As China Refuses Our Recycling, We are Now Burning our Plastics, and Guess Who is Down Wind?

Recycling will never solve the consequences of over-consumption. We are now poisoning the air by incinerating plastic and dumping trash at horrifying levels directly into the ocean. With China no longer accepting our recycling, we need to examine closely our single use of plastic and paper. Remember, when we throw things away, there is no “away.”

Today, Tues., Feb. 26, 8:30 a.m., in Room 311, the Senate Conservation Committee is scheduled to hear SB 459 Hydraulic Fracturing Permits & Reporting. This bill creates a 4-year moratorium on issuing new fracking permits so that state agencies can collect data on the impacts of fracking and report to the Governor. It does not impact existing leases, though oil & gas lobbyists are, not surprisingly, over-reacting. But we are told this bill is dead on arrival, which tells us much about just how much work we have to do in NM to keep fossil fuels in the ground.  This needs to be one area of focus in our planning post-legislative session. How can we craft a Green New Deal for NM that has teeth and requires sacrifice.

Green New Deal Action at Rep. Ben Ray Lujan’s Santa Fe Office. TODAY, Feb. 26, 1:30 PM,1611 Calle Lorca Suite A, Santa Fe. I am told by Green New Deal organizers that this will not be an act of civil disobedience, but merely an effort to underscore how much Santa Feans want our US Rep to sponsor this critical resolution. I have my fingers crossed there is no ultra urgent bill being heard at the same time, as otherwise I plan to be there and hope you will too. Click here to RSVP and invite your friends to join us using the RSVP link.

If We are to Prevent Drowning in Plastic, We MUST Change Our Economic System and Personal Consumption Habits

From an earlier Retake Post: This article, Limits to Growth: The 30-Year Update, describes the limits to an economic system predicated on growth and continuous consumption. It convincingly conveys that capitalism and neoliberalism are simply unsustainable. Leaving aside the gross exploitation involved in capitalism, this research shows that it doesn’t really matter if you “like” capitalism or feel it has been the source of tremendous achievement — it just isn’t sustainable. For there to be enough profit for the 1%, there needs to be continuous production of goods, much of which we really do not need, and the production of those goods necessarily creates waste and pollution, a burden our planet simply can’t support.

As a reaction to the above reality, Green Growth became a “thing” at the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro in 2012, and green growth remains central to the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals. But even in a world totally committed to reduced waste and production efficiency, we will never be able to produce something from nothing and we have long ago surpassed the sustainable level of planetary resource use. In 2000 we hit the 50 billion metric tons of resource use, considered then to be the threshold for what mankind can consume. To give you a sense of the planet’s current sense of urgency, even with dire warnings in 2000, we now utilize 40% more resources than in 2000, 70 billion metric tons.

Even assuming a renewed and sustained commitment to green growth, two recent studies suggest that growth just can’t be green. The first study was done by a team of scientists led by the German researcher Monika Dittrich who conducted an elaborate computer modeling and first assumed continued 2-3% increases in economic growth over the next 32 years. By 2050 our consumption of resources would be 180 billion metric tons, almost 4 times a sustainable level. When the team re-ran the formulas incorporating the highest possible efficiencies and green technologies, the model still produced an annual consumption of resources of 93 billion metric tons, better than 180 billion metric tons, but still double a sustainable level of resource use.

Retake has long considered it essential that for our planet to survive, we must reduce our consumption of plastics and other resources, and cease operating under the false assumption that if you are green, if you recycle, if you compost, we can continue to pursue economic growth at all. It is an inconvenient truth that we are well beyond consuming at a rate far in excess of a sustainable level. This was driven home when I saw a recent report on the impact of China’s refusing to continue to recycle thousands of tons of US recycling materials..

Packaging like this translates into incinerating plastic, downwind toxins, and an ocean full of plastic trash. We live in a ‘throwaway’ society where there is no “away.”

