Each year on April 22, we celebrate Earth Day. As the Earth Day organization website notes, “Today, Earth Day is widely recognized as the largest secular observance in the world, marked by more than a billion people every year as a day of action to change human behavior and create global, national and local policy changes.”1It’s great that we have this day to acknowledge our challenges.
But as I and that organization always say, Earth Day needs to be every day.
We are in near peril now. If you really look at the worldwide problems coming from climate change, everything is changing and causing drastic consequences to humans and wildlife. The Earth Day website acknowledges the frustration of many:
“As the awareness of our climate crisis grows, so does civil society mobilization, which is reaching a fever pitch across the globe today. Disillusioned by the low level of ambition following the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015 and frustrated with international environmental lethargy, citizens of the world are rising up to demand far greater action for our planet and its people.”
If COVID-19 has taught me anything, it’s that people are reactive to the problems in their direct line of sight and apathetic to the problems in their periphery. But we have to do better. We can’t stay oblivious to these problems, because we will perish.
We need to do more, every day.
‘Save the Planet’ and ‘Protect the Earth’ are wonderful slogans, but we are way past slogans. We need action. We need to change our daily behaviors. And we have a limited amount of time to make changes before it’s too late.
We are destroying our own habitat.
We are not just destroying the habitats of at-risk species half a world away, we are destroying the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we farm. We are destroying our own habitat! The Earth is our home but if we don’t take drastic action the irreversible results of our destructive behavior will lead to our extinction. Nature will heal itself and the Earth will go on without us.
Earth Day is Now an Emergency
Human-caused planetary changes are happening before our eyes. The temperature of the air and the oceans are rising, the glaciers and ice sheets are melting, and the sea is rising. We are cutting down rainforests, which essentially cleanse the entire planet’s air. We are witnessing extremes in weather and drought and wildfire. Coral reefs are expiring. We are watching endangered species’ classifications move from critically endangered to extinct.
“One study estimates it would take 5 Earths to support the human population if everyone’s consumption patterns were similar to the average American.”2
We have a limited amount of time to turn it around. I encourage you to read up on the issues, watch documentaries3, and follow or join organizations dedicated to changing human actions so that you can learn all you can.
Make changes in your own life and reduce overconsumption where you can. If you’re able to install solar panels, new windows in your home, or purchase an electric car, I encourage you! Many of those larger changes are sometimes cost-prohibitive, so do what you can. We need to pressure companies and the government to normalize renewable energy items. This will make them more accessible and attainable. If we can greatly reduce our overall consumption levels, that will have a huge effect and positively alter the future. And maybe we can save ourselves.
Thank you for reading, and please subscribe and share!
“Climate change is the single greatest threat to a sustainable future but, at the same time, addressing the climate challenge presents a golden opportunity to promote prosperity, security and a brighter future for all.” -Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General, United Nations
In Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I told you about polystyrene (Styrofoam) food containers, how and what it they are made with, and how polystyrene is harmful and toxic to human health. Today I’ll explain its poor recyclability and its environmental impact.
“The irrefutable evidence and research has been mounting over decades from various federal agencies, city staff reports, state staff reports, environmental clubs, and nonprofits,” pertaining to the negative effects of Expanded Polystyrene (EPS). -Jeff Lewis, environmentalist writer1
In practice, polystyrene food packaging is not recycled. Despite misconceptions, most municipalities do not accept it for recycling, even with the #6 recycling symbol. If it is collected, it often goes to the landfill instead of a recycling facility. Polystyrene is often contaminated with food residue which makes recycling impractical. Additionally, most establishments that use polystyrene food packaging do not provide separate recycling bins, so customers have no choice but to throw them in the regular trash. Nothing is recycled when it is thrown in the trash.
Even when you do find a place that accepts polystyrene, there’s no guarantee that the meat trays and egg cartons that you wash, save, and cart back to the supermarket actually get recycled, if you’ll recall from Part 6 of my Packaging Series. Often, those collection sites are simply to draw you into the store and keep local recycling streams free from those materials.
“Styrofoam, despite the #6 plastic composition and the misleading recycling symbol it often carries, cannot be recycled easily or cost-effectively – less than 1% of Styrofoam is recycled in the USA.” -Green Dining Alliance of St. Louis
Cheaper to Produce New Polystyrene
Unfortunately, it is also easier and cheaper to produce new polystyrene than it is to collect, sort, and clean it for the recycling process. Thus, the market for recycled polystyrene is small and unlikely to grow. Companies such as BASF and Dart Container Corporation would have you believe otherwise. Both advocate for polystyrene recycling because they are producers of it as well. Many of the companies that do recycle polystyrene don’t accept food containers, they only accept polystyrene shipping materials. There are a few companies that do recycle used polystyrene food containers and have ways to clean them. But because food contamination makes food containers very costly to sort, clean, and recycle, those companies are rare.
