Erika Schelby

Planet Earth versus plastic bags: A tale of two cities

With oceans, countries, populations, and governments inundated by a plague of plastic worldwide, it may be useful to focus on the single-use plastic bag choices made by two cities, in the same U.S. state, located at a distance of only 64 miles (104 km) from each other. Both Santa Fe and Albuquerque share many qualities and conditions, foremost among them a distinctive cultural mix of American, Hispanic/Latino, and Native American citizens. But the two communities are also dissimilar, and this is reflected in the way they have dealt with the plastic bag dilemma.

This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

Santa Fe is the oldest capital city in the United States. It is the seat of the New Mexico government and is home to the country’s third-largest art market. It calls itself “the City Different” and has more than 250 art galleries and dealers, a dozen state and private museums, and a world-class opera, for its more than 88,000 residents.

The “costly negative implications for tourism, wildlife and aesthetics” led Santa Fe to ban single-use plastic carryout bags with Ordinance No. 2015-12 in April of 2015. The decision was also made “to protect the environment while reducing waste, litter, and pollution in order to help improve the public’s health and welfare.” In April 2016, an open letter was sent from the mayor and addressed to the local businesses explaining the project and the new rules in detail.

Nearby Albuquerque is also attractive but less rarefied and more of a workhorse city. It is much larger with a population of 562,599 as of 2021, a growth rate of 24.8 percent since 2000, and a metropolitan area population of 942,000 until 2022. It has a total of 49.8 percent Hispanic inhabitants. Most have lived here for generations. Located in the high desert along the Rio Grande, Albuquerque has several museums, an Old Town dating back to 1706, and various cultural and recreational attractions.

After long debates, Albuquerque’s Clean and Green Retail Ordinance became effective on January 1, 2020. Single-use plastic bags were banned from the point of sale. But then came the pandemic, and enforcement was deferred. Doing business at the retail level had already grown difficult and stressful for management, employees, and shoppers. Supply chains were disrupted. With the new challenges thrown up during the pandemic, these changes seemed all too much at once. The city council listened to the plight of constituents and decided to oppose Mayor Tim Keller’s progressive plastic bag ban. It voted 6-3 to revoke it. The mayor bravely vetoed the reversal. Yet on April 4, 2022, the councilors’ motion to override the veto passed with a vote of 6-3 once again. The ban on single-use plastic bags was lifted. Convenience won over environmental concerns but did not win the war.

That struggle is undeniably bigger than one city council’s decision to put off what needs to be done. In 2007, San Francisco became the first U.S. city to pass a law against the use of single-use plastic bags. California followed by implementing a statewide ban in 2014. Puerto Rico and ten other states have enacted legislation to ban single-use plastic bags: Connecticut, Delaware, California, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington. And in contrast to Albuquerque’s reversal of the ban, a growing number of American cities have introduced plastic bag bans or bans and fees—among them are Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, Seattle, Boulder, New York, Portland, Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. Internationally, a growing number of countries have launched nationwide bans on producing, using, and distributing plastic bags.

Experiencing devastating floods in the summer of 1998, Bangladesh noted that thin plastic bags were clogging hundreds of storm drains and drainage systems during flooding, worsening the situation. This caused an estimated 80 percent of the flooding blockages in cities. So in 2002, Bangladesh implemented a ban on all plastic shopping bags in the nation, becoming the first country in the world to do so. Others followed. “According to a United Nations paper and several media reports, 77 countries in the world have passed some sort of full or partial ban on plastic bags,” reported Statista.

Unfortunately, such prohibitions are not enough. Despite the fact that Bangladesh became the world’s first country to ban plastic bags, their use continued to cause environmental harm. Its Department of Environment confiscated 592,223 metric tons of polythene from 2019 to 2021. The number of illegal polybag manufacturers increased from 300 in 1999 to an estimated 700 to 1,000 by 2021. In addition, until 2019, about 1.2 million metric tons of plastic waste was shipped in from the U.S. and the UK, making a bad situation worse.

