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EarthTalk®

by From the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine


Dear EarthTalk: Considering all the well-publicized problems with plastic in our oceans, do you think that plastic has any kind of future? -- Lea Mauduit, via EarthTalk.org

As much as environmentalists shudder at the proposition, it looks like plastics are here to stay. Most experts agree that there’s no way to get humans to stop using plastic even if it would benefit the environment. This modern petrochemical-derived material is inexpensive to make, easy to form into various shapes and sizes, and is tough and strong enough to be used in a wide range of applications. We all make use of it in various forms hundreds of times a day just going about our business.

“Plastics are the workhorse material of the modern economy,” reports the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., adding that global production has surged from 15 million to 311 million metric tons yearly between 1964 and 2014. That number is projected to double to over 600 million metric tons in the next 20 years.

But the functional benefits of plastic come at a steep price, mostly as non-recyclable waste. Single-use plastics represent a quarter of the total volume of plastics produced and around 95 percent of the value of plastic-packaging material. McKinsey estimates that the single-use plastics industry is worth some $80-$210 billion annually. Plastic’s useful life is often less than a year, yet the material lives on for centuries.

Sadly, only 14 percent of plastic, single-use or otherwise, is recycled, even though much more of it could live another life if recycling processors were equipped and willing to handle it. Europeans manage to re-use a third of their plastic waste; the U.S. has only been able to re-use 10 percent.

Some are looking to so-called “bio-plastics” made from plant wastes instead of petroleum as one solution, but experts worry that even these nouveau greener formulations still won’t break down and go away, especially out at sea. “A lot of plastics labelled biodegradable, like shopping bags, will only break down in temperatures of 50°C and that is not the ocean,” says Jacqueline McGlade of the UN Environment Programme. “They are also not buoyant, so they’re going to sink, so they’re not going to be exposed to UV and break down.”

According to McKinsey, we need to start applying “circular-economy” principles to global plastic-packaging if we want to stem the tide of plastic waste. To get this ball rolling, UK-based sailor Ellen MacArthur, who set the world record in 2005 for fastest solo circumnavigation of the globe, is using her personal foundation to fund the Circular Design Challenge to inspire creative solutions in reducing plastic packaging. Ten early-stage ideas will each receive $10,000 in funding to help get their concepts into production, while bigger operations with more established solutions already in the works can apply for one of three $100,000 awards to further prototyping and production goals. While this funding may represent a drop in the bucket of the kind of resources we’ll need to beat the problem of plastic waste, it sets the wheels in motion to thinking sustainably about the future of plastics and the long term health of our environment.

CONTACTS: McKinsey & Company, www.mckinsey.com; UN Environment Programme, www.unenvironment.org; Ellen MacArthur Foundation, www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org; Circular Design Challenge, challenges.openideo.com/challenge/circular-design/brief.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org . Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org .

Dear EarthTalk: What are PFASs and why should we be concerned about them?

-- Jim Stobbins, Cary, NC

PFASs—short for perfluoroalkyl substances—are synthetic chemicals of various formulations (including PFCs, PFOA, PFOS and GenX, among others) that are used widely in various products for moisture and stain resistance. Non-stick pans, rain jackets and carpeting are among thousands of different types of consumer goods that now contain one form or another of PFASs.

“Sealant tape, ski wax and floor wax are waterproof thanks to them,” reports the non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), “and in machinery they reduce gear friction.” NRDC adds they are found in our homes, our offices, our supermarkets—practically everywhere.

But while it’s nice that we can’t stain our carpeting no matter how messy we are, are we paying for this luxury with our health? The fact that these chemicals are so hard to break down in their intended applications also means they don’t easily break down in nature when released into the environment. Not only is this bad for ecosystems and wildlife, but it’s also risky for human health.

A wide range of animal studies has linked the chemicals to kidney, prostate, rectal and testicular cancers, not to mention hormone malfunction, liver and thyroid problems, and abnormal fetal development. NRDC cites research showing that the offspring of human mothers exposed to certain PFASs had lower-than-average birth weights. Another recent study found that women with high levels of PFASs in their bloodstreams take longer on average to get pregnant.

“For years, bad-actor PFASs were used in food containers like pizza boxes, microwave popcorn bags, Chinese take-out containers and other food packaging to repel grease, and they could leach into the food,” reports NRDC’s Erik Olson, adding: “PFASs that enter the body through the foods we eat and products we use every day can linger there for years before they are eventually flushed out,”

In 2016 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned three of the worst PFASs from food uses in response to a petition from NRDC and other non-profit partners. “But we’re worried that chemical cousins of those PFASs are being used,” says Olson. “And the trouble is, manufacturers don’t have to disclose to consumers that they’re using them.”

