August 1, 2024, marks “Earth Overshoot Day”

Earth Overshoot Day Logog

Since 1971, the Global Footprint Network has calculated “Earth Overshoot Day” to highlight the impacts and implications of human resource consumption. As stated on the event website, “Earth Overshoot Day marks the date when humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what Earth can regenerate in that year. We maintain this deficit by liquidating stocks of ecological resources and accumulating waste, primarily carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.”

“To determine the date of Earth Overshoot Day for each year, Global Footprint Network calculates the number of days of that year that Earth’s biocapacity suffices to provide for humanity’s Ecological Footprint. The remainder of the year corresponds to global overshoot. Earth Overshoot Day is computed by dividing the planet’s biocapacity (the amount of ecological resources Earth is able to generate that year), by humanity’s Ecological Footprint (humanity’s demand for that year), and multiplying by the number of days in a year. This year, as we are in a leap year, it is 366 days:

(Earth’s Biocapacity / Humanity’s Ecological Footprint) x 366 = Earth Overshoot Day”

In 2024, Earth Overshoot Day falls on August 1st.  Collectively, humanity would need 1.75 Earths to meet its resource demands.

The numbers get worse if you look at consumption at the country level. If everyone globally lived like the residents of the United States of America, Earth Overshoot Day would have occurred on March 14th this year, and humanity would need the equivalent of five Earths to match resource demands.

Graphic showing the relative environmental footprint of different countries.

See https://overshoot.footprintnetwork.org/2024-calculation/ to learn more about how this year’s Earth Overshoot Day was calculated.

Clearly, none of this is sustainable. So what can we do to #MoveTheDate later in the year, so our demands better match the ability of Earth to regenerate ecological resources? The Global Footprint Network presents potential solutions to pursue individually and collectively as “The Power of Possibility” in five main categories:

  • Cities: How we design and manage cities
  • Energy: How we power ourselves
  • Food: How we feed ourselves
  • Population: How many of us are there
  • Planet: How we help nature thrive

See https://overshoot.footprintnetwork.org/power-of-possibility/ to learn more about potential strategies in each of these categories in detail. For each strategy, the Earth Overshoot Day website explains how much implementation would shift the overshoot date and how the strategy is scalable. The website also provides classroom activities and a link to a personal environmental footprint calculator to help individuals understand their lifestyle impacts.

Dr. Mathis Wackernagel, who created the concept of the environmental footprint with Professor William E. Rees in the early 1990s, provides an online primer to understanding the implications of overshoot and how to respond. He states “Because the accumulated stock of nature is finite, overshoot will inevitably end as stock get depleted. The question, therefore, is not whether it will end, only how. It can end by design or by disaster – most likely it will be a combination of both.” Let’s work together to do our best to end overshoot by design.

#MoveTheDate graphic

Plastic Free July: Tips for reducing plastic pollution from your clothing and textiles

Plastic Free July 2024

Plastic Free July is an awareness campaign coordinated by the Plastic Free Foundation which began in 2011 and is geared toward encouraging individuals to reduce plastic waste and pollution through small lifestyle changes, especially through the reduction of single-use plastic. To celebrate Plastic Free July in 2023 on this blog, we focused on a few ‘atypical tips’ for reducing plastic pollution by highlighting some common, non-intuitive sources of plastic. This year, we’ll similarly focus on a source of plastic pollution that you may find surprising—clothing and other textiles.

As always, please remember that ISTC does not endorse, either explicitly or implicitly, any particular manufacturer, vendor, product, or service. Information about specific products, manufacturers or vendors is provided for reference only.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), about 60% of material made into clothing is plastic, including polyester, acrylic, and nylon textiles. Every time we wash these clothes, they shed plastic microfibers, a form of microplastics, which are up to five millimeters in size. Think of emptying the lint trap of your dryer; clothes shed material in the washing machine as well but are released along with the wastewater. While water treatment plants can remove a majority of these fibers from water, plants vary in their removal efficacy and none can remove 100% of these tiny particles. Some make their way into the environment when the treated water is discharged to lakes or rivers, or via the collected sludge (aka “biosolids”) from treatment plants, which is sometimes applied to agricultural fields as fertilizer.

Textiles are also increasingly being treated as disposable goods. “Fast fashion” is defined as “an approach to the design, creation, and marketing of clothing fashions that emphasizes making fashion trends quickly and cheaply available to consumers.” This typically means individual articles of clothing are of low quality and likely to wear out quickly, at which point they’re discarded (too often in landfills) and replaced by new inexpensive, less durable items. According to the Illinois Materials Management Advisory Committee Report to the General Assembly (2021), 279,188 tons of clothing were disposed of in Illinois landfills in 2018, along with 235,523 tons of “other textiles.” In that same year, the U.S. EPA reported that nearly 17 million tons of textile waste were generated nationwide, with 11.3 million of those tons going to landfills (3.2 million tons were combusted). The recycling rate for all textiles was 14.7 percent in 2018, with 2.5 million tons recycled. So although clothing and other textiles aren’t “single-use” plastics, they are examples of materials that are not necessarily built to last that contribute to the release of plastics into the environment.

