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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

July 14, 2023

Air Date: July 14, 2023



Rethinking the Recycling Symbol

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The chasing arrow symbol that many consumers think means a plastic product is recyclable often doesn’t mean that in practice, since most plastics are of little to no economic value. Jennie Romer is Deputy Assistant Administrator for Pollution Prevention at EPA and joins Host Aynsley O’Neill to explain how revising the use of the recycling symbol could reduce consumer confusion. (07:56)

Beyond the Headlines / Peter Dykstra

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This week, Living on Earth Contributor Peter Dykstra joins Host Aynsley O’Neill to mourn the loss of most of Georgia’s crop of juicy peaches in 2023, thanks in part to an unusually warm winter. Also, a meta-study finds that low-emission zones in some cities are reducing heart attacks, strokes, and breathing problems. And in history, it’s the 30 year anniversary for the release of the film “Free Willy” that was based on the plight of a real captive orca whale named Keiko. (04:30)

The Risks of 'Chemical Recycling' / James Bruggers

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So-called ‘chemical recycling’ of plastics is a highly inefficient process that releases large amounts of carbon emissions and hazardous pollutants. James Bruggers reports for Inside Climate News and joined Host Steve Curwood to discuss the health and safety problems he’s been covering at the Brightmark chemical recycling plant in Indiana. (12:01)

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

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Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore covers a 35-mile-long stretch of Lake Michigan’s eastern coastline and features forests, beaches, dunes, and historic lighthouses. Living on Earth intern Sarah Mahaney recently visited the lakeshore and brought back an audio postcard. (03:10)

Restoring the "River of Grass"

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Extensive draining and channeling of the Everglades ecosystem has led to toxic algae blooms and land loss in Florida, so now a huge restoration effort is attempting to reverse some of those human caused consequences. But environmental groups have raised concerns about the design of the sixteen square mile reservoir at the heart of the project. Inside Climate News reporter Amy Green joins Host Jenni Doering to explain. (10:24)

Sea Cucumbers Clean Up Fish Poop

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Fish waste can spread diseases and lead to harmful algae blooms in aquaculture, so some fish farmers are enlisting the help of sea cucumbers that eat organic debris and leave behind clean sediment. Freelance journalist Kiley Price shares with Host Jenni Doering how it works and why farmers face some challenges in adding sea cucumbers to their aquaculture operations. (09:07)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

230714 Transcript

HOSTS: Jenni Doering, Aynsley O’Neill

GUESTS: James Bruggers, Amy Green, Kiley Price, Jennie Romer

REPORTERS: Peter Dykstra, Sarah Mahaney


DOERING: From PRX – this is Living On Earth.


DOERING: I’m Jenni Doering

O’NEILL: And I’m Aynsley O’Neill.

The promises and perils of so-called chemical recycling.

BRUGGERS: There's this numbering system, plastics 1-7 and these systems like Brightmark are set up to recycle all of them, supposedly. But it just doesn't work that way chemically according to chemistry professors I've talked to. Each plastic product has a different chemical makeup and when you mix them all together some of them don't play nicely with each other.

DOERING: Also, sea cucumbers could help clean up fish waste from aquaculture.

PRICE: It's so crucial to get the waste out of the system, so that it's not just floating around in there. What's unique about the sea cucumbers is that it's like one man's waste is another man's treasure, literally, in this scenario.

DOERING: Those stories and more, this week on Living on Earth – Stick Around!

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[NEWSBREAK MUSIC: Boards Of Canada “Zoetrope” from “In A Beautiful Place Out In The Country” (Warp Records 2000)]


Rethinking the Recycling Symbol

Over 90% of plastic in the United States does not get recycled, much of it ending up in landfills. (Photo: Alan Levine, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

DOERING: From PRX and the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios at the University of Massachusetts Boston this is Living on Earth. I’m Jenni Doering.

O’NEILL: And I’m Aynsley O’Neill.

So, let’s say you’ve just polished off a tub of creamy yogurt. Time to rinse and recycle… right? Well, the sad truth about your yogurt tub is that it is probably not going to be recycled at all. That’s because most of the yogurt in grocery stores comes in a tub made of plastic number 5, polypropylene, and it’s of little to no economic value. So that little triangle symbol that you think means it’s recyclable… well, it doesn’t mean much. But now the federal government is looking into updating those symbols so that consumers aren’t duped. The Federal Trade Commission’s “Green Guides” date back to 1992 and they’re supposed to help companies avoid greenwashing when advertising their products. The Environmental Protection Agency is getting involved in the latest update and joining me now to explain is Jennie Romer, the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Pollution Prevention at EPA. Jennie, welcome to Living on Earth!

ROMER: Thanks so much for having me.

O'NEILL: So, in our everyday lives, we see that iconic triangular arrow label on a lot of products. And I think the first thing I think, and a lot of us think is, oh, good, it's recyclable. But from what I understand, that's not always the case. What do recycling labels actually tell us about a product? And to what extent might that system confuse the average consumer?

