From plastic straws to a sea change for plastic

Written by Matt Prindiville. Article originally appeared here. Right now, we are all part of an interesting moment of change in our culture. In the span of a very short period of time, plastic straws have gone from a relatively accepted part of everyday existence to a niche-need product. As someone who works to end plastic pollution for a living, I’ve been getting a lot of questions as to how this happened and what it means. I want to begin by crediting my friends at the Plastic Pollution Coalition and Lonely Whale Foundation. Both groups realized that straws could be the “gateway drug” to get people hooked on taking greater action to solve plastic pollution. And the genius of what became the Strawless Ocean campaign is that the call to action was so simple: Next time you’re out at a restaurant or a bar, tell the server, "No straw, please." What this simple act of resistance does is that it starts a conversation — between you and the restaurant or bar, and also between you and everyone you’re with. Suddenly, the people you’re out with are confronted with a question — "Should I say 'no straw,' too?" Or they might say, "Oh, that’s interesting. Why no straw?" A conversation about plastic in our environment is teed up for everyone at the table. But if this action stops at straws, we won’t have accomplished very much. One of the core questions we and our friends in the plastic-pollution movement are asking is, "How do we turn this awareness and desire for action into truly transformative change that reshapes how we think about and use throwaway products and creates something better in its place?" If this action stops at straws, we won’t have accomplished very much. A couple of years ago, my friend Marcus Eriksen from the 5 Gyres Institute and I were having a conversation centered around this exact question. That conversation led us and several of our friends to author a report called the Better Alternatives Now List (BAN List), where we analyzed publicly available data from a number of sources to determine which plastic products were most widely found in the environment. We purposely did not look at microfibers from synthetic clothing, microbeads from cosmetic products, fishing gear or plastic dust abrading from tires. These are all significant sources of plastic pollution, but from our perspective, they are products that require technical design changes from industry, and not necessarily changes in the way we consume. When we looked at the data, what we found was that most products, not surprisingly, were convenience to-go food and beverage packaging. Here are the top 10: Food wrappers (candy, chips, etc.) Bottle caps Beverage bottles Plastic bags Straws and stirrers Lids Utensils Cigarette butts Take-out containers Cups and plates When you look at the data worldwide, you see pretty much the same types of products in the environment. The exception is that in Latin America, Africa, India and Southeast Asia, you also see a lot of single-serve personal care products and sundry items — shampoo, laundry detergent, dish detergent, etc — packaged in little plastic pouches commonly called sachets. Now, you can solve plastic pollution in the environment by switching out throwaway plastic for another throwaway product made from a different material, such as paper, for example. However, with this approach we’re often pursuing strategies that are "out of the frying pan, into the fire." For example, styrofoam container bans, which we support, often lead to restaurants substituting paper-based to-go containers, many of which are made with toxic Teflon-type chemicals that have been proven to cause harm. And throwaway paper products come with their own set of environmental problems — deforestation, carbon emissions from manufacture and transport, methane emissions from decomposing in landfills, etc. While substituting more sustainable materials for high-pollution plastic products is likely to be part of the solution for certain products, the real game-changer is figuring out how to get what we want without any disposable materials at all. Let’s imagine what this world might look like: Imagine that you walk into a coffee shop and realize you forgot your reusable mug, and right as you turn to your friend to complain about how hard it is to do the right thing, the person behind the counter says, "That’s OK. We’ve got reusable cups on deposit. That will be $1 extra and you can change it out for a clean mug at any coffee shop in town next time you need your caffeine fix." Or imagine that you’re taking lunch to go from your favorite restaurant to eat in the park. And as you wrestle with the guilt of of taking yet another throwaway to-go box, the person behind the counter hands you your food in a reusable to-go box and mentions there is a kiosk in the park where you can drop it off (or at any restaurant or grocery store in the city). Or imagine that you’ve ordered take-out from Seamless or GrubHub or a mealkit from Blue Apron, and the delivery driver hands you your food in reusable containers and says that they will pick them up next time you place an order. Now imagine that every airport, every mall, every theme park, every zoo, every university campus, every office building and corporate campus did the same thing — got rid of throwaway cups, lids, plates, cutlery, straws, bags, etc. So that everywhere you go, you are getting what you want without all the waste, in reusable systems that are created and run by business. The really great news is that this is happening right now. All over the world, businesses, college campuses and communities are saying no to disposable packaging and designing reusable systems that are convenient, sustainable and way more fun than the old throwaway model. Here’s just a few examples: In Switzerland, ReCircle is serving hundreds of to-go oriented restaurants with reusable containers. In Germany, cities such as Freiberg, Hamburg and Berlin have reusable coffee cups on deposit at cafes throughout each city. Companies such as CupClub, DishJoy and VesselWorks are creating reusable systems for coffee cups, dishware, to-go-containers and more, for businesses, campuses, office buildings and communities that want to ditch throwaway for reusable. In Portland, Oregon, and Durham, North Carolina, businesses and community members have developed reusable to-go container systems to serve restaurants and patrons. So, how do we replace the throwaway society with a culture of stewardship? We believe that there are important roles for communities, businesses and individuals.