New York City’s Department of Sanitation studied recycling polystyrene food containers and determined that recycling them is not economically feasible. “The report found that the majority of Styrofoam collected for recycling ended up in landfill anyway—but at a higher economic cost and carbon footprint compared to being directly landfilled.” This includes the cost of collection, recycling separation and contamination, and ultimately hauling it a second time to the landfill.2 The conclusion, as always, is to stop relying on recycling and focus on ending the use of single-use disposable items.
“The reason for the decline in price is that crude oil prices are so low that it is cheaper for companies to produce new Styrofoam products than to clean and reuse postconsumer products. This economic reality discourages other companies from getting into the market of recycling the polystyrene.” -Real Cost of Styrofoam3
The Volume of Polystyrene is Overwhelming
The sheer volume of discarded polystyrene is a problem as well. The world produces about 14 million tons of polystyrene annually. As with any type of plastic, we cannot recycle away the problem of single-use disposable items. We must stop it at the source; refusing to use them whenever possible.
“25 billion Styrofoam coffee cups are used for just a few minutes and thrown away every year.” -Green Dining Alliance of St. Louis
Since polystyrene is not recyclable, most of it goes to landfills and some inevitably makes its way into the environment. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Styrofoam production is the fifth largest creator of toxic waste in the United States. Polystyrene products break down into smaller and smaller pieces and eventually become microplastics. Birds and marine life ingest small pieces because they mistake the pieces for food. Additionally, after the ingested polystyrene kills an animal, it can go on to kill again after that animal decomposes and the pieces reenter the environment.
“80% of Styrofoam ends up in landfills, and much of the remaining 20% in waterways.” -Green Dining Alliance of St. Louis
Polystyrene does not biodegrade, even the alleged biodegradable and compostable polystyrene, as I wrote about in Part 2 of my Packaging Series. Again, most take-out packaging is thrown away. Polystyrene foam litter is common as it is lightweight and breaks apart easily, making smaller pieces that become windswept. The Clean Water Action organization noted important facts about polystyrene’s environmental harm:4
Expanded polystyrene (EPS) products and their associated chemicals (such as styrenes) are widespread in the marine environment.
Polystyrene is in the digestive tracts of marine invertebrate and vertebrate wildlife.
Polystyrene is one of the most common types of debris on shorelines and beaches worldwide.
“Why is such a toxic material in use? Polystyrene is cheaper than some alternatives. However, the environmental expense of polystyrene far exceeds the cost restaurants and grocery stores are currently paying to provide them.” -Massachuesetts Sierra Club5
After considering the costs to human health, wildlife, and the environment, the solution is to end the use of polystyrene food packaging. Many reports have a similar conclusion and call for banning polystyrene or finding alternatives (see Additional Resources below). We must call for businesses to stop using these products and for local governments to ban their use. Moreover, we need to greatly reduce the amounts of all single-use disposable products we use. In my next article, I’ll explore alternatives to polystyrene food containers, the role of companies in their use of it, and municipal bans on polystyrene. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe!
Video, “Plastic Recycling, Inc. recycles foam #6 from a MRF,” Plastic Recycling, Inc., March 25, 2016. This video shows the process for one of the rare companies that actually recycles polystyrene food packaging.
Article, “Now and forever: The Styrofoam dilemma,” by Catherine Solyom, Canwest News Service, Accessed October 20, 2020.
Report from cleanwateraction.org, “Greenhouse Gas Impacts
of Disposable vs Reusable Foodservice Products,” January 2017.
In my last article, I introduced the topic of packaging and the environmental crisis it has created. I left off with an explanation of greenwashing (read here about how to avoid greenwashed products), and in this article, I’m going to describe two terms that are often misused in advertising.
Remember: the answer to packaging is to reduce our reliance on it; to stop using it.
“Biodegradable” and “Compostable”
If only these words were the solutions to our global packaging problem! Unfortunately, they are two of the most abused terms in greenwashed advertising. Biodegradable refers to any material that decomposes in the environment. Compostable means that the material is organic matter that will break down and turn into soil. These words do not always mean what we think when it comes to sustainable packaging. In fact, if biodegradable and compostable items go into the trash and then a landfill, they do not biodegrade. Nothing in a landfill breaks down. Worse, the contents of landfills release methane gas, a major contributor to global warming.
But misleading marketing makes us believe that biodegradable plastics are better. “According to the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides, it is deceptive to market a product as biodegradable if the item does not completely decompose within one year after customary disposal, so items that are customarily disposed of in landfills cannot be marketed as ‘biodegradable in landfills.'”1 Regardless, the term is often misused.
Biodegradable plastics will only break down under the right conditions, such as in an industrial composting facility, not in a backyard composting system. But commercial composting facilities don’t all accept even certified compostable plastic products because the chemicals in the plastic hurt the final value of the compost.
