Texas should put communities first

Texas should put communities first

The fracking boom is driving environmental disasters like the Intercontinental Terminal Company (ITC) Deer Park petrochemical fire. The ITC fire isn’t the first such disaster, and so long as Texas government prioritizes oil and gas industry profits ahead of public health, it won’t be the last.

Facilities like ITC’s are proposed for the Gulf Coast and Appalachia, thanks to an overabundance of fracking byproducts like those stored in the tanks that caught fire. As the Houston Chronicle reported, “Whether these fracking byproducts are used to make plastics or nail polish, these chemicals are known to cause adverse health impacts to people.” As noted by Houston-based community justice champion TEJAS, and confirmed by the Centers for Disease Control, “symptoms of acute exposure to naphtha may include irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, headaches, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting. High exposures can cause lightheadedness and fatigue while repeated exposure may cause damage to the nervous system and kidneys. Xylene exposure at high levels can lead to irritation of eyes, nose and throat; cause difficulties breathing; problems with lungs; delayed reaction times; memory difficulties; stomach discomfort and possibly changes in liver and kidneys. It can cause unconsciousness and even death at high levels.”

The Center for International Environmental Law Plastics and Health report documents these same chemicals are found in air surrounding fracking sites, where nearby communities have reported similar health impacts.

For coastal communities like Deer Park, health impacts are coupled with climate change impacts. Recent studies by NASA and others link the global spike in methane — a climate pollutant 86 times more powerful than carbon dioxide — with oil and gas production. We don’t yet know the long-term health impacts from Hurricane Harvey, and with state and federal officials declining full disclosure of its environmental impacts, we may never know.

With petrochemical infrastructure on the rise, we can expect more “Deer Parks” and even more undocumented impacts to fence-line communities not located adjacent to a major metropolitan area. That’s partially because our state regulator, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ), protects the well-being of the oil and gas industry first, not Texas’ communities. TCEQ’s failures at ITC Deer Park, proven by its long list of unpunished environmental violations, suggest thousands more polluting facilities receiving the same (lack of) oversight.

The oil and gas industry is rapidly building petrochemical infrastructure to ensure continued fossil fuel dependency — as power and transportation electrify — just when we must make use of a very short window of opportunity to reduce greenhouse gases to prevent catastrophic climate change.

When will Texas start putting people over profit? Not yet. Next Wave Energy LP’s $600M Deer Park petrochemical facility was recently approved with tax incentives to boot, revenue that should benefit the community-at-risk is instead profiting the company. But state Sen. Judith Zaffirini has proposed a bill to help protect children from oil and gas production’s environmental risks. We need that enacted, but even if that happens (unlikely given our governor and legislative leaders), communities like Deer Park would be unprotected from petrochemical plants. To protect everyone we need comprehensive reform of state oil and gas oversight that puts Texas communities first. Soon thereafter, we need to transition to a renewable energy economy — the well-being of our neighbors, friends, families and future depends on it.

Priscilla Villa is the Houston-based South Texas Organizer at Earthworks. Article originally posted in Galvnews.


Nearly Half of Starbucks Shareholders Support As You Sow Proposal on Reusable Drinking Containers and Recycling Goals

Nearly Half of Starbucks Shareholders Support As You Sow Proposal on Reusable Drinking Containers and Recycling Goals


Media contact: Stefanie Spear, sspear@asyousow.org, 216-387-1609

Oakland, CA—March 27, 2019—Nearly half of Starbucks’ shareholders at the company’s annual general meeting last week supported an As You Sow resolution to develop aggressive plans to meet packaging reuse and recycling goals. The 44.5% vote in favor represents $21 billion of investor support, far exceeding a similar vote last year that received 29% support. It is the largest shareholder vote result in recent years on packaging and recycling issues.

The proposal asked the company to reinvigorate a previous commitment to serve 25% of beverages in reusable mugs, and to extend plans to recycle cups and other packaging in North American stores and parts of Western Europe to all locations globally.

Following last year’s vote, the company agreed to spend $10 million on an initiative to make its cups more recyclable and to ban plastic straws by 2020.

“This vote is especially striking as it is much higher than last year, even following actions taken on recyclable cups and banning plastic straws,” Conrad MacKerron, senior vice president, said. “The clear message from a near majority of shareholders is that the company’s actions to date weren’t enough, lag competitors, and do not present a comprehensive sustainable packaging policy.”

The vote comes as plastic pollution on land and water has risen dramatically in prominence as an environmental issue as new studies show far higher rates of plastic — about 8 million tons annually — ending up in oceans than previously believed. Without significant mitigation, by 2050 plastic could exceed fish by weight in oceans. Last year, the European Parliament voted to ban single use plastics items like straws, cups and plates. Starbucks now serves as many drinks in plastic cups as paper cups.

