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THE MYTH OF PLASTIC RECYCLING

Allan Maynard, MSc. NOVEMBER 9, 2020

THE CRYING INDIAN – If you watched TV during the 1970s and 80s you would likely have seen one of the most iconic ads ever made. A buckskinned, black braided Native American (but called “Indian” in those days) is seen paddling down a pristine river but eventually enters a polluted harbor. He paddles his boat to a bank strewn with litter. As he exits his boat and wanders near a road someone flings a bag of trash from a moving car. The trash scatters at his feet.  The Native American then looks into the camera; a single tear is seen rolling down his cheek. The narrator booms –“People start pollution. People can stop it.” 

The ad in many aspects is a fraud. The “Crying Indian” is neither Native American nor crying. He was played by an Italian actor known for playing natives in western movies. The ad was sponsored by the organization “Keep America Beautiful”. What eventually became clear, the Keep America Beautiful organization was founded, and is still mainly funded, by the beverage and packaging industries. While anti-littering campaigns should certainly be lauded, the sinister reality behind this campaign was to shift blame for packaging waste in the environment towards the users of the products rather than the manufacturers. Thus began THE MYTH OF PLASTICS RECYCLING. 

THE NUMBERS IN REVIEW – In my October 26, 2020 article – “We Are Drowning in Plastics”, I presented dramatic statistics concerning plastic waste.  A quick review of the main facts:

  • 6 billion (approximately) tons of plastic materials have been produced in the period 1950 to 2015 (Science Advances, 2017)
  • The estimate to update that number into 2020 – approximately 9 billion tons 
  • Of the 6 billion tons of plastic ever made up to year 2015 – 9% has been recycled, 12% has been burned, and the remaining 79% has ended up in landfills or in the environment. 
  • The amount of plastic entering the oceans (earth’s last sink) is over 9 million tons each year. This is only a fraction of the total plastic waste generated. 

WHAT THE PLASTICS INDUSTRY KNEW – For decades, we have been sorting trash believing that most plastic could be recycled. But the truth is, the vast majority of all plastic produced can’t be or won’t be recycled. In a joint investigation, NPR (U.S. National Public Radio) and the PBS series Frontline found that oil and gas companies — the makers of plastic — have known this reality all along, even as they spent millions of dollars telling the American public the opposite. 

The main points from this investigation are: 

  • Plastics industry had “serious doubt” recycling would ever be viable

The investigators dug deep into various archives and found internal correspondence. For example, the investigators state —  “A report sent to top industry executives in April 1973 called recycling plastic ‘costly’ and “difficult.’ It called sorting it ‘infeasible’, saying ‘there is no recovery from obsolete products.’ Another document a year later was candid: There is ‘serious doubt’ widespread plastic recycling can ever be made viable on an economic basis.”

  • The industry promoted recycling to keep plastic bans at bay

The investigators interviewed three former top officials from the plastics industry who revealed that the industry promoted recycling as a way to beat back a growing tide of awareness about plastic pollution along with calls for banning certain products (late 80s, early 90s). Recycling, the former officials told NPR and Frontline, became a way to pre-empt the bans and sell even more plastic. In fact the industry projection is to triple production by 2050.

  • More recycling means fewer profits for petrochemical companies

The more plastic is recycled, the less money the industry will make selling new plastic. And those profits have become increasingly important with the declining market for fossil fuels. In essence the petrochemical companies are aware that a successful recycling operation will become their competitor. Or, if they undertake recycling themselves, it will reduce profits. It’s much cheaper (and thus more profitable) to make new products from raw materials than to make an inferior plastic product from waste.

The sad truth is that is that the plastics industry has promoted recycling mainly to sell more products. The public has been lead to believe that the recycling triangle on the bottom of plastic packing means the item the item can be recycled. The truth of the matter? – It’s complicated. 

Is it really necessary to package lettuce like this? These plastic containers are made of #1 PET thermoform and are usually used for berry containers, salad containers, tomato containers, etc. They are not readily recyclable. 

WHAT PLASTICS ARE THERE?  WHICH ONES CAN BE RECYLCED

Recycling is determined by two factors: the market and city or municipal government programsIf there’s an organized recycling program along with a demand in the market for the plastics collected, then recyclers and companies will pay for post-consumer recyclables. The market demand is quite limited in reality, and it greatly depends on the type of plastic.

In general terms there are two broad categories of plastic  – thermoset plastics and thermo-plastics. Thermo-plastics are plastics that can be re-melted and re-moulded into new products, and therefore, recycled. Thermoset plastics contain polymers that cross-link to form an irreversible chemical bond, meaning that no matter how much heat is applied, they cannot be re-melted into new material and hence are not recyclable.

Examples of plastic containers that can be recycled in curb side programs. These are #2 – HDPE – see table below.

In more specific terms, the following are the various formulations of plastics, what they are used for, the approximate proportions in the waste streams (up to and including the year 2015) and the possibilities for recycling.  Note – the numbers – 1 to 7 referenced appear on the plastic items usually in a small triangle. 