Instead of finding solutions to the issues related to plastic pollution, reports by Western nonprofits and companies have, meanwhile, helped push the blame for polluting the world’s oceans onto “a small geographical area in East and Southeast Asia.” In July of 2022, the well-known nonprofit advocacy organization Ocean Conservancy delivered an official apology for the damage done by a report it coauthored along with McKinsey Center for Business and the Environment in 2015: Stemming the Tide: Land-Based Strategies for a Plastic-Free Ocean.

Impeccably written, professional in tone, and convincing in language, the report claimed research had shown that more than half of the plastic pollution entering the ocean originated from five Asian countries: China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Thailand. The report claimed that “increasing economic power” and “exploding demand for consumer products” had led these countries to produce and use plastic heavily, and they lacked the infrastructure to deal with the resulting plastic waste tsunami. Consequently, the waste ended up in the ocean. The study argued that the most effective way to deal with this was through recycling. What was meant by this euphemistic term was the deployment of waste-to-energy technology: gasification, and incineration.

Yet burning plastic discharges a potent and dangerous mix of toxins and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and into the communities unfortunate enough to be near the incinerating sites. Moreover, for a number of rich countries with environmental restrictions, the cynical hype for recycling has fostered the export of plastic trash to less developed countries like Bangladesh, resulting in the charge of “waste colonialism.” Additionally, the report created an injurious and false narrative. Although it was removed from the Ocean Conservancy website, it lingers on as a sophisticated and warning masterpiece of greenwashing. It is surprising that it took so long to acknowledge this truth, given the list of the project’s supporters: the Coca-Cola Company, the Dow Chemical Company, the American Chemistry Council, and the Recycling and Economic Development Initiative of South Africa, among others.

Meanwhile, with a March 2022 UN resolution adopted during the United Nations Environment Assembly 5.2 in Nairobi to end plastic pollution, governments have started to strive for a global, legally binding agreement by 2024. It could not be like another timid 2015 Paris Agreement. It needed teeth. So from November 28 to December 2, 2022, delegates from 150 countries met for the UN’s First Session of the Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee (INC1) in Punta del Este, Uruguay, to begin negotiations that will eventually lead to an international plastics treaty. Or so one hopes. “Turn off the tap on plastic,” said UN Secretary-General António Guterres. “Plastics are fossil fuels in another form.”

Indeed, that’s what they are: products made from oil and gas. Americans discard 100 billion bags annually, which are manufactured from 12 million barrels of oil. And what makes these flimsy thin, light, cheap, containers especially dreadful is perhaps the fact that globally 500 billion of them are used annually, for an average of only 15 minutes. After that brief moment in time, they are thrown away. Yet they go on polluting the environment and causing health hazards for years.

What is more, most of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic that have been manufactured since the 1950s remain in landfills or within the natural environment. By 2050, it is estimated that around 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste will reside in landfills or the natural environment. Plastic is a synthetic substance. It does not biodegrade. Eventually and very slowly the sun, wind, water, waves, and abrasion break it down into tiny particles. Single-use polyethylene plastic bags will take up to 1,000 years to photo-degrade. Effective recycling, specifically in the U.S., may be a pipe dream. The practical infrastructures, facilities, workers, and readiness to handle this daily flash flood of indestructible waste do not exist and would be expensive to achieve. Incineration is not a solution: it does more harm than good. Therefore it is no big surprise that globally, more than 90 percent of plastics are not recycled. The pile ends up in landfills, rivers, and oceans.

Much of the plastic waste is dumped in landfills. As it breaks down, it leaches hazardous chemicals, contaminates the surroundings, and infiltrates the food chain. According to a fact sheet from EarthDay.org, “Researchers in Germany indicate that terrestrial microplastic pollution is much higher than marine microplastic pollution—estimated at four to 23 times higher, depending on the environment.”

Nevertheless, tossing plastic garbage into the oceans proceeds at a furious pace. A lot of it is swept in from rivers. At least 10 million tons of plastic waste ends up in our oceans each year. If this continues, we may have more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050.

