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The Recycling Dilemma: Good Plastic, Bad plastic?
By Jeannette Cwienk
When it comes to recycling and recyclability, very little, it seems is straightforward — even something as seemingly simple as orange juice can present a conundrum. In Germany, many smaller shops sell drinks in cartons or plastic bottles, both of which will end up in the yellow recycling bin. But how do their recycling credentials stack up?
"As far as recyclability is concerned, the plastic bottle is probably slightly better because it is likely only made from one plastic, and so is easier to recycle than a multilayer material like a beverage carton," says Rolf Buschmann, waste and resource expert with the German environmental organization BUND, who worked on the group's 2019 Plastic Atlas.
He explains that only the paper part of the drink carton would be recycled — everything else, including the plastic coating or layer or aluminum foil, would be incinerated as residual waste.
More and More Multilayer Packaging
How easy is it to recognize multilayer packaging? With drink cartons, it's usually obvious that they're made from a combination of different materials, but with other products, such as candy wrappers, it's a different story.
Such packaging can be made from a complex mix of up to 10 different films of plastic, which as Joachim Christiani, managing director of German recycling institute cyclos-HTP, explains, is invisible to consumers.
"In recent years there's been a trend toward so-called multilayer packaging, which is extremely light and thin. It saves material as well as CO2 emissions during transport, but can't be recycled," Christiani says.
Because it is not possible to melt the different plastics together, or — at least for now — to separate the individual films from one another at recycling plants.
Lack of Recycled Plastic
A 2017 cyclos-HTP study into the recyclability of conventional packaging waste concluded that a third of it was not recyclable, and only 40% of the remaining two-thirds was made into plastic recyclate. The rest was used as fuel — in other words it was incinerated.
"There was no economic or political pressure to recycle more than this amount," Christiani says. "The prescribed recycling quotas were met, and there were not nearly enough recycling plants."
Another 2017 study by the chemical and waste disposal industry also shows that to date, Germany has not made much use of recycled plastic. According to the findings, plastic recyclate accounted for only 12% of the total amount of plastic processed in Germany — just under 1.8 million tons. The share of new plastic, on the other hand, was more than 12 million tons.
Room for Greenwashing
According to a 2018 survey by Germany's vzbv consumer protection association, most consumers would like to see more plastic recycling, especially when it comes to packaging.
Although some products come in packaging that is advertised as being "made from recycled material," Elke Salzmann, a resource protection officer with vzbv, says that can be misleading.
"It says nothing about how much recycled material the packaging actually contains," according to Salzmann. "And it also doesn't mean that the recycled plastic comes from collected plastic waste. It could just as well come from plastic leftovers created during the production of primary plastic."
The term "ocean plastic," which some textile and shoe manufacturers use to advertise the recycled plastic in their product lines, can also be misleading, Salzmann says.
"Plastic waste from the ocean is in much too bad a state to be recycled. Instead, they use plastic waste from beaches or riverbanks."
Laws Against Plastic
Images of garbage choking our waters and killing marine wildlife have played a key role in giving plastic a negative reputation among the public, and politicians have started to act.
Many countries worldwide have introduced bans on single-use items, and in Germany, a 2019 packaging law stipulates a plastics recycling quota of 90% from 2022, up from 36%. That said, the quota only refers to how much material has to be fed into the recycling system, not how much ultimately needs to be recycled.
This may be addressed in future European Union legislation. As part of its "Green Deal," the European Commission is aiming to move toward a circular economy, and has announced an action plan to conserve resources and prevent waste.
The Commission is also being advised by the European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) on how to establish new rules around the use of recycled materials.
The recommendations range from landfill and export bans on plastic waste and tax rebates for recycled products, to the introduction of a plastics tax and a legal minimum quota of recycled content in packaging.
Rethinking the Whole System
Although plastic is a very useful material, at the end of its life it causes many problems, EASAC environmental program director Michael Norton tells DW, adding that we have to rethink the whole system and completely change the way we use plastic.