Industrial Composting Facilities
There are several types of composting systems. A home compost system is mainly food and yard waste that you can set up yourself. Commercial composting refers to a municipal or city composting facility that accepts food and/or yard waste. An industrial composting facility requires precise processing conditions under a controlled biotechnological process. In order to be effective, these conditions include a certain high temperature, moisture level, aeration, pH, and carbon/nitrogen ratio.
Industrial composting facilities are not available in many places. There are about 200 in the US, serving less than 5% of the population. If there is not an industrial composting facility in your area, the only option is to throw compostable plastics in the trash, since they cannot be recycled.
If there is a facility in your area, it still does not guarantee the items will be composted. The reality is that many facilities cannot tell the difference between compostable plastics from regular plastics other than by carefully reading the label on each item. This is not practical with the number of disposables we currently discard, so many items go to the landfill.
Let’s look at three examples of greenwashed and problematic products.
Wincup polystyrene disposable cups
I saw this single-use disposable coffee cup on the campus where I work. A colleague had purchased coffee at the cafeteria and the images of green leaves and biodegradable claims drew my interest. The company, called WinCup and based out of Stone Mountain, Georgia, claims to be a leading manufacturer of disposable polystyrene products.
WinCup disposable polystyrene cup. Photos by me
First, these cups will not biodegrade unless they are put into biologically active landfills, which are far and few between. On their website, they claim that their “cups biodegrade 92% over 4 years” and “under conditions that simulate a wetter, biologically active landfill.”2 What is this type of landfill? My understanding is that it is similar to an industrial composting facility, in the facility adds moisture to assist with breakdown.
Most people toss these cups into the regular trash, which then goes to landfills. This is the case where I work (I have plans to meet with cafeteria management to come up with better solutions for food and drinkware). These cups will not break down in a landfill. Additionally, if these cups end up in the ocean, they will likely not break down and will also leach toxins. When marine life ingests those toxins, they make their way up through the food chain to us.
BASF ecovio line
BASF, a major chemical corporation, claims to “combine economic success with environmental protection and social responsibility.”3 I found some greenwashed marketing on their website about compostable plastic:
BASF used Ecovio film applications to make organic waste bags, fruit and vegetable bags, carrier bags, agricultural films, etc. Their claim is that the product is compostable, but the fine print indicates it is compostable “under the conditions of an industrial composting plant.”4
This picture is misleading, as it shows a person putting a bag of compost into a compost bin. This gives the impression that these bags will break down in any compost collection when that is not the case. BASF’s compostable certification is the ASTM D6400, which is specifically for industrial composting facilities.5 Those are not available in most municipalities or states. If these products go into a landfill, it makes no environmental impact whatsoever. They also cause the same pollution problems as regular plastic.
Molded fiber take-out packaging
These “compostable” and “plastic alternative” molded fiber take-out containers seemed like amagnificent alternative to plastic until they were discovered to contain PFOAs (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances). These chemicals, protect the fibers from becoming wet and soggy. The same compounds are in most nonstick cookware. They cause cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, and immunotoxicity in children.
Though marketed as compostable, these chemicals do not disappear. They get into the soil from the compost, and potentially into whatever is grown in that soil. Worse, these chemicals make it into the waterways and eventually into our drinking water.
My family ate out of these types of containers multiple times. Of course, I had no idea the time that these contained PFOAs. Many major eateries have stopped using these.
In general, we must consume less. We must end the production and use of single-use disposable items. Most importantly, being aware of these problems is key because we can all make a difference.
In my next article about packaging, I’ll explain bioplastics, which are often advertised as biodegradable or compostable. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!
“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky
Article, “The bowls at Chipotle and Sweetgreen are supposed to be compostable. They contain cancer-linked ‘forever chemicals,'” by Joe Fassler, TheCounter.org, August 5, 2019. Read this excellent article for more information on molded fiber food containers.
Article, “The breakdown of biodegradable plastic, broken down,” by Sarah DeWeerdt, Anthropocene Magazine, May 7, 2019.
Article, “Will compostable packaging ever be able to solve our waste problem?” by Adele Peters, fastcompany.com, September 3, 2019.
Recently, I sent my husband to the Hazardous Waste facility in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to drop off used alkaline batteries (aka single-use or dry cell or primary cell) that we’ve been saving for about 8 months. Hazardous waste would not accept them, informing him that “they were fine to put in the regular trash.” I’ve been taking them there since 2016, perhaps twice per year, and they always accepted them. Did they used to accept them, and now they don’t? Did they never accept them, and just put them in the landfill instead of properly informing me? I don’t know the answer but either way, I was shocked and disappointed.
