Category Archives: Pollution

New York takes baby step towards solving its plastic trash problems

NYC litter basket overflowing with plastic bags

NYC trash basket — only for litter? NYTimes image

New York City has a plastic-waste problem. Discarded carryout bags can be found clogging drains, hanging from trees, coating vacant spaces like tide wrack. According to the city’s sanitation department, New Yorkers throw away more than 10 billion — 10,O00,000,000 — single-use plastic bags every year — one thousand bags for each man, woman, and child. That works out to about 20 billion bags discarded every year in New York State as a whole. Confronted by the scale of the pollution, NY Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced a bill last April which states, “BEGINNING JANUARY FIRST, TWO THOUSAND NINETEEN, THE PROVISION OF PLASTIC CARRYOUT BAGS AT ANY POINT OF SALE TO CUSTOMERS IS PROHIBITED.”

The law is unsatisfactory because of what it leaves out. The ban does not apply to plastic bags to carry uncooked meat, fish, poultry, or food sliced to order. Bags used to contain bulk items such as fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains, or candy, are exempt, as are plastic bags sold in bulk, or repackaged for sale such as trash bags or bags used for food storage. Also given a pass are plastic garment bags, bags used to carry newspapers for delivery to customers, and bags provided by restaurants and similar establishments for carryout food. And there may be other exemptions whenever the government thinks of them.

The Law isn’t going to solve the State’s plastic trash problem any time soon. But it should at least improve appearances. It’s a baby step in the right direction. The question now is, will the bill pass? As of today, the bill is held up in the NY State Senate Rules Committee. The image below shows it’s current status and the steps it must follow before it can be signed into law by Governor Cuomo. Looks like that’s not going to happen by the intended date of January 1, 2019.

Image from NY State Senate website showing status of bill S8258

Image from New York State Senate website

When Governor Cuomo introduced the bill last April, the NY State Senate had a republican majority, so there was some doubt the bill would ever get passed. Come January, the democrats will be in control which should assure the bill’s passage. But one never knows. Politicians are not known for speed or reliability. Here’s a photo of the Senate floor showing Senators at work.

Photo of NY State Senate Floor

New York State Senate Floor. nysenate.gov image

While plastic packaging is an out-and-out evil, not everything found in garbage is ugly. In fact, some of it is good-looking and interesting enough to make up the contents of a fascinating New York City musium.

Treasures in the Trash Musium

The Treasures in the Trash Musium was founded by Nelson Melina,  a Sanitation Department employee for many years. The collection consists of about fifty thousand artifacts found in New York City trash by Molina over a period of thirty years. The museum is located in East Harlem, above a NYC Sanitation Dept. Garage at 343 E 99th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues. It’s not open to the public on a regular basis. The department arranges tours from time to time. 

Musical instruments at Treasures in the Trash Musium, NYC

Musical Instruments. Treasures in the Trash Musium, NYC. Image credit : untappedcities.com

For more photos of the musium’s collection, go to Untapped Cities: Behind the Scenes at the NYC Sanitation Dept. Trash Musium on the Upper East Side.

Plastic packaging overwhelms humanity — industry looks to increase the supply

Image of plastic water bottles on production line

A few of the 50 Billion plastic water bottles used and discarded in the U.S. in one year

Since its invention in the early 20th century, plastic has been put to a multitude of valuable uses. Plastic packaging is not one of them. It’s a scourge. The stuff keeps piling up in landfills and garbage tips. It accumulates along beaches and floats in the oceans as micro particles. It slowly degrades in sunlight, releasing methane and ethylene, potent greenhouse gases. When burned with trash in the open air (as happens routinely in poor countries) it releases a range of deadly fumes, including dioxin. When burned in an incinerator as a source of energy (plastic is made from fossil fuels) it releases its carbon content into the atmosphere, thus increasing global warming.

Image of discarded flexible packaging

Discarded flexible packaging. Image: RecycleBC

Plastic trash is a highly visible form of pollution. That’s a problem for the plastics industry.  Stung by public criticism, manufacturers and users of plastic packaging have begun to react. Amcor, a leading manufacturer of plastic packaging, together with some of the big users (including, Coca-Cola, Danone, MARS, Novamont, L’Oréal, Pepsi, Unilever, and Veolia), say they have committed themselves to the New Plastics Economy, an initiative by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This is what the organization’s website says it wants to achieve:

In a new plastics economy, plastic never becomes waste or pollution. Three actions are required to achieve this vision and create a circular economy for plastic. Eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic items. Innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable. Circulate all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

If those statements sound to you like the kind of New Year resolutions a weak-willed glutton might make, you’re right. Plastic products are cheap, most of the public accepts them, and the industry wants to continue feeding the market with as much of the stuff as it will swallow. According to the industry newsletter Plastics Today, the plastic packaging market is expected to grow in value from about $200 billion in 2017 to $270 billion in 2025, a 35% increase.

Of course the industry wants something to be done about the trash. It’s an embarrassment. Look at the last statement in the committments they made about circulating all the plastic items we use. The question is, who do they think will execute that part of their commitment? Right now, municipalities handle garbage collection and recycling, provided they have a tax base to support it. Municipalities in poor countries don’t have that luxury. Does the plastics industry intend to fund the collection and recycling of plastic trash in all those places in the world where that work falls short of 100% efficiency? Of course not. What the industry is angling for is a commitment, by others — governments, municipalities, you and I — to pay for it.

Suppose, as is likely, no one wants to pay the cost of dealing with plastic pollution on a global scale, what then? In the case of plastic packaging, the obvious solution would be to switch back to non-polluting materials such as paper and glass. People lived without plastic before. We can do so again.

Industry representatives opposed to the idea raise the usual objections: impractical; ill informed; too expensive; jobs would be lost, etc. Or they imply that there is no alternative. For example, Amcor CEO Ron Delia, quoted in his company’s website, says: “Plastic packaging is vital for products used by billions of consumers around the globe. It’s highly effective and easy to adapt, so that those products are safe, nutritious and effective.”  So . . . Plastic packaging is not just useful, it is vital. Foodstuffs that are not packed in plastic are unsafe, ineffective, lack nutrition. Use plastic or billions will suffer. Those are the messages Mr. Delia’s statement implies.

We humans have a tendency to eat until we burst. Our excessive consumption of plastic is just one example.  Fortunately it’s a habit we can easily break. But to succeed, the break will have to be made despite the New Plastic Economy crowd.

The following YouTube video by Ravi Bajoria shows a primative garbage sorting line in operation. Poor countries cannot afford to buy and operate the automated, high-tech systems that are available. If we stop using plastic packaging, they won’t need them.