Thursday, March 31, 2016

When did we become a plastic society?

Take a couple of minutes and check out this great video by Jeff Bridges for the Plastic Pollution Coalition. Share the video with your friends, and then get involved with us to make a difference right here in Maryland!

When did we become a plastic society?

Posted by Jeff Bridges on Monday, March 28, 2016

Monday, February 1, 2016

What are you giving up for Lent?

Together with Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake and faith leaders around the state, we are calling on Marylanders to fast from plastic bags in the coming season of Lent. People of the Christian faith often practice fasting to reflect on changes they want to make in their lives. We encourage people of all backgrounds to take these 40 days to consider our throwaway culture and simple steps you can take to protect your community and the environment. Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, February 10, and runs until Easter on March 27.

To inspire you, we're holding a rally on February 9...Mardi Gras! Join us in front of the State House at 9 am. Faith leaders from Prince George's, Anne Arundel, and Baltimore will speak about protecting our common home. We'll have reusable bags, of course, along with festive beads and king cake. Need a ride from Baltimore? Get on the bus!

“For many Christians celebrating Lent, they're preparing to journey with their God and reflect on the changes they want to make in their lives, said Jodi Rose, Executive Director of Interfaith Partners for the Chesapeake. “Fasting is one practice that draws them into that journey. We're challenging Christians to fast from plastic bags this year--and many are embracing this! We live in a throwaway culture that threatens all of Creation. This Lent, we're asking people to reflect on that throwaway culture, their role in it, and how they can be a witness to God's desire that we treasure the sacred around us.”

In response to calls from Maryland businesses and a growing awareness of the problems of plastic pollution, Delegate Brooke Lierman (D-Baltimore City) and Senator Victor Ramirez (D-Prince George’s County) introduced the Community Cleanup and Greening Act in the 2016 session of the Maryland General Assembly.

"It is rare to find a bill that will save businesses and consumers money, while also providing an immeasurable environmental benefit, and the Community Cleanup and Greening Act does just that,” said Delegate Lierman. “I’m so pleased to be sponsoring this urgently needed legislation. The time to help our businesses and save our struggling waters is now, and I am hopeful that the General Assembly will pass this bill this year."

The Community Cleanup and Greening Act bans plastic shopping bags at checkout. According to cleanup data, plastic bags comprise as much as half the trash polluting Maryland waterways, and they are among the most visible forms of street litter, blowing down sidewalks and tangling in trees and fences. Many Maryland counties have stopped accepting plastic bags in residential recycling programs.

To encourage shoppers to use reusable bags, the bill also requires stores to charge 10 cents for each paper bag. Financial disincentives have successfully changed consumer behavior in other cities and counties, including Washington, DC, and Los Angeles County, California. According to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Works, a typical store distributed 2.2 million disposable bags per year before their ordinance took effect in 2011. Beginning in the first month of the law, the same store distributed bags at a rate of 125,000 per year. (That's a 95% decrease!)

Public hearings on the bill (HB 31, SB 57) are scheduled for February 2 and February 10.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Looking back on 2015

It looks like it's been a while since I've posted any updates here, but there are lots of posts on our Chesapeake Bay Trash Trawl site!

As we enter the last month of the year, and I've written half a dozen grant reports and other summaries of the work we've done at Trash Free Maryland, it seems like a good time to share it all with you:

- We passed foam food packaging bans in Montgomery and Prince George's Counties. We trained a dozen other organizations on the issue and helped them be effective advocates, demonstrating a broad coalition of support. Together with the DC foam ban we passed in 2014, more than 2.5 million people, and 15,000 businesses, will be using more sustainable and less toxic food packaging in 2016.

- We passed a first-of-its-kind ban on plastic microbeads in face wash, toothpaste, and other personal care products. We worked with leadership in the General Assembly, industry representatives, and the Maryland Department of Environment to enact a ban that includes most synthetic microbeads, keeping these tiny plastic pellets out of the water and out of our seafood.