From our perspective, the biggest opportunities for communities are to address grocery stores and retail, restaurants and institutional dining, and food delivery: Here's the low-hanging fruit: Plastic bag bans/disposable bag fees (including fees on disposable paper bags). Polystyrene (Styrofoam) container ban. Straws on request. From there, the next levels are: Bans on plastic cutlery, straws, stirrers. Requiring on-site dining to be reusable — no disposable plates, cups, cutlery for dining-in. Fees on to-go disposables — cups, to-go containers, primarily. Developing and marketing public water "hydration stations" (and ditching bottled water in community buildings). Most important: developing community-wide reusable systems for to-go cups and containers. Once the reusable system is in place, incorporate it into food-delivery. Institutions (universities, corporate campuses) and places of commerce (malls, airports, stadiums) are mini-communities and can follow the same kinds of policies to develop their own reusable systems. Because these are closed systems, the facilities managers have a lot of power to create rules for the vendors that operate on their campus or in their buildings.


Companies have the responsibility to identify their high-pollution products and begin taking steps to change. Businesses — especially grocers, retail and foodservice operations — also can take the same steps as communities and institutions (outlined above) either on their own, or in partnership with other businesses. Companies have the responsibility to identify their high-pollution products and begin taking steps to change. If your community hasn’t developed a reusable to-go system yet, you can deeply discount reusable containers and encourage your customers to bring them. You also can charge for disposables — and publicize that you’re doing so — in an effort to do the same. More important, you can get ahead of the curve and develop a reusable system for your own customers, test what works and be a model for the rest of the business community. For multinational corporations, the actions really break down by sector: Beverage industry — bottles and caps, six-pack holders. Beverage companies voluntarily should use existing technology to attach their bottle-caps to the bottles. They also could ensure that their products don’t end up in the environment by supporting state-level connect-the-cap and bottle-deposit legislation, which works remarkably well to ensure people recycle their plastic bottles. After deposits are in place, the real game-changer is figuring out how to bring refillables back as they do in many parts of the world. Personal care products and sundries — sachets. This is by no means an easy problem to solve, but for much of human history people got their sundries and personal care products in reusable containers. Reusable delivery systems that protect the integrity of the product, avoid contamination, provide for sales of affordable portions and allow for market competition may be one of the better ways to solve the ubiquitous problem of sachets in the environment. Consumer packaged goods — most wrapped convenience food packaging, such as food wrappers, chip bags, etc. This is probably the hardest one to tackle. Two tracks: Design change. Today, to my knowledge, no material besides plastic provides shelf-stable packaging for convenience food for the 12 to 18 months that vendors require of consumer packaged goods companies. There likely needs to be massive investment to design truly safe, biodegradable packaging (in ambient environmental conditions), yet maintain a shelf-stable consumable food product for 12 months. Culture change. There is no question consumers worldwide need to slowly wean ourselves off junk food and eat healthier. It’s possible we can start to do this by eating less packaged food on the go, emphasizing slowing down to enjoy healthy meals out, and to make healthier food at home. Big picture, business needs to start figuring out how to start kicking the plastic habit across the board. Because plastic pollution isn’t just about plastic in the ocean. It’s one long toxic supply chain that takes a massive toll on the environment and human health. From fracked natural gas wells contaminating drinking water; to pipelines scarring the landscape; to the sacrifice zones — especially among communities of color — in the Gulf South where petrochemicals are turned into plastic. We need to find better ways to deliver food and products without this kind of harm.


