Category Archives: Waste Management

Waste Reduction Policies Facing Rollbacks Amid Global Pandemic

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread throughout the U.S., state and local governments are working tirelessly to respond and adapt. The primary concern for all of us in this trying time is the health and safety of our communities, especially the essential workers in health care, sanitation, retail, transportation and public safety who are putting themselves at risk to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Unfortunately, state and local governments are facing increasing pressure to reverse, delay or otherwise roll back environmentally beneficial waste-reduction policies, such as fees or bans on plastic bags, in the name of public health.

The plastics industry in particular has argued that plastic bags are the most sanitary option for transporting food home from restaurants and grocery stores, and it has urged governments to act swiftly to lift restrictions on plastic bags and other single-use plastics. The industry has specifically called out reusable bags as unsanitary, although there is no scientific evidence to support the claim that properly sanitized reusable bags contribute to the transmission of COVID-19.

To date, neither the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) nor the World Health Organization has issued guidance advising against the use of reusable bags.

PSI has created a digital tracker to record the changes taking place across the United States. Thus far, Connecticut has lifted statewide fees on plastic bags while Massachusetts and New Hampshire have banned reusable bags in grocery stores, pharmacies, and – in the case of New Hampshire – all retail stores.

Massachusetts has also banned local jurisdictions from charging fees on single-use plastic, paper and compostable bags. Maine has delayed its recently enacted single-use plastic bag ban and 5-cent fee on paper bags until 2021. Several local jurisdictions across the country are placing bag bans and other single-use plastics policies on hold, as well. On a corporate level, many major chains, including Starbucks and Dunkin’, have restricted customers from bringing in reusable items, such as coffee mugs.

Repercussions of sidelining reuse

While the protection of our communities and essential workers is paramount in the short term, we must also acknowledge that increased use and disposal of single-use items has long-term implications for the environment and human health at each step of the consumer-products value chain, from production through waste management.

In the case of plastics, for instance, oil and natural gas extraction and refinement for plastics production causes chronic and sometimes fatal respiratory conditions, cancers, neurotoxicity, reproductive and developmental damage, and immune suppression in many thousands of people each year.

The everyday use of plastic products has been linked to cancer, endocrine disruption and other health problems for consumers. At their end-of-life, hundreds of thousands of tons of plastic products from the U.S. and other wealthier nations are shipped abroad to developing countries, where low-wage waste-pickers must sort through our rubbish to extract recyclable items. Much of this waste is openly burned, leading to further chronic health concerns. The conversion of petrochemicals into plastic products also has a tremendous carbon footprint.

While many suspensions on reusable items cite the quick disposal of single-use products as a boon to worker and consumer health, the resulting increase in waste adds to the challenges facing our already-strained collection system. The waste industry has braced for increased residential volumes since the start of the outbreak in the U.S. At the same time, the industry is dealing with a reduced workforce. As of April 9, at least 350 sanitation workers in New York City had tested positive for COVID-19.

Protecting communities from harmful chemicals and pollution has always been at the heart of local and state waste reduction policies such as bans or fees on plastic bags. While most of the rollbacks to these policies across the U.S. are temporary, it will be critical to ensure they do not lead to long-term policy reversals. The need for sustainable, sanitary reuse infrastructure to facilitate long-term waste reduction has become clear amid this crisis.

The role of EPR

Over the long term, product stewardship and extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws will help address many of the challenges with plastics and other single-use products in the U.S. by creating incentives for reuse, recycling and the production of materials with fewer environmental impacts, and by supporting infrastructure development for proper collection and recycling.

PSI’s recently released report, EPR for Packaging & Paper Products: Policies, Practices, & Performance, outlines problems faced by U.S. recycling programs and how EPR programs in four Canadian provinces have increased packaging recovery and recycling, reduced contamination and developed domestic markets for difficult-to-recycle materials.

As we look ahead to a post-COVID-19 future, PSI is hopeful that innovative product stewardship policies will provide avenues for reducing the production and consumption of single-use materials, increasing domestic reuse and recycling opportunities, and safeguarding public health and safety.

PSI will continue to track policy changes and advise members on responding to concerns about existing policies. If you have any updates on plastics or single-use policy changes stemming from the COVD-19 crisis, please add them to the tracker or contact Sydney Harris.

Sydney Harris is senior associate for policy and programs and Scott Cassel is CEO and founder of the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI). 