Joachim Christiani says the packaging industry is starting to catch on. Around 70% of recycled mass can currently be generated from packaging, but that figure is expected to rise in the future.
"95% is quite feasible," says the engineer, adding that sorting facilities are currently undergoing improvements, while packaging design is also changing.
Clear Plastics Are Easiest to Recycle
As things stand, PET bottles are easiest to recycle because they're not mixed with other materials. New bottles can therefore easily be made from the old ones and the recycling rate is high. But the color of the bottle can pose a problem.
Because plastic is sorted by type rather than color, if different colors of plastic are mixed, the resulting recyclate cannot be used for light-colored packaging, which many manufacturers want. The upshot is the introduction of new plastic instead.
Consumer and environmental associations have long called for recyclability, greater sorting purity and better sorting facilities, but their most important demand remains waste avoidance through reusable systems.
"Why melt down disposable bottles to make new disposable bottles when you can refill them up to 20 times?" Buschmann asks.
Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Scores of people remained stranded in southern Japan on Sunday after heavy rain the day before caused deep flooding and mudslides that left at least 34 people confirmed or presumed dead.
Care Home Inundated<p>Altogether 16 residents at an elderly care home in Kuma Village are presumed dead after the facility was flooded by water and mud.</p><p>Fifty-one other residents have been rescued by boats and taken to hospitals for treatment, officials said.</p><p>Eighteen other people elsewhere have been confirmed dead, while more than a dozen others were still missing as of Sunday afternoon.</p><p>The Fire and Disaster Management Agency said many others were still waiting to be rescued from other inundated areas.</p><p>Hitoyoshi City was also badly affected by flooding, as rains in the prefecture exceeded 100 millimeters (4 inches) per hour at their height.</p>
More Rain Forecast<p>The disaster in the Kumamoto prefecture on Kyushu island is the worst natural catastrophe since Typhoon Hagibis in October last year, which cost the lives of 90 people.</p><p>Although residents in Kumamoto prefecture were advised to evacuate their homes following the downpours on Friday evening into Saturday, many people chose not to leave for fear of contracting the coronavirus.</p><p>Officials say, however, that measures are in place at shelters to prevent the transmission of the disease.</p><p>More rain is predicted in the region, and the Japan Meteorological Agency has warned of the danger of further mudslides.</p>
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The Bundestag and Bundesrat — Germany's lower and upper houses of parliament — passed legislation on Friday that would phase out coal use in the country in less than two decades as part of a road map to reduce carbon emissions.
Preparing for the Future<p>Coal-producing regions in the German states of North Rhine-Westphalia, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Brandenburg will have access to €40 billion ($45 billion) to help absorb the impact. Those funds are also expected to go towards restructuring regional economies, re-skilling workers and expanding local infrastructure.</p><p>Financial compensation is also be available to coal plant operators who face losses as a result of the early phaseout. However, compensation is contingent on operators announcing plans by 2026 to shutter plants and cease other emissions-intensive activity.</p><p>Michael Vassiliadis, who heads the IG BCE trade union, called the measures a "historic landmark." He said the package has provided a safety net for workers affected by the phase out and would provide them with the necessary support to transition to future sectors.</p>
'Historic Error'<p>However, not everyone agrees that the measures are enough to mitigate climate change.</p><p>Environmentalist activists say the legislation falls short of its ultimate aim, with Greenpeace managing director Martin Kaiser describing it as a "historic error."</p><p>German Green party chief Annalena Baerbock said the legislation was "oblivious to the future" and instead called on the government to complete Germany's coal phase out by 2030 the latest.</p><p>Earlier this year, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/germans-most-worried-about-refugees-climate-change/a-51947417" target="_blank">a DeutschlandTrend survey</a> found that 27 percent of Germans believe climate change is the most pressing issue facing the country, just slightly behind refugees and immigration policy.</p><p>Germany is seeking to establish a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. The European Commission has also pushed forward with similar plans for the EU.</p>
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By Tara Lohan
Would you like to take a crack at solving climate change? Or at least creating a road map of how we could do it?
