EarthTalk® | January 2020

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Does that corn really have to be wrapped in so much plastic? Credit: Anna Gregory, FlickrCC.

Dear EarthTalk: How are American supermarket chains doing in regards to cutting back on single-use plastics? — B. Weston, Jacksonville, FL

Not very well, if you ask Greenpeace. The activist group compares 20 U.S. grocery chains by their commitments and actions to reduce single-use plastics in its recently released “Shopping for Plastic 2019” report. Each and every chain — even those you would think are leading the charge on reducing plastic — gets a failing score.

Illinois-based ALDI, with 1,900 stores in 36 states, ranks highest on Greenpeace’s list, thanks to its efforts to set a specific plastic reduction target and establish a more comprehensive plastic reduction plan than any of its competitors. That said, ALDI sells mostly its own in-house versions of products so the company has more control over its entire supply chain than conventional grocery retailers that draw from thousands of different producers. But beyond the product line and its packaging, ALDI has also been more transparent on its plastic practices and Greenpeace gives bonus points for the company’s commitment to implement reuse and refill systems across the entire chain.

That’s about as nice as Greenpeace gets in the report. While second-place finisher Kroger Co. gets kudos for being the only U.S. retailer of its size to phase out single-use plastic checkout bags (by 2025) and for setting plastics recycling goals for its own branded products, Greenpeace chastises the grocery behemoth with more than 2,400 stores in 31 states for not already taking much bolder steps to scale way back on single-use plastic: “These goals might have been totally rad in the 1990s, but given its size and the scale of the plastic pollution crisis in 2019, Kroger must do far more to reduce its plastic footprint.”

Greenpeace didn’t have much nice to say about third-place finisher Albertsons, either, and is incensed that the company participates in Hefty’s EnergyBag Program whereby non-recyclable plastics are incinerated or turned back into fossil fuels. “Plastic incineration in any form threatens human health and the climate,” says Greenpeace. “Albertsons must immediately stop participating in this program.”

Whole Foods’ 11th place finish on the list begs the question of how the chain known for its green and healthy food selection could be so bad on plastics. Greenpeace says the chain has largely focused on recycling initiatives and using more lightweight plastics but needs to “up its game to reduce and ultimately end its reliance on single-use plastics.” Whole Foods’ past groundbreaking efforts in plastics reduction — it was the first large nationwide U.S. retailer to ban single-use checkout bags as well as plastic straws and then microbeads — aren’t lost on Greenpeace. But given the scale of the plastic pollution crisis, Greenpeace says Whole Foods “needs to do much more.”

While Greenpeace is working hard to pressure these corporations to go above and beyond minimal efforts to reduce single-use plastics, it’s up to individual consumers to really drive the point home by bringing their own reusable shopping bags to the grocery store, staying away from products swaddled in unnecessary amounts of throwaway plastic, and complaining to store managers about all the plastic wrap everywhere.

CONTACTS: Greenpeace’s “Shopping For Plastic 2019,” greenpeace.org/usa/shopping-for-plastic-2019; “Say NO To Dow’s Dirty EnergyBag,” no-burn.org/dirtyenergybag.


Will the culture of communities like Little Haiti on the slightly elevated outskirts of Miami change for the worse as a result of “climate gentrification”? Credit: Knight Foundation, FlickrCC
Dear EarthTalk: What is climate gentrification and where is it happening? — Jamie B., Boston, MA

Climate gentrification is a relatively new term describing what happens when neighborhoods traditionally overlooked by wealthy people become more attractive — and expensive — given their siting in geographic areas that happen to be more resilient to climate-related threats such as stronger, more frequent hurricanes, flooding, wildfires, etc.

The already-classic case is in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, where climate-related flooding and sea level rises are driving wealthy homeowners away from once pricey beach-front property and into the higher elevations surrounding areas like Little Haiti, Liberty City and Allapattah that have traditionally been home to struggling minority families. The result is greater density and higher home prices and rents in these recently poor neighborhoods. Meanwhile the locals move out, complaining that the transition is forcing them out of their beloved homes while sapping once vibrant cultural identities.

