EarthTalk: Questions & Answers About Our Environment


Dear EarthTalk: How are American supermarket chains doing in regard to cutting back on single-use plastics?       ~ B. Weston, Jacksonville, FL

Not very well, if you ask Greenpeace. The activist group compares 20 U.S. grocery chains by their commitments and actions to reduce single-use plastics in its recently released “Shopping for Plastic 2019” report. Each and every chain—even those you would think are leading the charge on reducing plastic—gets a failing score.

Illinois-based ALDI, with 1,900 stores in 36 states, ranks highest on Greenpeace’s list, thanks to its efforts to set a specific plastic reduction target and establish a more comprehensive plastic reduction plan than any of its competitors. That said, ALDI sells mostly its own in-house versions of products so the company has more control over its entire supply chain than conventional grocery retailers that draw from thousands of different producers. But beyond the product line and its packaging, ALDI has also been more transparent on its plastic practices and Greenpeace gives bonus points for the company’s commitment to implement reuse and refill systems across the entire chain.

That’s about as nice as Greenpeace gets in the report. While second-place finisher Kroger Co. gets kudos for being the only U.S. retailer of its size to phase out single-use plastic checkout bags (by 2025) and for setting plastics recycling goals for its own branded products, Greenpeace chastises the grocery behemoth with more than 2,400 stores in 31 states for not already taking much bolder steps to scale way back on single-use plastic: “These goals might have been totally rad in the 1990s, but given its size and the scale of the plastic pollution crisis in 2019, Kroger must do far more to reduce its plastic footprint.”

Greenpeace didn’t have much nice to say about third place finisher Albertsons, either, and is incensed that the company participates in Hefty’s EnergyBag Program whereby non-recyclable plastics are incinerated or turned back into fossil fuels. “Plastic incineration in any form threatens human health and the climate,” says Greenpeace. “Albertsons must immediately stop participating in this program.”

Whole Foods’ 11th place finish on the list begs the question of how the chain known for its green and healthy food selection could be so bad on plastics. Greenpeace says the chain has largely focused on recycling initiatives and using more light weight plastics but needs to “up its game to reduce and ultimately end its reliance on single-use plastics.” Whole Foods’ past groundbreaking efforts in plastics reduction—it was the first large nationwide U.S. retailer to ban single-use checkout bags as well as plastic straws and then microbeads—aren’t lost on Greenpeace. But given the scale of the plastic pollution crisis, Greenpeace says Whole Foods “needs to do much more.”

While Greenpeace is working hard to pressure these corporations to go above and beyond minimal efforts to reduce single-use plastics, it’s up to individual consumers to really drive the point home by bringing their own reusable shopping bags to the grocery store, staying away from products swaddled in unnecessary amounts of throwaway plastic, and complaining to store managers about all the plastic wrap everywhere.

Greenpeace’s “Shopping For Plastic 2019,”;
“Say NO To Dow’s Dirty EnergyBag,”

Dear EarthTalk: You don’t hear much anymore about the cutting of our forests to make paper. Has this destructive practice just moved overseas where we don’t have to confront it, or have increases in recycling in recent years made paper production less destructive?   ~ J. W., Greenville, SC

It’s true that saving paper (and in turn saving trees) used to be a big discussion topic at home, school and office, but these days you don’t hear much about it. This is likely because paper recycling has become ubiquitous; most of us are now well-versed in how to sort recyclable paper from other “waste.”

According to the American Paper and Forest Association (AF&PA), upwards of two-thirds of all paper consumed in the U.S. was recovered for recycling in 2018. What this means is that a lot of the paper we use now gets made with recycled materials that don’t cause more logging and deforestation.

A big player in this march forward has been the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), an international non-profit that sets standards on forest products and then certifies and labels those that meet the standards as eco-friendly. Another major factor has been the establishment of guidelines set forth and agreed to by 200 governmental and other entities in 2014’s New York Declaration of Forests (NYDP), an international agreement to “end natural forest loss” by 2030.

Despite this progress, deforestation for paper still continues unabated in Indonesia and other parts of the developing world where government oversight is non-existent and profit incentives are too great for illegal loggers to ignore. Some 10 percent of global deforestation (a major driver of climate change) is due to logging for wood products including paper, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS).

UCS reports that clearing tropical forests and replacing them with mono-cultural plantations of so-called “fastwood” trees like acacia, partly to make virgin paper, accounts for more deforestation across Indonesia than more infamous environmental bogeymen like palm oil production and coal mining. “This is particularly harmful because about a quarter of fastwood plantations were cleared on carbon-rich peat soils,” reports UCS, “adding significantly to global warming pollution.”
Beyond recycled paper itself, there are some promising alternatives to wood pulp as a feedstock for paper production. Some well-known alt-paper feedstocks include fiber crops like bamboo, kenaf, hemp, flax and jute, agricultural scraps such as sugarcane bagasse, corn husks or straw, and textiles left-over in the production of fabrics and rope. A newer entrant in the green paper alternatives playing field is calcium carbonate—literally rock dust—which is made by pulverizing construction waste and fusing it together with plastic before compressing it with massive rollers into its final paper-thin form.

What about, you might ask, the rapidly-growing digital age we find ourselves in now? Isn’t that saving trees? Yes, but consider the electricity load of all the computers, tablets and phones, as well as the server farms and network switching facilities that keep your e-mail inbox full and your Facebook feed full of new content. They’re largely powered by coal and other fossil fuels. Our addiction to digital information might just be taking a larger toll on the planet than if we still got our information the old-fashioned way—from actual books, magazines, newspapers and printed reports.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk.
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