10 October 2019
EHN.org founder Pete Myers is part of a debate on how to further cut waste tied to single-use products.
CROZET, Virginia – I didn't know what to do with this. Fortunately the Facebook community was listening.
As a kid I had pet snakes. I have always loved them. Now, in my log cabin office snugged up against the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, black rat snakes live not as pets but as co-residents, eating resident mice. They come and go. Less welcome was the copperhead I caught and moved from the entrance door earlier last week. They all are part of the earth's biodiversity and play roles in making the earth inhabitable for all, including humans.
Last week, after moving the copperhead, I discovered that a weed control tool I purchased and laid out in my garden called a "Straw Blanket," from Pennington Lawn and Garden Care Products, indiscriminately kills snakes. They get tangled in the "photodegradable plastic" mesh that holds the straw together and that is supposed to degrade over time in sunlight. Two docile, friendly corn snakes were caught in the mesh together, and died. Maybe some of you would like to surround your house with it because you are afraid of snakes. Perhaps Pennington should advertise this feature: #WeKillSnakes. I will spare you photos of the dead snakes.
Biodegradable is one of the great myths of the consumer society.
I was – and am – horrified. Biodiversity (including snakes) is having a really tough time these days (see the recent UN report). And the worse it gets for other parts of the animal/plant kingdom, the more vulnerable we are for a collapse of civilization. If you think this is an exaggeration, you don't know the relevant scientific literature.
I put this tale of shock and woe on Facebook. Pennington Lawn and Garden, I said, needs to stop selling this product, quickly. I tagged Charlottesville Southern States Cooperative, where I bought the product.
And here's where the story takes an unexpected turn for the better:
I went back to Charlottesville Southern States Cooperative, to return my unused Straw Blanket rolls and to tell them that they were selling a defective product that killed snakes. I didn't want a refund, I told the clerk, but I hoped the store would consider putting a warning sign on the sales floor. She smiled at me. "We saw your post and already took all of them off the floor."
Thank you Charlottesville Southern States Cooperative! I hope you also encourage Pennington Lawn and Garden to do the same.
The European Parliament on Thursday called out the dangers posed by endocrine-disrupting compounds and urged the European Union to take action to safeguard human health and the environment.
The resolution, approved on a 447-14 vote, called on the European Commission "to swiftly take all necessary action to ensure a high level of protection of human health and the environment."
This "is a strong and scientifically sound resolution calling for the EU Commission to stop dithering and start acting," said EHN.org founder and chief scientist Pete Myers.
The EU Parliament today passed a strong and scientifically sound resolution calling for the EU Commission to stop d… https://t.co/KEyZsOqeNT— Pete Myers (@Pete Myers)1555605791.0
Endocrine-disrupting chemicals, commonly called EDCs, interfere with the exquisite chemical balance required for proper functioning of hormones. They are linked to a variety of common diseases like cancer, infertility, type 2 diabetes, obesity, learning and memory problems and neurodegenerative diseases.
EDCs are ubiquitous, appearing in in the lining of canned foods, in cosmetics, as an ingredient in household cleaning products, nonstick ware, water repellent papers and clothing, in sunscreens, plastic tubing and toys, and in pesticides sprayed on fruits and vegetables.
"The evidence continues to grow and grow," wrote Dr. Leo Trasande, a professor of pediatrics, environmental medicine, and population health at New York University, in his new book, Sicker Fatter Poorer. "Now is the time to take concrete steps."
The EU resolution passed with a large cross-party majority. It sets out priorities for prompt action on EDCs and instructions for the next European Commission coming in office later this year, noting that there is "no valid reason to postpone effective regulation."
"The European Parliament has made a landmark statement and is showing that strong action against endocrine disrupting chemicals is an absolute priority," said EDC-Free Europe's campaign coordinator Sandra Jen in a statement. "Now it is up to the European Commission to propose legislation to ensure that people's health and our environment across Europe are protected against EDCs."
It's a done deal 🎉! The European Parliament has put our health and the environment first and calls on… https://t.co/RVv1C93Qqm— Health and Environment Alliance (@Health and Environment Alliance)1555589929.0
EDC-Free Europe and a coalition of science and nonprofit organizations have long called on the EU Commission, EU Parliament and European governments to update the 1999 European strategy on EDCs.
On Thursday, Parliament acknowledged that: "The revision of the 1999 Community strategy for EDCs," the resolution states, "is long overdue."
Correction appended: Earlier versions of this story misreported the vote tally: The EU Parliament voted 447-14 (with 41 abstentions).
I spent two days at a Swiss ski resort at the end of July thinking with a group of experts on different pieces of the plastic problem, especially plastic in the ocean.
Ironic, I know. Alps vs. oceans. But the Alps once were ocean floors, so perhaps that is the circular economy.
The meeting was organized by the Klosters Forum, which describes itself as "a new platform that brings together disruptive and inspirational minds to tackle some of the world's most pressing environmental challenges."
The group they gathered included unquestionably "disruptive and inspirational minds" and it most certainly focused on one of the world's "most pressing environmental challenges:" The nano, micro and macro plastic flowing off land into fresh and salt water.
(PS: It's a problem on land too… more on that in another essay).
Here at Environmental Health Sciences we knew this was a problem.
I gave a TED-style talk about it in 2016 in London's famed Abbey Road Studio, at an event organized by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation just before the Brexit vote.
My emphasis was on the possible health implications. But it's too easy to think about the atomized pieces (microplastics?) of this without seeing the full picture. That full picture emerged at the July Forum, because of the range of deep expertise that was present and because the sheer enormity of the challenge utterly resists any simple solutions.
Plastic production trends are quintessentially exponential.
A headline-grabbing study published in 2017 concluded that half of the plastic ever produced was made in the last 13 years.
