Iowa passes new bill on advanced plastic recycling


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Pyrolysis technology can recycle the bottles inside these bags AND the bags (flickr).

Julia Poska| April 12, 2019

The Iowa Legislature and Governor Reynolds passed a bill this week in support of chemical recycling facilities for plastic in the state.

The bill defines gasification and pyrolysis, two chemical recycling methods, as processes that convert waste plastics into raw materials like crude oil, gasoline and other chemicals by heating and melting them in oxygen-deficient environments then processing them accordingly.  Those materials can be used to make new plastic products or as “feedstock” to fuel industrial processes. Plants conducting these activities in Iowa will be regulated more like manufacturing plants than solid waste disposal facilities, according to the trade publication Plastics Recycling Update.

There are obvious benefits to recycling plastics. Transforming plastic waste into useful materials will keep it out of landfills, rivers and oceans. A National Geographic story on plastic recycling said that pyrolysis plants can handle filmy plastic bags, which most traditional recycling plants cannot. Recycling also reduces the amount of new material that must be manufactured to meet demands.

Recycling Today reported that five advanced recycling facilities could generate $309 million annually by converting 25 percent of Iowa’s plastic waste into industrial feedstocks or transportation fuel. According to National Geographic, however, it is still cheaper to make diesel from fossil fuel than plastic. The article said pyrolysis startups have closed in the past because they haven’t been able to make money or meet pollution control limits.

Burning plastics releases carbon and toxins into the atmosphere, albeit at fairly low rates  according to industry experts. Michigan State University Extension says gasoline and diesel produced from plastic appear to contain more energy and less carbon that traditional fossil fuels, too.

Plastics Recycling Update said the Iowa Recycling Association had been opposed to the bill but did not say why. This post will be updated if and when the Iowa Environmental Focus is able to learn more.

The fall of single-use plastics


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Single-use packaging plastic may find itself obliterated within the century | Photo by George Becker on Pexels.com

Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | April 2nd, 2019

Single-use plastic may eventually meet its end, with multiple bans setting global standards for how we should proceed with our packaging.

Defined as plastic products that are intended to be used only once before being disposed of, single-use plastic packaging alone makes up for roughly 40% of all plastic produced and discarded.

EU lawmakers recently voted to ban several single-use plastic items completely by 2021. Plates, utensils, coffee cups and cotton buds are all set to be wiped away soon, and manufacturers must use alternative methods of producing these products if they want to stay in business.

While environmental groups in the EU praise the ban, there is some pressure on EU lawmakers to ensure that the recycling systems in the Union are equally efficient.

New York has also recently stepped up to the plate, pledging to ban most plastic bags statewide, making it the third state to restrict this particular product. While it’s unlikely that the US will follow in the EU’s footsteps to completely ban single-use plastics, even a reduction in plastic manufacturing would be incredibly beneficial.

 

Plastic is damaging us–we must agree on a solution


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Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu

There are countless essays, articles, and news flashes warning of the environmental cost of non-biodegradable plastic. Plenty of climate scientists have warned the public about plastic particles in the ocean and in our water supply, making clear the consequences of continuing forward on the path we’re currently walking.

But these warnings can often fall on deaf ears, as many nations are too focused on managing plastic waste and not on the overall reduction of plastic.

Minimizing our reliance on single-use plastic is a major way to keep the environmental cost of this inexpensive product down.

At a recent UN environmental assembly–held in Kenya–a disagreement emerged over the best way to deal with plastic as a threat. With the conversation on plastic production derailing into plastic waste management, a derailment mainly pushed by the US.

Because of this, calls to “phase out” single-use plastic by 2030 were changed after insistence to “greatly reduce” single-use plastic by the same rough date. This vague goal has lead to some scrutiny from environmentalists of the UN, as they fear that a nebulous solution with no legally binding documentation is no solution at all.

On The Radio- Coffee Wake Up Call


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Coffee (kendra k/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| March 18, 2019

This weeks segment looks at how deforestation is affecting coffee production. 

Transcript:

Deforestation and climate change may wipe out coffee worldwide. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

Aaron Davis, a British botanist, has spent the last 30 years traveling across the world recording the patterns of coffee forests and farms. Sixty percent of coffee species are at risk for extinction due to the effects of climate change and deforestation. Coffee plantations are expected to vanish from the three major coffee producing continents.

Part of Dr. Davis’ research is the development of a barometer to test the biodiversity of forests and risks posed to coffee plants. The most popular coffee bean, arabica, comes from Ethiopia and has been shown to be extremely vulnerable to climate change effects. He reports that the ecosystems are becoming less diverse which mean less food and less shelter for species. 

While there are 124 coffee species, a majority are wild and inaccessible. Dr. Davis and the rest of his team continue their research to find rare coffee plants and new places to farm them. His travels have been directed toward cooler areas. On the teams’ most recent expedition, they found a hillside in Liberia covered in stenophylla, a flowering coffee plant that they are currently testing.

More research will hopefully ensure coffee is available long into the future.

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus dot org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason. 

The pros–and cons–of burning plastic


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Natalia Welzenbach-Marcu | March 12th, 2019

The fact that plastics are bad for the environment is no surprise; the material generally does not biodegrade and the resulting microplastics are extremely harmful, especially to deep sea life.

The prevalence of plastics in our ecosystem demands a solution; recycling programs exist in most nations, but at most, only about 30% of recyclable plastics actually make it to recycling centers. In an effort to find alternative uses for plastic, some places, the EU included, choose to burn portions of plastic waste to generate electricity.

Unfortunately, despite the advantages of using waste to fuel power grids, burning plastic carries with it some significant risks.

Plastics can be made from a variety of materials, including plant cellulose and salt. Most, however, are byproducts of the coal and oil industry. Though this makes plastic waste a very good source of fuel, the most common method of burning waste can emit low levels of pollutants. Newer methods that heat plastic in the absence of oxygen stand a better chance of producing lower levels of these pollutants.

Waste-to-energy plants often have trouble finding footing, partly because few people want to live by them. But the EU is not planning on shutting down their waste-energy plants any time soon, and with some alterations, plastic may be a dominating new form of fuel.

 

On The Radio- Microplastic pollution affecting aquatic organisms


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Plastic washed up on a beach shore (Neil Brown/flickr)

Kasey Dresser| February 11, 2019

This weeks segment looks at developing research on the effects of microplastic pollution.

Transcript:

Scientists are still researching the dangerous effects of microplastic pollution. 

This is the Iowa Environmental Focus. 

A microplastic is defined as any piece of plastic measuring five millimeters in size or smaller. Every year 400 million tons of plastic are produced worldwide. A significant percentage of the plastic becomes litter and can take hundreds of years to decompose. Humans and other species can absorb plastic chemicals and aquatic organisms can absorb these small pieces of plastic into their skin.

Dr. Natalia Ivleva and her team from the Technical University of Munich Institute of Hydochemistry recently wrote a summary report of the technology they are using to test the effects of micro plastic on species. 

When scientists began to notice plastic entering the environment they used optical methods to observe damage. 

More recently scientists began utilizing heat analysis paired with gas chromatography. These methods helps determine the quantity and type of plastic but struggle to determine the size of the particles. 

Using new methods researchers at the Munich Institute were able to confirm plastic in the digestive tracts of water fleas and that mussels digest small particles of plastic under their shells.

Over the next several decades, plastic pollution is predicted to increase. At the end of her report Dr Ivelva emphasized the importance of plastic recycling in the new year. 

For more information, visit iowa-environmental-focus dot org.

From the UI Center for Global and Regional Environmental Research, I’m Sara E. Mason.