For more than a decade, ecologists and environmentalists have encouraged greater conservation of natural resources, reciting the mantra “reduce, reuse, and recycle.” While this message seems simple, it hasn’t always been well received. However, sustainability received new life in 2015 with the adoption of the Paris Agreement and the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by the U.S. and countries around the globe.

Among key leaders in business, government and civil society, these two agreements brought together a consensus about the future direction of climate action and the need for more systemic responses to poverty, inequality, resource scarcity and other linked issues.

The Future of Styrofoam

Moving forward, one of the bright spots sweeping the U.S. is the ban on throwaway polystyrene products. These initiatives will help in the fight against polluting our oceans and to some extent combating climate change as well.

Polystyrene is a type of plastic manufactured from non-renewable fossil fuels (which is where its connection to climate change comes in) and synthetic chemicals. You can find the product in two forms: “Expanded polystyrene foam” (EPS), which is made into cups, plates, take-out food containers, and packing materials; and “solid polystyrene,” which gets turned into plastic forks, CD and DVD cases, and smoke detector housings.

Most people refer to EPS as “Styrofoam” which is actually a term trademarked by the Dow Chemical Co. for extruded polystyrene, a completely different product that is used in thermal insulation and craft applications.

There are many environmental drawbacks with EPS products:

– It does not biologically degrade. It may break into small pieces, even minuscule pieces. And the smaller EPS gets, the harder it is to clean up.

 – It is made of fossil fuels and synthetic chemicals. Those chemicals may leach if they come in contact with hot, greasy or acidic food. Yes, they keep your coffee hot – but they may also add an unwanted dose of toxins to your drink.

 – Animals often ingest discarded products. Turtles and fish seem to mistake EPS for food, and ingesting it can kill them. Not only can they not digest it, but the foam could be full of poisons that it has absorbed from contaminants floating in the water.

 – EPS cannot be recycled. Some commercial mailing houses may accept packing peanuts, but for the most part, community recycling centers do not accept throwaway foam food containers.

Due to mounting public pressure, McDonald’s stopped using the EPS clam-shells in 1990 but continued to use it for hot beverages until 2013. Across the country, many large restaurants are changing to a more eco-friendly take-out container.

But the big step, in addition to public pressure, is government regulation by the major cities that have already banned the use of EPS within their jurisdictions, and the number of communities currently working on legislation. That means that large chain operations that still use EPS containers — such as Chick-fil-A, Panda Express and Sonic — will be forced to adopt a non-EPS option in order to operate in those cities. A map and list of cities can be found on Groundswell.

Composting in the U.S.

In a race to become the “Greenest City in America” hundreds of cities, towns, and counties are actively participating in the STAR Community Rating System. In addition to saving water and energy, these communities are trying to become pedestrian/bicycle-friendly, provide more green space, have cleaner air, and send less waste to the landfill. You can find out if your community is participating by clicking on this interactive map.

The ‘less waste’ part of the equation has been a major challenge as governments struggle to become paperless and encourage the recycling of the paper, glass, and plastic that is used.

However, one of the largest contributors to waste that is delivered to community landfills turns out to be one that is easy to avoid — landscaping waste from parks, greenbelts, and streets. But what to do with all of that organic waste?

The benefits of composting are well documented and a new report published in BioCycle, The Organics Recycling Authority, describes it this way:

“Compost is a valuable soil conditioner. It adds needed organic matter, sequesters carbon, improves plant growth, conserves water, reduces reliance on chemical pesticides and fertilizers, and helps prevent nutrient runoff and erosion. Composting also reduces the volume of materials that might otherwise be disposed of in landfills or trash incinerators and repurposes these materials through recycling. It is a place-based industry, which cannot be outsourced abroad. Thus, advancing composting and compost use in the U.S. is a key sustainability strategy to create jobs, protect watersheds, reduce climate impacts, improve soil vitality, and build resilient local economies.”

When combined with food waste (such as tea and coffee grounds including the bags and filters; eggshells; fruit rinds, pits, and cores; etc.), from cafeterias and commissaries, an efficient composting system can also eliminate a large percentage of food waste from landfills, saving money on transportation and landfill dumping fees.

More than 20 states have enacted bans on the disposal of yard trimmings in landfills and, a handful of states have established food waste disposal bans.

However, when talking about sustainability, economics plays an almost equally important role in saving the planet.

In 2013, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR) performed a study on the economic benefits of the current and potential composting-related jobs in Maryland. This study, Pay Dirt: Composting in Maryland to Reduce Waste, Create Jobs & Protect the Bay, found that for every one-million-tons of organic material composted at a mix of small, medium and large facilities — with the resulting compost used in-state — almost 1,400 new full-time equivalent jobs could potentially be supported, paying wages ranging from $23 million to $57 million. In contrast, this tonnage only supports 120 to 220 jobs when disposed of in Maryland’s landfills and incinerators.

As scientists discover ways to improve existing technologies and discover new ways to generate and store energy, improve water efficiency, and clean up the environment, it will be up to the government and corporate leadership to demonstrate how to move from ambitious goals into ambitious implementation. It will be up to the people to adapt to a new and sustainable way of living. Stay up to date on recycling trends with the General Kinematics blog!

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