A London-based start-up wants to replace plastic water and soda bottles with these edible (and biodegradable) “Ooho” pods made from seaweed. Credit: Skipping Rocks Lab

Dear EarthTalk: What are some examples of ways food and drink producers are fighting the ever-growing torrent of plastic waste they have helped create? — Stacy Y., Raleigh, NC

As more people become aware of the extent of plastic waste clogging up our environment, cutting back on plastic use is fast becoming a key environmental priority around the world. According to a 2017 study by researchers from the University of Georgia, University of California-Santa Barbara and Sea Education Association, humans have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic since mass-production started in the 1950s. While we’ve recycled about 9 percent of all that plastic and incinerated another 12 percent, as much as 75 percent has been discarded into landfills or, even worse, set adrift into the environment. If we don’t slow down our current run rate of producing new (“virgin”) plastic, we can expect to add another four billion metric tons of it to our global environment by 2050.

With no cheap and scalable way to collect and get rid of all this plastic, the best we can hope for is to not make the problem worse. Luckily sustainable alternatives to plastic are coming on strong. PLA plastic, which is derived from plants and functions like conventional plastic, is promising but needs to scale up to become economically viable, as it requires dedicated recycling/processing systems to truly “close its loop.” Likewise, paper or cardboard cartons could be a viable alternative to plastic food and drink storage containers, if they are produced at great enough scale to justify dedicated facilities to process them for recycling, given that they are also infused with non-recyclable layers for strength and to prevent seepage.

PLA and cardboard are just the beginning of what is possible. Food producers and chemists are experimenting with making containers out of biodegradable plant products like corn starch, cassava and even algae. And just this spring, tens of thousands of runners participating in the London Marathon were given water out of edible pods made from seaweed and plant extracts instead of plastic bottles. Skipping Rocks Lab, the London-based startup behind the newfangled containers, reports that they’re not only cheaper to produce than plastic but are also biodegradable, breaking down completely within a month, while not imparting any flavor or taste to the water or whatever else is inside.

While there’s something to be said for technology, an older school “alternative” to plastic is all-natural plant material. American supermarkets could learn a lot from some Southeast Asian grocers, for instance, that wrap up produce for sale in biodegradable banana leaves instead of plastic bags. These all-natural wrappers can be thrown into the compost pile or yard waste bin and become rich soil without ever having to be processed using fossil-fuel based energy (like traditional recyclables).

You can do your part by telling your friends, neighbors, store managers, policymakers, elected officials and anyone else within hearing distance that you and millions of others like you don’t want any more single use plastics in your town, county, state or country. And if you haven’t already done so, get yourself a reusable water bottle and reusable shopping bag(s) so you can start being part of the day-to-day solution.

Contacts: “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,” https://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/7/e1700782; Sea Education Association, www.sea.edu; Skipping Rocks Lab, www.skippingrockslab.com.

Washington State’s governor Jay Inslee, one of the first Democrats to declare his candidacy for the White House in 2020, aims to make climate change a central issue in the 2020 election. Credit: Office of the Governor, Washington, FlickrCC
Dear EarthTalk: Do all the Democratic contenders for president in 2020 agree on the need to battle climate change? Which ones have demonstrated the most leadership on environmental issues? — Joe Bradley, Minneapolis, MN

With 18 Democrats already declared as running for president in 2020 (Pete Buttigieg, Eric Swalwell, Tim Ryan, Kristen Gillibrand, Beto O’Rourke, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Julian Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, John Delaney, Wayne Messam, Marianne Williamson and Andrew Yang), and several more likely to officially join the fray, there is no shortage of ideas on ways to beat Donald Trump. Besides their common desire to unseat Trump, all of these White House hopefuls agree on the need to address climate change before it’s too late.

A recent New York Times survey of the field found that each candidate favors bringing back Obama-era regulations designed to curb power plant and automotive emissions and curtail coal leasing on federal lands. Likewise, all 18 say the U.S. should recommit to the Paris climate agreement despite Trump’s efforts to pull out. But less than half (Castro, Gabbard, Gillibrand, Hickenlooper, Inslee, O’Rourke, Sanders, Warren and Williamson) are for even stronger new regulations to push us further faster on transitioning to a green economy.

