My readings have turned up some books that I simply have to share with you because they’re that good:
Under the Sky We Make by Kimberly Nicholas, PHD, Putnam, 2021.
The Story of More by Hope Jahren, Vintage, 2020.
Draw Down by Paul Hawken, Penguin Books, 2017.
Regeneration by Paul Hawken, Penguin Books, 2021.
Each of these authors, especially the first two, bring so much more than ugly data to the conversation on environmental issues. We CAN make a difference. They spell out in a VERY readable manner, the ways we can help. What we do and don’t do in the next decade have such far reaching impact on this planet as to make it difficult to fully comprehend. These authors put it into perspective for us in easy-to-understand analogies and anecdotes.
Perhaps most important is to not let our circumstances overwhelm us. Yes, we need to wake up and do our part! But we can only do what we can and encourage/be kind to ourselves and each other along the way.
This article appeared in Elephant Journal in 2019. Guess what? It’s still relevant and even more critical today! https://www.elephantjournal.com/2019/07/planet-over-plastic-challenge-2019/ (1). There’s plenty in this article for ALL of us. When I read this article, I realize there’s so much more that I can be doing with very little effort on my part. And while we’re at it, let’s not forget about H.R. 5389, the “Reduce Act” presently sitting in Congress today (link)! If you haven’t already done so, let your U.S. Congress Representative know you support taxing the production of virgin plastics. Cheers!
(1) elephant journal | daily blog, videos, e-newsletter & magazine on yoga + organics + green living + non-new agey spirituality + ecofashion + conscious consumerism=it’s about the mindful life. 2022. Planet Over Plastic 31-Day Challenge: Elephant’s Favorite Personal Weird Little Avoid-Plastic Tips. | elephant journal. [online] Available at: <https://www.elephantjournal.com/2019/07/planet-over-plastic-challenge-2019/> [Accessed 4 January 2022].
Worthy visions are all well and good, but without planning and doing, that vision has little chance of materializing. In the Men’s Group I attend weekly, our organizer posed this question to us as a topic teaser: “What has to happen before…?” In the case of plastics, MANY things need to happen before we can even begin to see a light at the end of the plastics tunnel. Here’s just a few:
It goes without saying that we need to find and purchase food that is packaged to minimize the use of plastics. The following chart from the above link to weforum.org underscores this big time:
The above pie chart of estimated plastic waste by industrial sector was prepared by Ed Cook, Emma Burlow, Edward Kosior, Bernie Thomas, Brian Riise and John Gysbers in article “Eliminating avoidable plastic waste by 2042: a use-based approach to decision and policy making.” and presented by “Resourcing the Future Partnership Steering Group”. The article was published in collaboration with Reuters 27 Oct 2021 by Adrian PortugalJournalist, Reuters.
My wife and I do a lot of our shopping at our local Safeway grocery stores. They’ve been working hard, as do many grocers these days, in trying to provide products that are sustainable and organic. That said, they recently took a WRONG TURN in the plastic packaging of many of their O Organics product line and it’s up to us to remind them.
Please note the following statement from O Organics, one of Safeway’s premier product lines:
“Why O Organics® ?
With O Organics®, you know that what you feed your family is actually good for them. Because all O Organics® products are USDA Certified Organic. They are made responsibly, sustainably and safely(my highlighting). They are always non-GMO, and grown without synthetic pesticides.
Dear fellow consumers: feeding your family microplastics is NOT good for them and pumping MORE plastics into our environment is NOT helpful. https://www.safeway.com/shop/lp/o-organics-organic.html is the home of O Organics. Please write to them and express your disdain for switching from paper containers to PLASTIC containers in many of their dairy products, e.g. Half and Half, Heavy Whipping Cream, etc. This switch happened just this year (2021)! They also have countless other products that are being sold in plastic that could be packaged in a more sustainable manner. We, as consumers, need to fight back or we will truly be even more awash in plastic.
Safeway is trying to do the right thing by going to a product line like O Organics. We LAUD their efforts to bring us higher quality products. Unfortunately, they’ve become distracted from their mission and it’s up to us to remind them that we DO care about our environment and the products we consume. Please go to https://www.safeway.com/shop/lp/o-organics-organic.html and at the bottom of the page, under Quick Links, click on “Contact Us”. Scroll down to the lower part of the next screen to the header ‘Contact Us’ and the right most of three boxes is a box “Other Ways To Contact Us“. Click on “Comments and Questions” and explain to them that their sustainable practices are going BACKWARDS instead of forwards in their packaging. This page also has addresses for Customer Support Center and Media Inquiries. ANYTHING you can do to help mitigate this senseless INCREASE in plastics will help. Your planet and your body THANK YOU!!!
