Holiday gifts with sustainability in mind

Alma mater and block-I shaped cookies on a plate among other cookies
Illinois-themed Alma Mater and Block I holiday cookies. Credit: UI Public Affairs, Fred Zwicky.

Whichever winter holiday(s) you observe, odds are ‘tis the season for gift giving. Even if you don’t observe any of the major winter holidays, you’ll surely think about gifts at some point in the near future to celebrate a special occasion. If you’d like to align your gifts with sustainable values, the following ideas and resources might be helpful. Please note that links and companies mentioned in this post are for informational purposes only, and should not be construed as endorsements by ISTC, the Prairie Research Institute, or the University of Illinois.

Give an Experience

Many of us are fortunate enough to have plenty of “stuff” already, and if that’s the case for your intended recipient, consider an alternative to giving them more material goods. Experiences can often be more meaningful and personalized than physical gifts and presenting them can be an opportunity to start a conversation about consumption and its impacts on resource use, though one should not equate gifting experiences with avoiding consumption. Experiences still involve the use of material goods and consumption of resources; e.g., cooking someone their favorite dinner still requires the use of cookware, energy, and ingredients that themselves require natural resources to grow, raise, or manufacture. However, some gifted experiences may use items or resources that you or your recipient already own or would consume regardless of the special occasion. Continuing the previous example, you’re not likely to buy new pots or appliances to cook dinner, and since your recipient would need to eat anyway, there would always be impacts associated with the ingredients for the meal. Of course, other experiences may involve situations outside normal day-to-day circumstances that necessitate the use of resources (e.g., fuel for travel) we would not otherwise consume. Taking a spouse on a dream vacation or treating your best friend to a concert performance by their favorite band are examples. In such instances, it’s important to remember that giving an experience is less about avoiding resource use than shifting human attitudes and focus. The goal when gifting an experience is not to completely avoid consumption–we all consume resources as part of being alive. Rather, giving an experience shifts the focus away from material items as ends in themselves toward human interactions and the associated memories that will endure longer than most physical gifts possibly could. Memories are durable gifts! As a person who cares about sustainability, you can still try to incorporate responsible consumption into the equation if possible—perhaps by using local, sustainably harvested ingredients for the special dinner you’re preparing, buying carbon off-sets for the travel to that dream destination, or taking public transportation to the concert. The key is sharing or fostering experiences fulfills the human need for authentic connection rather than human desires for material goods, and reinforces the idea that relationships matter more than stuff. Valuing relationships between living things (in this case between people) is essential to thinking about ecosystems and the mindset that humans are a part of, rather than apart from, the rest of the natural world. Valuing relationships/connections can build a foundation for more sustainable behavior.

Give to Charity

Another option is to make a donation in honor of your loved one to a charitable organization that resonates with their interests and values. If you aren’t already aware of a specific group dear to their heart, you can search Charity Navigator at https://www.charitynavigator.org/ to find organizations by cause. The results display ratings, if Charity Navigator has adequate information to calculate one, based on “the cost-effectiveness and overall health of a charity’s programs, including measures of stability, efficiency, and sustainability.” You can filter the results by ratings, different aspects of performance (called “Beacons” on the site), state, organization size, and other factors. For example, I entered the term “sustainability” into the site’s search bar with the state filter “IL.” Charity Navigator also produces curated lists of charities, including “Where to Give Now,” “Popular Charities,” and “Best Charities.” As examples, check out the List of Best Women’s Charities, the “Where to Give Now” list for the Hawaii Wildfires, the List of Most Popular Charities. You can of course always enter keywords into Google or another search engine, but you might appreciate having Charity Navigator do some of the virtual “leg work” for you and having their expert analysis.

Note that your donation need not be monetary—you could donate your time or skills through volunteering. You might use your social media experience to help with promotion and online engagement for the literacy program for which your wife works, for example. You might even combine supporting a good cause important to your loved one with gifting an experience. For example, you might arrange to volunteer with an animal-loving friend at the local Humane Society shelter or pick up litter with your dad at his favorite nature preserve.

Give Gifts that Foster Reuse and Waste Reduction

Maybe you want to give your favorite waste reduction wonk items to help them get closer to the ideal of zero generation, but all you can think of are reusable coffee cups and cloth grocery bags which you know they already own. Here are some ideas and lists from which to draw inspiration.