In 2008, Starbucks pledged that by 2015, it would serve 25% of beverages in reusable containers like ceramic mugs. Ten years later, less than 2% of beverages are served in reusable cups. The company also agreed to recycle all cups in North American stores by 2015. Today about 60% of North American stores have a recycling bin, but the company is not willing to disclose what percent of paper or plastic cups are actually recovered. It has no recycling commitments for stores in Asia where it has its fastest growth, opening a story in China every 15 hours.

Starbucks clearly lags competitors. McDonald’s Corp., retail premium coffee competitor with its growing McCafé coffee house style locations, made an industry-leading commitment last year to recycle all on-site packaging at all its locations globally by 2025. Starbucks has 3,300 locations in China alone with no recycling program.

The company continues to do piecemeal packaging sustainability efforts rather than develop a comprehensive policy. For example:

  • It has no recycled content in its Ethos® brand PET plastic water bottles, while many other major leading brands have long used recycled content.
  • No actions have been taken to encourage recycling of millions of paper cups provided to other quick service brands via its Seattle’s Best Coffee subsidiary used at 30,000 fast food locations.
  • It has no recovery goals for plastic, glass, and metal containers of Starbucks fast-growing ready-to-drink beverages sold in grocery and convenience stores.

For more information on As You Sow’s work on ocean plastics, click here.

My journey to unlearning and relearning the story of plastic pollution

My journey to unlearning and relearning the story of plastic pollution

Having lived in the Philippines all my life, I’ve grown accustomed to seeing plastic trash pretty much anywhere—from sidewalks and business districts to mountainsides and white sand beaches. It would annoy the heck out of me, and I’d grumble about how undisciplined people are and how parents aren’t raising their children right and how the government has failed us, et cetera, ad nauseam.

I always assumed that waste—especially plastic waste—is a fact of life and that it’s on us individuals and communities to manage waste properly.

Then, in recent years, zero waste fairs and shops started to gain popularity in Manila, and they were such a revelation! But while shampoo bars and bamboo toothbrushes are great, alternative products like these aren’t easily accessible, nor are they cheap. But I figured trying to be a more responsible consumer was the least I could do.

I joined #breakfreefromplastic earlier this year as the movement’s Community Engagement Manager, and that’s when I realized what a sweet summer child I am. 😂

Challenging preconceived notions

Talking to changemakers from around the world and immersing in the literature completely turned my worldview on its head. We as consumers are limited by what’s available and what we can afford. This means the onus should be on these powerful, multi-billion dollar corporations, often headquartered in the global north, to offer products that don’t force consumers to manage plastic waste that is unmanageable to begin with.

I realized I’d been looking at the problem the wrong way—specifically, from a waste management perspective rather than the product development side. Plastic pollution needs to be stopped at the source.

The real story

Corporations like Nestlé, Unilever, and Coca-Cola push out plastic waste at the onset of production. As soon as plastic containers get stuffed with powdered milk or a bar of soap in the factory, they’re doomed to wind up in landfills or waterways.

Then there are sachets—one-time use packets made of plastic and aluminum. In countries where many worry about their next meal, being able to buy instant coffee or shampoo in sachets is a big deal.

sachet plastic pollution

Sachets recovered during a GAIA brand audit in the Philippines © GAIA / Sherma Benosa

And this struggle is exactly what these corporations rely on. They continue to push sachets in countries like the Philippines that they know don’t have the infrastructure to manage waste properly. By depriving consumers of decent choices, corporations are compelling us to create more waste, which in turn, winds up in our own communities.

There are now all sorts of alternative packaging options and delivery systems emerging in different parts of the world, like container deposit programs, refill stations, and organic packaging materials. Corporations don’t lack the resources to explore these further; often, they just lack the will.

Consumers and communities can only do so much

Individuals and communities are not absolved of their responsibility. We still need to be responsible citizens by segregating trash, consuming less, and looking into the companies we choose to patronize, among other things.

At the same time, governments need to take the necessary steps to improve waste management. In fact, there are excellent examples of cities and communities going zero waste in different parts of the Philippines, such as San Fernando, Pampanga and Potrero, Malabon.

A materials recovery facility in Malabon City, Philippines © GAIA / Sherma Benosa

But research conducted by Philippines-based #breakfreefromplastic members Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA) and Mother Earth Foundation has shown that even when communities go zero waste, meaning, they divert waste from the landfill, they’re still left with a considerable amount of plastic pollution that can’t be composted or recycled.

What’s next?