OCEANA.ORG sent me a bone chilling email that I just found in my Inbox. Here’s an excerpt from that email:
“Every year, an estimated 33 billion pounds of plastic enter our oceans. That’s roughly the equivalent of dumping two garbage trucks full of plastic into the oceans every minute. It’s polluting our oceans, choking marine life, and breaking up into smaller microplastics that we’re all drinking, eating, and breathing.
Change is needed, and there’s no time to waste. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) and Rep. Tom Suozzi (N.Y.) recently introduced a bill in Congress that would put a fee on plastic polluters. The REDUCE Act would set a per pound fee on the sale of new, or virgin, plastic used for single-use products.
It’s time for Congress to hold plastic polluters accountable — but we need your help!
The plastic pollution crisis will only get worse if we don’t take action now to stop it at the source, Brian.
The plastics industry expects annual production will more than triple by 2050. The United States is an enormous contributor to this crisis — in fact, a 2020 study found that the U.S. generated more plastic waste than any other country. As plastic production continues to increase, so will the amount of plastic entering the ocean.
The REDUCE Act, if passed, will hold the plastics industry accountable for its pollution and help level the playing field between recycled plastic and new plastic. We need to seize this opportunity!
This “Reduce Act” is H.R. 5389 currently sitting in the House of Representatives.
OCEANA is right; we need to tell our members of Congress to ensure this bill moves forward. When the oceans go, we’re toast! If you were worried about the Amazon forest disappearing, be aware that even MORE oxygen is produced by phytoplankton than the Amazon forest. (According to https://www.allayer.net › amazon-rainforests-vs-phytoplankton, Phytoplankton produces anywhere from 50% – 85% of the world’s oxygen.)
Here’s a list of the organizations to whom I sent my brief article about Safeway packaging below. All of them are working hard to reduce plastics:
Now you understand why a simple thing like Safeway’s changing their packaging this year from paper to plastic for many of their dairy products can have such a significant impact. It’s moving in the WRONG direction. Please let Safeway know this is NOT acceptable (see the links in the blog entry “Consumer Alert!“). I want to believe they care about the future of this planet and the people living on it, and, as responsible members of our community, will work to preserve and protect both.
Globally, about 40% of plastics are used as packaging. Usually, packaging is meant for a single use, so there’s a quick turnaround to disposal. This packaging can be processed in three different ways: landfill, incineration, or recycling.
Waste incineration has the largest climate impact of the three options. According to the CIEL report, U.S. emissions from plastics incineration in 2015 were 5.9 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent. Based on projections from the World Energy Council, if plastics production and incineration increase as expected, greenhouse gas emissions will increase to 49 million metric tons by 2030 and 91 million metric tons by 2050.
The climate impact isn’t the only concern. Incineration facilities are disproportionately built near communities of color and low-income populations.
“Incineration is a massive environmental injustice – not just in the United States, but all over the world,” Arkin said. “The people who are subjected to the pollution from these incinerators often are the ones who are least responsible for the waste in the first place and have to bear the brunt of the impacts.”
Burning waste can release thousands of pollutants. Incinerator workers and people living near facilities are particularly at risk to exposures.
Landfilling has a much lower climate impact than incineration. But the placement of landfills can be associated with similar environmental injustices.
Recycling is a different beast with an entirely different set of problems. Compared to the low costs of virgin materials, recycled plastics are high cost with low commercial value. This makes recycling profitable only rarely, so it requires considerable government subsidies.
Research from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation suggests that only 2% of plastics are recycled into products with the same function. Another 8% are “downcycled” to something of lower quality. The rest is landfilled, leaked into the environment, or incinerated.
Recycling facilities also commonly receive low-quality materials. Wishful recycling makes people recycle items that they think should be recyclable but are actually not. This puts a huge responsibility on the recycling facilities to process and sort the waste.
For many years, the United States and many other Western countries sent a lot of their contaminated waste to China, transferring the responsibility of waste management. In 2018, China closed its doors to the West’s contaminated recycling. Rather than increasing domestic recycling capacity, the United States now sends the waste to other countries like Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam. But some of these countries have started to turn down Western recycling, too.
