Colors and shapes of underwater world / Moment Open / Getty Images
Nestlé Waters’ proposal to take 1.1 million gallons per day from Ginnie Springs has drawn a backlash from conservationists who say the food giant wants to take publicly owned water and sell it back to the public, as the Guardian reported.
Conservationists fear that if Nestlé’s plans go through, there will be considerably less water in Ginnie Springs, which sits in the Santa Fe River and serves as a home for several species of turtles that nest on the river’s banks. Environmental groups say the river is too fragile to serve Nestlé’s interests since it is already labeled as “in recovery” by the Suwannee River water management district after years of over pumping, as the Guardian reported.
Residents have also criticized the business practice that allows for taxpayer money to restore the spring, while allowing Nestlé to take water out. The Florida Water Resources Act declared that all the water in springs, rivers and lakes is the property of the state, not the landowners, but it never set a price on water. That means, Nestlé will be able to take the state’s water, but not pay the state for it, according to the Gainesville Sun.
“[W]e have an ethical issue with our state putting large sums of money into conservation practices and recharge projects on the Santa Fe River and then, at the same time, counteracting this action by fomenting the free extraction of a publicly owned natural resource by a for-profit company,” wrote Merrillee Malwitz-Jipson and Jim Tatum, from the conservation group Our Santa Fe River, in a column for the Gainesville Sun. “Essentially, taxpayers are funding replenishment of the aquifer and then allowing Nestlé to take it out and sell it back to us.”
That bizarre marketplace has residents teaming up with conservationists to ask the Suwannee River Water Management District to deny renewing Nestlé’s permit.
“Ginnie Springs is one of Florida’s treasures. It’s loved by locals and travelers alike,” Julienne Wallace wrote in creating a change.org petition, as the Gainesville Sun reported. “Nestlé is known for destroying places like Ginnie Springs and its breaking our hearts! PLEASE DON’T GIVE NESTLÉ THE PERMIT TO TAKE WATER FROM GINNIE SPRINGS!!!”
The current permit holder, Seven Springs, has never drawn more than 260,000 gallons per day, but Nestlé has invested heavily in a new bottling plant so it can draw as much water as possible. Nestlé insists that that drawing 1.1 million gallons of water per day is only .05% of the total daily volume there, according to WTSP News in Tampa.
“Springwater is a rapidly renewable resource when managed correctly. Nestlé Waters North America is committed to the highest level of sustainable spring water management at all of the springs we manage,” Nestlé Waters North America said in a written statement posted on its website. “We have worked to be a good neighbor in Florida for decades. Our commitment goes beyond just caring about the water. We value our relationships with Florida residents and community leaders, and always strive to create shared value within the communities where we operate.”
That argument did not hold much water with Malwitz-Jipson who said to the Guardian, “The Santa Fe River is already in decline [and] there’s not enough water coming out of the aquifer itself to recharge these lovely, amazing springs that are iconic and culturally valued and important for natural systems and habitats.
“It’s impossible to withdraw millions of gallons of water and not have an impact. If you take any amount of water out of a glass you will always have less.”
She also pointed to the threat the permit will pose to wildlife. “Few places on Earth have as many turtle species living together and about a quarter of all North American freshwater turtle species inhabit this small river system. A big threat to this diversity is habitat degradation, which will happen with reduced flows,” she said to the Guardian.
Plastic bags are killing horses and cows across the state. What’s Texas to do?
A year after the Texas Supreme Court dealt a death blow to municipal bans on plastic bags, legislative efforts to revive them have fallen flat, and ranchers, city leaders and environmental groups say plastic bag litter is as big a problem as ever.
Kristie West was driving down the highway in rural South Texas when she saw it.
The drive from her ranch to the nearby town of Poth was usually uneventful. But on that day in 2017, West saw something that made her slam on the brakes of her pickup.
A white plastic bag had flitted into a horse pen behind a house where a young palomino was grazing. Someone who doesn’t work with livestock probably wouldn’t have thought twice about it. But West trained horses, and she knew the colt would treat the bag like a toy.
She quickly pulled into the yard and raced to the front door. A man answered.
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“I said, ‘Do you care if I run out to check on your horse?'” West recalled. He said it was fine. “That’s all I said. I ran behind his house just as the horse took off running.”
When West got to the pen, the colt had already swallowed the bag, and she could see that he was suffocating.He then bolted, jumping a barbed wire fence. West ran after him. But she was too late.
“He was dead,” she recalled.
The prevalence of such incidents has prompted states and cities across the country to enact regulations to curtail the use of plastic bags, which can suffocate and cause fatal digestion blockages in livestock and wild animals. But in Texas, the regulation of plastic bags — grocery or otherwise — is all but nonexistent, and recent developments indicate it will remain that way.
In a concurring opinion, Justice Eva Guzman agreed with her colleagues but said the state Legislature should clarify whether plastic bags can actually be banned and described the pollution as “an ongoing assault on our delicate ecosystem.” Earlier this year, Democratic state lawmakers attempted to do that, but the legislation they filed never even received public hearings.
Meanwhile, the absence of municipal regulations means many Texans have reverted to using plastic bagsonce again. And some say the litter is getting worse.
Although retailers like H-E-B still encourage customers to bring reusable bags to the store — the grocery chain also did away with the thin, single-use bags altogether in Austin — the wispy receptacles quickly reappeared at stores that had briefly switched to paper sacks before the court ruling, and the sight of plastic bags wafting down the highway remains a common one.
