Why Straw Bans Don’t Suck

Why Straw Bans Don’t Suck

Written by Priscilla Villa. Article originally posted here.

For the past couple months, the debate on plastic straw bans has been in the limelight, for reasons good and bad. Straws are one of the many single-use plastics — use once, then throw away — and according to the Global Survey by the Ocean Conservancy, are one of the top 10 items picked up by clean-up crews on beaches. Not to mention, the heartbreaking video of a turtle with a straw stuck in its nose illustrating how thoughtless daily use of a product can create havoc in our environment. On the other hand, the disabled community needs straws of some type, and others in the environmental community, wonder if straw bans are a distraction from more important fights. 

Earthworks has documented tremendous climate, public health and environmental impacts from oil, gas and petrochemical production, and plastics are a growing market for the oil and gas industry. Although cities like Seattle and companies like Starbucks, have promised to ditch plastic straws, given the pushback the straw ban strategy is encountering from people of good will, the question still remains, “Are plastic straw bans a real solution?” In short, lifestyle change alone is not enough; but can be an important first step towards system change. Here’s why.

Fracking has created a cheap and abundant supply of ethane, the source material for plastics. With 99% of all plastics coming from oil and gas, ditching plastics is a strategy to transition away from climate and health polluting fossil fuels. By 2050, the oil and gas industry plans to increase plastics production by ⅓. With the construction of 264 planned US plastics producing facilities, the oil and gas industry would spend $164 billion to produce 34 billion metric tons of plastics. These investments will lock in plastics production for decades and increase global dependency on plastics. So, while fracking creates plastics, plastics in turn is fueling fracking.

In general, straws aren’t a new concept to human culture. The earliest recording of straws dates back to 5,000 years ago! Rye straws were used in the early 1800s and by 1888, Marvin Chester Stone created the paper straw, the precursor to the plastic straw. The problem is that today, over 500 million plastics straws are used daily, all of which are thrown away after a single use.

Banning plastic straws and bags may seem like a drop in the bucket, unless we think of these types of corporate and government actions as first steps towards reduction in the demand for plastics production. Individual lifestyle changes are as important with plastics as they are with energy consumption; they help us walk our talk and they point the way towards lasting solutions.  Refusing that one straw stops one piece of plastic; Starbucks refusing a million straws goes further, and in the end, we need to reduce demand for single-use plastics, full stop. A managed decline from oil and gas production is going to have to include a just transition away from single-use plastics.

From oceans to climate change, the straw ban also starts a much needed conversation around our unnecessary dependence on plastics. As we told Starbucks’ CEO Kevin Johnson in an open letter this week, Starbucks needs to go much further than banning straws; the company needs to take action to reduce the amount of plastic in all of their products, eliminate problematic packaging altogether, and come up with a sustainable solution that is suitable for all. Earthworks is proud to stand with the Break Free From Plastics movement to transition  society at large away from all single-use plastics and reduce demand for oil, gas and petrochemical production.

Why Texas should ban plastic bags [Opinion]

Why Texas should ban plastic bags [Opinion]

The average length of time that a plastic bag is used is 12 minutes. Photo: Rich Pedroncelli, STF / Associated Press

Article by Rosanne Barone originally posted here.

There’s no question. Plastic pollution is a serious problem.

For decades, advocates have been alerting us to the floating gyres of trash out at sea and here on Galveston’s shores, where sea turtles ingest plastic bits and plastic bags clog their digestive tracts. These days you can’t go long without seeing the next viral photo of some horrifying intertwinement of animal and plastic debris posted alongside the countless solutions proposed to address the problem.

Consumers have long been encouraged to reduce, reuse and recycle their plastic. Recently, we’ve begun to hear about companies taking responsibility for the problem, too. Starbucks claims they will phase out plastic straws by 2020 and restaurants all over the world, including in Houston, are experimenting with alternatives to single-use plastics.

But when should government step in? And can government even do so in a state like Texas?

This question has come to a head in the last few weeks. A Texas Supreme Court decision found in late June that the City of Laredo’s ordinance to restrict plastic bags was invalid under Texas law, as are 10 similar ordinances in cities across Texas. Even so, Supreme Court justices Eva Guzman and Debra Lehrmann in a concurring opinion emphasized that not just protectors of marine life, but business owners like fishermen, boaters, cattle ranchers and cotton ginners know that plastic bag pollution is a big enough problem for lawmakers to start taking seriously.

Plastic bags litter Little White Oak Bayou in Woodland Park. Photo: Alan Krathaus

It’s easy to see how we got here. Chemists spent several decades at the beginning of the 20th century experimenting with the newly discovered polyethylene, a chemical component produced from natural gas and oil. In the 1950s, Swedish chemists discovered a stronger and more flexible plastic (HDPE) and patented the first manufactured thin-film plastic bag.