So what can you do to reduce plastic pollution from textiles?

Resist fast fashion and reduce consumption. In general, reduce the amount of clothing you buy. Think about what items you really need and will wear repeatedly, and avoid accumulating more clothes than you can reasonably use. Choose versatile separates that can be paired with multiple other items in your wardrobe to create different outfits. When you must buy something, look for items that are durable and well-made. This will often (but not always!) mean that you’ll invest more money up-front. However, if you need to replace items less frequently, that investment will pay off in the long run. Check out Good on You’s guide to choosing clothes that last, and The Luxe Strategist’s detailed ‘An Actually Practical Guide to Shopping for High-Quality Clothes’.

Second-hand first.  When you do buy clothing, consider used but “new to you” items. Participate in clothing swaps with friends or community members. Shop at thrift stores, consignment shops, or online resellers in search of those interchangeable and durable pieces mentioned above. The Luxe Strategist guide referenced above points out that truly vintage (pre-1970s) clothes are “built like tanks, and the differences between those and lower-quality clothes from today are unmistakable.” Extending the useful lives of textiles that have already been manufactured is important to reduce the demand for new items, keep existing clothing out of landfills, and conserve the embodied resources (e.g. energy, water, labor, etc.) that went into manufacturing those items. Fewer newly produced clothes mean fewer new plastics required to meet consumer demands.

Choose responsibly produced new items, made from non-synthetic fibers whenever possible. This may sound relatively simple, but if you’re concerned about sustainability in general, it’s important to acknowledge that a lot of resources and potentially harmful chemicals go into the production and harvesting of natural, non-synthetic fibers (e.g., cotton, silk, wool, etc.) as well as their processing, dyeing, and distribution. So keeping sourcing and production in mind will always be advisable. If you’re not able to find the particular item you need made from natural fibers, then the next best option would be items resulting from textile-to-textile recycling, as a way to increase demand for responsible management of textiles at the end of their first life. Even better if you find items made from recycled natural fibers! It can feel overwhelming to try to navigate the various factors involved in sustainable production, so check out this recent article from CNN Underscored highlighting 15 sustainable clothing brands, as well as Good On You’s explanation of the relative impacts of various clothing materials, including plant-based, animal-derived, and synthetics. In general, certified B Corporations meet standards for environmental and social impacts, so clothing and textile brands with this certification might be deemed preferable.

Consider your laundry routine and repair your textiles. Fewer chores are a good thing–for you and the environment! One of the simplest steps you can take to reduce plastic pollution is to launder your clothing and textiles less frequently. Fewer trips through the wash cycle mean fewer plastic particles sent down the drain. Plus, you’ll save water and electricity and your clothes won’t wear out as quickly! Unless you’ve sweat profusely, been exposed to harsh elements, or participated in a particularly dirty job like digging or painting, your outer garments might be able to be aired out and worn at least one additional time before getting tossed in the laundry basket. Check out Real Simple’s guide on how frequently to wash various types of clothing. When you do laundry, use cold water unless you have deeply soiled items. Cold water is effective at getting laundry clean, and research has shown that colder wash cycles result in decreased microfiber generation.

Returning to the notion of cleaning your lint trap, air-drying clothes is another option for reducing wear that leads to microfiber shedding.

Mending rips, patching worn spots, replacing buttons, and otherwise altering clothing are great ways to keep your textiles in service for longer, which can reduce the need for new synthetics and keep plastics out of landfills and the environment. If you’re not skilled with a needle, support the local economy by taking your items to a tailoring and alteration shop. If you’re willing to do it yourself but lack experience, an abundance of online guides and videos can help you learn basic techniques. For example, see “Simple Ways To Mend Your Clothing Without A Sewing Machine.”

Trap or filter microfibers released in your washing machine, and consider the washer itself. There are ways to minimize the plastic pollution drained from your washer. First, if you’re in the market for a new washing machine, consider a front-loader. According to Energy Star, not only are these machines more resource efficient, but they’re gentler on clothes, resulting in less microplastic shedding.

Low-tech in-wash plastic pollution reduction options include using a device to collect loose fibers in the wash water, like the Cora Ball, or washing your synthetic fabrics inside garment bags, so you can manually remove collected fibers and put them in the trash. High-tech options include external filters that can be attached to your existing washing machine, or the emerging technology of washing machines with a built-in filter. France became the first country to regulate plastic microfiber pollution from laundry by adopting a law that will require new washers to have microfiber filters by 2025, so such machines will hopefully become increasingly commonplace.

When they can no longer be used, recycle your textiles. When your clothing and other textiles are no longer useful, don’t send them to the landfill! Check with your local government for area textile recycling options or consult the Illinois Recycling Foundation directory. If options aren’t available in your area, consider a mail-in take-back program.

