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. “

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Montgomery County Banned the Foam

I'm delighted to report that this morning the Montgomery County Council voted 8-0 to ban polystyrene foam food packaging!

Rock Creek in Montgomery County, Fall 2014

The law in many ways mirrors the law passed in DC last summer:

- On January 1, 2016, restaurants and carryouts will be banned from using expanded polystyrene foam food packaging (like clamshells, plates and cups). County offices and contractors will also be required to use recyclable or compostable alternatives for all disposable food packaging.
- On January 1, 2017, all disposable food packaging at restaurants and carryouts must also be recyclable or compostable.

The Montgomery County ban also includes sale of foam food packaging for consumer use (like 100-packs of cups you might buy at the grocery store) and foam packing peanuts, effective January 2016.

The ban does not apply to Montgomery County Public Schools, but the system has already moved away from foam trays to paper ones, as of this school year. They do still have some foam cups and plates on the premises, but continue to seek cost-effective alternatives.

This is huge. Polystyrene foam comprises a quarter to as much as 40 percent of the floatable trash collected in the Anacostia River watershed. The tiny pieces it breaks into release toxic chemicals into the water, and absorb other chemicals--and then they are often eaten by fish and other aquatic life, polluting our food chain.

We are thrilled at the regional approach that DC and Montgomery County have taken, and look forward to streets and streams with less plastic pollution!

Many thanks to the Councilmembers who worked to get this legislation passed, including Council President George Leventhal, Transportation & Environment Committee Chair Roger Berliner, and of course our dedicated sponsor, Hans Riemer.

Thanks also to all the Trash Free Maryland members who worked to support this bill, including Surfrider Foundation - DC Chapter, Alice Ferguson Foundation, Anacostia Watershed Society, Anacostia Riverkeeper, Audubon Naturalist Society, Potomac Conservancy, Institute for Local Self-Reliance, Rock Creek Conservancy, Neighbors of the Northwest Branch, Hiking Along LLC, Sierra Club, and Conservation Montgomery.

Great work, everyone! Now, onward!

Friday, January 16, 2015

Thank you to all of our donors!

It's been a crazy week but I want to take a moment to say thank you to all of the amazing people, organizations, and businesses that contributed to making 2014 a successful year for us. It was our first full year of funded operations, and we accomplished more than any of us on the board or staff even dreamed possible. And we couldn't do it without the help of everyone listed here:

Want to help us make 2015 even better? You can contribute online here, or join our email list to learn about more opportunities throughout the year.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Our 2015 Maryland legislative agenda

On Wednesday, a new General Assembly will be sworn in, ushering in a new legislative session that may run very differently from the past four years. Even though the Assembly still has a veto-proof Democratic majority, Republican Governor-elect Hogan, a clear anti-tax mandate from voters, and a looming budget deficit have many progressive campaigns in a defensive posture.

Trash, however, has proven to affect everyone, from urban neighborhoods to rural farmland to the fishing community in the Chesapeake Bay. There are also a lot of ways to tackle the trash problem, and our goal is to work with the new Assembly to find common ground on solutions to keep making progress on reducing trash pollution across Maryland.

That said, we are focusing our efforts on three campaigns in 2015:

- Plastic bags. Bag bans and fees are proliferating rapidly around the US, with California passing the first state-level ban on plastic bags in 2014. In Los Angeles County, a two-year-old ban on plastic bags (with a 10-cent charge on paper) has reduced total disposable bag use by 90 percent. That's all the plastic bags, plus a drop in paper bags. It's an incredibly compelling solution to get shoppers to use reusable bags.

As we know in nearby DC, a 60-percent drop in bag use following a disposable bag fee turned into a 60-percent drop in bags found in streams and parks. Imagine cutting bag pollution in our state by 90 percent!

Bags are also a tremendous expense for retailers, sometimes as much as their third-highest overhead cost. If they no longer have to buy plastic bags, and can cut paper bag use, that savings can go back into the business, spurring investment, growth, and better pay and benefits for workers.

In 2015, Trash Free Maryland proposes that Maryland ban plastic bags and put a small fee on paper bags, motivating consumers to use reusable bags. The program pays for itself, reduces litter (and the inherent cleanup costs), and saves retailers money.

- Microbeads. A tube of toothpaste can contain as many as 300,000 plastic beads, all for color. (See those blue specks on your toothbrush?) A bottle of face wash, too. (Those are for exfoliating dead skin.) But they all wash down the drain, slip through wastewater treatment plants, and wind up in our rivers and the Bay.

Made of polyethylene, the beads absorb toxic chemicals like pesticides and fertilizers, becoming toxic balls that aquatic life mistake for food. Dentists even report finding tiny blue beads in their patients' gums. The beads are quite visible in samples from our recent Chesapeake Bay Trash Trawl.

Natural alternatives are readily available, including walnut shells, apricot stones, and even salt or sugar. Instead of washing synthetic beads into our waterways, we need to push manufacturers to redesign their products. Several major manufacturers have agreed to voluntary phaseouts, but their timelines are a decade away. Can we afford to let our fish continue to mistake these beads for food, polluting our food chain from the bottom up?

Virginia, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Hawaii, and California will all be considering legislation to ban the sale of microbead-laden products this year. Like the ban on phosphorus in detergents, these state-level bans will drive manufacturers to reformulate their products nationwide and prevent this plastic pollution from increasing on a global scale.

Trash Free Maryland asks the General Assembly to ban the sale of personal care products containing microbeads, to protect our local fisheries and the Bay.

- Enforcement. While source reduction is key, we also need to get serious about penalizing the people who contribute to the trash pollution problem. Last year we passed a bill to put points on the drivers licenses of people convicted of illegal dumping, creating a statewide penalty system and a more meaningful punishment.

We know that people litter as a rebellious act, in part because they believe they won't get caught--or if they do, the punishment will be light. Bolstering enforcement has tremendous potential to not just stop repeat offenders, but prevent other littering and dumping behavior too.

We are eager to work with legislators to identify targeted solutions, whether it's mandating community service picking up trash, streamlining the citation process to make convictions easier (and more likely to stick), or specific approaches for problem items like tires or construction debris.

We'll also be tracking related legislation as it's introduced, and working with sponsors and other advocates to pass good policies to achieve a trash free Maryland. Stay tuned for updates, and have a great session!