Dr. Christopher Portier, a toxicologist and former director of the U.S. National Center for Environmental Health, has criticized the conclusions of European Union agencies which found that glyphosate—the active ingredient in Monsanto's widely used weedkiller Roundup—is not carcinogenic to humans.
Amid questions over whether the executive order would end U.S. involvement in the Paris agreement—and with no firm indication from the White House about staying in the agreement—top European Union climate official Miguel Arias Cañete expressed "regret" over Trump's policies Tuesday, promising that the European Union "will stand by Paris, we will defend Paris and we will implement Paris."
The French government has approved its long-awaited energy bill, clearing the way for it to go before Parliament this autumn and be ratified in 2015. This is a major step for the nation that will be hosting the 2015 UN climate summit, where a new global climate deal is expected to be agreed.
With the new energy bill, France joins the ranks of other nations taking strong climate action and committing targets to law. Photo credit: 350.org
The French bill includes targets to cut fossil fuel and nuclear energy use and boost renewables, and could help mobilize €10 billion of investment and create thousands of jobs, according to the government. France joins a host of other EU nations and major economies in announcing such legislation. While the ambitious targets have been welcomed by NGOs, they warn that the government must now “provide the impetus” and mobilize even more financing to ensure the ambitious targets are implemented. Others have pointed out that nuclear energy remains a lynchpin of France’s energy policy.
With the new energy bill, France joins the ranks of other nations taking strong climate action and committing targets to law. In Europe in recent months Denmark has ratified its climate law, while Finland revealed its proposed legislation to cut emissions by 80 percent by 2050. The UK government also recently stood by its targets to cut emissions under its climate change act, while across the world other major economies have pledged strong climate action, including a recent announcement from the U.S. to cut carbon pollution from power plants.
France’s national targets go some way to showing “its own climate and energy house is in order” and paving the way for ambitious international commitments on climate change. Hosts of the UN’s 2015 climate summit, all eyes will now be on France to see if it can “play the role of fair and ambitious COP president” and broker a strong global climate treaty.
The country’s first opportunity to show leadership will be when EU nations meet to finalize the bloc’s climate and energy framework to 2030 in October. France’s emissions target puts it firmly in line with the 40 percent reduction proposed by the EU Commission, while its ambitious renewable goal goes beyond the EU-wide proposal.
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[Editor's note: Dr. Sandra Steingraber presented a keynote speech for the New Environmentalism Summit of the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium, on June 3. The text follows.]
I would like to begin by quoting from comments made yesterday by Angela Knight, a former Conservative MP in Britain.
As a reaction to the recent elections here in Brussels, Ms. Knight said, "We have an opportunity in the energy industry to get fact based, logic based, properly costed and sensible EU policy-making and to encourage a move away from an emotion driven and expensive agenda.”
That statement appears in yesterday’s The Guardian, and I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Dr. Sandra Steingraber speaking at the New Environmentalism Summit in Brussels, Belgium. Photo credit: HEAL on flickr.
Indeed, that’s exactly what I have come to European Commission to ask for: for the European Union—and for my own union, the United States—a fully cost-accounted energy policy based on facts, logic and science rather than emotion.
But here’s the notable difference: Angela Knight and I are arguing for opposite courses of action.
Ms. Knight is a lobbyist for Energy UK. Her group seeks to mute the EU’s commitments to green energy, stall ongoing efforts to counter climate change and maintain dependency on fossil fuels.
I am a biologist, a science advisor for Americans Against Fracking, and a co-founder of both Concerned Health Professionals of New York and New Yorkers Against Fracking. The groups of which I am part seek an acceleration of the transition to energy policies based on wind, water and solar power and believe that further investments in fossil fuels in general—and shale gas in specific—are irrational, ruinously expensive, unsustainable and immoral.
These two worldviews are fundamentally incompatible. They cannot be reconciled or bridged. They require a bold leadership choice that rejects one and embraces the other.
In New Yorkers Against Fracking, we speak of standing at an energy crossroads. One signpost points to a future powered by digging fossils from the ground and lighting them on fire. The other points to renewable energy. You cannot go in both directions at once. Subsidizing the infrastructure for one creates disincentives for the other.