- We asked DC and Maryland to update their programs for keeping trash out of the Anacostia River, modifying the way they measure their progress so it makes more sense to real people and ensures that the river will one day (soon!) be truly trash-free.

- Our Trash Trawl is the largest study yet of plastic pollution in the Chesapeake Bay, collecting more than 75 samples of water, plastic pieces, and fish. Once the data analysis is complete in 2016, we can show how the plastic bag in the tree in front of your house ends up back on your dinner plate, possibly contaminated with chemicals. You can read about it in CityLab and the Baltimore Sun. Or watch NatGeo's video about it right here:

We also worked with local government officials who wanted our input on their policy proposals to reduce litter in their communities, spoke to more than 600 community members and students from elementary school through college, and reached hundreds more through online streaming and videos.

Trash Free Maryland started in 2010 and became a funded organization in 2013; this year we applied to the IRS for our nonprofit status to make it all official.* We've achieved all of that success with a single staff member and a devoted board of directors, but we can't do it alone. With your help and financial gift, we can achieve even more in 2016! Click here to make a secure donation online today. And thank you for all you do for a trash-free Maryland!

* Donations come directly to Trash Free Maryland now, and will be tax deductible retroactively once our 501c3 determination comes through. It's technical and nerdy and you should check with your tax professional for your particular situation.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Save the world. Stop recycling everything.

I rarely work on solid waste, but I've gotten some questions about this, and I know enough about it to have some opinions and ideas. So this post is more to lay those out, and less a formal report. No academic citations here!

The Washington Post has been writing about the state of recycling, both in terms of national trends and specifically in DC (perhaps prompted by the departure of Department of Public Works Director Bill Howland?). The articles highlight how the trend toward single-stream recycling has actually lowered the value of the recycled material.

Single-stream recycling is where you dump all your recyclables into one bin, smashing it down so it all fits, and haul it out to the curb where a truck comes and adds it to everybody else's crushed stuff, then schleps it to a factory where machines try to separate it back out. In the process, the glass breaks and shards get stuck in the cardboard, yogurt you didn't totally rinse out of that tub smears onto newspaper, etc. The machines hopefully also catch that clamshell that sure looks like highly recyclable #1 polyethylene terephthalate (PET) resin but is actually non-recyclable #6 polystyrene--because if inspectors find that #6 clamshell in the bale of #1, they'll reject the whole bale.

Ideally we'd all separate our recyclables into different bins, depending on material. I remember as a kid going to the Walmart parking lot and putting recyclables into different igloo-shaped containers, including separate bins for brown, green, and clear glass. I did the same in the Outer Banks, North Carolina, as recently as five years ago. Keeping everything separated meant it was super easy to gather up, melt down, and turn it into new bottles.

For better or worse, local governments decided to make recycling collection curbside, and residents didn't want to have a plethora of bins at home. Over the past 20 years, more municipalities have moved toward single-stream recycling at the behest of their residents. Recycling is an extremely popular public works service, so tax dollars are spent on expanding collection services, even to the point of mandated universal curbside recycling collection. Because everybody gets a recycling bin and weekly pickup, everyone gets to feel good about being an environmentalist! Sounds great, doesn't it?

But there's a pretty big catch that a growing number of municipalities are now recognizing.

As the contents of those big bins gets more contaminated, its monetary value drops significantly. Localities used to make a lot of money by selling their recycled materials on the commodities market; the profits more than offset the costs of collection. But localities aren't making as much money anymore, to the point where cities around the country are spending more on collection than they are getting back in materials sales. Normally, a municipality would just reduce spending when a venture becomes a financial liability. But, politically, they can’t do that with recycling services that remain highly popular with the public. (Ocean City, Maryland, got rid of municipal recycling all together a few years back, sending every piece of residential solid waste to an incinerator. Residents are feeling guilty as they adjust, and groups that hold conferences at the convention center have started hiring private haulers just so they can provide recycling to attendees, lest they look bad.)