Give Gifts that Reduce Dependence on Fossil Fuels

Friends don’t let friends rack up avoidable greenhouse gas emissions. Consult the following guides for some quick tips.

Give Gifts Free of PFAS

According to PFAS Central, a project of the Green Science Policy Institute, “PFAS, sometimes referred to as PFCs or highly fluorinated chemicals, are used in many consumer products and industrial applications because of their oil-, stain-, and water-repellent properties. Examples of chemicals in this class include PFOA, PFOS, and more than 3000 related compounds. The most studied of these substances is a chemical called PFOA, which is linked to kidney and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility, and thyroid problems and decreased immune response to vaccines in children. The most studied of these substances is a chemical called PFOA, which is linked to kidney and testicular cancer, elevated cholesterol, decreased fertility, and thyroid problems and decreased immune response to vaccines in children.” PFAS persist in the environment and pollute even the most remote places. Check out ISTC’s information and work on PFAS. This recent video from Bloomberg tells the fascinating story of how one woman uncovered how PFAS pollution became prevalent in her area.

So, these substances are clearly bad news for human and environmental health, but they’re in lots of consumer products—how can you help friends and family avoid exposure? Check out https://pfascentral.org/pfas-free-products/ for a list of PFAS-free outdoor gear, apparel, shoes, personal care products, baby gear, furniture, food ware, carpets and rugs, textiles, and home maintenance products.

ISTC provides food waste technical assistance to small businesses in Chicagoland

Compost from spilled food waste on the ground. Image source: Grisha Bruev/Canva
Image source: Grisha Bruev/Canva

In the fall of 2022, University of Illinois Extension received funding from the Extension Foundation USDA-NIFA New Technologies in Ag Extension (NTAE) program for the expansion of its “Building a Culture of Composting in Greater Chicagoland” project. The goal was to divert food scraps and organic waste from landfills through educational efforts on the benefits of composting. Extension asked the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center’s Technical Assistance Program (TAP) to partner with them to provide food waste technical assistance to small businesses in the Chicagoland area.

TAP recruited five small businesses to receive assistance in communities overburdened by environmental issues and lacking resources. TAP’s zero waste team did an initial on-site assessment for each business, followed by a food waste audit. Then they prepared a report and worked with each company to help them implement recommendations. Participants were eligible for up to five months of funding to contract with a commercial compost hauling service.

The four companies that contracted with the commercial compost hauler said that they would continue paying for the service after the grant funding expired. The businesses also identified implementation challenges that they faced. These included lack of physical space in the kitchen, consistent communication between staff, and lack of a champion to lead their food waste reduction efforts.

Read the new case study.

Resources for Recycling Expanded Polystyrene

Photo by Caleb Lucas on Unsplash

Expanded polystyrene, or EPS, is a lightweight, closed-cell plastic foam used in a variety of products, including coolers, insulated beverage cups, takeout containers, building insulation, etc. This differs from extruded polystyrene (XPS), which is typically formed into rigid panels used for building insulation, mainly in terms of how it is manufactured, but also in terms of thermal protection, moisture resistance, and strength. Styrofoam is a brand name of XPS insulation manufactured by DuPont. Despite these differences, the similar products have become synonymous in the minds of most people, and just as certain brand names for facial tissue and bandages eventually became the common terms for those products, most people refer to EPS products as “Styrofoam.” In this blog post, when you read “EPS” or “expanded polystyrene,” know that this refers to the materials you likely think of as “Styrofoam” packaging–though DuPont would be quick to point out they’re not the same thing!

For several years, departments at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have been encouraged to recycle EPS at a drop-off location just outside the Dart Container plant in Urbana, IL. Recycling EPS is often not economically feasible basically because foam packaging is mostly air, and the fuel needed to ship large amounts of the bulky, lightweight material for processing would often not be offset by money obtained by selling it. Dart manufactures EPS products however, and thus, accepting and recycling it is in line with a sense of extended producer responsibility for the management of those products at their end-of-life, especially since EPS pollution famously takes hundreds of years to break down in the environment. The Urbana Dart plant used equipment to heat, extrude, and compress foam packaging into blocks of material that could be used for products such as picture frames, surfboards, or park benches. This YouTube video shows a similar operation in a California plant.