This is no more true than with fracking, the process by which fresh water is mixed with sand and a cocktail of chemicals and then used as a poisonous club to shatter layers of shale bedrock inside of which are trapped tiny bubbles of natural gas—scattered like a fizz of champagne inside of a chalk board that is buried a mile below the earth’s surface.
In the United States, fracking has created such a temporary abundance of cheap natural gas that it has stunted research and development into renewable energy sources and has further delayed action toward a goal that science tells us that we must urgently meet: namely, to leave 80 percent of the remaining carbon in the ground and to redesign our economy to run almost entirely on renewables by mid-century in order to avoid catastrophic climate tipping points.
We are also running out of places to store all this excess shale gas.
One proposed solution, which is being developed with the encouragement of the European Commission, is to liquefy the excess and give it a passport to Europe. Doing so would require the construction of multi-billion dollar export terminals along our coastlines together with fossil fuel-fired power plants that are needed to run the cryogenic refrigerators that turn natural gas into LNG by super-chilling it to minus 260 degrees F.
You cannot advocate for the construction of multibillion-dollar LNG infrastructure projects that presume a 40-year return on investment and also claim in the same breath that you are building a bridge to renewable energy future. Those two ideas cannot be brought into alignment.
Another proposed solution to excess American shale gas is to bury it in abandoned salt mines.
I have personal experience with this idea because I live near a lake under which lies a gallery of old salt caverns left over from 19th century mining. These caves are now being repurposed for the storage of compressed methane gas along with other liquefied gases that are the byproducts of fracking, namely, propane and butane.
I refer here to Seneca Lake, the largest and deepest lake within New York State. Seneca Lake holds so much water that it creates its own microclimate that is uniquely favorable to growing of grapes. The shores of this lake thus form the heart of New York’s wine region. Indeed, the vineyards that lie over the hillsides where I live are the goose that lays our golden egg: Grapes and wine contribute $4.8 billion to our state’s economy. In particular, the Seneca Lake region is famous for world-class Rieslings.
This is also an intensely lovely place, named by Yahoo Travel as one of the top 10 lake-side destinations in the world, with beauty to rival Italy’s Lake Como and England’s own Lake District.
And now Seneca Lake is slated for mass industrialization, as plans are laid for compressor stations, flare stacks, pipeline, brine pits and other infrastructure required to transform the loveliest lakeside vacation spot in America into a regional hub for the storage and transport of fracked gas.
Absent our intervention, this is the fate of New York’s wine region. Earlier this month, permission was granted by the U.S. federal government to move forward with the first part of this massive industrial project.
But we are intervening. And those of us who do so see ourselves as part of a human rights struggle. Seneca Lake not only allows wine grapes to flourish in this otherwise cold, northern zone, it is also the source of drinking water for 100,000 people. Those who oppose turning the lakeshore into a storage depot for fracking are not just defending grapevines. We are defending water, which is life itself.
I’ve now talked myself into my assigned task: to explore the most critical issues currently facing the planet and help generate ideas that lead to breakthrough solutions.
In fact, there are two critical issues: climate change, which is killing our life-support system, and chemical pollution, which is killing us.
Like a tree with two trunks, these twinned problems have a single root cause: fossil fuels. Whether we shovel them into ovens and light them on fire or turn them into toxic petrochemicals, fossil fuels are the problem.
The ideas that would lead to breakthrough solutions are already here. Their names are green energy and green chemistry, but they are being held hostage by the oil and gas industry.
Their rescue depends on a vigorous new environmentalism that closes the door on fracking.
Fracking is the imposter in the room.
Fracking is the problem that masquerades as a solution.
Fracking is the deadly enabler that keeps the whole fossil fuel party going far past the time of its curfew.
Methane—also known as natural gas—is carbon dioxide’s partner in crime. Indeed, as a greenhouse gas, it is far more powerful. According to the latest estimates by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, methane is, over a 100-year period, 34 times more powerful at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.
Over a shorter period, methane is even more potent. The best science tell us that methane is, over 20 years, nearly 100 times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide.
How much methane is actually released between drilling for it and burning it? We don’t exactly know. Those studies are ongoing.
We do know that fugitive methane wafts from every stage of the gas extraction, processing and distribution process—and from all of the ancillary infrastructure along the way, including well casings, condenser valves and pipelines.
