EarthTalk® | December 2019

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American recyclers have been forced to do more of the processing of plastics themselves now that it’s not so easy to outsource it to foreign markets in China, Malaysia and elsewhere. Credit: Mali Maeder, Pexels.

Dear EarthTalk: Since China stopped accepting American recyclables for processing in 2017, is it still worthwhile for us to even bother recycling here in the U.S.? — Jim M., Norfolk, VA

The short answer is yes, it’s still worthwhile for us to recycle, even if it’s not as easy and more expensive than it used to be — especially when you consider the costly and environmentally dubious alternative of creating new products out of all-virgin materials. That said, China’s decision to stop accepting most recyclables from other countries beginning in January 2018 did send shockwaves around the world. For the previous 25 years, China was gladly importing more than half of the world’s plastic garbage for reprocessing into new products.

It seemed like a win-win situation, but the Chinese started to tire of dealing with a deluge of soiled recyclables from abroad. Also, years of economic growth and rising consumption means the Chinese are now producing plenty of waste on their own; they no longer need to rely on waste imports to keep their recycling plants humming. It’s for these reasons that the Chinese government invoked its “National Sword” policy, banning the import of 24 types of solid waste and setting a much tougher standard for contamination levels on the recyclables it would accept. Waste handlers in the U.S. and other developed countries where landfill space is short were left in the lurch and forced to rethink how to move much of their “feedstock” along now that China is no longer willing to take it.

In the meantime, a few Southeast Asian countries (Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and India) stepped up to fill the void by taking larger loads of our waste. But poorly run waste management practices and lack of government oversight led to conditions where only about 10 percent of potentially recyclable waste sent to these countries gets recycled. According to a recent World Bank report, much of what doesn’t get recycled ends up in “unregulated dumps or is openly burned…[creating] serious health, safety and environmental consequences.” But more recently, many of these countries are now following in China’s footsteps by tightening up their own rules about what kinds of waste they are willing to accept.

These changes have put some U.S.-based recyclers out of business, but it may have strengthened those left standing, since they have been forced to find new ways of dealing with the waste streams they are responsible for collecting and processing. Instead of shipping it all off, they are recycling as much as possible themselves. While China’s “National Sword” program may have been a headshot to the American waste industry, the result might just be a greener, cleaner, more self-sufficient United States.

American consumers and businesses can help bolster recycling efforts by sorting waste appropriately — don’t mix soiled food containers in with recyclables, keep non-recyclable plastics out of the blue bins, etc. — and encouraging friends and neighbors to do the same so that more of what we do discard can live another day and provide other consumers with a guilt-free way to enjoy whatever came in that plastic bottle or cardboard box.

Contacts: “After China’s import ban, where to with the world’s waste?” www.dw.com/en/after-chinas-import-ban-where-to-with-the-worlds-waste/a-48213871; World Bank’s “What a Waste 2.0: A Global Snapshot of Solid Waste Management to 2050,” openknowledge.worldbank.org/handle/10986/30317


Scottish barrister and activist Polly Higgins led the charge to get “ecocide” recognized as a “crime against peace” by the International Criminal Court. Credit: Elevate Festival, FlickrCC.

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard of suicide, homicide and genocide, but what is ecocide? — Leslie P., Carrboro, NC

While the concept of “ecocide” may be new to many of us, the practice of willfully destroying large areas of the natural environment has been around about as long as humans — although we got a lot better at it using the machinery we developed during the industrial revolution. Bioethicist Arthur Galston first started batting the term around in the 1970s to describe intentional widespread ecological destruction, especially as it pertained to ruining inhabited environments so people couldn’t live there anymore.