Learn more

Celebrate World Environment Day & Pollinator Week through mindful yard maintenance

If you enjoy gardening, or own or rent a home with a yard, you’ve probably already begun regular work to improve and maintain your outdoor haven. This June you can celebrate both World Environment Day (June 5) and Pollinator Week 2024 (June 17-23) as part of your outdoor efforts while also supporting native and resilient habitats.

World Environment Day announcement imageWorld Environment Day is observed on June 5th annually. The event began in 1973 and has been led by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) since its inception. Its purpose is to inspire positive change and raise awareness around important environmental challenges. Each year, a different country plays “host” to the celebration and a different theme is the focus of global outreach efforts. In 2024, Saudi Arabia is the host country and the theme is land restoration, desertification, and drought resilience under the slogan “Our land. Our future. We are #GenerationRestoration.” UNEP’s announcement of the theme explains that it reflects this year as the 30th anniversary of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. The sixteenth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP 16) to the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) will be held in the Saudi capital, Riyadh, December 2-13, 2024. According to the UN Convention to Combat Desertification, up to 40 percent of land on Earth is degraded, impacting half of the world’s population and threatening roughly half of global GDP (US$44 trillion). The number and duration of droughts have increased by 29 percent since 2000, and without urgent action, droughts may affect over three-quarters of the world’s population by 2050.

Although drought and desertification may feel like issues faced in distant realms, especially given the amount of precipitation we’ve received in Illinois within the past month, drier conditions and increasing odds of worsening drought are challenges faced in many parts of the U.S. due to climate change. In fact, 2023 was a much warmer and drier year than normal in Illinois, and the 2012 drought was a relatively recent example of a severe drought occurring in our state. While Illinois is not currently experiencing drought, multiple areas in the U.S. are already facing moderate to extreme drought conditions, according to U.S. Drought Monitor.

Those of us who have yards to manage can show our solidarity with areas facing drought and desertification by including native plants in our landscaping. These plants tend to require less water to maintain because they’re suited to local conditions and have extensive root systems. They also contribute to habitat restoration and conservation for local insects and other wildlife, making them especially useful for #GenerationRestoration.

The University of Illinois Extension offers advice on “Plants for Dry Areas,” and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources also offers plant suggestions for a native garden. “Illinois Native Plants for the Home Landscape” is a resource available from the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. Wild Ones Illinois Prairie Chapter offers a wealth of resources on landscaping with native plants, gardening for birds or other wildlife, creating pollinator gardens, information on specific native plants, and creating/restoring native habitat in your yard.

2024 Pollinator Week LogoConsidering native plants can also be part of your observance of Pollinator Week, scheduled to occur June 17-23, 2024. Pollinator Week is an annual celebration in support of pollinator health that was initiated and is managed by Pollinator Partnership. This year’s theme is, “Vision 2040: Thriving ecosystems, economies, and agriculture.” According to the event website, “This year’s event urges us to envision a future where pollinators not only survive but thrive. These essential creatures, including bees, butterflies, moths, bats, beetles, and hummingbirds, are the unsung heroes behind the food we enjoy and the beauty that surrounds us. As we reflect on the interconnectedness of our world, let’s unite in a collective effort to protect and preserve these crucial pollinators.” Further, “Pollinators provide pollination services to over 180,000 different plant species and more than 1200 crops. That means that 1 out of every three bites of food you eat is there because of pollinators. If we want to talk dollars and cents, pollinators add 217 billion dollars to the global economy, and honey bees alone are responsible for between 1.2 and 5.4 billion dollars in agricultural productivity in the United States. In addition to the food that we eat, pollinators support healthy ecosystems that clean the air, stabilize soils, protect from severe weather, and support other wildlife.” With all that pollinators do for our species and society, the least we can do is incorporate their needs into our garden and landscaping plans! “Pollinator Garden: Native Plants for Attracting Pollinators,” is a great resource developed by Extension and the Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. Extension also offers a pollinator plant selection tool for various conditions.