# Name Examples Re-cycling options
1 Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) Beverage bottles, food jars, clothing fiber, cosmetic bottles  11 Most PET products can be re-cycled from curb-side programs
2 High-density polyethylene (HDPE) Milk jugs, detergent bottles, toys, garden furniture 14 Similar to #1 – mostly accepted in blue bin programs
3 Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) 2 forms – a) rigid – for plumbing, windows, bank cards and b) non rigid – inflatable products, electric wire insulation, etc.  5 Some items can be recycled – but there are difficulties in separating.
4 Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) Plastic bags, food wrappings, squeezable bottles,  20 Only a few items can be recycled. The big issue is single use bags as they get caught in the sorting machines.
5 Polypropylene (PP) Bottle caps, straws, coolers, diapers, clothing and carpet fibers, and some food packing – yogurt, margarine, etc.  19 Most cannot be recycled through curb side programs
6 Polystyrene (PS) White Styrofoam – used in packaging and also for rigid food containers 6 Most municipalities do not accept Styrofoam products in curbside recycling programs
7 Other – category 7 A grab bag of plastics not found in any other category.   24% Mostly non recyclable

# – Refers to the number found in the triangle on each plastic item

% – Refers to the estimated percentage of each kind of plastic in the waste stream – up to 2015.

OTHER CONSIDERATIONS ABOUT RECYLING – In general – it is the plastics with the numbers 1 and 2 (mostly) that can be recycled in curbside recycling programs. Others usually need to be taken to recycling locations or are simply sent to landfills or incinerators. Careful citizens will take the time to sort their plastics and take, to recycling depots, those items not permitted in curbside bins. However, the main concern is that a large majority will simply put all plastic items in curbside blue boxes. In such cases – likely the majority – the items that cannot be recycled will be considered trash. 

Mixed material such as zip lock bags can be a problem. For instance – take away coffee cups. While the outside of the cup is made of paper, inside is a thin layer of plastic. The PP (Polypropylene) film protects the liquid from seeping into the paper (and thereby burning you) and keeps your warm drink from cooling too quickly. Because there are two different materials, the cups cannot be recycled unless the materials are separated, which is impossible to do by hand and requires a special machine.

Any plastic material with food residues on (or in) it CANNOT be recycled. In order for plastics to be transformed into recycled goods, they must be of decent quality. So, it is important to wash the plastic before it goes in the blue box. 

To sum up – most plastic we use cannot be recycled. The plastic industry knows this and yet continues to extensively market plastic for multiple uses. We users can do more by becoming aware and refusing to use single use plastic or buying items that are inappropriately packaged. However, regulation is the only way to revers the troubling trend towards increasing plastic use. Canada for instance will ban single use plastic in 2021. But this is only a start. 

UPCOMING – 2 more articles. 

The serious concern about micro-plastics

Long-term solutions – yes – we can get out of this mess.

OUR DIGITAL WORLD IS NOT SO CLEAN

OUR DIGITAL WORLD IS NOT SO CLEAN
Allan Maynard, MSc. – October 2021

A 4 MINUTE READ — The internet and associated technologies have taken over our lives with an ecological impact that is impossible to ignore.
This is the next article in the series – “FOOTPRINTS – By the numbers” – addressing the environmental impact (or FOOTPRINT) of some of our normal, everyday lives.

When I was growing up in the 1950s – phones were attached to the wall with the phone lines shared with neighbours – “the party line” as it was called. The first computer I encountered was in 1966 at Simon Fraser University. It was the size of a living room and basically processed calculations. Fast forward to now.

In the space of 50 years, the digital world has grown to become crucial to the functioning of society. Computer processing power has increased a staggering 1 trillion times between the early 80s and now. The revolution has proceeded at breakneck speed — approximately 4.1 billion people, or 53.6% of the global population, now use the internet. No technology has reached more people in as short a space of time and it is far from finished.

The benefits of digital technology are immeasurable – society can no longer carry on without it. However, the negative aspects of the internet are also many and growing – One of the many significant negative aspects is — THE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT.

ONE OF GOOGLE’S DATA CENTERS

CARBON FOOTPRINT

Every single search query, every streamed song or video and every email sent, billions of times over all around the world all adds up to an ever-increasing global demand for electricity by the central servers and data storage centers. Our increasing reliance on digital tools has an environmental impact that’s becoming increasingly harder to ignore.

One of the difficulties in working out the carbon footprint of our internet habits is that few can agree on what should and should not be included. In reviewing the literature though – most reports calculate that the carbon footprint of our gadgets, the internet and the systems supporting them account for about 3.4 to 4% of global greenhouse emissions – comparable to the global airline industry. These emissions are expected to double by 2025.