The emerging science shows us three things about fracking and climate change:
First, that we have grossly underestimated the amount of methane that leaks from drilling and fracking operations. Second, that we have grossly overestimated the ability of regulations to control those emissions. And third, that the ability of methane to trap heat is far more powerful than we realized in the only remaining time frame available to us to avert catastrophic climate change.
In short, fracking is the ultimate bridge to nowhere. You cannot blast natural gas out of the bedrock and send it into kitchen stoves and basements furnaces across the land without venting massive amounts of climate-killing methane into the atmosphere.
Let’s now look at the chemical pollution of caused by drilling and fracking operations and their attendant infrastructure. This is a problem that has created a public health crisis in the United States where fracking was born and where it has spread relentlessly from sparcely populated western states to the densely populated Northeast.
The evidence for human harm caused by fracking is contained within the medical literature itself. The totality of the science now encompasses hundreds of peer-reviewed studies. All together, these data reveal multiple health problems associated with drilling and fracking operations and expose intractable, irreversible engineering problems.
They also make clear that the relevant risks for harm have neither been fully identified nor adequately assessed and, thus, that no regulatory framework in any U.S. state can be said to adequately protect public health.
Last week, alarmed by growing evidence for harm across the United States in areas where fracking is practiced, more than 250 health organizations and individual physicians, nurses, midwives, scientists and other health professionals sent a letter to Governor Andrew Cuomo that calls for a formal three-to-five moratorium on fracking in New York State. Among the signatories were many researchers who are generating the actual data.
I’ll describe for you now some of the trends that are so concerning to those of us in the scientific and medical community. [All studies referenced below are cited in the May 29 letter to Gov. Cuomo from Concerned Health Professionals of New York and other signatories.]
First, despite ongoing industry denial, evidence linking water contamination to fracking–related activities is indisputable.
Investigations have confirmed water contamination in four states: Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and Texas. These contaminants include methane, radioactive radium, the carcinogen arsenic and multiple hormone-disrupting substances—so called endocrine disruptors. This last discovery is especially worrisome because endocrine disruptors can exert powerful effects on human development at vanishingly low concentrations. There is no safe level of exposure.
To sum up the evidence for the threat to drinking water, I’ll quote from a new review by the Council of Canadian Academies:
A common claim . . . is that hydraulic fracturing has shown no verified impacts on groundwater. Recent peer-reviewed literature refutes this claim and also indicates that the main concerns are for longer term cumulative impacts that would generally not yet be evident and are difficult to predict reliably. . . . The most important questions concerning groundwater contamination from shale gas development are not whether groundwater impacts have or will occur, but where and when they will occur. . .
Why is drinking water contamination inevitable with fracking?
The science shows that there are at least two reasons. The first is based in engineering: cement is not immortal. It can fail. And when it does, the structural integrity of gas wells can fail. These failures are common, unavoidable, and increase over time as wells age and cement and casings deteriorate.
According to the data available to us in the United States, five to seven percent of gas wells leak immediately, and more than half leak after 30 years.
Drilling and fracking itself appear to contribute to loss of well integrity. Drilling creates fractures in the surrounding rock that cement cannot completely fill and so opens pathways for the upward migration of liquids and gases. Also, as cement ages, it shrinks and pulls away from the surrounding rock, reduce the tightness of the seal, thus opening potential portals for contamination. No regulations, no best practices can prevent this problem.
Drinking water can also be contaminated by the disposal of liquid fracking waste. This is the fluid that flows back out of the hole when the high pressure is released after the bedrock is fractured. Fracking waste is contaminated not only with the toxic chemicals that are purposefully added to water to create fracking fluid but also with brine, heavy metals and radioactive substances that it absorbs on it journey down to the center of the earth and back again.
These cannot be filtered out by any known technology. Hauling fracking wastewater to treatment plants has resulted in contamination of U.S. rivers and streams with bromine and radioactive radium. We have good data on this.
Fracking destroys water. With no method to turn poisonous frack waste back into drinkable water, gas companies have resorted to pumping the waste back into the ground via deep-well injection. But this solution—which considered a “best practice”—has triggered earthquakes by stressing geological faults and making them vulnerable to slippage
In the United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico and Ohio, geologists have also linked fracking itself to earthquakes. Members of the Seismological Society of America warn that geologists do not yet know how to predict the timing or location of such earthquakes, but they do know that they can occur tens of miles away from the wells themselves.
