Essay:   Plastics run in my family but their inheritance is in us all

I knew it was late to be calling him. But that night, with the first warm breezes rustling the curtains, I could sense the coming spring and realised he would turn 73 soon.For more than a decade, my father and I had talked about returning to the place where he made plastics before I was born. The plant had exerted an inexplicable pull on me for longer than I can remember, since before I had kids, and even before I entered graduate school to study environmental legacy – what is passed from one generation to the next.
So I dialled. He answered quickly. When I asked whether he’d like to go with me, he didn’t hesitate. Within minutes, we had set a date. Two months later, in May 2013, we stood on the grounds of the former Union Carbide plant in Bound Brook, New Jersey, the birthplace of modern plastics.
A century earlier, in 1907, Leo Baekeland invented the first synthetic plastic in his laboratory in Yonkers, New York. Though earlier plastics had been made from plants (biomass), Baekeland’s formulation used fossil-fuel derivatives, which is now the standard.
He called his amber-hued invention Bakelite resin. It was made by reacting formaldehyde with phenol, produced from coal tar traced to fossilized plants. At the time, industrial chemists had just begun to manipulate hydrocarbons extracted from decomposed, ancient life. They would go on to synthesise new molecules by subjecting hydrocarbons to unearthly temperatures and pressures, and mixing them in concentrations and with other elements in combinations never before seen in nature.
After his backyard laboratory caught fire, Baekeland relocated in 1910 to a factory in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. By the early 1930s, he had built a 125-acre plant along the Raritan River in Bound Brook.
It was the broadcaster Lowell Thomas, the signature voice of the early 20th century, who helped Bakelite become a household name. The natural world was thought to have only three kingdoms – animal, vegetable and mineral – but in a 1937 film on the story of Bakelite, Thomas described a fourth kingdom of synthetics, which promised to free us from reliance on nature, including timber and plant mass such as cotton and wool. Baekeland’s company chose the infinity symbol as its logo and the phrase ad infinitum as its motto.
But Bakelite wasn’t infinite in the way Baekeland had intended. His synthetic resin inspired other companies and new plastics, which eventually began to compete for market share. In 1939, he sold his Bound Brook factory to Union Carbide.
In 1962, the same year Rachel Carson published Silent Spring, my father started his first job at this factory. He was 22, his black hair buzzed short, accentuating the characteristic patch of white just above his hairline. He had just graduated from the chemical engineering programme at the University of Rhode Island, and was hired even though URI did not yet offer classes in plastics production.
Union Carbide assigned him as a process engineer. Within four years, at the age of 26, the company promoted him to supervisor of their polystyrene department, a position he held for a couple years until taking over the production of phenol, formaldehyde and hexamethylenetetramine, the chemicals used to make Bakelite. They gave him a good salary and a small office with a door. When closed, it could dampen the din of the incessant machines. But he spent most days in the plant. His shirt and tie carried home the saccharine smell of styrene and Acrowax, the powder sifted onto the finished polystyrene pellets to keep them from sticking. For a time, he commuted by bicycle past the junkyards before pedalling down Baekeland Avenue. When the union went on strike, he worked the 12-hour graveyard shift. By the close of 1963, The New York Times Magazine reported, Union Carbide had made 1 billion lbs of plastic in a single year.
My father spent a decade at that job, spanning the period in which my three older siblings were born. By spring 2013, on the day we visited, only a few buildings remained. We happened to meet a uniformed employee who showed us a manhole cover bearing the Bakelite logo, the only known company artifact on-site. He had salvaged it and placed it by the central flagpole, in grass taken over by Canadian geese. It once marked a portal into the dense network of underground wires and pipes that, like roots, conveyed power and resources to the plant’s many branches. I stood between my father and the geese trying to imbue the round, rusted disc with significance. But all I could see were goose droppings.
Visiting the old Carbide site made me wonder why we call industrial factories ‘plants’ in the first place. Most plants strike me as an extreme landscape, invasive, grown beyond the human scale. They look like an impenetrable thicket of pipes and valves, canopies of stacks and distillation columns with an understory of brick and catwalks, scaffolding and tanks.

But little else can thrive in their presence. I’m reminded of the Locke Breaux Oak that, since the 1600s, had grown in Taft, Louisiana. Union Carbide built a chemical plant nearby and, beginning in 1966, it likely made the styrene my father coaxed into polystyrene. When the plant was built, the oak was 36 ft around its trunk and 75 ft tall, with branches that spanned 170 ft across. But by 1968, it was dead. So I’m left wondering: how is it that two seemingly opposed concepts – factories and flora – came to share the same word?
The related term, factories, is a shortening of manufactories, an example of how places are sometimes named according to what actions – manufacturing – are performed there. Hence smelters smelt. Paper mills mill paper. Ironworks work iron. Refineries refine petroleum. But plants don’t follow the same logic. The corollary would be plantations.
Interestingly, Union Carbide’s Taft plant sits along the 150-mile corridor between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, which was once lined with antebellum plantations. The hundred or so petrochemical plants along the Mississippi were constructed on former cotton, indigo and sugar plantations, and now produce, in addition to chemical feedstocks and plastics, synthetic versions of the crops once raised by forced labour: rayon, dyes and artificial sweeteners. The descendants of enslaved peoples now share a fence line with some of the most polluting industries in the nation.
However, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, calling factories plants predates the conversion of US plantations into petrochemical production. I put the question to an environmental historian, several sociologists, a linguist, two science and technology scholars, and a plastics expert – all of whom uncovered pieces of its origins, but were otherwise stumped by how factories became plants. Might it have a Latin root? Does it refer to how the first factories converted plants (such as cotton) into commodities? Was it a clever metaphor – to plant a business, to sow profit – that spread organically? Did its use emerge in that chasm between technological change and the evolution of adequate terminology to describe it?
Even the linguist said I’d dug up an etymological mystery, one that hadn’t yet revealed its source. And while my (re)search continues, I wonder how phrases become taken for granted, adopted without thought, and their origin largely unknown to generations who rarely question the way things have come to be.
The same could be said about plastics.
My mother’s father died young, but the man my grandmother remarried – and whom I knew as Grandpa – had been among the first chemical engineers trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the first US institution to grant degrees in the field. He matriculated in the early 1920s, just as Baekeland’s business took off. He graduated with his Bachelor’s degree in 1928, and his Master’s a few years after that.
In the fall of 2012, before my father and I went to New Jersey, I visited the MIT archives. I had arranged for the librarians to find my grandfather’s theses. They were well-preserved, their black bindings so taut that they creaked when I opened them. As I read his work, I remembered his basement laboratory and how, when I was young, he had made me a set of test tubes. I’d watched as he blew bulbous ends onto slender glass tubing. I don’t remember what experiments we ran afterwards, but there were powders and liquids, scales and bottles, and shifting states and colours that seemed magical and otherworldly.
Until I read his research, I didn’t know he had experimented with corn as a feedstock. This is how I discovered that there was a time before oil, and that some industrialists of the 1930s and ’40s envisioned a radically different society, with plastics, paints and fuel for cars made from carbohydrates. But in the US by the close of the 1940s, oil had replaced both biomass and coal as the substrate for making the stuff of everyday life. Union Carbide had helped lead the conversion.
In the years since my grandfather walked these paths, all living organisms have absorbed the products of 20th century petrochemistry. We now embody its genius, its intellectual property, its mistakes, and its hubris. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed the presence of at least 200 (from a possible 80,000-100,000) industrial chemicals in Americans. And though we already have clear reason for concern about their role in human health, development and reproduction, not even the scientists know exactly what their combined presence means for our future.