Globally, people generate so much filth and debris that these waste products are now beginning to accumulate and occupy significant space, sometimes larger than the size of whole cities and countries. One such example is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (GPGP), which “is a collection of marine debris” spanning “waters from the West Coast of North America to Japan.” It is already enormous—estimated to be some 1.6 million square kilometers, about twice the size of Texas or three times the size of France—and may spawn a whole family of floating trash concentrations that drift and travel with ocean currents and thereby can reach additional bodies of water. The relentless energy of the sea grinds portions of these garbage vortexes into microplastics. This produces a thick, cloudy gumbo in which larger items are suspended. A share of this mess sinks down to the seafloor. As a result of this, algae and plankton are deprived of sunlight and wiped out, which leads to fish and turtles growing hungry and weak. Many perish. This causes less food for tuna, sharks, and whales, leading to the marine food web being destabilized.

Humans already eat—literally—five grams of microplastics and nanoplastics, or a credit card’s worth of plastic, every week. That amounts to between 39,000 and 52,000 particles of plastic added to our diet every year. Microplastics can be found in animals, fish, and birds, and also in human blood and organs. They even invade the placentas of unborn babies. They are everywhere.

Plastic is affecting human health and reproduction and might have irreparable consequences for the human species, even leading to “human extinction” if uncontrolled use of plastics is not prevented. In mice, research has already shown a decrease in the quantity and quality of sperm and a reduction of total follicles in the ovaries of females. So far, investigations into the effects of microplastics absorbed into the human body have barely begun. Science needs another 10 to 15 years to come up with answers.

The wish for a clean, safe personal space—a home—is hardwired into humans. Indeed, many individuals want to make their homes as beautiful as possible according to their means and their taste. But each person also generates waste and is responsible for it—that’s the flip side of our way of life. In contemporary households, the waste is flushed away or picked up in a trash bin by the waste management services of a city. Residents pay fees for this convenience. But the waste is still theirs. It has simply been relocated—it’s out of sight, out of mind.

That is where the problem lies. Municipalities and landfills are overwhelmed with plastic waste. In 1960, the U.S. generated 88.1 million tons of solid waste; by 2018, this had increased to a whopping 292.4 million tons. America had become a wasteful society that throws stuff away. In 2022, it became the second largest per capita generator of solid municipal waste in the world—surprisingly after Denmark, which is often cited as a model global citizen. Other highly developed countries produce far less waste than the U.S. A special case is Australia’s city of Adelaide, which may have the most effective waste program anywhere. A recent article in the Guardian tells the story of Alice Clanachan, a woman who applied the city’s “reduce, reuse, recycle” plan so resolutely, that for a total of 26 months, she didn’t need to put her rubbish bin out for collection.

Here in the United States, in the state of New Mexico, the city of Santa Fe succeeded in banning single-use plastic bags years ago. Its residents understood that you cannot maintain a beautiful home for long without caring for the surroundings. If individuals loathe the idea of befouling their own interior spaces, they can also leap to the wider view of detesting the squalor inflicted on the entire planet—our common home. Perhaps this was easier to do in Santa Fe. It’s a small place that knows its own mind.

For Albuquerque, the American can-do attitude may reassert itself sometime soon. Civic pride and civic duty will remind the residents that the ban on single-use bags is a rare thing they can control and do right here and now, at the local level. People have done just that before the plastic plague began. And we can even do our shopping by adopting the uncomplicated routine of bringing our own durable and reusable bags. This simple step could help decrease plastic waste and help promote a cleaner way of living and supporting all life on Earth.

Author Bio: Erika Schelby is the author of Looking for Humboldt and Searching for German Footprints in New Mexico and Beyond (Lava Gate Press, 2017) and Liberating the Future from the Past? Liberating the Past from the Future? (Lava Gate Press, 2013), which was shortlisted for the International Essay Prize Contest by the Berlin-based cultural magazine Lettre International. Schelby lives in New Mexico.

Military spending fueling environmental destruction in Ukraine

Just one bomb releases a slew of toxic heavy metals into Ukraine’s soil and groundwater. Now multiply this by thousands.

In the U.S., proponents supporting military expansion and increasing defense spending have prevailed despite the more pressing need to divert all available resources to fight the impending disaster being faced by humanity: climate change.

This article was produced by Globetrotter.