Most significant in energy use is cryptocurrency. Solving the equations to acquire new bitcoins (referred to as “mining”) requires large volumes of computer hardware that frequently overheats and is extremely energy intensive. Estimates put the annual energy usage of bitcoin mining equivalent to that of Sweden or Malaysia.
And as these “mines” multiply, their operations begin to stretch and even overwhelm national power grids. Iran banned bitcoin mining last month after it led to blackouts. Multiple provinces in China, one of the world’s biggest producers of bitcoin, banned mining too, leading miners to relocate their hardware to sites of more traditional underground extraction in Canada and South Dakota.

POLLUTION FROM PRODUCTION OF OUR DEVICES

For their production, green energy and digital technologies require a variety of precious and rare earth metals. For the most part, they exist in minute quantities in metal ores that also contain more abundant metals such as copper. For example, a tonne of rock produces ONLY four to seven grams of the precious metal – platinum (about 0.0004 to 0.0007 %). The extraction of these minerals is difficult and complex, requiring abundant labour, chemicals, water, and land. Two examples (of many) are provided.

Example 1 – China produces 45% of the world’s metals and 95% of some of the key rare earth metals. It is also now the biggest consumer of metals in the world. China also has some of the most polluted rivers and land areas in the world due to this prominence. From north near the Mongolian border to south in Guangdong, China is struggling to clean up the environment polluted by mining. The clean-up process is expensive and time-consuming, and some say it could be 50-100 years for the environment to recover. A 2019 US Army report highlights a central issue driving rare-earth pollution in China: “China is less burdened with environmental or labor regulatory requirements that can greatly increase costs incurred in mining and manufacturing rare-earth products.”

Example 2 -In Malaysia, Mitsubishi Chemical is now engaged in a $100 million cleanup of its Bukit Merah rare earths processing site, which it closed in 1992 amid opposition from local residents and Japanese politicians and environmentalists. It is one of Asia’s largest radioactive waste cleanup sites, and local physicians said the thorium contamination from the plant has led to an increase in leukemia and other ailments.

WASTE FROM DISPOSAL (also called E-Waste)

An international study by Global Waste (see link below) concluded that the world dumped a record 53.6 million tonnes of e-waste last year. To put that in perspective this is equivalent to the weight of 350 cruise ships the size of the Queen Mary 2, To make matters worse, just 17 per cent (approximately) of it was recycled, meaning that an estimated $57 billion worth of gold, silver, copper, platinum and other high-value, recoverable materials used as components were mostly dumped or burned rather than being collected for treatment and reuse.

Planned Obsolescence – One important factor exacerbates the issue of E-Waste – Planned Obsolescence. This is the well documented fact that some of the world’s biggest companies have been selling products either knowing full well that they will only last a couple of years or having deliberately built a short lifespan into the item or its software. As an example, in the US – Apple paid millions to users related to allegations that software updates caused older iPhones – such as the iPhone 6, 6s Plus, 7 and 7 Plus – to slow down.

This is perhaps why the average time an individual keeps a smartphone is reckoned to be between two and three years. Astonishingly, according to EU research, the average lifetime of desktop printers is a mere five hours and four minutes of actual printing time. This is simply scandalous. However, a push back movement is developing – see link below on the “Right To Repair” movement.

While the overall damage done to the environment from all the unrecycled waste may be incalculable, the message from the Global Waste report was conclusive: “The way in which we produce, consume and dispose of e-waste is unsustainable.”

IS IT WORTH IT?

One wonders – where is all this headed? Even though we managed in the past, there is no doubt our world can no longer function without the internet and the associated technology. It allows people to be connected globally, it allows much better access to education, it allows rapid processing of data and an unprecedented ability for predictive science. Data storage and retrieval is many orders of magnitude better than before such digital powers were commonplace.

But in my view – and shared by many evaluating society — it is TOO MUCH. Do we need technology to open and close our curtains, to track the ‘best before’ dates of food in our fridges or to continuously monitor our back yards with a video cam? Do we need to see what our friends are having for dinner or watch silly pet videos or teenagers dancing in what should be their private spaces? Even more detrimental is the accelerated spread of misinformation and disinformation. I firmly believe that without the nonsense on Facebook etc., there would be much less resistance to the safe and effective CoVid vaccines.

Digital technologies have given rise to a new machine-based civilization that is increasingly linked to a growing number of social and political maladies. Accountability is weak and insecurity is endemic, creating disturbing opportunities for exploitation. Moreover, society is well entrenched in an era of surveillance capitalism. The companies at the core of the social media revolution — Google, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the like — vacuum up our personal data turning us into products for sale.