ROMER: The symbols on the bottom of plastic bottles and containers are called resin ID codes. And they were created to identify the type of plastic resin that the containers are made of. And the resin number is usually surrounded by chasing arrow symbols. And we know that as a recyclable symbol. And sometimes you'll see a solid triangle instead. But the symbol isn't really meant to convey whether something is recyclable, it's just meant to tell you the resin number. And it doesn't necessarily mean that it can be recycled in your community. And so that's why EPA has recently urged to have the chasing arrow symbol decoupled from the resin identification codes, and to really set a very high bar for when something can be marketed as recyclable. So, categorizing plastics by resin identification codes that are coupled with that chasing arrow symbol does not accurately represent the recyclability of plastics, especially number three through seven, because those numbers don't really have end markets that are financially viable to be recycled. And so from a pollution prevention standpoint, and that's the office where I sit at EPA, there's really an opportunity to prevent harm to human health and the environment by making sure that consumers are presented with truthful marketing claims, including claims about recycling, because misleading claims can lead to a lot of that consumer confusion.

The EPA says the chasing arrow recycling symbol does not accurately represent which materials are recyclable. (Photo: lorigami, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

O'NEILL: From what I understand, the Federal Trade Commission, the FTC, has these Green Guides, which are designed to help manufacturers avoid misleading environmental claims. And they were last revised in 2012. What kind of recommendations is the EPA making to the FTC?

ROMER: The Green Guides are incredibly important because they let markers know what they can and can't say, and companies all across the country pay a lot of attention to that. The main recommendation that EPA made in our comments on the Green Guides was to set a high bar for what can be considered recyclable, and specifically to require strong end markets for any products to be marketed as recyclable. And so currently, in the Green Guides, FTC requires that in order to market something as recyclable, that item must be collected in a substantial majority of communities, and they set that bar at around 60%. It must be sorted with existing recycling machinery, and then it has to be made into something else. And so that last part is a little bit fuzzy. So EPA, in the comments, is saying that the municipal recycler, after the collection happens, the sorting, that recycler has to be able to reliably find a market for that material, in order for it to be marketed as recyclable. And so it's just clarifying kind of that last step. And that really can get rid of a lot of that consumer confusion about what's recyclable or not.

Only 8.7% of plastic was recycled in 2018, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. (Photo: Alabama Extension, Flickr, Public Domain)

O'NEILL: And if we scale out and look at the overall plastic landscape in the United States, what portion of the plastic we produce is actually recycled, actually makes it through that process? And what happens to the rest that doesn't make it through that process?

ROMER: Overall, the recycling rate for materials in general, including composting, hovers around 32%, and has for several years now. And for plastics, the recycling rate is around 8% of what is generated actually being recycled. Some resins such as resins number one, and two, those have the highest recycling rates by far. And that's because those are worth a considerable amount of money on the commodities recycling market. And the rest of them, number three through seven, really don't have that value. So there are really two dynamics at play. One is your local recycling rules, what you're told to put in your curbside bins, and then the second is really the international commodities market. So, kind of what happens next, once you put your recyclables into your bins? And so, the next step is that it gets collected and brought to your local recycling facility, and there they're sorted into different categories, put into bales, and then sold on the commodities market to manufacturers to turn into new products. And if that is all working correctly, then that's a really effective mechanical recycling system. But it doesn't work for everything, because there are some materials that do not have an end market, meaning that no one buys them. And so those are the leftovers that you're talking about those end up either getting sent to landfill, or to incineration, kind of depending on where you live. And then some might also slip out into the environment as leakage as well.

O'NEILL: So, it sounds like there are updates in progress. But for now, what are consumers able to do on their end?

The Federal Trade Commission headquarters in Washington DC. The FTC’s Green Guides, which are designed to help manufacturers avoid misleading environmental claims, were last updated in 2012. (Photo: Norman Maddeaux, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

ROMER: I would say first, know your local recycling rules. So don't unintentionally contaminate recycling. Don't "wish cycle." So don't recycle something that could be a tangler. So plastic films are tanglers, things like garden hoses, clothing. And if your local program only accepts number one and number two bottles and jugs, because those are worth the most money on the commodities market. We follow those rules. If your local program accepts all rigid plastics, just follow those local rules. But then, even more importantly, when you're shopping, really focus on reducing and reusing materials before recycling. And so really the most effective way to reduce waste is not to make it in the first place. And you know, making a new product emits greenhouse gases, contributes to climate change, requires a lot of materials. So as a result, when you're reducing and reusing, you're really effectively saving natural resources, and sometimes saving money.

O'NEILL: Jennie Romer is the Deputy Assistant Administrator for Pollution Prevention at EPA. Thank you so much for your time today, Jennie.

ROMER: Thanks so much for having me.

