Biodegradable Plastic Blends Offer New Options for Disposal

September 17, 2018
Imagine throwing your empty plastic water bottle into a household composting bin that breaks down the plastic and produces biogas to help power your home. Now, researchers have taken an early step toward this futuristic scenario by showing that certain blends of bioplastics can decompose under diverse conditions. They report their results in the ACS journal Environmental Science & Technology.
Plastic waste pollution is a global environmental problem, particularly in oceans, where plastic debris can harm or kill sea animals and birds who ingest or become entangled in it. Despite increased levels of recycling in many countries, most plastic waste still ends up in landfills or the environment. Scientists have developed biodegradable plastics, but they often lack the flexibility, strength or toughness of conventional plastics. Blends of different bioplastics can offer improved characteristics, but their environmental fate is uncertain. Tanja Narancic, Kevin O’Connor, Ramesh Babu Padamati and colleagues wanted to examine the degradation of individual bioplastics and their blends under various conditions.
The researchers studied the fates of 15 different plastics or blends under managed conditions, such as composting and anaerobic digestion, as well as unmanaged environments, including soil and fresh or marine water. Polylactic acid (PLA) is one of the best-selling biodegradable plastics on the market, but it requires high temperatures for breakdown and is not home-compostable. Surprisingly, a blend of PLA and polycaprolactone (PCL) degraded completely to carbon dioxide, biomass and water under typical home-composting conditions. Many of the individual plastics and blends that were tested decomposed under conditions of anaerobic digestion, a process that can produce biogas, and all degraded with industrial composting. The researchers say that biodegradable plastic blends could create new possibilities for managing plastic waste. However, only two plastics, polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) and thermoplastic starch (TPS), broke down completely under all soil and water conditions.  Therefore, biodegradable plastics are not a panacea for plastic pollution, and they must be managed carefully after they leave the consumer, the researchers say.
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Industry and NRDC Agree on Speeding Up Phase Out of Super-Pollutant HFCs
Major air conditioning and refrigerator manufacturers and the Natural Resources Defense Council agreed to support the replacement of super-polluting hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, in-home air conditioning systems nationwide with safer refrigerants by 2023.
In a letter to the California Air Resources Board, they also supported new California rules to phase down HFCs in many other cooling systems, and to back similar HFC curbs in other states, a notable development because Connecticut, Maryland and New York announced plans to reduce HFCs this week.
The state of Connecticut joined Maryland, New York and California in directing their state agencies to draft standards phasing out the use of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, a group of super-polluting greenhouse gases used in commercial and residential cooling systems.
Owner of Westwood Gym Sued for Illegal Asbestos Work During Renovation
The complaint, filed Friday in Suffolk Superior Court, alleges that the New England Sports Academy, LLC (NESA), and its owner and manager, Henry Shterenberg, violated the Massachusetts Clean Air Act and its regulations. The gymnasium offered various classes and athletics training for children and adults including after-school sports, children’s parties, school field trips and evening classes. The AG’s Office alleges Shterenberg allowed the illegal removal of asbestos-containing material during the November 2015 renovation of the 22,600-square foot facility without following required safety precautions and procedures.
“We allege that the owner of this gymnasium put the public, including young children, and workers, at serious risk by exposing them to asbestos while renovating without a license,” said AG Healey. “We will take action against unsafe business practices that violate our environmental laws and endanger the public’s health.”
According to the complaint, the defendants also failed to notify the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (MassDEP) of the asbestos abatement work and did not hire a licensed asbestos contractor to perform the work. The AG’s Office also alleges Shterenberg failed to properly dispose of the asbestos-containing material and that workers allowed dry, broken and uncontained asbestos-containing material, including dust, to remain in the interior of the gymnasium and the parking lot area – where staff and customers passed through during operating hours – during the renovation.
“The asbestos rules are in place to protect the public” said MassDEP Commissioner Martin Suuberg. “MassDEP will aggressively enforce its regulations to ensure that these important rules are followed.”
In response to a complaint from a parent attending a children’s birthday party at NESA, MassDEP inspected the gymnasium and closed the business after test results confirmed the presence of asbestos-containing material. The defendants have since closed the gymnasium, it has been cleaned by licensed asbestos contractors, and it now remains vacant.
The AG’s complaint seeks civil penalties for violations of the Clean Air Act and its regulations.
Asbestos is a mineral fiber that has been used in a wide variety of building materials, from roofing and flooring, to siding and wallboard, to caulking and insulation. If asbestos is improperly handled or maintained, fibers can be released into the air and inhaled, potentially resulting in life-threatening illnesses, including asbestosis, lung cancer, and mesothelioma. Asbestosis is a serious, progressive, long-term non-cancer disease of the lungs for which there is no known effective treatment. Mesothelioma is a rare form of cancer that is found in the thin membranes of the lung, chest, abdomen, and heart, that may not develop until many years after exposure, and that has no known cure, although treatment methods are available to address the effects of the disease.
AG Healey has made asbestos safety a priority, as part of the office’s “Healthy Buildings, Healthy Air” Initiative that was announced in March 2017 to better protect the health of children, families, and workers in Massachusetts from health risks posed by asbestos. Since September 2016, the AG’s Office, with the assistance of MassDEP, has successfully brought asbestos enforcement cases that together have resulted in more than $2 million in civil penalties.
For more information on asbestos and asbestos-related work, visit MassDEP’s website which includes asbestos construction and demolition notification requirements.