Before I started doing this trash advocacy thing full-time, I owned a design and marketing company. One of our clients was a suburban county in Ohio that desperately wanted to raise its recycling rate, from 11 to 15 percent. (One step at a time...) Through phone surveys and focus groups, we learned that the "sometimes-recyclers" felt good when they recycled, even though it was kind of a pain. (Those bins are heavy! And sometimes gross wet stuff leaks out of them!) They felt like they were doing something really good for the planet and for future generations. What elected official wants to take that away?

But these "sometimes-recyclers" also said that they recycle so they don't feel guilty about not doing anything else that's considered environmentally friendly: "It's not like I'm going to buy a Prius, so I recycle." This phenomenon has been found in other "virtuous acts"--people who use reusable bags while grocery shopping may also tend to buy more junk food. Think about similar ways you justify your own bad behavior. (My favorite is Liz Lemon having a cupcake because she planned to go to the gym later.)

The Ohio ad campaign ended up featuring real people saying they recycle because it's "one thing" they can do for a better planet/future/community. The campaign probably did raise the participation rate, but who knows if the quality of the materials is any good or if people traded out another virtuous act to do so.

Summary: Recycling is a popular behavior, so cities push participation. But the tactics that drive participation lead to contamination. There are two major culprits to this contamination: people not knowing what is actually recyclable and glass.

All plastics are not created equal.

Scenario: you have an empty plastic container in the kitchen, flip it over, squint and see the tiny number inside the chasing arrows. (The chasing arrows make you think it's recyclable but that was just a trick by the Society of the Plastics Industry. Fortunately they just changed the symbol to a simple triangle.) Maybe it's a #5 tub. Does your city collect that? Maybe you kept the mailer you got four years ago or you have time to look it up online. (Probably not.)

In DC, you could look at the top of the new recycling cart you got in 2014. (Political maneuvering? Who knows.) Except the lid says you can recycle all plastics, #1-7. That's actually not true. #3 (vinyl), #6 (polystyrene), and #7 (other) definitely shouldn't go in the cart. For the other resins, it usually depends on the shape. Most public works officials will tell you to just put it in even if you aren't sure. The problem with that advice is that you risk ending up with those contaminated--and devalued--bales. Maryland Environmental Services reports that their facilities have a residue rate of less than 10 percent (less than 10 percent of the stuff they get can't be recycled), but that data probably requires more digging.

We learned in Ohio that giving people too much detailed information just confuses them and likely leads them to throw the stuff in the trash. But not enough info may mean an entire bale gets trashed. It's a tough problem.

The glass is half empty.

Glass is heavy, so it costs a lot to collect and transport. But it breaks and gets mixed up, and it has fairly low value on the commodities market. On the other hand, it is infinitely recyclable, and recycled glass is still cheaper to make than new glass. Domestic glass manufacturers would much prefer to have a clean stream of glass they can recycle for new bottles, and the best way to do that is to keep it separate from everything else (and separated by color). This works great in states with bottle bills (beverage container deposits). Glass manufacturers would like to add factories in more states, but they need a good glass supply in the region. A bottle bill could do this, if we're not inclined to go back to separated curbside collection. But then you're going up against beverage companies and distributors that hate any idea that could put obstacles between customers and their 24-pack of Coke Zero.

A Maryland Senate committee held a summer briefing on a proposed bottle bill last week, and I was struck by how many of the opponents defensively insisted, "I recycle a lot! My bin is always overflowing!" I wondered how much of that was empty water bottles.

So what's the answer? There probably is a perfect system that would collect every single piece of packaging that could be reused or recycled into something else. But when we're dealing with the realities of humans, and local budgets, and the scale required to make the whole transportation and logistics system that is recycling work, it's going to take some creative thinking, smart community education, and a lot of cooperation.

Ultimately, we don't want any materials to go to waste; we want people to return as much as possible; we want those materials to net as much revenue as possible; and maybe we can also prevent it from getting loose into the environment as litter. Some of the basics from the existing toolbox could get us close:
- container deposit (get the glass out!)
- bring back a separate cart for paper
- clarify what should go into recycling bins, convey it clearly, and conduct extensive public outreach to make sure people understand
- urge people to buy less packaging overall and urge manufacturers to make packaging that is recyclable (no pouches!)