In New York State, both the certainties and the uncertainties about the risk of earthquakes from fracking operations raise serious, unique concerns about the possible consequences to New York City’s drinking water infrastructure from fracking-related activities. No other major U.S. city provides drinking water through aging, 100-mile-long aqueducts that lie directly atop the shale bedrock. Seismic damage to these aqueducts that results in a disruption of supply of potable water to the New York City area would create a catastrophic public health crisis.
Now let’s look at fracking-related air pollution.
Air pollution arises from the gas extraction process itself, as well as the intensive transportation demands of extraction, processing and delivery. And yet, monitoring technologies currently in use underestimate the ongoing risk to exposed people.
Fracking-related air pollutants include carcinogenic silica dust, carcinogenic benzene and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that create ozone. Exposure to ozone—smog—contributes to costly, disabling health problems, including premature death, asthma, stroke, heart attack and low birth weight.
Unplanned toxic air releases from fracking sites in Texas increased by 100 percent since 2009, according to an extensive investigation.
Rural areas with formerly pristine air now top the list of the nation’s 25 most ozone-polluted counties. In these areas, questions about possibly elevated rates of stillbirth and infant deaths in the area have prompted an ongoing investigation.
Finally, community and social impacts of fracking can be widespread, expensive and deadly.
Community and social impacts of drilling and fracking include spikes in crime, sexually transmitted diseases, vehicle accidents and worker deaths and injuries. We know that traffic fatalities more than quadrupled in intensely drilled areas even as they fell throughout the rest of the nation.
Even as evidence of harm continues to emerge across the United States, reviews of the science to date note that investigations necessary to understand long-term public health impacts do not exist.
To explain why science is missing in action, we emphasize in our letter to the governor of New York the obstacles faced by researchers seeking to carry out the needed research. These include industry secrecy on the part of the gas industry which routinely limits the disclosure of information about its operations to researchers and routinely uses non-disclosure agreements as a strategy to keep data from health researchers.
Thus has the anti-fracking movement in the United States sprung up as a human rights movement to reclaim our right to live in a safe environment with clean air and clean water and not be enrolled as unconsenting test subjects in a vast experiment whose risks remain unassessed and unquantified.
In spite of remaining uncertainties, important studies continue to fill research gaps and build a clearer picture of the longer-term and cumulative impacts of fracking. Many such studies currently underway will be published in the upcoming three–to–five year horizon. These include further investigations of hormone-disrupting chemicals in fracking fluid; further studies of birth outcomes among pregnant women living near drilling and fracking operations; further studies of air quality impacts; and further studies of drinking water contamination.
Angela Knight of Energy UK asks for an energy policy that is “properly costed.”
So do I.
And a properly costed energy program must take into account the economic consequence of the resulting health impacts. In the densely populated Northeastern region of the United States where fracking has now penetrated, the medical costs for treating those affected by the resulting water contamination and air pollution have never been tallied.
Doing so would require conducting a comprehensive Health Impact Assessment with an economic analysis that monetizes the costs. These costs could be considerable. In the densely populated continent of Europe, the health costs of energy security based on fracking could also be considerable.
Angela Knight of Energy UK asks for an energy policy not based on emotions.
So do I.
And I submit that an energy policy based on gold fever that has oversold the benefits, underpriced the costs and overlooked long-term risks is not emotionless. As described by Bloomberg in a story headlined, “Shale Drillers Feast on Junk Debt to Stay in the Treadmill”:
People lose their discipline. They stop doing the math. They stop doing the accounting. They’re just dreaming the dream, and that’s what’s happening with the shale boom.
Sounds like a highly emotive state to me.
We Americans and Europeans share a common destiny. We each live above bedrocks that are ancient sea floors suffused with bubbles of methane. These bubbles represent the vaporized corpses of sea lilies and squid that lived 400 million years ago. Biologically speaking, our bedrocks are a cemetery of vaporized corpses.
The U.S. plan is to frack them out of the ground, liquefy them and send them over here—all in the name of freeing you from Russian gas. And to encourage you to frack your own bedrock.
If that’s the future you choose, it is not possible to also create a circular economy and attain zero waste, which is the stated goal of the EU Commission’s Green Week, because in this shale are many other hydrocarbon vapors that are liberated along with the methane during fracking. Ethane is one.