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With little state regulation and a full stop from the state’s highest civil court, what’s a rancher to do?
“I don’t know what they could do,” West said. “The biggest thing is the people — that they just need to quit littering.”
Since the incident with the Palomino colt, West has been doing her part to raise awareness of how lethal plastic bag litter can be. For two years, she’s worked with the Independent Cattlemen’s Association of Texas to distribute bumper stickers that warn people in bold red letters that “plastic bags KILL animals.” For its part, the state’s environmental regulatory agency, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, has its own anti-litter awareness campaign, called “Take Care of Texas.” (The well-known “Don’t Mess With Texas” campaign was developed in 1985 by an Austin ad agency for the Texas Department of Transportation).
The TCEQ, which is also responsible for enforcing the state’s litter and dumping laws, does a number of things to combat littering, such as sending $5.49 million every year to councils of government across the state to fund public awareness campaigns, community trash pickups and litter surveillance. Between 2016 and 2017, that funding bankrolled more than 230 such projects across the state.
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But environmental groups say it’s not enough.
Andrew Dobbs, legislative director at Texas Campaign for the Environment, said the state needs to ban single-use plastic bags or the problem will continue.
“Picking everything up is not really a solution at all, right?” he said. “You’re much better off unloading the gun than you are trying to wear a bullet-proof vest.”
Texans and environmental groups from across the state filed amicus briefs in support of the Laredo bag ban. One of them was Billy Easter, a rancher who lives near Wichita Falls.
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Easter runs 200 head of cattle on 1,400 acres. He owns 2 miles of land along U.S. Highway 281, where he said he is constantly pulling plastic bags off barbed-wire fences. He said he’s lost cattle to plastic bags and that oftentimes ranchers don’t notice their livestock has swallowed one until it’s too late.
“These cows in the pastures, you don’t see them every day,” Easter said.
Although Easter and others urged the court to allow cities to make the bag ban choice for themselves, the state supreme court sided with the merchants. In its ruling, the court said that single-use bags are considered garbage and fall under the state’s solid waste disposal law, which preempts municipal ordinances.
But in her concurring opinion, Guzman urged the Legislature to take “direct ameliorative action” and change the laws to better address environmental concerns.
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“Standing idle in the face of an ongoing assault on our delicate ecosystem will not forestall a day of environmental reckoning — it will invite one,” she said.
Two Democratic lawmakers attempted to heed that call earlier this year.
Rep. Gina Hinojosa, D-Austin, and Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, filed legislationduring this year’s legislative session that would have exempted single-use plastic bags from the Solid Waste Disposal Act, specifying that they do not quality as a “container or package.” That would have freed up municipalities to regulate them again.
Hinojosa argued that the law needed to be clarified because the original intention of the act was to regulate styrofoam and other manufacturing waste that went into landfills, not plastic bags.
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My bill sought to make absolutely clear that the statute is not meant to include single-use plastic bags in order to ensure local plastic bag ordinances are not preempted,” she said in an email.
Last year’s court ruling was the latest in a string of mostly legislative moves that have eaten away at local control. For cities like Brownsville, one of the municipalities that had to stop enforcing its ban on single-use bags after the court ruling, it’s frustrating that the state has not allowed communities to have control over their own environments.
Lawmakers “don’t want the federal government to tell them what to do, but they turn around and want the state to have control over the communities,” said Arturo Rodriguez, Brownsville’s public health and wellness director. “It’s a bit ironic because municipalities need to be able to exercise their due diligence within their domains.”
So why won’t the Texas Legislature take up the single-use plastic issue?
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Jose Aliseda, a former Republican state representative, is the district attorney for Bee, Live Oak and McMullen counties, where he also runs cattle. Aliseda said he believes the plastics industry is too large and powerful to be swayed by the concerns of the agricultural community.
“The honest truth is there’s not enough of us,” he says of ranchers. “Yes, we’re a big part of the economy, but as far as the number of people, there’s not that many ranchers and farmers in the whole country.”
Chemical companies spent between $840,000 and $1.4 million on lobbyists during the 2019 legislative session, according to filings from the Texas Ethics Commission. The Texas Chemical Council, which represents the industry, declined to comment.
The Dow Chemical Co., one of the world’s foremost producers of plastic, didn’t respond to requests for comment about its Texas lobbying goals, but public records show the company spent the highest amount of any chemical company — between $275,000 and $459,000.
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When asked about plastic lobbying efforts, a Dow spokesperson said the company participates in the political process in compliance with state and federal laws. Dow has several initiatives to end plastic waste, said spokesperson Ashley Mendoza, and promotes “post-use solutions” of plastics.
Some chemical groups take issue with the term “single-use” plastic bags and say they have many secondary uses, such as small trash can liners. Mendoza pointed to a 2019 study from the Journal of Environmental Economics and Management that found carryout bag bans in California resulted in greater numbers of heavy plastic garbage bags.
Some bag ban opponents say it’s up to retailers to prevent litter or that it’s the responsibility of each individual Texan. But the way Aliseda sees it, as governments across the country face mounting pressure to take action on environmental issues, Texas will eventually have to face the problem plastic inflicts on Texas agriculture and make a choice on how to deal with it.
“The state has to decide what’s more costly of the two options,” he said, “forcing the people that use the plastic bags or make plastic bags to change, or continue to basically be a nuisance on agriculture.”