THE ANSWER – A BIG RESET: The manufacture, use and disposal of technology products is unstainable. Moreover, the benefits to society are being offset by many detrimental aspects. I believe that less is more. A great reset is needed to restore the initial intention of the internet. There is a very definite need for this massive industry to be much better regulated in all ways. Ron Deibert is Chair of the “The Citizen Lab”, an interdisciplinary laboratory based at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. I agree with this conclusion in a CBC article about his research “In order to combat authoritarian practices, environmental degradation, and rampant electronic consumerism, Deibert urges restraints on tech platforms and governments to reclaim the internet for civil society” (see link below to Ron Deibert’s book).

https://www.myclimate.org/information/faq/faq-detail/what-is-a-digital-carbon-footprint/

https://www.army.mil/article/227715/an_elemental_issue

https://globalewaste.org/publications/

https://www.cbc.ca/news/science/global-ewaste-monitor-2020-1.5634759

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/mar/02/apple-iphone-slow-throttling-lawsuit-settlement

https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/23/climate/right-to-repair.html

https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2020/apr/15/the-right-to-repair-planned-obsolescence-electronic-waste-mountain

CLIMATE CHANGE – INDUSTRY KNEW THIS WAS COMING

CLIMATE CHANGE – INDUSTRY KNEW THIS WAS COMING
Allan Maynard, MSc. August 5th, 2021.

Sometimes a picture can express many words. This graphic does just that. Many believe it’s already too late to stop the warming that was predicted decades ago.

UNPRECEDENTED EXTREMES

There is little doubt now. Climate change is dangerously impacting societies the world over. As forests burn and cities drown, as crops wither and people die, the question looms louder than ever this summer: What will it take for leaders to finally act? Consider the following recent extreme events – many unprecedented.

• In late June 2021, it was a deadly heat wave in the north-west Americas that smashed Canada’s all-time temperature record by more than 5 degrees C and caused around 500 to 600 heat related deaths in each of British Columbia, Oregon and Washington. The World Weather Attribution Organization (see link below) reports that this was the “the most anomalous heat event ever observed on Earth.”

Burnt-out cars stand in front of a ruined building in Lytton, B.C., on July 9, 2021. (Bethany Lindsay/CBC News). In late June 2021, Lytton recorded Canada’s highest ever temperature of 49.6 degrees C (121.3 degrees F).

• About 10 days later, it was devastating floods that turned streets into rivers and trapped people in cellars in Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic and the UK.
• A few days after that, we observed horrifying visions of Chinese commuters trapped in Zhengzhou subway trains as flood waters pushed air out of the carriages. At least 33 people died in the city after a year’s worth of rain fell in four days.
• Other heat records were recently set in Turkey, Finland, Estonia and elsewhere, while savage forest fires in North America continue to rage, filling the skies with toxic smoke over a good portion of the continent.
• Massive floods are also deluging Nigeria, Uganda, and India in recent days, killing hundreds.
More than a million people are close to starvation amid Madagascar’s worst drought in history.
• In Siberia, tens of thousands of square miles of forest are ablaze. New data is now showing that the drastic warming in Siberia is unleashing methane stored in the frozen ground below. Methane is 84 times stronger than CO2 as a greenhouse gas.

Forest fires in Siberia. The resulting smoke from forest fires such as this one and other fires and others around the world are highly dangerous to human health.

The U.N. climate officials are pleading for the world to heed the alarm bells, pointing out that these catastrophes are simply the latest in a ghastly string of warnings over decades, that the planet is hurtling down a treacherous path. Most alarming of all is that the science is now showing that climate change is making parts of the world too hot and humid for humans to survive.

PREDICTED LONG AGO (even by Industry)

In 1896, Swedish physicist Svante Arrhenius created what was, in effect, the first model of climate change. After years of work and hand computations he made a striking prediction. He stated that if the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere doubled it would raise global temperatures by 5 to 6 degrees. Today – that prediction holds up reasonably well. The CO2 concentration has almost doubled and warming in the arctic areas has increased over 7 degrees C.

Since the 1960s there have been plenty of modern warnings from scientists around the world. I can clearly recall one important warning more than 3 decades ago (1988), when James Hansen—then a NASA scientist, told the US Congress – “the evidence is pretty strong that the greenhouse effect is here.” Another early prediction – a 1972 MIT study predicted that rapid economic growth would lead to societal collapse in the mid 21st century. A new paper shows we’re unfortunately right on schedule (see link below).

But consider this prediction from JAMES F. BLACK – SENIOR SCIENTIST FOR EXXONMOBIL – in the 1970s no less. – “There is general scientific agreement that the most likely manner in which mankind is influencing the global climate is through carbon dioxide release from the burning of fossil fuels … There are some potentially catastrophic events that must be considered. Rainfall might get heavier in some regions, and other places might turn to desert. (Some countries) would have their agricultural output reduced or destroyed. Man has a time window of 5 to 10 years before the need for hard decisions regarding changes in energy strategies might become critical. Once the effects are measurable they might not be reversable.”

From this and other unearthed industry documents as well as highly credible research studies in the public domain – there is no escaping the fact that the fossil fuel industry knew this was coming.