While the battle to eliminate PFASs entirely rages on, NRDC suggests consumers can take matters into their own hands to minimize their exposure. For starters, ask manufacturers whether their products contain PFASs since such chemicals likely won’t be listed on labels. Steer clear of non-stick cookware, Gore-Tex clothing, personal care products with “PTFE” or “fluoro” ingredients, or textiles made with the original (pre-2000) formulation of Scotchgard, as these likely contain significant amounts of PFASs.

Avoid carpeting and clothing hyped to be “stain-resistant”—a dead giveaway that they have been treated with PFASs. And never order or heat up food in grease-resistant paper unless you want a healthy portion of PFASs with your meal or snack. Likewise, ditch the microwave popcorn—most of which comes in a PFAS-treated bag—and make it on the stovetop instead (it’s more fun that way anyway).

CONTACTS: NRDC, www.nrdc.org; EPA’s Basic Information on PFAS, www.epa.gov/pfas/basic-information-pfas.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org . Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.

Dear EarthTalk: I drink a lot of coffee and I'm wondering how bad this is for the environment? And how I can make sure I’m feeding my 3-cup-a-day habit in the greenest way possible? – Denny Mahon, Worcester, MA

About half of Americans over age 18 (some 150 million of us) drink coffee in some form—drip, iced or in an espresso or latte—every day, with three cups a day a typical average. These 450 million daily cups represent about one-fifth of the total daily global coffee consumption of 2.25 billion cups a day.

Traditionally grown in shady groves under the canopy of fruit trees, coffee has been one of the greenest crops there is. But modern demand, coupled with the so-called “Green Revolution” to boost yields by any means necessary, has dictated that coffee production follow the same monocultural path as other key commodity crops. Indeed, nowadays most of the coffee we drink comes from plantations where it is grown in full sun without competition from other crops and with lots of chemical inputs. The result has been widespread deforestation across the tropics (and a resulting devastation to biodiversity) to make room for more highly profitable coffee plantations.

Another big environmental problem with coffee production is water waste. A landmark 2003 study by Dutch researchers found that some 37 gallons of water are used (and subsequently wasted) to produce a single cup of coffee. And yet another hurdle for the coffee industry to overcome is the exploitation of workers, which in recent decades led to the birth of a “fair trade” movement to try to ensure economic justice in the industry.

So how do we make sure our coffee habit isn’t making these situations worse? Look for one or more certification labels on the coffee you buy. The “Rainforest Alliance Certified” frog logo shows you that the coffee in question comes from farms that provide habitat for tropical birds while paying workers fair wages. Meanwhile, the “Fair Trade USA Certified” globe with two baskets symbol means that the coffee you’re buying was produced using sustainable methods by workers and farmers who are not only paid fair wages but also get access to education, health care, clean water and job training. Yet another certification to look for is the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s “Bird-Friendly” mark which denotes that the coffee for sale is 100 percent shade-grown, fair trade and organic. UTZ Certified and Counter Culture Direct Trade Certified coffees are also produced and distributed without harming the environment or exploiting workers.

How you make your coffee also impacts the environment. The good old “pour over” method rivals the French press not only in simplicity but also in eco-friendliness given that neither rely on electricity. At the other end of the spectrum are the Keurig-type coffee makers, each cup of which yields not only your coffee but also an empty wasted plastic K-Cup pod to clog up your local landfill. If you can’t give up the convenience of your Keurig coffee maker at home—or you don’t have a choice at the office—at least source coffee that comes in compostable pods. Woken Coffee, for instance, comes in 100% compostable pods that can be tossed into food and yard waste bins after use to become part of someone else’s topsoil.

CONTACTS: Rainforest Alliance Certified Coffee, www.rainforest-alliance.org/articles/rainforest-alliance-certified-coffee; Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s “Bird-Friendly” Coffee, nationalzoo.si.edu/migratory-birds/bird-friendly-coffee; Fair Trade Certified, www.fairtradecertified.org; UTZ Certified, utz.org; Counter Culture Direct Trade Certified, counterculturecoffee.com/sustainability; Woken Coffee, https://woken.coffee.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Does the Scott brand’s “tube-free” toilet paper really save much paper or is it just another form of corporate greenwashing? -- Matt Potamkin, Milwaukee, WI

Ditching the cardboard tube in the middle of the toilet paper roll is definitely a step in the right direction for Scott, the paper company owned by multinational conglomerate Kimberly-Clark, as it tries to do what it can for the planet while still providing the products its customers have come to depend on.

According to Scott, Americans currently discard some 17 billion cardboard toilet paper tubes every year—enough to fill the Empire State Building twice over. Meanwhile, RecycleBank, a company that works with municipalities to reward consumers for increasing recycling, reports that most of these cardboard tubes—some 160 million pounds worth every year—end up in landfills even though they could easily be recycled (or even turned into compost if thrown into the yard waste bin instead of the regular trash).