FILE- This July 19, 2018, file photo shows a display of scented markers and crayons in a Walmart in Pittsburgh. Environmentally friendly school supplies often carry big prices, but if you expand your idea of what counts as “green,” you’ll open other ways to save.
Gene J. Puskar
FILE – This July 18, 2018, photo shows a display of back to school backpacks in a Target store in Pittsburgh. For backpacks, Mary Hunt, founder of the website Cheapskate Monthly, recommends Jansport or Eastpak for durability. If you are shopping resale, those are labels to look for because they’ll last longer.
Earth-friendly school supplies might sound expensive, but you can be gentle with the planet and respectful of your wallet. Start by widening your idea of what’s “green.”
LOOK FOR FREEBIES FIRST
Using what you already have is the ultimate environmentally friendly move and fits with a frugal lifestyle . Look for pens, pencils, unused journals picked up at a convention, binders no longer in use, and unused or lightly used supplies from last year.
You may not have to buy at all. Chelsea Brennan, who blogs at Smart Money Mamas, says she sees posts on her hyperlocal Buy NothingFacebook group every fall requesting notebooks and other school supplies. “And then someone may comment, ‘We have those, plus three composition books that have never been written in. Do you need those?'” Brennan says she borrows, donates and receives items through the group.
SAVE ON BACKPACKS AND OFFICE SUPPLIES
For backpacks, Mary Hunt, founder of the website Cheapskate Monthly, recommends JanSport or Eastpak for durability. If you are shopping resale, those are labels to look for because they’ll last longer. And JanSport backpacks have a lifetime warranty.
Or choose a backpack made from recycled materials. Whether you choose new, used or recycled, look for sturdy zippers, pockets and supportive, padded straps. You don’t want this year’s backpack to be in a landfill next year.
Many stores now carry office-supply lines that are earth-friendly. Several companies offer pens made from recycled plastic. Pencils can be made from recycled newspaper, but they’re more expensive than pedestrian wooden pencils. A mechanical, refillable pencil might be the more economical green choice.
Notebooks and loose-leaf paper made from recycled paper can be fairly pricey. For example, a set of four college-ruled “decomposition books” at Target costs more than $25. If recycled paper products don’t fit your budget, you can still be green by making sure your student recycles used paper instead of throwing it in the trash.
Derek B. Davis, a spokesman for Earth.com, noted that many schools now bundle required items and offer them to parents. You may not save money but you’ll save gas and time.
CUT COSTS ON FOOD AND DRINK CONTAINERS
Davis thinks the item likely to have the biggest impact on the planet is your student’s reusable water bottle — hardly a budget breaker. Reusable packaging for lunches and snacks also saves you money and lets you contribute less to the enormous problem of plastic in oceans and landfills.
To estimate the impact of a water bottle, know this: Americans use an average of 13 single-use plastic bottles per month, according to the nonprofit Earth Day Network. One reusable bottle, over a nine-month school year, could keep 117 single-use bottles out of circulation. Tap water is vastly cheaper than bottled, and eliminates plastic waste and the carbon emissions needed to distribute bottled water for sale.
There are also reusable — and dishwasher-safe — containers or bags for sandwiches and snacks. You can put those reusable bags inside a reusable lunch container. Bento boxes, which have compartments for various types of food, are another alternative. Reusable lunch bags and boxes can be purchased fairly inexpensively new — or keep an eye out for used ones.
Davis, the father of a rising second-grader, notes that kids lose things, and suggests buying backups of water bottles or lunch containers if you see an especially good price.
SHOP SECONDHAND FOR CLOTHES
For back-to-school clothes, consider resale stores. You may find clothes that are practically new for pennies on the dollar. You save money and extend the life of the clothes, keeping them out of landfills. You can shop online with ThredUP and similar sites.
Finally, no matter where you’re shopping, bring a reusable bag, Davis says. Keep one handy in the car.
What will ultimately be most effective in cleaning up the Earth, he says, is kids seeing parents who weave green living into everyday life: For instance, making coffee at home, drinking from reusable cups and making their own seltzer.
For a long time I thought the problem was all in my head. When I was growing up, I knew that a certain kind of noise was one I needed to avoid. Food blenders in the kitchen, hair dryers in the bathroom, a vacuum cleaner whooshing around—all produced an intense whining sound that, given the specific wiring connections between my ears and my brain, kept me from thinking about anything but the sound itself while it was going on. Over the years I lived by this code: I used high-performance earplugs if I needed to write or otherwise concentrate while sitting in some place that was unusually loud. I added noise-canceling headphones on top of the earplugs in really tough cases.
As time went on, the earplugs-plus-headphones protection rig became standard writing gear. That was because the use of gas-powered leaf blowers in my Washington, D.C., neighborhood evolved from a few hours a week during the leafiest stretch of autumn to most days of the week, most weeks of the year, thanks to the advent of the “groomed” look that modern lawn crews are expected to achieve. One of my longest-running themes as a journalist has been how changes in technology force people to adapt their habits and livelihoods. I thought I was doing my part, with gear that let me attend to my work while others attended to theirs. There even turned out to be a bonus: As other parts of my body went into a predictable age-related descent, my hearing remained sharp.
Then I learned several things that changed my thinking both about leaf blowers and, up to a point, about politics.
One thing Ilearned has to do with the technology of leaf blowers. Their high volume, which I had long considered their most salient feature, is only their second-most-unusual aspect. The real marvel is the living-fossil nature of their technology. And because the technology is so crude and old, the level of pollution is off the charts.