INDUSTRY TACTICS – BILLIONS SPENT ON DENIAL AND DELAY

So – what was industry’s response to these dire and well-founded warnings, many from their own scientists? DENIAL AND DELAY. For the fossil fuel industry, climate change denial has been a multi-million-dollar endeavour. After all, trillions of dollars of assets will have to be left in the ground as the world moves towards renewable energy and away from energy based on fossil fuels. It is well documented that the public relations firms used to undermine climate change science are the same kinds of companies (along with their so-called ‘scientists’) that were hired to deny the truth linking lung cancer to cigarettes, industrial discharge to acid rain and CFCs (chloro-fluoro carbons) to ozone depletion. In all of these cases they have been soundly proven wrong. They fought science with junk-science but their message stuck. The denial reports, even though wrong, became the salvation for politicians who lacked the courage to confront the global warming threat, or even worse bowed to the wishes of their mega-donors.

LATEST INDUSTRY TACTIC – BLAME THE CONSUMERS

In the past few years, the denial strategy by industry has crumbled in the face of the many dramatic realities of climate change. For this reason, the fossil fuel industries have been settling on a new tactic to avoid being properly and necessarily regulated. That tactic? DEFLECTION – TO BLAMING THE CONSUMER.

You may recall my second article of the plastics series (The Myth of Plastic Recycling) describing the “Crying Indian” (played by an Italian actor) ad (see link below). The ad was a fraud. The ad was funded by the “Keep America Beautiful” organization founded and still mainly funded, by the beverage and packaging industries. While anti-littering campaigns should certainly be lauded, the sinister reality behind this campaign was to shift blame for packaging waste in the environment towards the users of the products rather than the manufacturers.

This tactic has now been embraced by the fossil fuel industries, factory agriculture and more. Michael Mann – the respected and widely published climate scientist has called this the Great Deflection Campaign in his new book “The New Climate War”. The idea, as with the packaging waste, is to shift the blame to consumers –buy smaller cars, fly less, eat less meat, buy clothes from recycled fibres, etc. It’s us consumers who are to blame – not institutions, manufacturers, or sub-standard government policies. Sure – consumer choice and individual action are needed, but these will not result in high-speed transport, funding for renewable energy research, or regulate toxic and greenhouse gas emissions.

WHAT THEN MUST WE DO?

This heading – the actual title of the Leo Tolstoy book dealing with poverty, exploitation, and greed as perennial aspects of the human condition, seemed appropriate to summarize. We are now facing a very rough road ahead. We have left it too long. Our biggest enemy is no longer climate denial but now it’s climate delay. The most dangerous opponents of change are no longer the shrinking minority who deny the need for action, but the supposed supporters of change who refuse to act at the pace that the science demands. Unless the world cuts emissions in half in this decade, we will probably lose the chance to avoid warming of significantly more than the 1.5C set out in the 2015 Paris Accord.

There is no way we will get out of this crisis without a massive intervention that is even grander in scope than the recovery from World War II. As Michael Mann points out – “there is no escape from climate change catastrophe that doesn’t involve policies aimed at societal decarbonization”. It will take behavioural change, incentivized by appropriate government policies, strict regulation, intergovernmental agreements, and massive technological innovation. Business as usual (in other words laissez-faire or hyper- capitalism) and the accompanying politics (bought and paid for by major corporations) is no longer an option. The politicians that are standing in the way of massive change and the accompanying investment must be voted out of office.

The actions we take defy the normal rhythm of political cycles. As Ed Miliband correctly points out in The Guardian “What we do in the next few years will have effects for hundreds of years to come”. Let us hope these actions take our world in the right direction as opposed. Otherwise, our children, grandchildren and future generations face an unthinkable terrifying future.

REFERENCES

https://www.washingtonpost.com/weather/2021/07/07/pacific-northwest-heat-wave-climate/

https://www.worldweatherattribution.org
https://www.worldweatherattribution.org/western-north-american-extreme-heat-virtually-impossible-without-human-caused-climate-change/

https://www.vice.com/en/article/z3xw3x/new-research-vindicates-1972-mit-prediction-that-society-will-collapse-soon

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/2021/07/01/madagascar-climate-famine/

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/interactive/2021/climate-change-humidity/

https://www.ioes.ucla.edu/climate/

THE MYTH OF PLASTIC RECYCLING

https://unfccc.int/news/patricia-espinosa-there-is-no-path-to-15degc-without-the-g20

Michael Mann – The New Climate War – PublicAffairs – New York, 2021.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/jul/30/climate-denial-delay-inaction-british-government

THE FASHION INDUSTRY’S DIRTY SECRET

FOOTPRINTS – By the numbers. The next few articles I will address the environmental impact (or FOOTPRINT) of some of our normal, everyday lives – buying and laundering clothes, our digital world, food production and consumption, and water use. Some of the numbers are astounding but we cannot address what we do not know. I’ll start with the fashion industry.

THE FASHION INDUSTRY’S DIRTY SECRET

BY Allan Maynard, MSc. 