One classic example of ecocide in modern history is American troops’ widespread application of the toxic herbicide Agent Orange across Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. It was used to clear some 12,000 square miles of tropical rainforest to enable flushing out the “enemy,” despite the toll on civilians and the environment. There are also plenty of present-day examples, including: mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia whereby miners blast through hundreds of feet of earth to access thin seams of coal; the “fracking” for oil and gas across wide swaths of Canada’s Alberta tar sands that has so far destroyed thousands of square miles of boreal forest and peat bogs while releasing hundreds of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere; the dumping of crude oil and toxic waste into Ecuador’s Amazon by oil companies too focused on profits to do the right thing about waste removal; and deep-sea mining whereby the use of heavy machinery to ply veins of precious metals from the seabed is ruining marine ecosystems we still know little about.

In recent years Scottish activist Polly Higgins championed the cause of getting the International Criminal Court (ICC), an independent judicial body created by the United Nations in 1998, to recognize ecocide as a “crime against peace” in the eyes of international law. Her work focused on getting the ICC to add ecocide as the fifth prosecutable “core international crime” (along with genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression). Sadly, Higgins succumbed to cancer at age 50 in April 2019, but her efforts to institutionalize ecocide as a major international crime lives on with other activists.

“Destroying the planet is currently permitted,” says Jojo Mehta of the non-profit Stop Ecocide. “That is how ecosystems are being destroyed every day by dangerous industrial activity, exacerbating the climate emergency and destroying our forests, our soils, our rivers and the lands that we love.”

Mehta points out that any of the 122 member states of the ICC can formally suggest adding ecocide as a major international crime. Stop Ecocide is working with small Pacific island nations which are already “feeling the sharp end of climate change” to urge ICC to finally adopt ecocide as another crime it prosecutes.

“Serious harm to the Earth is preventable,” urges Mehta. “When government ministers can no longer issue permits for it, when insurers can no longer underwrite it, when investors can no longer back it, when CEOs can be held criminally responsible for it, the harm will stop.”

Contacts: Arthur Galston’s “An Accidental Plant Biologist,” www.plantphysiol.org/content/128/3/786; International Criminal Court (ICC), www.icc-cpi.int; Stop Ecocide, www.stopecocide.earth


Environmentalists would like to see the 5,400 acres of desert wildlands surrounding iconic Factory Butte in central Utah permanently protected from off-road vehicles and mechanized transport of any kind. Credit: David Kingham, FlickrCC

Dear EarthTalk: What is the controversy over the Factory Butte landmark in Utah that has environmental groups filing lawsuits? — M. Jensen, Taos, NM

The kerfuffle over Factory Butte, a 6,300-foot peak in Wayne County, Utah, about 25 miles east of Capitol Reef National Park, stems from the on-again, off-again nature of federal rules about whether Off-Road Vehicles (ORVs) should be allowed to roam the 5,400 acres of wild desert surrounding it.

Named by white settlers in the mid-19th century who thought its almost-architectural stature resembled a Provo, Utah, woolen mill, Factory Butte is the latest flashpoint in a long timeline of disputes over what constitutes fair and proper use of federally managed desert wildlands in Utah and across the Southwest.

Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bear’s Ears have been in the news lately, given efforts by the Trump administration to ease restrictions on development, but Factory Butte has remained out of the spotlight since a George W. Bush-era ruling to close it to ORVs, given potential risks to fragile desert soils and endangered species. But in May 2019, after some 12 years of protection, Trump’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) opened up the desert around Factory Butte to ORVs once again, despite protests.

“The agency’s decision ensures that one of Utah’s most recognizable landscapes will be defaced and damaged for years to come,” reports the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA), a Salt Lake City-based conservation group leading the fight to keep ORVs out of fragile desert wildlands. “Contrary to popular myth, these tracks don’t simply disappear after the next rain!”

“Faced with public pressure and well-documented damage to the natural resource values of the areas around Factory Butte, the BLM disallowed ORV use in the area in 2006,” reports the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental non-profit working with SUWA in suing the BLM over the move in hopes of getting it overturned. “BLM indicated in its environmental impact analysis that the area around Factory Butte should remain permanently closed to unrestricted cross-country travel.”