Until recently, China had been taking about 40% of US paper, plastics and other recyclables, but this trans-Pacific waste route has now ground to a halt. In July 2017, China told the World Trade Organization it no longer wanted to be the end point for yang laji, or foreign garbage, with the country keen to grapple with its own mountains of waste. The loss of this overseas dumping ground means that plastics, paper and glass set aside for recycling by Americans is being stuffed into domestic landfills or is simply burned in vast volumes. This new reality risks an increase of plumes of toxic pollution that threaten the largely black and Latino communities who live near heavy industry and dumping sites in the US. And so once again we see how the combination of capitalist over-consumption and the political realities of a dysfunctional democracy translates into another form of sacrifice zones. Communities without political influence, i.e. low-income communities, are the ones who suffer the down-wind consequences of the out-of-control growth that fuels our capitalist and corporate models.

For example, about 200 tons of recycling material is sent to the huge Covanta incinerator in Chester City, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, every day since China’s import ban came into practice last year, the company says.

“People want to do the right thing by recycling but they have no idea where it goes and who it impacts,” said Zulene Mayfield, who was born and raised in Chester and now spearheads a community group against the incinerator, called Chester Residents Concerned for Quality Living.  But therein lies the problem: we think we are doing the right thing, we are altering our personal behaviors to recycle, to compost, to even reduce our personal consumption, but the forces of capitalism demand gross over-consumption, and even stores like Whole Foods, that was created to offer a grocery alternative that featured organic food, sustainably raised meat, and other politically correct food, has entirely succumbed to the “everything tastes better stored in plastic” approach to merchandising (photo above).  And then on the other end of this merchandising strategy are sacrifice zones.

“People in Chester feel hopeless – all they want is for their kids to get out, escape. Why should we be expendable? Why should this place have to be burdened by people’s trash and shit?” Some experts worry that burning plastic recycling will create a new fog of dioxins that will worsen an already alarming health situation in Chester. Nearly four in 10 children in the city have asthma, while the rate of ovarian cancer is 64% higher than the rest of Pennsylvania and lung cancer rates are 24% higher, according to state health statistics. Sacrifice zone.

“There are higher than normal rates of heart disease, stroke and asthma in Chester, which are all endpoints for poor air,” said Dr Marilyn Howarth, a public health expert at the University of Pennsylvania who has advised Chester activists for the past six years.  Howarth said residents now risk a worsened exposure to pollution due to increased truck traffic rumbling through their streets, bringing recycling to the plant. Once burned, plastics give off volatile organics, some of them carcinogenic.

At least Chester, PA has Zulene Mayfield to advocate on its behalf. Fish don’t advocate very well, and the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is estimated to be anywhere from 3,100 square miles to twice the size of Texas.

The Five Main Ocean GyresYou may be wondering how garbage dumped on land can make it to the ocean. Well, first of all, some garbage is directly dumped into the ocean. Secondly, as Scripps Institution marine biologist Miriam Goldstein puts it, “the ocean is downhill from everywhere;” if someone in Iowa throws a bottle into a river, it will eventually end up in the ocean. Finally, about 20 percent of the debris in the garbage patch comes from sea-going vessels and oil platforms.

The garbage patch forms in the North Pacific gyre, one of five main ocean gyres worldwide: North Pacific, South Pacific, North Atlantic, South Atlantic and Indian Ocean. These gyres are created when the jet stream goes one way and the trade winds go the opposite way – creating a huge, gently swirling circle. On the outside of the circle, the currents move around, but the inside remains calm, making it the perfect place for debris to accumulate.

The plastic in these gyres is not easily visible with millions of plastic bottles that could be skimmed and removed from the ocean. Rather it is a huge concentration of smaller plastic pellets that birds and fish can mistake for food. And what happens when birds eat plastic is not good, as their digestive system fills with the plastic, they can’t digest it, and so the birds feel their hunger and nutritional needs have been met….until they starve to death like the poor fellow at right with what looks like a feast of plastic gorging his stomach.