As soon as Mobil Chemical (now ExxonMobil) got wind of this invention, they obtained dozens of production patents, suppressing competition and producing their own bags by 1977. They quickly swept up the major grocery chains, and their customers, as lifelong partners.

But the proliferation of plastic bag use impacted a whole lot more than just the company’s bottom line. It changed our way of thinking to accept that using an item for a total of 12 minutes — the average time of a bag’s use — and then disposing of it is somehow OK.

This culture opened the floodgates for a whole lineage of single-use disposable plastics, and now it’s nearly impossible to avoid the plastic packaging that’s covering almost everything we want to buy.

Starbucks CEO Invited To See Where Strawless Lid Will Actually End Up

Starbucks CEO Invited To See Where Strawless Lid Will Actually End Up


Recyclers and Zero-Waste Advocates Debunk Starbucks’ Claims that New Lid Will Be “Recycled”

The #breakfreefromplastic global movement invites Starbucks CEO Kevin Thompson to see where Starbucks trash ends up: much of it across South East Asia.

In an effort to quell growing concerns about Starbucks wasteful packaging, the company just announced to much fanfare that it would phase out plastic straws and replace them with “recyclable” plastic lids. In fact, the same type of plastic Starbucks claims is “recyclable” is being sent to landfills across the nation, or shipped to countries like Malaysia or Vietnam– where it becomes pollution. “Starbucks’ claims about the ability of #5 plastics to be ‘widely recycled’ are bankrupt,” says Stiv Wilson, Director of Campaigns at the Story of Stuff Project. “This incredible attention to a single product isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it isn’t quite a good thing either if it doesn’t lead to broader, systemic change in how the world makes, uses, and disposes of the most ubiquitous material in commerce today—plastic,” he added.

As companies like Starbucks are increasingly under fire for their contribution to the plastic pollution crisis, they have primarily relied on recycling as the solution to their wasteful packaging, despite its many flaws. As a result, the US has been sending even larger quantities of “recyclable” plastic to China, causing the tremendous environmental damage that led the country to close its doors. Now the US has started sending its plastic waste to other countries in Asia, sparking these countries to enact similar bans and restrictions.

“Recycling alone is not going to solve the plastic pollution crisis,” said Greenpeace Plastics Campaigner Kate Melges. “In fact, relying on a recycling system that is failing in the U.S. and facing bans overseas will make the problem worse. To date, only 9% of all plastic ever made has been recycled. It is time for companies to move beyond flashy PR moves and start significantly reducing their production of plastic and investing in reuse alternatives.”

In many of the countries Starbuck has stores, there is little to no recycling infrastructure. Not only do Starbucks’ branded straws, hot cups, cold cups, and lids show up in beach cleanups, according to the global trash app, Litterati, Starbucks branded products are easily in the top three of brands identified globally if not number one.

With that in mind, the #breakfreefromplastic movement invites Starbucks CEO Kevin Johnson to visit the communities in Southeast Asia most impacted by the plastic waste created by companies headquartered in the global north.

“The type of plastic pollution we’re seeing in Southeast Asia are produced by global corporations headquartered in North America and Europe,” said Break Free From Plastic’s Global Coordinator Von Hernandez. “While these are the countries that are being blamed for plastic pollution, the ones that are really pushing production are companies located in the global north. They need to bear the responsibility for this waste.”

The deceptiveness of industry’s recycling pledges has hampered progress towards real solutions to the plastic crisis. Monica Wilson, Research and Policy Director at GAIA, states, “We call on Starbucks to be responsible for its own products and packaging and to stop pretending the plastic flooding the market is actually getting recycled.”

For press inquiries, please contact:

Shilpi Chhotray, #breakfreefromplastic, shilpi@breakfreefromplastic.org, 703-400-9986

Claire Arkin, GAIA, claire@no-burn.org, 510-883-9490 ext. 111

Perry Wheeler, Greenpeace, perry.wheeler@greenpeace.org, 301-675-8766

Hazardous chemicals and plastic packaging: what are the concerns?

Hazardous chemicals and plastic packaging: what are the concerns?

This blog was originally published by ChemTrust on their website and was written by Anna Watson on July 19, 2018

As CHEM Trust reported in May a collaboration of academic scientists and NGOs have been working together to identify the hazardous chemicals associated with plastic packaging. We reported that over 4000 chemicals have been identified that are potentially present in plastic packaging or used during its manufacture. At least 148 of these chemicals have been identified as hazardous to human health and/or the environment.