Earlier this year, however, Dart unfortunately announced that the Urbana plant would be closing by the end of 2023. While this is tragic mainly due to the loss of jobs and the potential blow to the local economy, it also means the loss of an outlet many people relied upon to keep EPS packaging out of the landfill. In fact, the City of Champaign ‘Where Do I Recycle It?’ resource reports that Dart closed their Styrofoam drop-off center in Urbana on Friday, September 29, 2023.

Obviously, the best approach, even before the sad news about Dart’s Urbana plant was announced, has always been to avoid EPS products whenever possible precisely because of the difficulties in recycling the material. But avoidance isn’t always possible for consumers, especially since EPS is so widely used in food and beverage packaging, to protect breakable products, and to regulate the temperature of various items during shipping—including items intended for laboratories. So, while alternatives are important to explore (and might be the subject of a future post), this post focuses on options that might help people in Champaign County divert EPS in the near term. Although the inspiration for this post is the change in opportunities to recycle EPS locally, many of the options below are applicable in other parts of the state or U.S.

Other foam drop-off sites (for those not in Champaign County)

To be clear, Dart is not going out of business or closing all its facilities, and the company does still offer public drop-off EPS collection points at various places in the U.S., including elsewhere in IL—just not in the Champaign-Urbana area anymore. To find out whether there’s a Dart public drop-off near you, visit https://www.dartcontainer.com/why-dart/sustainability/foam-recycling and search their map.

The Food Service Packaging Institute’s website includes a map showing EPS foam recycling drop-off sites throughout the U.S. and includes some basic information about foam recycling. See https://www.recyclefoam.org/about-foam-recycling to learn more and to search for a drop-off near you.

Dart’s Next Life Program

Besides their public drop-off collections, in April 2023 Dart also announced a mail-in product take back program called Next Life. This program is restricted to Dart brand products, but it is not restricted to EPS—Dart packaging made from paper (specifically from the Bare by Solo brand), polyethylene terephthalate (PET, #1), polypropylene (PP, #5) and expanded polystyrene (#6 foam) are all acceptable products. This program is not free, or particularly easy, however. To participate, consumers can visit https://take-back.dartcontainer.com/ and indicate which of these three packaging categories they’re interested in recycling. Then “proof of purchase” images must be uploaded, which might be in the form of scanned store receipts, invoices, or product photos. Once the images are uploaded, the consumer must then purchase a “discounted shipping label” by paying for flat rate shipping for the material ($9 for a maximum box size of 20″ x 30″ x 11” when the process was tested during the writing of this post). The purchased label can be printed out and used to ship the items back to Dart.

While this is better than nothing, the process is convoluted and inconvenient for consumers and is restricted to Dart products. Only die-hard individual environmental advocates, or organizations and businesses committed to zero waste, are likely to jump through the necessary hoops and pay to participate. Coupled with efforts to reduce relevant types of waste or avoid them altogether, this program can help keep some remaining unavoidable packaging out of landfills, so it’s worth keeping in mind.

Terracycle Zero Waste Box

If your organization or business generates a fair amount of EPS waste, you may wish to consider Terracycle’s “Styrofoam – Zero Waste Box™” as an option for recycling all sorts of EPS food packaging and shipping waste, so long as there is no food or other organics contamination on the foam. You buy a collection box with a pre-paid shipping label, seal it when full and send it back to Terracycle. This is very convenient but expensive—the box comes in three size options, with the smallest (11”x 11” x 20”)  costing $107. There are discounts for purchasing collection boxes in bulk (15+).

Packing Peanuts (Loose Fill)

EPS foam packing peanuts (aka loose fill packaging) were never accepted as part of Dart’s public recycling drop-off in Urbana. Local shipping businesses may accept them for reuse, however, as long as they’re clean and dry. It’s always advisable to call these companies first to confirm they will accept these before taking any to their location. The City of Champaign “Where Do I Recycle” page suggests contacting the UPS Store on Marketview Drive in Champaign, or CU Pack N Ship (formerly Mail & Parcel Plus). Note that the foam recycling map at https://www.recyclefoam.org/about-foam-recycling, mentioned above, can be searched specifically for loose fill recycling options.

