“We are amid a major water crisis that is beyond anything you can imagine. Pollution problems persist and toxins are everywhere, stemming from the hazardous wastes of industry and agriculture. We’ve got more than forty thousand chemicals on the market today with only a few hundred being regulated.” -Erin Brockovich1
Water Treatment is Necessary
All water is reused, including the water we dump down drains and the contents we flush in toilets. Water treatment facilities “clean” the water by removing solids – including sewage – and treat the water with chemicals. Water has microorganisms, bacteria, and viruses, so it is necessary to treat the water with chemicals so that is safe to drink. However, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) doesn’t research or regulate all of those chemicals. As Erin Brockovich noted, “Scientists still have little data about how individual chemicals impact our health, and know even less about the effects of multiple chemicals on the body.”2
“So there is shit in the water; I’d have to make peace with that.” -Elizabeth Royte, Bottlemania: Big Business, Local Springs, and the Battle Over America’s Drinking Water
Toxic Contaminants Linked to Cancer
Many contaminants are linked to illnesses and health issues, including cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that there will be approximately 1,918,030 new cancer cases in 2022.3 But what is causing all of these cancer cases? Though some cancer may be from genetics or lifestyle, I’m convinced that most cancer is due to exposure to chemicals.
In 2019, researchers revealed that between 2010 and 2017, more than 100,000 cases of cancer were likely caused by the accumulation of carcinogenic chemicals in tap water. They cited arsenic, disinfection byproducts, and radioactive contaminants as the major contaminants, but they also noted that other toxins that are not monitored, such as PFASs and PFOAs, may also contribute to cancer cases.4
“How much of any toxic substance can a human body ingest and still be well?“ -Erin Brockovich5
Children Are Getting Cancer Too
Cancer affects our children globally. In the U.S., cancer is diagnosed annually in about 400,000 children aged 19 or under. It is the leading cause of death by disease past infancy for children.6 As Erin Brockovich wrote, children “don’t smoke, drink alcohol, or work stressful jobs.” So why are so many getting cancer? Children are more vulnerable to chemical toxins than adults because they have higher metabolisms and less mature immune systems.7 We need more research but suspicion should be enough to tell us that there’s a problem.
“American children are growing up exposed to more chemicals than any other generation in history and it shows.” -Erin Brockovich8
How Do These Contaminants End Up in Our Water?
Contaminants in our water come from many sources. Besides water treatment chemicals, corporations that discharge toxic wastewater and chemicals into the groundwater and surrounding environment pollute the water. Improperly lined landfills leach toxins into groundwater. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, forces chemicals into the ground to release natural gas and those get into the water supply. The toxins from gasoline and oil spills get into the water. Pharmaceuticals are now in our water supply too.
Herbicides and pesticides applied to large agricultural plots get into the water supply from run-off, meaning rainwater washes some of them away and they get into the water supply. Big agriculture dumps animal waste into our waterways, both directly and indirectly. Tyson Foods, for example, was caught several times directly dumping tons of animal waste into waterways. Indirectly, animal farms maintain hog lagoons to collect animals’ feces and store them in ponds. During floods, those ponds overflow and mix with all of the water and enter the water supply.
“We assume watchdogs are in place and that regulatory agencies and government standards are keeping us safe…Big businesses rule the roost, dumping their leftover chemicals wherever they like with little regard for our safety.” -Erin Brockovich9
Improve Infrastructure and Treatment
Governmental and municipal agencies across the United States must upgrade antiquated water infrastructure and water treatment practices. “The technology we rely on for treating most of our drinking water is almost a century old and many of our water treatment plants have been in operation since the early twentieth century.”10
Federal, state, and local government agencies must supervise industries and monitor for pollution since we know we cannot rely on the industries to self-regulate or self-report. “Unsupervised industry pollution combined with failing infrastructure is a recipe for disaster. To add insult to injury, the more polluted the water becomes, the more chemicals we need to treat it.”11 Otherwise, cancer and related illness will continue to grow.
“We’ve had industrial byproducts discarded into the ground and into our water supply for years. The companies who dump these toxins know it. They have always known it. The government knows it too. These issues affect everyone – rich or poor, black or white, Republican or Democrat. Large and small communities everywhere think they are safe when they are not.” -Erin Brockovich12
What Can You Do?