When people encounter engines these days, they’re generally seeing the outcome of decades of intense work toward higher efficiency. The latest models of jet-turbine engines are up to 80 percent more fuel-efficient than their 1950s counterparts. While power plants burning natural gas obviously emit more carbon than wind or solar facilities, they emit about half as much as coal-fired plants. Today, the average car on America’s streets is almost 200 percent more efficient than in 1950, and smog-causing emissions from cars are about 99 percent lower.
The great outlier here is a piece of obsolete machinery Americans encounter mainly in lawn-care equipment: the humble “two-stroke engine.” It’s simpler, cheaper, and lighter than the four-stroke engines of most modern cars, and has a better power-to-weight ratio. But it is vastly dirtier and less fuel-efficient, because by design it sloshes together a mixture of gasoline and oil in the combustion chamber and then spews out as much as one-third of that fuel as an unburned aerosol. If you’ve seen a tuk‑tuk, one of the noisy tricycle-style taxis in places such as Bangkok and Jakarta, with purple smoke wafting out of its tailpipe, you’ve seen a two-stroke engine in action.
But you won’t see as many of them in those cities anymore, because governments in Asia and elsewhere have been banning and phasing out two-stroke engines on antipollution grounds. In 2014 a study published in Nature Communications found that VOC emissions (a variety of carbon gases that can produce smog and harm human beings) were on average 124 times higher from an idling two-stroke scooter than from a truck or a car. With respect to benzene, a carcinogenic pollutant, the group found that each cubic meter of exhaust from an idling two-stroke scooter contained 60,000 times the safe level of exposure. Two-stroke engines have largely disappeared from the scooter, moped, and trail-bike markets in America. Regulators around the world are pushing older two-stroke engines toward extinction.
Yet they remain the propulsive force behind the 200-mph winds coming out of many backpack leaf blowers. As a product category, this is a narrow one. But the impact of these little machines is significant. In 2017, the California Air Resources Board issued a warning that may seem incredible but has not been seriously challenged: By 2020, gas-powered leaf blowers, lawn mowers, and similar equipment in the state could produce more ozone pollution than all the millions of cars in California combined. Two-stroke engines are that dirty. Cars have become that clean.
Video: The ‘Public Health Menace’ of Fall in America
So that’s one thing I learned about gas-powered blowers. A second thing I discovered is the damage leaf blowers do to people’s hearing. The biggest worry of today’s public-health community is not, of course, leaf blowers—it’s the opioid disaster, plus addictions of other forms. The next-biggest worry is obesity, plus diabetes and the other ills that flow from it. But coming up fast on the list is hearing loss. According to a 2017 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one-quarter of Americans ages 20 to 69 who reported good to excellent hearing actually had diminished hearing. This is largely caused by rising levels of ambient urban noise—sirens, traffic, construction, leaf blowers—which can lead to a range of disorders, from high blood pressure to depression to heart disease. “When I started out, I’d see people in their 60s with hearing problems,” says Robert Meyers, an ENT specialist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Now I’m seeing them in their 40s.”
Leaf blowers are especially insidious. Something about their sound had long attracted my attention. A study organized by Jamie Banks, a scientist and the founder of Quiet Communities, a Boston-area nonprofit, quantified what it was. Acoustic engineers from a firm called Arup compared gas- and battery-powered blowers with equal manufacturer-rated noise levels. Their analysis showed that gas-powered blowers produce far more “sound energy” in the low-frequency range. This may seem benign—who doesn’t like a nice basso profundo?—but it has a surprising consequence. High-frequency sound—a mosquito’s buzz, a dental drill—gets your attention, but it does not travel. It falls off rapidly with distance and struggles to penetrate barriers. If you’re in the next room, you may not hear it at all. By contrast, low-frequency noise has great penetrating power: It goes through walls, cement barriers, and many kinds of hearing-protection devices. The acoustic study found that in a densely settled neighborhood, a gas-powered blower rated at, say, 75 decibels of noisiness can affect up to 15 times as many households as a battery-powered blower with the same 75-decibel rating.
Hearing damage is cumulative. When the tiny, sound-sensing hairlike cells, called stereocilia, in the inner ear are damaged—usually by extended exposure to sounds of 85 decibels or above—they are generally gone for good. For the landscapers (and homeowners) who use gas-powered blowers—a foot away from their ears—the most powerful can produce sounds of 100 decibels or more. Meyers told me, “Each time I see these crews, I think to myself: 10 years from now, they’ll be on the path to premature deafness.”
In the three decades since backpack blowers from Echo, Stihl, and other companies became popular, at least 100 U.S. cities have banned or restricted their use. Most of those cities are in California, because California is the only state whose jurisdictions have the authority to set their own air-pollution standards. With air-quality standards that were more aggressive than those in other states, California received special treatment under the Clean Air Act when it was passed in 1970. In the rest of the country, the law gives standard-setting authority to the federal government, which in practice means the Environmental Protection Agency.
Considering the current condition of the EPA, people wanting to regulate leaf blowers could be forgiven for throwing up their hands. But as it happens, there is another legally and scientifically legitimate line of attack: going after gas-powered blowers not because they pollute but because they make so much noise.