When you build a tool like En-ROADS, who are you hoping uses it?<p>The tools that we build are used by quite a range of people, which is one of the exciting things about them.</p><p>Before En-ROADS we had a tool called C-ROADS, which was used in the context of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. During the negotiations in Copenhagen it allowed people to add up what each country was offering to do in terms of emissions cuts and calculate what that would mean for the global temperature at the end of the century. That was of interest to the U.S. State Department under President Obama and negotiating parties from other countries.</p><p>As a young bunch of scientists, it was fairly thrilling to hand our results to a colleague who took them to [science advisor] John Holdren, who took them to the president.</p><p>Today we find En-ROADS having quite a lot of traction in the upper levels of companies and governments, but one thing we've learned over the years is that those high-level leaders really can't move further or faster than the civil society is ready to.</p><p>So we invest quite a lot in supporting teachers — university and high school — and advocates. We're in the middle of a second round of webinars training around 1,000 people to use En-ROADS so they can teach others.</p><p>These are people all around the world. One is interested in going to her members of Congress with her laptop and using the simulation to advocate for a better future for her kids.</p>
What does En-ROADS do differently from other computer simulations?<p>One thing we talk about is the democratization of this information. En-ROADS isn't breaking new scientific ground that other computer simulations of climate change don't do. In fact, often we're relying on that cutting-edge research of other groups.</p><p>But we have paid attention to making it run fast and making it freely available online, where most of these other tools aren't designed for those purposes. They're doing scientific research for other scientists. Top leaders can often get the input of those academics if they have a question or a scenario, but it's unlikely that a politically active mom who's trying to influence her member of Congress would have access to those kinds of tools. Whereas if she puts in the time to learn, she can use En-ROADS.</p><p>I think more and more, and especially in the last few years, we come across people who have the impression that [the climate crisis is] pretty much hopeless. "It's too late. We've left it too long." And En-ROADS, for those people, is motivating because it shows that the goal of the Paris Climate Agreement to keep temperature increase well below 2 degrees [Celsius] is still physically possible. There's a huge amount of social and political will needed to do it, but it's within reach.</p>
Your organization is guided by a practice you call “multisolving.” What is that?<p>In the early years of working with models like C-ROADS and En-ROADS, we were really focused on tons of greenhouse gases and how to limit those. And clearly that's the core of the problem. But what we found in Copenhagen was that, despite our group and a few others who were doing this analysis actually being heard, and being on the front page of top newspapers, it didn't lead to more ambitious pledges from countries.</p><p>There was a soul-searching moment for me and for Climate Interactive in realizing that just being good scientists within this narrow bound of counting tons of carbon isn't getting us onto the path we need to be on.</p><p>That got me interested in this question of what else would be different in a world that has gotten off of fossil fuels. This was around 2009-2010. I hired the best researcher I knew, and she went away and came back and handed me this report.</p><p>It said that the benefits of being off fossil fuels, when monetized — when you took all the lives saved, all the healthcare costs saved, all the jobs created — the savings were of the same order of magnitude as the cost.</p><p>I thought she had made a mistake. Because I had worked my whole career trying to convince people that it's going to be <em>hard</em>, it's going to be <em>expensive</em>, but we <em>need</em> to get off fossil fuels. And she was saying that if you just widened your scope and looked not just on the carbon side, but you looked at the lives and health and community well-being, we were going to reap all these benefits.</p><p>I felt like I had been spending my life on a problem that was framed in a way where we would never be able to solve it. But by expanding our view, the things we were missing — basically political will, political power and budgetary power — seemed like maybe they could be aligned.</p><p>After that, for a long time we talked about the "co-benefits," and that that was kind of the word at the time. And many people still use it. We ended up dissatisfied with that word because it sounds like climate change is the main benefit, and then there are these other nice co-benefits.</p><p>That's still putting CO2 at the center of the world.</p><p>To a parent who's been in the emergency room all night with a child with asthma, is protecting the climate 100 years from now the main benefit of closing the neighborhood coal-fired power plant? Or is ending asthma the main benefit and climate is a nice co-benefit?</p><p>So we made up the word "<a href="https://www.climateinteractive.org/programs/multisolving/" target="_blank">multisolving</a>" to talk about how all these problems matter.</p>
