New York takes baby step towards solving its plastic trash problems

NYC litter basket overflowing with plastic bags
NYC trash basket — only for litter? NYTimes image

New York City has a plastic-waste problem. Discarded carryout bags can be found clogging drains, hanging from trees, coating vacant spaces like tide wrack. According to the city’s sanitation department, New Yorkers throw away more than 10 billion — 10,O00,000,000 — single-use plastic bags every year — one thousand bags for each man, woman, and child. That works out to about 20 billion bags discarded every year in New York State as a whole.

Confronted by the scale of the pollution, NY Governor Andrew Cuomo introduced a bill last April which states, “BEGINNING JANUARY FIRST, TWO THOUSAND NINETEEN, THE PROVISION OF PLASTIC CARRYOUT BAGS AT ANY POINT OF SALE TO CUSTOMERS IS PROHIBITED.”
The law is unsatisfactory because of what it leaves out. The ban does not apply to plastic bags to carry uncooked meat, fish, poultry, or food sliced to order. Bags used to contain bulk items such as fruits, nuts, vegetables, grains, or candy, are exempt, as are plastic bags sold in bulk, or repackaged for sale such as trash bags or bags used for food storage. Also given a pass are plastic garment bags, bags used to carry newspapers for delivery to customers, and bags provided by restaurants and similar establishments for carryout food. And there may be other exemptions whenever the government thinks of them.

The Law isn’t going to solve the State’s plastic trash problem any time soon. But it should at least improve appearances. It’s a baby step in the right direction. The question now is, will the bill pass? As of today, the bill is held up in the NY State Senate Rules Committee. The image below shows it’s current status and the steps it must follow before it can be signed into law by Governor Cuomo. Looks like that’s not going to happen by the intended date of January 1, 2019.

Image from NY State Senate website showing status of bill S8258
Image from New York State Senate website

When Governor Cuomo introduced the bill last April, the NY State Senate had a republican majority, so there was some doubt the bill would ever get passed. Come January, the democrats will be in control which should assure the bill’s passage. But one never knows. Politicians are not known for speed or reliability. Here’s a photo of the Senate floor showing Senators at work.

Photo of NY State Senate Floor
New York State Senate Floor. nysenate.gov image

While plastic packaging is an out-and-out evil, not everything found in garbage is ugly. In fact, some of it is good-looking and interesting enough to make up the contents of a fascinating New York City musium.

Treasures in the Trash Musium

The Treasures in the Trash Musium was founded by Nelson Melina,  a Sanitation Department employee for many years. The collection consists of about fifty thousand artifacts found in New York City trash by Molina over a period of thirty years. The museum is located in East Harlem, above a NYC Sanitation Dept. Garage at 343 E 99th Street, between 1st and 2nd Avenues. It’s not open to the public on a regular basis. The department arranges tours from time to time. 

Musical instruments at Treasures in the Trash Musium, NYC
Musical Instruments. Treasures in the Trash Musium, NYC. Image credit : untappedcities.com

For more photos of the musium’s collection, go to Untapped Cities: Behind the Scenes at the NYC Sanitation Dept. Trash Musium on the Upper East Side.

Plastic packaging overwhelms humanity — industry looks to increase the supply

Image of plastic water bottles on production line
A few of the 50 Billion plastic water bottles used and discarded in the U.S. in one year

Since its invention in the early 20th century, plastic has been put to a multitude of valuable uses. Plastic packaging is not one of them. It’s a scourge. The stuff keeps piling up in landfills and garbage tips. It accumulates along beaches and floats in the oceans as micro particles. It slowly degrades in sunlight, releasing methane and ethylene, potent greenhouse gases. When burned with trash in the open air (as happens routinely in poor countries) it releases a range of deadly fumes, including dioxin. When burned in an incinerator as a source of energy (plastic is made from fossil fuels) it releases its carbon content into the atmosphere, thus increasing global warming.

Image of discarded flexible packaging
Discarded flexible packaging. Image: RecycleBC

Plastic trash is a highly visible form of pollution. That’s a problem for the plastics industry.  Stung by public criticism, manufacturers and users of plastic packaging have begun to react. Amcor, a leading manufacturer of plastic packaging, together with some of the big users (including, Coca-Cola, Danone, MARS, Novamont, L’Oréal, Pepsi, Unilever, and Veolia), say they have committed themselves to the New Plastics Economy, an initiative by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. This is what the organization’s website says it wants to achieve:

In a new plastics economy, plastic never becomes waste or pollution. Three actions are required to achieve this vision and create a circular economy for plastic. Eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic items. Innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable, or compostable. Circulate all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.