Above is a graph of the trajectory of plastic production predicted by the plastics industry. Some of that may be wishful thinking, but this trend is today driving investments in production capability by the world's major plastic producers. It's bad enough already.
Plastic debris even in the bottom of the Mariana Trench? A paper published in Science in 2015 concluded that "without waste management infrastructure improvements, the cumulative quantity of plastic waste available to enter the ocean from land is predicted to increase by an order of magnitude by 2025." A ten-fold increase in just 10 years (now but 7 years away).
Peter Flynn, program director of the Klosters Forum, set the tone at the outset of the meeting when he led with a litany of plastic facts that had been compiled by Isabella Marinho, an undergraduate in Environmental Studies at the New School and an intern at Klosters.
Here it is (reprinted with permission):
Statistics on plastics and plastic related pollution
So the scale of the challenge is undeniably enormous. There are huge economic pressures at play to continue the exponential growth curve of plastic production. There are no solutions in hand today prepared to deal with the problem at scale. Lots of small stuff, often feel-good stuff, but nothing capable individually or collectively of solving it.
Recycling is simply incapable of managing this onslaught.
As Jane Muncke, director of Zurich's Food Packaging Forum (Full disclosure: I am on FPF's board) and an expert on plastics pithily observed "recycling is the fig leaf of consumerism." It allows us to imagine our efforts are adding up to a solution. In reality they don't even come close.
But it gives us psychological permission to continue on the current path – to continue with single-use plastics. And the problem will only become worse as we follow industry's projected growth curve.
If today's bio-based plastics were to grow to a scale commensurate with the problem, they would have huge consequences for land management and food production.
They also almost invariably contain plastic additives necessary to achieve the material characteristics that manufacturers need. Many of those additives are linked to health problems.
And then there are the "Non-Intentionally Added Substances", the NIAS, that plague all plastic production because the feed stocks aren't pure and air pollution interacts with the plastic during manufacture to add unknown molecules to the mix.
There are new efforts to design plastics that break down on demand. These aren't ready to go to scale and it would take a long time, if ever, for them to be produced at a volume sufficient to have meaningful impacts.
Today's commodity plastics are simply too cheap. Plus, break-down plastics are still experimental. They might not work.
They, too, may become fig leaves.
I left the meeting with three inter-related thoughts:
First, simple solutions about recycling ocean plastics do not take into account the scale of the problem: how much is really out there, how much is macro vs. micro and the toxic dimensions of the problem as it relates to recycling toxic materials. They allow us to feel good but distract us from the problem.
Second, recovery from the ocean of micro and nano plastics is impossible, but increasingly we understand that this is where the problem lies, especially the toxicity issues.
Third, exponential growth is our enemy, and that's what's happening today and tomorrow.
Any solution that ignores current and future growth is, as Muncke puts it, "a fig leaf." We will feel good as consumers, but our actions will not have measurable impact on the problem. And we can go on being feel-good consumers with single use plastics, adding to exponential growth.
The enormity of the problem has led EHS to launch its new weekly newsletter, "Into the Plasticene" (free subscription here).
The newsletter, like our flagship "Environmental Health News" (EHN.org), aggregates media coverage in English from around the world.
Into the Plasticene will put stories in your inbox every Monday about the scope of the problem, efforts to develop (and scale) solutions, impacts on biota, and health implications for wildlife and people, as well as efforts by vested interests to distract and dissemble when they find their ox about to be gored.
Whatever we find that can inform your work on plastic, we'll send to your inbox. Please give it a read.
In the essay "American Beauties," writer and sociologist Rebecca Altman traces the problem of plastic to a pivotal moment:
"The future of plastics is in the trash can," the editor of Modern Packaging magazine, Lloyd Stouffer, argued in the mid-1950s to a group of industry insiders.
Stouffer had advocated for the industry "to stop thinking about 'reuse' packages and concentrate on single use."
If the plastics industry wants to drive sales, he argued, "it must teach customers how to waste" (emphasis added).
Mr. Stouffer, you have created a global monster. May your descendants live in peace with its consequences. Or not.
We've clearly learned Stouffer's assigned lesson, abetted by the abiding cheapness of plastic. Now we have to unlearn it.
My head is in a vice as I peer into the Plasticene. And yes, my glass frames are plastic, as are the lenses.
Sometimes you just need the 2,500 foot view.
EHN founder and chief scientist Pete Myers recently took a plane ride high above his hometown of Charlottesville, Virginia, with Ali Nouri, who runs a Youtube channel called Above the Fray. Nouri—previously a legislative director for former Minnesota Democrat Sen. Al Franken—launched the channel to interview people working at the intersection of policy and science.
Myers hopped aboard the plane to discuss bisphenol-A (BPA), a controversial endocrine disrupting chemical common in plastics, canned food linings and thermal paper receipts. But, as Myers warns, BPA is just the tip of the iceberg.
"If it's on the shelf that does not mean it's been tested," Myers tells Nouri, an adjunct professor at George Washington University, where, when he's not taking interview subjects aloft, he teaches a course on alternative energy. "Only a tiny fraction of chemicals for sale today in consumer products have been seriously tested."
"Why?" Nouri asks.
"Because the regulatory system is operating under ground rules that reflect really ancient knowledge."
Check out their whole ride in the video above, and see all of Nouri's Above the Fray videos here.
The painkiller, taken by half of pregnant women worldwide, could be contributing to rising rates of reproductive system problems and neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD and autism.
"If we look at the rate of carbon emissions, most is emitted by the developed and industrialized countries, but the problem is poor countries like Bangladesh are the main sufferers."
Working with youth writers on a climate-fiction screenplay has opened my eyes to the power of the arts in confronting environmental crises.