Tag Archives: environment

Are Single Use Plastics Getting a Bad Rap?

New York City      Once the breeze picks up between the canyons formed by New York City skyscrapers, the most common local bird that seems to be floating in the sky when you see something flutter by is most often a plastic bag.  Every delicatessen seems to use a ton of them daily with impunity.  Straws are passed out like party favors everywhere.  We think of New York City as one of the most progressive in the world, so what’s up?

According to a piece I read recently in Scientific America, maybe they know something that I didn’t understand as clearly as I should have about plastic.  According to a science writer named Wade Roush,

“Biodegradable” plastic doesn’t do what you think it does.  Your paper or metal straw takes only a tiny sip at the problem of plastic pollution.  And your supposedly eco-conscious cloth grocery bag is more damaging to the environment than conventional plastic bags – unless you reuse it literally thousands of times.”

What?!?  We thought we were ahead of the curve at Fair Grinds Coffeehouses when we banned all straws except on personal and desperate request.  We’re a social enterprise.  We compost and give our coffee grounds to local farmer cooperatives.  How could we not be on the cutting edge?

Scientific American says that the technical standards “for biodegradability are mostly about industrial composting” meaning it requires high heat and microorganisms and in six months later 90% is released as carbon dioxide, then it’s OK to call something “biodegradable” or “compostable.”  You hear that?  “Released as carbon dioxide!”  Worse, if the whole supposedly environmentally friendly stuff ends up in a regular landfill, and the odds are great on that score, then it creates methane.  More carbon dioxide and methane, hey, why not, kill the climate even faster while deluding yourself, eh?

Mostly this is due to the fact that a lot of this supposedly climate friendly stuff is made of “polyester derived from starchy plants, including corn and sugarcane” when, according to these scientists, plastics need to be “bio-based.”  Of all people, Coca-Cola and Pepsi have said they are moving to 100% plant-derived polyethylene terephthalate (PET), but they aren’t ready for primetime yet.

Here’s the clincher:

“The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change points out that to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C over preindustrial levels, we may need to remove tens to hundreds of gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere, ideally by 2050.  If the world fully converted to bioplastic starting in 2020, the carbon sequestered over the next 30 years could amount to more than 10 gigatons – which would be a good start.  When it comes to plastic, it’s time to think more flexibly.”

All of which says that the New York delis are not ahead of the curve, but that we’re all behind where we need to be.  It’s not simply switching one for the other, but getting it right with a tech that does no harm, rather than something that just makes us feel better about the morality of doing something rather than nothing.


Heat Islands Hitting Lower Income, Minority Neighborhoods

Gulf Shores, Alabama   It’s rained part of every day for two weeks.  There is supposed to be a one-day break in New Orleans without any rain.  Living in the semi-tropics that passes for normal.  I used to say summer in the city was 85 percent humidity and 85 degrees Fahrenheit.  Now, looking at the weather every day, it’s 90s all the way down.  This week is supposed to feature not only rain but 94- and 95-degree temperatures as well.  This climate thing is real – and dangerous.

A report in the Washington Post was clear.  Research led by Vivek Shandas, a professor of urban studies and planning at Portland State University with volunteers, found “heat islands” in both Baltimore and Washington, DC.  Not surprisingly the temperature variance was significantly higher in lower income and minority areas with spread sometimes reaching twenty degrees.  The reason was simple to find:  fewer trees and more pavement.

A colleague of Dr. Shandas, Jeffrey Hoffman of the Science Museum of Virginia, made the case that the impact of heat islands on health impacts is devastating.  As the New York Times reported:

He found that the four warmest ZIP codes also saw the highest rates of heat-related ambulance calls and emergency room visits. Richmond’s heat islands also overlap with its communities of color and low income, according to Brianne Mullen, the city’s sustainability coordinator. The city has just two cooling centers, and, because of budget cuts, the number of trees planted fell drastically in 2016 and 2017 before rebounding last year.


Richmond is dragging wagon on this, but the Times reports progress in Baltimore:

Baltimore is trying to ease the heat burden by planting more trees. The city plans to increase its tree canopy to cover 40 percent of the city, up from 28 percent in 2015, according to Lisa McNeilly, director of the Baltimore Office of Sustainability.

Heat islands don’t pick favorites.

Other reports have noted that Houston recently planted 175 trees along a city thoroughfare in order to grow the shade that would significantly reduce temperatures there.

Getting back to New Orleans, older working-class and minority neighborhoods in areas where land is a delimiting factor have no front yards with front doors, like Philadelphia, Baltimore and other row house cities, within only a sidewalk’s length of the street, offering no shade, and guaranteeing hot spots.  There are some homes along tree-lined neutral grounds, but these areas are more commonly uptown in richer, whiter areas or in suburbs along the lake where the levee board filled cypress swamp lands and planted oak trees in the easements.

The research on heat islands needs to be circulated widely.  Recent proposals on neutral ground in cities as different as New Orleans and San Francisco have proposed everything from housing construction in such medians to paving bicycle lanes.

We need to literally keep as much “green” as we can, and bring in as many shade trees as cities and neighbors can afford to build buffers in the inner cities against the heat waves that are here now and likely to create private and public hells in the future without aggressive action.


Please enjoy “Across the Pond” by DJ Trotsky.  Thanks to KABF.