Other considerations for drought-resilient, pollinator-friendly landscaping

  • If you don’t already, consider home composting. Not only will you be able to manage yard and food waste on-site, but you’ll create a natural soil amendment that will reduce the need for chemical fertilizers (protecting pollinators, other wildlife, pets, and humans from exposure to potential hazards), and also improve the ability of the soil to retain moisture. Check out last month’s post on International Compost Awareness Week for more information.
  • Consider reducing the amount of lawn in your yard, replacing it with native plants that will support native pollinators and other wildlife. Beyond adding to local resiliency to drought and other environmental challenges, this could have the added benefits of saving you time and money by reducing your need to mow or care for grass with water and fertilizer. Illinois Extension offers suggestions for groundcovers for IL landscapes.
  • Capture rainwater. Reduce your demand for local tap water by setting up rain barrels. In damp areas of your property, consider the installation of a rain garden to naturally manage flooding and reduce associated soil erosion.
  • Use Integrated Pest Management (IPM). Minimize your need for chemical control of pests by employing IPM techniques, such as creating habitat for beneficial insects, such as ladybugs or lacewings, that will prey upon common garden pests such as aphids or mites. See this guide for some tips.
  • Consider electric alternatives to lawn equipment to reduce air pollution and GHG emissions. For areas that still require mowing or trimming, consider electric equipment to reduce emissions associated with using gasoline. This will in general be better for our shared environment and might have the added benefit of less noise to disrupt your outdoor enjoyment, as electric equipment tends to be a little quieter than gas-powered items. Keep in mind that electric items will tend to cost more than gas-powered items, so you’ll want to weigh options and consider how much you need a particular item. You might end up deciding to share tools with neighbors to avoid owning something you only occasionally use. Consumer Reports offers some advice and five reasons why battery-powered tools may be the right choice for you. (Note that these links are provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as endorsements by ISTC or the University of Illinois).

Celebrate International Compost Awareness Week May 5-11, 2024

Poster for ICAW 2024, showing an illustration of a compost bin in an outdoor scene. The Earth is cradled among the compost in the bin and the bin is labelled "Nature's Climate Champion."

International Compost Awareness Week (ICAW) is celebrated annually during the first full week of May and is a time to learn more about composting organic wastes (e.g. landscape wastes and food scraps) as part of fostering healthier soil and reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), food waste is the “most common material sent to landfills nationwide, comprising 24.1 percent of municipal solid waste. When yard trimmings, wood and paper/paperboard are added to food, these organic materials comprise 51.4 percent of municipal solid waste in landfills.” Within landfills, organic materials decompose without the presence of oxygen (anaerobically), resulting in the generation of methane, which is a potent GHG. Reducing the generation of organic wastes and composting them when their generation can’t be avoided are important strategies for combating climate change. Hence the theme of this year’s ICAW: “COMPOST…Nature’s Climate Champion!”

According to the Compost Research & Education Foundation, this year’s theme highlights the role compost plays in fighting climate change. Besides reducing methane generation associated with landfilling organics, returning composted material to the soil ‘serves as a “carbon bank,” helping to store carbon thereby removing it from the atmosphere.’ Enriching soil with compost also reduces the use of synthetic fertilizers, thereby reducing the emissions associated with fertilizer manufacturing. Using compost can also increase our resilience to climate change impacts such as drought or extreme weather. For example, compost increases the capacity of soil to retain moisture, and compost makes soil more resistant to erosion by improving water infiltration, binding soil particles together, and slowing the flow of water through the soil. Thus, stormwater runoff is decreased.

For a list of in-person and virtual events to learn more about and celebrate composting, check out the Illinois Food Scrap & Composting Coalition (IFSCC) ICAW 2024 web page. New events are being added to the page daily, so check back often. If your organization is hosting a relevant event that you’d like to see promoted via IFSCC, submit information via this online form.

For information on getting started with home composting, check out the University of Illinois Extension Composting web pages. Extension also has great information on vermicomposting (using worms to process your organic waste), compost bins, troubleshooting, and answers to common questions.

For suggested children’s books related to composting and soil health, see the IFSCC’s curated list.

The IFSCC website also provides composting information for local governments and a recognition program for organizations and businesses that compost (on-site or via commercial composting services). You can also search for compost pick-up and processing services (available in limited areas of IL).

Happy composting!

ISTC is proud to be a 2024 Food Waste Prevention Week Partner

Proud to be a Food Waste Prevention Week Partner, April 1-7, 2024

Mark your calendars for Food Waste Prevention Week, scheduled to take place April 1-7 this year. 

In 2019 alone, EPA estimates that about 66 million tons of wasted food were generated in the food retail, food service, and residential sectors, and most of this waste (about 60%) was sent to landfills.  Food Waste Prevention Week is a collaborative effort to raise awareness about food waste and its negative impacts on our society and environment, while also sharing resources to help individuals, families, and organizations reduce their own food waste. Because its Technical Assistance Program (TAP) has experience working on food waste reduction and management projects, the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center is proud to be a partner organization for Food Waste Prevention Week for the second year in a row!

Be sure to check ISTC’s social media platforms during April 1-7, as we highlight some of the past and present work TAP is doing related to food waste, as well as facts and resources to help you on your food waste reduction journey. If you’re not already following us on social media, you can connect with us on:

Throughout the week, several partners across the U.S. will host webinars to inspire action to reduce food waste. For example:

  • Closing the Loop. On Monday, April 1, at noon Central, join an informative discussion on what food waste generators can do to sustainably process their waste via on- and off-site composting, biodigesters, anaerobic digesters, etc. Register here.
  • Harnessing the Power of Food Preferences for Overproduction Reduction. Unveil how individual eating preferences can be a game-changer in minimizing food waste in food services. Learn how culinary IDs are the key to precise production while offering diners a better, personalized experience at scale. This webinar will be on April 1 from 1-1:50 PM Central time. Register here.
  • USDA Programs, Investments, and Innovations to Prevent and Reduce Food Loss and Waste. On April 2, from 11 AM to noon Central, join Dr. Jean Buzby (USDA Food Loss and Waste Liaison) and a panel of leaders from across USDA (NIFA, OUAIP, FNS, and ARS) to learn about some of the ways the agency engages in food loss and waste prevention and reduction across the U.S. food supply chain. Register here.
  • Gleaning: Reduce Loss & Waste at the Farm. On April 3 from 3-3:50 PM Central, join the Society of St. Andrew’s experts on gleaning and learn about its impact. They will discuss the benefits of gleaning crops for farmers, local hunger relief agencies, and volunteers alike, the impact of SoSA’s work over 40+ years, and ways to get involved in your locale. Register here.
  • Food Production and Sustainability. This thought-provoking panel discussion of industry experts will explore the industrial perspective of the fight against food waste and share strategies for implementing sustainability without compromising operational effectiveness. Join the discussion April 4th from 10-10:50 AM CDT. Register here.
  • From Food Scraps to Soil Food: Starting a Drop-Off Program in Your Community.​ Learn how East Hampton Compost is growing awareness of food waste, diverting scraps from the waste stream and enriching local soils. A collaboration between ReWild Long Island and the Town of East Hampton, with local high school students staffing drop-off locations and working on outreach. Dive into the dirt to gain valuable insights into the challenges and rewards of piloting an all-volunteer initiative, as well as actionable strategies for starting one in your community. This webinar will be on April 4 from 2-2:50 PM. Register here.

See the Food Waste Prevention Week “Webinars” page for additional webinars scheduled for Food Waste Prevention Week, and learn more about other ways you can get involved at https://www.foodwastepreventionweek.com/get-involved.

What is Pollution Prevention?

US EPA Waste Management Hierarchy including pollution prevention
A version of the U.S. EPA Waste Management Hierarchy showing pollution prevention. See https://www.epa.gov/smm/sustainable-materials-management-non-hazardous-materials-and-waste-management-hierarchy for the more typical version.

September is a time to think about pollution prevention, aka P2, because the third week of September every year is celebrated as Pollution Prevention (P2) Week in the U.S. In 2023, P2 Week will be September 18-22. As you mark your calendar, you may ask yourself—what exactly is pollution prevention, and how can I contribute to the effort?

First, let’s take a moment to consider what pollution itself is. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines pollution as “any substances in water, soil, or air that degrade the natural quality of the environment, offend the senses of sight, taste, or smell, or cause a health hazard. The usefulness of the natural resource is usually impaired by the presence of pollutants and contaminants.” So, pollution is the contamination of the environment by potentially harmful substances. If you think of a polluted environment as analogous to a human body with harmful chemicals in it or disease, then it’s easy to think of pollution prevention as analogous to disease prevention. You’ve probably heard the old quote from Benjamin Franklin, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Although Franklin was talking about the prevention of house fires, in modern times, the phrase has come to be used in the sense of health care. It means that taking preventative measures (e.g., exercising, watching what you eat, getting enough sleep, etc.) is a much more sensible strategy to take, wherever possible, than waiting until disease sets in and then working to treat it. It’s far better to avoid a problem than to have to try to solve the problem afterward.

Thus, pollution prevention is the sensible strategy of preventing the release of harmful substances into the environment, aka source reduction, to avoid the negative impacts of pollution and the cost, time, energy, and other resources that would otherwise need to be expended on environmental clean-up after the fact. Or, as the U.S. EPA states, pollution prevention is “actively identifying equipment, processes, and activities which generate excessive wastes or use toxic chemicals and then making substitutions, alterations, or product improvements.” P2, or source reduction, “is fundamentally different and, where feasible, more desirable than recycling, treatment or disposal. It is often more cost effective to prevent pollution from being created at its source than to pay for control, treatment and disposal of waste products.  When less pollution is created, there are fewer impacts to human health and the environment.”

P2 practices for manufacturing and industrial sectors might entail using less toxic cleaners, less hazardous ingredients or process inputs, conserving energy and water, and reducing waste through the reuse of materials such as drums or pallets. Manufacturers and supporting industries in Illinois can also contact the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC ) Technical Assistance Program (TAP) to learn more about U.S. EPA-funded P2 assistance available free of charge to members of the aerospace, automotive, chemical, food and beverage, and metal manufacturing and fabrication sectors. See https://uofi.box.com/s/ypoep56408o4kk5pl0qpt2ojpwyo82qh and https://uofi.box.com/s/1crril27e0td9nd3j3njgh49mzoom0q5 for details.

The principles of P2 can be applied to any sector or effort and in homes and schools. It’s all about more efficient use of valuable resources, such as energy and water, using less-toxic materials and products, and avoiding the generation of waste so you don’t have to deal with as many disposal considerations. So, if you practice waste reduction by eliminating disposable products and single-use plastics, if you purchase and use energy-efficient appliances and weatherize your home for the winter, if you look for and fix leaky pipes or faucets, or if you use safer cleaners, you’re practicing P2!