Bringing your own coffee cup and reusable water bottle are great first steps, but we believe the most important thing you can do is create demand for the changes in your community and with the businesses you support. That starts with a conversation. Just like with straws, every individual conversation about throwaway plastic can start more conversations, which can start more conversations which can change the world. If your community, school or workplace hasn’t yet begun to address throwaway plastic, begin a group — or join one — to start having conversations about how to get these policies adopted. Make sure to reach out to the businesses you frequent and start conversations with them. Better yet, do it with your friends and family. When we act in private, we can feel good about not contributing to the problem, but we don’t change the narrative. When we act visibly in our community and with our community — and foster conversations about doing things better — then we start to change the norms of what’s acceptable and what isn’t in our society. And that has the power to change the world more rapidly and more transformatively than anything else.


S.F. invites world to join in zero-waste initiative

San Francisco’s color-coded trash bins — the black, the blue and the green — marked a breakthrough in waste reduction when they hit the curbs nearly two decades ago.

Now, the pioneering program that encouraged residents to separate their recyclables and food scraps from their garbage is headed to a whole new level. City officials want people to generate no garbage at all, or at least as little as physically possible, and they’re asking the rest of the world to join their cause.

The ambitious zero-waste initiative, which would cut greenhouse gas emissions from landfills, will be promoted on the international stage next month when San Francisco hosts the Global Climate Action Summit.

The three-day event beginning Sept. 12, with such environmental notables as former Vice President Al Gore, chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall and actor Alec Baldwin, is all about encouraging climate action at the local level.

“This is a moment in time when the world is coming to San Francisco and thinking, ‘What do we need to do more of?’” said Deborah Raphael, director of the city’s Department of the Environment, which is spearheading the push for zero waste with Mayor London Breed and a handful of cities attending the summit. “The last thing we want is a lightweight commitment.”

The hope of the San Francisco summit is to advance the 2015 Paris agreement. Nearly 200 nations pledged three years ago to keep global temperatures from rising 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the point at which scientists expect catastrophic consequences from global warming, including more intense wildfires and higher seas.

The effort to hit the 2-degree mark, though, has gotten harder since President Trump last year vowed to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord. He’s since started reversing Obama-era policies designed to limit heat-trapping gases. The United States is responsible for about 17 percent of the world’s emissions.

Absent federal leadership, organizers of the San Francisco summit expect to roll out initiatives among cities, states and other subnational governments, as well as from businesses, with such climate goals as making buildings more energy efficient, increasing investment in environmentally friendly bonds and generating zero waste.

“Yes, I know President Trump is trying to get out of the Paris agreement, but he doesn’t speak for the rest of America,” said Gov. Jerry Brown in a recent plug for the summit, which he helped schedule. “We in California and states all across America believe it’s time to act, to join together.”

Silverware is wrapped in napkins at Ziggy’s, which replaced the disposable utensils previously used.
Photo: Lea Suzuki / The Chronicle

The no-waste initiative led by San Francisco remains, at this point, more of a vision than a doable goal. The city and its contractor Recology have vastly expanded the number of things that can be recycled or composted, successfully diverting more than 80 percent of the trash that otherwise would be sent to landfills. Yet many items inevitably end up at the dump.

And as perplexing as it is to deal with stubborn items like throwaway packaging of an online meal kit, city leaders are eager to develop new methods for getting difficult materials out of the waste stream.

“We can’t say just because it’s too big and hard we won’t keep at the journey,” Raphael said.