BFFP members around the world are coming together to call B.S. on corporations’ “sustainability” programs and demand they practice the new three R’s:

  • Reveal the amount of plastic they produce each year
  • Reduce the number of plastic units they push out
  • Reinvent the way they deliver products

Greenpeace kicked things off this March with a ship tour in the Philippines and Europe to highlight the effects of plastic pollution and call for corporate responsibility. This was followed by the release of GAIA Asia Pacific’s report revealing top corporate polluters. And the Story of Stuff in the U.S. will soon release the fourth installment of their mini-documentary series, the Story of Plastic.

A plastic monster made of trash collected in the Philippines is showcased during the Greenpeace ship tour © Greenpeace

But it’s not just the big NGOs taking action; individuals are also doing their part. One BFFP member is letting Proctor & Gamble and Coca-Cola know he won’t be buying from them until they stop using plastic. Another has written to grocery stores about their use of plastic bags.   

Doing things on our own is undoubtedly daunting. But if there’s one thing I’ve taken away since joining the #breakfreefromplastic movement, it’s that there’s great power in taking collective action. If advocates and consumers around the world build enough pressure in the coming months, corporations will have no choice but to adapt.


We need a legally binding treaty to make plastic pollution history

We need a legally binding treaty to make plastic pollution history

A powerful marriage between the fossil fuel and plastic industries threatens to exacerbate the global plastic pollution crisis. The Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) estimates the next five years will see a 33-36% surge in global plastics production.

This will undermine all current efforts to manage plastic waste. It is time to stop trying (and failing) to bail out the bathtub. Instead, we need to turn off the tap.

The United Nations Environment Assembly (UNEA) has recognised plastic pollution as a “rapidly increasing serious issue of global concern that needs an urgent global response”. An expert group formed last year proposed an international treaty on plastic pollution as the most effective response.

Together with Giulia Carlini, at CIEL, I was part of a 30-strong group of non-governmental organisations within this expert group attending the UNEA summit this week to discuss how we can start making plastic pollution history.

Unfortunately, despite strong statements from developing countries, including the Pacific Island states, a small group of countries stalled negotiations. This effectively turns back the clock on ambitious global action, and leaves us more desperate than ever for a real solution to our plastic problem.

Why we need a treaty

The first step is to reject the many false solutions that pop up in our news feeds.

Recycling is one of those false solutions. The scale of plastic production is too big for recycling alone. Of all the plastics produced between 1950 and 2015, only 9% have been recycled. This figure is set to plummet as China and a growing number of developing countries are rejecting plastic waste from Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the world.

China had been a major destination for Australia and New Zealand’s recyclable waste. China’s shutdown meant Australia lost the market for a third of its plastic waste. It also left New Zealand with 400 tonnes of stockpiled plastic waste last year.

With limited domestic recycling facilities, Australia and New Zealand are seeking new markets. Last year, New Zealand sent about 250,000 tonnes of plastic to landfill, and a further 6,300 tonnes to Malaysia for recycling. But now Malaysia is also rejecting other countries’ hazardous plastic waste.

Sending our platic to Asia is not a solution. EPA/Diego AzubelCC BY-SA

Even if we manage to find new plastic recycling markets, there is another problem. Recycling is not as safe as you might think. Flame retardants and other toxins are added to many plastics, and these compounds find a second life when plastics are recycled into new products, including children’s toys.

Plastic-to-energy is a false solution

What about burning plastic waste to generate energy? Think again. Incineration is expensive, can take decades for investors to break even. It is the opposite of a “zero waste” approach and locks countries into a perpetual cycle of producing and importing waste to “feed the beast”. And incineration leaves a legacy of contaminated air, soil, and water.

Producing lower-grade materials from plastic waste (such as roads, fenceposts and park benches) is not the solution either. No matter where we put it, plastic doesn’t go away. It just breaks into ever smaller pieces with a greater potential for harm in airwatersoil and marine and freshwater ecosystems.

This is why researchers are paying more attention to the less visible hazards posed when micro (less than 5mm long) and nano (less than 100 nanometres long) sized plastics carry pathogens, invasive species and persistent organic pollutants. They have found that plastics can emit methane contributing to greenhouse gas emissions.

Tyres wear down into microplastics which find their way into the ocean. When plastics break down to nanoparticles, they are small enough to pass through cell walls. Our clothes release plastic microfibres into water from washing machines.

Plastic is truly global

Plastic pollution moves readily around the globe. It travels through trade, on winds, river and tidal flows, and in the guts of migrating birds and mammals. We don’t always know which toxic chemicals are in them, nor their recycled content. Plastic pollution can end up thousands of kilometres from the source.

