached its refill quota, i.e. when it can no longer be reused in its original form.  “We always recommend buying reusable beverage containers from the region,” Kotschik told DW, adding that recycling only becomes the best option once a bottle has reached its refill quota. “Even better, however, is to avoid waste altogether.” Confusion over labeling Unlike for single-use bottles, there is no mandatory uniform symbol for reusable bottles and labeling may vary to include terms like “returnable bottle,” “deposit bottle,” “returnable” or “reusable bottle.” Retailers must mark whether bottles are single or multi-use on their store shelves, but for a shop or supermarket selling only single-use bottles, one sign in-store is enough. Environmental organizations such as the German NGO Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU) criticize this as insufficient. Deposit systems’ infrastructure, particularly for reusable bottles, makes its introduction challenging While most consumers in Germany now recognize whether a bottle is single or multi-use, 42% of people still think that all deposit bottles — including single-use bottles — are refilled, according to a recent survey.   Who benefits from the deposit-return system? Stores that only sell single-use bottles avoid the logistic costs connected to reusables and they also benefit from the recycling and onward sale of high-grade PET. “You have to pay more for recycled PET than for virgin PET made from oil,” Kleinert said, but it’s key to achieving environmental targets. The business is becoming so lucrative that Lidl has even set up its own recycling group. Fischer said “every bottle is a gift” for discount stores.  Stores must clearly write down if the bottles are single-use (einweg) or reusable ones (mehrweg) Even unreturned empties — both refillable and single-use — spell profits for the stores that sold them. With 16.4 billion single-use bottles flooding the German drinks market every year, the 1.5% that are never taken back can translate into profits of as much as €180 million for retailers. A model for other countries?  German state environment agency UBA said there is no silver bullet for all countries and that each context has to be closely evaluated to decide what works best. But big companies that have long opposed the introduction of deposit systems are beginning to change their position. “We support well-designed, industry-owned deposit return schemes across Europe where no proven successful alternatives exist,” Wouter Vermeulen, senior director of Coca-Cola public policy center for Europe, told DW in an email. Cesar Sanchez, a spokesperson for Retorna, a Spanish NGO pushing for bottle deposit schemes, believes this is a response to social pressure and stricter European legislation on single-use plastic — by 2029, 90% of plastic bottles must be collected separately for recycling. “Society is demanding solutions and I think deposit return schemes will soon arrive in Spain and all other countries,” he said. Even in Germany, environmental groups are pushing for the deposit scheme to be rolled out to include all kinds of glass and carton packaging, such as Tetra Paks.  “It would also be possible to develop these containers for jam or honey,” Fischer said. “All products can be reusable, and that’s what we want.” 

In the food system and beyond, plastics are the problem

Plastics, as we all know, are central to our food system and to our economy. Each year more plastics get made from raw materials, and each year more enter the environment or end up in landfills. The EPA estimates that in 2018 (the most recent year for which data is available), only about 14 percent of plastic was recycled, which means that the other 86 percent either becomes litter, landfill, or burned for energy—and needs to be replaced with new virgin plastics next year.The Story of Plastic is an Emmy Award-winning documentary first released in 2019 and currently streaming online through the Discovery Network. Created by the Story of Stuff Project, the documentary shines an uncomfortable but much-needed light on the impacts of the plastic industry on people and ecosystems, and our reliance on plastics in the food system and elsewhere.“Ninety percent of the dialogue is about 10 percent of problem,” explains Stiv Wilson, the co-director of the Peak Plastic Foundation and the creator and producer of the documentary. “But most of the coverage focuses on downstream problems of packaging and waste,” such as the communities around plastic production facilities (such as “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana).”