A Professional Dumpster Diver Finds Trends in Trash

By Alisa Opar, Western Correspondent at Earthwire
*This post has been republished with permission from OnEarth, the magazine of the Natural Resources Defense Council, originally titled “The Professional Dumpster Diver”.

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When digging through hundreds of pounds of trash, it’s best to be on your guard. “There’s always the chance something will jump out at you,” says Jack Chappelle. Mice, rats, and raccoons have all burst forth from garbage heaps Chappelle that has waded through. “We’ve only had one or two snakes.”

While the last time you probably went rooting around in rubbish was back in your middle-school cafeteria (in search of a retainer), Chappelle undertakes this unsavory task for a living. A solid-waste expert with Kansas-based Engineering Solutions & Design, he dissects trash to determine what people are pitching in order to help stem the flow of refuse to landfills. Right now he’s wrapping up a project for five Nebraska communities that want to be able to send zero waste to landfills.

The United States has plenty of room to trim its waste. Every year Americans produce 251 million tons of trash. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, about 164 million tons end up in landfills or incinerators, where it spews greenhouse gases into the atmosphere as it breaks down or burns. Yard trimmings, food waste, paper, paperboard, and plastics comprise nearly 70 percent of this trash (the remainder is a mix of metal, textiles, wood, and other stuff). Recycling and composting have helped make a significant dent: In 2012, the practices diverted nearly 87 million tons of municipal solid waste, preventing the release of about 168 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent into the air—equal to pulling 33 million cars off the road for a year. Still, we could do better.

To find out how, towns and solid-waste management companies in Nebraska, Ohio, Missouri, and Kansas have hired Chappelle’s company to analyze their waste streams.

Chappelle approaches malodorous trash mounds like a geologist confronting a hunk of sedimentary rock. But instead of shells, pebbles, and coal seams, he’s picking out weedwackers, tater tots, tampons, and Chinese-food containers. On any given day, he’s at the landfill, waiting for a garbage truck to dump a load from a residential or commercial area. Then Chappelle makes his first move. He walks around the fresh—perhaps too fresh—delivery clockwise and then counterclockwise.

“Whether you’re inside or out, the light will hit the waste differently, and you’ll see different things from different angles,” he explains. Chappelle is looking for “seams,” or large quantities of one kind of waste, such as cardboard. He’ll also note large objects like lawn mowers that might skew the results but are still important to note.

Then his team will transfer about 300 pounds of trash to tables and separate it all into bins. “That’s about it,” says Chappelle. “It’s a relatively simple process, but it tells you a lot about a community.”

recycling_smlOnce everything is tallied, he sends his recommendations to his clients. Sometimes the town’s solid-waste managers are interested in building recycling operations and are looking for guidance on what kinds of facilities they’ll need. Most of the time, however, they want to understand exactly what people are getting rid of so they can launch targeted campaigns to encourage inhabitants to siphon specific goods out of the waste stream, such as by removing compostable foodstuffs or recyclable plastic milk jugs.

Doing the dirty deed over and over again has allowed Chappelle to get a sense of the varying trash habits of rural and urban communities. Those differences are largely food-based. Suburbanites and city dwellers tend to eat more processed foods (those mac-n-cheese boxes and McDonald’s bags give them away), chuck out less food waste overall (probably due to the use of sink garbage disposals), and have diets that incorporate more exotic fruits and vegetables.

In the nearly 15 years he’s been at it, Chappelle has seen trends both encouraging and disturbing. E-waste has dramatically dropped over the past decade (EPA stats back up his observation), as has the volume of newspapers and magazines (a sad fact, ahem, if you’re a journalist). The skyrocketing quantity of disposable adult diapers, on the other hand, Chappelle finds worrisome. “When we first started, in the early 2000s, diapers were exclusively the domain of babies,” he says. “Now it’s probably 50-50, but by weight, you’d need three or four really solid baby diapers to match one adult diaper.” Single-use nappies might be convenient, but they take 450 years to decompose.

On nearly early every project his company has undertaken, somebody—a community member or an employee of the client—has volunteered to pitch in as Chappelle’s crew sorts trash. “They want to see what is going on and help out,” he says. Chappelle is always happy for their interest, but notes that they tend to be more tenderfoot, less trash hound. Not one has lasted an entire day.

About the Author
Alisa Opar is Earthwire’s Western correspondent. She is also the articles editor at Audubon magazine, and has written for many publications about science and the environment.