‘Disastrous’ plastic use in farming threatens food safety – UN Food and Agriculture Organization says most plastics are burned, buried or lost after use The “disastrous” way in which plastic is used in farming across the world is threatening food safety and potentially human health, according to a report from the UN’s Food and Agriculture …
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Plastic is ubiquitous, filling stores, overtopping landfills and littering shorelines.
It’s even within us, since residual plastic particles now lace air, water and food. While the hazards posed by microplastics are still emerging, an obvious peril has been hiding in plain sight: Plastic derives from fossil fuels, and worsens climate threats throughout its life cycle.
Look down a supermarket aisle lined with chip bags and soda bottles, and chances are you don’t visualize the flaring gas from a shale drilling operation. That might change if you read “The New Coal: Plastics and Climate Change.”
This report, commissioned by the Vermont-based nonprofit Beyond Plastics, highlights how much greenhouse gas pollution plastics emit — in fossil fuel extraction, manufacturing, incineration, landfills and long-term degradation (potentially spanning centuries).
Source: Center for International Environmental Law
Climate-disrupting emissions from the plastic industry could surpass those from coal production in the U.S. by 2030, the report warns. Given emissions from more than 130 existing facilities, new plants under construction and other industry sources, U.S. plastics could generate the carbon dioxide equivalent of 143 mid-sized coal-fired plants.
Yet policy makers and regulators have largely overlooked plastics. Maine’s 2020 Climate Action Plan, for example, holds virtually no mention of plastics, waste reduction, trash incineration or recycling.
“Massive blind spots in policy at local, state and federal levels have allowed plastics to go under the radar,” said Jim Vallette, president of Maine-based Material Research L3C and author of the recent report.
It’s time to bring plastic’s climate risks into clear view.
Just another form of fossil fuel
Greenhouse gas emissions from global plastics industries stand just behind those of the worst carbon-polluting nations: China, the U.S., India and Russia. At the recent U.N. Climate Summit in Glasgow, Scotland, multinational fossil fuel interests — which include petrochemical and plastics industries — had a stronger presence than any single country, with more than 500 industry representatives (whereas, the U.S. had 165 delegates).
Fossil fuel corporations are pivoting to plastic production to keep afloat, given the existential threat posed by dropping prices of renewable power and increasing electric vehicle adoption. Global plastics production is expected to double by 2040, becoming the biggest growth market for fossil fuel demand, the International Energy Agency (IEA) and BP both forecast.
U.S. plastic production draws primarily on ethane gas from hydraulically fractured shale, an abundant resource since the fracking boom that began in 2008. For the eastern U.S., the federal Department of Energy in 2018 projected a 20-fold increase in ethane production over 2013 levels by 2025.
Toxic manufacturing clusters
Following pipeline transport from fracked wells, ethane gas is steam-heated in “ethane cracker” plants until it breaks into new molecules, forming the ethylene used in plastic manufacturing. This energy-intensive process generates high levels of carbon dioxide, and pollutants such as volatile organic compounds and benzene.
Credit: Beyond Plastics
Most plastic manufacturing occurs near the Gulf of Mexico in Texas and along Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley,” a region notorious for its high and growing concentration of petrochemical plants.
The New Coal report found that more than 90 percent of climate pollution reported to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) by the plastics industry is released into 18 communities, noting that “people living within three miles of these petrochemical clusters earn 28 percent less than the average U.S. household and are 67 percent more likely to be people of color.”
The world’s largest ethane cracker plant, a joint venture between ExxonMobil and Saudi Arabia’s state-owned petroleum corporation, is nearing completion outside Portland, Texas. Sprawling across a 1,300-acre site, the plant lies less than two miles from area schools and in full view of a low-income housing complex. Communities have fought against these facilities but with limited success.
The myth of plastic recycling
Many of the ethane cracker plants being built will produce single-use plastics such as bottles, sachets and straws. Plastic items often bear recycling symbols, but few actually get recycled. The latest EPA data from 2018 indicates that fewer than 9 percent of plastics were recycled, while 17 percent were incinerated and 69 percent were landfilled.
At least 115 towns in Maine currently lack any recycling option, with all household waste either landfilled or incinerated. Maine has three municipal waste incinerators operating: in Portland, Auburn and Orrington. Each was built decades ago, when plastic represented roughly 10 percent of the waste stream. That figure has nearly doubled, Vallette said.