Waste reduction has long been viewed as a vital way to limit methane, a potent greenhouse gas that is produced when organic materials decompose. But waste experts say the climate benefits of recycling and composting go even further. Harder-to-measure gains come from reduced energy use when products are made from recycled materials instead of created from scratch and from composting food scraps, which enhance the ability of soil to store carbon.


‘Recyclable’ is a word, not a promise — most plastic goes to landfills

Only 9 percent of recyclable plastics end up at a recycling center and are recycled. Photo: Will Waldron / Albany (N.Y.) Times Union

Written by Monica Wilson. Article originally posted here.

It seems like every week, a corporation maligned for its role in the plastic pollution crisis comes out with some new recycling pledge, accompanied by fanfare and applause. Just last month, Starbucks announced that it will be phasing out plastic straws in favor of “recyclable” plastic lids (containing more plastic than the old straw-and-lid combo did). Earlier this year, Pepsi pledged to make its packaging 100 percent recyclable by 2025, and Unilever committed to making its packaging 100 percent recyclable, reusable or compostable. Sounds like a step in the right direction — right?

No. These announcements may sound great, but they look painfully naive in the face of the growing storm that is the global plastic recycling market. At the same time that the news is filled with these flashy industry recycling pledges, we are getting an increasingly frantic story from across the country and the world that our plastic simply isn’t getting recycled.

2017 study found that of all the plastic ever created, only a paltry 9 percent has been recycled, and the rest is clogging our streets, waterways, and has even made its way into our food systems. Beyond the fish on our plate, tiny pieces of plastic have been found in sea salt, honey, and even beer. Not to mention 94 percent of the United States’ drinking water.

For decades, brands have bankrolled flashy media campaigns to convince us that our switch to disposables over reusables was perfectly fine for the planet because we could just recycle them into new products. The ugly truth is that instead of dealing with the mounting piles of plastic waste enabled by this harmful mind-set, we sent much of it to China, burdening that country with the responsibility of land-filling or burning the large quantities that couldn’t be recycled. Now China has had enough, restricting imported waste in 2017 and imposing tariffs of 25 percent as of Aug. 23, and the West’s fantasy that its plastic waste was being taken care of elsewhere has come crashing down.

As of January 2018, cities across the country have had to break it to their citizens that the yogurt cups, takeout containers, and single-use cutlery that they were dutifully putting into the recyling bin were being sent straight to a landfill. Last month Waste Management, the largest waste company in America, announced that it would not be collecting plastics with codes #4 through #7 for recycling in Sacramento, making the Starbucks “sippy cup” lid just another disposable item destined for the landfill.

So where does that leave those lofty corporate “recyclability” goals? Most likely in the garbage with the rest of the plastic.

We can’t count on recycling to save us from the plastic pollution crisis, especially when the plastic industry is planning on increasing production in the next decade. Even if we were to miraculously find a way to recycle the millions of single-use throwaway plastic Starbucks cranks out every year, more and more plastic will overwhelm recycling systems and decimate the market.

As consumers, we must demand that these companies do more than give us the same-old “recycling will save the day” line, and take things into our own hands. Cities and states can be the first line of defense against plastic pollution through sound policy that minimizes waste instead of merely managing it.

As of now, food and beverage single-use disposables make up approximately 25 percent of all waste produced in California, gumming up recycling systems and clogging our landfills. Berkeley is tackling this problem head-on. A proposed ordinance from a coalition spearheaded by the city’s recycling provider, the Ecology Center, would mandate that all restaurants provide reusable foodware to customers dining in, and charge a small fee for takeout disposable foodware. Takeout items would need to be compostable or recyclable by local standards.

This is one of the most ambitious waste reduction policies in the country, and would force global chains like Starbucks and McDonald’s to limit their use of throwaway items and change packaging design. Imagine if cities across the country adopted the same measures. Companies like Starbucks would have to wake up and smell the coffee.

Plastic recycling has long been used as a crutch to justify industry’s ever-increasing production of single-use plastic. We need bold, innovative solutions to the plastic pollution crisis at the global level, not tired, recycled promises.