Furthermore, environmental advocates are incensed as to HOW BLM re-opened the Factory Butte desert to ORVs — that is, without any new environmental reviews of feasibility, and in secrecy without soliciting or considering public comments. “By failing to update earlier environmental analyses, the BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) when it failed to, at the very least, conduct a supplemental environmental analysis to account for the significant changes that have occurred in the Factory Butte area over the past decade, including the significant changes being wrought by the climate crisis,” says NRDC.

This violation of NEPA is a central tenet of the lawsuit the two non-profits are jointly filing against the Trump administration for opening up the area to ORVs once again. “Unrestricted ORV use in this area is simply incompatible with its fragility. Those who hope to appreciate its awe-inspiring beauty would instead confront a vast web of tire ruts carved into the desert,” adds NRDC. “And the area faces a potential loss of its highly vulnerable desert species. We hope our lawsuit once again demonstrates these facts and brings renewed protection of this iconic western landscape.”

Contacts: Factory Butte Recreation Area (BLM), blm.gov/visit/factory-butte-recreation-area; SUWA, suwa.org; NRDC, nrdc.org.


It looks like we might have to wait some two decades for electric vehicles (EVs) to displace internal combustion cars as the kings of the American road. Credit: Mike, Pexels.

Dear EarthTalk: I see more and more electric vehicles out on the road. When will they start to outnumber internal combustion cars on American roads? — Jane L., New Bern, NC

Electric vehicles (EVs) have been around about as long as cars themselves. In fact, primitive EVs were the dominant form of automotive transportation at the dawn of the auto age in Europe and the U.S. in the late 19th century. It wasn’t until the 1920s — when the U.S. road system was starting to be built out and cheap oil was available from newly tapped Texas oil fields — that internal combustion cars began to take over as the predominant vehicles across the United States.

And we never looked back. Until recently, that is. Nowadays, EVs (Teslas, Leafs, Bolts, etc.) are indeed everywhere. Analysts estimate the EVs will be cheaper to buy than internal combustion cars as soon as 2022. Beyond that, it’s probably only a matter of two decades before EVs represent the majority of cars, light trucks and SUVs plying American roads.

In 2018, EVs made up only about 2 percent of total U.S. new car sales, but that figure represents an astonishing 70 percent growth from the year prior. Moving forward, analysts expect around 13 percent annual compound growth in the EV sector for the foreseeable future. Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a research arm of the New York-based media company, expects sales of passenger EVs to overtake conventional internal combustion-based vehicles by 2038 (with EV sales topping 50 million a year as compared to conventional vehicle sales of 47 million by then). After that, EVs, with their lower ongoing fuel and maintenance costs, will continue taking over more and more of the market every year, calling the very future of the internal combustion engine passenger car into question.

As technologies mature (allowing for better battery storage and extended driving range) and manufacturers ramp up production and prices come down accordingly, consumers will begin to look exclusively at EVs when shopping for new cars. Indeed, a recent survey of 2,000 adults living in either California or the Northeast Tristate Area (NY, NJ, CT) by consulting firm West Monroe Partners found that the majority (59 percent) of respondents think their next vehicle will be an electric car. Not surprisingly, the survey found that Gen Zers (those born after 1996) are especially inclined toward EVs.

That said, only 16 percent of respondents are driving around in EVs today, and concerns including short battery life and lack of charging stations (limiting the vehicles’ range), as well as high up-front purchase costs, are still holding many of us back from taking the all-electric plunge. But the writing is on the wall for gas guzzling passenger cars as we overcome these short-term hurdles. With about 15 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the tailpipes of our internal combustion cars and light trucks, and gasoline becoming more and more expensive, the inevitable switchover to EVs — despite efforts by the Trump administration to reduce national fuel efficiency standards and bolster the ailing oil industry — is going to be a win-win for consumers and the planet. 2038 can’t come too soon!

Contacts: Bloomberg New Energy Finance, bnef.com; “Who is Leading The Charge on Electric Vehicles?” bit.ly/leading-charge; “Yes, Electric Cars Will Be Cheaper,” bit.ly/ev-cheaper

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