Higher plastic content adds to the carbon dioxide incinerators emit, and can introduce chemicals that are potent warming agents. Vallette has calculated that fluoropolymers, highly persistent PFAS resins used in wiring insulation, may have up to 10,000 times more potential for global warming than carbon dioxide.
Petrochemical corporations have misled consumers for decades by promoting plastic recycling while knowing it was not feasible. The industry also ran repeated ad campaigns to convince consumers that the problem was not with plastic itself, but with irresponsible litterbugs.
Changes in Maine, Oregon
Now consumers have caught on. States like Maine and Oregon are taking a new regulatory approach that holds producers responsible for the packaging they produce.
Maine’s pioneering Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) law will drastically cut the plastic industry’s “greenwashing capability,” observed Sarah Nichols, Sustainable Maine program director for the Natural Resources Council of Maine. “We’re going to finally get the data we need to make meaningful change. It’s a whole new system.”
Similar programs in other countries have increased recycling rates and reduced waste generation — two measures that could markedly cut Maine’s greenhouse gas emissions.
Maine has never met its statutory goal for recycling, set in 1989, of 50 percent. Today, only about 36 percent of waste is even collected for recycling (and the percentage getting recycled is likely much less). If the state met its original goal, Nichols estimates, the reduction in carbon pollution would be equivalent to taking roughly 166,000 passenger cars off the road.
Action at all levels — from local to global
“The inevitable, logical next step,” Vallette observed, “is to minimize plastic entering the waste stream.”
Purchasing less plastic, supporting retailers that offer bulk and refillable goods, instituting bans (like Maine’s recent one on single-use plastic bags) and holding producers to account through EPR laws should help. The state also needs to address plastics in the ongoing work of the Maine Climate Council, compensating for the notable absence of waste reduction targets in the 2020 Climate Action Plan.
A federal EPR bill, the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act, has garnered more than 100 co-sponsors already, but given the power of the plastics lobby, its passage is far from assured. Among Maine’s delegation, only U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree has cosponsored the legislation to date.
Congress must also reassess billions of dollars in federal subsidies going annually to the fossil fuel industry. According to a 2020 report by the research nonprofit Carbon Tracker, the global plastics industry receives $12 billion in subsidies annually while paying just $2 billion in taxes and racking up an estimated $350 billion a year in unpaid “externalities” — including marine debris, air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.
“In the next few years,” the IEA wrote in a report earlier this year, “all governments need to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies.”
I’ve long been fascinated with Thomas Midgley Jr. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, he was on his way to joining Thomas Edison and Benjamin Franklin as one of the GOATs of science and invention.Midgley’s two giant discoveries changed lives – in a good way to start, but then in tragic ways. He discovered that tetraethyl lead (TEL) eliminated engine knock, a scourge of early motorists. And his development of chlorofluorocarbon chemicals (CFC’s) as refrigerants revolutionized air conditioning and food storage.He was a science rock star, until we learned that the lead in TEL was a potent neurotoxin, impairing child brain development; and CFC’s were destroying Earth’s ozone layer.Oops. He’s not alone—all too often we “solve” health and environment problems only to learn we’ve created bigger ones.
Midgley never won a Nobel Prize, but Swiss chemist Paul Müller did in 1948. Müller resurrected a long-forgotten synthetic chemical compound, dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT. DDT showed a remarkable talent for eliminating some agricultural pests as well as human tormentors like lice and mosquitos. DDT is credited with enabling U.S. and Allied troops to drive Japan out of tropical forests in the Pacific.Scientist and author Rachel Carson exposed DDT’s other talent: Thinning birds’ eggshells, from tiny hummingbirds to raptors like the bald eagle. Bans in the U.S. (1972) and most other nations saved countless species from oblivion.