Monica Wilson is the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives’ policy and research coordinator and the associate director of GAIA’s U.S. office. She has been working on waste issues around the world for more than 15 years.


Taking the Greenwash route to fix the plastic crisis

This article is in response to the article titled “Are plastic alternatives a blessing or a curse” by Anton Hanekom, Executive Director of Plastics SA. The issue with plastic is evident for everyone to see: it fills our streets and waterways and now we know that plastic particles have entered our food systems too. So how do we address this issue? How can we prevent our families from ingesting toxic plastic during every meal? Certainly not through the continued production of plastic! Mr Hanekom makes a compelling argument that in South Africa recycling has saved tons of CO2 emissions and landfill, space but what he does not mention is that we are only recycling roughly 9% of the plastic that we are producing. So while recycling is doing some good, clearly we cannot recycle our way out of plastic pollution. It is pretty much an industry tactic to lead us to believe that despite the ever-increasing amount of plastic entering into our ecosystem, recycling is the answer. This provides a convenient excuse for industry to continue to churn out massive amounts of plastic packaging. We need to shift away from believing that recycling alone is the solution to this problem. The idea that people are to blame for plastic pollution was intentionally planted by the fast-moving consumer goods industry to protect their business model. While people do need to act responsibly and know how to manage their waste, companies that are producing this waste need to step up and take some accountability. If producers of plastic packaging were financially responsible for the full lifecycle of their products, it would be in their interest to design products that can be easily repaired or failing that, recycled. Instead industry pushes the blame onto the consumer, so they don’t have to foot the bill for the waste their products create. Phasing out single use plastic such as sachets, straws, and cutlery while implementing a separation at source programme would be the ideal start we need. We have to start taking a zero waste approach to waste management in our country. Packaging that cannot be reduced, reused or recycled should not be produced. Furthermore, we cannot change from plastic to another form of packaging and continue to ‘over package’ for this will result in a future crisis. Who has not been frustrated by the very many layers of plastic on one product? Mr Hanekom makes reference to the amount of jobs that the recycling sector creates. Waste pickers are an important part of our waste management system, sorting through waste in far from ideal conditions like landfill sites or in the streets. Although they are responsible for a large quantity of materials being diverted from landfill, we are investing very little in this key component of our waste management system , according to the South African Waste Pickers Association. The glut of new plastic in the marketplace kills the plastic recycling economy, along with the livelihoods of thousands of waste pickers. According to a report by GAIA titled “Recycling is Not Enough”, production of virgin plastic leads to low market prices, particularly as prices don’t factor in the externalities of plastic production, such as climate impacts, toxic chemicals in the production system, pollution from oil, coal and gas extraction and the health impact on society. Low virgin plastic prices outcompete recycled plastic, and there are no mechanisms in place to ensure manufacturers will use recycled plastic content in their products. In order to save our recycling economy, we simply need to stop making so much plastic. GAIA is the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, a network of organisations who believe in a just, Zero Waste world centered around respect for ecological limits and community rights, where burning and dumping is replaced with people-powered solutions. Niven Reddy is a Campaigner at groundWork who coordinates the African region for GAIA.


Defend the Defenders: Ellen Sue Gerhart needs our support!