“It’s our goal to use story to elevate people working at the front line, tell the stories from a perspective of lived experience of harm, and create intersections and bridges for people from different walks of life to be a part of the overall narrative shift, so we can transform power and engage with this issue more systematically.”Civil Eats spoke with Wilson earlier this month to learn more about the size and shape of the plastic problem, how the pandemic reshaped the plastic landscape, and how food fits into the puzzle.Food is a part of the problem—you’ve mentioned that consumer goods packaging represents about 50 percent of all plastic packaging—but that’s not all. Can you say more about that?One of the issues with plastic pollution is that, living in a privileged, rich country, you may hear about the problem writ large, but if you are going to the grocery store, and you’re buying things [that are almost inevitably in plastic packaging], and you dispose of them—whether in the garbage or even in recycling—you wouldn’t think you’re part of the problem. You’re not exporting waste personally, you’re not littering. Most consumers aren’t aware that people literally died [from the toxic chemicals emitted into their neighborhoods from plastic-producing factories] so they could have that potato chip bag.Our goal is to shift the narrative so people understand the full life cycle of plastics and make more informed choices. Ultimately, we want to move away from this material, since we see plastic as the vehicle of globalization and capitalistic growth.“Most consumers aren’t aware that people literally died so they could have that potato chip bag.”In terms of food and beverage packaging specifically, how much of the global plastic industry does that represent?Packaging in all consumer goods is approaching 50 percent. That’s the sector of growth and a lot of that is food packaging. That’s how Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Nestlé, and other conglomerates are selling their products in the developing world and opening markets: By selling smaller amounts that are on a lower price point [but require as much if not more packaging per ounce].So now, all kinds of products—from soy sauce to shampoo to coffee—are all coming in these [multi-layer] single-serve packages that are fused materials, which makes them nearly impossible to recycle from an economic standpoint; it costs more to actually process them than the end product is worth.And the economics don’t work because the infrastructure doesn’t exist to do it at scale, or to do it cost-effectively?The infrastructure for [some] recycling doesn’t exist, because it’s not profitable to do it. Recycling was never meant to address a waste stream this large. And for 40 years, the plastics industry has said the solution to plastic pollution is recycling. But if recycling was actually cutting down on the amount of plastic being made, they wouldn’t be promoting it—they full well know recycling isn’t cutting into their profits from virgin plastics.There is a massive pivot by the oil and gas industry underway, shifting from fossil fuels for energy and transportation to plastics. And I fear that climate advocacy is not tracking this bait and switch.

EPA finalizes first national recycling strategy

On Monday, the Environmental Protection Agency finalized America’s first “national recycling strategy,” which aims to support the agency’s goal of achieving a 50 percent recycling rate by the end of the decade.“Our nation’s recycling system is in need of critical improvements to better serve the American people,” EPA Administrator Michael Regan said in a statement. “Together with the historic investments in recycling from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal, the strategy will help transform recycling and solid waste management across the country while creating jobs and bolstering our economy.”The new strategy includes five main objectives — including improving the collection of recyclables and recycling data and reducing contamination in the recycling stream. The EPA also takes a “circular economy” approach, in which a product is sustainably managed throughout its life cycle, from production to disposal or reuse.The new plan places a priority on addressing the impacts of recycling on poor and minority communities, such as incinerators and scrapyards.While the new initiative does not provide extensive policy details, it identifies a number of studies the EPA will conduct — including an assessment of the needs in the recycling infrastructure system and an analysis of policies that could make recycling easier. It also commits the EPA to creating a new goal for reducing the climate impacts of the production, consumption and disposal of waste items; a system that is a significant source of greenhouse gas emissions.In a statement, the American Chemistry Council trade association welcomed the new strategy. “We look forward to working closely with EPA and Congress to accelerate the expansion and modernization of U.S. recycling,” said Joshua Baca, the organization’s vice president of plastics.“In our efforts to combat the existential threat of climate change, recycling is an important tool to move us toward a more circular economy and truly sustainable future,” Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), co-chair of the Senate Recycling Caucus, said in a statement. “I’m glad that the Biden administration is taking steps to seize this opportunity by launching the EPA’s first-ever national recycling strategy.”But achieving the goal of recycling 50 percent of municipal solid waste by 2030 will be a steep climb. According to a 2020 Government Accountability Office(GAO) report, less than a quarter of waste generated in the United States is collected for recycling. And the EPA estimates that in 2018, the plastic recycling rate was only about 9 percent.The GAO has been recommending federal recycling reforms since at least 2006, when the EPA was aiming for a 35 percent recycling rate by 2008. That target wasn’t met. But the issue took on more urgency in 2018 when the Chinese government limited recycling imports into the country, which had been a primary end point for much of the world’s recyclables and waste — including from the United States.