Related links:
- Washington Post | “Why the recycling symbol could end up in the trash”
- FTC | “Green Guides”
- FTC | “FTC Seeks Public Comment on Potential Updates to its ‘Green Guides’ for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims”
- Regulations.gov | “Comment from EPA”
- FTC | “Federal Trade Commission Act”
- EPA | “Plastic Pollution Strategy”

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[MUSIC: Jack Johnson and Friends, “The 3 Rs,” by on Sing-a-Longs and Lullabies For the Film, Curious George, by Jack Johnson, Universal Records]

Beyond the Headlines

This year, Georgia peach trees have only produced about one-third of their normal crop volume. (Photo: Thomas Cizauskas, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

O'NEILL: It's time now for look beyond the headlines with Peter Dykstra living on Earth contributor who is joining us from Atlanta, Georgia. Hi, Peter. How are you doing down there in Georgia this week?

DYKSTRA: Oh, hi Aynsley, we've got some not so good news for my fellow Georgians. Georgia peaches had such a horrible winter, it was too warm, likely and linked, at least in part to climate change that all the peaches we've got in my neighborhood grocery are from California. They look great, they're bigger than Georgia peaches and they taste terrible. Georgia peaches are deeply missed and a point of pride that for at least this one year, we don't have.

O'NEILL: Yeah, Peter, according to your license plates aren't peaches kind of the whole thing down there in Georgia? What happened?

DYKSTRA: Yeah, Georgia is the Peach State. It's actually the third largest peach producer in the country. South Carolina produces far more peaches, although they've also been hit hard by the bad year but the biggest producer far and away, bigger than South Carolina and Georgia combined, is the State of California, who are kind enough to ship us more expensive, big hard unjuicy peaches, that tastes like wax fruit.

O'NEILL: Oh, that's a shame Peter, you deserve a good peach.

DYKSTRA: Don't we all?

O'NEILL: So what else do you have for us this week?

DYKSTRA: There's a meta study—a study of other studies—published recently in the Lancet Public Health Journal. It originated with the Imperial College of London. Low Emission zones in European cities and Japanese cities are showing some success in improving health for in town residents, in respiratory related hospital admissions, heart attacks, strokes, asthma and other things. Low emission zones are just getting started under consideration in the US. New York City has a proposal underway. We'll see how far that gets and how well it works. But there is some fairly convincing proof in some of the studies that Imperial College of London looked at suggesting that when you cut down vehicle emissions, whether it's from private cars or taxis or diesel buses or trucks, it is going to help in terms of improved respiratory health for city dwellers.

Low emissions zones are better for human health in urban centers. (Photo: Cindy Shebley, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

O'NEILL: With all the poor air quality that we've all been getting from those Canadian wildfires, I think we can use all the help we can get. Now, Peter, what do you have for us from the history books this week?

DYKSTRA: It's the 30th anniversary of the release on July 16, 1993 of the movie, Free Willy. It was a minor box office hit based loosely on the captivity of Keiko, an orca whale that was kept in a cramped tank at a little amusement park in Mexico City. The tank was compared to a human being stuck in a bathtub for years. Orcas like to roam the ocean searching for food, cover many miles in a day, Keiko was in a tank where the whale could barely turn around. After the Free Willy movie came out public pressure eventually got the whale released from its captivity. But in 2003, Keiko was released to the wild off Iceland. And unlike the Happy Endings we know from Hollywood, this one had a sad ending. Keiko died after a short time in the wild, but still the movie inspired a movement that eventually began to get orcas completely out of the business of displaying them for human amusement in small tanks.

Keiko, the orca who starred as Willy in Free Willy was the first captive orca to be fully released back into the ocean. (Photo: United States National Archives, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

O'NEILL: All right, well, thanks Peter. Peter Dykstra is a Living on Earth contributor and we will talk to you again soon.

DYKSTRA: Aynsley, thanks a lot. Talk to you soon.

O'NEILL: And there's more on these stories on the Living on Earth website, That's loe.org.

Related links:
- The New York Times | “What’s a Georgia Summer Without Peaches? Not So Sweet.”
- The Guardian | “Low Emission Zones Are Improving Health, Studies Show”
- More about Free Willy at the Internet Movie Database

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[MUSIC: Natalie Merchant, “Cowboy Romance” on Tigerlily, by Natalie Merchant, Elektra Records]

DOERING: Coming up, we’ll have more on the marketing spin from the plastics industry. Keep listening to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from Sailors for the Sea and Oceana. Helping boaters race clean, sail green and protect the seas they love. More information @sailorsforthesea.org.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Joshua Redman “Blues for Charlie (feat. Ron Miles, Scott Colley, & Brian Blade)” on Still Dreamin, Nonesuch Records Inc.]

The Risks of 'Chemical Recycling'

Jay Schabel, president of the plastics division at Brightmark, holds plastic pellets in the company’s new chemical recycling plant in Indiana at the end of July. The pellets are made from plastic waste and sent into chemical processing equipment to make diesel fuel, naphtha and wax. (Photo: Courtesy of James Bruggers)

O’NEILL: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Aynsley O’Neill

DOERING: And I’m Jenni Doering.

