California Looks to Ban Styrofoam Products

California may have just missed a great opportunity to lead the nation and show the world that a government can commit to the protection of the environment while still working toward maintaining an economy worth bragging about. Senate Bill 568 (SB-568), a proposed legislation that recently failed to pass in the State Assembly, would have been an oath to California’s environment that. If it had passed, SB-568 would have put a ban on the use of expanded polystyrene foam (styrofoam) for food ware within the state. Talk about a missed opportunity.

A clean environment, what an idea. While the Senate bill was not a proposed miracle, it certainly would have been a start. Let’s face it, styrofoam is just about everywhere, and not just because it is cheap and convenient (although it most certainly is). Piled high or buried deep, this cheap and harmful material is imbedded just about everywhere—along highways and streams, coastlines, and mountain areas. Certainly it has proven that what is most convenient is oftentimes the most destructive, and not just because it’s everywhere but because convenient habits are also the hardest to break.

Cosponsored by both Clean Water Action and the Surfrider Foundation, SB-568 “would prohibit the distribution and use of eps [expanded polystyrene] foam containers by food vendors and prepared food. It includes definitions for customers, food vendors, polystyrene food containers, and prepared food.” With plenty of backing, SB-568 passed the Senate Environmental Quality Committee, the Assembly on Natural Resources, and the Assembly Committee on Appropriations. But on the last day of the session the Assembly Floor failed to pass the legislation.

And that is where it stands as of now: an undeniable setback. For those opposed to the bill, the issue seems to come from a fear that by getting rid of the product, those whose livelihoods depend on its production will be out of a job. And while there is no doubt that this should be a concern, it does not have to be. If and when styrofoam is banned, there is also going to have to be an alternative product to take its place. This will still need to be marketed and still need to be sold. Switching from one to another may not be easy but important things are often not.

Even with the breaks put on the bill, many California communities have taken matters into their own hands. More than 60 cities and counties have already established their own bans on the material; and with more and more businesses and companies committing to a styrofoam-free agenda, the number is expected to increase.

Famed French explorer and environmentalist Jean-Michel Cousteau explains that a cleaner future is one that does not (and cannot) involve styrofoam products:

 “…to successfully and unconditionally prevent the degradation of our environment, we as a people, as a society, must change our ways. Specifically, we must recognize the harm caused by discarding styrofoam, and stop it…if styrofoam is banned—if styrofoam is not available to litter and end up in our landfills—we are all better off…In other words, in our efforts to preserve and protect our planet, let’s use all realistic and obvious capabilities. Banning styrofoam is one of those capabilities.”

In the end, California is better off without expanded polystyrene foam. With government backing, the transition away from this harmful material to a more environmentally-friendly alternative will be much smoother. And as big a state as California is, the change could be enough to spark positive change on the larger scale. California may have just passed on a great opportunity, but with Governor Jerry Brown’s backing it has another chance at approval. To urge California Governor Jerry Brown to ban expanded polystyrene foam containers in California, please sign the petition here.


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Great Pacific Garbage Patch Greater than Initially Thought

A newly surfaced study reports that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch—a mass of debris floating in the North Pacific Gyre—is up to 2.5 times larger than previously estimated by scientists and government officials.

The analysis, lead by oceanographer Giora Proskurowski, focused on finding the amount of garbage below the ocean’s surface, a depth defined as the top twenty-five centimeters of water. What Proskurowski’s team discovered was alarming: trash was present as far down as 25 meters under the ocean’s coat.

In other words, earlier studies had deeply underestimated the size of the garbage patch and the amount of debris swirling in the Pacific.

Proskurowski first thought to delve below the problem’s surface while watching the waves during a sailing trip; he noticed scraps of debris pulling a disappearing act, sinking down into the deep when the wind picked up.

Together with Tobias Kukulka of the University of Delaware, he devised a plan to measure just how much trash was really hidden from view, using a system of nets that opened and closed only at specific depths.

“Almost every subsurface tow we took had plastic in the net,” said Proskurowski in an interview with LiveScience.

Proskurowski and Kukulka then used their data to make a mathematical model capable of calculating the average amounts of garbage at different depths, as well as how those numbers changed with varying wind velocities.

Their conclusion? Studies relying only on surface-sampling underestimated the level of trash in the water by 2.5 times, and on a windy day, a mind-bogglingly shocking 27 times.

Gathered and held together by ocean currents, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, also known as the Pacific Trash Vortex, contains high levels of an assortment of plastic debris—abandoned fishing nets, plastic bags, food wrappers—that breaks down into tiny pieces, but does not biodegrade. Because the plastic can decompose all the way to the molecular level, the garbage patch is not clearly visible.

But as we’ve learned, even though we see no evil, the evil still exists.

Plastic waste is capable of disrupting ecosystems, both on the microscopic and macroscopic level. Fish, birds, and other marine animals can ingest chemicals that cause hormone disruption and other toxic effects, and chunks of plastic that their digestive systems cannot break down. Additionally, specks of trash can house bacteria and algae, and carry them to new ecosystems where they potentially become invasive species.

In response to the study’s findings, an online petition has begun, aimed at urging the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to take greater action in battling the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Anyone interested in signing the survey may do so here:

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Do Your Part: Reduce Waste in School Lunches

In the past, school lunches have received a slew of criticism, ranging from the not-so-nice to the downright disparaging. And usually, it’s been about food. You know, the fattening, sodium-loaded, un-environmental kind? Yeah, that. But this time, cafeterias are picking up bad reviews for another reason. A reason, dear readers, that’s right up our alley. Yes, I’m talking about the environment. And yes, we in fact do have the power to help reduce school cafeteria waste.