In the United States, we have so much excess ethane—a waste product of fracking—that we are planning to build a massive ethane cracker in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania that will turn this waste product into ethylene.
Allegheny County, Pennsylvania is the birthplace of Rachel Carson. It is a county that already suffers from high levels of air pollution and excess rates of cancer. Ethane crackers are notorious air polluters.
By turning ethane into ethylene, this facility will solve a waste problem for the gas industry and create the feedstock for the manufacture of disposable plastic. Ultimately, this plastic will end up in our oceans as nanobits of non-biodegradable petrochemical.
If this is not what you had in mind, if a new, vigorous environmentalism is what you want, I ask to you stand with us in calling for a moratorium on fracking in the EU, just as we have called for a moratorium on fracking in the U.S.
Our future is unfractured.
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It turns out that your nose does know. The terms “sell by,” “use by” and “best before” are largely unregulated, vary from state to state, and have little to do with food safety. In many cases, these labels indicate when the manufacturer expects the food to be at its peak quality, not when it is unsafe to eat.
This expiration date labeling confusion is leading to mountains of food being thrown out before it’s gone bad. According to a 2013 report from the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), more than 90 percent of Americans may be prematurely tossing food because of a misunderstanding of date labels. For a family of four, this could translate to several hundred dollars’ worth of perfectly edible food being thrown away every year.
Americans aren’t the only ones being misled by their food labels. The European Union has a similar system of food labeling, and a 2011 report by WRAP, a nonprofit that works to reduce food waste in the United Kingdom and other European countries, estimated that date label confusion was responsible for 20 percent of avoidable household food waste.
The message from that report was heard, and last week, the EU took a step to do something about it. A discussion paper was presented to an agriculture ministers meeting calling for lifting the requirement that foods with long shelf lives carry a “best before” label. This labeling change would affect foods like coffee, rice, dry pasta, hard cheeses, jams and pickles—and could save 15 million tons of food per year from being wasted, according to officials.
“We think citizens can make sure themselves if, for instance, rice is still usable,” said Sharon Dijksma, the Dutch agriculture minister, at the meeting in Brussels.
Here in the U.S., the NRDC called for similar action in its report The Dating Game last year. Their recommendations included:
• Making “sell by” dates, which are used by stores for stocking purposes, invisible to the consumer.
• Establishing a uniform dating system.
• Including “freeze by” dates and information about freezing.
• Increasing the use of safe handling instructions and “smart labels,” like time-temperature indicators.
• Removing quality-based dates from shelf-stable products, similar to what the EU is proposing.
So far, nothing as sweeping as the EU proposal has come from the NRDC’s report here in the U.S. We hope, however, that action abroad will spur more analysis and conversation here at home. In the meantime, American shoppers are left to sort through a complex assortment of labels that are not standardized and can vary from state to state—and are probably throwing away a lot of good food in the process. (The only food dating system regulated by the federal government is infant formula.)
Here is a quick guide to common date labels we come across at U.S. grocery stores, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture:
Sell-By: Tells the store how long to display the product for sale. You should buy, cook or freeze the product before the date passes.
Best If Used By (or Before): The recommended date for best flavor or quality. It is not a purchase or safety date.
Use-By: The last date recommended for the use of the product while at peak quality. The date has been determined by the manufacturer of the product and usually refers to best quality, not safety.
Closed or coded dates: Packing numbers for use by the manufacturer.
No matter the label, food safety is very important. it’s always a good idea to practice optimal food storage and handling once you get your groceries home. If you’re not sure how to store a particular item, shelflifeadvice.com is a great resource. We also have collected some great food storage ideas on our Reducing Food Waste Pinterest board.
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Given some member nations' success with deploying renewable energy, the European Union surprised green advocates Wednesday with a report that focused more on diversifying its fossil fuel sources than clean energy or efficiency.
The European Commission issued the communication to leaders, with more discussion to come at a summit beginning June 26 in Brussels. The 28-country bloc is focused on decreasing dependence on Russian imports while increasing transparency, but mostly as it pertains to natural gas. That didn't sit well with environmental groups.