If those statements sound to you like the kind of New Year resolutions a weak-willed glutton might make, you’re right. Plastic products are cheap, most of the public accepts them, and the industry wants to continue feeding the market with as much of the stuff as it will swallow. According to the industry newsletter Plastics Today, the plastic packaging market is expected to grow in value from about $200 billion in 2017 to $270 billion in 2025, a 35% increase.

Of course the industry wants something to be done about the trash. It’s an embarrassment. Look at the last statement in the committments they made about circulating all the plastic items we use. The question is, who do they think will execute that part of their commitment? Right now, municipalities handle garbage collection and recycling, provided they have a tax base to support it. Municipalities in poor countries don’t have that luxury. Does the plastics industry intend to fund the collection and recycling of plastic trash in all those places in the world where that work falls short of 100% efficiency? Of course not. What the industry is angling for is a commitment, by others — governments, municipalities, you and I — to pay for it.

Suppose, as is likely, no one wants to pay the cost of dealing with plastic pollution on a global scale, what then? In the case of plastic packaging, the obvious solution would be to switch back to non-polluting materials such as paper and glass. People lived without plastic before. We can do so again.
Industry representatives opposed to the idea raise the usual objections: impractical; ill informed; too expensive; jobs would be lost, etc. Or they imply that there is no alternative. For example, Amcor CEO Ron Delia, quoted in his company’s website, says: “Plastic packaging is vital for products used by billions of consumers around the globe. It’s highly effective and easy to adapt, so that those products are safe, nutritious and effective.”  So . . . Plastic packaging is not just useful, it is vital. Foodstuffs that are not packed in plastic are unsafe, ineffective, lack nutrition. Use plastic or billions will suffer. Those are the messages Mr. Delia’s statement implies.

We humans have a tendency to eat until we burst. Our excessive consumption of plastic is just one example.  Fortunately it’s a habit we can easily break. But to succeed, the break will have to be made despite the New Plastic Economy crowd.

The following YouTube video by Ravi Bajoria shows a primative garbage sorting line in operation. Poor countries cannot afford to buy and operate the automated, high-tech systems that are available. If we stop using plastic packaging, they won’t need them.

 

Climate Change threatens America; the U.S. Military responds; Trump feints

Cartoon. Trump with his finger in the climate dike
THE COMMANDER-IN-CHIEF STICKS HIS FINGER IN THE CLIMATE DIKE

The 2018 Federal Assessment for the U.S., was released on November 23rd. The report highlights likely impacts and risks from the changing climate.
An introductory statement says: “A team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee produced the report, which was extensively reviewed by the public and experts, including federal agencies and a panel of the National Academy of Sciences.” The report concludes that Climate Change threatens the “natural, built and social systems we rely on.” Disruptions expected to accompany Climate Change include: rising temperatures; extreme heat; drought; wildfire on rangelands; heavy downpours; transformed coastal regions; higher costs and lower property values from sea level rise; extreme weather events; changes to air quality; changes to the availability of food and water; and the spread of new diseases.

Here is President Trump’s initial response to the report:

During an interview with the Washington Post on November 27, the President was asked to explain his negative response to the climate report.
This is his verbatim response:

“One of the problems that a lot of people like myself — we have very high levels of intelligence, but we’re not necessarily such believers. You look at our air and our water, and it’s right now at a record clean. But when you look at China and you look at parts of Asia and when you look at South America, and when you look at many other places in this world, including Russia, including — just many other places — the air is incredibly dirty. And when you’re talking about an atmosphere, oceans are very small. And it blows over and it sails over. I mean, we take thousands of tons of garbage off our beaches all the time that comes over from Asia. It just flows right down the Pacific, it flows, and we say where does this come from. And it takes many people to start off with.”

“Number two, if you go back and if you look at articles, they talked about global freezing, they talked about at some point the planets could have freeze to death, then it’s going to die of heat exhaustion. There is movement in the atmosphere. There’s no question. As to whether or not it’s man-made and whether or not the effects that you’re talking about are there, I don’t see it — not nearly like it is.”

Despite Trump’s attempts to bury climate change, and his all-out support for fossil fuels, the U.S. Military is marching to a different tune. According to the Center for Climate & Security, since Trump assumed office in January 2017, eighteen senior officials at the U.S. Defense Department have recommended actions to address the security implications of climate change. These officials include: Secretary of Defense, James Mattis; Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Paul J. Selva; and Secretary of the Navy, Richard Spenser.

