European Parliament Approves Ban on Single-Use Plastics by 2021

By Liz Skolnick

On Wednesday, October 24th, the European Parliament voted in favor of a complete ban on single-use plastics, including plastic cutlery, straws and cotton swab sticks, by the year 2021. The ban covers the 10 plastics most commonly found in the world’s oceans, as well as oxo-degradable plastics (e.g., polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP) and polystyrene (PS)) which make up plastic garbage and sandwich bags, and the familiar Styrofoam food take-out containers. The proposed legislation includes reduction targets for Union member states, including a reduction of 25% or greater by 2025 on plastics “for which no alternative can be found,” and measures against cigarette butts (yes, there’s even plastic in these!) and fishing gear. Additionally, 90% of plastic beverage bottles will be required to be recycled. The final decision on the ban will come after deliberations with the European Council of government ministers, and is expected by Dec. 16.

Impetus for this legislation came after findings from European Commission research clarified the scale of current and projected future marine plastic pollution, and the damage it continues to do to European environment and economy. Those findings estimated costs of marine litter to the EU of between $295 million and $793 million per year.

What does this have to do with recycling?

As we’ve discussed in previous posts, reduction is the cousin of recycling, found further up the hierarchy of waste management (remember those 3 R’s: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”?). Reduction is the first defensive measure we can take in the fight against waste. It means preventing waste before it starts, before it ever enters the waste stream and becomes “garbage” we have to make choices about how to dispose of or reuse responsibly. Recycling is one measure we can use to give materials a kind of new life after it has already become waste, however, unlike simply reusing materials —  like refilling a glass bottle or reusing a paper bag — recycling involves processing materials and the inevitable energy consumption and addition of new (“virgin”) materials needed to produce a new, high-quality product. Therefore, while recycling is a fantastic and environmentally-friendly alternative to disposal, there’s a reason that reduction and reuse of material is preferred.

Is a similar ban on the horizon in the US?

While federal legislation around single-use plastics is not in the works here in the US, states are taking some initiative to enact similar bans. Here in New York, the topics of banning or taxing plastic bags has been hotly debated in a “two steps forward, one step back” fashion since the early 2000’s. Earlier this year, Cuomo announced a bill to ban the single-use bags by 2019, after rejecting a surcharge on the same in 2017. Parts of Long Island including all of Suffolk County have imposed a fee on plastic bags at retailers including pharmacies, supermarkets, grocery and convenience stores. As of April, 2018 ten cities, towns and villages in New York had put bans into place.   

While single-use bans or fees are not widespread across the nation, small pockets of resistance have cropped up in many states. And the recent difficulties with recycling plastics and other materials in the US has given rise to more talk of bans or taxes on problem materials, and of extended producer responsibility (EPR), which would shift the onus for responsible handling of materials to companies that produce them. EPR measures can also spur innovation into development of new, more environmentally-friendly materials, and encourages companies to use those materials that are easier to dispose of or reuse with less harmful consequences.


Plastic-free Packaging Materials: Innovative Designs that Really Hold Water

By Liz Skolnick

Shifting our focus momentarily from the challenges to recycling, this week we’ll look at some alternative packaging materials which may offer “upstream” solutions, in the form of relief from the mounds of plastic that accompany everyday products we buy and ship to our homes. Some of these alternative materials are still being developed and tested in the lab, though versions of them are already used in commercial and industrial applications. Others have been used in some capacity for years and are now gaining in popularity. Below, we discuss some of the eco-materials that have made waves in recent years, hopefully paving the way for nixing petroleum-based packaging for good.

Liquid wood

Liquid wood is made from lignin, an organic polymer found in plant cells, and a readily available paper mill byproduct. When lignin is combined with water and subjected to pressure and heat the end product is a biodegradable, flexible and fully recyclable material that performs like plastic and has many applications. Liquid wood has been used to make toys, speaker cabinets, and can be injection molded to form nearly any desired shape for accessories like sunglasses and wristwatches.

Algae-based packaging

After successfully shipping a fragile bottle wrapped in its algae based packaging material - which functions like bubble wrap - Japanese design company AMAM went on to win the grand prize at the 2016 Lexus Design Award. Now, other biofabrication companies are following suit using agar, a gelatinous substance found in seaweed, to produce foam packaging. Other uses for seaweed have already been found in the form of architectural cladding, yarn and lampshades. Seaweed-based packaging materials are fully biodegradable, and as agar retains water, some manufacturers even suggest it be added to home gardens to improve soil quality.

Mushroom-based packaging

Fungus is steadily gaining attention as the main ingredient in the packaging of the future. Forward thinking companies like Ecovative Design have developed technology that capitalizes on the quick growth of mycelia, the “roots” of mushrooms which create a weblike system of material that combines with agricultural waste products to create a durable “mycofoam.” This mycofoam functions just like cardboard shipping material. The fungus-based material is toxin-free, and is fully biodegradable and compostable.

Milk proteins

Revolutionary eco-packaging has been developed in the past few years from a milk protein called “casein.” Resembling plastic film, casein-based material is actually 500 times better than plastic at keeping oxygen out and away from food products vulnerable to decomposition. What’s more, it’s completely biodegradable and edible! Some manufacturers are even discussing adding vitamins and probiotics, as well as flavoring to make the edible packaging nutritious and tasty. Casein-plastics stand as a great alternative to regular plastic packaging, but we must take care to ensure the milk protein is ethically sourced with proper consideration to prevent harm to animals.

PLA Polyesters

Polylactic acid is a polyester that can be made from the lactic acid in starchy plants like corn, wheat, beets and sugarcane. Like other plastic-alternative materials, PLA polyesters use agricultural byproducts readily available from the milling of plant materials, thus utilizing biodegradable source material while also cutting down on the amount of waste sent to landfills. PLA’s break down in 47 days in industrial composting conditions, and do not release toxins when incinerated. PLA is an incredibly versatile material which can be used to make household objects like coffee cups and shrink wrap, and also has applications in the medical and automotive fields.