It is ironic that Scott, the company that first introduced the cardboard core to toilet paper rolls back in 1890, is the first modern-day manufacturer to go without it. But don’t worry about toilet paper tubes going away completely anytime soon. Scott is the only major manufacturer offering a tube-free option right now, and the vast majority of its own toilet paper sales are for those with the trusty old tube.

As far as environmental advocates are concerned, tube-free is better than not, but critics say Scott could do a lot better. “When they come out with getting rid of the tube, the logical thing to say is, ‘Is that the best that they could do?’ No, it's not,” says Allen Hershkowitz of the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental group. “But I wouldn't label this greenwashing. I'd say this is a helpful initiative.”

For its part, Scott has been hesitant to add recycled content to its toilet papers due to compromised quality and softness. “We are still researching alternative fibers and evaluating them based on quality and availability for potential use in the future,” says Scott’s brand manager Jared Mackrory. “Right now we’re making a difference where we can.”

Beyond losing the tube, Scott has begun using fibers certified as sustainable by the Forest Stewardship Council, a non-profit wood, paper and forest products certification entity. And the company has pledged to replace half of all of its wood fiber with more sustainable alternatives by 2025.

In the meantime, it’s up to each and every one of us to do our part to reduce our use of toilet paper. One quick and easy way to stop wasting squares would be to install a Control-n-Roll on your toilet paper holder. This nifty reusable foam insert costs $4.99 for a two-pack, and its manufacturer claims it can cut your toilet paper use by 50 percent by serving as a brake on the roll when you stop pulling.

An even better way to reduce toilet paper use is by installing a bidet, which uses a jet of water to clean your nether regions so you can save the toilet paper for patting yourself dry. Blue Bidet gets high marks for ease-of-installation and high-quality workmanship despite being affordable.

CONTACTS: Scott Brand, www.scottbrand.com; NRDC, www.nrdc.org; Control-n-Roll, www.controlnroll.com; Blue Bidet, www.bluebidet.com.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.

Dear EarthTalk: With the onset of global warming, how likely is it that ski resorts and skiing itself might soon become a thing of the past? -- Mandy Billings, Provo, UT

Last winter’s low snow year and unseasonably warm temperatures across much of the American West meant a bad year for business for ski resorts, and also left many of us wondering whether skiing would even be possible in the warmer world we’re getting as we continue to pump out greenhouse gases.

“Our recent modeling suggests that under a high emissions scenario, skiing could be very limited to non-existent in parts of the country by the end of this century, particularly in lower elevations—such as the northeast, Midwest and lower mountains around the West,” says Cameron Wobus, lead author on a 2017 study projecting climate change impacts on skiing across the U.S. “Things look better mid-century, so this dire future for skiing isn’t imminent—and things also look much better under a more aggressive greenhouse gas mitigation scenario, so this future also isn't inevitable.”

According to Wobus’ research, ski resorts in the Pacific Northwest have the most to fear, with predicted losses of 80 percent or more of the ski season. Ski resorts in the Northeast also won’t fare well as we warm. The relatively good news is that the ski resorts in the intermountain west should face “less severe losses” due to their higher elevations.

The ski resorts themselves are doing what they can to try to reduce and offset their own emissions. To wit, Vail Resorts will power its 15 U.S.-based ski resorts with 100 percent wind energy beginning in 2020, and is well on its way to achieving its ambitious 2030 goal of “zero net emissions, zero waste to landfill and zero operating impact on forests and habitat.” Nearby, Aspen Skiing Company is big on solar, donates six figures annually to local non-profits working on climate mitigation and related issues, and lately has focused on firing up its customer base to encourage climate-friendly voting in Congress. Meanwhile, the list of ski resorts now deriving all of their power from on-site renewables (e.g., Berkshire East, Jiminy Peak, Squaw Valley, Wolf Peak, Arapahoe Basin, Breckenridge) is growing every year.

Coordinating and facilitating much of this activity is the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), a trade group representing over 300 U.S-based ski area owners and operators. NSAA’s Sustainable Slopes initiative, launched in 2000, provides an overarching framework for ski areas on sustainability and enhanced environmental performance. Its Environmental Charter serves as a blueprint and inspiration for ski resorts looking to green their operations.

Another influential player is Protect Our Winters (POW), a non-profit founded in 2007 by professional snowboarder Jeremy Jones to mobilize the outdoor sports community against climate change. Its “Hot Planet/Cool Athletes” program, in which a professional skier or snowboarder leads an all-school assembly through a 45-minute multimedia presentation detailing the science behind climate change, how it’s affecting snow levels and what we can each do to become part of the solution, has been an especially effective way to get young people fired up about solving the climate crisis. The program has reached some 60,000 students since its inception in 2011.

CONTACTS: “Projected climate change impacts on skiing and snowmobiling: A case study of the United States,” www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0959378016305556; Protect Our Winters, www.protectourwinters.org; NSAA Sustainable Slopes, www.nsaa.org/environment/sustainable-slopes.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org . Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org.


 


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