“This is like a surreal [Alcoholics Anonymous] meeting where addicts are handed out phone numbers of new dealers instead of being helped out of their addiction," Greenpeace UK energy campaigner Louise Hutchins said in a statement.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
According to an EU memo, Russia is the sole external supplier for six EU states, including three that rely on gas for more than one-quarter of their total energy needs. Russia sent 80 percent of its gas exports to Europe last year, with the largest volumes sold to Germany and Italy. However, instead of focusing on ways to clean up the mix, the EU Commission praises liquified natural gas as an "important source of diversification" and also mentions the idea of new investments in dangerous nuclear energy.
“It is baffling that the European Commission prioritizes highly uncertain supplies of gas from autocratic regimes like Azerbaijan, LNG exports from the U.S. or large-scale fracking in the EU in a strategy that seeks to improve the reliability of gas supplies to the EU,” Food & Water Europe Director Geert De Cock said. “Rather than looking for non-existent ‘abundant’ energy supplies, the Commission should have recognized that energy is and will remain scarce for the foreseeable future and that demand reduction for natural gas is the only no-regret option for the EU."
The Commission included increasing gas stocks among its short-term plans, which, to Hutchins, represents a large step backwards.
“Europe’s big plan for energy independence is a timid attempt at rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic," Hutchins said. "The bloc’s reliance on dirty fossil fuels is at the root of its energy problem, yet the Commission’s plan does little to tackle it. In fact, pointing to false solutions like fracking and new gas pipelines will only lock us into fossil fuel dependence for decades to come."
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By Erin Sagen
After California failed to pass Proposition 37—a bill that would have required labeling of food containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs—last November, the attitude among its supporters was surprisingly cheery.
MTSOfan / Flickr.
"We’re looking forward to continuing this battle," Ronnie Cummins of the Organic Consumers Association told YES! shortly after the bill was rejected by voters. Cummins was not the only labeling advocate who was optimistic about the future.
Despite being outspent about five-to-one by opponents—a group including corporations like Monsanto, DuPont and PepsiCo—Prop 37 was defeated by a relatively narrow margin, with about 47 percent of voters supporting it and about 53 percent voting against it. Those results left backers of the measure with plenty of confidence to move forward.
And they wasted no time. On the heels of Prop 37's defeat, labeling advocates placed another bill on the ballot, this time in Washington state. With that bill, known as Initiative 522, they're turning California's loss into a campaign that already looks promising.
If it's successful, I-522 could become the most important labeling law in the U.S. Connecticut and Maine recently passed labeling laws, but are unlikely to influence whether food is labeled at the national level because their respective populations are too small. With a population greater than Connecticut and Maine combined, Washington would have a greater impact, putting pressure on food companies nationwide to consider labeling.
It would pick up where California left off. And it would also be the first state where voters, rather than the state legislature, directly decided to require labeling of genetically modified food.
Learning from California
"You have to get organized and start early," said Elizabeth Larter, communications director for Yes on 522, Washington's pro-labeling campaign. Petitioners in the state gathered over 350,000 signatures to put the measure on the ballot in November, exceeding the minimum number by more than 100,000.
Yes on 522 has many advantages that eluded California's campaign—including more support from conventional farmers—but, Larter said, she does not see the point in comparing the two states.
"I can't speak to California's efforts, but I know you just have to move forward," she said. "I know that because of Prop 37, people who wouldn't be involved in the political process are." And that, according to her and many others, is huge.
"It brought the issue of [GMO] labeling to the national stage," said Stacy Malkan, who served as media director for Yes on 37. "There is incredible momentum right now to label," she said. "It's unstoppable."
Malkan reflected on what her campaign learned during the race, especially from the opposing side, who "carpet-bombed California the night before the election with deceptive advertising." Television ads, especially ones saying the measure would increase the costs of groceries, were incredibly effective at swaying voters to the other side, she said.
"It's very important voters understand that grocery costs will not go up," she added. "But there's better chances for [I-522]. There's more simplicity in the language of the bill and more awareness among consumers."
Shifts in Awareness
When it comes to GMOs, a lot has happened since last November.
Grocery chain Whole Foods announced that all products in its U.S. and Canadian stores must have GMO labeling by 2018, and a poll conducted by The New York Times this year found that "Americans overwhelmingly support labeling, with 93 percent of respondents saying that foods containing such ingredients should be identified."
Malkan has noticed that shift. "I think food companies will eventually realize it's not worth billions of dollars in spending to defeat because more and more customers will demand labeling where they shop."
And it's not just shoppers who are demanding more accountability about GMOs. In Washington, farmers are doing so as well, but for different reasons.