“We’re really building on past efforts around recycling,” said Carleton Waterhouse, deputy assistant administrator of the EPA’s Office of Land and Emergency Management. “We are focusing it around our administration’s priorities.”However, some say the final version, released Monday, remains lacking in key areas.“There needs to be a more robust commitment to waste reduction,” said Judith Enck, a former senior EPA official during the Obama administration who now heads the Beyond Plastics advocacy organization. “The problem is that there’s just too much plastic packaging foisted on American consumers.”Center for International Environmental Law President Carroll Muffett agreed, saying that even if the United States moves toward higher recycling rates, it won’t matter if consumption isn’t curbed.“We’re racing a moving target,” he said. “Recycling is not really the solution to the plastics crisis. Until we have national policies that are actually addressing the expansion of single-use disposable plastics that are driving that crisis, I think it’s likely to continue to mask the true source of the problem.”Dating back decades, the plastics industry has indeed used the possibility of recycling to keep its products on the market. For instance, a 1989 account from the industry-supported Council for Solid Waste Solutions noted of its efforts in Iowa that “outright bans on polystyrene packaging were dropped with a promise of recycling by industry.”Muffett also noted that it matters what type of recycling the EPA includes in its national strategy. The agency mentions a much-debated technique called chemical recycling — or advanced recycling — which uses heat or chemicals to convert plastics into either fuel or plastic resin for reuse in manufacturing new products.“Today’s versatile advanced recycling technologies can convert post-use plastics into a range of useful outputs,” reads a pamphlet on the process from the American Chemistry Council, a trade association. “These technologies also offer important environmental benefits, such as diverting valuable materials from landfill, transforming waste into an abundant source of alternative energy, and helping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”Critics, however, see the framing as misleading.“Chemical recycling is being held up by the industry as a cure-all,” said Neil Tangri, science and policy director for the advocacy organization Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. But, he said, the technology often doesn’t work if the recycling stream is dirty. It can be energy-intensive and doesn’t necessarily result in high enough quality plastic resin for repurposing, he added.“You’re calling it recycling,” said Tangri, “but mostly you’re turning plastic into carbon dioxide and waste.”The October 2020 draft of the national recycling strategy did not include any mention of chemical or advanced recycling. But the final version states that “chemical recycling is part of the scope of this strategy and further discussion is welcome.”“Trump didn’t put it in, why would Biden?” Enck said. “That is an embarrassment to the Biden administration and should be removed from the plan.”Waterhouse said the agency included chemical recycling in response to comments the agency received about its draft, but did not represent an endorsement of it.“It’s really a matter of not taking it off the table,” he said. “We should be discussing it.”Overall, Waterhouse called Monday’s announcement a “valuable first step” that will involve further consultation and more detailed policies down the line to address plastics and food waste.Enck, however, said she remains skeptical that the EPA’s current blueprint can move the needle on the world’s waste problems.“I think it’s good they did the plan,” she said. “I just wish it was a better plan.”

Cities are not only tackling COVID, but its pollution, too