While ignoring the climate disaster, the U.S. is not only spending to boast its own military powers but also providing Ukraine with weapons and other aid in its ongoing conflict with Russia.

With the war in Ukraine raging on, the U.S. Senate voted 86 to 11 in May and gave its approval to President Joe Biden’s massive additional aid package of $40 billion to help Ukraine on top of the nearly $14 billion authorized just two months prior. This total financial aid package for Ukraine of around $54 billion is now almost as large or larger than the entire 2021 defense budgets of several countries: France’s military budget was $56.6 billion in 2021, Germany’s was $56 billion, Japan’s was $54.1 billion and Australia’s military spending stood at $31.8 billion. In contrast, there are also other ongoing struggles and attempts by some countries to achieve independence worldwide. They grab little attention and receive no substantial financial support.

Environmental Impact of the Ukraine War

Ukraine, which in 1986 had to withstand the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, is a large country with fertile soils. Environmental scientists warn that these valuable soils are currently being subjected to ecocide. Just one bomb makes a crater in a field and then releases toxic heavy metals into the soil. Now multiply this by thousands, with relentless exploding missiles and artillery shelling, and you will certainly produce an ecological wasteland.

In the Donbas region, pollution was already a problem even before the current conflict began. Coal mines have been operating in this area for the last 200 years, and the region also has a lot of heavy industry. It has suffered from disruptions and electricity shortages during the low-key civil war that has been going on in eastern Ukraine since 2014. According to the Conflict and Environment Observatory, there are 900 large industrial facilities in the Donbas region and 5,500 industrial facilities operating there since 2013. Most were built in the Soviet era. Furthermore, eastern Ukraine, where the Donbas is located, has 227 mines, and the region has 10 billion metric tons✎ EditSign of stored industrial waste. Add the current relentless artillery shelling to the mix and the situation becomes acutely grim.

Both the weapons of the East and of the West are ravaging, poisoning, and destroying Ukraine’s landscape. It doesn’t matter if the military hardware employed comes from the aggressor Russia or from the weaponry supplied by the U.S. and NATO. There are many countries that have already been devastated by recent wars; the world does not need another one.

Human Cost of the Ukraine War

For now, more soldiers on all sides will die. More Ukrainian civilians will perish or be plunged into homelessness and economic hardship. Deliveries from the West started out with small arms, ammunition and Stinger and Javelin missiles. Weeks later there is progress; now heavy weapons ranging from artillery systems to helicopters to Switchblade drones have begun to arrive in Ukraine. In response, Russia has been targeting railway lines, warehouses, oil depots, and other vital infrastructure to stop the flow of Western weaponry to Ukraine.

Ukraine is—or was—known as the breadbasket of the world, providing wheat and other food products to various countries of the current heat and drought-stricken Global South. Before the war, Egypt, Lebanon and Tunisia imported between 25 and 80 percent of their wheat from Ukraine. Pakistan bought nearly 40 percent of its wheat from the country, and Bangladesh received 50 percent of its wheat from both Russia and Ukraine. Prices per bushel have increased by 38 percent as compared to last year. The supply chain had become dysfunctional, with ports in the firing line or closed by blockade and the Black Sea was seeded with mines by Ukraine and Russia. Their removal is difficult and will take months. Some mines are drifting and endangering all shipping, not to mention marine wildlife and ecosystems.

The sense of ludicrous waste evoked by these happenings is persuasive. Anatol Lieven, a senior research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, takes a long view on this matter. “I strongly believe that in view of climate change, a century or so from now most of the basic preconceptions underlying the strategies of leading world powers will be seen by our descendants to have been profoundly irrational,” he writes.

The Actual Cost of the Ballooning Military Expenditure by the U.S.

For the moment, there is much noise about winning. Ukraine must win, say voices in the West. It will not have the resources to win, say others. But is such a war winnable at all? Or will it merely shift the geopolitical dynamics? In sheer size, Russia is the largest country on Earth. It has about 2 percent of the world’s population and natural resources amounting to around $75 trillion as per 2021 figures. These include rich supplies of copper, lead, iron ore, zinc, bauxite, nickel, tin, mercury, uranium, magnesium, gold, silver, platinum, tungsten, titanium, diamonds, and, of course, oil and natural gas. In addition, due to the large forested areas in Russia, it accounts for an estimated 20 percent of the “world’s standing forest resource.”