The peaceful atom
When nuclear weapons destroyed the Japan cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II, there was little public dissent among Americans. The prevailing argument was that the hundreds of thousands of Japanese citizens killed by the blasts would seem like small potatoes compared to the death toll from a land invasion.Into the 1950’s, the USSR strove to catch up to the U. S. Through the 1950s and the height of the Cold War, the “Peaceful Atom” became a civic goal. Atomic Energy Commission Chair Lewis L. Strauss saw a future with “electricity too cheap to meter”. The Eisenhower Administration proposed creating a deepwater port at Point Hope, Alaska, by nuking a crater in the Arctic Ocean.In the 1960’s and 1970’s, fervor to build nuclear power plants grew, then began to wane as concerns about costs, nuclear waste disposal, and safety grew. If the 1979 near-disaster at Three Mile Island chilled Wall Street’s interest in commercial nuclear power, the calamitous 1986 Chernobyl meltdown nearly finished it off.
Nuke power’s “carbon-free” status kept industry hopes alive for a bit. Then in the early 2000’s, with oil men George W. Bush and Dick Cheney at the helm, came a bold play by the oil and gas industry.Hydraulic fracturing — fracking – was a relatively new take on extracting natural gas from previously unreachable places. Fracking promised a “bridge fuel” that could wean Americans off dirtier fossil fuels en route to a clean energy future.So tempting was the bridge fuel pitch that the venerable Sierra Club took in an estimated $25 million from fracking giant Chesapeake Energy to help Sierra’s “Beyond Coal” campaign. Meanwhile, cheap fracked gas undercut both coal and nuclear in energy markets just as multiple trolls peeked out from beneath the bridge: Fracking’s huge climate impacts from methane releases and its rampant use of water and toxic chemicals.
But wait…there’s more!
Years of clogged landfills and trash-choked creeks highlight the worldwide failure of plastics recycling.Plastic packaging made life easier for all of us. And easier. And easier. According to the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), we now use 5 trillion single-use plastic bags per year. A tiny fraction are actually recycled. The rest find virtually indestructible homes in landfills or oceans. Or, with domestic plastics recycling waning, they’re shipped to the dwindling number of developing nations that will accept them.We’re failing to learn a century’s worth of lessons from Midgley to DDT to nukes to fracking to plastics. Maybe the least we can do is make sure our solutions actually solve things.
Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist and can be reached at email@example.com or @pdykstra.His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate, or publisher Environmental Health Sciences.Banner photo credit: OCG Saving The Ocean/Unsplash
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WE MAKE LOTS of programs about natural history, but the basis of all life is plants.” Sir David Attenborough is at Kew Gardens on a cloudy, overcast August day waiting to deliver his final piece to camera for his latest natural history epic, The Green Planet. Planes roar overhead, constantly interrupting filming, and he keeps putting his jacket on during pauses. “We ignore them because they don’t seem to do much, but they can be very vicious things,” he says. “Plants throttle one another, you know—they can move very fast, have all sorts of strange techniques to make sure that they can disperse themselves over a whole continent, have many ways of meeting so they can fertilize one another and we never actually see it happening.” He smiles. “But now we can.”Attenborough occupies a unique place in the world. Born on May 8, 1926, the year before television was invented, he is as close to a secular saint as we are likely to see, respected by scientists, entertainers, activists, politicians, and—hardest of all to please—kids and teenagers.In 2018, he was voted the most popular person in the UK in a YouGov poll. So many Chinese viewers downloaded Blue Planet II “that it temporarily slowed down the country’s internet,” according to the Sunday Times. In 2019, Attenborough’s series Our Planet became Netflix’s most-watched original documentary, viewed by 33 million people in its first month, and the NME reported that his appearance on Glastonbury’s Pyramid stage where he thanked the crowd for accepting the festival’s no-single-use-plastic policy attracted the weekend’s third-largest crowd after Stormzy and The Killers.On September 24, 2020, the 95-year-old broke the Guinness World Record for attracting 1 million followers just four hours and 44 minutes after he joined Instagram, beating the previous record holder, Jennifer Aniston, by over 30 minutes. His first post was a video clip where he set out his reasons for signing up. “The world is in trouble,” he explained, standing in front of a row of trees at dusk in a light blue shirt and emphasizing each point with a sorrowful shake of the head. “Continents are on fire, glaciers are melting, coral reefs are dying, fish are disappearing from our oceans. But we know what to do about it, and that’s why I’m tackling this new way, for me, of communication. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be explaining what the problems are and what we can do. Join me.”The public response was so overwhelming that he left the platform 27 posts and just over a month later, after being inundated with messages. He’s always tried to reply to every communication he receives and can just about manage the 70 snail-mail letters he gets every day. Wherever he appears—wherever his team at the BBC’s Natural History Unit point their lenses—hundreds of millions of people will be watching. And right now, in the year of COP26, The Green Planet hopes to do for plants what Attenborough has done for oceans and animals … create understanding and encourage us to care.The Green Planet, as is typical with all Attenborough/BBC Natural History Unit productions, contains a number of firsts—technical firsts, scientific firsts, and just a few never-before-seen firsts. But it also includes one great reprise. Attenborough is out in the field again for the first time since 2008’s Life in Cold Blood, traveling to rainforests and deserts and revisiting some places he passed through decades ago.Two moments stand out. In the first, Attenborough is explaining the biology of the seven-hour flower—Brazil’s Passion Flower, Passiflora mucronate, which opens around 1 am and closes again sometime between 7 am and 10 am. The white, long-stalked flower is pollinated by bats which gorge on its nectar, allowing pollen to brush on the bats’ heads. As Attenborough watches one flower open, a bat appears and flutters up to feed. Attenborough laughs with delight.Later, the series examines the creosote bush, one of the oldest living organisms on Earth at 12,000 years old. A desert dweller, it’s adapted to the harsh conditions by preserving energy and water through an incredibly slow rate of growth—1 millimeter a year. The team at the Natural History Unit used Attenborough’s long experience to illustrate something even the slowest time lapse camera would struggle to capture.“Sir David went to this particular desert and to a particular creosote bush when he did Life on Earth in 1979,” Mike Gunton, the BBC’s Natural History Unit’s creative director, explains. “We’ve gone back to exactly the same creosote bush and had David stand in exactly the same place and matched the shot from 1979 with the shot in 2019. So, we’ve used his human lifetime to illustrate how slowly this plant has grown. We’ve used the fact that he has traveled the world throughout his life on a number of occasions. He bears witness to the changes, and I think it’s rather lovely, actually.”For the rest of the footage the unit turned to what it does best—hacking brand new equipment and pushing it to extreme limits in a bid to film the previously unfilmable and bring the hidden aspects of the natural world to our screens.Previous firsts include the unit using the high-speed Phantom camera, which can shoot 2,000 frames per second, in 2012 to prove that a chameleon’s tongue isn’t sticky but muscular, wrapping itself around its prey rather than adhering to it. Or hacking the RED Epic Monochrome, a black-and-white camera with a sensor that can film 300 frames per second (an iPhone films at 25 frames per second), removing the cut-pass filter, which filters out infrared light from camera chips as it can blur color images. This added sensitivity to a night shoot in the Gobi Desert, allowing the third-ever filming of the long-eared jerboa, a rodent less than ten centimeters long and entirely nocturnal.Plants may seem less complicated—and less exciting—than a near-invisible nocturnal rodent in a vast Mongolian desert, but the unit’s approach intends to prove otherwise. The best place to show this is in a Devon farmhouse with a robot called Otto and a hunter-killer vine that’s slaughtering its prey.“We have cameras that can take a demonstration of a parasitic plant throttling another plant to death. It’s dramatic stuff,” Attenborough says gleefully.
Millions of tons of plastic waste end up in the ocean every year. Scientists are calling on the federal government to come up with a comprehensive policy to stop it.
NOEL KING, HOST:
The U.S. produces more plastic waste than any country in the world, and a new report from Congress says we have to rethink how we use plastic. Here’s NPR’s Lauren Sommer.
LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Every year, almost 10 million tons of plastic goes into the ocean. That’s like having a full garbage truck unloading its waste into the water every minute for an entire year.
KARA LAVENDER LAW: We’re really good at buying things and using them and making trash.
SOMMER: Kara Lavender Law is an oceanographer at the Sea Education Association and is an author of a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine about plastics in the ocean. She says plastic takes a huge toll on marine life, both because animals get trapped in it and because they eat it. Birds on Pacific Islands have been found with stomachs full of plastic bits.
LAW: We create these materials, and we need to be responsible for them through their end of life.
SOMMER: Law says their report calls on the U.S. to create a national plastic strategy by the end of next year. One part of the puzzle – recycling because most of us are doing aspirational recycling.
LAW: You know, you put something in the blue bin and you assume that it just magically turns into the next thing.