As I mentioned earlier, water treatment is necessary. But many contaminants in water aren’t just from disinfection, as mentioned in Part 1. Find out what’s in your water by using the Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database. Then learn more about those contaminants in my Guide to Common Water Contaminants. Educate others, advocate through community and municipal meetings, call your water company and local politicians, and don’t take no for an answer.
Please don’t switch to bottled water. This may sound counterintuitive but it is largely a scam. It provides a false sense of security, as the water source for most bottled water is tap water.
In the meantime, review how you’re filtering your water at home. Most water filter systems don’t remove all contaminants. In my next article, I’m going to cover how to filter out the contaminants you are most concerned about. Stayed tuned, and thanks for reading!
Database, Environmental Working Group’s Tap Water Database.
There are many pitfalls when it comes to finding safe, chemical-free drinking water. Like a lot of people, when I was younger I drank my fair share of bottled water, thinking it was cleaner, healthier than soda, and readily available. I even reused the same plastic bottles over and over to try and minimize my use of plastic. In the mid-2000s I became aware of the dangers of chemicals leaching into water from single-use plastic bottles. So I immediately made the switch to tap water and never looked back.
For my home tap water, I’ve almost always used Brita water pitchers for drinking water. I thought I was filtering out whatever harmful chemicals and potential toxins that the water company didn’t filter out, hence making my water even safer to drink.
Only now am I finding out how wrong I was!
A Broken Brita pitcher
After beginning my journey toward plastic-free living, I had to address the plasticity of my Brita pitcher and its filters. At the time, I decided that using a home water filtration system was best since I didn’t want to buy bottled water, especially in plastic bottles. Also, I discovered that you can recycle Brita’s plastic filters, pitchers, and even the filter wrappers through a free TerraCycle program.1 I save all the waste and ship it off about once per year.
Our Brita water pitcher cracked at the handle about 3 years ago, probably because the company makes them out of cheap plastic (though Brita does not disclose what type of plastic is used in their pitchers, only that they are ‘BPA-Free’). We did not drop it or bang it on the sink or anything, we simply filled it and poured it. We kept using it because I refused to purchase another plastic pitcher, ‘recyclable’ or not. But now the handle has completely broken off.
Shopping Leads to Discoveries
On a recent shopping trip, I decided to replace my broken water pitcher. In the process, I discovered that there is more than one type of filter for Brita, and they offer different levels of filtration. It turns out that the different levels filter different contaminants. This immediately gave me pause. Was my family, drinking city-treated tap water while trying to avoid plastic, still exposed to toxins and chemicals in our water?
Additionally, there were many brands of water filtration systems, all offering promises of “cleaner” and “safer” drinking water. I soon felt overwhelmed and undereducated about water filtration, so I left the store without purchasing one. I planned to research water filtration systems, purchase one, and share my research with you.
But it’s much more complicated than I thought. And I discovered that our water situation is much worse than I ever knew.
What’s In Your Water?
When I searched online for a comprehensive comparison of home water filtration systems, I kept seeing the same advice over and over again: Find out what’s in your water. Then select a water filtration system based on that. I found my way to the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG’s) Tap Water database, the most ambitious collection of data regarding tap water pollutants. “The database collects mandatory annual test reports from 2014 to 2019, produced by almost 50,000 water utilities in all 50 states and the District of Columbia.”2 The data is comprised of water quality analysis from more than 31 million state water records.
“For too many Americans, turning on their faucets for a glass of water is like pouring a cocktail of chemicals. Lead, arsenic, the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS and many other substances are often found in drinking water at potentially unsafe levels, particularly in low-income and underserved communities…[our database] reveals that when some Americans drink a glass of tap water, they’re also potentially getting a dose of industrial or agricultural contaminants linked to cancer, brain and nervous system damage, fertility problems, hormone disruption and other health harms.”-Environmental Working Group3
On EWG’s tap water database, I entered my zip code and found my water provider.4 What I discovered was so alarming that I almost cried!
Above are just the contaminants that exceed EWG’s guidelines. My family’s tap water has 13 times the recommended limit on hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen made famous by the Erin Brockovich cases against PG&E since the 1990s. However, though I’d maybe heard of some of the other contaminants, I was not familiar with their toxicity or threats to human health.