Russia shares its vast, sparsely inhabited and resource-rich landmass on the European continent with the Asian majority of the global population. This combination has powerful potential. So consequently, what will the impact be if this war grinds on to become a long slog of attrition? How can there be more than a pyrrhic victory for anyone? When and how will it end? Will Ukrainian independence still be recognizable? Also, considering how things tend to be arranged in this world, one wonders if the massive amounts of aid given to Ukraine by the U.S. and NATO have been provided without undue strings attached.

No matter how this calamity develops, our descendants will fail to comprehend the necessity for what has been the largest worldwide prewar military expenditures, which exceeded (in 2021 during the COVID-19 pandemic) $2 trillion for the first time. Of course, it is idle dreaming to imagine what even a quarter of these gigantic sums of hard-earned taxpayer money—which were invested in unproductive lethal hardware and its maintenance—might instead have done for humanity and the battered blue planet it calls home.

In 2021, the United States spent $801 billion on defense. During that year, the pandemic remained a looming threat. Meanwhile, the country decided to end the war in Afghanistan. The country enjoyed a few months of peace before it began to support the new war in Ukraine in February of 2022. The U.S. spends more on defense than the next nine nations listed by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in its report, “Trends in World Military Expenditure, 2021”—this includes China, India, the UK, Russia, France, Germany, Saudi Arabia, Japan and South Korea. As to what the U.S. aims to accomplish in the Ukraine war, it seems to have moving targets. What started out as efforts to help Ukraine now seem to have turned into attempts by the U.S. to weaken Russia, which requires pumping more heavy and expensive weapons onto the battlefield. This will surely prolong the fighting and enhance bitterness. It can keep diplomacy silenced. As Martin Luther King Jr. noted, “Wars are poor chisels for carving out peaceful tomorrows.”

So let’s turn away from the war’s short-termism and consider something long-lasting and familiar: the U.S. defense budget. Regardless of current events, it remains reliably huge, decade after decade. The price tags are staggeringly high in various categories. Moreover, according to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, “the U.S. Department of Defense is the world’s single largest institutional consumer of oil—and as a result, one of the world’s top greenhouse gas emitters.”

On September 1, 2021, the Department of Defense (DOD) Draft Climate Adaptation Plan (DOD CAP) was submitted to the National Climate Task Force and Federal Chief Sustainability Officer. Belatedly, DOD CAP “identified climate change as a critical national security issue and threat multiplier… [It could] degrade installations and infrastructure, increase health risks to our service members, and could require modifications to existing and planned equipment.”

The U.S. Army followed, releasing its first climate strategy on February 8, 2022. It “[produced] 4.1 million tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants” in 2020. The Army acknowledges that it must prepare for a world subjected to conflicts driven by climate change, water access disputes, drought, and both social and governmental instability. Its climate strategy also shows the Army’s awareness that extreme weather events already have a negative impact on its soldiers. But that is the case not only for the troops but also for ever-larger segments of the American population. While the mainstream media landscape is to be commended for increasingly covering the issue of climate change, the enthusiasm for attention-grabbing headlines about climate disasters spends far too little time (if any at all) explaining to the public the context and causes leading to these disasters.

The U.S. Army climate plan sounds ambitious, however late it is in coming. It calls for reducing emissions in half by 2030; seeks to electrify all noncombatant vehicles by 2035; wants to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from Army installations by 2050; and will train the next crop of officers to function well in a far hotter and far more chaotic world. Microgrid technology will be installed on all Army posts by 2035, and concerns about the environment and climate issues must be part of all decisions made in the management of the Army’s enormous land holdings, which are estimated to cover between 1 to 6 percent of the globe’s land surface, including some 750 military bases worldwide. Improper disposal of waste, burn pits, ground and water contamination, noxious air pollutants, lack of transparency, and other issues have to be tackled. It is good to have a plan, but so far there is no funding, and it all remains theoretical.