Starting in 2013, my wife, Deb, and I traveled around the country to report on local-improvement narratives, which always seemed to begin with “I wondered why my town didn’t do _______, so I decided to get involved.” We’d long been active at our kids’ schools and with their sports teams. But we wondered why our town—Washington, D.C.—wasn’t doing something about the leaf-blower menace, given that an obvious solution was at hand. We joined a small neighborhood group—barely 10 people at its peak—to try to get a regulatory or legislative change, using noise, not pollution, as the rationale.
In November 2015, we had our first success, when our Advisory Neighborhood Commission—the most local governmental unit in the District—voted 8–1 to support phasing out gas-powered leaf blowers. (The one no vote came from a libertarian who didn’t like regulation of anything.) In retrospect, the resulting request was amazingly timid. We simply asked that our city-council member, Mary Cheh, introduce legislation for a ban. She did so; the measure got nowhere by the end of the council’s term in 2016; she introduced a new measure in 2017. Over the next 18 months, we successfully encouraged more than a third of all ANCs in D.C., representing seven of the District’s eight wards, to endorse council action on the bill. Anyone aware of the racial, economic, and other dividing lines within Washington can imagine the level of organizing and explanation necessary to achieve such broad support.
In July 2018, the chair of the city council, Phil Mendelson, convened a hearing to consider the bill. Nearly 20 witnesses spoke in favor. They included members of our group as well as scientists, a former regulator, an acoustic engineer, representatives of the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society, ordinary citizens and residents, and landscapers who had switched to all-battery operation. On the other side were two industry lobbyists, who said that market innovation and “courteous” leaf-blower use were the answer. Council members listened to them with visible incredulity. In the fall, the full council approved the bill unanimously. In December, Washington’s mayor, Muriel Bowser, signed it into law. On January 1, 2022, the use of gas-powered leaf blowers will be illegal within city limits.
After spending decades writing about national politics, I’ve come away from this experience having learned some lessons about local politics—obvious lessons, maybe, but also vivid ones.
To begin with: Showing up matters. Our group met in person every two or three weeks over more than three and a half years. Perhaps our most indefatigable member, a lawyer, made presentations at dozens of ANC meetings. We got to know the legislative directors and schedulers for many of the District’s 13 council members.
Having facts also matters—yes, even in today’s America. At the beginning of the process, it felt as if 99 percent of the press coverage and online commentary was in the sneering “First World problem!” vein. That has changed. The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Monthly, and other publications have called attention to the leaf-blower problem, often arguing that gas-powered blowers should be banned. Reflexive sneering is down to about 5 percent among people who have made time to hear the facts. Noise, they have come to understand, is the secondhand smoke of this era.
Technological momentum and timing matter. We worried all along that the lawn-care industry would mount a major lobbying effort against the bill. It never did. Nearly everyone in the industry knows that 10 years from now, practically all leaf blowers will be battery-powered. One of our arguments was that we were simply accelerating the inevitable.
Having a champion matters. At a “meet the council member” session on a rainy Saturday morning in the fall of 2015, Mary Cheh said she’d stay with the bill—if she could rely on us to keep showing up. We did our part, and she did hers—she stayed with it to the end.
Luck matters as well. In its first journey through the council, starting in 2016, Cheh’s bill was assigned to a committee whose chair was a council member whose approach to many bills seemed to boil down to: What’s in it for me? To widespread surprise, apparently including his own, a long-shot challenger upset him in the primaries for the 2016 election.
The final lesson is: Don’t get hung up on the conventional wisdom—it’s only wise until it isn’t. Everyone says nothing gets done in Washington. This one time, everyone was wrong.
This article appears in the April 2019 print edition with the headline “Get Off My Lawn.”
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
JAMES FALLOWS is a staff writer for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter’s chief speechwriter. He and his wife, Deborah Fallows, are the authors of the new book Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey Into the Heart of America, which has been a New York Times best seller and is the basis of a forthcoming HBO documentary.
Stamford resident Bruce Huffine throws a wheel disc into a dumpster at the Mygatt Recycling Center on Magee Ave. in Stamford, Conn. on Thursday, July 12, 2018. The city just renegotiated its contract with the … more
STAMFORD — The city was paid $95,000 last year for the used bottles, cans, bags, boxes, wrappers and containers residents throw in their recycling bins each week.
This year, the city will have to pay a company $700,000 to take them.
The market for recyclables has flipped on its ear, and Dan Colleluori, supervisor of solid waste and recycling, who had to go before the Board of Finance last week to ask that the money be drawn from the city’s contingency fund to meet the unexpected expense.
Blame it on China, which has been the biggest importer of recyclables on the planet since the 1990s. Last year the Chinese, citing a glut of material — increasingly contaminated with garbage — announced they would stop accepting an array of recyclables, according to industry reports Colleluori shared with the board.
Then, in April, “China closed its doors,” Colleluori said. “Unless the U.S. comes up with its own technology, there’s no market for this stuff. It’s a world problem.”
In May, Stamford’s recycling contractor, City Carting, called him with a warning, Colleluori said.
“They said, ‘You’re going to have to start paying for it,’” he said.
Not only was there no way to estimate the cost, but City Carting’s contract was to end June 30, Colleluori said. He’d put out a bid request, but only City Carting and one other company responded, he said.
“I expected they would come back with a charge of maybe $5 a ton, something like that,” he said. “I was flabbergasted when I saw the bids.”
City Carting’s price was $58 a ton to process the 12,000 tons of recyclables Stamford collects each year. The other company wanted $80, Colleluori said.