“The [Environmental Protection Agency] standards were negotiated based on the technical feasibility and cost of water treatment and did not consider the long-term toxicity of these contaminants.” -Environmental Working Group5
Chromium is an odorless, tasteless, metallic element that occurs naturally. Hexavalent chromium compounds are a group of chemicals with properties like corrosion resistance, durability, and hardness. These compounds have been used in the manufacture of pigments, metal finishing and chrome plating, stainless steel production, leather tanning, and wood preservatives. They have also been used in textile-dyeing processes, printing inks, drilling muds, fireworks, water treatment, and chemical synthesis.6 It may even be present at low levels in cement, which is used in concrete, mortar, stucco, and grouts.7
Also known as Chromium-VI, it was commonly used as a coolant and anti-corrosive at natural gas plants and electrical power stations. If not handled or discharged properly, it can seep into the groundwater and poison those who use the water, as was the case in the Erin Brockovich lawsuits. It can be ingested, inhaled, and absorbed through the skin.
It is a known carcinogen, causing stomach cancer, lung cancer, nasal and sinus cancers, kidney and liver damage, malignant tumors, nasal and skin irritation and ulceration, dermatitis, eye irritation and damage.8 It also causes all manner of reproduction problems to both males and females. Worse, it can cause developmental problems in fetuses. Other reported effects include mouth ulcers, diarrhea, abdominal pain, indigestion, vomiting, leukocytosis, presence of immature neutrophils, metabolic acidosis, acute tubular necrosis, kidney failure, and death.
“The EPA’s national survey of chromium-6 concentrations in drinking water revealed that the contaminant was found in more than three-fourths of water systems sampled, which supply water to more than two-thirds of the American population,” or approximately 232 million Americans.9
EPA has a drinking water standard of 100 parts per billion (ppb) for total chromium. This includes all forms of chromium, including trivalent (non-toxic) and hexavalent chromium.10 Based on a 2008 study by the National Toxicology Program, the California Office of Health Hazard Assessment set a public health goal in 2011 for chromium-6 in drinking water of 0.02 parts per billion. However, “the safety review of the chemical by the Environmental Protection Agency has been stalled by pressure from the industries responsible for chromium-6 contamination.”11 In other words, hexavalent chromium is allowed to be in our tap water in great quantities.
“It’s been common knowledge in the scientific community for years that people who inhale hexavalent chromium can contract lung cancer. Is it really so surprising that swallowing it also leads to cancer?” -Erin Brockovich12
Total trihalomethanes (TTHMs) refer to a group of harmful contaminants known collectively as disinfection byproducts. They are found in chemically treated water, which includes municipal tap water. These are formed when chlorine or other disinfectants used to treat drinking water react with plant and animal waste in drinking water supplies. But drinking water must be treated to prevent microbial diseases and pathogens. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) asserts that though necessary, “every measure must also be taken to decrease the amount of disinfection byproducts in finished drinking water served at the tap.”13
Four trihalomethanes include chloroform, bromoform, bromodichloromethane, and dibromochloromethane. The EPA’s legal limit for these in tap water is 80.0 ppb. But the healthy limit recommendation is 0.15 ppb, proposed by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) and adopted by EWG. Disinfection byproducts increase the risk of bladder cancer, pregnancy problems (including miscarriage), cardiovascular defects, neural tube defects, change to fetal development, and low birth weight. The EPA classified bromodichloromethane and bromoform as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans.”14 People are exposed to these by using water with these contaminants, whether it is drinking, eating food prepared with it, and bathing or swimming.
Bromodichloromethane is found in 48 states and is in the water of approximately 237 million Americans.15
“The federally regulated disinfection byproducts are just a small subset of a larger group of toxic contaminants that form during water disinfection. Hundreds of other disinfection byproducts form in drinking water and may harm human health.”- Environmental Working Group16
This is another group of contaminants known as disinfection byproducts. The EPA’s legal limits for these are 60 ppb. But the healthy limit recommendation is 0.10 ppb, proposed by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) and adopted by EWG. In 2018, the National Toxicology Program classified six haloacetic acids as likely carcinogens.17 “Haloacetic acids are harmful during pregnancy and may increase the risk of cancer. Haloacetic acids are genotoxic, which means that they induce mutations and DNA damage.”18
Haloacetic acids are found in tap water in all 50 states and affect the water of approximately 260 million Americans.