A generation after my grandfather studied at MIT, in the 1960s, my father oversaw four production lines of polystyrene, each capable of making 2,000 lbs an hour. Polystyrene was made in large, thick-walled autoclaves that could withstand the extremes in pressure and temperature required to string together molecules of styrene and butadiene rubber. The equipment ran round the clock, nearly every day of every year he was there. It was his job to keep the pressure and temperatures steady, lest they blow the roof. He knew styrene was hazardous, but it would be decades before the government confirmed its potential as a carcinogen.
It always struck me how the volatility my father described as inherent to plastics-making mirrored the social milieu of the decade in which he made it: the assassinations; the ignition of racism and racial inequalities in Plainfield, where he lived; and the Vietnam War – a war in which he was prepared to serve, but for a variety of reasons (his eyesight and a critical-skills deferment) didn’t. Instead, on the nightly news he watched the horrors of napalm (which Dow made from roughly 46 per cent polystyrene). While at work, he witnessed unmarked trucks cart away drums of un-reacted styrene, only to return them empty for refilling. This was before Ohio’s Cuyahoga River ignited again in 1969, before the US Environmental Protection Agency was founded in 1970, before the public health crisis at Love Canal, New York, erupted in the late 1970s, and before federal laws tried to curb hazardous waste and its burial. He knew enough to wonder where the drums – and their contents – were going, but not enough about his own agency at a time when there weren’t clear channels for questioning such things.
As my father’s discontent grew, he marched for civil rights, marched on Washington to end the war, attended the first Earth Day, and eventually, quit plastics altogether. Soon thereafter, his wife left, too, taking their kids.
By the late 1970s, US plants were making more plastic than steel. By the 1980s, Union Carbide was on its way to infamy after the lethal explosion in Bhopal, India. Meanwhile, thousands of drums containing waste from the Bound Brook plant had already been found at a farm in Toms River, an hour south. The farm was added to the federal Superfund list in 1983, the year before Bhopal. State officials later began researching whether the chemicals that had leached into the water supply from the illegal dump had contributed to elevated rates of childhood cancers.
Dow announced its intention to buy Union Carbide in 1999, even as the Toms River inquiry continued. A century after Baekeland’s invention, Dow too ceased manufacturing at the site.
When I asked my father why he left Carbide, a place many stayed for life, he said: There had to be a higher calling.
Plastic is a term that predates the material. In the 1600s, it referred to any substance that was readily moldable and easily shaped. In step with growth in plastics production, plastic acquired a figurative meaning and is now used to indicate when something seems artificial or contrived.
The landscape architect Kate Orff has written about our insatiable appetite for plastics, calling US culture a petro-topia – an idealised landscape designed for the consumption of petroleum-derived plastics, many disposable, bought on credit, which we also call plastic. It is a place distanced from the plants that make what we buy and from the communities living in the shadow of production. It is a culture built with and around hydrocarbons.
The petro-topia I’ve come to know is eerily over-populated by plants of another species: tables set with inedible fruit, backyards where grass stains have been traded for turf burns and gardens landscaped with polyethylene boulders. Where I live in Massachusetts, an artificial tree sprouts from the floor of the Whole Foods Market. It stands in the bulk-foods aisle, the freeze-dried fruit and plastic-sealed kale chips shaded from the fluorescent lights by its eternal foliage.
In one of the most telling essays on plastics, ‘Reflections of an Unrepentant Plastiphobe’ (2010), the plastics scholar Jody Roberts describes how his research made him hypervigilant about his families’ home and diet. But when his daughter was born with cerebral palsy, she was dependent on plastics for her survival. Plastic tubing conveyed breath and nourishment, even as it delivered plasticisers and other plastic additives known to interfere with vital physiological functions. His essay forced me to reconcile plastics as both life-altering and life-giving – practically inseparable from the practice of modern healthcare. We are past the point of simple dichotomies such as good/bad, nature/plastic, innocent/complicit.