When plastics are recycled, they have to be sorted according to those numbers 1 through 7. And even when everything does make it into the right bin and facility, you’d be mistaken to think that the plastic enters an endless cycle of rebirth. In reality, numbers 3 through 7 are almost impossible to recycle. And even the more easily recycled number 1 and 2 plastics can’t be infinitely renewed because the polymers they are made of degrade each time the plastic is melted down. Now industry groups like the American Chemistry Council are promoting so-called chemical recycling or “advanced recycling” as a solution. This technique uses high heat, chemical reactions, or both to break down the plastic back into its raw materials so that it can be used to rebuild polymers from scratch. But many scientists and environmentalists say it’s disingenuous to call this process “recycling” since it’s highly inefficient and releases large amounts of carbon emissions and hazardous pollutants. And at the Brightmark chemical recycling plant in Indiana, health and safety concerns have kept the plant from operating at full capacity. James Bruggers has been covering this for our media partner Inside Climate News and joined Host Steve Curwood to explain.

CURWOOD: So, what exactly is chemical recycling and how much recycling is this chemistry?

BRUGGERS: Well, first of all, you know, we need to remember that there just isn't much recycling going on at all. You know, there's globally less than 10% of the plastic waste that's generated gets recycled. And most of that is a mechanical process, where you have this plastic waste that's sorted, it's cleaned, it's shredded, and then it's molded into new plastic products. With chemical recycling, which sort of falls under this industry umbrella of what they call advanced recycling., they break the plastic waste chemically down into its chemical constituents or feedstocks that would be used by the chemical industry to produce new plastic. So, what are some of those feedstocks? Well, naphtha is one, toluene, xylene, benzene and stuff like that. So that's what is going on at a chemical recycling plant. You know, there's just an awful lot of the plastic waste that gets lost in the process because in the case of pyrolysis, it makes a lot of gas, which is then used to create heat for this very heat intensive process. And that gas never gets used to make new plastics, it's kind of lost in the process.

Kory Kistler, left, and Roy Bisnett, had environmental health and safety concerns at the Brightmark chemical recycling plant where they both worked until last year. (Photo: Courtesy of James Bruggers)

CURWOOD: James tell me about some of the environmental health and safety challenges that Brightmark, this company that does this so-called chemical recycling in northern Indiana, what are some of the environmental health and safety challenges that the company has faced, since it began with this plant, what in 2020 I believe it is?

BRUGGERS: Yeah., so my first trip up there last summer, I had written a story about this technology and the troubles that it was having getting started, you know, getting beyond the startup mode. And the follow up story, which I recently did, I became in touch with four former Brightmark employees, one of whom was a pretty senior person who kind of ran the refinery aspect of the chemical side of the operation and I learned about oil spills, one of them in particular that was reasonably sized inside the facility. And then there was another problem, that part of the plant where the bales of plastic are chopped up and turned into pellets well, there's a worker there who worked in that part, who claims that there was so much dust in the air that it gave him lung problems and he's actually sued the company over those issues.

CURWOOD: At one point there was a fairly big fire, I believe, at the Brightmark plant made it into the news. What was that all about?

BRUGGERS: Yeah, they had two fires that were substantial in terms of needing a response from local fire departments and sent a lot of smoke into the air. And these were both a result of, you know, just trying to get their operation going according to the people that I talked to who used to work at this plant. So they were trying to kind of, you know, get this pyrolysis process started and to see if they could continue to make it run for a long enough time to start making the product that they needed and in both those cases, they ended up with a fire that was fueled by very hot gases under pressure, and also this pyrolysis oil and nobody got burned but there were very close calls from what I understand. So, it's like, all of a sudden, you've got this jet fire coming out of a valve or something and people if they had been there, just like five seconds earlier, they would have suffered some pretty serious consequences.

Plastic waste at the Brightmark plant in northeast Indiana awaits chemical processing. (Photo: Courtesy of James Bruggers)

CURWOOD: Now you say this is in a small town, relatively small town in northern Indiana, how has the fire department responded to those fires?

BRUGGERS: You're right, it's a small volunteer fire department. They normally are accustomed to responding to house fires or maybe fires at you know, some sort of business or that sort of thing. They previously did not have a chemical plant in their area and so the fire chief expressed his concern to me that his department didn't have the training that it needed to respond to chemical plant fires, and also that they didn't have the equipment that they needed. He felt that they needed a larger fire truck that would be able to reach, put water in places that were higher and farther away than they might normally have to do. So, I think that there's been some concerns there from the fire department as expressed to me by the fire chief.

CURWOOD: Now, how does that plant in Brightmark fit into the larger picture of the global plastics crisis? We have a very low rate of recycling, and the plastic keeps piling up.