Use the following resources to learn more about P2 and how you can contribute to “preventative medicine” for environmental health and our collective human health which depends upon a healthy environment.

Celebrate Plastic-Free July: Atypical tips to reduce your use of single-use plastics

Plastic Free July Badge

In a 2017 article in the journal Science Advances, researchers Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck, and Kara Lavender Law estimated that as of 2015 “approximately 6300 Mt of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment. If current production and waste management trends continue, roughly 12,000 Mt of plastic waste will be in landfills or in the natural environment by 2050.” With microplastics having been detected in virtually every habitat on Earth, including the ocean floor, and in a variety of organisms, including humans, it’s easy to understand why the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released a draft National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution, as described in a previous post (Note: The deadline for the public comment period has been extended to July 31, 2023, so don’t miss out on the chance to read the strategy and provide feedback). It’s also easy to understand why delegates from nearly 180 countries came together in Paris recently, to discuss what would be the first legally binding global treaty to reduce plastic pollution. The first draft of that treaty is scheduled to be developed by November 2023, with a goal of having a final agreement in force by 2025.

For a dozen years now, people have taken time in July to consider ways they might help stem the tide of plastic pollution. Plastic Free July is an initiative of the Plastic Free Foundation which began in 2011 and has grown into a global movement to reduce single-use plastic consumption and pollution. You can sign up to take the Plastic Free July Challenge, and receive weekly emails in July to inspire and motivate your plastic reduction efforts. To help get you started the Plastic Free July website offers tips on ways to reduce single-use plastic. You can probably guess some of the tips which have become common mantras among those interested in waste reduction, such as using a refillable mug instead of accepting single-use coffee cups or bringing reusable bags when you go grocery shopping instead of packing your items home in plastic carrier bags. But the tips below might surprise you and inspire you to think about just how ubiquitous single-use plastic has become.

Note: ISTC does not endorse, either explicitly or implicitly, any particular manufacturer, vendor, product, or service. Information about specific products, manufacturers or vendors is provided for reference only.

  • Chew less gum and/or opt for plastic-free alternatives. It may surprise you to know that chewing gum, based on the indigenous tradition of chewing natural rubber called chicle, involves single-use plastic in its actual substance and not just in its packaging. According to the website Plastic Free Shopper, “Most modern chewing gums have what’s known as a gum base which makes up the majority of the chewing gum. This synthetic rubbery substance is commonly made from ingredients including: Butadiene-styrene rubber Isobutylene-isoprene copolymer (butyl rubber); Paraffin (via the Fischer-Tropsch process); Petroleum wax; Polyethylene; Polyisobutylene; Polyvinyl acetate. This synthetic plastic/rubber gum base is mixed with sweeteners and flavourings to make up regular chewing gum as we know it. Ingredients such as Polyethylene and Polyvinyl acetate are both common forms of plastic. Polyethylene is found in items such as plastic bottles and food containers, and Polyvinyl acetate is used in glues and adhesives.” So, when people spit their gum out on the sidewalk, they’re not just littering and setting the innocent up for sticky shoes–they’re also contributing to plastic pollution. If you enjoy chewing gum, a simple way to reduce your single-use plastic consumption is to opt for brands made with natural chicle, such as Simply Gum or Glee, among others.
  • Take plastic out of your water filtration equation. If you’re avoiding water in disposable plastic bottles, odds are you might be using a reusable bottle or pitcher with a filter. However, the more popular units for this purpose still incorporate plastic in the filters. In October 2022, editors of The Good Trade shared their top five plastic-free water filtration options. It should be noted that most of these are pretty pricey and the filter cartridges for the plastic-free vessels still tend to incorporate some small amount of plastic. But the Kishu charcoal stick option is quite affordable, completely plastic-free, and after its days as a water filter are over, the sticks can be composted, put out in your garden, or reused to absorb odors in your refrigerator.
  • Quit smoking—or encourage a friend or family member to do so if you’re a non-smoker. There are obvious health-related reasons to do this, but did you know that cigarette butts are the most common form of plastic pollution? A 2019 review article in Environmental Research explained that “Cigarette butts (CB) are the most frequent form of personal item found on beaches. Yearly, 6 trillion cigarettes are smoked worldwide, and 4.5 trillion cigarettes are littered in the environment.” Once they have become litter, cigarette butts degrade into microplastics. E-cigarettes and plastic vape cartridges also contribute to the plastic pollution problem, as well as contributing to the burgeoning tide of e-waste (that’s another post for another day). Learn more at “Plastics, the Environment, and the Tobacco Industry,” an online resource from the University of Bath.
  • Dispose of pet poo without plastics. If you have a dog, or a cat whose litter box needs to be scooped, disposable plastic bags are probably a commonly used tool. It’s definitely important to pick up your dog’s poo during a walk (see this article from The Guardian and this page from the Dooloop website for more on the environmental impacts of your best friend’s excrement), but there are ways to take care of this business with less petroleum-based plastic. The Dog People list their choices for plant-based pet waste bags that are “compostable under the right conditions.” If you have a yard with available space, you might also consider a separate compost pile or bin for pet waste (avoid using this compost on your fruit or vegetable garden to prevent the spread of parasites, but feel free to fertilize your flowers and other ornamental plants). Doogie Dooley offers in-ground digester systems for breaking down dog waste (they’re not compatible with cat waste, sadly), and though all incorporate plastic lids, there is a model with a steel tank. I Love a Clean San Diego also highlights some pooper scoopers and disposal tips that allow you to pick up waste without using a dedicated plastic bag.
  • Reduce your use of laser printers and copiers when possible. We all know that printer ink and toner cartridges contribute to the plastic waste stream, so many of us recycle our spent cartridges and purchase remanufactured ones to reduce consumption of virgin plastics. But did you ever stop to think about what laser printer and copier toner is made of? Spoiler alert—toner is mostly made of plastic. We’ve all seen reminders to print documents or emails only when necessary to save paper, but it turns out, this is a good tip to avoid plastic consumption too. If you’ve ever added shredded office paper or junk mail printed on non-slick paper to your compost bin, you might reconsider and put those in the paper recycling bin instead. Toner starts out as a collection of microplastics, so when that printed paper breaks down in a compost pile, you might be inadvertently releasing those into your environment. This Federal Electronics Challenge resource from the US EPA includes tips for reducing paper and ink usage. See this post from CDW on the differences between ink and toner, and you might also consider bio-based toner options available in your country. Some of these reduce the amount of petroleum-based plastic involved by using powder made from soybean oil. Some bio-based toners also use a percentage of bio-plastics for the cartridges themselves, such as https://pelikan-printing.com/biobased and https://www.union-tec.com/print-rite-bio-based-toner-cartridges/.