It’s the same lesson taught by the new kind of rock, found recently in Hawaii. Neither plastic nor stone, plastiglomerates are a composite of melted plastics, marine debris and volcanic rock. Its discovery confirms human capacity to change the geological record for the era in which we live. According to the Worldwatch Institute, global plastics production continues to rise. Some 299 million tons of plastics were manufactured in 2013 alone, a four per cent increase over the previous year.
I’ve come to believe Baekeland chose an apt symbol for plastics. Purportedly, the infinity symbol has roots in mystical traditions. It depicts a snake eating its own tail.
Over the past 10 years, we’ve learned how sunlight and waves break down plastics into microscopically small parts. They swirl in all the oceans’ major gyres, of which there are five. In places, microplastics outnumber plankton.
Fish confuse plastics for plankton, and so plastics have entered the food chain. I’m reminded of the phrase: you are what you eat, and what you eat eats, of the snake consuming its tail, and also of the poet Adam Dickinson, who has called us a people of the resin. I suspect he is referring to how some plastic additives have come to live in us – in our bloodstreams, and even in our mother’s milk. Plastic is part of our inheritance.
This is a topic my father would rather avoid, preferring instead to talk about recycling. He tells me thermoplastics, like polystyrene, can be melted, remolded and reused. He places great faith in the possibility that some plastics could be redeemed, though in the US only about seven per cent of post-consumer plastics actually get recycled.
By the mid-1970s, my father had remarried and, around the time I was born, began a new career in public administration, where he developed a record-setting curbside recycling programme. One of the most enduring images of my childhood involves riding in his car, where he would throw litter collected from gutters and roadsides to be brought to the recycling yard. In the US, such places are called redemption centres. Recycling might be an imperfect solution to the problem of everlasting waste, but we name the place where plastic is recycled in hope of our salvation.
At its peak, Union Carbide’s Bound Brook plant employed several thousand people. On the day my father and I peered through the chain-link that now surrounds the property, there were fewer than a dozen employees left. It was spring and, in the absence of an industrial thrum, I heard birdsong.
My father’s voice cracked when we pulled down Baekeland Avenue, and he gaped in disbelief at the ghost of his old factory. We drove the perimeter, past the lot where he’d once parked. Indifferent weeds pushed through cracks in the asphalt. An old emergency vehicle still bearing the Union Carbide logo slumped in the grass. At the rear entrance, we parked where the rusted rail lines slipped under the padlocked gates, its branches warped. I tried to picture the tankers of styrene entering on one branch, the freight cars filled with polystyrene pellets exiting from another, and the trucks rumbling over the tracks with their payload of 55-gallon drums carrying away everything else. My father would never know the fate of the drums he saw leaving the plant, their whereabouts likely still unknown.
But from the papers and from Dan Fagin’s Pulitzer prize-winning book, Toms River (2013), my father eventually learned what happened to other drums that had been stockpiled at the Bound Brook plant. In 1971, in the span of just five months, a third-party waste hauler stashed at least 5,000 barrels at a farm in Toms River, the one that would become a Superfund site. The farmers, Sam and Bertha Reich, had leased their back two acres without realising the purposes to which the land would be put. They were just trying to keep the farm solvent.
Drums labeled ‘styrene’, ‘polymer solution’ and ‘chemical waste,’ as Fagin reported, were eventually found empty, others damaged and leaking. All told, an unknowable mixture of chemicals had seeped into the soil and spread to the well and fields supplying Toms River. One never-before-seen chemical was determined to be a waste product called SAN trimer, leftover from the production of acrylonitrile butadiene styrene, or ABS, a next-generation plastic that, in the late 1960s, my father remembers Union Carbide was just beginning to develop. In fact, he had witnessed its first experimental production run.

By the 1990s, the public outcry over the pollution and childhood cancers in Toms River reached its pinnacle. Cancer was already spreading in my father’s body, too. It would be another decade before it was detected. He would survive. At least 50 Toms River children, possibly more, would succumb.
The cause of any one person’s cancer is mostly unknowable, Fagin writes. And in the case of a community, it is very difficult to prove.
What happened in Toms River is a complex story. Fagin’s account, published the month before our trip, portrayed the community’s tireless but ultimately inconclusive effort to understand why so many local children had cancer. Compounding the situation was the fact that the town had also been home to Ciba-Geigy, a dye factory nestled in a pine forest along the river. For decades, it had used this river to unload its prodigious waste. The rest had been buried on site. And so, the Toms River wells, and those drinking from them, absorbed these chemicals, too. To parse what chemicals from which plant caused which cancers turned out to be a question beyond the capacity of science to answer definitely, though millions of dollars have been spent trying.
Had we not read Fagin’s book before our trip, neither my father nor I would have realised that the chemical fingerprints found at Reich Farm implicated the polystyrene department that he ran, specifically. Even though he never managed the waste, my father came to wonder whether he had unwittingly played some part in the manufacturing of what wound up in Toms River.
On the day we visited the factory, Building #91, the bulk polystyrene department, was a rectangle of barren land. It had been two stories, brick, with vaulted-ceilings, its massive production equipment housed on the top floor. The security guard connected us with two employees, who, having learned that an old-timer had come back with his daughter, escorted us on to the property to get a closer look. I stared at the footprints of old buildings as they reminisced. Before taking us back through the front gates, the facilities manager gave my father a black-and-white aerial photo of the plant. My dad named the function of each structure: the storage tanks and distillation columns, the warehouses and water-cooling station. It was nearly impossible for me to reconcile what I saw in the photograph with the landscape on which I stood. When plastics plants are shuttered, they rewild faster than I would have imagined.
Until a few years ago, plants like this were being closed across the country. Market dynamics had incentivised relocation of many such facilities to China and the Middle East. But the natural gas industry – spurred by fracking and unconventional gas drilling – might reverse that trend. Now producing abundant shale oil, gas, and ethane, American petrochemical companies are beginning to regrow their industry. From ethane, they can make ethylene, which can then be converted into styrene and other feedstocks necessary for making plastics.
‘Plants use natural gas like a bakery shop uses flour,’ said Dan Borne, president of the Louisiana Chemical Association. ‘All this stuff,’ he continued, by which he meant fertilisers and plastics, ‘starts with natural gas, our basic feedstock, our daily bread.’
After our tour of the Bound Brook plant, we turned south toward Toms River. It was happenstance that we found the Reich Farm Superfund site, tucked behind a used car shop and Carl’s Fencing, which now occupies the former farmhouse. Red, white and blue flags billowed across the place. Around the back, two rows of chicken coops stood at attention. There was nothing to see, really. No drums. No signs. The land was wild. I scanned for signs of trauma. It felt like a battleground, the kind of place people visit to reckon with their legacy, and know their place in history, except my father was anxious and wanted to leave immediately. We shouldn’t be here, he said, and steered us into an abrupt U-turn.
From Reich Farm, we drove back through town to Riverfront Landing – a small, out-of-the-way park bordered by an abandoned dental office, a through street and Toms River where it widens into Barnegat Bay. The previous fall, Hurricane Sandy had flooded the area. The park was empty, unkempt with foot-high dandelions. Litter rattled along the sidewalks.
Against a stand of shrubs leaned a stone memorial to the town’s children lost to cancer. I counted 50 names etched in multiple fonts; more had probably died after the first had been inscribed. My father approached the stone and bowed his head. He seemed at prayer.
I remember the Sundays I stood beside him in a church pew, how after communion, the congregation would join hands to recite the Lord’s prayer. Our Father, he would say, as he took my hand in his. Forgive us our trespasses. He would always hold on long after those final words.
The wind coming off the river blows an empty Kwik Mart cup to my feet. I pick it up and trace the symbol imprinted on the plastic lid – arrows cycling around the letters PS – which tell me that the lid of the cup at the cancer memorial was made from polystyrene.
In the coming weeks, my dad will consider calling the Toms River Town Hall to ask if he can clean up the park – to mow the grass, clip back the bushes, carry away the trash. The sight of a forgotten memorial was unbearable to him. He wanted their lives – and deaths – to seed what changes he feels must now come next.