Written by Ethan Buckner. Originally published in Earthworks website. Late last Friday afternoon, four officers with the Huntingdon County Sheriff’s Department arrested grandmother, retired teacher, and advocate Ellen Sue Gerhart on her own property – likely in retaliation for her tireless work to protect her family’s land and Pennsylvania’s waterways from Energy Transfer Partners’ Mariner East 2 pipeline. Ellen will be in court on Friday, August 3, facing a slew of charges that could lead to her being thrown in jail for six months with no trial. She is currently being held in solitary confinement and on hunger strike – even while incarcerated, she is taking every opportunity she has to draw attention back to the dangers of the Mariner East pipeline project. Ellen Sue Gerhart is a retired special ed teacher and longtime Huntingdon County resident who has lived on her family’s land for 35 years in peace. Over three years ago, her tranquil retirement was abruptly disturbed with a notice that pipeline builder Energy Transfer Partners (ETP) planned to build a polluting, volatile Natural Gas Liquids Pipeline straight through her land in order to supply raw materials for plastics manufacturers in Europe. The Gerharts never gave ETP permission to build a pipeline through their land, but ETP seized it anyway using eminent domain law. For the past three years, Ellen has been an outspoken, compassionate, and selfless leader in her advocacy against the pipeline. She helped host Camp White Pine on her land, a longstanding tree sit that effectively prevented pipeline construction on the family property for 741 days. She’s known at Camp White Pine as mama bear, and is known across Pennsylvania as a powerful and loving voice for justice. In my visits to Camp White Pine over the past few years, I’ve had the immense privilege of witnessing Ellen in action – as a mother and grandmother, and a creative, witty, tireless, and grounded advocate. After meeting Ellen, it doesn’t take long to understand that she is a force of nature. It’s remarkable what she’s been able to accomplish under the most dire of circumstances: since deciding to oppose ETP, Ellen and her family have been subjected to harassment, intimidation, surveillance, and violence, but continue to persist in their work. The Gerharts are currently using all legal avenues to oppose the project, including contesting the permits granted to ETP and the abuse of eminent domain. They have also levied a federal civil rights lawsuit against Energy Transfer Partners, private security contractor TigerSwan, the Pennsylvania State Police, the Huntingdon County Sheriff Department, and a creator of a fake grassroots facebook page called PA Progress over continuous harassment the family has faced since deciding to oppose the pipeline project. As has been widely reported, the damage from the Mariner East pipeline project extends well beyond the boundaries of the Gerhart’s property. Since construction of Mariner East began, ETP has reported an astounding 111 spills along the pipeline route, with more occurring each week. Over two dozen residential water wells have been contaminated due to pollution related to the pipeline’s construction. We are living in a precarious moment in American history. With democracy, human rights, and our environment under attack on all fronts at the federal level, it is more important than ever to stand beside those directly targeted for standing up for justice. Ellen Sue Gerhart needs our support. Let’s make sure she gets home. We are working to raise $25,000 for the Gerharts’ legal fund and are grateful for any and all support – visit bit.ly/standwithellen to donate.


We’re Literally Eating and Drinking Plastic. Fossil Fuels Are To Blame.

by Darcey Rakestraw. This piece originally appeared on Food & Water Watch’s website. The plastics industry sees fracking as a huge opportunity for their profit margins. But plastic has already entered our food and water supply and our bodies—one more reason we need to move off fossil fuels before the problem gets even worse. Care about plastic pollution? Then it’s time to work to start moving away from fossil fuels. Plastic is a serious problem, and it’s time we addressed it at its source: fossil fuel production. Plastics are increasingly fueled by fracking in the U.S.—the extreme method of extracting fossil fuels that is polluting our air and our water, and exacerbating climate change. Fracking provides the cheap raw materials for plastics production, which has lead industry publication Plastics News to say fracking “represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity.” More fracking equals more profit in plastics (which equals, you guessed it…more plastics.) It is so pervasive in our environment that it’s become commonplace to digest it through the microplastics present in our food and water.

Plastic in Water, Salt…Even Beer?

Everyone drinks water, and whether you drink tap water or bottled water, you are very likely ingesting some level of plastic pollution. A recent study by Orb Media tested 159 drinking water samples from cities and towns around the world, and 83 percent of those samples contained microplastic fibers. That means food prepared with plastic-contaminated water becomes contaminated as well. Bottled water samples fared even worse than tap water—unsurprising because it is manufactured with plastic. Another recent study by the same organization found 90 percent of bottled water analyzed from around the world contained plastic microfibers. A single bottle of Nestlé Pure Life had concentrations of microfiber plastics up to 10,000 pieces per liter. The type of plastic used to make bottle caps was the most common type of microplastic fiber found in bottled water. In response to the mounting evidence showing plastic is present in our drinking water, the World Health Organization is now looking into the problem. Plastic has also been found in sea salt, and researchers attribute that to the ubiquitous nature of single-use plastics such as water bottles, which comprise the majority of plastic waste. In 2015 about 70 percent of plastic water bottles went unrecycled, and much of this plastic waste ends up in landfills, incinerators or in—you guessed it—our oceans and seas. Plastic has also been found in seafood, beer, honey and sugar. We need more research on the extent of microplastic pollution and the best ways to treat water to remove it. It’s also clear that we need to upgrade water treatment plant infrastructure so it can handle this new pollutant. But the best way to address this pollution is at the source by reducing plastic waste in the environment.