But first, some facts for the disbelievers.

Did you know that in 2005, New York’s Department of Environment Conservation estimated that a single student produces about 45 to 90 pounds of trash per year in disposable lunches? More recent studies have pegged the number at about 67 pounds per school-age child. That means the average American elementary school produces about 18,760 pounds of lunch waste in a single year. Something to consider.

And where does that trash come from? Uneaten food, of course. Picked-at oranges and nibbled pizza crusts. But that’s not the root of the issue. Walk into the average school cafeteria, and you’ll see trashcans stacked sky high with styrofoam trays, plastic baggies, and empty bottles. Odds are you’ll also see a display of packaged salads and saran-wrapped sandwiches.

There are many forces at work here, and at many different levels too. For one, let’s consider the mass of individually packaged foods geared at the bring-your-own-lunch crowd. (Cheese sticks, anyone?) Some say we can’t take on corporations, but we should give ourselves a bit more credit. Consumers, once there’s a sizeable group of them, have weight in the economic market and can influence company decisions. Firms don’t want to alienate customers, nor do they want to make unappealing products. The trick is finding enough consumers. Which brings me to the next level: parents.

In the case of elementary-schoolers (and let’s be honest here, some middle- and high-schoolers too), the parents are the ones packing the lunches. That also means they’re also the ones deciding whether those lunches are going to be eco-friendly or not. Let’s look past food for a second. (Though eating local and organic is always encouraged!) Parents can pack sustainably, or they can pack unsustainably. They can choose to use reusable lunch boxes and drink containers, or they can fritter away single-use brown bags and bottled waters. Or they can take the completely lackadaisical route, and make a lunch out of a pre-packaged meal and a bag of chips. Their choice. But their choice has far-reaching implications. The crux of the matter is, parents can reduce waste in a big way just by making eco-friendly picks.

And then there are the schools. For all their claims that they’re working with us, they’re surprisingly ornery sometimes. Some school cafeterias don’t even have recycle bins, or, alternately, enough recycle bins. Imagine that. All those plastic bottles piled in the trashcans could be recycled. Maybe we could even think in a more philosophical vein, and say that by expanding their recycling programs, schools could teach our children (AKA our future) about sustainable living. Just a thought.

So, before you go off inspiring others to revamp their cabinets and refrigerators, there’s something you can do now. has started a petition for “waste-free school lunch policies in cafeterias nationwide” that you can sign right here. Because even if you don’t go to school, even if you don’t have kids, cafeteria waste becomes a part of your life. 

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The Anti-Plastic Movement

The plastic bag option at grocery stores and pharmacies has come under attack worldwide. If the trend continues, the familiar phrase “Paper or plastic?” will be lost on the generations to come just as dial-up and bookstores are falling from the radar. As the United States uses over 250 million plastic bags each year, this apparent movement has spread quickly in the last decade. 

Beginning in the early 2000s, European countries began taxing plastic bag use at grocery stores. Ireland taxes 33 cents per bag, leading to a 94% decrease in plastic bag use, and Italy has banned them this year. While Italy pioneered the ban in Europe, the European Commission is currently discussing regulating plastic bag use as it applies to the European Union.  

While Europe has typically foraged the way for environmentally protective legislature, Bangladesh became the first country to ban plastic bags all together in 2001. The law was passed after plastic bags obstructed storm drains, leading to a destructive flood. Surprisingly, China took this same step. Prior to hosting the Olympic games, China banned plastic bags in the hope of lessening “white pollution.” Before the 2008 ban, China allotted 37,000,000 barrels of oil annually for plastic bag production alone. So as much of an environmental act, the ban has significant economical implications as well. A north Indian state, Himachal Pradesh, was the first in India to institute the total plastic bag ban. India boasts some of the strictest laws against them: steep fines of about 2,000 US dollars and even imprisonment if caught using a plastic bag. With hills littered with plastic bags, the Indian government has spoken out about the serious damage that polythene pollution has caused to the soil and the subsequent decline in agricultural wealth of Indian land.  

California has taken the lead in the plastic bag ban movement in the US. San Francisco became the first US city to eliminate plastic bags from grocery stores, followed by Malibu, Santa Monica, Long Beach, Marin County, and Los Angeles. Although the state did not pass a state-wide law to ban plastic bags, Californian cites no longer have to submit environmental impact reports of plastic bag use to make their case against them. This has made it much easier to ban plastic bags in Californian. Elsewhere in the US, Washington, D.C. and New York both charge 5 cents per bag, Portland, OR has banned plastic bags this month, and Austin is moving toward a city-wide ban. 

Unsurprisingly, the Plastic Industry has retaliated. Their tactics have been linked to the Tobacco Industry and specifically Phillip Morris. The American Chemical Council (AAC) umbrellas ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical amongst other petroleum based companies. The AAC has organized the Progressive Bag Affiliates and strives to overturn legislation aimed at banning plastic bags. The AAC has launched campaigns insisting that state-wide bans will spur hidden taxation and burden the typical, hardworking american citizen. Their efforts overturned Seattle’s 20 cent tax per bag law. The California Senate rejected the plastic bag ban largely to the 2 million dollar campaign that the American Chemical Council waged against it. Oregon’s efforts to ban plastic bags mirrored California’s outcome. Along with the campaigns, the Plastics Industry has filed Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) suits against activists and companies that combat plastic bag usage and/or support banning efforts. 

While curbing plastic bag use has gone less hindered overseas, it remains to be seen if the AAC can truly halt the efforts to reduce plastic bags in the US. With the movement solidly rooted in Europe and heavy economic powers like China, it seems inevitable that the US will follow in tow.

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