A year later, I would look up the origin of plants in the Oxford English Dictionary, and instead stumble on a lesser-known meaning of plastic. For biologists, plastic refers to a species that responds quickly to environmental change, one capable of rapid evolution and self-preservation. Many species of plants exhibit adaptive plasticity, I’m told by the botanist Chris Martine.
Plasticity could well be the ironic answer to the environmental dilemmas we face after more than a century of petrochemistry: to be more plastic and willing to evolve as conditions change.
And while I still don’t understand how factories came to be plants, I’ve come to believe that manufacturing plants ought at least to live up to their name. This is the position taken by industrial ecologists, who over the past quarter-century have argued that industrial systems must acknowledge that plants are members of a biotic community, in constant, mutual exchange with all cycles, systems and living beings around it.
My colleagues in environmental sociology debate whether or not production systems can ever be benign. Standing at the memorial that afternoon with my father – where our every step scattered dandelion seeds – I wasn’t particularly optimistic, but I desperately wanted something to root for.
My father reaches into his back pocket to pull out a handkerchief. He wipes my eyes before his. We know there can’t be closure. We stay there, side-by-side, before climbing back into the car to follow the river to the sea.

Plastics pose a problem in waterways. Could chemical recycling be a solution?

By Will Atwater

On a cloudy Saturday morning this past September, Emily Sutton ventured out into Durham’s Third Fork Creek in her waders. Standing in the creek’s waist-high murky water, Sutton, using a canoe paddle, began pushing plastic waste and other litter toward volunteers who, also in the water, placed the debris into trash bags.

Since January, Sutton, the Haw River riverkeeper, and other riverkeepers across the state have been conducting bi-weekly cleanups in urban waterways. Sutton said this effort is funded through an environmental enhancement grant and is administered through the North Carolina Department of Justice, which, she said, provided one trash-catching trap for each of the state’s 15 watersheds. 

“All 15 of us will take samples upstream and downstream of one watershed, and most of us are looking at an urban watershed,” she said.”We can get upstream samples from a location that’s not so heavily impacted by the urban development, and then the same creek downstream, we’ll get microplastic samples, so we can really understand what the loading is from an urban area.”

Meanwhile, Nancy Lauer, staff scientist with the Duke Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, was standing on the bank, sorting the waste particles Sutton and the volunteers pulled from the water.

“You can’t go to an urban stream and find a clean stream,” Lauer said. “It’s pretty remarkable.”

Plastics began being mass produced in the 1950s. Since that time, the material has become a fixture in everyday life — it’s in the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the food and beverage and prescription drug containers we bring home, as well as the communication and entertainment devices we use, among other things. 

“More than 70 years of innovation and this exceptional class of materials has brought really unprecedented societal advancement … We simply cannot live without plastics in the year 2022,” said Kara Lavender Law, research professor of oceanography with the Sea Education Association. “However, as we all know, this has come at a cost, and that’s a concept we’re only now beginning seriously to address.”

There will likely be multiple ways to address those costs. One recent insight comes from looking at chemical recycling using bioengineered organisms to break plastic compounds down to their original components. Researchers say that could provide a road map for how to address the mixed-use plastic recycling issue, which each year leads to millions of metric tons of plastic waste in landfills instead of recycling centers.

It’s raining plastic

Law made her comments about the costs of plastics as the keynote speaker during a recent webinar called “A Global Look at Plastic in the Ocean.”

Currently, the U.S. does not have a recycling system robust enough to deal with a constant stream of single-use plastics, commonly used to package consumer and household items such as bottled water, liquid detergents, perishable foods and countless other items.

Plastic waste not properly recycled often ends up in landfills and waterways, and ultimately in the ocean. Annually, 8 billion metric tons of plastic waste reaches the ocean By the time that waste reaches the open water it is often degraded and worn down into microplastics, particles about 5 millimeters, smaller than a pea.

Those microplastics are consumed by marine life. They’re not the only ones: researchers have found that, on average, humans consume roughly 5 grams, or about a credit-card size amount of microplastics each week. 

According to a study published in 2021 by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), currently, there are no direct links between plastic/microplastic ingestion by humans and specific negative health outcomes. But some studies “suggest that effects of microplastics could include provoking immune and stress responses and inducing reproductive and developmental toxicity.”

In 2019, U.S. plastic production equaled more than 121 billion pounds, according to data provided by Statista, a consulting firm that compiles consumer and marketing data. Seventy years of plastic production and consumer consumption has generated hundreds of millions of tons of plastic waste over the years. 

The U.S. contributed between a half million to 1.5 million tons of plastic waste to the coastal environment in 2016, according to Law. In the same year, the U.S. generated more plastic waste than any other country (42 million metric tons). Between 2.33 and 2.99 percent of plastic waste produced was “mismanaged,” which could mean that it was littered, illegally dumped or not recycled properly. 

In the U.S., plastic currently accounts for roughly 12 percent of municipal solid waste. What’s more, only 5 percent of U.S. plastic waste was recycled in 2021. 

Tracking plastic waste in NC waterways

Since 2021, North Carolina waterkeepers and environmental organizations have been documenting the amount, type and size of plastic debris that they remove from waterways across the state. 

Lauer partnered with Sutton to document debris removed from Durham’s Third Fork Creek. According to Lauer, from June to September 2022, 6,533 pieces of waste were collected. Eighty-five percent of the waste was Styrofoam, plastic bottles accounted for 5 percent, and the remaining 10 percent was a mixture of items such as food wrappers, plastic lids and caps, cigarette butts, and glass bottles.  

From November 2021 until September 2022, Asheville GreenWorks, a Buncombe County-based environmental organization that works with communities to create a “community-led” response to environmental issues, removed more than 10,000 pounds of debris (much of it plastic and microplastic waste) from eight creeks across Buncombe, Henderson and Madison counties, according to Eric Bradford, director of operations. 

Cape Fear River Watch (CFRW) and the Haw River Assembly are two Waterkeepers Carolina organizations that have installed trash “trouts’ — devices made of metal fencing anchored to the bank that trap debris floating on the water. They’ve put them in selected waterways and documented the debris collected during volunteer cleanup events.

Rob Clark, CFRW’s water quality program director, reported data from three trash collection dates between mid-August and mid-September 2022: 537 items were collected — 99 percent was plastic waste, Styrofoam made up 76 percent of the debris.

The three organizations’ combined totals equaled more than 17,000 pounds of solid waste. Plastic waste accounted for the majority of materials, with Styrofoam representing the most commonly found plastic waste material.

Solving the mixed-use plastic issue

Many environmentalists and research scientists argue that the only way to address the spiraling plastic waste problem is by enacting policies that force manufacturers to halt or at least require that all single-use plastic manufacturing must be recyclable.