Nitrate, one of the most common contaminants in drinking water, gets into water from fertilizer runoff, manure from animal feeding operations, and wastewater treatment plant discharge. “Tap water in agricultural areas frequently has the highest nitrate concentrations. Private drinking water wells in the vicinity of animal farms and intensively fertilized fields, or in locations where septic tanks are commonly used, can also have unsafe levels of nitrate,” even excessive levels.19
The legal limit of 10 mg/L (milligrams per liter, equivalent to parts per million), for nitrate, was set in 1992. “This standard was based on a 1962 U.S. Public Health Service recommendation to prevent acute cases of methemoglobinemia, known as blue baby syndrome, which can occur when an infant’s excessive ingestion of nitrate leads to oxygen deprivation in the blood.” The EWG recommended level of nitrate in drinking water is 0.14 mg/L, which is 70 times less than the federal limit.20 Nitrate is found in the water of 49 states and affects approximately 237 million people.21
Besides the effect on babies, nitrate is associated with thyroid disease, cancers, increased heart rate, nausea, headaches, and abdominal cramps.22 Worse, nitrate converts into other compounds in the digestive system, and they damage DNA and cause cancer in multiple species.23
“Nitrate pollution of U.S. drinking water may be responsible for up to 12,594 cases of cancer a year.”24
Radium is a radioactive element that can occur naturally in groundwater. But coal, oil, and gas extraction activities such as hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and mining can elevate concentrations in groundwater. Radium causes bone cancer; tumors in bone, lungs, and other organs; leukemia; and skin and blood damage. More than a dozen different radioactive elements are detected in U.S. tap water, including beryllium, radon, strontium, tritium, and uranium. But radium is the most common. These affect the water of approximately 165 million Americans. In addition to causing cancers, these may damage the nervous, immune, and endocrine systems. Worse, radiation can harm fetal growth, cause birth defects, and damage brain development.25
Radium in water is measured in picocuries per liter (pCi/L), which is a measure of radioactivity in water. The current EPA legal limit, not updated since 1976, is 5 pCi/L but the EWG’s recommended limit is 0.05 pCi/L. It is found in the water systems of 49 states and affects approximately 148 million people.26
Other Contaminants in My Water
There were 6 other contaminants detected but under the recommended limits of the Environmental Working Group (EWG). These included chlorate, chloroform, total chromium, manganese, strontium, and vanadium.
I was most shocked because, in my area, the water utility we are on is considered one of the best around. It is in compliance with legally mandated federal health-based drinking water standards. So what happened?
As it turns out, almost everyone’s water is contaminated.
But how did the water in the United States get so tainted with chemicals and toxins? More importantly, what can I do about it? Can I filter these toxins out? In my next articles, I’ll explore the different water filtration systems and how our water became so contaminated and polluted. In the meantime, please investigate the contaminants in your own water at EWG’s Tap Water Database. I’ve also compiled a Guide to Common Water Contaminants. Thank you for reading, please share and subscribe!
Article, “Erin Brockovich: the real story of the town three decades later,” by Marc Dorian, Tim Gorin, Haley Yamada, and Allie Yang, ABC News, June 10, 2021.
Article, “Drinking Water Nitrate and Human Health: An Updated Review,” by Ward, Mary H et al. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, vol. 15, No.7, July 23, 2018
Composting should be part of everyday life for most of us. It’s one of the best things you can do for the environment. You don’t have to be a gardener or live rurally to compost your own food and yard waste. It can seem difficult, but I want to tell you how easy it actually is!
In some parts of the world, including parts of the U.S., composting is part of regular municipal waste management. For example, San Francisco implemented a citywide residential and commercial curbside collection program that includes the separate collection of recyclables, compostable materials, and trash. This means every resident and business has three separate collection bins.1 The compost is collected and cared for at a facility that is then used by local farmers and wineries in Napa and Sonoma counties.
But many of us don’t live in a city or even a state that prioritizes waste management, much less composting. I’m going to explain how you can easily compost on your own, regardless of where you live. Let me begin by explaining why we should all be composting in the first place.
Composting reduces how much we are putting in landfills. Between twenty and forty percent of our landfill contents are organic waste, depending on which study you read. So even the lower 20% number represents one-fifth of our waste which could be eliminated by composting!
Consider the amount of food waste and yard waste (including leaves) we dispose of in the United States. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), whom I consider to have a more conservative appraisal, the U.S. disposed of an estimated 35.4 million tons of yard waste, leaves, and brush in 2018, which is 12.1% of total municipal solid waste.2 They also estimated that the U.S. generated 63.1 million tons of food waste in 2018, or 21.6% of total municipal solid waste.3 If we calculate these numbers together, 34.2% of 98.5 million tons, that’s more than 3.3 million tons of waste we could avoid putting in landfills…without too much effort.