All around the world the remnants of a global pandemic are testing the resolve of governments and private firms to rid the planet of its waste.The River Thames, the tidal artery that squiggles through central London, holds up a mirror to life on dry land: scraggly remains of fir trees float by after Christmas; in the first days of a fresh year, bobbing champagne bottles hint at recent revelry.Lara Maiklem, author of “Mudlark: In Search of London’s Past Along the River Thames,” scours the shoreline for artifacts such as coins, tokens, buckles and potsherds, some dating to the period of Roman rule. Loosed from pockets or heaped as infill, these are the flotsam of centuries lived on London’s streets.“I find stuff because humans are litterbugs,” Ms. Maiklem said. “We’ve always been chucking things into the river.”But lately Ms. Maiklem is encountering a type of garbage she hadn’t seen there before: the remnants of Covid 19-era personal protective equipment (or P.P.E.), particularly masks and plastic gloves bloated with sand and resting in the rubbly silt.Ms. Maiklem once counted around 20 gloves while canvassing 100 yards of shoreline. She wasn’t surprised; if anything, she had feared the shore would be even more inundated with pieces that had flown from pockets or trash cans or swirled into the Victorian sewers. Happily, Ms. Maiklem said, the carpet of Covid-inspired trash at the edge of the Thames wasn’t nearly as plush as it is elsewhere.A protective face mask in the sand on Tel Aviv’s beach in April.Jack Guez/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesPlastic gloves, face masks and other waste in waters off Antibes, France.Operation Mer Propre, via Associated PressP.P.E. litter is fouling landscapes across the globe. Dirtied masks and gloves tumbleweed across city parks, streets and shores in Lima, Toronto, Hong Kong and beyond. Researchers in Nanjing, China, and La Jolla, Calif., recently calculated that 193 countries have generated more than 8 million tons of pandemic-related plastic waste, and the advocacy group OceansAsia estimated that as many as 1.5 billion face masks could wind up in the marine environment in a single year.Since January, volunteers with the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup have plucked 109,507 pieces of P.P.E. from the world’s watery margins.Now, across the litter-strewn planet, scientists, officials, companies and environmentalists are attempting to tally and repurpose P.P.E. — and limit the trash in the first place.Slipping out of pockets, falling off wrists or blowing out of trash cans, face masks are littering streets across the globe, including in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. Kevin Lamarque/ReutersTrash surveys and cleanupsTodd Clardy, a marine scientist in Los Angeles, sometimes counts the P.P.E. he sees on the 10-minute walk from his apartment in Koreatown to the Metro station. One day this month, he said, he spotted “24 discarded masks, two rubber gloves and loads of hand sanitation towelettes.” Sometimes he sees them atop grates that read, “No Dumping, Drains to Ocean.”Dr. Clardy suspects some masks simply slip from wrists. “Once it falls on the ground, people probably look at it like, ‘Huh, I’m not wearing that again.’” Breezes likely free some from trash cans, too. “The bins are always full,” Dr. Clardy added. “So even if you wanted to put it on top, it would fly away.”Dr. Clardy’s accounting isn’t part of a formal project, but there are several such undertakings underway. In the Netherlands, Liselotte Rambonnet, a biologist at Leiden University, and Auke-Florian Hiemstra, a biologist at Naturalis Biodiversity Center, keep a running count of masks and gloves littering streets and canals. They track animals’ interactions with the castoff gear.Among their documented examples are an unfortunate perch trapped in the thumb of a phlegmy-looking latex glove, and birds weaving P.P.E. into nesting materials, risking entanglement. “Nowadays it would be difficult to find a coot nest in the canals of Amsterdam without a face mask,” Ms. Rambonnet and Mr. Hiemstra wrote in an email.The researchers maintain a global website,, where anyone can report animal and P.P.E. incidents. Dispatches include sightings of a brown fur seal tangled in a face mask in Namibia; a mask-snarled puffin found dead on an Irish beach; and a sea turtle in Australia with a mask in its stomach. Back home, the researchers, who also lead canal cleanups in Leiden, worry P.P.E. trash will increase now that the Dutch government has reinstated mask requirements.“Every weekend we encounter face masks — new ones and old, discolored ones,” Ms. Rambonnet and Mr. Hiemstra wrote. “Some are barely recognizable, and blend in with autumn leaves.”A discarded plastic glove on the pavement in London in March 2020.Daniel Leal-Olivas/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesA macaque monkey playing with a face mask in Malaysia in October 2020.Mohd Rasfan/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesCleanup efforts are also underway in London, where staff members and volunteers with the environmental group Thames21 count and collect trash from the river’s banks. In September, the group closely surveyed more than a kilometer of shore and found P.P.E. at 70 percent of their study sites — and notably clustered along a portion of the Isle of Dogs, where 30 pieces pocked a 100-meter stretch.