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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: Any tips for reducing the amount of disposable plastic I use for food storage? -- J. Spencer, Gaithersburg, MD

Analysts estimate that of the over six billion tons of plastic produced worldwide since the 1950s, we have recycled only nine percent of it and incinerated another 12 percent. The remaining, some 4.8 billion tons of plastic is either still in use, filling up landfills, or littered into streets, streams and eventually the ocean.

About a third of the plastic produced worldwide is for single-use applications (bottles, bags, utensils, food storage, etc.)—and it is these items that most commonly end up on the side of the road. Researchers discussed in a 2019 paper in Nature that if we do nothing to step up flagging efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle plastics, we could have three times as much of it littered into the global environment by 2060.

So, what’s an environmentally conscious consumer to do? For starters, avoid getting plastic bags at the store. Either bring your own reusable one or if you need to go disposable, at least opt for paper that can be recycled or composted. And if you are food shopping, gravitate toward the bulk items aisle where you can buy just the right amount without unnecessary extra packaging.

Another way to cut down on single use plastic is ditching plastic straws. Americans go through about 500 million plastic straws daily. Opting for reusable straws (metal, silicone, bamboo or glass, anyone?)—or no straw at all—is one of the simplest ways to cut down on disposable plastic.

According to the non-profit Center for EcoTechnology (CET), the kitchen is one place where you can definitely make some easy adjustments to save plastic. For starters, ditch the plastic wrap; it’s difficult to recycle and can clog recycling processing machines. One great alternative is beeswax paper, which is reusable, washable and compostable. (Make sure to wash it with cold water only so the wax doesn’t melt.)

“Another alternative to plastic wrap is storing your food in glass storage containers or glass jars,” adds CET. “Glass is 100% recyclable and can be recycled endlessly without loss in quality or purity.”

Putting dish cloths to use is another way to eschew plastic wrap for keeping produce fresh. Simply wrap up those fruits or veggies in a cloth instead of plastic—or put them in a bowl and cover with a dish cloth and rubber band for a tight seal—and put ‘em in the fridge.

One often overlooked environmental downside of the coronavirus situation is that restaurants throw in so much disposable plasticware for to-go and delivery orders—whether customers need it or not. That’s why a coalition of 120 environmental groups recently teamed up to send letters to seven national food delivery companies asking they change their default ordering process to one that does not automatically include utensils, napkins, condiments and straws in order to reduce the tsunami of single-use plastic pollution entering our oceans, landfills and incinerators.

CONTACTS: Future scenarios of global plastic waste generation and disposal, https://www.nature.com/articles/s41599-018-0212-7; “Zero Waste Substitutes to Eliminate Single Use Plastic in Your Kitchen,” https://www.centerforecotechnology.org/zero-waste-substitutes-to-eliminate-single-use-plastic-in-your-kitchen/; UberEats, GrubHub, Delivery.com, Doordash, Seamless, PostMates & Caviar Asked to “Hold The Single-Use Plastics, Please,” https://seaturtles.org/ubereats-grubhub-delivery-com-doordash-seamless-postmates-caviar-asked-to-hold-the-single-use-plastics-please/.

Dear EarthTalk: I overheard someone saying the Coronavirus could drive mountain gorillas extinct? Is this because they are susceptible to the virus? -- Spencer S., Tukwila, WA

While we don’t know for sure whether mountain gorillas or other great apes are susceptible to coronavirus, no one wants to find out. Damian Carrington reports in The Guardian that the coronavirus could potentially wipe out already threatened populations of chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans — our closest living relatives with whom we share 98 percent of our DNA.

“Even pathogens producing mild symptoms in humans have been lethal to great apes in the past,” reports Carrington. “The fact that Covid-19 is fatal for some humans leads experts to fear it could potentially prove devastating to great apes.”

To date, no great apes are known to have contracted the coronavirus. Those humans who study and protect them would like to keep it that way. As a result, wildlife tourism across Africa is temporarily shut down. How long “temporary” may be is anybody’s guess at this point, but conservationists fear it could set back their efforts by decades if not put them “out of business”entirely.

“The suspension of ecotourism during the coronavirus pandemic has also meant the main source of revenue for gorilla conservation has been lost and there are fears some of those in surrounding communities who depend on tourists could turn to poaching out of desperation,” reports Jack Losh in The Guardian.

Meanwhile, the story is much the same all across Africa, where governments have suspended all tourism. Ann Gibbons reports for Science that researchers at wildlife reserves across Africa face new challenges in the age of coronavirus. The 130 wildlife rangers at Uganda’s Bwindi Impenetrable National Park are now briefed regularly on how to keep coronavirus away from gorillas and how to monitor wildlife for signs of the sickness.

At another Ugandan reserve, Taï and Kibale, researchers must quarantine for 14 days before they are allowed anywhere near the wild gorilla population under study there, And once researchers can get closer, they still must, in the words of Gibbons, “change their clothes and take their temperatures before they go into the forest, wear masks, and keep their distance.” Researchers there have also test chimps’ feces for COVID-19 and other viruses.

“Habitat loss and poaching are big threats to the survival of great apes, but viruses are also a concern,” adds Briggs. “Infectious disease is now listed among the top three threats to some great ape groups.” Indeed, past research has shown that chimps can contract the common cold virus, while Ebola is thought to be responsible for thousands of wild chip and gorilla deaths across Africa. Could coronavirus be the death knell for these and other iconic wildlife species?

CONTACTS: “Primatologists work to keep great apes safe from coronavirus,” sciencemag.org/news/2020/05/primatologists-work-keep-great-apes-safe-coronavirus; “Coronavirus poses lethal threat to great apes, experts warn,” theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/24/coronavirus-poses-lethal-threat-to-great-apes-experts-warn.