As Scientists for Global Responsibility (SGR) reports, the militaries of the world enjoy a charmed existence with “large loophole[s]”: “[I]n the Paris agreement, governments are not required to provide full data on greenhouse gases being emitted by armed forces.” This, according to SGR, undermines efforts to deal with the climate crisis. Furthermore, despite its good intentions, the greening of the military is widely impossible. “Every major weapon system developed, from fighter jets to aircraft carriers to you name it, is extremely carbon-intensive,” said Oliver Belcher, a professor at Duke University—who studied military emissions—according to Task and Purpose. “Weapons systems lock in certain carbon-intensive technologies.”

Today, there is a separation between U.S. civilians and the military that is reinforced through the media, society, and the military-industrial complex itself. There is no military draft anymore. The separation makes it easy to forget that the U.S. military has a commander-in-chief who is well-known to the general civilian population: the U.S. president. The person holding this position can, at least to a large and apparently growing extent, decide what the military must do and how they will be employed. Therein lies a striking contradiction: The U.S. military is a super-potent instrument that can be employed in an autocratic manner to satisfy U.S. imperious tendencies embedded within the democratic republic.

It is time to question whether the U.S. needs to have the global influence that it does, including 750 military bases around the world. Does the populace know or care? And if it does not, why pay so much for it, and for so long? These and many other questions related to the ballooning military expenses require greater scrutiny by American voters soon.

It is repeated often, but still falls on deaf ears, and it is also the message from the 2022 Stockholm International Peace Research Institute that took place in May when 2,600 participants from 150 countries and more than 70 partner organizations gathered for the ninth annual Stockholm Forum. The institute published a major report for the occasion: “Environment of Peace: Security in a New Era of Risk.” A comprehensive account of how the “environmental crisis is increasing risks to security and peace worldwide.” The report shows “most of all,” said SIPRI Director Dan Smith, “what can be done about it.”

Author Bio: Erika Schelby is the author of Looking for Humboldt and Searching for German Footprints in New Mexico and Beyond (Lava Gate Press, 2017) and Liberating the Future from the Past? Liberating the Past from the Future? (Lava Gate Press, 2013), which was shortlisted for the International Essay Prize Contest by the Berlin-based cultural magazine Lettre International. Schelby lives in New Mexico.

Alexander von Humboldt was the first person to understand climate change — more than 200 years ago

Alexander von Humboldt was born on September 14, 1769. In his day, he was a globetrotting, convention-defying hero— one of the firstrecorded individuals to raise environmental concerns. To make him hip for a new generation, all it takes is a rediscovery of Humboldt by the young climate strikers across the globe. Their numbers are growing, their task is huge, and they are now urging adults to join them. Why let parents fiddle when the house burns? On May 22, grown-ups at the Columbia Journalism Review, The Nation, and The Guardian listened and launched Covering Climate Now, a project to encourage more coverage of climate change in the media. Bill Moyers, the keynote speaker, pointed out that from 2017 to 2018, major network coverage of climate issues fell 45 percent to a total of a mere 142 minutes. And on May 23, with her knack of being spot-on, 16-year-old climate activist and rising star Greta Thunberg promptly wrote of taking on the climate change challenge: “It’s humanity’s job.”

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Demonizing Immigrants Is Nothing New - And the Hateful Rhetoric Always Serves the Same Corrupt Purposes

“The howl of the cave man.” This is how a 1918 Los Angeles Times article described the music of Brahms and Bach. A year earlier the U.S. had declared war against Germany and waded into the tragedy of the First World War. The propaganda machine was in full swing. Germans were brutes—close cousins of the barbaric Huns—and detesting all things German became a badge of patriotic pride. The time was also ripe for the contributions of German-Americans to be scrubbed from the history books. Figures like Alexander von Humboldt, Carl Blümner, and Heinrich Balduin Möllhausen, whose contributions to the U.S. are vast, were eclipsed by caricatures of the brutish German lusting for American blood. German-Americans learned to keep a low profile and the collective demonization induced a historical amnesia from which we have yet to awaken.

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