SOMMER: But in the U.S., only about 9% of plastic waste is recycled. The problem is that many items have several kinds of plastic in them, so they can’t be recycled or take a lot of work to separate, which makes it expensive. Winnie Lau, who works on plastics policy at the Pew Charitable Trusts, says there needs to be a bigger market for recycled plastic.
WINNIE LAU: Having governments and companies commit to using the recycled plastic will really go a long way.
SOMMER: Another key strategy – stop using plastic in the first place by switching to biodegradable materials. The American Chemistry Council, which represents plastics manufacturers, says that would lead to increased costs for consumers. Lau says recycling alone won’t solve the problem, and it’s getting more urgent.
LAU: Even a five-year delay would add about 100 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean over that five years.
SOMMER: But it’s not hopeless, she says. It will just take a national strategy where one has been lacking.
Lauren Sommer, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF IL:LO’S “A.ME”)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.
The North Pacific Subtropical Gyre, otherwise known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” is considered the world’s largest accumulation of ocean plastic. It’s so massive, in fact, that researchers found it has been colonized by species — hundreds of miles away from their natural home. The research, published in the journal Nature on Thursday, found that species usually confined to coastal areas — including crabs, mussels and barnacles — have latched onto, and unexpectedly survived on, massive patches of ocean plastic.
Neopelagic communities are composed of pelagic species, evolved to live on floating marine substrates and marine animals, and coastal species, once assumed incapable of surviving long periods of time on the high seas.
Illustrated by © 2021 Alex Boersma
Coastal species such as these were once thought incapable of surviving on the high seas for long periods of time. Only oceanic neuston, organisms that float or swim just below the ocean surface, have historically been found near these patches, as they thrive in open ocean.
But the mingling of the neuston and coastal species is “likely recent,” researchers said, and was caused largely because of the accumulation of “long-lived plastic rafts” that have been growing since the middle of the 20th century. Just by itself, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, located between California and Hawai’i, is estimated to have at least 79,000 tons of plastic within a 1.6 million-square-kilometer area, according to research published in 2018. There are at least four other similar patches throughout the world’s oceans. And the accumulation of ocean plastic is only anticipated to get worse. Researchers expect that plastic waste is going to “exponentially increase,” and by 2050, there will be 25,000 million metric tons of plastic waste. This new community, researchers said, “presents a paradigm shift” in the understanding of marine biogeography.
“The open ocean has long been considered a physical and biological barrier for dispersal of most coastal marine species, creating geographic boundaries and limiting distributions,” researchers said. “This situation no longer appears to be the case, as suitable habitat now exists in the open ocean and coastal organisms can both survive at sea for years and reproduce, leading to self-sustaining coastal communities on the high seas.”For lead author Linsey Haram, the research shows that physical harm to larger marine species should not be the only concern when it comes to pollution and plastic waste. “The issues of plastic go beyond just ingestion and entanglement,” Haram said in a statement. “It’s creating opportunities for coastal species’ biogeography to greatly expand beyond what we previously thought was possible.” But that expansion could come at a cost. “Coastal species are directly competing with these oceanic rafters,” Haram said. “They’re competing for space. They’re competing for resources. And those interactions are very poorly understood.”There is also a possibility that expansions of these plastic communities could cause problems with invasive species. A lot of plastic found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example, is debris from the 2011 Tohoku tsunami in Japan, which carried organisms from Japan to North America. Over time, researchers believe, these communities could act as reservoirs that will provide opportunities for coastal species to invade new ecosystems. There are still many questions researchers say need to be answered about these new plastic-living communities — like how common they are and if they can exist outside the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — but the discovery could change ocean ecosystems on a global scale, especially as climate change exacerbates the situation.
“Greater frequency and amounts of plastics on land, coupled with climate change-induced increases in coastal storm frequency ejecting more plastics into the ocean, will provide both more rafting material and coastal species inoculations, increasing the prevalence of the neopelagic community,” researchers said. “As a result, rafting events that were rare in the past could alter ocean ecosystems and change invasion dynamics on a global scale, furthering the urgent need to address the diverse and growing effects of plastic pollution on land and sea.”