Dear EarthTalk: Why are environmental advocates down on the Forest Stewardship Council, given its mission to eliminate unsustainable forestry? -- M.P., Raleigh, NC

Environmentalists, indigenous people and others exploited by logging in developing countries rejoiced at the launch of the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in 1993. Formed to “promote environmentally sound, socially beneficial and economically prosperous management of the world's forests,” FSC has definitely done a lot of good in the intervening three decades. Some 500 million acres of working forests around the world have become FSC-certified, and millions of consumers can sleep better at night knowing that their new decking, siding or framing comes from sustainably harvested wood.

But in recent years, critics say FSC has valued loggers’ profits over forest conservation. The disconnect, they say, stems from FSC’s claims that its auditors inspect every single log/tree entering its “certified sustainable” supply chain to ensure it has been sustainably grown and harvested. But given the volume of logging and the structure of global timber markets, there is no way FSC auditors can physically inspect each log. An auditor for millions of board feet of tropical rainforest timber might be doing his job 5,000 miles away from a skyscraper in London.

FSC maintains that its producers sign on in good faith, and that any wood entering its certification system, whether audited or not, shouldn’t be “illegally harvested, harvested in violation of traditional or civil rights, or harvested in forests where high conservation values are threatened.” But can we trust FSC’s monitoring claims and the origins of lumber when auditors aren’t physically in place?

Another criticism of FSC is that its “Seal of Approval” labeling system is confusing and may lead some consumers to a false sense of “doing the right thing.” To wit, many reams of printer paper these days bear one or another FSC seal, but whether you choose “FSC 100%,” “FSC Recycled” or “FSC Mix” has a huge bearing on how green the choice is. (“FSC Mix” products likely contain wood products that are not from FSC-certified forests.)

Another issue is FSC’s decision to continue logging in Australia last year following widespread wildfires there that wiped out 18 million acres of forest. FSC ignored pleas to halt logging until ecosystems there could recalibrate; critics claim that decision shows FSC is more about making money for logging operations than it is about saving the world’s forests.

Regardless, bolstering FSC—and holding its feet to the fire—is the best path forward for those concerned about unsustainable logging and the decimation of the world’s forests. While the group has no doubt had its problems keeping up with the popularity of its certification system, it is still working hard to achieve its overall goal of meeting our current needs for forest products without compromising the health of the world's forests for future generations. Given national governments’ lack of willingness or enforcement power to police timber extraction within their own borders, it’s up to FSC—and consumers dependent on their “FSC Seal of Approval”—to fight unsustainable logging practices.

CONTACTS: FSC, fsc.org; FSC-Watch, fsc-watch.com; “Is FSC certification worth the paper it’s printed on?” ethicalcorp.com/fsc-certification-worth-paper-its-printed; “Greenwashed Timber: How Sustainable Forest Certification Has Failed,” https://e360.yale.edu/features/greenwashed-timber-how-sustainable-forest-certification-has-failed.

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that the Trump administration is using the cover of the COVID-19 crisis to roll back environmental health standards? -- J.K. Miami, FL

Environmental advocates and others who care about clean air and water certainly seem to think the Trump administration has been taking advantage of the distractions of the Coronavirus pandemic and #BlackLivesMatter unrest to scale back environmental rules for the benefit of corporate interests and at the expense of public health.

The Trump administration has been hacking away at environmental rules ever since it took office in 2017. But the recent round of rollbacks started in earnest in late March 2020—just as COVID-19 began to dominate news cycles—when the White House quietly replaced Obama-era fuel economy standards for cars and trucks with weaker ones that allow for more air pollution, froze standards for fine particulates (soot) despite research that a slight bump in regulations could save tens of thousands of lives annually, and eased up on restrictions on the kinds of effluents polluters can release into streams and wetlands.

Adding insult to injury, in early June President Trump issued an executive order waiving parts of the National Environmental Policy Act—the nation’s 50-year-old cornerstone environmental law—to spur the construction of highways, pipelines and other infrastructure projects. Meanwhile, the administration has doubled down on efforts to expand logging and oil drilling in Alaska while proposing to speed up permitting for off-shore fish farms, drop review requirements for liquefied natural gas terminals, and relax mercury pollution standards for power plants. The icing on the cake is that Trump wants to pillage ecosystems beyond our own planet, with a new proposal to mine the moon.

Environmental leaders are crying foul that such moves aren’t only illegal but also put public and environmental health at risk—all while the nation is distracted by COVID-19 and racial turbulence.

“People right now are hunkered down trying to put food on the table, take care of people who are sick and worry about educating their children at home,” said former Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) chief (under Barack Obama) Gina McCarthy to the Guardian. McCarthy is now head of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). McCarthy added that the federal government is “literally not interested in the law or science [which] is going to become strikingly clear as people look at how the administration is handling Covid-19.”

Environmentalists are also keeping their fingers crossed that Joe Biden becomes President in 2021 and can roll back the rollbacks. In the meantime, if you would like your voice to be heard, NRDC has made it easy to send comments via its website urging Trump and current EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler to maintain limits on industrial pollution and keep clean car standards on the books.

CONTACTS: “Trump, Citing Pandemic, Moves to Weaken Two Key Environmental Protections,” www.nytimes.com/2020/06/04/climate/trump-environment-coronavirus.html; “Trump to roll back Obama-era clean car rules in huge blow to climate fight,” www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/mar/31/trump-epa-obama-clean-car-rules-climate-change; “Trump administration declines to stiffen US clean air standards,” www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/apr/14/trump-epa-soot-pollution-clean-air-standards; NRDC’s “Don't Let Trump Use the COVID-19 Crisis to Roll Back Public Health Protections,” https://act.nrdc.org/letter/4839-public-health-rollbacks-200401.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit www.earthtalk.org Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org

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