Company in California Agrees to Pay Clean Water Act Fines, Mitigate Impacts to Sensitive Streams and Wetlands
Goose Pond Ag, Inc., a Florida corporation, and its manager of operations Farmland Management Services, Inc., an affiliate of the John Hancock Life Insurance Company, have agreed to pay a civil penalty, preserve streams and wetlands, and perform mitigation to resolve violations of the Clean Water Act (CWA) on property near the Sacramento River located in Tehama County, California, the Justice Department announced. The property in this case was acquired from Duarte Nursery Inc. and adjoins a Duarte site that was the subject of a settlement agreement announced by the Justice Department in August 2017 and approved by a federal judge on December 7, 2017.
Goose Pond Ag and Farmland Management Services have agreed to pay $5.3 million in civil penalties and mitigation for substantial acres of disturbed streams and wetlands on the property that are connected to the Sacramento River. In addition, the settlement requires the companies to permanently preserve hundreds of acres of streams, wetlands, and buffer areas. The agreement allows the companies to continue using the site for cattle grazing, to apply for a CWA permit to conduct other activities in jurisdictional waters on the site, and to seek future determinations concerning jurisdictional waters at the site.
“Today’s agreement constitutes one of the largest settlements ever reached in a case involving the unpermitted filling of streams and wetlands. Importantly, this result also finally draws to a close another chapter in long-running Clean Water Act litigation involving these properties near the Sacramento River in Tehama County,” said Jeffrey H. Wood, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “Like the Duarte settlement last year, today’s agreement serves the public interest in enforcement of the Clean Water Act and deterrence of future violations.”
“The Corps is satisfied that this enforcement action has been resolved against these companies,” said Michael Jewell, the Chief of the Regulatory Division for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Sacramento District. “We encourage members of the public to contact the Corps prior to engaging in activities that are regulated under the Clean Water Act. The Corps is always willing to talk to the public about the Regulatory Program and to provide information on jurisdiction, permit requirements, and any other aspects of the Program.”
This case stems from activities these companies conducted after they purchased property that had laid fallow and unfarmed for more than 20 years. Goose Pond bought the 1,500-acre property in 2012 from Duarte Nursery, Inc. for $8.7 million, and shortly thereafter, Farmland Management Services began operating heavy machinery through streams and wetlands as part of the companies’ efforts to convert the property to a walnut orchard. That machinery included “deep rippers” that drag long metal shanks through the ground to break up or pierce highly compacted, impermeable or slowly permeable surface layers, or other similar kinds of restrictive soil layers. The deep ripping in this case destroyed or significantly degraded the streams and wetlands at the site.
Even before Goose Pond’s purchase of the site, the companies received aerial photographs, advice from environmental consultants, and other information that alerted them to federally-protected streams and wetlands on the property. Despite that information, the companies conducted extensive ripping and other activities in streams and wetlands without a CWA dredge-or-fill permit. The settlement agreement secures a significant penalty and mitigation for these violations, while providing fairness for farmers and other landowners who comply with the applicable laws.
Last year, in resolving a related case against John Duarte and Duarte Nursery, Inc., who had conducted unpermitted ripping activities immediately south of the property at issue here, the United States gave assurances that these cases are not (and will not be used as) a pretext for federal prosecution of farmers who engage in normal plowing on their farms. No federal dredge-or-fill permit is required for plowing as defined in the regulations, and no such permit is required for discharges from "normal farming ... activities,” such as plowing, if they are part of an established ongoing farming operation and not for the purpose of converting federally protected waters to new uses. Those protections for farmers remain in the law today and will continue to be recognized.
The proposed consent decree, lodged in the U.S. District Court in Sacramento, is subject to a 30-day comment period and final court approval. A copy of the proposed consent decree is available on the Justice Department Website.
EPA Administrator Wheeler Releases Memo to Improve Drug Take-Back Programs and Help Fight the Opioid Crisis
At the National Narcotics Officers’ Associations’ Coalition (NNOAC) Drug Enforcement Forum, EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler released a new memorandum to assist law enforcement agencies with the management of household drugs collected in take-back programs.
“Efforts by law enforcement agencies across the country to collect unwanted drugs from households is a critical tool in fighting the opioid crisis,” said EPA Acting Administrator Andrew Wheeler. “EPA strongly supports these efforts and is working to ensure that drugs collected in take-back programs are transported and destroyed in a manner that is protective of public health and the environment, including the health of law enforcement officers.”
In close coordination with the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), and U.S. Postal Service (USPS), EPA’s memo provides law enforcement agencies with specific information they can use to best manage household drugs collected in take-back programs. Also, it will help ensure the public can benefit from these critical programs while protecting public health and the environment.
Included in this memo are the various cost-effective shipping methods law enforcement agencies can use to transport and destroy household pharmaceuticals collected in take-back program. This is estimated to save valuable time and resources for law enforcement as some officials have to drive hours to the nearest incinerator.
EPA cautions that emissions from burning collected household drugs via open burning or in burn barrels may pose health risks to law enforcement officers and members of the surrounding communities. To mitigate these situations, the memo provides information on options other than burn barrels such as solid waste and hazardous waste combustion units that can be used to safely destroy household pharmaceuticals collected by law enforcement.
The Agency encouraged the public to take advantage of pharmaceutical take-back collection programs that accept prescription and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals, as these programs offer a safe and environmentally-conscious way to dispose of unwanted pharmaceuticals.
Twice a year, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) sponsors National Prescription Drug Take Back days. In the most recent take back day on April 28, 2018, law enforcement established nearly 6,000 collection sites across the country and collected nearly 1 million pounds of unwanted drugs. EPA strongly encourages law enforcement to participate in the DEA National Prescription Drug Take Back days to ensure drugs are safely removed from households and ultimately safely combusted while preserving local law enforcement resources.
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