“I don’t remember seeing any face masks until the pandemic; they weren’t on our radar,” said Debbie Leach, the group’s chief executive officer, who has been involved since 2005. Ms. Leach’s team sends the P.P.E. to incinerators or landfills, but small bits are surely left behind because the trash “releases plastics into the water that can’t be retrieved,” she said.Researchers in Canada recently estimated that a single surgical-style mask on a sandy shoreline could unleash more than 16 million microplastics, far too small to collect and haul away.A sign at a school in Santiago, Chile, reminded passersby to throw away their Covid trash. Esteban Felix/Associated PressAnti-litter campaignsRoaming sandy swaths along Chile’s coast, Martin Thiel, a marine biologist at the Universidad Católica del Norte in Coquimbo, saw plenty of signs asking visitors to mask up — but few instructions about ditching used coverings. To his frustration, masks were scattered, swollen with sand and water and tangled in algae. “They act a little like Velcro,” he said. “They very quickly accumulate stuff.”But a few beaches, including one in Coquimbo, had trash cans designated specifically for P.P.E. Unlike oil-drum-style alternatives nearby, some had triangular tops with tiny, circular openings that would deter rummaging and prevent wind from tousling the garbage.In a paper published in Science of the Total Environment this year, Dr. Thiel and 11 collaborators recommended that communities install more purpose-built receptacles like these, as well as signs reminding people to consider the landscape and their neighbors, human and otherwise. “We think there is more to the story than, ‘just protect yourself,’” said Dr. Thiel, the paper’s lead author.Houston has already started. In September 2020, the city launched an anti-litter campaign partly aimed at P.P.E. Featuring images such as a filthy mask on grass, the posters read “Don’t Let Houston Go to Waste” and encouraged residents to “Do the PPE123,” choreography that entailed social distancing, wearing masks and throwing them away.Early in the pandemic, “we weren’t sure if [P.P.E.] was a safety concern and would spread Covid around the city,” said Martha Castex-Tatum, the city’s vice mayor pro tem, who spearheaded the initiative. As a clearer picture of transmission emerged, the effort “became a beautification project,” she said. The images were plastered on billboards, sports stadium jumbotrons and trash-collection trucks. Council members handed out 3,200 trash grabber tools and urged residents to use them.One use for discarded masks: Stuff them into plastic bottles, where they could be transformed into “ecobricks.” Young people in La Paz, Bolivia, participated in a campaign in October.Martin Alipaz/EPA, via ShutterstockRecycling effortsAs the pandemic bloomed across South Africa, shoppers grabbed fistfuls of wet wipes as they entered stores, draping the cloths over shopping cart handles while roaming aisles, said Annette Devenish, marketing manager at Sani-touch, a brand that supplies many national Shoprite Group supermarkets with wipes for customer use. Sani-touch found that usage soared 500 percent early on and has fallen, but still hovers above prepandemic figures.Environmentalists often rail on wet wipes, many of which snarl sewer systems when they are flushed down drains and degrade into microplastics that drift through food webs. (Thames21, for instance, is backing newly proposed legislation that would ban all wipes containing plastic.)Ms. Devenish said that manufacturers ought to focus on making them recyclable or compostable, and this fall Sani-touch launched a project to give used wipes a second life. Customers can drop off cloths before leaving the store; recycling companies will turn the polypropylene cloths into plastic pallets for use in Sani-touch’s manufacturing facilities.Fashioned from many materials, including metal and elastic, single-use masks can be harder to recycle, Ms. Devenish said, but she hopes they can be stuffed into plastic bottles to become “ecobricks,” low-cost building blocks of benches, tables, trash bins and more.P.P.E. recycling schemes are also advancing elsewhere. In the Indian city of Pune, the CSIR-National Chemical Laboratory is teaming up with a bio-medical waste facility and private companies to pilot ways to transform head-to-toe protective wear into plastic pellets used to manufacture other goods. (None are yet being made and sold, “but hopefully soon,” wrote Harshawardhan V. Pol, a principal scientist, in an email.)In fall 2020, the Canadian government asked companies to pitch ideas for recycling P.P.E. or making it compostable. The government may funnel up to $1 million eachtoward a few prototypes.Preventing P.P.E. from polluting urban environments will be a boon to the spaces where residents have sought solace. “In stressful times, people seek out these places, but they’ve been pretty bad about taking rubbish and trash away with them,” said Ms. Leach of Thames21. “Masks blow hither and thither,” she added, “and finally come to rest when they hit a patch of water,” grass or sidewalk, where they too often remain.

Here’s something you can’t ignore, says tampon plastics activist

Here’s something you can’t ignore, says tampon plastics activist Ella Daish to hand Procter & Gamble giant Tampax applicator, made from 1,200 discarded contributions A British environmental activist is stepping up her campaign against single-use plastics in period products by calling on the world’s bestselling manufacturer of tampons to make greener alternatives. Ella Daish, the …