Greenhouse Gas Reduction
“Landfills are not meant to encourage decomposition.”4
We know that food and yard waste doesn’t break down in landfills. See infographic:
“By reducing the amount of food scraps sent to a landfill, you are helping to reduce methane gas emissions. Food waste in landfills is packed in with nonorganic waste and lacks the proper space, temperature, and moisture to degrade. The waste will never break down.”5
Worse, oxygen-deprived organic matter releases methane into the atmosphere, which is a harmful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and climate change. This process is called anaerobic decomposition. Methane is 28 to 36 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere over the course of a century. “Although most modern landfills have methane capture systems, these do not capture all of the gas.”6
“Landfills are the third-largest source of human-generated methane emissions in the United States.”7
How to Compost
My compost container with eggshells, apple cores, paper packaging, coffee grounds, and one home compostable plastic toothbrush package.
My kitchen compost, holding vegetable and fruit scraps, rice, and coffee grounds.
This includes food scraps and food waste, yard trimmings, leaves, and tea and coffee grounds. It can include paper and cardboard if it is not plastic coated or full of toxic inks. You can include sawdust, hair from hairbrushes, dryer lint if your clothes are made from natural fabrics, used silk dental floss, wooden toothpicks, and cut flowers that have wilted. Remove produce stickers (they are made of plastic) and do not include bioplastics because most of those are only made for industrial composting, not home composting (and if they are home compostable, the package will say exactly that).
Generally, you’ll want to exclude animal products such as scraps and bones, but you should compost eggshells. We are largely vegetarian, so the limited animal waste we have either goes in the dog’s dinner (appropriate parts such as fish or chicken skin, fat, or bacon renderings) or to my mother’s pigs (bones after boiling off for broth and such) who can eat anything. There are exhaustive lists of types of waste you can and should not compost, as well as comprehensive articles on advanced composting. I’ve listed a few of these under Additional Resources below.
I keep an old plastic container (one I stopped using several years ago after learning about the hazards of storing food in plastic) on my kitchen counter next to the sink. You can use a metal pail or buy a prettier compost container if you so desire (sometimes called compost pails or crocks). Or you may want a covered one if you are not able to make regular trips to the outdoor compost bin. But even a large jar or bowl will work. You do not need “compostable” scrap bags, they are a waste of money and are made of plastic. Just wash out your container regularly.
Deposit Waste into an Outdoor Compost Bin
If you have an outdoor area, you can build or buy a simple compost bin. There are many DIY instructions on videos on how to do this, and there are also many options for purchasing. I suggest reading up on the various types of bins and their reviews to find the right one for you. Our compost bin is a plastic Rubbermaid compost bin that my mother-in-law handed down to us. Though not the type we’d buy today, it’s very functional and does the job. We had to add some “security” around it to keep out critters. At the beginning of every spring, we use the side hatch to remove the bottom layer of rich compost to incorporate into the garden boxes.
Composting Indoors/Apartment Options
Ask permission (if you live on a managed property): Request to place a small compost tumbler on your patio or outdoor area.
Electric composters: These machines “grind and heat your organic refuse into a dark, dry fertilizer.”8 I personally have not tried this option, so I suggest researching them and reading reviews.
Worm composting: This practice uses earthworms that eat food scraps and digest the waste, breaking it down into a nutrient-rich compost called vermicompost. There are lots of resources online for worm composting and I’ve included a couple below under Additional Resources.
“Compost does not smell bad. The reason your trash stinks is because organic and non-organic materials are mixed. Just like in the landfill, the organic matter can’t break down, so it lets off really stinky odors.” -Kathryn Kellogg9
Last, there are private collection services. If you are able and willing to include this in your budget, you’ll have the easiest and most convenient method of compost while doing a good thing for the Earth. A quick internet search can locate the compost services in your area. Litterless.com also offers a state-by-state listing of where you can compost.10
Compost needs three main components: oxygen, heat, and moisture. These allow for biological activity, meaning worms and insects, which is what breaks everything down. I suggest covering the compost bin (if it didn’t come with a cover) but allowing it to stay moist. Most compost bins have air holes. Between moisture from rain and food scraps, this is usually not an issue. You can add water if needed, but only a little. Stir or turn your compost every few weeks to allow for aeration between the layers.