“The developing plastic waste crisis has been building for decades,” the National Academy of Sciences study said, noting the world’s current predicament stems from years of technological advances. “The success of the 20th century miracle invention of plastics has also produced a global scale deluge of plastic waste seemingly everywhere we look.”The United States contributes more to this deluge than any other nation, according to the analysis, generating about 287 pounds of plastics per person. Overall, the United States produced 42 million metric tons of plastic waste in 2016 — almost twice as much as China, and more than the entire European Union combined.“The volume is astounding,” said Monterey Bay Aquarium’s chief conservation and science officer, Margaret Spring, who chaired the NAS committee, in an interview.The researchers estimated that between 1.13 million to 2.24 million metric tons of the United States’ plastic waste leak into the environment each year. About 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the ocean a year, and under the current trajectory that number could climb to 53 million by the end of the decade.That amount of waste would be the equivalent to “roughly half of the total weight of fish caught from the ocean annually,” the report said.Congress last year ordered the National Academy of Sciences study, which drew on expertise from American and Canadian institutions, when it passed Save Our Seas 2.0 in an effort to address plastic waste.“This report is a sobering reminder of the scale of this problem,” the legislation’s co-author, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), said in a statement. “The research and findings compiled here by our best scientists will serve as a springboard to our future legislative efforts to tackle this entirely solvable environmental challenge and better protect our marine ecosystems, fisheries, and coastal economies.”Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.), the law’s primary Democratic sponsor, said, “I look forward to working with colleagues on both sides of the aisle to keep making progress cleaning up this harmful mess.”Christy Leavitt, plastics campaign director for advocacy group Oceana, said in a statement that the findings show the extent of U.S. responsibility for a global problem.“We can no longer ignore the United States’ role in the plastic pollution crisis, one of the biggest environmental threats facing our oceans and our planet today,” she said. “The finger-pointing stops now.”Spring said that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency would be best positioned to develop a national strategy to curb plastic waste.“There’s more activity and testing of solutions at the state level as compared with other countries that are taking it at a national level,” she said. “Plastics and microplastics are ubiquitous in inland states too,” Spring said, referring to rivers, lakes and other waterways.“A lot of U.S. focus to date has been on the cleaning it up part,” said Spring. “There needs to be more attention to the creation of plastic.”The American Chemistry Council, a trade association, endorsed the idea of a national approach but said it opposed efforts to curtail the use of plastics in society.“Plastic is a valuable resource that should be kept in our economy and out of our environment,” said the group’s vice president of plastics, Joshua Baca, in a statement. “Unfortunately, the report also suggests restricting plastic production to reduce marine debris. This is misguided and would lead to supply chain disruptions.”The bipartisan oceans bill enacted last year also calls for a number of other analyses to be completed by the end of 2022, on topics ranging from the impacts of microfibers to derelict fishing gear.“You can’t just focus on one thing,” Spring said. “This really all has to be done with the end in mind, which is what is going to happen to this stuff when you’re finished with it.”
Walking from Mexico to Canada, I suppose, simply wasn’t tedious enough for me. So in late July, just as I reached the northern edge of California during a 2,653-mile thru-hike of the Pacific Crest Trail, I decided to start counting every single scrap of trash I created for an entire month. I carried it all for days on end in a disgusting Ziploc bag stuffed into my backpack—always gross, sometimes embarrassing, permanently revealing.
5 Rules to Reduce Waste on the Trail A thru-hiker’s best tips for decreasing your garbageRead More
For the first three months of my trek, I’d seen trashcans at almost every trailhead or convenience store my fellow Hiker Trash friends frequented, overflowing with our collective refuse. There were snapped trekking poles and overspent hiking shoes, empty pouches of dehydrated food and crumpled vestiges of instant coffee. The sheer quantity was impressive in a Mad Max prequel kind of way. How much stuff, I wondered, was I wasting?
So from Oregon’s enchanting Crater Lake to the faux Bavarian burg of Leavenworth, Washington, I catalogued every bit of my waste, chronicling each outgoing parcel in a single cellphone note that grew so long scanning it began to feel like a personal doomscroll. I trashed nine hummus containers and 30 Ziploc bags, two shoes and 34 cans of stove fuel, beer, and soda water. There were 17 ketchup packets, almost as much hot sauce, and one plastic pint of Southern Comfort. I discarded so many compostable coffee pouches that I could not compost that I now cannot bear to type the number.