BRUGGERS: Yeah, it does keep piling up and it is a global plastic crisis, we've got the oceans choking on plastic, we've got microplastics found at the highest mountains and the deepest ocean trenches and in our bloodstream and in our feces. It's such a problem right now that all these nations across the world are gathering to meet to develop a plastics treaty, a global plastics treaty by the end of next year. And I don't know if you watch CNN at night or if you scroll on Facebook, but you'll see advertisements about advanced recycling from the American Chemistry Council, the industry group. And so advanced recycling, there are 15 Second blurbs, but they tout this as the solution really to the plastics crisis. And so, while the world is looking for a solution to the plastics crisis, this is what the industry is putting forward. And there's a lot of concerns from scientists and environmental advocates that it's just not ready for primetime, that it's still really in kind of the research and development phase. And there's a lot of reasons why it's difficult for this technology to work. You know, one of them is just that they're trying to solve the problem with mixed plastic waste, what everybody throws in the recycle bin. And there’s this numbering system: plastics one through seven, and these systems like Brightmark are setup to recycle all of them, supposedly, but it just doesn't work that way chemically according to chemistry professors I've talked to. Each product, each plastic product is different and has different chemical makeup and when you mix them all together, some of them don't play nicely with each other. So anyway, there is this big global debate and chemical recycling, or advanced recycling is one of the industry's kind of primary answers to the problem. And there's a lot of effort to get that built into the treaty to get it built into efforts by different state legislatures to tackle the problem but there's also this pushback. And one of the things that we've been trying to do with our reporting is to just sort of fact check this technology and see if it is actually something that's real.

CURWOOD: Now, James, this of course isn't the only chemical recycling plant in the US. I believe there's one in Texas, another one in Pennsylvania. So how has the Biden administration and the EPA responded to these chemical recycling plants?

BRUGGERS: Well, there is one thing that's interesting about regulations, the American Chemistry Council has managed to get I think 24 different states to pass legislation that regulates chemical recycling as manufacturing and not waste management. And so that means that there's some relaxation, it varies state by state, but it means that there's some relaxation of waste management regulations that they would have to comply with in these different states. So, the Biden administration, they recently rejected a proposal from the Trump administration EPA to stop regulating pyrolysis and gasification as incineration. And so, they're going to continue to regulate pyrolysis and gasification as incineration while they continue to study, this issue of chemical recycling and pyrolysis. That means that as these new plants pop up, that presumably, they're going to be required to meet the tougher clean air standards that are associated with incineration. There's a lot of concern on the part of the environmental community that the Biden administration in these treaty talks will end up conceding to pressures from the chemical industry and somehow allow incentives for chemical recycling to get built into this treaty. But that's all undetermined at this point, their treaty, they're not anywhere near that level of detail in what they're talking about, with the treaty talks. It's a big battle all over the country and globally at this point, to be honest.

Austin Acker, a volunteer firefighter, cleans a fire truck at the Ashley, Indiana volunteer fire department firehouse in May 2023. (Photo: Courtesy of James Bruggers)

CURWOOD: So I'm curious about what the Federal Trade Commission is doing along these lines, the FTC has these Green Guides that establish guidelines for companies when they make ads in the environmental sector? Where does chemical recycling fall in their review? I mean, what kind of pressure are they getting from activists to be skeptical about advanced or chemical recycling?

BRUGGERS: Yeah, there's a big fight that's brewing there with those green guides. And I think the biggest issue boils down to claims that companies make about how much recycled content is in the products that they use or make. And people will see the company says, okay, we're going to use 30% recycled content and all the plastic cups or something like that. And so, with chemical recycling where you are basically just taking plastic waste and making just chemicals out of it, and then putting those chemicals in with all the other chemicals that come from oil and gas drilling or whatever in the plastics manufacturing facility, it's difficult to be able to actually account for like, which of those chemical molecules actually ended up in the new plastic cup. And so there just isn't a good accounting method for chemical recycling to actually be able to make those recycled content claims. But the industry is pushing for a certain way to do it and they're getting pushback from the environmental community and also they're getting pushback, interestingly enough, from the national association that represents plastic recyclers, which largely represent the mechanical recyclers. And that's because they don't trust the way that the chemical industry is proposing to track and account for recycled content as well. That's sort of a big sticking point during these green guides that will be important to watch and see how it comes out because in the end, people just want to be able to trust what they see when they look at a cup and what the claims are. You know, people care about the environment, and they want to be able to rely on the claims of the companies.

DOERING: James Bruggers covers the U.S. Southeast for Inside Climate News. He spoke with Living on Earth Host Steve Curwood.

