Dear Earthtalk: Is recycling still worthwhile given the expense and emissions associated with it? — Michael Vitti, Norwalk, OH
Americans generate about 254 million tons of trash and recycle and compost about 87 million tons of this material, which adds up to a 34.3 percent national recycling rate. Recycling and composting prevented the release of approximately 186 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2013, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, comparable to taking over 39 million cars off the road for a year.
Aluminum cans are currently recycled more than any other beverage container in the U.S, which is good for business and the environment, says the Aluminum Association, because making a can from recycled aluminum saves not only aluminum but 92 percent of the energy required to make a new can. A 2015 analysis by the Aluminum Association and the Can Manufacturers Institute determined that if all of the aluminum cans in the U.S. were recycled, we could power four million homes and save $800 million per year. Aluminum cans are also the most valuable to recycling companies, with a value of $1,491 per ton compared to $385 per ton for PET plastic. “Cans are recycled at the highest rates, and drive recycling programs across the country because of the high value of aluminum compared to other packaging materials,” said Heidi Brock, President and CEO of the Aluminum Association.
In recent years, however, recycling companies are struggling with higher processing costs, due in part to newer, larger recycling bins that don’t require user sorting and thus become increasingly contaminated with garbage. When the District of Columbia replaced residents’ 32-gallon bins with ones that were 50 percent larger last year, the extensive amount of non-recyclable material put into the bins drove up the city’s processing cost for recyclables and cut profits from selling recyclables by more than 50 percent.
“Our biggest concern and our biggest challenge today is municipal solid waste and contamination in our inbound stream,” James Delvin, CEO of ReCommunity Recycling, which operates 31 facilities in 14 states, told Green is Good Radio. “It’s an economic issue if you think about how we go through all this effort to process this material, and roughly 15 to 20 percent of what we process ends up going back to the landfill. It’s incredibly inefficient to do that.” In a 2014 survey by the National Waste and Recycling Association, nearly one in 10 Americans admitted to throwing their waste in recycling bins when trash cans were full; one in five said they will place an item in a recycling container even if they are not completely sure it is recyclable.
“People refer to this as ‘wishful recycling,’ that’s just when in doubt, put this in the bin because there’s an outside chance they might be able to recycle it,” Delvin notes. “So you see Styrofoam. You see PVC. You see batteries and those types of things….” This mixing of waste with recyclables, he says, makes it very difficult to extract the true recyclable commodities that are there that have value.
Improved education regarding the proper materials to recycle is needed to allow recycling plants to remain economically feasible. The pros and cons of recycling are heavily debated, but there’s never an argument over the environmental benefits of limiting disposable packaging and utilizing more durable reusable goods, like shopping bags, coffee thermoses and water bottles, to name a few, in daily life.
Contacts: Aluminum Association, www.aluminum.org; Can Manufacturers Institute, www.cancentral.com; Green Is Good Radio, www.greenisgoodradio.com; National Waste and Recycling Association, www.wasterecycling.org; ReCommunity Recycling, www.recommunity.com. Photo above: Recycling companies are struggling with higher processing costs, due in part to newer, larger recycling bins that don’t require user sorting and thus become increasingly contaminated with garbage. Credit: Dan McKay, FlickrCC
Dear Earthtalk: Where do the leading Democratic candidates for president stand on environmental issues? — Leslie Mazur, Hauppauge, NY
President Obama, with his recent push to join the world in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, will be a tough act to follow on the environment. But each of the Democratic candidates has shown a willingness to continue fighting the green fight and working with industry and other nations to rein in emissions and promote sustainable development.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders stands out in terms of environmental commitment. He has been a vocal defender of the need for an international climate accord, initially championing U.S. participation in 2000’s Kyoto Protocol, a climate pact that ultimately failed due to lack of participation by China and the U.S. Since then, he has remained one of the most outspoken advocates for climate action in Congress. His current platform includes instituting a nationwide carbon tax and using the funds to finance the development of renewable sources of energy. He would like to see the country move quickly toward “fossil fuel independence” and is advocating that at least 25 percent of U.S. energy come from renewable sources by 2025. He is against letting the Keystone XL pipeline cross the United States with Canadian tar sands oil. He would like to see the federal government cut subsidies to large animal “factory farms” and move that money toward stimulating the organic agriculture sector. And he backs efforts to require labeling for any products containing genetically modified organisms.
Frontrunner Hillary Clinton is no slouch on the environment, either. Like Sanders, she supported U.S. participation in the Kyoto Protocol and has been outspoken about the need to address climate change ever since. She terms the effort to achieve carbon neutrality nationwide as our “modern Apollo moon shot” and would like the federal government to pledge $100 billion annually to mitigate the effects of climate change. She recently came out in opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline, and shares Sanders’ desire for achieving 25 percent clean energy nationally by 2025. She is also pushing for more research and development in the alternative energy sector paid for out of funds otherwise earmarked to subsidize Big Oil. Otherwise, Clinton generally supports efforts to conserve sensitive lands and protect endangered species, and has consistently backed efforts to beef up the Clean Air and the Clean Water acts.
The remaining candidates for the Democratic nomination also boast strong environmental track records. As Governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley spearheaded a statewide effort to protect roughly a million acres of land around Chesapeake Bay to bolster waning blue crab and oyster populations. He supports helping the clean energy sector get off the ground to protect the environment and provide jobs, and wants to double the nation’s energy efficiency in just 15 years and get the U.S, off of fossil fuels fully by 2050.
Environmental advocates have their fingers crossed that, regardless of the outcome of the 2016 elections, the U.S. can maintain the momentum of the Obama administration on climate and related issues.