In an email, Lauer noted in previous “urban stream” cleanups that did not involve trash trouts, “We found a lot more plastic bags, food wrappers, glass bottles, broken glass pieces and metal drink cans … ” She added, “What I’m observing is that those items tend to fill up with sediment and/or get snagged on the banks. So that stuff is all ending up in urban streams too, but it’s not flowing downstream as effectively as Styrofoam and plastic bottles do.”

Currently, much of the plastic material that finds its way into your home is not recyclable, and the pieces that are recycled are often mixed together, which requires sorting when the materials reach the recycling facility. Sorting can be a costly process for the business to separate plastics “by resin type.” As a result, this may not happen, which means plastic materials end up in the landfill, subverting recyclers’ good intentions.

But according to a recent study, there may be a process by which all single-use plastics, regardless of resin type — even sediment-laden plastic containers retrieved from waterways — could be recycled and reduced down to the basic building blocks of plastic and reformed into a viable container. This process would, in theory, reduce the cost associated with separating mixed plastics by the recycler and make recycling more financially lucrative, the researchers say.

The chemical recycling process could also reduce the amount of virgin plastic needed to be produced each year as well as address the problem of what to do about Styrofoam and glass and plastic bottles that, like the ones pulled from Third Fork, have to be thrown away because they are too dirty to be recycled. 

“If you’ve been participating in these river cleanups or whatever, you’ll see some plastics that may be really brittle after a while, or yellowed, or something,” Sullivan said. “It’s reacting with oxygen in the environment and that usually takes a really, really long time to happen, but eventually, it will break down.” 

“What we’re really doing with this process is accelerating that reaction with oxygen, and we use that when we use the metal catalysts that are described in the paper. And they essentially just facilitate the reaction of the oxygen with the plastic to make it break down much, much faster. You know, instead of taking hundreds of years, it takes a couple hours … That’s the general idea.”

Werner draws a distinction between their approach and other forms of chemical recycling which, she says, involves transforming an existing product into a recycled one of lesser value.

“We’re actually taking the waste mixed plastics, and creating something of a higher value,” she said.  “And so that’s why we call it upcycling because we’ve taken the plastics to their molecular building blocks, we can build them back up into something of higher value.
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This form of chemical recycling involves pairing the oxidation process with bioengineered organisms, which helps complete the task of reducing plastic polymers back down to a monomer (its basic form) so that it can be upcycled into a high-value product.

‘Treating the symptom, not the cause’

Many environmentalists push back on chemical recycling as a potentially expensive approach to dealing with plastic waste, which takes the responsibility off the manufacturers, who, they say, should be required to solve the problem that they created. Some are also concerned that the use of bioengineered organisms could pose an environmental risk if they were to escape the lab setting.

“I think that chemical recycling is treating the symptom and not the problem,” Sutton said. “With any pollution issue, we really want to get to the source. So it’s not downstream, even hypothetically, or figuratively [speaking]. In this situation there’s always the source who really should be responsible for limiting [plastic waste], not these new industry chemical manufacturing facilities.”

Not to mention that plastics manufacturers have an economic disincentive to reduce the amount of materials they produce.

While University of North Carolina Department of Chemistry professor Frank Leibfarth, understands how environmentalists feel about the plastic waste issue, he sees value in a multi-angled approach to addressing the problem. 

“Plastic waste is a gigantic issue. We make enough plastic to fill a modern football stadium every day,” he said. “Making this more sustainable will require using every tool at our disposal. Plastic manufacturers should do their part … and hopefully we can get policies to enable that.” 

Leibfarth said putting more policies in place won’t solve the entire problem though. 

“We need new innovations in materials, recycling technology, and sorting technology on top of policy change,” he said.

Law believes we need an all-of-the-above approach to addressing the plastic waste problem. She believes the answer involves “making, using and consuming” fewer plastics, which can be achieved through “education, behavior change, new product delivery systems and legislation.” 
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A new, massive plastics plant in southwest Pennsylvania barely registers among voters

ALIQUIPPA, Pa.—From the tranquility of her garden in Beaver County, Pennsylvania, Terrie Baumgardner worries that her grandchildren will grow up without access to clean air, clean water and a safe space to play outdoors.

For decades, Beaver County’s economy has been dependent on polluting industries—first steel, and more recently natural gas drilling. Many longtime residents, who remember the prosperity brought by the steel industry, have welcomed the construction of a massive new Shell petrochemical plant and the politicians that support it. 

Baumgardner and other environmental activists are discouraged that local residents and politicians favor the continuation of fracking and the new mega plastics plant it has spawned, but they are not giving up their fight.

“People say that’s what we do in Beaver County—we trade our health for jobs,” Baumgardner said. “But it’s unfortunate, because it doesn’t have to be that way now.” 

A reluctant activist, Baumgardner first became involved in environmental issues in 2011, when she learned about the dangers posed by fracking. Concern for the environment and health of local residents led her to canvas for signatures in 2016 as Shell moved toward building the plastics plant.

Spanning nearly 800 acres along the Ohio River, the plant is expected to open later this year. The facility will convert fracked gas into 1.6 million metric tons of polyethylene per year. Polyethylene, made from ethane, a form of natural gas, is the key building block in numerous common plastic products—from food wrapping and trash bags to crates and bottles. 

Despite assurances from Shell that the facility will be safe for the surrounding community, environmental activists have warned that the plant will cause air and water pollution, and a protracted dependence on fracking.

Under Shell’s permit, the plant can release up to 159 tons of fine particulate matter and 522 tons of volatile organic compounds per year. Exposure to these emissions has been linked to issues in the brain, liver, kidney, heart and lungs. They have also been associated with miscarriages, birth defects and cancer. 

“They’re going to unload all of these toxic chemicals, hazardous air pollutants, volatile organic compounds and millions of tons of CO2 gas. What’s going to happen?” asked Bob Schmetzer,  a local councilman from nearby South Heights and a long-time spokesperson for Beaver County’s Marcellus Awareness Committee. He has opposed the plant since it was first proposed 10 years ago. 

Jack Manning, a Beaver County Commissioner, does not share these concerns. “I have great faith in the technology and in the competency of those that will be running the facility,” he said. “It’s a state-of-the-art, world-class facility.” 

Manning blamed people’s apprehension on unfair comparisons between the environmental impacts of the plant and those of the steel mills that used to occupy the area. “Those heavy particulates are a different type of pollution,” he said. 

Shell has assured residents of the safety of its plant. “At Shell, safety is our top priority in all we do and that includes being a good neighbor by communicating about plant activities that could cause concern if not expected,” Virginia Sanchez, a Shell spokesperson, said in a statement. “When we are in steady operations, it is our goal to have little to no negative impact on our neighbors as a result of our activities.”