“For the nine years I’ve been here, recycling has been a revenue source. We earned as much as $250,000 a year,” he said. “Now we not only lose that revenue, we add a significant cost.”
The same is true for cities worldwide.
One reason the market has collapsed, industry reports say, is the glut of recyclables.
Another reason is single-stream recycling — collecting paper and cardboard together with plastic, glass and cans — a practice that began 20 years ago. Since then, recycled material has become increasingly contaminated. Recycled paper, for example, is less pure, making it harder to sell.
People have made things worse by throwing prohibited items into their recycling bins. In Connecticut, the prohibited materials include plastic bags, plastic wrap, shredded paper, Styrofoam, paper cups, take-out food containers, aerosol containers, ice cream containers, plastic plates, bowls and utensils, and anything with food in it.
According to industry reports, the situation has become so bad that one-fifth of the recycled material sent to China for processing was contaminated. In April, when China said it would stop accepting a slew of items, it also set a super-low contamination rate, .5 percent.
Now recycled material is stacking up in warehouses, and getting trucked to landfills or incinerators, in the United States and other countries around the globe.
“So all that work that I do to put the stuff in the green Toter (bin) and bring it out to the curb … are we actually going to be sending it to a landfill now?” finance board Chairman Richard Freedman asked during the meeting.
“No,” Colleluori said. “You’re just being charged for it.”
He said City Carting told him it will be able to sell some of the material.
“Mostly paper and cardboard,” Colleluori said. “The plastic and glass are the biggest problem.”
It doesn’t look like it will go away soon, he said.
“The U.S. has to sink some money into figuring out how to reuse these items,” Colleluori said. “If it happens, if the market turns around, the city can cancel the contract and rebid it to collect revenue again. It’s standard in these contracts.”
But recycling is still the law, and still cheaper than throwing the items in the trash, Colleluori said. Recyclables comprise 32 percent of the waste collected in Stamford, he said.
“It would cost the city $850,000 a year more if it went into the garbage stream,” Colleluori said.
The finance board voted to release the $700,000 from the contingency fund to cover the new City Carting contract. Much of the money in the $6.5 million fund is tentatively earmarked for labor negotiations expected to be settled, an anticipated number of storm cleanups, additional overtime expenses for police officers and firefighters, and other items likely to crop up in a fiscal year.
The fund contains about $1 million for unexpected expenses, such as the recycling contract, said Jay Fountain, director of the city’s Office of Policy and Management.
“So this will leave just about nothing left?” Freedman said.
While 23 states currently define MSW incineration as a renewable energy source, a new report from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) contends that burning trash is “neither clean nor renewable.”
In spite of their economic, environmental and public health drawbacks, the report notes, many incinerators continue to be buoyed by green energy subsidies: 68% of operating facilities are located in states that classify them as a renewable source. Furthermore, states without incinerators still allow for the purchase of out-of-state renewable energy credits — opening the possibility of investment in incinerator-generated power from neighboring states.
Rather than permitting the continual exploitation of the renewable energy landscape by incinerators, concludes the report, policymakers and advocates must push for legislation curtailing their influence while simultaneously shifting toward cleaner, economically superior options — including “zero waste,” circular economy and solar energy.
With many of the country’s incinerators nearing the end of their lifespans, advocacy groups are ramping up efforts to shut down local facilities. The ILSR paper, released Dec. 12, provides fuel for their arguments: waste incineration, maintains author Marie Donahue, represents an increasingly unviable financial, environmental and public health burden for cities.
The economic argument against incinerators is clear, notes Donahue — as energy prices continuing to decline, many incinerators are struggling to remain profitable. And while some are attempting to shoulder operating costs by raising tip fees (rates at incinerators are often two or three times higher than comparable recycling or composting costs), the extra revenue often still proves insufficient: multiple operators have announced plans to shutter sites in the face of financial pressures.
Burning trash, the paper points out, also poses significant health risks — harmful emissions have been linked to cancer, respiratory illness and cardiovascular disease — and, as the bulk of incinerators are built in marginalized communities of color, constitutes a textbook example of environmental injustice. It also comes with a significant environmental cost: incinerators produce 2.5 times more carbon dioxide per unit of energy generated than coal power plants. According to Donahue, fewof the benefits of WTE actually justify these drawbacks — more energy can be saved through waste prevention, reuse, recycling or composting than can be generated through incineration.
Ultimately, the report dismisses the concept of renewable trash burning as a “legal oxymoron” propagated by the incineration industry to attract green energy subsidies. Rather than continuing to hand out subsidies to incinerators, it concludes, policymakers and environmental advocates should turn toward more sustainable options — including “zero waste,” pay-as-you-throw programs, solar energy and dual-stream recycling.
Recent developments indicate growing political support in certain states for incineration divestment: proposed legislation to drastically reduce Baltimore Wheelabrator’s emissions — and strip the facility of its green energy label — is gaining traction among state and local officials, while pressure from environmental groups in California helped stall a 2017 bill that would have granted WTE facilities renewable energy tax credits.
WTE proponents, however, argue that incinerators remain an environmentally superior alternative to landfills — currently the third-largest source of human-related methane emissions in the country. And while anti-incineration groups tout a host of sustainable alternatives to both WTE and landfilling, advocates commonly recognize a 90% diversion rate as the ceiling — leaving officials with limited options at present for the 10% of waste that can’t be recycled or composted.