Polystyrene Coolers

Many local laboratories, including those on the University of Urbana-Champaign campus, receive materials in polystyrene coolers. Laboratories should keep in mind that Millipore Sigma has a polystyrene cooler return program for U.S. customers, which is relatively easy and free for the consumer. See https://www.sigmaaldrich.com/US/en/services/support/recycling/polystyrene-cooler-return-program for details.

Several sources related to laboratory waste recycling suggest that New England Biolabs (NEB) have a similar polystyrene cooler take-back program, but that information seems to be out of date because NEB no longer uses EPS coolers. NEB now ships its products in an alternative to EPS, called the ClimaCell® cooler, created in conjunction with TemperPack, which is 100% recyclable. See https://www.neb.com/en-us/tools-and-resources/video-library/introducing-the-neb-climacell-cooler to learn more. If your laboratory or other business ships items that require temperature control, you might consider contacting TemperPack for options that suit your needs. See https://www.temperpack.com/climacell/.

Corning Packaging Take Back

Laboratories should also be aware that Corning will take back all Corning®, Falcon®, or Axygen® product packaging—including EPS centrifuge tube racks. Other acceptable wastes include pipette tip boxes and plastic bags and peelable lidding film paper from cell culture dishes, plates, and flasks, #2 or #4 only. See https://corning.mailthisback.com/ for further details and to print a pre-paid shipping label.

Other Mail-Back Options

Finally, the EPS Industry Alliance has a list of mail-back options at https://static1.squarespace.com/static/62e5bccd5d8f2e718d48d121/t/643ff95d6ef7d36ad9920d25/1686167676074/EPS+Mail+Back+Locations.pdf. There are eight locations in the Midwest region, though none are in IL.

Hopefully, these resources will help you divert unavoidable EPS from landfills. Are you aware of other EPS recycling programs? Share your knowledge with our zero waste team at istc-zerowaste@illinois.edu.

Essential pollution prevention publications to celebrate P2 Week

Pollution Prevention (P2) Week begins on Monday. The 2023 theme is Pollution Prevention Works.

In celebration, this post highlights some classic P2 publications. Although these were originally in the published in the 1990s through early 2000s, they contain a trove of useful information to make P2 work in modern industrial facilities.

Want to learn more? Visit the Pollution Prevention 101 LibGuide for a comprehensive guide to pollution prevention and sustainable business resources.

EPA Sector Notebooks (U.S. EPA, late 1990s)
EPA’s Office of Enforcement and Compliance Assurance (OECA) developed the EPA Sector Notebooks to provide chemical profiles of selected industries. Each profile includes information about the processes conducted in the industry, chemical releases and transfers of chemicals, opportunities for pollution prevention, pertinent federal statutes and regulations, and compliance initiatives associated with the sector. Although these notebooks were published in the late 1990s, they still contain a wealth of information about the production processes, environmental impacts, and pollution prevention options for these sectors.

Facility Pollution Prevention Guide (U.S. EPA, 1992)
For those who are interested in and responsible for pollution prevention in industrial or service facilities. Summarizes the benefits of a company-wide pollution prevention program and suggests ways to incorporate pollution prevention in company policies and practices.

Guide to Industrial Assessments for Pollution Prevention and Energy Efficiency (U.S. EPA, 1990)
Presents an overview of industrial assessments and the general framework for conducting them.  It describes combined assessments for pollution prevention and energy and provides guidance for performing them at industrial or other commercial facilities.

The Industrial Green Game: Implications for Environmental Design and Management (National Academies Press, 1997)
This volume examines industrial circulation of materials, energy efficiency strategies, “green” accounting, life-cycle analysis, and other approaches for preventing pollution and improving performance. Corporate leaders report firsthand on “green” efforts at Ciba-Geigy, Volvo, Kennecott, and Norsk Hydro.

Organizational Guide to Pollution Prevention (U.S. EPA, 2001)
This Pollution Prevention (P2) Guide provides information to help organizations get P2 programs started or to re-evaluate existing P2 programs. It presents an alternative method for working on P2 projects and four approaches to implementing a P2 program in an organization.