For activists, these assurances do little to allay concerns. On a grassy hillside overlooking the massive complex, Schmetzer spoke with his friend and fellow activist, Carl Davidson. While the plant is not yet operational, the grinding sounds of industrial machinery and screeches of train cars disturbed the clear fall day.

Bob Schmetzer and Carl Davidson, standing above the petrochemical plant. Credit: Emma Ricketts

Davidson, a self-professed “solar, wind and thermal guy,” wore a Bernie cap and alluded to his youth as a student leader of the New Left movement in the 1960s. While he estimates that around one-third of residents were concerned about the plant’s potential impacts from the beginning, he expects this number to grow once it opens. “People are starting to see two things,” he said. “Number one, there is all kinds of pollution that they didn’t know about. And second, all the jobs that were promised aren’t real.” 

The plant sparked hope for a revival of economic prosperity in the area. However, now that construction is largely complete and thousands of workers have finished working on the site, the plant is expected to only employ about 600 people going forward, according to Shell.

While opponents wait anxiously for the plant to begin operations, they don’t think it will influence next week’s elections. The Shell plant has been a non-issue in the tight race for the 17th Congressional District in Beaver County between Democrat Chris Delluzio and Republican Jeremy Shaffer, both of whom support continued fracking. 

In the state’s closely watched U.S. Senate race between Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz, both of whom support fracking, the environment has barely come up in a nasty campaign focused on abortion rights.

Similarly, fracking and the environment have hardly been mentioned in the governor’s race between Democrat Josh Shapiro, the state’s attorney general, and Republican state Sen. Doug Mastriano, a Trump supporter and election denier. 

Beaver County, while only counting for 1.3 percent of the votes cast in any given election in Pennsylvania, is a bellwether, according to Professor Lara Putman of the University of Pittsburgh. “It is socio-demographically similar to counties that, collectively, make up about one-quarter of Pennsylvania’s population. So in that sense, when Beaver shifts other places are usually shifting as well,” she said.

Baumgardner called the political candidates’ silence “disheartening.” 

“I wish they would have the courage to speak up, to take a position and stick with it,” she said. 

However, she understands the political risks associated with taking an environmental stand in a community that believes its economic fortunes are tied directly to pollution. She just wishes this wasn’t still the case. “We have alternatives,” she said. “We just need our political leaders to embrace them and get serious about renewables and removing the subsidies on fossil fuels.”

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Plastic recycler urges government to help fill gap left by REDcycle's soft plastics recycling scheme

A plastic recycler says ambitious goals for recycling are being hampered by a lack of leadership from the federal government. Key points:REDcycle annouced the temporarily suspension of its soft plastic recycling scheme this weekA plastic recycler from WA says there needs to be more federal government leadership in the sectorEnvironment Minister Tanya Plibersek says she is working with retailers to address the stockpile of soft plasticsThis week, which is National Recycling Week, it was revealed REDcycle had temporarily suspended its soft plastics recycling scheme at supermarkets.The company was unable to pass on the materials to recycling partners for processing and had been storing it in warehouses.REDcycle provides a rare avenue for the recycling of soft plastics, which are often unable to be collected via verge-side recycling programs run by local governments.It is now advising people to put their soft plastics in their standard landfill rubbish bins.Narelle Kuppers is the founder of Precious Plastic Margaret River, which turns plastic lids into items including combs and surf board fins.She said the issues faced by REDcycle highlighted some of the challenges facing those in the industry.”It’s very difficult to recycle and make money from the items that we are processing,” she said.”I’m a bit shocked to be honest with you, because they’re the big guys — they’re the ones I thought were actually going to make it.”Industry, government has failed, expert saysSpeaking from the COP27 climate conference in Egypt, Curtin University sustainability professor Peter Newman said Australians wanted to do their part and recycle, but the infrastructure wasn’t there to help them.”This is devastating for all the people who recycle fastidiously,” he said.”We all need to do our bit, but industry has failed and probably, government has failed as well, in enabling this process.”We just can’t seem to get our act together in Australia to make this work.”Professor Newman said regulations were needed to make sure all plastic products were required to contain recycled plastic. 

Good eggs: Eggs can be used to filter microplastics and salt out of water, research finds | Euronews

Eggs can be used to filter microplastics and salt out of water, researchers have discovered.The humble egg is a staple at breakfast tables around the world.But it could prove an unlikely ally in the battle against plastic pollution, scientists at Princeton University have found.According to their ground-breaking new research, freeze dried and super-heated egg whites can remove salt and microplastics from seawater with 98 per cent and 99 per cent efficiency respectively.“The egg whites even worked if they were fried on the stove first, or whipped,” said Sehmus Ozden, first author on the paper published in Materials Today.How can scientists use egg whites to filter water?Egg whites are a complex system of almost pure protein.When they are freeze dried and heated to 900 degrees Celsius in an environment without oxygen, they form an interconnected structure of carbon strands and graphene sheets.This ‘aerogel’ structure acts like a very tightmesh sieve, sifting nasty microplastics or salt out of the water.You’ve got to break a few eggs to filter microplasticsThe scientists tried a number of different options before they got to eggs.Professor Craig Arnold – one of the researchers on the paper – found inspiration for the experiments during a lunchtime faculty meeting.”I was sitting there, staring at the bread in my sandwich,” he said.”And I thought to myself, this is exactly the kind of structure that we need.”The team initially tried to use bread mixed with carbon to filter microplastics. None of these methods worked very well, so the researchers kept removing ingredients.”We started with a more complex system, and we just kept reducing, reducing, reducing, until we got down to the core of what it was,” Arnold said,“It was the proteins in the egg whites that were leading to the structures that we needed.”Are egg whites a scalable solution to microplastic pollution?Microplastics – tiny particles of plastic up to 5mm long – are everywhere. According to a recent study, people inadvertently consume up to five grams of micro and nano-plastics every week.The phenomenon could have dangerous health implications.The tiny particles linger in human blood, lodge in the organs, and pollute foetuses. Emerging research suggests they may be able to induce carcinogenesis in cells, the process that triggers cancerous mutations.Eggs alone are not going to solve this problem – humans have produced more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic since the 1950s. But if the research group can refine the fabrication process, they could help with water purification on a larger scale.While store-bought eggs could form part of the solution, the researchers are also looking into producing synthetic proteins with the same filtering qualities.It could have significant benefits, Ozden says – not least being significantly cheaper than existing options.“Activated carbon is one of the cheapest materials used for water purification. We compared our results with activated carbon, and it’s much better,” he said.