It’s really that simple unless you want to get super scientific about it and try to achieve a certain compost quality, which is cool! But it can just be an easy way to lovingly dispose of food scraps and other organic waste.
Compost is Great for Gardening
Compost is the ultimate and most natural fertilizer for a home or urban garden. I have several garden boxes like the one pictured below, using a mixture of compost, vermiculite, and peat moss.11 Growing your own food reduces reliance on large agricultural farms that use heavy pesticides, fertilizers, and genetic modification.
If you have no desire to garden, you can give your compost away to a friend who does.
Or Do Nothing with It
You can also compost and do absolutely nothing with it! The important part is reducing what is going in the landfill where nothing decomposes, which in turn reduces greenhouse gases. Compost makes the world a better place! Thanks for reading, and please subscribe.
All photos by me unless otherwise noted.
Article, “A more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, methane emissions will leap as Earth warms,” Princeton University, ScienceDaily, March 27, 2014.
Guide, “Composting,” Earth Easy, accessed March 14, 2021.
Article, “10 Pro Composting Tips from Expert Gardeners,” Earth Easy, August 6, 2019.
Guide, “Composting At Home,” Environmental Protection Agency, accessed March 18, 2021.
Article, “How to Make Compost at Home?” The University of Maryland Extension, accessed March 18, 2021.
Guide, “How to Create and Maintain an Indoor Worm Composting Bin,” Environmental Protection Agency, accessed March 18, 2021.
Article, “Slimy pets to eat your garbage and entertain your kids,” by Colin Beavan,
Guide, “How to Compost in an Apartment,” Earth Easy, March 8, 2019.[
Article, “You Should Be Composting in Your Apartment. Here’s How,” Mother Jones, December 31, 2019. Features how-to’s on worm composting.
In my series on polystyrene food containers, I’ve explained how it is used, produced, and why it is harmful to human health as well as the environment. I’ve examined why it is not practical to recycle polystyrene even though its producers would have you believe otherwise. In Part 4, we explored supposed alternatives and why they weren’t totally effective. Today, I want to discuss corporate responsibility and how bans on polystyrene can help bring greater change.
“When you know better, you do better.” -Maya Angelou
The Role of the Food Industry
The fast-food and restaurant industries can play a huge role in ending the use of polystyrene. Many use polystyrene for their hot and cold drink cups and clamshell containers, but they have a choice in what they purchase. Most dine-in restaurants already use reusable dining ware and the ones that don’t could make the choice to switch and install a dishwasher. The initial investment would be higher, but the constant overhead of disposables would disappear and trash costs would go down. For take-out and leftover containers, there are many ways companies can offset the increased costs of non-polystyrene packaging. They could allow customers to bring their own containers and/or they could raise the cost of their products by mere cents. Companies have the opportunity to be part of the solution in order to protect our own habitat.
A few companies have self-imposed bans on polystyrene. McDonald’s phased out polystyrene containers for its sandwiches in 1990 after their containers became a symbol for litter. These containers are so well-known in advertising and consumer culture history that the Smithsonian has those containers in their archives.1 It stopped using polystyrene for hot beverages in 2012 after being pressured by environmental groups, and they were supposed to end the use of cold beverage cups by 2019. Dunkin’ (formerly known as Dunkin’ Donuts) eliminated polystyrene coffee cups in May 2020. They estimate that this will remove one billion cups from the waste stream annually.
The Role of Manufacturers
The manufacturers of polystyrene have an obvious interest in keeping it in use. But they argue against the environmental and human health problems stemming from it. They also promote recycling as a solution when it is not because of the volume. Corporations have the opportunity to do so much more than they do!
Case Study: Dart Container Corporation
Dart Container Corporation manufactures over 4,000 products including cups, plates, containers, lids, and straws for everyday use in restaurants, hospitals, schools, and homes. Their environmental commitment lists recycling polystyrene as one of their strategies, using what they collect at their plants and other drop-off facilities across the U.S. “We are the award-winning industry leader in creating and promoting recycling opportunities for EPS foam #6.”2 They sell it to manufacturers of picture frames, interior molding, pens, rulers, and foam packaging.