Pollution Prevention : A Guide to Project and Program Implementation (Illinois Hazardous Waste Research and Information Center, 1999)
This manual serves as an overview for Illinois businesses of all sizes that have chosen to learn more about developing a pollution prevention program.

Searching for the Profit in Pollution Prevention: Case Studies in the Corporate Evaluation of Environmental Opportunities (U.S. EPA, 1998)
This research was initiated to more fully illuminate the challenges facing industry in the adoption of pollution prevention (P2) opportunities, and to identify issue areas that can be studied and addressed by policy-makers and industry. The case studies in this paper describe three P2 projects that were chosen/or analysis precisely because they were in some way unsuccessful. This analysis, based on a small and non-random sampling, is not necessarily representative of the experiences of all companies or all P2 investment possibilities.

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.

New law fosters farmers’ fresh produce donations to Illinois food banks

With Governor JB Pritzker’s signature on House Bill 2879, the Farm to Food Bank Program has been established in Illinois. The program helps farmers donate their surplus produce to local food banks and assists more than 1 million Illinoisans facing food insecurity. An ongoing three-year Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) effort, which includes a feasibility study and pilot projects, has proven that the program can be successful in Illinois.

“This new law recognizes that we have a lot of residents facing hunger and a lot of surplus food on farms,” said Zach Samaras, ISTC technical assistance engineer and project director. “This program will support farmers with a secondary market, provide local, nutritious food to those in need, and reduce wasted food and wasted resources at the farm.”

The ISTC feasibility study began in 2020 when Feeding Illinois, the association of Feeding America food banks serving the state, commissioned ISTC to discover if the Farm to Food Bank Program is needed, wanted, and achievable in Illinois. ISTC staff visited eight food banks to learn about any existing relationships with local farmers and interviewed organization personnel that manage similar programs in 14 other states. In partnership with the Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Specialty Growers Association, they also surveyed and conducted focus groups with Illinois farmers.

Over 60 percent of farmers surveyed were interested in finding new markets for some or all their commodities. The barriers to donating or selling food to food banks were primarily packing and labor expenses, storage, and transportation. 

In 2022, ISTC coordinated six pilot projects that resulted in donations of nearly 2.5 million pounds of produce that would have otherwise gone to waste, yielding nearly 990,000 meals. Feeding Illinois received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that provided $611,000 to reimburse farmers for some of their expenses incurred in donating produce. 

“We learned from our focus groups that farmers want to donate their surplus food, but that it should not be a burden on them financially to pick produce, package it, and deliver it to food banks,” Samaras said. “This program provides a safety net for farmers so they can grow a few extra acres for their primary markets, knowing that if they don’t sell everything, there is a program that can help them recoup some costs and make sure that the food is going to end up on someone’s plate.”

The newly signed law will invest $2 million to support already strained food banks and the farmers who donate food. The law also provides grants for capital improvements to transport and store food for underserved communities, which often lack the resources for residents to obtain fresh fruits and vegetables.

Links for more information about the feasibility study, Farm to Food Bank survey resultspilot projects, and a 2022 summary report are available on the ISTC Technical Assistance Program website. ISTC is a unit of the Prairie Research Institute at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

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Media contacts: Zach Samaras, 217-265-6723, zsamaras@illinois.edu; Joy Scrogum, 217-333-8948, jscrogum@illinois.edu.

Back-to-School tips for more sustainable supplies

office supplies
Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

It hardly seems possible, but August is just around the corner, and for many K-12 schools and institutions of higher education in Illinois, that means it’s back-to-school season. Whether you’re a parent with a school supply list in hand, a college student preparing for a new semester, or just someone in the market for office supplies, the following suggestions can help you make more sustainable choices as a consumer.

Please note that ISTC does not endorse, either explicitly or implicitly, any manufacturer, brand, vendor, product, or service. Information about specific products, brands, manufacturers, or vendors is provided for reference only and should not be construed as an endorsement. Also, please be aware that this list of suggestions and alternatives to consider is by no means exhaustive and is meant simply to inspire you to be more intentional in your consumption and to consider the impacts of everyday items.

First, shop your own supplies & reuse/use up what you already have.