This post is already quite long, so we’ll stop at five tips, but there are many more ways to reduce single-use plastics. What are your favorites? Share your thoughts on social media.

Help #BeatPlasticPollution on World Environment Day June 5th

World Environment Day 2023 banner

World Environment Day (WED) is an annual event celebrated on June 5th which raises awareness of environmental issues and encourages people across the globe to take action to protect our shared environment. The United Nations (UN) General Assembly designated June 5th as World Environment Day in 1972, marking the first day of the Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment. That same day, they adopted another resolution creating the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). UNEP coordinated the first celebration of WED in 1973, and it has led celebrations ever since. This year’s theme is #BeatPlasticPollution, shining a light on this worldwide issue (see past themes at https://www.worldenvironmentday.global/about/history). This year’s host country is Côte d’Ivoire in partnership with the Netherlands. Since 2014, Côte d’Ivoire has banned the use of plastic bags, supporting a shift to reusable packaging, and the country’s largest city, Abidjan, has also become a hub for environmentally minded start-ups.

As described in a previous post, plastics, including micro- and nanoplastics, are ubiquitous in our environment, even leaking from plastic recycling facilities. Microplastics are found in a variety of organisms, including humans. Recognizing the need for action, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency released a draft National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution in April and is seeking public comment through June 16, 2023.

On its WED website, UNEP provides a Beat Plastic Pollution Practical Guide, with recommendations for individuals; non-governmental organizations, faith organizations, and community groups; science and education organizations; governments; cities, towns, and local authorities; investors; and businesses and industry. The guide outlines how plastic pollution affects us, the sources of plastic pollution, what progress is being made, and what more needs to be done to address the situation.

Cover page of UNEP "Turning off the Tap" reportThe WED website also links to an interactive lesson on the plastic pollution problem and the UNEP report, Turning off the Tap: How the world can end plastic pollution and create a circular economy, which was released on May 16, 2023. This report examines the economic and business models needed to address the impacts of the plastics economy. UNEP suggests “a systems change to address the causes of plastic pollution, combining reducing problematic and unnecessary plastic use with a market transformation towards circularity in plastics. This can be achieved by accelerating three key shifts – reuse, recycle, and reorient and diversify – and actions to deal with the legacy of plastic pollution.” They explain that “reorient and diversify” “refers to shifting the market towards sustainable plastic alternatives, which will require a shift in consumer demand, regulatory frameworks and costs.”

Finally, the WED site provides relevant news, updates related to this year’s celebration, an opportunity to register your organization’s relevant events or activities, and links to other UNEP reports related to the global plastic pollution problem.

What strategies do you use to reduce plastic consumption and pollution? Share your thoughts on social media this June 5th with the hashtag #BeatPlasticPollution. You can connect with UNEP on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram.