Meanwhile, the non-profit 350 Action recently published the results of its 2020 Climate Test, a scorecard rating each candidate’s climate cred based on whether they support the Green New Deal or similar legislation, have taken actions to keep fossil fuels in the ground, and have pledged to refuse campaign financing from petrochemical interests. Gillibrand, Inslee, Sanders, Swalwell, Warren and Williamson scored 3/3 on the test, while Booker, Buttigieg, Gabbard and Yang each scored 2/3. (Delaney and Hickenlooper failed all three tests, despite acknowledging that climate change is a serious issue.)

Perhaps the candidate with the most climate skin in the game is Washington governor Jay Inslee, who has declared solving the climate crisis the primary focus of his White House bid. His 2007 book, Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy, laid out a plan for solving the climate crisis via a rapid transition to renewable energy sources with massive investments in clean energy jobs that would benefit Americans from all walks of life — much like the Green New Deal proposal released earlier this year by New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Harris, Booker, Gillibrand, Sanders and Warren each served as co-sponsors for the Green New Deal’s introduction in the Senate.

Warren, a longtime sympathizer with environmental causes, recently released her plan to boost renewable energy production and protect public lands if she becomes president. The crux of her proposal calls for banning the extraction of fossil fuels on public lands (and off-shore in domestic waters) and replacing it with renewable energy production so as to meet 10 percent of the nation’s overall electricity supply.

If any of the Democrats can take control of the White House in 2020, environmental advocates will no doubt breathe a sigh of relief.

Contacts: “We Asked The 2020 Democrats About Climate Change,” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/18/us/politics/climate-change-democrats.html; 2020 Climate Test, https://350action.org/2020-tracker/.

Seaweed — easy to grow without chemical inputs — is one of many healthy green options that kids love to snack on that parents can get behind as well. Credit: Roddy Scheer
Dear EarthTalk: I’m looking for ideas for healthy, green snacks to have around the house and for packing with the kids’ lunches. Any ideas? — Mickey P., Salt Lake City, UT

There are so many healthy, green food options out there today that the work no longer is about finding them but choosing between them. One favorite for kids’ lunch boxes is gimMe Snacks roasted seaweed. Some 15 to 100 times more volume of seaweed can grow on the same footprint as lettuce. And while seaweed requires no water to produce, lettuce needs 15 gallons per pound. The entire gimMe product line is made with organic, non-GMO seaweed sustainably grown in South Korea.

Forager Project takes the skin, seeds and pulp that other food companies toss and rehydrates it into veggie chips that are like eco-friendly Doritos. Cheezy and Wasabi are among the company’s signature flavors. You won’t feel like a bad parent when your kids pull Forager Project chips out of their lunch boxes.

If you’re beyond milk, Modest Mylk could be just what you’re looking for. Purchasing just one (recyclable glass) jar gives you 42 servings of nut mylk and saves 11 milk cartons from going to the landfill. When blended for just 60 seconds with water, the shelf-stable base creates fresh homemade nut mylk — free from carrageenan, gums, emulsifiers, preservatives, and artificial ingredients.

Another favorite non-dairy treat is Nuttzo, which makes nut butters without using antibiotics, growth hormones, pesticides or fertilizers — and with ingredients farmed under national standards of renewable resources and soil and water conservation. Its Organic Power Fuel Chocolate spread has cashews, brazil nuts, almonds, flax seeds, chia seeds, hazelnuts, pumpkin seeds, chocolate and sea salt — and no palm oil.

Stonyfield Organic, which started as an organic farming school before adding on yogurt production some 35 years ago, still supports the planet through renewable energy and packaging its products in plant-made material instead of plastic. Snack lovers young and old still love their organic string cheese, fruity cows, graham crackers and cookies, not to mention the New Hampshire company’s signature yogurt.

Since its beginnings at an Austin, Texas farmers market in 2009, GoodPop’s frozen pops have always been made with non-GMO, Fair Trade Certified, rBST-free, organic and locally sourced ingredients. We like Cookies N’ Cream and Banana Cinnamon, but you might be more the Chocolate Milk or Watermelon Agave type. GoodPops are made with whole foods and never concentrates, extracts or artificial flavors.