Parents of elementary-aged children will likely relate to the experience of kids cleaning out their lockers or desks at the end of a school year and bringing home partially used notebooks, used folders, pens, pencils, etc. While it’s possible that some items from the previous academic year are nearly worn out, or that these items might be used up over the summer for non-school activities, it’s also likely that at least some tools and supplies will still have useful life left when it’s time to begin a new school year. Designate a closet, shelf, or storage bin in your home or office to store school or office supplies that aren’t currently in use, so that when you need such supplies, you can quickly check your existing inventory and draw from it before you go shopping. Establishing this habit will save both money and the resources used to manufacture the supplies in question.

Shop for gently or never used supplies at a creative reuse center.

If the items you need aren’t part of your existing inventory, check to see if there is a creative reuse center in or near your community. These centers accept donations of supplies for art and education, as well as non-traditional materials that might be used for arts, crafts, school projects, lessons, and home décor, which would otherwise be sent to the landfill. These “non-traditional materials” might be hard-to-recycle items, or simply objects of visual or textural interest that might be transformed in a creative way. Examples of creative reuse include painting an old tin and using it as a planter, turning fabric scraps into a quilt, or making a collage from colorful buttons, bottle caps, or photos. Donations to creative reuse centers typically come from businesses, manufacturers, local institutions, and members of the general public. Such centers then resell the donated items for profit or to support charitable organizations or initiatives while reducing waste and encouraging reuse. Think of them as thrift stores focused on art and office supplies. Some donated items have never been used. Like checking your own inventory before buying new, shopping at creative reuse centers will not only conserve resources by ensuring products remain in use and out of landfills for as long as possible, but they also typically save consumers money as compared to shopping for brand new items. So, once you’ve checked your own inventory of supplies, check your community’s pool of supplies. Multiple creative reuse centers exist in Illinois. Champaign-Urbana is served by the Idea Store, while the WasteShed operates creative reuse centers in Chicago and Evanston. Chicago is also served by Creative Chicago Reuse Exchange (CCRx). SCARCE serves DuPage County and is in Addison, IL. Springfield residents can shop at the Creative Reuse Marketplace. Keep in mind that other resale shops and thrift stores might also have office supplies, so if your community doesn’t have a creative reuse center, you might still be able to find “new to you” supplies that would otherwise have been wasted. Creative reuse centers can be found throughout the U.S., so if you’re reading this from outside Illinois, do an Internet search for “creative reuse center + [name of your state].”

Choose refurbished devices and remanufactured ink and toner cartridges.

Continuing the theme of reusing existing products before buying new ones, if you’re in the market for a new laptop or other electronic device, consider searching for a certified refurbished device first. While you would be wise to think twice before purchasing “used” items from a complete stranger on a platform like eBay or Craigslist, certified refurbished items have been restored to “like new” condition and verified by technicians to be fully functional. Quality is thus not an issue. But because these items can’t be sold as new, they’re typically available at a discount when compared to genuinely new items. Another win-win for the conservation of resources and money! Many companies such as Best Buy, Dell, or Amazon make it easy for consumers to find refurbished devices in their online stores. The downside of shopping for refurbished tech is that you can’t guarantee you’ll find the exact model or item you’re looking for at the precise time you search; it depends on what is available.

There are also non-profit and for-profit organizations throughout the U.S. which refurbish electronics (typically donated) and resell them at a discounted price to individuals who might otherwise not be able to afford such equipment. These organizations address both social and environmental aspects of sustainability, helping to bridge the digital divide while extending the useful life of products and stemming the ever-growing tide of e-waste. Keeping these entities in mind is great if you or someone you know needs help obtaining a device, or, on the other hand, if you’d like to donate an older device so someone else can benefit from it. You’ll find that reputable businesses in this sector can provide certification of data destruction, so security need not be a concern. Some of these organizations include a job training program, enhancing their positive impacts on communities. Some may also provide electronics recycling services to businesses, responsibly recycling devices that can’t be reused, and refurbishing and redistributing those that can. REcompute began in Champaign-Urbana, IL, and has expanded to Danville, IL, Los Angeles, CA, and is coming soon to Atlanta, GA. PCs for People has ten locations in the U.S., including two in IL (Oak Forest and Belleville). Free Geek began in Portland, OR, and multiple communities in the U.S. and abroad have started their own independent Free Geek organizations. Repowered in St. Paul, MN, is another example.