Join us to talk Plastics in the Chesapeake!

On Wednesday, June 24, we'll be on Google+ for a Hangout with the National Aquarium and Story of Stuff Project. Pack a lunch and join us at 12:15pm!

We'll be talking about our Trash Trawl, both the findings from last fall's trip and our plans for a second, bigger project this September. We'll also talk about microplastics, microbeads, and how plastic pollution hurts the Chesapeake Bay and the world's oceans.

Have a question? Post it on the event page!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Maryland Bans Microbeads!

ANNAPOLIS (May 12, 2015)—Today Governor Larry Hogan signed into law HB 216, banning plastic microbeads as an ingredient in personal care products in Maryland. The law, sponsored by Delegate Dan Morhaim (D-Baltimore County), requires manufacturers to phase out the use of plastic microbeads in 2018 and bans the sale of products containing them at the end of 2019. These changes effectively require manufacturers to use natural alternatives like oatmeal, apricot stones, salt, and rice.

Microbeads can be found in everything from facial scrubs and soap to toothpaste and makeup and are listed on ingredient labels under their material names of polyethylene, polypropylene, polyethylene terephthalate or polymethyl methacrylate. The beads, used to exfoliate dry skin or add color to products, are too small to be captured in most wastewater treatment plants and instead are released into rivers and the Chesapeake Bay. Due to their chemical makeup, they attract other petroleum-based chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers, becoming as much as one million times more toxic than the water around them.

“Our samples of the Chesapeake Bay found numerous microbeads floating at the surface. Given their size, we can only imagine how many are eaten by fish, shellfish, and other aquatic life, and even end up on Marylanders’ dinner plates,” said Julie Lawson, director of Trash Free Maryland, which championed and co-authored the final bill. “We shouldn’t be washing our faces and brushing our teeth with plastic, and we certainly shouldn’t be washing plastic down the drain to pollute our waters.”

Similar bans arose in other states in 2014, particularly after researchers found alarmingly high concentrations of microbeads in the Great Lakes. Illinois and New Jersey passed bans last year, but with loopholes for so-called biodegradable plastics like polylactic acid (PLA). Unfortunately PLA only biodegrades at extremely high heat, not in the cool temperatures of the water.

With the agreement of the Personal Care Products Council, Maryland’s ban effectively closes this loophole. The law requires the Maryland Department of the Environment to establish regulations so that alternative exfoliants meet international standards to biodegrade in wastewater treatment plants and the marine environment, and for MDE to review the regulations periodically to ensure the strongest, most relevant standards are in effect.

“This bill is a big win for Maryland, but it is also a major step toward a nationwide shift in how these products are designed,” said Stiv Wilson, campaigns director for The Story of Stuff Project and creator of the national effort to ban microbeads. “We are creating structural and transformative change on how we use plastic particles in commerce.”

Last week The Story of Stuff Project released a two-minute “explainer” film on microbeads:

“We still have a few years before these products are off store shelves,” added Lawson. “Our next step is to educate consumers about the problem and that alternatives are already readily available.”

The campaign extends its thanks to sponsors Delegate Dan Morhaim and Senator Joan Carter Conway, as well as champions Chairman Kumar Barve, Delegates Clarence Lam, Steve Lafferty, Jim Gilchrist, and David Fraser-Hidalgo, and Senators Paul Pinsky and Karen Montgomery for their leadership.


Trash Free Maryland is the leading advocate for public policies to reduce trash pollution in the state. We work toward a state of Maryland that is free of trash, debris, and litter, where communities, public spaces, and waterways are safe, healthy, and support economic viability.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

We passed the foam trifecta!

Today the Prince George's County Council voted unanimously to ban polystyrene foam food containers and packing material for distribution or sale at restaurants and retailers. The ban takes effect in July 2016.

