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.
Dear EarthTalk: Do environmental factors influence fall foliage colors? — Bess Walker, Clinton, CT
An uptick in the intensity of hurricanes, prolonged periods of drought precipitating wildfires, flooded out coastal regions, melting ice caps — most of us can agree that man-made climate change is at least a contributing factor for these modern-day environmental maladies that seem to be compounding on top of one another in recent years. But another (less serious, albeit still troubling) effect of our fossil fuel profligacy might just be compromised fall foliage displays.
The deciduous trees that drop their leaves in the fall rely on cues from the surrounding environment to signal when to stop producing chlorophyll (which turns the leaves green) in order to conserve energy and hunker down for the colder air temperatures of the upcoming winter. When the trees do get the signal, the chlorophyll begins to drain from the leaves, leaving behind carotenoids (in orange and yellow leaves) or anthocyanins (in red leaves) until they fall to the ground.
But the unpredictability of a fast-changing climate has some species of trees confused about when to drop their leaves as warmer temperatures linger longer into the fall. Some trees are simply producing fewer leaves as a result, while others are thrown out of whack as to when to drop their leaves.
A 2016 study by Chinese researchers and published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal Global Change Biology found trees changing color (“phenology”) later than in recorded history across 70 percent of the study area (the Northern Hemisphere), presumably due to warmer air temperatures pushing the process back.
Also, drought before and/or during the fall can drastically reduce the foliage show, given trees’ lack of resources to begin with. Researchers have found that during drought years, trees’ leaves tend to turn color early and peter out sooner, if they don’t skip the color show altogether and go straight to brown. Granted, droughts come and go and cannot be pinned directly on global warming, no doubt climate change is increasing their prevalence and intensity.
And at a more macro level, the overall year-by-year warming trend is forcing many species north in search of the right temperature conditions for optimal growth. To wit, some of the stars of New England’s fall foliage show — such as sugar maples, yellow birches and others — are expected to shift their habitat north within the next few decades. Indeed, biologists warn that foliage fans might have to head north of the U.S./Canada border to see these colorful denizens of the autumnal forest by 2100. Meanwhile, other iconic foliage species — such as ashes, elms and oaks — are facing new threats from warming-induced insect outbreaks, with various troops of beetles and borers moving into new habitat with global warming clearing the way for them.
One way you can guarantee some kind of fall color display in your yard is to plant a variety of native plants and trees known to turn bright colors in the fall. If there is enough diversity among them, you’re sure to get some kind of show every year, even if every plant isn’t “turned on.”
Contacts: “Delayed autumn phenology in the Northern Hemisphere is related to change in both climate and spring phenology,” onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gcb.13311.
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 percent 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, Woken.coffee.
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).