Cigarette Waste: New Solutions for the World’s Most-Littered Trash

Cigarette butts are the most-littered item found at beach clean ups. John R. Platt

By Tara Lohan

By now it's no secret that plastic waste in our oceans is a global epidemic. When some of it washes ashore — plastic bottles, plastic bags, food wrappers — we get a stark reminder. And lately one part of this problem has been most glaring to volunteers who comb beaches picking up trash: cigarette butts.

Last year the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy reported that cigarette butts, which contain plastic and toxic chemicals, were the most-littered item at their global beach cleanups.

Trillions of butts are tossed each year. So what's being done about it?

Cigarette butts collected at a beach clean up.

Surfrider Foundation

Environmental advocacy groups have spurred increased public education about the environmental impacts and pushed for the installation of more bins to safely dispose of butts. Some cities have put restrictions on where people can smoke or instituted additional fees on cigarettes to fund clean-up costs. Butt pollution continues.

Now legislators are trying a different approach — producer responsibility. New legislation in several states, including a bill in California to ban products with single-use filters, could force cigarette manufacturers to take responsibility for the environmental impacts of their products.

Information and Infrastructure

It's not news to California volunteers at Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit helping to protect oceans and beaches, that cigarette butts are the most-littered item in the world. They knew two decades ago, when the organization's San Diego chapter started a Hold Onto Your Butt campaign to educate the public about cigarette butt pollution after finding scores on local beaches.

The campaign, which has since spread to other localities on the East and West coasts, has created PSAs, posters and videos to educate people about the environmental impacts of cigarette-butt litter. The biggest problem is the filters, most of which are made of cellulose acetate, a kind of plastic. That means the filters don't readily biodegrade, although they do break down — and send thousands of tiny plastic fibers into the environment, waterways and wildlife. Along with the fibers come chemicals like arsenic, benzene and lead.

"They can drop toxins and pass that onto the aquatic environment," said Bill Hickman, the Southern California regional manager for Surfrider. Studies have shown that these chemicals can be toxic to fish.

Along with public education, Surfrider's campaign has also helped cities install hundreds of new receptacles in high-volume areas like outside bars or near beach walkways, to make safely disposing of butts easier.

Surfrider volunteers have helped install hundreds of bins to keep cigarette butts off city streets.

Surfrider Foundation

Surfrider's San Francisco chapter, for example, has installed 100 cans in select neighborhoods in the city. "In the areas where we're installing the cans and educating people to use them, we see reductions in cigarette litter of more than 60 percent," said Shelly Ericksen, a Surfrider volunteer who's leading the effort in San Francisco. Since indoor smoking bans have pushed smokers outdoors, they need better infrastructure to collect the waste and keep butts off the street, she says.

The campaign sends much of the collected waste to TerraCycle, a company that is able to recycle the butts, turning the plastic into industrial-grade products like plastic pallets. Vancouver, where people litter a million cigarette butts a day, was the first city to pioneer this partnership with TerraCycle, installing 110 cigarette butt recycling bins in its downtown area in 2013.

Mike Roylos, a former café owner from Portland, Maine, has also partnered with the company. In 2013 he launched Sidewalk Buttler to manufacture aluminum containers to collect butts for recycling and track waste collection. His bins are now in 49 states, and he says they've kept 1.2 million butts off the streets.

"Cigarette butt litter is the last socially acceptable form of litter and we're trying to change that mentality," he said. "It's all about clean water — cigarette butts that get tossed on the ground will sooner or later make their way to water, whether the chemicals are released when it rains or it ends up down the sewer and washed out into rivers and lakes."

Collection efforts like these help keep more butts off the streets, but they're still a long way from stemming the tide.

Some cities in California have tried a different tactic: instituting smoking bans at beaches and parks. Assembly Bill 1718, introduced in the California Assembly and now in the state's Senate, would make that a statewide law.

Beverly Hills took things a step farther in June, passing the most restrictive tobacco law in the country, outlawing the sale of cigarettes, chewing tobacco and e-cigarettes in gas stations and convenience stores.

But it may not be enough to make a difference if it can't be enforced.

Hickman lives in Ventura, one of the cities that's already enacted a ban at beaches and parks, and he says the rule is rarely enforced and discarded butts still abound.

Despite local bans and clean-up efforts, Hickman said, "We're still finding huge amounts of cigarette butts."

That's why Surfrider is backing another piece of California legislation — one that tackles producer responsibility. California's S.B. 424 would ban any tobacco products with single-use filters and require that manufacturers of products like vaporizers and e-cigarettes ensure that they can be recycled or properly disposed of through take-back programs. Hickman says the bill would be "monumental in the fight against cigarette butt pollution."

It would be the most sweeping statewide restriction on tobacco in the U.S. and effectively ban cigarettes as they are currently made and packaged now, since virtually all have filters — which don't provide the benefits most smokers think they do.

Smoke Screen

The tobacco industry has pushed filters as a health improvement in cigarettes, but studies are finding the opposite.

"Evidence suggests that ventilated filters may have contributed to higher risks of lung cancer by enabling smokers to inhale more vigorously, thereby drawing carcinogens contained in cigarette smoke more deeply into lung tissue," according to a report from the office of the Surgeon General issued in 2014.

Today virtually all factory-made cigarettes sold contain filters. The industry started using them — and advertising their supposed benefits — in the 1950s after published studies began to reveal the health threats from tobacco. "The advertised benefits of filters were illusory, however, given that smokers of filtered brands often inhaled as much or more tar, nicotine, and noxious gases as smokers of unfiltered cigarettes," a 2015 study found. "Filters were not really even filters in any meaningful sense, since there was no such thing as 'clean smoke.' The industry had recognized this as early as the 1930s, but smokers were led to believe they were safer."