Remanufactured ink and toner cartridges have been professionally cleaned, refilled, and tested, decreasing demand for the plastics and other materials used to create the cartridges themselves. Life-cycle assessments (LCAs) have even shown that remanufactured cartridges have lower environmental impacts than brand-new cartridges. And again, you’ll save money as well as resources by practicing reuse.

Choose items that are refillable.

If you must buy a brand-new item, look for options that will foster future reuse through refilling. The classic example (and the one most likely to be compatible with K-12 supply lists) is choosing a refillable fountain, gel, or ballpoint pen instead of a disposable one. There are plenty of examples of such pens, but one that also incorporates recycled content is Pilot’s B2P or Bottle 2 Pen. B2P is made from recycled beverage bottles, is available as a ball-point or gel roller, and uses the same ink refill cartridges (available in several colors) that work in several other Pilot pens. For more info, see https://pilotpen.us/FindBrand and select “Bottle 2 Pen B2P” from the drop-down menu. The pens are 86-89% recycled content depending on pen type; product descriptions for the ball points say they are 83% post-consumer recycled material.

Mechanical pencils are a similar refillable option that immediately comes to mind. Bic produces an example of a mechanical pencil with recycled plastic content.

Refillable notebooks give you the compact feel of a spiral-bound notebook, as compared to a bulky three-ring binder, but like binders, allow you to insert new pages as needed or rearrange the order of notes. Some examples include Kokuyo Binder Notebooks, Lihit Lab, Filofax, and Minbok.

Dry erase markers are even available in refillable versions, such as the Pilot V Board Master or those from Auspen. The Stabilo Boss is an example of a refillable highlighter. Permanent markers such as those from Pilot can be refilled. Refillable acrylic markers are also available from brands like Montana. Crayola also has a DIY Marker Maker set, but they unfortunately don’t sell a refill pack. However, these could conceivably be refilled with inks available from other companies.

Choose new items made from recycled materials and look for high PCR content.

If refillable options aren’t available or applicable to some supplies on your list, try to find options made from recycled materials. When comparing options, examine product labels and descriptions for the percentage of “post-consumer recycled” content or “PCR.” These are materials that have been used by consumers and collected via recycling programs, so when you buy a product with the highest amount of PCR you can, you are genuinely “closing the loop” and making recycling effective and economically feasible by helping to create market demand for recycled materials. You’ve probably read articles about materials collected for recycling that ultimately don’t get recycled because there’s a lack of market for the commodities. That sort of thing has led some community recycling collection programs to stop altogether or to stop accepting certain materials. But most of the time, if a recycling collection program accepts a material it’s because they have an outlet for it; it wouldn’t make sense to collect materials that couldn’t be sold. The best things you can do as a consumer is to keep recycling the proper materials accepted by your local program, keep items NOT accepted by your collection program out of your recycling bins (contaminants can indeed ruin batches of materials collected or harm equipment at waste sorting and processing facilities), AND whenever possible, buy items with PCR content. Note that if a product is described as having a certain percentage of recycled content but there’s no mention of PCR, it’s likely that the recycled content is post-industrial (aka pre-consumer) rather than post-consumer. That entails excess materials or trimmings from a manufacturing process used as feedstock for the creation of the same or different products without ever being used by a consumer first (e.g., cardboard trimmings repulped and put back into the process of making boxes). Odds are, if a company has successfully incorporated PCR into their products, they will want to point it out on the label or in the product description/details in online stores. This blog post from EcoEnclose provides a good overview of PCR vs. post-industrial content.

That said, here are just a few examples of common supplies made from PCR (besides those already mentioned above). You can find more by searching the Internet for “PCR content + [product].”

  • Standard (non-mechanical) pencils can be made from recycled newspaper, like these from Amber and Rose.
  • Decomposition notebooks, sketchbooks, and filler paper are made from 100% PCR paper. They also offer refillable ball-point pens made from 90% PCR plastic and three-ring binders made from 85% PCR plastic.
  • Everyday Recycler provides this list of backpacks containing recycled plastic.
  • 100% PCR printer paper is available, such as that from Printworks, AbilityOne, or Target.
  • ACCO paper clips contain 90% recycled materials, 50% of which is PCR.