Alter Eco’s tagline “Enlightened Indulgence” perfectly describes this green-minded chocolate company’s ethos. Whether you like truffles, caramels, smothered almonds or just good old-fashioned chocolates, Alter Eco lets you enjoy without the environmental guilt, as their Swiss-made chocolate is crafted from organic cacao by farmers who are replanting South American rainforests.

There are plenty of other ideas out there. Just browse the aisles of Whole Foods and you’ll find lots of other choices. And don’t forget about good old-fashioned fruit and veggies. Crunchy carrots, juicy apples and tart blueberries never go out of style on the kitchen counter or in the lunch box.

Contacts: gimMe, gimmesnacks.com; Forager Project, foragerproject.com; Modest Mylk, modestmylk.com; Nuttzo, nuttzo.com; Stonyfield, stonyfield.com; GoodPop, goodpops.com; Alter Eco, alterecofoods.com.

Some newer boats, like this harbor cruiser from Seattle-based Duffy, are greener by virtue of the fact that they are powered by emissions-free all-electric motors. Credit: Duffy Boats
Dear EarthTalk: I am in the market for a small motor boat to putter around in lakes near my home in Michigan but I don’t want to contribute to water pollution. What are my options? — Marlene Y., Merritt, MI

No doubt, boating can be an environmental nightmare given the spewing of petrochemicals and other pollutants into the waterways we love, and the toll it takes on marine wildlife and ecosystems. Spilling even a small amount of oil, diesel or gas can contaminate acres of water and poison shellfish beds.

Meanwhile, hull paints leach copper and other toxins into the water, while soaps and other cleaning solutions — not to mention the improper discharge of on-board sewage holding tanks — can be toxic to aquatic life as well.

But if you take proper precautions, boating doesn’t have to be so bad. According to the non-profit Oceana, being careful not to spill during refueling seems trivial but could save the life of marine wildlife nearby. And if your boat has a two-stroke outboard engine, you can do a lot better for the environment by upgrading to a newer four-stroke engine. Due to the way they’re designed, two-strokes lose up to 30 percent of their fuel right into the water, and are about a third less fuel efficient overall than newer, four-stroke counterparts.

Even better, get an emissions-free electric motor (inboard or outboard) from a company like Ray Electric, Aquawatt, Torqeedo, Elco or Pure Watercraft. The last few years have seen lots of innovation in the industry — including the development of high-capacity marine-grade lithium-ion or absorbed glass mat (AGM) batteries which in some cases can be charged up by on-board solar panels.

If you want to buy a new all-electric boat, Ray Electric and Aquawatt have several options — from fiberglass speedsters to pontoon party boats to wooden fishing boats. Another option is Duffy Boats, which makes 18- and 22-foot all-electric cruisers perfect for puttering around a harbor or lake at cocktail hour and entertaining friends. The company brags that its boats “do 5 mph better than anyone else!”

If you’re just trying to be greener on an existing boat, take care to only use non-toxic cleaning products inside and out, and avoid conventional hull paint containing toxic heavy metals. Always hose off your boat right after you take it out of the water so you don’t transport any marine species, invasive or otherwise, to your driveway or your next launch spot. Also, if your boat has a “head,” make sure to get it pumped out properly so you don’t release bacteria-laden human waste — often containing traces of antibiotics and medications that aren’t good for marine wildlife — into the water column.

Of course, you could always just forego the worry, environmental footprint and expense of a motor boat and go green in a kayak or canoe. Self-powered boats don’t emit any pollutants whatsoever and allow you to get closer to wildlife which would otherwise be scared off by engine noise — and you can get a good workout as well. Likewise, you could get a small sailboat that doesn’t need a motor — and pray for wind (or download a wind prediction app and time your outings accordingly).

Contacts: Oceana, oceana.org; Aquawatt, www.aquawatt.at; Torqeedo, www.torqeedo.com; Ray Electric Outboards, rayeo.com; Pure Watercraft, www.purewatercraft.com; Elco Motor Yachts, elcomotoryachts.com; Duffy Boats, www.duffyboats.com.


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