OK – I know this article will not be very popular with some readers. Who does not like a little ‘retail therapy’ – a family shopping outing, touring the shops after dinner when travelling, and now, even more alluring – shopping on-line? One click – and a few days later a package arrives. And if it does not fit, we can send it back to an uncertain destiny. While I detest shopping for the most part, I also have enjoyed buying new clothes. 

But behind the glamorous ads and the alluring clothing boutiques, the garment industry has a dirty secret. I acknowledge that the title of this article is based on a highly recommended documentary produced by BBC entitled “FASHION’S DIRTY SECRETS” – see link at the end of this article. 

WHAT ARE CLOTHES MADE FROM

Clothes today are made from a wide range of different materials. Traditional materials such as cotton, linen and leather are still sourced from plants and animals. But most clothes are more likely to be made of materials and chemicals derived from fossil fuel-based crude oil – including polyester, nylon, acrylic, spandex, etc.). See figure below (note – cellulosics refers to wood-based fibers such as rayon and bamboo): 

BY THE NUMBERS 

There is an oft-cited factoid that “fashion is the second most polluting industry on the planet.”  It is difficult though to find actual proof of this and it depends greatly on the exact definition of “polluting”. It does not matter. The numbers are staggering. Here are some – not all:

  • 10% of global greenhouse emissions (CO2 and methane) come from the garment industry – more than from all air flights and shipping combined.
  • The clothing industry is the second largest consumer of water worldwide (1.5 trillion liters per year). This is especially alarming when considering that almost one-billion people do not have access to reliable drinking water.
  • Example re: water use – it takes 8,000 litres of water to create one pair of jeans / 3000 litres for one T-shirt/ 20,000 litres to make one kg of cotton.
  • Over 20% of all chemicals produced globally are used in the textile and apparel industries – as clothing fibers but also in clothing manufacturing (tanning, dyeing, bleaching, and wet processing).
  • All in all, the fashion industry is responsible for 20% of all industrial water pollution worldwide.
  • Only a small percentage of clothing that is no longer wanted by the purchaser is in turn donated or recycled. The rest goes to landfills. About 6% of waste in landfills comes from discarded clothing. The equivalent of one garbage truck full of clothes is burned or dumped in a landfill every second.
  • Every time we wash a synthetic garment around 2000 microfibers are released into the environment – resulting in an estimated 500,000 tons of microfibers entering the oceans per year. (see related article in this site on micro- and nano plastics).
  • Overall, microplastics are estimated to compose up to 31% of plastic pollution in the ocean.
  • On average, people bought 60% more garments in 2014 than they did in 2000 but only kept these clothes for half as long. The main culprit is FAST FASHION – see comments below. 

THE ARAL SEA

The Aral Sea crisis provides a very clear example of the impact of the garment industry. The Aral Sea, once considered the 4th largest lake in the world, is situated between Kazakhstan in the north and Uzbekistan in the south. It began shrinking in the 1960s and had largely dried (shrunk by more than 90% of its 1960 size) up by the 2010s. The reason — In the 1960s, the Soviet Union undertook a major water diversion project on the arid plains of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan. The region’s two major rivers, fed by snowmelt and precipitation in faraway mountains, were used to transform the desert into farms mainly to grow cotton. This outcome is considered one of the world’s most significant ecological disasters

The Aral sea has shrunk by more than 90% of its size since 1960.

THE MOST POLLUTED RIVER IN THE WORLD

The Citarum River on the island of Java (Indonesia) is considered the most polluted river in the world. Every day, no less than 20,000 tons of waste and 340,000 tons of wastewater, mostly from 2,000 textile factories, are discharged into the once clear and pristine waterways. I saw this for myself as my company had a laboratory in Indonesia. Its surface is completely covered by an unimaginable amount of waste and trash. And yet, the Citarum River is vital for the 25 million people who daily depend on it for agriculture, water, and electricity. It is a shocking demonstration of the unchecked and poorly managed textile industry producing many familiar brands available all around the world. 

The Citarum River – receives mostly untreated waste from over 2000 textile factories

WHAT CAN BE DONE?

Basically, the fashion industry is a clear example of global environmental injustice. With the rise of globalization and growth of a global economy, supply chains have become international, shifting the growth of fibers, the manufacturing of textiles, and the construction of garments to areas with cheaper labour. Out of sight – out of mind – but the human and environmental health risks associated especially with inexpensive clothing, are hidden throughout the lifecycle of each garment. From the growth of water-intensive cotton to the release of untreated dyes into local water sources, to workers’ low wages and poor working conditions; the environmental and social costs involved in textile manufacturing are widespread. 

From my viewpoint – this is an international trade issue requiring some kind of global undertaking – An ecotax? Trade embargos against offending countries? International standards around sustainability? 