A recently released Harvard study of real estate values by elevation in the Miami area over the last five decades found that while home prices were rising in most parts of the 2,400-square-mile county, areas at higher elevations were experiencing larger increases. Properties located 2-4 meters above sea level rose 11.5x in value on average over the 1971-2017 study period, while those located at or within one meter of sea level rose 8x on average. Current climate projections of Florida’s coastline in a warming world show that areas less than a foot above sea level will be underwater within another 50 years.

The Harvard study put the concept of climate gentrification in the public eye for the first time, but we can see examples of it just about everywhere. “In California, wildfires are becoming more common and forcing people to move, in some cases because their homes were destroyed, and in others because the threat of fire makes it difficult to get insurance or a mortgage,” reports Aparna Nathan of Harvard’s Science in The News blog. “Los Angeles, in particular, may see an influx of people from the coast (as sea levels rise) and further inland (as fires rage) into its traditionally working-class Eastside neighborhoods.”

Another area where climate gentrification has become a problem is Arizona, where people are moving from the overheated Phoenix area to the cooler, higher elevation areas of northern Arizona. According to Nathan, this trend is disrupting communities and the real estate market, and widening socioeconomic gaps in the process. Jesse Keenan, lead author on the Harvard study, concurs, telling Bloomberg News that the situation in Miami “evokes matters of equity and justice that have very limited historical precedent.”

Now that the issue is coming to the fore, environmental justice advocates hope that municipal planners and government officials start taking climate gentrification into account when developing master plans and drafting new zoning ordinances to make sure that even poor people have safe places to live in the face of increasing environmental torment. But as Nathan points outs, housing is just one example of an overarching theme: “as the climate changes, it will be easier for those with more resources to adapt.”

CONTACTS: “Climate gentrification: from theory to empiricism in Miami-Dade County, Florida,” iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aabb32/pdf; “Climate is the Newest Gentrifying Force, and its Effects are Already Re-Shaping Cities,” sitn.hms.harvard.edu/flash/2019/climate-newest-gentrifying-force-effects-already-re-shaping-cities/; “Private Climate Firms Say They’re Helping. Scientists Worry They’re Not,” bit.ly/worry-they-r-not.


The forests of Indonesia are still falling to feed the world’s demand for paper products. Credit: Tom Fisk, Pexels
Dear EarthTalk: You don’t hear much anymore about the cutting of our forests to make paper. Has this destructive practice just moved overseas where we don’t have to confront it, or have increases in recycling in recent years made paper production less destructive? — J. W., Greenville, SC

It’s true that saving paper (and in turn saving trees) used to be a big discussion topic at home, school and office, but these days you don’t hear much about it. This is likely because paper recycling has become ubiquitous; most of us are now well-versed in how to sort recyclable paper from other “waste.”

According to the American Paper and Forest Association (AF&PA), upwards of two-thirds of all paper consumed in the U.S. was recovered for recycling in 2018. What this means is that a lot of the paper we use now gets made with recycled materials that don’t cause more logging and deforestation.

A big player in this march forward has been the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international non-profit that sets standards on forest products and then certifies and labels those that meet the standards as eco-friendly. Another major factor has been the establishment of guidelines set forth and agreed to by 200 governmental and other entities in 2014’s New York Declaration of Forests (NYDP), an international agreement to “end natural forest loss” by 2030.

Despite this progress, deforestation for paper still continues unabated in Indonesia and other parts of the developing world where government oversight is non-existent and profit incentives are too great for illegal loggers to ignore. Some 10 percent of global deforestation (a major driver of climate change) is due to logging for wood products including paper, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

UCS reports that clearing tropical forests and replacing them with mono-cultural plantations of so-called “fastwood” trees like acacia, partly to make virgin paper, accounts for more deforestation across Indonesia than more infamous environmental bogeymen like palm oil production and coal mining. “This is particularly harmful because about a quarter of fastwood plantations were cleared on carbon-rich peat soils,” reports UCS, “adding significantly to global warming pollution.”