Dear Earthtalk: Where do the leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination stand on environmental issues? — Susan Wollander, Raleigh, NC
In recent decades, Republicans have certainly been far less sympathetic to environmental causes than the Democrats, and this year’s batch of candidates for the party’s Presidential nomination is no exception.
Donald Trump has remained skeptical of environmentalists and the issues they care about. In 2012 he tweeted that the Chinese created climate change to suppress the American economy. More recently, he called climate change “a hoax” on Fox News. He is also notoriously supportive of getting rid of any tax on oil, “the lifeblood of the economy.” While Trump may look bad on climate change, at least he has a track record of working well with environmentalists on some of his development projects.
Ben Carson rejects the significance of climate change, deeming it distracting and irrelevant. He does support some development of alternative energy sources, but only so much as it reduces dependence on foreign oil. Likewise, he supports drilling both offshore and in Alaska to both create jobs and put economic pressure on Middle Eastern terrorists. Despite his lack of climate concern, Carson does feel strongly about conservation, saying in his 2012 book, America the Beautiful, that “mindless consumption” leads to unnecessary pollution and that we should all take care to protect the health of the planet.
Marco Rubio is no fan of government intervention, and would prefer to see the free market dictate how we protect the environment. He publicly stated in 2014 that human activity is unrelated to the warming climate trend, such that any laws would be ineffective and bad for our economy. His plan to keep energy prices low consists of continued exploration of domestic energy sources. He supports expansion of wind and solar energies, but also favors increasing production and consumption of coal, oil and natural gas.
Jeb Bush started out his political career with negative views on environmental regulations, but after re-election as Florida’s governor in 1998 he changed his tune to say that conservation is the purview of the states (not the federal government). He’s well known for spearheading a $2 billion program to protect and restore the Everglades, and opposes oil drilling in his own state. He favors continued oil consumption, but he would also like to see 25 percent of U.S. energy derived from renewable sources by 2025.
Carly Fiorina supports clean alternatives to fossil fuels, but maintains that every potential energy source should be explored (including nuclear and “clean” coal). She believes the best strategy for cutting carbon emissions is global action. Conveniently, this position makes any federal action by the U.S. pointless. In keeping with her antipathy for big government, Fiorina would like to see the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency downsized and its role in policy making diminished.
For the most part, the rest of the still-crowded Republican field shares similar views about climate and environment. If any of these candidates makes it to the White House, Americans should buckle up for a rough ride that could include approval of the Keystone XL pipeline to bring Canadian tar sands oil across U.S. soil, a pull-back from any emissions reduction commitments made by the Obama administration at the upcoming Paris climate talks, and a weakening of federal powers when it comes to environmental oversight of air and water quality and conservation initiatives in general.
Dear Earthtalk: My neighbor uses Roundup in her yard routinely and tells me it’s harmless to people and pets, but I’ve heard that it is carcinogenic. Can you set the record straight? — Maise Alexander, New Hope, PA
Monsanto’s Roundup herbicides contain three key components: the active ingredient glyphosate, water, and a soap-like surfactant blend. The agricultural application of glyphosate has skyrocketed over the past 20 years. According to the U.S. Geological Survey’s “Estimated Agricultural Use for Glyphosate” map, in 2012 over 250 million pounds of glyphosate were used on crops in across the country-a substantial increase from the less than 22 million pounds used in 1992.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has classified the cancer-causing potential of glyphosate as Category E (“evidence of non-carcinogenicity for humans”), but the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) recently re-classified it as a group 2A “probable” carcinogen. IARC’s recent evaluation of glyphosate found “limited evidence of carcinogenicity in humans for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma” and “convincing evidence that glyphosate also can cause cancer in laboratory animals.”
Monsanto struck back, stating that the IARC’s conclusion “conflicts with the overwhelming consensus by regulatory bodies and science organizations around the world…which have found no evidence of carcinogenicity.” Monsanto added: “Further, the 2A classification does not establish a link between glyphosate and an increase in cancer. ‘Probable’ does not mean that glyphosate causes cancer; even at 100 times the exposure that occurs during normal labeled use glyphosate is not a human health risk.”
In September 2015, in response to the IARC findings, the California EPA’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) announced its intent to list glyphosate as a carcinogen under the state’s Proposition 65 law. In California, businesses are required to provide “a clear and reasonable warning” before knowingly and intentionally exposing anyone to a Proposition 65 listed chemical. Once a chemical is listed, businesses have a year to comply with the warning requirements. OEHHA is accepting public comments until October 20 on whether glyphosate should be listed under Proposition 65.
“If they decide to list this chemical [under Proposition 65] and it survives the inevitable legal challenges, I think it’s possible that every bottle of Roundup or glyphosate formulation sold in the state of California would have to be labeled as known…to cause cancer,” Nathan Donley, a staff scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity, told Pacific Standard. “It would be a huge deterrent for the purchase of this product, at least in that state.” He added that Monsanto has created a “false narrative” that glyphosate is safe. “That position clearly can’t be maintained anymore…and I think it will probably be a precursor for hopefully federal action, at least federal acknowledgment that glyphosate does cause cancer.”
In addition to the threat of a warning label on their glyphosate products in California, Monsanto is currently facing lawsuits by two people claiming that Roundup caused their cancers. Enrique Rubio filed suit on September 22nd in Los Angeles, claiming that the bone cancer he was diagnosed with back in 1995 was a result of spraying fields of crops with Roundup and other pesticides. The second lawsuit, filed on the same day in New York by Judi Fitzgerald, claims she was exposed to Roundup when she worked at a horticultural products company in the 1990s. Fitzgerald was diagnosed with leukemia in 2012.