Tanya Plibersek says Coles and Woolworths must ‘step up’ to fix plastic recycling crisis

Tanya Plibersek says Coles and Woolworths must ‘step up’ to fix plastic recycling crisis REDcycle collections stopping from Wednesday with factory fire and ‘downturns in market demand’ blamed Follow our Australia liveblog for the latest updates Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast Environment minister Tanya Plibersek has called …

Beaver County citizen scientists prepare to hold Shell to account

Clifford Lau sat low against the wind as Captain Evan Clark’s 16-foot skiff sped along the southern shoreline of the Ohio River. Beneath steely spires and a towering webwork of pipes, valves and flashing lights, an outfall came into view. A steady stream of water poured out of a pipe beneath Shell’s new petrochemical plant and onto a rocky shore encircled by an orange plastic buffer. 

As Clark steered the skiff closer on Oct. 27, an acrid scent wafted off of the river’s surface. “There it is,” said Clark, who had noticed the odor earlier that morning. “Can you smell it?” Orange and yellow leaves lapped against the hull as the small boat drifted to the edge of the outfall and Lau, a chemist, stood to prepare his equipment. 

“Oh yes,” Lau replied. They couldn’t be quite sure what it was. A solvent, perhaps? It warranted further investigation.

The chemist lifted the lid off of a large, clear plastic bucket and fixed a bag to a valve on the underside. He attached a tube to the top and extended it across the bow and toward the water’s surface. The bag began to inflate, capturing an air sample that would later be tested for contaminants.

In Beaver County, as Shell’s hulking petrochemical plant slowly scales toward full capacity, a growing network of local citizens is doggedly watching the facility. Among the communities surrounding the cracker plant, as it’s known, residents are organizing to keep tabs on their new industrial neighbor. Some are installing air monitors and cameras on their homes, and others are gathering samples from the water’s edge. Many are documenting their experiences and observations as the plant spurs changes to their neighborhoods.

Meet the team using bubbles to keep Amsterdam's rivers clean

SCENES shines a spotlight on youth around the world that are breaking down barriers and creating change. The character-driven short films will inspire and amaze, as these young change-makers tell their remarkable stories.Plastic was hailed as a miracle material that transformed our modern way of life. Designed by American scientists, driven by the desire to help solve all of society’s issues. Ironically, decades later, plastic is a global environmental issue damaging our ecosystem. The problem is widely known. Some people are doing their bit by decreasing plastic waste, using metal straws and opting for reusable groceries bags.An environmental ocean protection group in the Netherlands decided to take action and created The Great Bubble Barrier. This technology stops plastic trash before it can reach the ocean.The Gateway to the OceanAnne Marieke Eveleens co-founded The Great Bubble Barrier in 2019. The concept arose from a shared love of water and a desire to protect the environment. “The Great Bubble Barrier is a system that we place in rivers to prevent plastic that pollutes those rivers from flowing into the ocean,” Anne tells Scenes.Her co-founder Philip Ehrhorn expressed his dissatisfaction with the pollution issue and desire for a solution. “I spend a lot of time in and around the water. And inevitably, at some point, you’ll see plastic. And once you start seeing it, you’ll see it everywhere,” explains Philip.Ground-breaking TechnologyIn an effort to halt plastic waste, Philip invented a trash-catching technology. The team developed a system that catches plastic over rivers’ fu­ll width and depth.”The Bubble Barrier system is mainly composed of three components: the barrier curtain itself, the catchment system that collects the plastic, and then the waste compressor,” explains Phillip.While this system may seem complicated, Anne explains it is a simple concept using air bubbles to filter, trap and remove plastics from waterways.”Rivers and waterways are like the highways of plastic pollution. Most of the plastic in the ocean has travelled through rivers, and that’s why we want to stop it right there,” says Anne.Research and DevelopmentThe Plastic Soup Foundation, a non-profit marine conservation organisation, is working with The Great Bubble Barrier team to research plastic pollutants.According to Maria Westerbos, the organisation’s founder, this research is crucial to identifying the source of ocean pollution. “If you know what causes the pollution, you can act on it and stop it before it enters the water,” Maria tells Scenes. Surprising findsThe pollutants found in the ocean are often surprising, even to those who study them. “One example of a plastic item we commonly find is laminated restaurant menu cards,” says Philip. A less harmful alternative to plastic menu cards is paper. Replacing plastic with paper may seem strange from an environmental standpoint, but its impact can be profound.Often small plastic particles can cause enormous damage to ocean life. Philip explained to Scenes that his research helps inform people about contaminants that are easily avoidable.Maria at The Plastic Soup Foundation estimates that humans produce 500 billion kilos of plastic per year.Philip explains, “Once in the environment, it will stay there for years, probably centuries”.The plastic in the oceans is not just suffocating marine life but also affects humans. Recent studies by the University of Hull found microplastics inside human organs and bloodstreams.Anne explains that this crisis requires immediate action to save our oceans and humanity. “If we don’t stop it right now, we expect to have even more plastic in the ocean than fish by 2050,” she says. A Silver Bullet SolutionWhile The Bubble Barrier is an innovative, energy-efficient and non-invasive solution, Philip says there is no “single silver bullet solution” to solve this crisis.”It’s going to take years, and it’s going to take more than a bubble barrier system to solve the problem,” he explains.Next StepsThe Great Bubble Barrier is a significant first step towards confronting ocean plastic pollution. The team is working tirelessly to expand the reach of their technology. “Our ambition is to roll this out internationally, to start making more impact,” Philip tells Scenes.With plans to expand to Portugal, Germany and parts of Asia, the Great Bubble Barrier team hopes to end plastic pollution in oceans worldwide, one bubble at a time.