James Mattis, a former United States Marine Corps general, has a history of supporting efforts to reduce troop dependence on petroleum. In 2003, he urged the military to develop ways to “Unleash us from the tether of fuel.” At his confirmation hearings in 2017, he said, “Climate Change can be a driver of instability and the Department of Defense must pay attention to potential adverse impacts generated by this phenomenon.” He also said, “I agree that the effects of a changing climate — such as increased maritime access to the Arctic, rising sea levels, desertification, among others — impact our security situation.”

Military War Room
Military War Room

The world is facing an existential threat. It appears the U.S. Military is ready and willing to engage the enemy. But to be truly effective, it needs a Commander-in-Chief willing or able to acknowledge the threat. The sooner it gets one, the better for all of us.

Rhode Island’s Fox Point Hurricane Barrier. Can it handle a big one?

Photo of Huge ocean wave. Image by Ray Collins
Ocean Wave. Photo by Ray Collins

Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay sits like an open mouth, ready to swallow any hurricane that makes its way up the East Coast. Usually these northward trending hurricanes lose steam when they reach the colder waters off New England. Usually but not always. The Great New England Hurricane of 1938 arrived over Rhode Island with a forward speed of 50 to 60 mph and wind speeds exceeding 120 mph. It carried with it an ocean swell that filled the bay to overflowing.

Map of Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island
Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. Openstreetmap.org

According to the National Weather Service (NWS-Boston), “The hurricane produced storm tides of 14 to 18 feet across most of the Connecticut coast, with 18 to 25 foot tides from New London east to Cape Cod. The destructive power of the storm surge was felt throughout the coastal community. Narragansett Bay took the worst hit, where a storm surge of 12 to 15 feet destroyed most coastal homes, marinas and yacht clubs. Downtown Providence, Rhode Island was submerged under a storm tide of nearly 20 feet.”

In 1954, Hurricane Carol produced a storm surge of more than 14 feet in Narragansett Bay. Downtown Providence was once again flooded, this time by 8 to 12 feet of water. All levels of government — local, State, and Federal — agreed that something had to be done to protect the low lying city center. The Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, completed in 1966, was the result.

Aerial photo of Downtown Providence and Providence River
Downtown Providence and the Providence River. The Fox Point Hurricane Barrier is hidden behind the I-195 highway bridge. Image: providenceri.gov

All travellers on the I-195 Highway pass within feet of the Barrier as they drive across the eight-lane bridge over the Providence River. But those who want to look at the barrier and appreciate its design, leave the highway on the east side of the river, and make their way back to Bridge Street and its small riverside park (marked in yellow on the satellite view below)

Satellite view of Fox Point Hurricane Barrier
Satellite view of Fox Point Hurricane Barrier and vicinity. Google Maps Image

The barrier is located a couple of hundred yards up stream from Fox Point, and just north of the I-195 Highway Bridge. It consists of a concrete wall built across the Providence River and earthen dikes that extend flood protection about a thousand feet over the land on each side of the river. Built into the river wall are three, 40 foot wide gates, each weighing  53 tons. Under normal weather conditions, the gates remain open so as not to impede the flow of the river. The gates are located at the eastern end of the river wall. They can be seen in the satellite view above.

Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, Providence, RI
Fox Point Hurricane Barrier’s three flood gates, looking down stream from park on Bridge Street. I-195 Hwy bridge in background. Providence RI. Image: Brown.edu

An essential component of the barrier system is the pumping station consisting of five massive 4500 H.P pumps, each as big as a grain elevator. When the flood gates are closed to keep a storm surge out, the entire flow of the river must be continuously pumped up and over the barrier. Otherwise the river would be held back, overflow its banks, and flood the city. The pumping station is housed in a building at the western end of the river wall (its roof is plainly visible in the satellite view). The five pumps, operating together, can lift 3.1 million gallons per minute and discharge the flow to the downstream side of the barrier.

Fox Point Hurricane Barrier, Providence RI
View of Fox Point Hurricane Barrier from Bridge Street pocket park. Pumping Station at far right. Google Image

The barrier gates have been closed against storms several times since going into service in 1966. During Hurricane Sandy in 2012, the water crested at 9.5 feet. But the barrier has yet to experience a direct hit from a category 4 or 5 hurricane. As coastal flooding increases in the coming years, hurricane barriers of all kinds are going to be in the news.