What does this look like in action?<p>We learned that by and large our systems are not set up to allow people to take advantage of these synergies. And just to give you one example, if a country is going to go on a low-carbon transportation plan, those are going to be costs that are felt by the ministry of transportation. But the savings are largely going to be felt by the ministry of health. There'll be less hospitalization, fewer premature deaths, less cardiovascular and respiratory illness, less premature birth. But the way current governments are set up, no transportation minister is going to get much political appreciation or an incentive by saving money for the health ministry.</p><p>So for the last few years we've been working more and more on how to bring people together, to build the relationships that are needed to take advantage of these synergies because — until people can shift their systems around in a way where they can act together across these different silos and boundaries and jurisdictions — this will all just stay theoretical.</p><p>One place we have been doing this is in Atlanta with a group called Partnership for Southern Equity. We're creating a community network, the <a href="https://sites.google.com/view/justgrowth/just-growth-circle?authuser=0" target="_blank">Just Growth Circle</a>, that can be mobilized to have influence, decision-by-decision, on the kind of pattern of growth and development that will eventually change a whole city.</p>
That kind of deep-relationship building isn’t something that can be done quickly. How do you balance that kind of work to establish these interconnections with the urgency of the climate crisis?<p>Wendell Berry said, "To be patient in an emergency is a terrible trial." But we're in the kind of emergency that calls for patience. Time is very short and yet to make the kind of changes we need to make requires trust and relationships that can't be rushed and can only be cultivated. All you can do is create the conditions for them.</p><p>If you have urgency — if you need to bring things to scale, if you're looking for transformation and not incremental change — then actually this very slow and patient work of building trust and relationships is the way that you get to a very fast and transformative change.</p>
Has anything shifted in your thinking in the last few months during this global pandemic?<p>There's been a lot of talk about opportunities for transformation within the pandemic, especially about the need for low-carbon solutions. The other side is the social safety net. A lot of what we need to do to help people through the pandemic is also what the smart people behind the Green New Deal have said from the beginning needs to be part of the plan.</p><p>When they talked about universal healthcare, childcare, gender equity programs and the job training side of it, lots of people responded that they were way outside their lane. "What does this have to do with carbon?" But the pandemic is showing us that if you want a society to be able to pivot rapidly, you need a social safety net to support people.</p><p>If you want to pivot to green infrastructure, if you want low carbon infrastructure, you're changing a whole workforce in a generation. The social safety net is the lubrication that allows that to happen with less friction.</p><p>The social safety net we need to build to get through the pandemic could be built to also carry us through the transition to a climate-safe economy. It's not the technical side of this transition, but it is the taking care of each other through the transition. That may sound selfless, but it's also highly practical because the transition isn't going to happen if we can't move a whole society very quickly.</p>
By Elana Sulakshana
Rainforest Action Network recently uncovered a document that lists the 11 companies that are currently insuring the controversial Trans Mountain tar sands pipeline in Canada. These global insurance giants are providing more than USD$500 million in coverage for the massive risks of the existing Trans Mountain pipeline, and they're also lined up to cover the expansion project.
Who’s insuring the pipeline? (2019-2020)<p>Here's the list of insurance companies that are providing coverage from August 2019 through August 2020:</p><ol><li>Zurich (Switzerland)</li><li>Lloyd's (UK) </li><li>Liberty Mutual (US)</li><li>Chubb (US)</li><li>AIG (US)</li><li>WR Berkley (US)</li><li>Starr (US)</li><li>Stewart Specialty Risk Underwriting (Canada)</li><li>Energy Insurance Mutual (US) </li><li>Temple Insurance (Germany), a Canadian member of the Munich Re group</li><li>HDI (Germany), which is owned by Talanx / Hannover Re</li></ol>
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