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Registration open for International Compost Awareness Week (ICAW) events

ICAW 2023 graphic

The Illinois Food Scrap & Composting Coalition (IFSCC), a non-profit organization that advances the diversion and composting of all organics in the state, has announced its International Compost Awareness Week (ICAW) 2023 programming. ISTC is an organizational member of IFSCC and the Technical Assistance Program’s zero waste team is actively involved in IFSCC and its committees.

ICAW is the largest and most comprehensive education initiative of the global compost community. The 2023 ICAW theme is “For Healthier Soil … Healthier Food, Compost!” and the 2023 dates are Sunday, May 7 – Saturday, May 13. Learn more about ICAW on the Compost Research and Education Foundation website.

Since 2021, the IFSCC has planned robust ICAW programming that combines in-person and hands-on experiences with virtual discussions and presentations to reach diverse and widespread audiences at all stages of life and composting experience. The 2023 line-up includes a day of “Adventures in Composting” with farmers, gardeners, and backyard composters around the state; a virtual International Cafe at which composting stories from around the world will be shared; a virtual Legislative Lunch & Learn; and multiple opportunities throughout the week to attend library programs and obtain finished compost.

Visit https://illinoiscomposts.org/icaw-2023/ to learn more. This page on the IFSCC website includes:

  • An expandable schedule of events, event map, and registration links for virtual events;
  • A toolkit for libraries throughout IL to use for relevant programming during ICAW;
  • Links to further information on international ICAW activities;
  • Links to connect with ICAW on social media;
  • Highlights from last year’s programming, including recordings of virtual events; and
  • Bios for the co-chairs of the IFSCC ICAW planning committee, Kate Caldwell and Merleanne Rampale.

Finally, if you’re new to composting, check out this recent blog post from TAP, which includes resources for a variety of home composting methods: https://green-lunchroom.istc.illinois.edu/2023/04/05/composting-at-home-videos-upcoming-webinars-other-resources-for-beginners/.

ICAW info poster from IFSCC

ISTC is proud to be a 2023 Food Waste Prevention Week Partner

Food Waste Prevention Week Partner logo

Mark your calendars for Food Waste Prevention Week, scheduled to take place April 10-16 this year. In 2018 alone, EPA estimates that about 63 million tons of wasted food were generated in the commercial, institutional, and residential sectors. Food Waste Prevention Week is a collaborative effort to raise awareness about food waste and its negative impacts on our society and environment, while also sharing resources to help individuals, families, and organizations reduce their own food waste. Because its Technical Assistance Program (TAP) has experience working on food waste reduction and management projects, the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center is proud to be a partner organization for Food Waste Prevention Week!

Be sure to check ISTC’s social media platforms during April 10-16th, as we highlight some of the past and present work TAP is doing related to food waste. We’ll also share links to relevant blog posts, websites, videos, and other resources to help you on your food waste reduction journey. If you’re not already following us on social media, you can connect with us on:

Throughout the week, several partners across the U.S. will host webinars to inspire action to reduce food waste. For example:

  • Local Solutions: Food Waste Prevention Week. On Monday, April 10 at noon Central time, join the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) for a presentation featuring Food For the Soul, Hamilton County R3Source, Food Shift, and Alameda County StopWaste. County recycling experts and food rescuers will talk about valuing food, ensuring good food gets eaten, and how they share their stories with the community. Register here.
  • The Sustainable Management of Food on the U.S.-México Border. On Wednesday, April 12 at 12:30 PM Central, U.S. EPA Region 9 will present on food waste prevention, recovery, and recycling strategies, policies, and practices for and by border-adjacent communities. Register here.
  • School Food Recovery: Inventory Management, Share Tables, Smarter Lunchrooms and Food Donations. Also on April 12, at 1 PM Central, you can learn about food recovery in Florida schools. Guest speakers from Orange County Public Schools will provide key takeaways from their efforts to increase consumption, decrease waste, and donate excess food. Register here. [Note: Topics covered relate to TAP’s past Green Lunchroom Challenge project and efforts on a food waste reduction toolkit for IL Schools, though neither ISTC nor the Wasted Food Action Alliance is involved in planning or presenting this webinar.]
  • Food Rescue 101 for Commercial Kitchens. From 11 AM to noon Central on April 12, zero-waste specialist and Careit CEO Alyson Schill takes restaurants, food-based nonprofits, institutions, and other kitchen staff on a journey of food waste in commercial food establishments. Participants will learn: Why reducing food waste benefits businesses and communities; techniques to reduce food loss; successful food donation with the Careit app; and how to compost the rest for healthy soils. Register at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/food-waste-prevention-rescue-and-composting-101-tickets-591691664697[Note: The topics covered in this webinar relate to an ongoing collaborative effort between TAP and UI Extension focused on greater Chicagoland, though neither of those organizations is involved in planning or presenting this webinar.]

See https://www.foodwastepreventionweek.com/webinars for additional webinars scheduled for Food Waste Prevention Week, and learn more about other ways you can get involved at https://www.foodwastepreventionweek.com/get-involved.