On and on it went, from pizza boxes to joint containers, red pepper pouches to two garlic bulbs. By the start of September, I’d somehow discarded 686 separate items, or more than 20 each day. And those were only the ones I remembered to count during a month when I tried to curb my waste. That was less than a quarter of my hike, meaning I’d likely tossed an excess of 3,000 bits of junk overall, more than one per mile. I reached the Canadian border a week later, toting more than a twinge of guilt.
If we hikers, who live outdoors and ostensibly for it, aren’t obsessive stewards of shared resources, how can we expect anyone else to be? We must do better.
Like much of the outdoors industry, hiking has a waste problem. In our dauntless quests to achieve ultralight enlightenment, make four-day food carries less burdensome, or have the latest gear with the most Reddit cred, we have created a slash-and-burn superstructure, where the fulfillment of our goals or ideals trumps their environmental impacts. We purchase the tiniest portions of food. We bail on gear that isn’t perfect or, back home, stockpile things we never again need. We buy more than our bellies can handle in trail towns, gorging until we toss what remains. I confess to it all.
Much of this happens for the sake of convenience, for making a difficult endeavor that much easier. Some of it stems from a deference to apathy, since, as we often shrug, our footprint is so much smaller in the woods than when we’re back in “the real world.”
But if we hikers, who live outdoors and ostensibly for it, aren’t obsessive stewards of shared resources, how can we expect anyone else to be? We must do better. Good news: with a little inconvenience, expense, and planning, we can.
In the waning days of my experiment, I was delighted to learn about another PCT hiker who was paying even more attention to her trash—or, really, her near-complete lack of it. In mid-April, Ana Lucía departed the trail’s southern end, bound north with an unprecedented mission: to hike to Canada without generating any refuse. “Waste-Free PCT,” she dubbed it.
“For me, waste-free means trying not to have a lot going into landfills,” Lucía said in mid-September, less than a month before she reached the trail’s northern terminus. “It’s impossible to be 100 percent waste-free if you’re on a trail, but it’s about being more mindful of the trash you are producing and asking, ‘What can I do better?’”
A 26-year-old native of Mexico City, Lucía fell for hiking and environmental causes in tandem half a decade ago. After learning about the exploitation involved in unsustainable tropical palm oil production, she began changing her habits as a consumer. Vegetarianism and veganism soon followed, as did stints at animal-rehabilitation centers. After reading about “Plastic Free July,” a decade-old international movement involving a month-long pause on plastic, she decided to curb her overall waste dramatically, too.
Meanwhile, Lucía daydreamed about the PCT since she first saw Reese Witherspoon lug her overstuffed bag to the Bridge of the Gods at the end of Wild, soon after the movie’s 2014 release. For years, earning her psychology degree at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and a subsequent teaching stint put that ambition on hold. She decided to make her attempt at last in 2021, before beginning a doctorate program in neuroscience.
Ana Lucía in search of a composting coffee shop (Photo: Lucía)
Another obstacle appeared. She couldn’t find anyone who had documented such a waste-free long haul, let alone explained its pragmatic complications. On message boards and blogs, fellow hikers scoffed at the notion—too much work, they concurred, in a world that would go on making waste with or without her. Lucía was torn between hiking the PCT and trying to remain as waste-free as she had learned to become at home. “It felt like doing this dream meant having to renounce my values,” she said.
Rather than give up, she dug in, shaping schemes that would let her pursue both goals. She found a family friend in California who was willing to buy trail mix, peas, and gummy bears in bulk for six months and mail them to isolated trail towns. He even used compostable BioBags and paper tape. She emailed niche brands like Gossamer Gear and Katabatic to inquire about used packs and quilts they could sell her to assist the mission. (Both said yes.) She scoured Reddit boards in search of secondhand supplies, insisting on buying as little new as possible; when she couldn’t find the exact model she wanted, she settled for her second choice.
To offset the expenses of these impracticalities, she also launched a crowdfunding campaign, pledging 26 percent—that is, one percent for every 100 miles she intended to hike—of it to the Mexican Center for Environmental Law. “I wanted to balance out the impact of doing the trail and shipping these boxes by giving,” said Lucía. She ultimately raised more than $4,000.