Fracking in the U.S. Promotes a Global Plastics Bonanza

Fracking, which causes many negative public health problems and harms our air, water, and climate, is now powering a dangerous plastics bonanza. It was the rapid expansion of fracking in the United States that led to a gas glut, which drove real natural gas prices to the lowest level in decades. This is where the plastic industry came to the rescue of the oil and gas industry: low-cost ethane, a byproduct of fracking, is used to manufacture plastics. Both plastic and ethane are being exported across the globe. More than half of the raw plastic produced in the U.S. is headed to distant shores. Whereas the chemical giant Ineos, based in the United Kingdom, is receiving ethane to help fuel European plastic factories. The controversial Mariner East pipeline system delivers this gas byproduct to the Marcus Hook export terminal in Pennsylvania—where it is then carried via massive “dragon ships” across the Atlantic to Ineos’ facilities in Grangemouth, Scotland and Rafnes, Norway. What represents an “opportunity” for the plastics, oil, and gas industries means adverse health effects and climate catastrophe for all of us. To learn more about the toxic relationship between the plastics and fracking industry read our fact sheet, and spread the word: we can’t tackle plastic pollution without moving off fossil fuels.  READ FACT SHEET  


Plastic Free July: a wakeup call for corporations and businesses

Will Europe’s new plastic directive make a global difference in plastic pollution?