This means that next year your takeout dinner, your coffee, and your family picnic lunch will all be in paper or rigid plastic containers, many of which are compostable or recyclable. If they end up as litter, they will dissolve in the water, or be more likely to be caught in a trash trap.

Prince George's County joins Washington, DC, and Montgomery County in banning foam food packaging--this is great news for the Anacostia River watershed, as well as all of the neighborhoods and other rivers and streams in the region. It also levels the playing field for businesses and will create a powerful market force for alternative products; the demand for non-foam food packaging is about to explode!

We've been working with agencies in each jurisdiction to encourage collaboration in outreach to businesses, distributors, and retailers. We are also advocating for creation of a purchasing cooperative to help independent businesses band together and buy alternative products in bulk, driving down their unit costs and saving money. If DC, Montgomery, and Prince George's all participate, the buying power could be tremendous.

The three laws are all a little bit different. Let's break it down:

- DC bans foam food packaging at restaurants starting January 2016. It also requires that restaurants use recyclable or compostable materials for all disposable food ware (straws, lids, utensils) starting in 2017. The ban will be enforced with inspections by DDOE with fines imposed for violations.

- Montgomery County bans foam food packaging at restaurants, and the sale of foam food packaging and foam packing peanuts, starting January 2016. It also requires restaurants to use recyclable or compostable materials for disposable food ware starting in 2017. The ban will only be enforced by resident/consumer complaints.

- Prince George's County bans foam food packaging at restaurants, and the sale of foam food packaging and foam packing peanuts, starting July 2016. The ban will be enforced with inspections by DOE with fines imposed for violations.

This is truly an amazing victory for the whole region. More than 2.5 million people live in these three jurisdictions, and all three councils voted for these laws unanimously. We made a compelling case for the environmental and public health rationales, and we demonstrated strong public support. We identified businesses who could make their case, and we blunted industry opposition with strong rebuttals and a little bit of persuasion.

Foam comprises a quarter to even 40% of the volume of trash in the Anacostia River, and we've now banned it from the entire watershed. We started Trash Free Maryland to solve problems like this, and less than five years later, we've made incredible progress.

Thank you to Councilmembers Hans Riemer and Mary Lehman and former Mayor Vincent Gray for your passion, your work, and your leadership to get this done. And thank you to all the other councilmembers, legislative and agency staff, and advocates who have made this happen.

Trash Free Maryland commits to staying on top of the implementation of these laws, ensuring that businesses have the necessary support they need, and that enforcement is in place. We want to see foam and all trash pollution out of our neighborhoods and waterways, and we are well on our way to that goal!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

We banned the bead!

Quick update, ahead of a longer statement later this week:

The General Assembly gave final passage to HB216, ban on microbeads in personal care products, last night!

The ban applies to all microbeads made of traditional plastic as well as any so-called biodegradable plastics that cannot biodegrade in wastewater treatment and marine environments. Products on store shelves will start changing in 2018, with all plastic microbeads off the shelves by the end of 2019.

The standards for this biodegradation are still being developed, so MDE will be required to review standards every few years to make sure we have the newest, most stringent regulations. The idea here is that it will be a big pain for manufacturers to reformulate every time the standards change, so they will be strongly motivated to switch to natural alternative ingredients.

At this time, this law is the strongest ban in the country! California had their first hearing yesterday, and they hope to use our bill, and the progress we made in conversations with the industry, to push for even more. Oregon and Minnesota are also still in play.

We have three action items now:
Celebrate! This is a really big deal!
Say thank you, particularly to Chairman Kumar Barve and Chairwoman Joan Carter Conway, Delegate Dan Morhaim, and Senator Pinsky. I would also give shoutouts to Delegates Barbara Frush, David Fraser Hidalgo, Clarence Lam, Steve Lafferty, and Jim Gilchrist, and Senator Karen Montgomery.
Keep educating your networks about microbeads, and alternative products. It's still going to be several years before these things are off store shelves, so now it's on us to get people to stop using them.