Just how badly do we overuse plastics. As reflected in the summary below, the sheer volume of our wasteful consumption is staggering. And the solution is not to be found with a hemp bag here and a refillable water bottle there. What is needed is a complete overhaul of how we store and consume our food, how we purchase so much that we don’t need, how we celebrate birthdays and holidays, how we shop for ‘bargains’ on things we don’t really need. But far more important than our personal consumption decisions, are the production decisions made by the corporatocracy. In a capitalist world, there is no such thing as restraint, and so ultimately we need regulations that curb production and growth. But how is that achieved in a political world run by the same corporations we need to curb? Not a pretty picture. I can almost hear the grandchild I will someday have, asking me: What were you thinking? I wish I had an answer for that.

In solidarity,

Paul & Roxanne

This checklist of facts was provided by Earth Day Network

FACT #1 In 2016, world plastics production totaled around 335 million metric tons.[1] Roughly half of annual plastic production is destined for a single-use product.[2]
FACT #2 Humans buy about 1,000,000 plastic bottles per minute in total.[3] Only about 23% of plastic bottles are recycled within the U.S.[4]
FACT #3 Americans purchase about 50 billion water bottles per year, averaging about 13 bottles per month for every person in the U.S.! That means by using a reusable water bottle, you could save an average of 156 plastic bottles annually.[5]
FACT #4 It is estimated that 4 trillion plastic bags are used worldwide annually. Only 1% of plastic bags are returned for recycling.[6] Americans throw away 100 billion plastic bags annually. That’s about 307 bags per person! All that waste can be eliminated by switching to reusable shopping bags.[7]
FACT #5 Half a million straws are used in the world every day.[8]  Refusing straws is becoming a trending practice!
FACT #6 500 billion disposable cups are consumed every year.[9] Americans alone throw away 25 billion styrofoam coffee cups every year. Styrofoam cannot be completely recycled. Most of the Styrofoam disposed of today will still be present in landfills 500 years from now.[10]
FACT #7 The main cause for the increase in plastic production is plastic packaging. Plastic packaging was 42% of all non-fiber plastic produced in 2015, and it also made up 52% of plastics thrown away.
FACT #8 Single-use-plastics frequently do not make it to a landfill or are recycled.[11] A full 32% of the 78 million tons of plastic packaging produced annually is left to flow into our oceans; the equivalent of pouring one garbage truck of plastic into the ocean every minute. This is expected to increase to two per minute by 2030 and four per minute by 2050. By 2050, this could mean there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans.[12]Choosing to buy products with less packaging or no packaging altogether makes a big difference.
FACT #9 Even when single-use plastics are sent to landfills (there are 3,091 active landfills in the U.S. alone), they aren’t harmless. Landfill liners can leak harmful pollutants into the watershed and plastics on the tops of landfills can be carried away by the wind.[13] The best way to curb single-use plastic pollution is to reduce your personal plastic consumption!

Greta Thunberg


Fridays for future. The school strike continues!

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Categories: Climate Change, Agriculture, Land Use & Wildlife, Uncategorized

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4 replies

  1. Thx for this insightful, terrifying article. I try to cut back on plastics but fall far short of a sustainable path. Sonya Berg

  2. People are still dutifully sorting their recyclables, and buying even more plastic. The lie about recycling only helped sell more plastic. No one around here noticed as the amount of packaging increased exponentially. Perhaps we should stack a bunch of it on vacant lots and traffic medians, so people know what they are buying.
    They hype a lot of so called innovation, yet not one attempt to recycle any of this. This state even subsidized businesses that brought in more plastic. The tourism brochure don’t mention how our arroyos are full of plastic or that our national forests, and parks are inundated with it too.

    It looks like Acme is counting on massive subsidies to turn the coal plant into a natural gas plant. They are portraying this as “clean engergy.” The fix is in!


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