This week the “Chemicals associated with Plastic Packaging database” (CPPdb) has been published.This database lists the chemicals that are likely to be used in the manufacturing of plastic packaging and could be present in final packaging articles like a shampoo bottle, a wrapping of a take-away sandwich or a plastic wrapping for a toy.

The database also includes some non-intentionally added substances (NIAS). NIAS are chemicals present in the final plastic packaging as impurities or contaminants, or due to side reactions or degradation of the chemicals used to make the packaging.

The scientists faced considerable barriers when building the database, due to a lack of information concerning the use of chemicals in plastics manufacturing and the chemicals’ presence in final products, often caused by information not being publically accessible through standard search methods or not being accessible at all. In other instances, relevant information is simply not available, for example for many of the NIAS which have often not been fully identified.

Among the chemicals in the database 148 were ranked as the most hazardous to human health and/or the environment, based on EU harmonized toxicity classifications and other existing lists. 35 of the chemicals are regarded as endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), chemicals potentially causing adverse impacts on the hormone system. These included chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA) and a number of phthalates, whose use within Europe has been restricted in certain products due to their harmful properties.

The 148 most hazardous chemicals will probably not be a complete list, as harmonised toxicity classification data was not available for many of the other chemicals associated with plastic packaging.

Chemical uses

The hazardous chemicals identified are not only used as the main ingredient (monomer) to produce the plastic packaging but are also used for a range of functions from biocides to prevent moulds, flame retardants to increase fire resistance, plasticizers to increase flexibility, dyes, adhesives and others.

The full list of the chemicals identified is available here in the pre-publication paper.

Some chemical groups of concern

Hazardous Metals: A group of additives to plastics that consists of substances containing hazardous metals. Four of the heavy metals, cadmium, chromium(VI), lead and mercury, are considered to be highly hazardous to human health because they are carcinogens, can cause permanent changes to the genetic make-up of cells or they can have adverse effects on fertility and sexual function.

Bisphenols: Three Bisphenols are highlighted, BPA, bisphenol S and bisphenol F; these are used in the manufacture of clear polycarbonate plastic, as additives in rigid plastics and in the manufacture of other plastic-related materials, including the lining inside food and drink cans. These bisphenols are known EDCs, and a recent CHEM Trust report has highlighted the case for the use of the bisphenol group of chemicals to be restricted by regulators.

Phthalates: The study identifies 14 different hazardous phthalates, a group of chemicals that are used as plasticizers in plastics. The EU is currently finalising a restriction on the use of four phthalates that are used as plasticizers in plastic packaging, due to health worries associated with these chemicals. However, the proposed restriction does not prevent these chemicals being used as food contact materials.  CHEM Trust and the European Environmental Bureau has called for this to change. Phthalates are associated with a range of health effects on people including reproductive disruption and metabolic diseases such as obesity .

PFAS:  Two per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) are identified in the study. The stability of these chemicals, which makes their use attractive in plastic packaging, however, means they are extremely persistent in the environment and can accumulate in the food chain. One of the chemicals identified in the database, PFOA is listed on the European Chemical Agency’s list of substances of very high concern, due to its reproductive toxicity and environmental persistence. CHEM Trust has proposed that these chemicals are part of the European Human Biomonitoring Initiative (HBM4EU), which is coordinating and advancing the measurement of the presence of chemicals in the European population.


Dr Jane Muncke, The Managing Director, of the Food Packaging Forum said:

“During this project we have been able to identify 148 hazardous chemicals that are associated with plastic packaging. However, there is a substantial shortage of, and huge difficulty in getting hold of, information on how specific chemicals are used in which application, in what quantities and how much ends up in the finished plastic packaging.

Alongside this, even for chemicals for which hazards have been identified, there is a lack of harmonized toxicology information. Both of these issues need to be addressed urgently for the purpose of identifying and removing hazardous chemicals from plastic packaging to protect human health and the environment.”

Dr Michael Warhurst, Executive Director of CHEM Trust, said:

“This research has highlighted the range of chemicals that we could be exposed to from packaging. Many of them come from groups of related chemicals of concern such as bisphenols and phthalates.  Often one or two chemicals in a group have been banned or partially banned, but others are still in use.

Regulators and industry need to stop moving from one chemical to another within the same groups, and instead move to true safer alternatives.

This study also highlights how many problematic chemicals are potentially in use, which raises concerns about how many different chemicals we could be exposed to and the need to understand what could be the effects of these mixtures.”

Next steps

The study has been submitted to the peer-reviewed scientific journal Science of the Total Environment on July 13th, 2018.

Now that the project has identified a list of hazardous chemicals, work will continue to identify which of the chemicals should be prioritized to be substituted during the production of plastic packaging.

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