As consumers – we can demand responsible clothing production, but most won’t do that. We can also buy less. I know – easier said than done. People love to shop. But do we really need FAST FASHION? Fast fashion is a term used to describe the readily available, inexpensively made fashion of today. The word “fast” describes how quickly retailers can move designs from the catwalk to stores, keeping pace with constant demand for more and different styles. Fast fashion is especially appallingly irresponsible. 

A few suggestions that should at least make us feel less powerless:

  • Check the labels – and try to buy clothing made from natural fibers grown sustainably. Or even better – from recycled fibers. 
  • If possible, buy high quality clothes that will last longer. This is a challenge though for many in this world who cannot afford this option. 
  • Buy less clothing – and keep the clothing in use longer. I still have a few T-shirts from the 1990s – old favourites.
  • Recycle unwanted clothing – via charities. It is my understanding that charities sell what they can from clothing donations and send the rest to fiber recycling operations.
  • Launder less – OK – I am no expert on laundry, but I would guess that many households launder clothing too frequently. Younger children can present a challenge in this regard. From my own experience and in talking to other parents and grandparents, young people often find it easier to place clothing just worn into a laundry bin rather than folding them up and wearing them a number of times more. Apparently – the recommendation for jeans is at least 6 wears before laundering. That suits me!

Many clothing brands claim to be addressing this issue with sustainability claims. Some are even producing clothes that need less laundering. We need to support those that can demonstrate sustainability. 

OK – now I need to go out and buy a new golf shirt. I better make sure I follow my own advice. Here’s one – organic cotton. I am not sure about the pants though. I would have to launder them too frequently. 

https://www.cbc.ca/player/play/1459009091541

https://www.commonobjective.co/article/what-are-our-clothes-made-from

http://www.columbia.edu/~tmt2120/environmental%20impacts.htm

https://environmentmatters.ca/2020/11/30/micro-plastics-the-hidden-consequence-of-plastics-use/

http://www.columbia.edu/~tmt2120/introduction.htm

https://theconversation.com/humans-drained-the-aral-sea-once-before-but-there-are-no-free-refills-this-time-round-32513

https://thediplomat.com/2018/04/indonesias-citarum-the-worlds-most-polluted-river/

https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2018/mar/31/less-laundry-less-often-how-to-lighten-the-washday-load-on-the-environment

EARTH DAY – 2021 – DIRE WARNINGS WITH A RAY OF HOPE

EARTH DAY 2021 – DIRE WARNINGS WITH A DEGREE OF HOPE

BY Allan Maynard, MSc, April 2021

How is it possible that that most intelligent creature to ever walk the planet Earth is destroying its only home” – Jane Goodall

Last April 21st was the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. In my blog of that date, I stated – “By many measures our planet’s environment is having one of its best earth days in decades. The tragic pandemic that is causing so much human misery is also giving Planet Earth a rest – a much needed breather”.

This year unfortunately, the pandemic is still with us. But Planet Earth is not getting the same degree of relief. In fact, carbon dioxide emissions are forecast to jump this year by the second biggest annual rise in history, as “global economies pour stimulus cash into fossil fuels in the recovery from the Covid-19 recession. The leap will be second only to the massive rebound 10 years ago after the financial crisis and will put climate hopes out of reach unless governments act quickly”, the International Energy Agency has warned.   

However, there is a sense, especially after the US led April 22, 2021 climate summit, that business as usual is no longer an option in recovering from the economic consequences resulting from the pandemic. 

OVERWHELMING EVIDENCE

There is no longer a legitimate debate about the reality of global warming leading to climate change disasters. What was once a warning 50 years ago is now a part of everyday life around the world. Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere have risen from 280 PPM in 1970 to over 420 PPM in 2020. The temperature in the arctic is over 5 degrees warmer thereby shrinking sea ice by over 2.6 million square km and greatly affecting ocean currents.

In 2020 alone we witnessed deadly floods in SE Asia and Bangladesh, bushfires in Australia, wildfires in California and Siberia, both drought and record rainfall in China, and extreme storms from the Philippines to Nicaragua. The extremely active 2020 Atlantic hurricane season concluded with a record-breaking 30 named storms and 12 landfalling storms in the continental United States. Drought conditions now cover 85 per cent of Mexico. Lakes and reservoirs are simply drying up, including the country’s second-largest body of fresh water with millions of Mexicans now experiencing water shortages. 

Floods in Indonesia – from USA Today

There are many more stark examples. The main point – we are seeing dramatic levels of damage and health consequences due to environmental degradation and it’s getting worse each year.

DIRE WARNINGS 

The majority of environmental scientists are warning that many parts of planet earth are now experiencing ecocide – defined by the United Nations as “criminalized human activity that violates the principles of environmental justice, as by substantially damaging or destroying ecosystems or by harming the health and well-being of a species. Others claim that we are entering a 6th mass extinction. Consider 3 examples — 1) 60% of the worlds invertebrate population has vanished since the 1950s, 2) 90% of the ocean’s fish stocks have now been exploited, 3) 40% of the earth’s land area is now used for agriculture. 