In 1986, when the Detroit waste-to-energy incinerator first opened, activists scaled its enormous smokestack and hung a peace symbol on it in protest. When the same kind of incinerator opened in Commerce, California, in 1989, protesters chained themselves to the facility’s smokestack.
Thirty years later, the communities that live in their shadow are still protesting these facilities. Built to last about 30 years, many of America’s 86 waste-to-energy incinerators are reaching the end of their lifespans—and their contracts with the cities that house them—and they face costly upgrades if they are to remain operational.
“Cities are at a critical stage right now,” says Ahmina Maxey, the United States and Canada coordinator for the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives. “Do they invest millions more into ancient technologies, or take those millions of dollars and invest them into strong zero-waste systems?”
The groups’ organizers come from, and work in, what United Workers’ Destiny Watford describes as “communities that have been disinvested in, that have been ignored and neglected for generations.”
“[These organizers] have been dealing with the health consequences of living next to this industry, and it feels like it’s normal,” she says. Watford and her fellow organizers are working to disrupt what she calls “the trance” of accepting life next to an incinerator, with its attendant threats to the environment, city finances, and residents’ health.
In the 1980s and early ’90s, when most operational incinerators in the U.S. were built, the technology behind solar and wind energy was in its infancy. Coal accounted for around 60 percent of America’s electricity production, down to about 30 percent in 2017. Climate change wasn’t widely considered an urgent problem, and people didn’t talk much about recycling. Politicians, concerned about diminishing landfill space and the rising costs of fossil fuels, seized upon waste-to-energy as a solution.
Proponents of waste-to-energy facilities say that these incinerators help fight climate change by diverting trash from greenhouse gas-emitting landfills and that modern pollution controls prevent the facilities from harming nearby communities. The Environmental Protection Agency, which classifies WTE incineration as a renewable energy source, reported a major decrease in incinerators’ emissions of some pollutants like mercury, dioxins, and nitrogen oxide between 1990 and 2005. And the steam the facilities generate can be used, as is done in Detroit and Baltimore, for heating.
Some advocates even push back against labeling the facilities “incinerators,” a word that conjures images of dirty smoke belching into the sky. Detroit Renewable Energy, which operates the Detroit facility, describes it as a “modern waste-to-energy facility that generates renewable energy in the form of electricity and steam by safely processing municipal solid waste.”
Incinerators’ opponents counter that the real choice isn’t between landfills and incineration—it’s between incineration and a radically different approach centered on reducing waste in the first place; upping recycling, composting, and reuse rates; and investing in solar and wind power. They take particular issue with the notion that waste-to-energy incineration is clean and safe for area residents.
‘ASSAULTED EVERY DAY WITH TOXIC POLLUTION’
Thanks to new rules implemented by the EPA in the 1990s, incinerators are much cleaner than they once were. But older facilities can struggle to comply with today’s emissions limits.
Watford says that the communities around Baltimore’s incinerator have “a long history with pollution.” Thanks to a number of factors—which may include disproportionate exposure to toxins—the area’s mostly black residents are expectedto die 10 years sooner than residents of the city’s more affluent areas. For every 100,000 residents in Baltimore, according to a study from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 130 die in a given year because of long-term exposure to air pollution. That’s the highest rate in the nation.
The community is “assaulted every day with toxic pollution,” Logan says The area’s spike in cancers and respiratory illnesses convinced him to change careers from manufacturing to community organizing. When he asked community members whether environmental pollution had affected them or their families, people “overwhelmingly responded yes.” “A number of folks that have now passed identified the incinerator as the cause of their illness,” he says.
“For us in Detroit,” says KT Andresky, an organizer with Breathe Free Detroit, “[the incinerator] is a textbook case of environmental racism.” Over 70 percent of nearby residents are low-income, and the same proportion are people of color. Critics of the facility argue that Detroiters bear the brunt of its odor and emissions, even though most of the trash it processes is trucked in from wealthier, whiter areas like neighboring Oakland County.
Using invoices obtained through a public records request, Nicholas Leonard, a staff attorney at the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, estimated that just 22 percent of the waste the facility processes comes from the city. (Detroit Renewable Energy disputes this finding. In an email, it says 73 percent of the trash comes from inside the city of Detroit, and 83 percent from Wayne County.)
The Detroit incinerator isn’t required by state or federal regulators to have pollution controls for nitrogen oxide, a gas that increases the risk of respiratory conditions and contributes to the formation of ground-level ozone, otherwise known as smog. Residents are hospitalized for asthma at rates three times the state’s average, and those who live in the zip codes next to the incinerator have the highest rates of asthma-related hospitalization in the city.
In a statement emailed to Pacific Standard, Detroit Renewable Energy Chief Operating Officer Carl Lockhart writes: “Protecting the environment and public health is our top responsibility. We adhere to strict state and federal guidelines and utilize constant monitoring to ensure we are meeting and exceeding expectations.”
A JUST TRANSITION
The groups involved in the Failing Incinerator Project say they’re committed to a “just transition” away from incineration, starting with economic disincentivization. A just transition means boosting their cities’ recycling and composting efforts to keep un-incinerated trash out of landfills. In Baltimore, for example, a 2014 report found that 82 percent of the city’s trash could have been recycled or composted, though only 28 percent of it was that year.
“We have to be building up these zero-waste alternatives,” Watford says, “so that when we finally do shut down [the incinerator], we have a zero-waste alternative right there.” She cites a youth-led composting initiative out of the Filbert Street Garden, which will receive part of a $200,000 grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to the city of Baltimore. Food waste makes up 21 percent of typical municipal trash.