Related links:
- InsideClimate News | “Inside Indiana’s ‘Advanced’ Plastics Recycling Plant: Dangerous Vapors, Oil Spills and Life-Threatening Fires”
- InsideClimate News | “Environmentalists Want the FTC Green Guides to Slam the Door on the ‘Chemical’ Recycling of Plastic Waste”
- InsideClimate News | “EPA Spurns Trump-Era Effort to Drop Clean-Air Protections For Plastic Waste Recycling”
- WTHR News Coverage of the chemical recycling plant in Richmond Indiana

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[MUSIC: Christian Seldelmyer, “Gold Coast #422” on Ravine Palace, Christian Seldelmyer/Tasty Note Records]

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Sleeping Bear Dunes along Lake Michigan welcomes 1,600,000 visitors annually. Visitors enjoy hiking the dunes, biking on the Sleeping Bear Heritage trail, and exploring the nearby towns. (Photo: Sarah Mahaney)

O’NEILL: Summer is the most popular time for Americans and travelers from abroad to visit our national parks, monuments and lakeshores. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore covers a 35-mile-long stretch of Lake Michigan’s eastern coastline and features forests, beaches, dunes, and historic lighthouses. And it takes a lot of volunteers to keep it looking beautiful. Living on Earth intern Sarah Mahaney recently visited the lakeshore with her family and brought back this audio postcard.


KELLY: Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore has got 72,000 acres. And so, if you're where we are today at Esch Road Beach, you see Lake Michigan, just beautiful. Or you can be floating down the Platte River or the Crystal River, on kayaks and canoes. So, it really depends on where you go and what you want to do.

My name is Kerry Kelly. I'm the chairman of the board for the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes and manage the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail.

The tallest dune at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is 450 ft. (Photo: Sarah Mahaney)

As a recreational facility within Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail is 20 miles long. There were a couple of motivations, the local community came to the park and said, you know, we think we would like to see a bicycle trail or a multi-use trail within the park because there was none.

I retired, and I was looking for a way to give back. So, I got involved with the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes. I've done quite a number of different volunteer projects here. I just love interacting with people that come up to visit the lakeshore, and with the staff. And so that's part of it too. I think that people make it make a big difference. Our volunteers will be out, walking the beaches, picking up litter, walking the trails, identifying where there are downed trees or erosion issues, riding the Heritage Trail, answering questions for visitors and that sort of thing. Most of our visitors that come here are not familiar with the area. So, our ambassadors are out on the trail. They're wearing these bright orange vests so that people can recognize that they're kind of an official representative of the of the park.

Kerry Kelly is the Chairman of the board for the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes and manages the Sleeping Bear Dunes Heritage Trail. (Photo: Courtesy of Kerry Kelly)

We have some threatened and endangered species. The Great Lakes piping plover, I think there are only 70 or so pairs of them, and about half of those are in Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore. So, we have a big program and the friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes is supporting the park and funding that program to protect the nesting sites for the piping plover.


O’NEILL: That audio postcard from Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore came to us from Living on Earth intern Sarah Mahaney.

Related links:
- Learn more about Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore
- Learn more about the Friends of Sleeping Bear Dunes

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[MUSIC: Christian Seldelmyer, “Pushin’ Through” on Ravine Palace, Christian Seldelmyer/Tasty Note Records]

DOERING: Just ahead, restoring the “river of grass” that flows to Everglades National Park. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for Living on Earth comes from Friends of Smeagull the Seagull and Smeagull’s Guide to Wildlife. It’s all about the wildlife right next door to you! That’s Smeagull, S - M - E - A - G - U - L - L, SmeagullGuide.org.

[CUTAWAY MUSIC: Christian Seldelmyer, “Pushin’ Through” on Ravine Palace, Christian Seldelmyer/Tasty Note Records]

Restoring the "River of Grass"

Amy Green is the Florida Correspondent with Inside Climate News and the author of a book on the Everglades called “Moving Water: The Everglades and Big Sugar.” (Photo: Courtesy of Amy Green)

O’NEILL: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Aynsley O’Neill.

DOERING: And I’m Jenni Doering.

Only half of the historic Everglades ecosystem remains today, and over 70% of its natural water flow has been disrupted. That’s created water quality problems, toxic algae blooms, and land loss on the coast of Everglades National Park at the southern tip of the Florida peninsula. So, restoring the Everglades is one of the key priorities for many Floridians. At the heart of this restoration effort is a massive new 16-square-mile reservoir that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers began constructing in February 2023 and expects to complete around 2030. Adjacent to the reservoir, a stormwater treatment area that’s nearly complete will use aquatic plants like cattails to clean nutrient pollution out of the water system. These projects have been in the works for decades and they’re a core focus of the current Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. But even as construction of the reservoir continues, some environmental groups are raising concerns about the project design and whether it will be able to sufficiently clean up and restore the “river of grass.” Here from Orlando to tell us more is Amy Green, the Florida Correspondent for our partner Inside Climate News and the author of the 2021 book “Moving Water: The Everglades and Big Sugar.” Welcome to Living on Earth Amy!

GREEN: I'm happy to be here.

DOERING: So, can you first describe for us this river of grass and why it's so much bigger than the Everglades National Park itself?

GREEN: I think I would begin by saying the Everglades is Florida's most important freshwater resource. It's a watershed that encompasses much of the peninsula. And historically, most of the peninsula was under water. A lot of that water today has been drained to make way for growth and development. Today that watershed begins in Central Florida with the headwaters of the Kissimmee River which flows into Lake Okeechobee. And then from there, the water flows south into Everglades National Park, although the system has been radically altered. Historically, Floridians, they thought they were making the Everglades better. They thought that the Everglades in its natural state was this dismal swamp. And so, they thought by draining the Everglades, they thought they could reclaim that land for growth and development, and especially for agriculture. And it now is managed and sustained through a vast network of some of the most complex water management infrastructure in the world.

Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis recently signed into law a state budget with $1.6 billion for the Everglades and water quality. (Photo: Anthony DiLaura, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

DOERING: So, I understand now we've learned about the consequences of those actions. And can you tell me about what projects are trying to restore the Everglades at this point?

GREEN: Right. Well, there is this massive effort underway in Central and South Florida to restore the Everglades. It was signed into law in 2000, by former President Bill Clinton. And it's one of the most ambitious attempts at environmental restoration in human history. And this is another series of infrastructure projects. The infrastructure that was constructed there beginning in the 1950s and the 1960s, at that time, the goal was to control you know, the Everglades. And now the goal is to restore the Everglades and reclaim key historic functions like water storage, flow and water quality. The “river of grass” has been so radically altered, that much of the flow of water today is east and west from Lake Okeechobee, rather than south through those sawgrass marshes at the lower end of the peninsula. So, Everglades National Park is kind of last in line for you know, that flow of fresh water. And a lot of times the park just, you know, isn't getting enough. And so, a big part of Everglades restoration is to restore that historic flow south.

DOERING: So, tell me about this big Everglades reservoir and what are its aims. And why is it controversial?

GREEN: Right. Well, I would say this project is one of the most controversial Everglades restoration projects. But this is one of the biggest projects in Everglades restoration. And the plans call for, you know, just a massive reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee, that's aimed at conveying more water south and cleaning the water, improving the water quality. Governor DeSantis and others describe this reservoir as the “crown jewel” of Everglades restoration and a key strategy in addressing some water quality problems that have especially developed in the past decade or so in Florida, which are toxic algae blooms. And there are environmental groups who have raised concerns about the reservoir’s design; this reservoir has always been a part of, you know, the plans for Everglades restoration. And this reservoir has gone through a lot of different incarnations as you know, as a result of different political and economic forces, you know, that have swirled in the state since 2000. So, I think everyone agrees that the reservoir is necessary. I think the concerns that are being raised have to do with the reservoirs design.

The Everglades Reservoir aims to improve water quality and restore the historic flow of water. (Photo: Parsa Mahmoudi, Unsplash License)

DOERING: You mentioned that this reservoir is designed to convey water south and clean up the water. So, can you tell me more about the problems that some of these scientists and groups have with this current plan?

GREEN: I think the main concerns are that the reservoir is too deep, and that it will not clean the water to standards. The Everglades historically was a very shallow system. And so the environmental groups point out that for the reservoir to be, you know, as deep as 23 feet, it's not the way water moved through the Everglades naturally. There's also concerns that the design will not convey enough water south and that it does not take climate change and precipitation changes into account. And this summer, there's a lot of concerns about severe toxic algae blooms, again, because we just had Hurricane Ian dump and extraordinary amount of rain in the state. And as that water has drained into waterways like Lake Okeechobee, it carries with it a large amount of nutrient pollution. And when that lake level gets high, that water is discharged to delicate estuaries. And that's an opportunity for that toxic algae to spread.

DOERING: And one of these environmental groups that have some questions about this reservoir design, what do they have in mind?

GREEN: They have pushed for a reservoir that would be larger, but shallower, and that would involve more land acquisition. But that has been complicated because the reservoir is in a location that is heavily agriculture, and the primary crop there is sugar. And in Florida sugar growers are very powerful political players in state and national politics and the sugar growers have pushed back against giving up land for you know, this Everglades project.

DOERING: So, Governor Ron DeSantis announced that he's running for president in 2024, for the Republican nomination. How do you think these issues of water quality and environmental restoration play into his campaign at all? And how might they indicate how he might approach those kinds of issues nationally?

GREEN: Well, the reason I've been looking into DeSantis’s record on toxic algae recently is because, you know, again, that was, you know, one of the most important issues of his gubernatorial campaign. And there's a lot of headlines swirling right now around DeSantis, as he is engaged in culture war issues, like you know, LGBTQ issues and issues involving people of color. And I kind of just was interested in getting back to one of the, you know, first campaign promises he made, you know, as a gubernatorial candidate in Florida, which was on toxic algae and water quality.

There are concerns an excessively deep reservoir could lead to an increase in toxic algae blooms. (Photo: Drew Waddell, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

DOERING: Amy, how much is climate change a focus of the Florida government and Ron DeSantis, for that matter?

GREEN: Ron DeSantis has implemented a program called Resilient Florida. And this is a program that's aimed at fortifying infrastructure against the rising seas and more damaging hurricanes of climate change. He has received quite a bit of criticism from some of the environmental groups who say that while it's great, the governor is investing money in these important issues, he hasn't really done anything to address the main cause behind climate change, which is fossil fuel emissions. And he hasn't really done very much to address those emissions in Florida and transition the state toward clean energy.