Recycling could be an important bridge on the way to waste reduction, but Arkin said the Western world needs to address its plastics addiction at the source. “We can’t recycle our way out of the plastic pollution crisis,” Arkin said. “There’s simply too much plastic – single-use plastic – being produced and consumed.”
When plastics enter the environment, they don’t stop polluting
After plastics have been used, people may dump them into the environment, sometimes purposefully and other times accidentally. Even if plastics go to a landfill, some are light enough to blow in the wind and enter waterways.
Plastics can break down into smaller pieces, called microplastics, through biodegradation or exposure to the sun, heat, or water. These microplastics scatter across the globe, even to the depths of the ocean. Toxic chemicals can bind to microplastics and create poison pills that aquatic animals eat. Plastics also harm animals through entanglement and ingestion at all levels of the food chain.
Sarah-Jeanne Royer at Scripps Institution of Oceanography has found that low-density polyethylene – one of the most common types of plastics found in the ocean – releases greenhouse gases as it breaks down in the environment.
But beyond the direct emissions from plastics in the environment, there’s another issue with microplastics. Historically, the ocean has sequestered 30-50% of carbon dioxide emissions from human-related activities. However, evidence suggests that plankton are ingesting ever-greater quantities of microplastics.
Researchers at the Ocean University of China found that microplastics reduced the growth of microalgae and the efficiency of photosynthesis. So producing more microplastics could degrade plankton’s ability to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
What is the solution?
For every phase of the plastics life cycle, there are ways to reduce emissions. But it may take systemic shifts to slow the growth of plastics production. For example, some advocate for using bio-based feedstocks to reduce emissions in the refining stage. According to 2018 analysis by Material Economics – a sustainability management consulting firm – using only zero-carbon energy sources, such as wind and solar, in the manufacturing phase would decrease overall emissions by 50%. That may not be enough to offset emissions associated with the rapid rise of plastics production.
When developing solutions, it’s important to think critically about the materials that will replace plastics. Authors of a 2011 study from the Environment Agency in the United Kingdom assessed the life cycle environmental impacts of different bags – such as paper, plastic, and cotton – used in U.K. grocery stores. Their study found that the key to reducing global warming impact is to reuse the bags as many times as possible. But the number of times the bag must be reused depends on the material it’s made from. The paper and cotton bags need to be reused three and 131 times respectively to ensure their global warming potential is lower than a typical plastic grocery bag.
Ultimately, cutting emissions associated with plastics may require an all-of-the-above strategy: reducing waste, retaining materials by refurbishing or remanufacturing, and recycling. Under this type of circular business model, authors of the CIEL report say carbon dioxide emissions would decrease by 62 million metric tons per year.
Brooke Bauman is an intern at YCC and a student at UNC-Chapel Hill studying environmental science, geography, and journalism.
Next time your office chair plastic floor mat needs replacing, consider using a more earth friendly solution that costs less and lasts longer. I bought a 4’ x 8’ sheet of 1/2” MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard (<$20)), had the retailer cut it in half – one for my wife and one for me. I rounded the corners, beveled the edges, and sealed it so it won’t stain or absorb moisture so readily. I then give it two coats of paint in a color that works for the location of the chair mat. Voila! Depending on what you use for a sealant and paint, you may wish to let it air out for a bit before installing it. The paint will probably deteriorate over time and use, and when it does, you can turn it over and you’ve a whole new side. So far, I’ve gone far longer than a year on the first side and VERY little wear has occurred. In the past, my plastic chair mats seldom lasted so long without cracks appearing, or worse.
I would not recommend burning this mat when the day finally comes – we have enough carbon hitting the atmosphere as it is (and I have no idea yet how long this mat can last because I anticipate being able to re-sand it, paint it again, and have yet another service cycle to enjoy). The half-life of this mat, when it comes time for disposal, whether whole or sawed into pieces, is certain to be WAY shorter than the plastics used in most office chair mats. You’ve just earned mega Eco-angel brownie point credits and saved some money at the same time.
If you don’t have the tools or the convenience of a place to fabricate the mat and happen to live on the North Coast of the Olympic Peninsula in WA, I may be able to make one for you. I qualify the location as they’re heavy (a 4×4 MDF chair mat weighs around 32 lbs.), even as plastic chair mats are heavy, and I’m still looking for ways to ship economically. For locals, I simply deliver in my truck. See ecochairmat.com for more information.😉