A just transition also means having a plan for the facility’s workers, and the surrounding community, when the facility closes. Maxey contends that 10 jobs in recycling could be created for every job in incineration or landfilling—and that jobs in recycling are less damaging to workers’ health.
In Detroit, the area near the incinerator has been slow to attract residents or development, in part because of the “unbearable” odor Andresky says wafts through the neighborhood most days. (It’s not just Andresky: The facility received so many odor complaints that it was placed under a consent decree in 2014.) Breathe Free Detroit wants to ensure that, “when that facility closes, after decades of organizing against it, folks aren’t gentrified out of their own community,” Maxey says.
PUTTING PRESSURE ON THE INCINERATORS
The organizers have also been putting financial pressure on the incinerators. In Baltimore, United Workers and other environmental groups are pushing the Maryland state legislature to take incineration out of its renewable energy portfolio, which subsidizes the purchase of renewable energy. The Baltimore Sunestimates the Wheelabrator facility has received $10 million worth of subsidies from the program. Last year, the state senate passed such a measure, but it died in the House of Delegates.
Brooke Harper, the Maryland and Washington, D.C., policy director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, says, “The whole intention of the renewable energy portfolio system was to incentivize new renewable energy sources, clean energy sources, like wind and solar”—rather than facilities like the Wheelabrator incinerator, the city’s largest source of air pollution.
The efforts of Maryland-based groups are informed by the work of East Yard Communities for Environmental Justice in California, which recently helped defeat a measure offering renewable energy tax credits to incinerators. Without those subsidies, and unable to negotiate a favorable new purchase agreement with electricity supplier Southern California Edison, the Commerce facility hit what Logan described as a “fiscal cliff,” and closed.
“If subsidies are not going to the incinerator,” Watford says, “it puts the city in a really tough spot. Does the city have to pay the difference, or do they embrace these zero-waste alternatives and create a new path forward?”
United Workers and others have advocated forstricter nitrogen oxide emissions limits for Wheelabrator. Thanks in part to these efforts, the Baltimore City Council passed a resolution in September asking the Maryland Department of Energy–which regulates the facility’s emissions–to do just that. If adopted, the new limits might require the facility to install expensive state-of-the-art pollution controls.
Under current regulations, Wheelabrator is allowed to emit up to 205 ppm of nitrogen oxide. But the city council has requested that the figure be cut to at most 150 ppm, or, ideally, to 45 ppm to match what would likely be the limit for a new incinerator. The marketing manager for Wheelabrator told the Baltimore Brew that complying with the proposed rules would cost the facility $1.6 million over the first three years, and $400,000 annually after that.
The city council has also requested a feasibility study on installing state-of-the-art pollution controls. At a 2017 Maryland Department of the Environment stakeholders meeting, Timothy Porter, Wheelabrator’s director of air quality programs, maintained that it wasn’t possible to install such controls in the incinerator’s existing space. But two engineers—one employed by the Environmental Integrity Project, one a consultant for their partner organization, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation—say that they have found no technical barriers.
If required to install the controls, Porter said, “We’d shut down.”
In Detroit, Andresky tells me, they’re working to get businesses to stop purchasing steam created by incineration, which would cut into the facility’s revenues. Watford’s group used a similar tactic to block the construction of a proposed incinerator elsewhere in South Baltimore: They went to each entity that had signed on to purchase its energy and convinced them to drop the deal. The existing incinerator, Watford says, “is interwoven into our city’s fabric, and we have to detangle that if we’re going to build true zero-waste alternatives.”
Claire Arkin, communications and campaign associate at GAIA, says it’s “inevitable” that these “dinosaur” facilities will close, because upgrades and repair are simply too expensive. In 2010, Maxey points out, the ballooning costs of a 46-year-old incineratorpushed the city of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to the brink of bankruptcy.
Arkin’s words rang in my ears as I watched a recent Long Beach City Council meeting, at which members unanimously voted to allocate $8.7 million to upgrades that will keep the facility running until 2024. (Covanta, the facility’s operator, will kick in an additional $5 million).If the city council chooses to renew its contract at that point, an additional $100 million capital infusion would be required to keep it open until 2040, according to documents received through Pacific Standard’s public records request. The facility’s power purchase agreement with Southern California Edison will expire this year, adding another layer of uncertainty to its future.
Pressure from concerned community members may help shape that future. In an email about the vote obtained through a public records request, Charlie Tripp, the facility’s bureau manager, expressed his concern about whether the amended agreement, which provided the funding for necessary upgrades, would pass. “We have been getting more questions on this item than any items we have previously had,” he wrote. “My concern is that something could happen like happened with Commerce,” where a waste-to-energy incinerator recently closed, in part thanks to public pressure on potential revenue streams.
The cities of Long Beach, Detroit, and Baltimore have each committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, and advocates of closing waste incinerators say that moving away from incineration, and toward zero waste, will accomplish just that. “We tend to look at waste as separate from its origins,” Arkin says. “If we look at the extractive way trash is made, the fossil fuels involved in creation, and the transport of these disposable items, it adds up to a huge piece of the puzzle in solving our climate crisis.”
“We are past the tipping point on our planet,” Maxey says. “Our planet cannot afford any more unnecessary carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases released into the environment. And that’s what these facilities do.”