A growing climate emergency means ever greater threats to water and food security, along with destabilised ecosystems. As climate change takes its toll on Earth’s physical planet, it will also cause social, economic, and political chaos as refugees flee areas that can no longer sustain them. By many measures, this is already happening.

On Earth Day 2021 (April 22nd), one hundred and one Nobel laureates, including the Dalai Lama, released an open letter directing governments around the world to sign up to a fossil fuel non-proliferation treaty to help tackle the climate crisis. In this letter they state “Climate change is threatening hundreds of millions of lives, livelihoods across every continent and is putting thousands of species at risk. The burning of fossil fuels – coal, oil, and gas – is by far the major contributor.”

There is no question – we MUST confront the possibility that the threat from climate change may indeed be existential.

RAYS OF HOPE

Despite the dramatic consequences of and dire warnings about climate change and environmental destruction, there are some rays of hope. Here are 3 examples. 

Decoupling economic growth from CO2 emissions — Christiana Figueres is the former executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (2010-2016). In a recent Op-Ed she writes “History will remember this decade as the climate turning point, the moment we finally woke up to the fact that despite (and because of) shocks like Covid-19, decarbonization — the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions — is now inevitable. The only question is how fast we will achieve it.” Thankfully, there is increasing evidence that the world is on a positive track to decouple CO2 emissions and economic growth breaking a long-established concept that economic growth requires more fossil fuel consumption. Since 2005, 32 countries (including the US and the UK but not Canada), each with a population of at least one million people, have decoupled (in absolute terms) emissions from economic growth, both for terrestrial emissions (those within national borders) and consumption emissions (emissions embodied in the goods consumed in a country). These countries prove that positive economic outcomes can be achieved in the transition to clean energy. 

Making Climate Change the Cornerstone of Recovery – Spurred by alarming science based evidence, growing public outcry, massively increased insurance costs and human migrations, — governments, industrial leaders and civil society leaders are finally waking up to the notion that climate is at the center of everything(health, food production, national security, equality, crime prevention and more). Europe has already allocated hundreds of billions of Euros to put climate front and center. As well, trillions in investments around the world are now going towards energy transition. 

May 3rd issue of Time Magazine

And now – importantly, the US is back at the table with a progressive ambitious plan along the lines of Europe’s. The US and Europe together represent 40% of the world’s economy so it is unquestioned that other countries will need to catch up or face possible trade sanctions. 

China’s latest five-year plan unveiled last month, disappointed many by failing to include a tougher target. However, at the recent US led summit this month, president Xi Jinping said China’s coal consumption would peak in 2025, which would take the country – and the world – a long way towards the cuts needed. Time will tell on this one but clearly the US and Europe will be paying very close attention.

Much Cheaper Renewable Energy – The International Energy Agency now confirms that solar is providing the cheapest energy the world has ever seen. In a quirk of history, what had begun as an American drive to wean itself off oil (started by the Carter administration and dropped by the Reagan administration) was eventually taken up by China, making solar power dirt cheap in the process. In the past decade, renewable prices have plummeted: onshore wind down 70%, solar by 89%. Both are now cheaper that coal.  With the rapid growth of renewable electricity, the case for electrifying transportation systems around the world becomes more and more obvious. 

PUSH BACK IS EXPECTED

Of course, there will be the usual push back against progressive plans from the fossil fuel industries along with the politicians, think-tanks, and media they support. From past observations, the loudest cries will center around government overreach and attempts to link the plans to socialism. It is important to remember however the important role government has played in all economic transformations. Consider for example the recoveries after World War II. Moreover, government lead initiatives in Canada and the US made possible the rail lines that opened our frontiers, electric grids in rural communities, highway systems everywhere, the invention and coomercialization of nuclear power and the space age (with accompanying satellite technology).  Even the internet (originally called ARPANET) was developed as a complex collaboration of universities, government agencies and industry – and funded by the US Dept. Of Defense. 

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IN SUMMARY – In my view, the extent of the dual crises (CoVid 19 and environmental collapse) requires extensive government involvement as we invest in a sustainable future. There is hope that the tides are turning. Most scientists and economists re-iterate the need for big, bold, and progressive initiatives and at least some leaders are listening. 

https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2021/04/20/predictable-economic-effects-climate-change-have-started-appear/

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/21/101-nobel-laureates-call-for-global-fossil-fuel-non-proliferation-treaty

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/20/carbon-emissions-to-soar-in-2021-by-second-highest-rate-in-history

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/mar/19/planet-pursuit-profit-oil-companies-damage#comment-148148297

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/feb/25/atlantic-ocean-circulation-at-weakest-in-a-millennium-say-scientists

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/apr/25/insanely-cheap-energy-how-solar-power-continues-to-shock-the-world

https://fossilfueltreaty.org

https://www.cnn.com/2021/04/22/opinions/climate-crisis-biden-summit-figueres/index.html