In April, an Oregon farmer discovered growing on his property a strain of genetically engineered wheat that had never been approved for commercial use by the Department of Agriculture. The discovery preceded a series of similar discoveries throughout the country: In June, two wheat farmers in Yakima, WA, and a farmer in Kansas filed suits against agricultural giant Monsanto. Since then, more farmers—from Idaho, Kansas and Washington—have joined the fight.
The various lawsuits are claiming the discovery of the unapproved wheat has hurt the farmers' exports: Japan and South Korea banned certain imports of American wheat shortly after the Oregon incident, and the European Union urged its 27 nations to increase testing of imports.
A new sense of urgency can be felt among producers of food, according to Katherine Paul, media director at the Organic Consumers Association. "Washington has more support from farmers and fishermen than California did. The response has been overwhelming. People are fired up."
Paul added that the Organic Consumers Association has "been working on GMOs for more than a decade, but it's only become a mainstream public health issue in the last year."
It's an incredibly important time to act, Malkan said. She pointed out that while only a few GMO crops are currently in production—especially corn, wheat, soy and cotton—more are currently being developed. "In Washington state, that means apples and genetically engineered salmon," she said.
This time around, if labeling passes, it would send a message on behalf of consumers, farmers and citizens alike.
The measures passed in Connecticut and Maine are important, said Paul, but I-522 is different. "It's voter-approved. It will force national labeling."
Visit EcoWatch’s GE FOOD page for more related news on this topic.
By Dave Levitan
As municipal food composting programs spread across North America and Europe, no city faces a more daunting task than New York. Its Department of Sanitation collects more than 10,000 tons of trash every day, and another 1,700 tons of recyclable materials. A large portion of that waste, though, may soon have a future other than the landfill: Food scraps and other “organics” have long been just a part of New York’s trash pile, but a pilot program in the city is aimed at rolling out collection of that material and composting it, a far more environmentally friendly method.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock
“It’s the next new thing in terms of municipal waste handling in the 21st century,” says Eric Goldstein, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in New York. “Right now ... there are over 150 communities throughout the United States that are collecting organics at curbside. It’s a national trend. It’s revolutionary.”
Many of those programs are still voluntary, and the bulk are in small cities and towns. But larger cities in North America—including San Francisco, Seattle, San Antonio, Toronto and Portland, OR—are moving rapidly ahead. And municipal composting efforts in many European countries are far advanced and steadily growing. In 2011, the 27 states in the European Union composted on average 15 percent of municipal waste, with Austria composting 34 percent, the Netherlands 28 percent, and countries like France, Spain, and Germany each composting about 18 percent.
In New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s State of the City address this past February, he called food waste the city’s “final recycling frontier,” which holds true for the rest of the U.S., as well. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the country as a whole produced 250 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2011, and compostable materials—which include yard trimmings, paper and paperboard, as well as food waste—comprised the largest component of that at 56 percent.
The environmental benefits of recycling that material are significant. As it decomposes in landfills, food and other organic waste produces methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more powerful than carbon dioxide. According to the EPA, landfills are the third-largest source of methane in the U.S., behind industry and agriculture. Shipping waste long distances from cities to landfills produces even more greenhouse gas emissions. Composting, meanwhile, takes that waste and turns it into something usable: fertilizer. If cities like New York want to cut emissions, cut waste and even cut costs, composting is a proven way to go about it.
The good news is that of the 87 million tons of “recovered” waste in the U.S. in 2011—meaning waste that did not end up in a landfill—organic material accounted for the largest component. But most of that material was paper; food waste accounted for only 1.6 percent of the recovered total versus 14.5 percent of the generated total, the EPA says. The U.S. does a reasonably good job of keeping paper out of landfills thanks to recycling programs, but food almost universally still goes where it shouldn’t.
New York is trying to change that with its new program. So far, compost collection is being offered in one neighborhood of Staten Island, and city officials say that after only a few months participation rates are above 40 percent. Contamination rates—meaning, the presence of non-compostable material in the compost bin—are at 1 percent or below. In Manhattan, about 100 city schools are also participating, with a goal of spreading to 400 schools by the end of the year. Two high-rise apartment buildings are included as well, with more to follow this fall.