I believed alkaline batteries were recyclable for many years. Years before I traveled to the Hazardous Waste facility, I used to bring them to Batteries Plus (now Batteries+Bulbs) for recycling. But in the last decade, they stopped taking them. The store clerks told me several times that the recommendation has been to place them in the trash because they are “safe” for landfills. I’ve even been told that alkaline batteries are “good” for landfills because the alkalinity balances out the acidic environment of landfills.
Is any of this true?
No, it isn’t. Those are myths.
According to an article on Consumer Reports: “If your old batteries end up in a landfill, pollutants like these can leak out into the environment and contaminate groundwater, damage fragile ecosystems, and even make their way into the food chain.”
The argument is that mercury, a highly toxic metal, is no longer a threat. Mercury content in batteries has decreased significantly since passage of the 1996 Battery Act, which also changed their classification from hazardous waste to non-toxic or non-hazardous. Some argue that naturally occurring metals in batteries pose no threat to the environment.
But why take the chance while the experts argue it out? Any single-use disposable item is now a threat anyway because of the sheer volume of items we throw away.
So can alkaline batteries be recycled?
Technically, yes. But practically, no.
While the recycling of alkaline batteries does exist, they are more expensive to process and they don’t contain valuable materials like other types of batteries do. Thus there is no financial incentive to recycle them unless mandated by law.
Are there laws about battery disposal/recycling?
In some places, yes. More than twenty states have laws about battery disposal. But most are concerned with rechargeable type batteries, which are much more recyclable. In Tennessee, there are no battery recycling requirements. California has the most strict laws – not surprising since California is always in the lead when it comes to laws regarding unsafe, toxic, and dangerous products.
A few states, according to Consumer Reports, require some retailers to collect batteries for recycling. Others require that battery manufacturers fund or organize battery collection programs. Making the manufacturers responsible is one solution. This model is called Extended Producer Responsibility.
What do the manufacturers recommend?
I checked with three large battery manufacturers for their recommendations on alkaline battery disposal. Overall, I was displeased.
Duracell: “Our alkaline batteries are composed primarily of common metals—steel, zinc, and manganese—and do not pose a health or environmental risk during normal use or disposal…Therefore, alkaline batteries can be safely disposed of with normal household waste, everywhere but California.” They encourage customers to contact the local government for disposal options in their area.
Vermont passed a law that implements Extended Producer Responsibility: “A 2016 law now requires primary battery producers, such as Duracell, to fund a free statewide collection and recycling program.” Yay for Vermont!
Energizer contends that “unless you live in California, you’ve been tossing non-rechargeable batteries safely in the trash for at least 19 years.” Um, if it’s not safe in California, it’s not safe anywhere. Toxins don’t change by crossing a border.
Energizer shucks responsibility on the website. They also take credit for an effort to which they did not contribute. “Since its inception in 1994, Call2Recycle has recycled over 100 million pounds of used rechargeable batteries. This national mindset to recycle has enabled Energizer® to pioneer technology that reuses battery material to create new batteries. So already we’re helping to make a difference.” No, they’re not. If these statements were true, they’d take responsibility for the afterlife of disposable batteries.
Rayovac: “Batteries can be disposed of with normal household waste in most US states.” They, too, refer consumers to Call2Recycle. They offer information on their commitment to sustainable production, which is neat even though they offer no real solutions for disposable alkaline batteries.
Where can you recycle batteries?
Earth911 and Call2Recycle are both good resources for recycling in general. The latter, a leading battery stewardship program, has collection sites for batteries in different parts of the nation. There are no collection points in Tennessee, nor Georgia or Alabama. But maybe they’re near you! Check out this map from Care2Recycle.org:
There are a few places you can pay to recycle alkaline batteries, but it’s very costly for us as consumers:
TerraCycle offers alkaline battery recycling pouches starting at $57.
Call2Recycle sells a box for $45 for battery recycling and other items.
There are several solutions at the consumer level that we can implement.
Stop buying alkaline or single-use disposable batteries, and switch to rechargeable batteries. They are reusable and much more recyclable! This is what I am planning to do effective immediately. I read reviews on rechargeable batteries and decided to order a Panasonic Eneloop rechargeable batteries set. I’ll update this post with a review of them once I’ve received and tested them.
Reduce your overall dependence on batteries. I know this is not always feasible, especially with children’s toys and remote controls, but opt for plugging in whenever possible. You can also buy smarter in the future, purchasing items that don’t require alkaline batteries.
Recycle the ones you can through one of the above-mentioned services, until you can fully make the switch away from alkaline batteries. I will be doing this well, and I’ll update this post to let you know how it went!
Write to the battery manufacturers and request that they do more to improve recycling and awareness about disposal. This probably won’t do much, but it’s worth a try!
I hope this was helpful, and thank you for reading! Leave me a comment or question below, I love a dialog! Keep trying to be the change, and please subscribe!