This makes plastic pollution a matter of international concern. It cannot be solved solely within national borders or regions. A global, legally binding treaty with clear targets and standards is the real game-changer we urgently need.

The NGO component of UNEA’s expert group recognised an international treaty as the most effective response. The proposed treaty has the potential to capture the full life cycle of plastics by focusing on prevention, right at the top of the waste hierarchy.

The Zero Waste hierarchy. Zero Waste Europe

These solutions could include restricting the volume of new or “virgin” plastics in products, banning avoidable plastics (such as single-use plastic bags and straws), and curbing the use of toxic additives.

More than 90 civil society organisations around the world and a growing number of countries have indicated early support for a treaty. Australia and New Zealand have not.

Article originally posted in The Conversation.


Cebu: On the road to a plastic free future

Cebu: On the road to a plastic free future

Cebu is a major tourist destination in the Philippines. From January to June 2018, domestic and international tourist arrivals were recorded at 3.87 million and 1.89 million, respectively. With the influx of tourist comes the increase in consumption and, consequently, increase in waste generation particularly plastics. In 2017, the Provincial government allocated 40 million pesos for solid waste management. Meanwhile, Cebu City estimated a waste disposal cost of about PHP 300 million in 2017.

Recognizing the plastic waste problem, the Provincial Tourism and Environment and Natural Resources offices of Cebu partnered with Greenpeace for the Cebu leg of the Ship It Back Rainbow Warrior tour this March. The ship’s arrival was welcomed by the Cebuanos with a festive Sinulog dance and paddlers carrying a banner with the message, “Stop Single-Use Plastics.”

A few days prior to the arrival of the ship, the Cebu City Environment office organized a cleanup in 5 areas of the Lahug River. Greenpeace and Break Free From Plastic joined the activity, taking random sacks of waste from 3 of 5 stations to identify corporate polluters. The results were consistent with brand audits from the last two years with the biggest names in food, personal care and household cleaning products as the top corporate culprits with Unilever taking the lead at 17.79%, Procter & Gamble – 16.52%, Nestle – 11.53%, Universal Robina Corp. – 9.33%, Monde Nissin and Liwayway Marketing Corp. tied at 5th place with 7.46%. At 6th place was detergent brand, Gentle Supreme – 6.80%, followed by Prifood – 4.86%, MY San – 3.40%, Rebisco and JBC Food Corp. tied at 9th place with 2.20%, and PT Mayora Indah TBK of popular coffee brand, Kopiko at 2.00%.

A little boy helps identify brands

A little boy helps identify brands.

Representatives from the province and from Cebu City highlighted initiatives to curb plastic pollution. The Cebu City government, for example, bans the use of single-use plastics including bags, straws, cutlery, plates and other plastic utensils within the City Hall. In addition, the City enforces a ban on plastic bags every Wednesday and Saturday. A city ordinance is waiting to pass into law that would eventually ban plastic bags and other single-use plastics including cutlery, straw, and other utensils with a few exceptions.

Waiting for the Rainbow Warrior to dock.

At the arrival press conference of the Rainbow Warrior, The Cebu Provincial government issued a declaration for a plastic-free Cebu whereby it would be “adopting laws, ordinances and practices that do away with wasteful and polluting single-use plastic” and committing to promote and encourage the “implementation of zero-waste practices in households and workplaces, and supporting businesses that do the same.”

This is great news for Cebu if they can get the ordinances off the ground and establish systems that would encourage the shift to reusables, other alternative packaging materials and delivery systems. They should also be able to exert pressure on corporations to redesign products and packaging so that the need for single-use disposables is eliminated.

If their ambition is become a Zero Waste Province, then it should also reconsider its plan to invest in waste-burning technologies and other incinerators such as the Aquilini Mactan Renewable Energy, Inc. facility in the Cebu Light Industrial Park, Lapu Lapu City. This facility is a thermal oxidizer that allegedly processes 75 tons of garbage per day. Also, in January this year, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) received proposals for review of investments in “waste-to-energy” facilities, which are clearly burn technologies described as “furnaces” in interviews of some city officials.

Beau Baconguis and Capt. Pete Willcox.

Touring the campuses to talk about plastic pollution with Capt. Pete Willcox.

There are hopes for this tourism province to become a Zero Waste Province. They are already moving in the right direction with bans on plastic bags and other single-use disposables. They can do more by rejecting the sachet culture forced upon their people by corporations as well as the magic machines peddled by industry to deal with the waste.

Beau Baconguis is the Plastics Campaigner for GAIA Asia Pacific and the Regional Coordinator for Break Free From Plastic in Asia Pacific. 

WordPress Video Lightbox Plugin