PHA Polyesters

These polyesters are formed when a certain types of bacteria feed on sugar, creating a durable plastic-like substance that can be used to preserve food, as an additive in films and injection molded bottles, among other uses. While there are a few different types of PHAs, they all biodegrade in water and carbon dioxide in aerobic (oxygen-containing) or anaerobic (oxygen-free) composting environments. PHAs are currently somewhat expensive to make, as compared with plastics, but continued refining of the manufacturing process may lower costs in the years to come.

These eco-materials present us with some truly amazing, environmentally-friendly alternatives to the usual petroleum-based packaging that can leach toxins into land and waterways, and become trash that sticks around for hundreds of years. We expect to see even more innovation along these lines in the near future. But in the meanwhile, the majority of packaging materials still include petroleum products of some kind. This means we must keep up the fight, urging legislators and policy-makers to make recycling a priority, and tackling the problems associated with the waste we continue to create as a global community.



The Great Plastic Bag Debate: Storied History, Uncertain future

By Liz Skolnick

It’s a familiar sight to most of us — plastic bags dancing in the wind on city sidewalks, dotting highway medians, accumulating in our kitchen cabinets. But as many of us have come to know, it’s the ones we don’t see that are doing the most damage. According to Ocean Crusaders, plastic bags are the number one man-made object sailors come across in the ocean. Fish, seabirds, and other animals often become entangled in them; other times, they mistake them for food, leading to starvation and death. And it will only get worse, as China’s ban on recyclable plastics goes into effect, as I wrote about last week.

While evidence of plastic’s destructive effects on marine and land habitats piles up, communities in many parts of the world, from Tanzania to Long Beach, are changing the way plastic bags are used in their local economies. Many have decided that the only way damage can be mitigated is to nix them altogether. Others have taken measures to discourage their use by attaching a fee to each bag consumers take home. These methods have proven effective in many places: Irish Environment reports that Ireland saw a 90% drop in the use of plastic bags once a fee was imposed in 2002; California and Hawaii have passed aggressive, statewide legislation to either ban or charge for plastic bags at retail stores, which has done much to reduce their proliferation. This may lead one to wonder, what’s the hold up in New York?


Though some municipalities in the state of New York have chosen to implement their own bag bans or fees, no statewide legislation has been put into place banning bags or requiring a fee. New York City has also been slow to put any such bans or fees into place. After a 6-cent fee was proposed by Mayor Bloomberg (and shot down) in 2008, legislation has been knocked back and forth in City Council. The “Plastic Bag Bill” proposed in 2014, required that a 5-cent fee be imposed for each plastic bag provided in supermarkets and most shops. With support from Mayor De Blasio, the bill passed by a relatively close margin of 28-20. The idea behind it was to urge shoppers to bring their own bags in order to avoid this new fee, while simultaneously reducing the number of bags that end up in landfill, sully urban and rural landscapes, the oceans, and even faraway islands now rimmed with “plastic beaches.” At the time, opposition to the bill argued that such a fee would unfairly burden low-income residents, and that reuse of bags was “unsanitary.”

In January 2017, one day before the NYC “Plastic Bag Bill” was set to take effect, the State Senate approved a bill that overrode it, and killed the bag fee. This new bill, introduced by Senator Felder of South Brooklyn, prohibited bag taxes in cities larger than 1 million people (NYC being the only city of this size in the state). The bill found support in Governor Cuomo, who argued that the fee, as it stood, was “deeply flawed” because it allowed merchandisers to keep the majority of the earnings, thus adding up to a “$100 million bonus to private companies.” Cuomo did, however, set up a Plastic Bag Task Force to investigate the bag ban and fee models in other states and communities.

Winter of 2018 saw a resurgence of interest in bag bans among state lawmakers and NYC officials, starting with new legislation introduced by two state Senators following on the recommendations of the Task Force, which looked to the “California model” as a beacon of success. In March, Mayor De Blasio tweeted his support for such a ban though he did not make specific mention of the new legislation. One day later, Gov. Cuomo chimed in to let the public know that he was considering a state-wide ban. The new bill, S7760, proposed by Senators Liz Kreuger and Brad Holyman, would ban plastic carryout bags and impose a fee for paper bags (10-cent minimum, to 25-cent maximum). Twenty percent of the fee would go to the retailer, while eighty percent would be set aside for the state Environmental Protection Fund. Because the fees would help support a state fund, rather than being collected by the city, it may be able to skirt the restrictions of Senator Felder’s bill.

This new bill, S7760 has been referred to the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, where hearings may be held and comments on its merit prepared for government agencies before the committee votes. Meanwhile in NYC, retailers and shoppers have chimed in voicing their dissent or support. Some feel banning plastic bags and charging for paper ones will cause confusion, anger and longer checkout lines, while others see this as a necessary step towards protecting the environment, and one that won’t unduly inconvenience anyone.


While NYC hangs in the balance, 14 municipalities in other parts of the state, frustrated with Albany’s back-and-forth, have taken matters into their own hands and enacted local bans and fees. Long Island towns are a standout — as of January 1st, Suffolk county stores have charged a nickel for a bag, paper or plastic; the village of Patchogue had already banned plastic bags in 2016. Southampton, East Hampton, and other towns have also enacted bans. In Nassau County, Long Beach has led the way.

While the door is open for a statewide plastic bag ban, given the erratic history of the debate in Albany, it’s almost certain to need a push from state residents in support of the measure. You can participate by supporting this legislation in a few different ways, such as calling or writing to your representatives, and participating during public commenting periods.