Beyond recycled paper itself, there are some promising alternatives to wood pulp as a feedstock for paper production. Some well-known alt-paper feedstocks include fiber crops like bamboo, kenaf, hemp, flax and jute, agricultural scraps such as sugarcane bagasse, corn husks or straw, and textiles left-over in the production of fabrics and rope. A newer entrant in the green paper alternatives playing field is calcium carbonate — literally rock dust — which is made by pulverizing construction waste and fusing it together with plastic before compressing it with massive rollers into its final paper-thin form.

What about, you might ask, the rapidly-growing digital age we find ourselves in now? Isn’t that saving trees? Yes, but consider the electricity load of all the computers, tablets and phones, as well as the server farms and network switching facilities that keep your e-mail inbox full and your Facebook feed full of new content. They’re largely powered by coal and other fossil fuels. Our addiction to digital information might just be taking a larger toll on the planet than if we still got our information the old-fashioned way — from actual books, magazines, newspapers and printed reports.

CONTACTS: AF&PA, afandpa.org; UCS, ucsusa.org; FSC, fsc.org; NYDP, forestdeclaration.org.


Maybe you shouldn’t let your dog run free at the park — or in your neighbor’s yard — if carcinogenic chemicals are used on the lawn. Credit: Brett Sayles, Pexels
Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that lawn chemicals can cause canine cancer, and if so, how can I protect my dog? — Bill W., Ithaca, NY

Unfortunately, the answer may very well be yes. A 2012 study published in the peer-reviewed scientific journal, Environmental Research, found that exposure to certain lawn care products, such as the nearly ubiquitous herbicide 2,4-Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid (2 4-D for short), increases dogs’ chances of developing Canine Malignant Lymphoma (CML) by 70 percent. When ingested repeatedly, 2 4-D acts as an endocrine disruptor, mutating a dog’s white blood cell count allowing malignant tumor cells to replicate unchecked. While obviously worrisome for dogs and those of us who love them, the implications for people aren’t good either, given the similarities between the onset of CML in canines and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in humans.

A 2013 study in another peer-reviewed journal, Science of the Total Environment, found that “exposure to herbicide-treated lawns has been associated with significantly higher bladder cancer risk in dogs.” Certain breeds of dogs (terriers, beagles, sheep dogs) are at greater risk, but needless to say lots of 2 4-D or other synthetic lawn chemicals like glyphosate (the active ingredient in RoundUp) aren’t good for dogs of any stripe. “A strong justification for the work was that dogs may serve as sentinels for potentially harmful environmental exposures in humans,” report the researchers behind the bladder cancer study.

What can you do to help prevent more dogs (and humans) from getting sick? For starters, avoid using lawn care chemicals around your home. And if you hire or manage someone else to take care of your yard, make sure they are not using 2 4-D, glyphosate or any other potentially hazardous pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers. Getting rid of your lawn altogether and replacing it with regionally adapted native plants that don’t need fertilizers or pesticides to thrive is another way to protect dogs from chemicals while saving yourself the trouble of having to mow the lawn.

If you can’t live without a grassy green lawn and can’t bear to just let it go wild, opt for all-natural, organic inputs. For instance, organic compost distributed across your lawn with a shovel in a thin layer can do just as well or better at nourishing your grass as chemical fertilizers. For weed control (beyond good-old hand-pulling), a great all-natural alternative to RoundUp is BurnOut, which uses the power of food-grade vinegar and clove oil instead of glyphosate to eradicate unwanted plants.

As for protecting your dog while out on a walk, steer clear of private lawns, even if you have to leash Fido to keep him out of neighbors’ yards. And the days of letting your dog run free in parks where your municipality may use questionable landscaping chemicals are over now that we know the potential consequences. Fortunately, many enlightened cities and towns have taken steps to rid publicly accessible lands of such hazardous treatments. But you won’t know unless you ask, so contact your local parks department to find out exactly what they’re spraying. And if you don’t like the answer, rally other dog owners to help get it changed, for dogs’ sake.

CONTACTS: “Household Chemical Exposures and the Risk of Canine Malignant Lymphoma, a Model for Human Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma,” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3267855/; “Detection of herbicides in the urine of pet dogs following home lawn chemical application,” ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23584031; BurnOut Weed and Grass Killer, amzn.to/2XyhKGe.

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