But they charge customers to collect polystyrene cups for recycling. They have a program called The Cups Are REcyclable (CARE), that offers Dart customers “an easy and affordable way to recycle foam food containers” for “Dart’s large-volume users, such as hospitals, universities and corporate cafeterias.” This provides educational materials, a collection bin, and a densifier (like a compactor) for a cost of $295 per month. The customer is responsible for the installation and maintenance of the machine, but Dart collects it once per month.3
Dart also has its Recycla-Pak program, a foam cup take-back program offered for sale by Dart distributors. Usually, companies cover the costs of take-back programs, not the customer. These are actually brilliant business models for Dart. They sell the single-use disposable cups, reclaim it at the same customer’s cost, and then resell the recycled products to new customers. Profit all around! But this isn’t the right thing to do and it inhibits recycling because of the cost.
Bans on polystyrene
Many communities across the U.S. have instituted polystyrene bans, but it is a surprisingly controversial issue. There are those who recognize that we need to move away from polystyrene because of human health hazards and to curb pollution. Others think that replacement choices aren’t much better for the environment and that businesses will suffer from the higher cost of the replacements. I’ll explain a few of these bans.
California has approximately 121 local municipal ordinances throughout the state banning polystyrene.4 Although there is not yet a state-wide ban in California, this shows how many citizens want to stop the use of polystyrene. Food containers are not recycled in California, “although the plastic industry has attempted to implement recycling programs that are simply way too expensive to be implemented in any meaningful way.”5 Besides impaired waterways littered with plastic and polystyrene trash, a 2004 report indicated that it was costing about $30 million per year to dispose of polystyrene materials.
In addition, in order to clear up confusion about customers using their own containers, the State of California passed Assembly Bill 619 in 2019. This new law now clearly allows the use of reusable food and beverage containers at restaurants and events in the state.6 I would love to see other states follow their lead so that this was allowed everywhere.
Maryland was one of the first states to pass a polystyrene ban. “Environmentalists say the new law will have long-term benefits, removing a material made with fossil fuels, which contribute to climate change, and that clogs landfills, pollutes the Chesapeake Bay and other waterways and ultimately harms wildlife, people and the planet,” according to an article in the Baltimore Sun. But those against it say “alternatives to foam don’t always live up to their promises — plastic containers don’t get washed out and recycled or reused, and compostable ones aren’t always compostable without special equipment. Instead, they say, they end up in the same waste stream as the foam they replaced.”7
Maryland has not fully implemented the ban yet, as COVID-19 delayed the deadline for schools and restaurants to stop using polystyrene. Trash collection rose 22% in Baltimore during the pandemic, largely due to take-out packaging. It began October 1, 2020 and it will be exciting to see the long-term results.
“If researchers find the law helps improve Maryland’s waterways, that could help guide future policy around the world and “turn off the faucet” of supplying polystyrene into the water.”8
The call to reduce the use of polystyrene has been heard in other places as well. Maine passed a ban on polystyrene food and drink containers in supermarkets and restaurants which will go into effect in 2021.New Jersey has pursued a ban on single-use paper and plastic bags at supermarkets that will also limit the use of polystyrene takeout boxes and plastic straws. As of this writing, it is awaiting the Governor’s signature. These examples show that enough people in those states were concerned about the negative environmental impacts of polystyrene. They recognize that the best solution is to stop using it!
While there are many alternatives, the best solution will always be to stop using single-use disposable products. It is my hope that polystyrene bans become the norm. Kate Breimann, state director of Environment Maryland, urges us to consider the larger issue of moving away “from the culture single-use” disposable items. She said implementing previous measures to protect the environment once loomed difficult as well, but have since paid off. “We think about when we had leaded gas and leaded paint, and people said, ‘It’s going to be hard for the industry,'” she said. “But now we have a healthier world.”9 This is absolutely true, and we all benefit from a healthier environment.
If you have ideas on how to end the use of polystyrene or single-use disposable take-out containers, please let me know in the comments below! As always, thanks for reading, and please subscribe!
Article, “Why Styrofoam (Expanded Polystyrene) Should Be Banned Everywhere In The World,” Jeff Lewis, medium.com, May 6, 2019.
Report, “Plastic Debris in the California Marine Ecosystem: A Summary of Current Research, Solution Efforts and Data Gaps,” California Ocean
Protection Council and California Ocean Science Trust, September 2011.
Series, “Quick Guide to my Packaging Industry Series,” becauseturtleseatplasticbags.com.