By: Delphine Lévi Alvarès, European coordinator of the #breakfreefromplastic movement & Coordinator of the 'Rethink Plastic’ Alliance' Last month, people all over the world took the opportunity to celebrate Plastic Free July -  taking selfies with reusable straws or bottles, sharing tips on how to avoid packaging by DIY beauty or cleaning products, and bringing reusable containers and cutlery when eating out. These simple actions to cut plastic pollution have been elevated to a new dimension thanks to the recently tabled European directive “on the reduction of the impact of certain plastic products on the environment”. In this legislative proposal, the European Commission lays out measures to tackle the most commonly found items found from European beaches after decades of citizen and scientific monitoring. All the most notorious items of the plastic free July are there, together with a range of measures envisaged to tackle the issues related to these products. If you have been following #plasticfreejuly it seems quite obvious that the main solutions are often as easy as a child’s play: refuse, do it yourself, use reusable alternatives and bring refillable containers. So why do we need regulation? Because solutions are still far from being mainstream, and the reusable option is still too often unavailable or more challenging  to come by. Alternatives should be made more uniformly available, easier, and more affordable to allow for a greater number of people to be able to embrace a plastic pollution free lifestyle. Companies should stop producing problematic items, because as long as these are widely sold, they will be bought. The Rethink Plastic alliance - the EU policy arm of the Break Free From Plastic global movement - started campaigning on the plastics issue in 2016. During this time, we called for regulation on the most polluting items and European decision makers kept telling our policy officers that “Europe cannot start regulating people’s bathrooms and kitchens” and that tackling specific items was so symbolic that it was almost ridiculous. And still, after a year and a half of campaigning, here it is, a beacon of regulation to tackle the most problematic single use items! This is definitely a leap forward in the battle against plastic pollution. After decades of blindness and timid measures, this is a sign the European Commission is waking up to the call from the citizens of Europe, and working to ensure Europe is finally doing its part to solve this global crisis. But is Europe’s reduction of single-use plastics and increase of recycling going to make a  global difference in plastic pollution? The answer is yes, but it requires a deeper look. For one: It is certainly going to make a difference to the total amount of waste ending up in the environment and in particular, ocean plastic pollution. Second: The move is also a strong symbolic statement against our throwaway society, that could help mainstreaming a smarter lifestyle in Europe and spreading the message outside our borders that our current model of consumption has to change. However, European decision makers, both legislators and  business leaders, have to face the absurd reality of the double standards that European businesses are applying abroad. Whilst they appear to be on board with the idea of new Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) schemes on problematic products, they are still more inclined to point at the global South as polluters, and support false solutions such as incineration or short term actions like cleanups, than to acknowledge their responsibility in creating this pollution. The same companies opening markets in Europe with the “Green Dot” symbol indicating  they have financially contributed to the waste collection and managements costs, simultaneously open markets in Asia without contributing to the end-of-life handling costs of these products. Furthermore, there is no Producer Responsibility Organisation (PRO) holding companies accountable for the recyclability of their packaging or products, meaning, they are putting the same product from the same brand in two different kind of packaging. For example, the same shampoo that comes in an easy to collect and recyclable 750mL bottle in Europe, is put on the Asian market in a small format, multilayered sachet which is extremely difficult to collect and even more so to recycle. These sachets are prolific in communities across Asia and the companies are not required to contribute to the costs or meet any recycling target. Companies like Unilever and Procter & Gamble have been so busy exporting our western way of consumption - with design adjustments to match the different economic realities - that the environmental impact of such packaging has been considered completely secondary. In the process of exporting these low-value packaging overseas, they also have discovered a formidable marketing tool: sachets containing everything you can imagine (from shampoo, to soup or cleaning products) cover the shelves of any local store, with bright colours and catchy fonts, drawing the eyes and inviting the consumer whilst building “brand awareness” to an ever greater degree. The same consumer also sees these packaging everywhere on the floors, the rivers banks, the beaches and as long as they will not associated with the cause of the pollution, they become another marketing opportunity. And we could argue that it is the same with all the disposable products that EU is targeting today. The Asian and African markets are flooded with these products, and none of the producers contribute to handle their end-of-life disposal or recycling. Additionally, companies invest billions in advertising to convince people that they need their throwaway products. In a recent presentation made by the petrochemicals industry, along with millenials from Europe and US, consumers in the Asian markets are the main opportunity for business growth. However, whilst it might still look like an opportunity today, consumption patterns are changing in these geographies. Our friends who have been opposing single-use plastics by making “Plastic Free July” their daily life for decades are not alone anymore. A vibrant and growing movement of people refusing plastic and promoting a zero waste lifestyle are  being more and more visible. Package free shops are flourishing all over Asia (see examples from Malaysia, China, Philippines) and groups emerge to spread these best practices (like Zero Waste Shanghai). In fact all across Asia, changemakers are working to counter mainstream images of poor Asians drowning in plastic waste. Thanks to their work and the intelligence, it is increasingly obvious that a large chunk of the plastics ending up in the ocean in Asia actually comes from the Western world. European and American companies find it convenient to put cheap single-use plastic products and packaging on the market, but recyclers in these regions are often unwilling to recycle this low grade, and thus low value, material. Most of the time this packaging is shipped to South East Asia where brokers sell it to family businesses who handle it in unregulated conditions. This had reached such an alarming level that China closed its borders to this category of waste (and several others) last January. This move has had concerning repercussions for the other countries in the region, to the point that Vietnam has also temporarily closed its borders to scrap plastics and Thailand has pledged to start sending plastic scrap back where it came from as part of a crackdown on illegal waste imports. So, how will the new EU legislation on single-use plastics influence this? The proposal is being discussed in the European Parliament through the summer, and a couple of important votes will take place in October. The Council of the Environment ministers of the European Union will amend the text and is expected to handover their conclusions before the end of the year. It is critical that this process leads to the adoption of a strong legislation to reduce the use of single-use plastics in Europe and better management of plastic waste. However, it would be a missed opportunity to not use this momentum to encourage European businesses to apply the same standards here and abroad when it comes to product design. European public authorities must be incentivised to take responsibility for their plastic waste as part of a necessary self reflective activity following this zero waste moto: if you cannot reduce, reuse, or recycle it, you should not be producing it in the first place.    


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.