A 2017 study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute reviewing recent medical literature on the topic concluded that "filter ventilation has contributed to the rise in lung adenocarcinomas among smokers," one of the most dangerous forms of lung cancer, and therefore, "the FDA should consider regulating its use, up to and including a ban."

A Tide Change

Legislation like S.B. 424 has been attempted before in California starting in 2014, but never gained enough traction to even clear the first committee.

Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the California Product Stewardship Council, thinks this year's legislation has a better shot. The bill, which her organization is supporting, has already passed the policy and appropriations committees in the Senate before clearing the floor vote. It's now in the Assembly where it will go before the health and governmental organization committees.

The deep pockets of the tobacco industry are a formidable foe, though, and are what stymied earlier efforts, she says.

But she believes growing public concern about pollution could boost the legislation's chances.

"Whales are barfing up plastic bags and dying all over the beaches and everyone is realizing we have a huge plastic problem and cigarettes are a big part of it," she said. "Most people hate all the cigarette waste — even the smokers — and I think the public needs to provide good cover for the legislators to take a hard vote and know that tobacco is going to pull out every stop and hire every lobbyist they can to stop the bill."

There's also another sea change that could help the bill's chances — the growing list of studies documenting negative health outcomes from filters in cigarettes.

That's why another change in the tides is occurring, with efforts making the push to hold someone other than smokers themselves accountable.

"While we're working hard on campaigns to install more receptacles and institute a lot of messaging targeted at smokers that will help to bring about behavior changes, we also realized that it's really the fault of the cigarette manufacturers for putting a plastic filter onto the cigarette that is being littered everywhere," said Ericksen. "At the end of the day, even though our efforts are great to raise awareness and are helping to curb the problem in some of our coastal areas, it's really going to come down to policy, legislation and extended producer responsibility."

Producer Responsibility

As nonprofit organizations concerned with plastic pollution band together across the globe, a concerted strategy is emerging. No amount of consumer behavioral changes or improved recycling programs can deal with the sheer volume of low-value plastics, like single-use products such as straws and bags, without the producers changing their products to create less waste.

The European Union recently passed a "circular economy" law that includes extended producer responsibility language, which shifts the responsibility for the environmental costs of a product back on the producer and encourages manufacturers think about the full lifecycle of a product.

California is hoping to pass a similar law.

This concept of producer responsibility, or product stewardship, is also at the heart of S.B. 424.

"There's not much we can do when they've designed a product that contains plastic and is meant to be burned," said Sanborn. "It's a horrible design. It needs to change and the people who should pay to change it are the people who make them. Not the rest of us."

Local governments and the environment have already been paying the externalized costs, she said. "We're done — it's time for them to pick it up and start paying the bill."

San Francisco has calculated that more than half the litter cleaned up from its streets is from tobacco products, including butts and packaging. The city now charges a 60 cent fee on packs of cigarettes to cover clean-up costs and was the first in the city, back in 2009, to assess a cigarette litter abatement fee.

Other localities have tried different approaches, but with little success yet.

Maine considered legislation in 2001 for a deposit and refund program, where cigarettes packs had a $1 fee and a five-cent refund was given for butts returned to redemption centers. The legislation didn't pass. New York tried to pass something similar in 2010 and 2013.

Pennsylvania may take up the issue this summer. State Representative Chris Rabb is hoping to introduce a cigarette filter upcycling bill, which would add 20 cents to a pack of cigarettes to fund collection centers and find safe ways to reuse the waste.

TerraCycle turns cigarette butts into industrial plastic items.


Legislators in Maine are also closely watching what happens with S.B. 424 in California this summer. A similar piece of legislation to create extender producer responsibility regulations for tobacco products, L.D. 544, was introduced this year in Maine but it's being held over until next year's session starts in January while proponents hope to work with industry groups on crafting a solution.

One of the groups championing the effort is the Natural Resources Council of Maine. "We don't think that communities, taxpayers and future generations should have to deal with a problem they didn't create," said Sarah Lakeman, the project director for the organization's Sustainable Maine program. "There needs to be more education and outreach, and options to recover the waste created from smoking — and it should be the responsibility of the tobacco industry to provide that."

Sanborn says she hasn't seen any other places in the world successfully address the cigarette butt pollution issue. "Unless you've changed the package and gotten rid of the plastic filter, I don't see how you could," she said. "It's hard to do though, because they lobby up — it's going to be a fight."

Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published byThe Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis.

Reposted with permission from our media associate The Revelator.

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Brazilians living in The Netherlands organized a demonstration in solidarity with rainforest protectors and against the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro on Sept. 1 in The Hague, Netherlands. Romy Arroyo Fernandez / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Tara Smith

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.

Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.

Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.

From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.

Historical Precedent

Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.

Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.

Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?

Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.

When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.

The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.

The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.

But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.

Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.

This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein speaking on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2018. Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Natalie Hanman

Why are you publishing this book now?

I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.

The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?

When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.

What's stopping the left doing this?

In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.

Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?

I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.

That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.

This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.

One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?

When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?

I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.

This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.

In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?

In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.

Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...

Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.

Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?

I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?

Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?

It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.

What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?

One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.

You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?

I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.

This story was originally published by The Guardian, and is republished here as part of the Covering Climate Now partnership to strengthen the media's focus on the climate crisis.

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