Hopefully, this has given you some ideas for considerations and criteria to keep in mind when looking for school and office supplies. There are certainly other product categories and other factors that can be considered (e.g. more renewable materials, plastic-free items, items manufactured with renewable energy, etc.), but the suggestions above are a great start. Students, good luck in your classes, and may everyone else be productive while also conserving resources!

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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U.S. EPA seeks feedback on draft National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution

Plastic debris on a beach with water in the background.
Debris at Magee Wildlife Area near Oak Harbor, OH. (Credit: NOAA)

Although plastics have led to many positive innovations that have benefitted human society (e.g. less expensive medical devices, more portable electronic devices, increased fuel efficiency of vehicles made with plastic incorporated in their bodies, etc.), it is clear that plastic pollution is an ever-growing problem that threatens human and environmental health. When considering the fate of all plastic ever produced, Geyer et al. 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.” [Note: Mt=million metric tons] In its 2022 report, Global Plastics Outlook: Economic Drivers, Environmental Impacts and Policy Options, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) stated that “Widespread plastics use and inadequate prevention measures have led to persistent plastic leakage. In 2019 an estimated 22 Mt of plastics leaked into the environment. The largest leakage source (82%) is mismanaged waste, i.e. waste that is inadequately disposed of. Other sources are abrasion and losses of microplastics (12%), littering (5%) and marine activities (1%).” They define “mismanaged waste” as “Waste that is not captured by any state-of-the-art waste collection or treatment facilities. It includes waste that is burned in open pits, dumped into seas or open waters, or disposed of in unsanitary landfills and dumpsites.” Even when plastics are collected and processed at a recycling facility, there is still potential for pollution. A study published this month in the Journal of Hazardous Materials Advances describes the analysis of wastewater from a UK plastics recycling facility before and after filters were installed. While filters decreased the discharge of microplastics, even with the filters in place, the total discharge from the multiple washes used in processing could produce up to 75 billion particles per cubic meter of wastewater. If these findings are extrapolated across the whole of the plastics recycling industry, the potential pollution from plastic recycling facilities alone is mind-boggling.

Plastics in the environment break down into smaller and smaller pieces over time. The full extent of the impacts of micro- and nano-plastics on Earth’s ecosystems is unknown, but we do know that wildlife may ingest plastic accidentally when eating food waste contained in plastic, because of visual similarities of plastics to their food sources, and in some cases because the plastic smells like food. When prey animals consume plastic, their predators ingest the plastic along with the prey. Even humans can ingest plastic in this way, and microplastics can also be inhaled. Microplastics are found worldwide, even in protected areas. They have been found in sea ice in the Arctic and on the ocean floor. They’ve even been found in human breast milk.

Given the scale and ubiquity of plastic pollution, in April 2023 the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) released a Draft National Strategy to Prevent Plastic Pollution This builds upon EPA’s National Recycling Strategy, focusing on means to reduce, reuse, collect, and capture plastic waste.

image of national strategy cover pageEPA has identified three key objectives for the strategy. The draft strategy document lists proposed actions associated with each objective.

  • Objective A: Reduce pollution during plastic production. This entails designing products for reuse and recycling, using less impactful materials, phasing out unnecessary products, and ensuring proper controls at plastic production facilities.
  • Objective B: Improve post-use materials management. This involves the pursuit of circularity through pathways susch as reuse, refilling, and composting.
  • Objective C: Prevent trash and micro/nanoplastics from entering waterways and remove escaped trash from the environment. The pursuit of this objective may involve policy, programs, technical assistance, compliance assurance efforts, improved water management, improved measurement, increased public awareness, and further research.

Read the full draft strategy at https://www.epa.gov/system/files/documents/2023-04/Draft_National_Strategy_to_Prevent_Plastic_Pollution.pdf. An executive summary is also available.

EPA has opened a public comment period on this draft national strategy. Comments are due on or before June 16, 2023. EPA is asking the public to consider several key questions when reviewing and commenting on the draft strategy. To see these questions and learn more about how to submit your comments, see https://www.epa.gov/circulareconomy/draft-national-strategy-prevent-plastic-pollution#feedback.