Coke is a sponsor of the Cop27 climate talks. Some activists aren’t happy

The decision to include Coca-Cola as a major sponsor of this year’s United Nations climate summit in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, has angered many climate activists, who cite a recent report that says the company’s production of plastics is increasing.The beverages giant, which was named the world’s leading polluter of plastics in 2021, has increased its use of new plastics since 2019 by 3 percent to 3.2 million tons, according to an annual report issued this month by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which has united 500 organizations in a “global commitment” to reduce plastic waste.Activists note that the majority of plastics are manufactured using fossil fuels like crude oil, coal and natural gases. The British government, which hosted the previous round of global climate talks last year in Glasgow, took a stricter approach to corporate responsibility issues, barring fossil fuel companies from sponsorship arrangements.A delegate from last year’s conference, Georgia Elliott-Smith, called to revoke Coke’s corporate sponsorship in an online petition, which garnered more than 238,000 signatures in the lead-up to the summit.“Plastic is suffocating our planet and, year after year, one company leads the pack of polluters — Coca-Cola,” Ms. Elliott-Smith wrote on the petition’s webpage.“Coca-Cola spends millions of dollars greenwashing their brand, making us believe that they are solving the problem,” she said, adding that “behind the scenes,” the company had “a long history of lobbying to delay and derail regulations that would prevent pollution, keeping us addicted to disposable plastic.”In an email, a Coca-Cola representative, who did not give their name, said the company shared the goal of eliminating  waste from the ocean and appreciated efforts to raise awareness about this challenge.“While we recognize that we have more work to do, we believe that effective climate solutions will require all of society to be involved including governments, civil society and the private sector,” the press officer said.The company says it plans to make its packaging recyclable worldwide by 2025, according to its Business & Environmental, Social and Governance Report, published last year. Coca-Cola also produced 900 prototype bottles in 2021 made almost entirely of plant-based plastic, excluding the cap and the label.But the progress report released by the MacArthur Foundation this month has cast doubt on its environmental ambitions, revealing that the target of shifting all packaging to reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging by 2025 will “almost certainly” not be met.“The report clearly shows that voluntary commitments from companies to address plastic pollution have failed,” said Graham Forbes, a global project leader focused on plastics at Greenpeace. “Instead of tackling the plastic pollution crisis, big brands like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Mars actually increased the amount of plastic they create since the EMF Global Commitment was launched in 2018.”

The climate argument for banning menthol cigarettes

Every year, about 4.5 trillion cigarette butts are discarded globally, making them the most littered item on Earth. Around 90 percent of cigarettes have filters made of a biobased plastic called cellulose acetate, which can take up to 14 years to decompose. Nevertheless, cigarette butts are still considered hazardous solid waste, even if they are thrown away properly.

In recent years, non-menthol cigarettes have become less prevalent, but menthol cigarette use did not decrease nor change significantly. As a result, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently proposed a ban on menthol in cigarettes and other characterizing flavors other than tobacco in cigars to reduce cigarette use, pushing menthol cigarette users to stop smoking.

A menthol ban such as this may minimize health disparities since vulnerable populations have a higher tendency to use menthol cigarettes. Almost 40 percent of smokers across the country prefer menthol over non-menthol cigarettes. Still, this preference is disproportionately high among Black people, socioeconomically disadvantaged populations, lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals, and those with mental health problems. Menthol cigarette use also persists among racial/ethnic minority youth.

Although the FDA intended to reduce disease and death from cigarette use, research shows that a menthol ban can also benefit the environment.

Fewer smokers mean less cigarette litter

According to a Tobacco Control letter, adopting the FDA’s menthol ban would offer substantial environmental benefits because it would reduce 3.8 billion cigarette litter annually.

This has already worked in Canada. The country started banning menthol cigarettes from 2015 to 2018, leading many smokers to quit. The authors used the quit rate from Canada’s menthol cigarette ban to estimate that a similar ban in the US can cause 1.3 million smokers to quit. They then multiplied it by 11.9, the average daily number of cigarettes smoked among US adult menthol smokers, and by 365 to get the yearly reduction of cigarettes smoked—5.8 billion.

[Related: Ocean plastic ‘vacuums’ are sucking up marine life along with trash.]

“We multiplied 5.8 billion total fewer cigarettes smoked per year after the ban by the published estimate that 65 percent of cigarettes are littered in the US,” says Lorraine V. Craig, dissemination manager of the International Tobacco Control (ITC) Policy Evaluation Project at the University of Waterloo in Canada who was involved in the study. “This resulted in our estimate that the proposed US menthol cigarette ban would lead to 3.8 billion fewer cigarettes being littered per year.”

If each cigarette butt weighs about 0.2 grams, 3.8 billion fewer cigarette butts off the streets and beaches will reduce 755,502 kilograms of waste every year. That is equivalent to the amount of plastic waste produced by about 7114 Americans yearly, given that the average American generates about 106.2 kilograms of plastic waste annually.

Tobacco harms the environment throughout its life cycle

Smoking cessation is known to lower the risk of premature death and cardiovascular diseases. Still, policies that reduce tobacco consumption won’t just bring down the public health and economic costs related to smoking. According to the authors, they may also reduce the environmental harm of tobacco across its entire life cycle.

Cigarettes pollute the land, water, and air during the growing and cultivation of tobacco, the production and use of cigarettes, and the discarding of packaging and cigarette butts, says Craig. About 600 million trees are chopped down to clear land for tobacco crops, and 24 billion tons of water are required to make cigarettes. Meanwhile, the production and consumption of tobacco contribute 84 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year.

“Carcinogenic chemicals and toxic heavy metals such as lead and arsenic are commonly found in cigarettes and can leach into waterways and the soil,” says John Hocevar, director of the oceans campaign for Greenpeace USA, who was not involved in the study. “Once plastic microfibers [from filters] enter waterways, they act as magnets for polychlorinated biphenyls and other toxic chemicals, which bind to the fibers and make them even more dangerous.”

[Related: The FDA is prepping its biggest cigarette crackdown since the ’60s.]

Animals like whales, oysters, and corals may also ingest vast quantities of microplastics in the water. Not only will they suffer from the toxic chemicals, but they will also have a more challenging time meeting their nutritional needs, he adds.

“If cigarettes cause such widespread and multifaceted devastation to the environment, then tobacco control policies that reduce smoking would have a corresponding benefit to the environment by reducing that devastation,” says Craig.

Controlling cigarette use ultimately benefits the environment

Eliminating toxic chemicals in tobacco production would potentially make cigarette waste less harmful, but it would not keep plastic microfibers out of the environment, says Hocevar. Therefore, it’s best for the environment if governments can control cigarette use.

“The study calls attention to the problem of cigarette butts as a leading source of plastic pollution and the potential for menthol bans to reduce single-use plastics,” says Geoffrey T. Fong, principal investigator of the International Tobacco Control (ITC) Policy Evaluation Project at the University of Waterloo in Canada who was involved in the Tobacco Control study. 

Policymakers can reduce cigarette litter further by vigorously implementing tobacco control policies of the World Health Organization (WHO) Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, the global tobacco control treaty, says Fong. Countries bound by the treaty are obligated to implement measures to reduce tobacco use, like regulating the content of tobacco products, requiring the disclosure of ingredients, and placing prominent graphic health warnings on tobacco products.

Policy action to ban the sale of filtered cigarettes may also be an effective measure to reduce single-use plastic pollution, says Fong. 

“Any policy that reduces the number of smokers will lead to reductions in cigarette litter,” he adds. “It’s killing two birds with one stone. Or said in a different way, it is a win-win situation: strong tobacco control policies reduce smoking and reduce environmental damage.”