Lucía couldn’t hike on bulk trail mixes alone. Same as other hikers, she wanted energy bars and dehydrated meals, simply housed in compostable packaging. She found one supplier for each: LivBar, a solar-powered vegan bar maker in Salem, Oregon, and Fernweh Food, a tiny startup in Portland, Oregon, that might just be making the best dehydrated meals on the market right now.
She hauled her used wrappers into trail towns, found coffee shops that composted their grounds, and asked if they would do the same for her packaging. In Northern California, where towns with coffee shops are either limited or very far from trail, she mailed her wrappers to Fernweh founder Ashley Lance back in Portland, reckoning the energy spent doing so meant less waste than throwing them away. Lance composted them in her backyard, then offered the same service to other hikers.
“If you were a guest in your friend’s house, you wouldn’t leave your trash everywhere. Taking care of the trail and making less waste is like paying rent.”
Both Lance and LivBar CEO Wade Brooks admitted to me that the battle to make compostable wrappers common is an uphill one. Brooks, for instance, repeatedly raved about a new machine that would allow LivBar to package its goods with less labor, eventually lowering the price point to be more competitive with the plastic-clad likes of Kind or Clif. Fernweh spends more than a dollar on every meal’s compostable label and wrapper. Despite a price point between $9.50 and $15, Lance still earns only 10 cents per bag.
But they both sensed a mutual momentum, a feeling that the behemoths were paying attention. “Small companies make a change, and big companies see that people are choosing them,” Lance said. “Those companies eventually acquire those habits in their own way.”
Lucía hoped her own journey would inspire similar shifts among hikers. Now that someone had done the work of figuring it out, she suggested, others could more easily follow. Future thru-hikers have already told her she altered the way they will plan their walks. She wondered if trail towns or the Pacific Crest Trail Association might someday install roadside compost or recycling stations.
“Nature is free. It’s not asking anything of you,” said Lucía, who rightly adopted the trail name “Eco” on the PCT. “If you were a guest in your friend’s house, you wouldn’t leave your trash everywhere. Taking care of the trail and making less waste is like paying rent.”
I am neither naïve nor conceited enough to think that hikers eating out of compostable wrappers or frequenting gear exchanges more often will make an appreciable difference in our ballooning environmental calamity. Among our society’s possible causes of death, the inability to find a composting center in some trail town of Southern Appalachia won’t rank at all.
Meanwhile, the picture just gets grimmer: A 2020 study published in Science estimated that the world dropped 5.3 million metric tons of plastic into the ocean in 2016, a number that could increase nearly sixfold in just two decades. The political ambitions of 52 U.S. Senators seem again poised to cripple long-overdue climate reform, even after the United Nations gathered again to fret over our folly. And Saudi Arabia now intends to convert an expired oil rig into an “extreme park,” a seabound monument to our collective ostrich effect.
Why should you care about tampons or toilet paper in the woods or how much plastic you route to landfills when that’s happening? Or when pipelines crisscross the Appalachian Trail and interstate systems, our country’s collective arteries of disposable goods, cleave the Pacific Crest Trail in pieces? I get it.
But in his rambling autobiography, Theodore Roosevelt—the problematic godhead of our public lands, with all their blessings and faults—gets to the essence of why this all matters, even when it’s frustrating or inconvenient or expensive. “The greatest happiness is the happiness that comes as a by-product of striving to do what must be done, even though sorrow is met in the doing,” he writes. He goes on to quote a friend who ran a mill just north of Damascus, Virginia, arguably the epicenter of Appalachian Trail culture for its legendary hiker hostels and annual Trail Days celebration: “Do what you can, with what you’ve got, where you are.”
I choose Roosevelt’s advice. I will find ways to reduce my environmental impact while on trail, though I know my efforts will cost me and will amount to less than a candle’s flicker in a consumerist gale.
I will mail myself bits of bulk toiletries. I will use Ziplocs or BioBags not until they look like a septic tank but instead until the seams split. I will lug a little extra food weight from one stop to the next if it means using a little less plastic and, gradually, reducing what I toss. And I will buy, as best I can, products from manufacturers that agree they can’t change everything but are at least, per Roosevelt, “striving to do what must be done.”
None of this will be perfect. But when I count my trash and scraps on the next trail, I want to feel empowered by what I have fixed, not embarrassed by what I ignored simply for the sake of convenience.