Congratulations, team!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Fish don't need exfoliants

UPDATE 3/12: The Senate formally passed the bill today, again unanimously. This is very exciting! Now...on to the House.

Today the Maryland Senate gave preliminary approval to SB200, which prohibits the manufacture and sale of plastic microbeads in personal care products as of 2018. The bill includes a ban on bioplastics that cannot be proven to biodegrade in the marine environment.

A single bottle of face wash or tube of toothpaste can contain more than 300,000 microbeads. Designed to be washed down the drain, these plastic pellets are too small to be captured by wastewater treatment facilities, so they end up in local waters, the Chesapeake Bay, and the oceans. These particles absorb chemicals from the water like pesticides and PCBs, and are also mistaken for food by fish. This is not good news for the Bay's fisheries or our food chain.

More than two dozen states are considering legislation to ban these products, in an effort to push manufacturers to reformulate their products to use natural ingredients like oatmeal and apricot stones. Maryland could become the first to pass such a ban that includes bioplastics.

The final Senate vote is expected this week. The House is still working on similar legislation. Click here to find your state representatives and call them to ask them to support SB200 and HB216 with amendments to close the loophole for bioplastics.

Meanwhile, what should you do with products you may already have? Check your bathroom cabinets for products that include polyethylene or polypropylene and stop using them. You can send the unused product to us (email me for info) or to The Story of Stuff Project for demonstration and education projects.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Residents to Maryland General Assembly: 
Get plastic bags out of our communities

FEBRUARY 12, 2015 — A bill introduced this week in the Maryland General Assembly would ban disposable plastic bags across the state, reducing litter and slashing overhead costs for retailers.

At a briefing today sponsored by nonprofit organization Trash Free Maryland, bill sponsor Delegate Brooke Lierman (D-District 46) described the bill as a win for communities, a win for our waterways, a win for retailers, and a win for local governments.

“If passed, this bill will result in cleaner neighborhoods and waterways throughout our state, as well as long-term decreased overhead expenses for our retailers,” added Lierman. “In other words, it is one of those rare win-win opportunities, and I am hopeful that the legislature and Governor will take action to pass this legislation this year.”

The bill, titled the Community Cleanup and Greening Act (HB551 and SB620), would prohibit retailers from giving out plastic bags at checkout, with exceptions for meats, produce, and limited other items. Retailers would also be required to charge 10 cents for each paper bag distributed at checkout, incentivizing shoppers to use reusable bags. Retailers would keep 5 to 7 cents of the charge, with the remainder returning to counties for local programs to reduce trash pollution, distribute free reusable bags, and improve access to fresh foods.

Baltimore residents at the briefing spoke of bags and other litter blighting their neighborhoods around Patterson Park and East Baltimore, diminishing a sense of community pride.

Kim Wiggins is the green coordinator for the Patterson Park neighborhood. She observed that other greening projects are made more difficult by litter in the community.

Cheryl Bryant counted 532 plastic bags on her walk from her home to William Paca Elementary School, where she volunteers. She took some of the students on a field trip to the Prince George’s County recycling center where they learned that, like Baltimore City, Prince George’s does not accept plastic bags at curbside. “Why do we expect people to take their groceries home in these bags?” she wondered.

Rashawn Smith from East Baltimore said of his time working at a grocery store, “I saw bags were a major cost. People use way too many of them, and they are unnecessary. Why do you need a bag for a bag of chips, when it comes in a bag? What are you going to do with it? You’re going to throw it away.”

Steve Raabe of OpinionWorks, an independent research firm based in Annapolis, spoke about the findings of a 2013 DC Department of the Environment survey of 177 businesses. The survey found that half of business owners reported saving money on bags, and only 8% of business owners oppose the bill.

“Litter is increasingly visible along many of our roads. The vast majority of the litter is plastic bags or plastic wrappings,” said Senator Karen Montgomery (D-District 14), the bill’s lead sponsor in the Senate. “This bill will also relieve the merchants of the cost of the paper bags they can offer since the charge covers that expense. Let’s clean up all our neighborhoods and our waterways. “