“We spend over $85 million a year sending food waste to landfills, so there’s a major cost,” said Ron Gonen, New York City’s deputy commissioner for recycling and sustainability, who heads up the composting program. He said so far the program is collecting at a pace on the order of “tens of thousands” of tons per year. “It’s growing every day,” said Gonen. “We’re going to continue to expand, in all five boroughs.” By 2014 the program will cover around 100,000 households.
Goldstein says that if New York demonstrates the economic and logistical viability of its program it could be a “bellwether” in the push to expand composting nationwide. But a few cities—in general, the green, progressive ones you might expect—have already taken the lead over the last decade. San Francisco—the second-densest large city in the U.S. after New York—is considered the frontrunner, thanks to legislation in 2002 that set a goal of diverting 75 percent of its waste from landfills by 2010 and achieving “zero waste” by 2020.
San Francisco’s composting program began with restaurants and other businesses, and in 2009 an ordinance made it mandatory for all residents to separate organic material for collection. Instead of two bins to set out on the curb for trash and recyclables, there are now three. The green compost bins can include all food scraps, no matter how spoiled, along with vegetation from yards like leaves and flowers, and solid paper products including coffee cups, waxy paper, milk cartons and related items. The city collected its millionth ton of organic waste for composting last fall. Overall, 78 percent of San Francisco’s waste is now diverted from landfills.
Seattle has a similar program, as does Portland; the latter went a step further and scaled back residential garbage pickup to only once every two weeks when the weekly compost pickup began.
Despite some early resistance and confusion—much of it related to every-other-week garbage collection—a survey in Portland found that 66 percent of residents rated the city’s recycling and composting program as “good” or “very good” after one year, with another 20 percent neutral on the issue. Along with the positive reception, there has been clear progress. In the 12-month period prior to the October 2011 start of the composting program, 94,100 tons of garbage were collected. In the following 12 months, that figure fell to 58,300 tons. Meanwhile, collections of compostable material rose from 30,600 tons to 85,400 tons, a figure that includes yard waste.
There were questions early on about vermin, but moving the scraps from the garbage can to the compost bin doesn’t change much, said Bruce Walker, Portland’s solid waste and recycling program manager. The organic material in Portland travels to one of two facilities that are 15 and 90 miles from downtown. Walker said regular garbage gets trucked much farther, about 140 miles from the city, so the environmental savings are compounded. The composting facilities produce fertilizers that are sold to farms, tree nurseries and to the general public.
In Europe, the European Landfill Directive requires European Union member states to reduce “biodegradable municipal waste” sent to landfills to 35 percent of 1995 amounts by 2016. In the EU, 40 percent of waste is now composted or recycled, with 23 percent incinerated and 37 percent landfilled. Norway, Sweden, the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria and Germany now send less than 3 percent of their waste to landfills. Copenhagen, one of the greenest cities in the world, stopped sending organic waste to landfills as far back as 1990.
Other European countries lag far behind, with Greece and eastern European nations such as Bulgaria, Lithuania and Romania doing almost no composting. Still, some of the swiftest progress has come from some former eastern bloc countries like Estonia. The capital city of Talinn has been collecting biodegradable kitchen waste separately since 2007, part of the reason why landfill rates in Estonia have dropped from close to 100 percent 15 years ago to below 60 percent today. Europe is also much farther along than the U.S. in using anaerobic digestion, a process that takes organic waste and turns it into biogas, which can be used to generate electricity.
In New York, the question of where to bring collected organic material is unresolved. The city has a request for proposals to build a new composting plant in or close to the city, but until then there aren’t nearby facilities that can handle large amounts. Goldstein, of the NRDC, said that one possibility is to site facilities outside the city or partner with farms in the Catskills—sending the material 75 miles or so is still a huge improvement on the current system, which involves exporting to landfills sometimes many states and hundreds of miles away.
“The city has been really slow in terms of going through this process,” said Christine Datz-Romero, co-founder and executive director of the Lower East Side Ecology Center, which has worked on composting in New York for two decades. “If we wanted a facility here in New York City we should have started that process a long time ago. For building a facility we’re talking years. I see that as the biggest stumbling block because right now we have very limited capacity.”
Should New York and numerous other U.S. cities and towns establish vibrant composting programs, the environmental benefits will be enormous, advocates say. “Ultimately, there’s going to be very little left in the traditional garbage can,” said Goldstein.
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