DOERING: Amy, what do you think next steps might look like for Everglades restoration?

GREEN: Well, Everglades restoration is really at this, you know, kind of exciting, pivotal point right now, because these projects now are beginning construction, and a few of them are reaching completion. And as these projects are completed, it'll be watching to see how the different projects function together. And already we're seeing success, a major restoration of the Kissimmee River, finished construction kind of recently, and we know that restoration works. It's just it's very complicated. It takes a lot of money, and it's going to take a long time, and it will be many decades before these projects are complete. And there's always going to have to be someone, you know, kind of running the system because the Everglades no longer isn't, is a natural one. And so, work in the system will continue for many, many years.

DOERING: Amy Green is the Florida correspondent for Inside Climate News and the author of the 2021 book "Moving Water: The Everglades and Big Sugar." Thank you so much, Amy.

GREEN: It's a pleasure talking with you.

Related links:
- Inside Climate News | “In the Everglades a Clash Portrayed as ‘Science vs. Politics’ Pits a Leading Scientist Against His Former Employer”
- Learn more about the Everglades Reservoir’s Progress
- Palm Beach Post | “Everglades Agricultural Area Reservoir breaks ground in western Palm Beach County”
- Learn more about Amy Green

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[MUSIC: JJ Grey & Mofro, “Fireflies” on Lochloosa, Fog City Records]

Sea Cucumbers Clean Up Fish Poop

Kauai Sea Farm has started adding these spiky sea cucumbers to their aquaculture system to help them clean up waste. (Photo: Courtesy of Kiley Price) 

DOERING: Too many nutrients can degrade both fresh and saltwater ecosystems, and that’s a big problem for aquaculture, or fish farming. The industry supplies over half of the seafood that humans around the world eat every year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. And as aquaculture continues to grow, farmers are finding themselves dealing with all the waste their fish produce. That muck can spread diseases and lead to harmful algal blooms. Now some fish farmers are enlisting the help of an often-overlooked sea creature. Sea cucumbers live on the ocean floor at all depths and vacuum up algae and the organic debris called “marine snow”, leaving behind clean sediment. Using sea cucumbers to clean up fish waste in commercial operations is still in its early stages, but it’s rooted in a longstanding traditional practice of raising multiple aquatic species as a way of mimicking natural ecosystems. Freelance journalist Kiley Price has reported on this for Yale e360 and she’s here to tell us more. Welcome to Living on Earth, Kiley!

PRICE: Thank you. It's good to be here.

DOERING: So, for this story, you visited a business called Kauai Sea Farm. Can you tell me a bit about what kinds of seafood they raise and how their system works?

PRICE: Kauai Sea Farm is a traditional Hawaiian fishpond. It's called a loko i'a. It's been in Lynn Taylor, who is the owner of Kauai Sea Farm, it's been in her family for more than a hundred years. And the way that Hawaiian fishponds work is that they have this series of gates that connects the pond to the ocean. And the fish come in from the ocean when they're babies, and then they get really big and they eat a lot in the pond, and then they're too big to get out. And that is a traditional Hawaiian technique, and the way that they've built the pond really goes back very far. It really depends on what comes in, on what day, what they're farming. So when I was there, I saw some barracuda. They told me there are some tilapia in there. Mullet is a big one. And then they also have a land-based hatchery.

Aquaculture, or the farming of aquatic plants and animals, provides a major portion of the world’s seafood — and the industry continues to grow. (Photo: Bytemarks, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

DOERING: So, you visited this fish farm on Kaua'i to learn about how they're using sea cucumbers as part of their system. Those are kind of these big, slimy, aquatic, slug-like things, right?

PRICE: Yeah, that pretty much sums it up exactly, actually. There's over 1200 species of sea cucumbers, so you're going to have a really broad spectrum of how they look, what color they are, the size. There's a few that they're focusing on raising, but the ones I saw while I was there were these big, red, spiky sea cucumbers. I was able to hold one, we did a scuba dive to go get it, and I held it once we got back up to the surface. And I would say it was like, half the size of a baguette. And it was really slimy and kind of like moving around a little bit. Yeah, it was, it was a really interesting experience. I don't even know what I would compare it to.

DOERING: So, why are these things -- these cool, slimy, maybe they have all kinds of different colors and textures -- why are they potentially useful at fish farms?

Raising lots of captive fish leads to a lot of waste, which can accumulate and cause disease or algal blooms. (Photo: Bytemarks, Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

PRICE: Yeah, this is honestly what drew me to the story, I would say. I was really surprised that such a humble-looking creature could have this much of an impact. So, basically, sea cucumbers are bottom-dwellers in the wild. So, they're responsible for kind of gobbling up all of the waste that fish produce, and that's actually their favorite snack. So, it's a good thing for them, the waste that the fish are producing. Everything poops. Poop is going to be an ever-present problem in mass-scale either fishing or agricultural systems. The fish are producing this waste that normally is really difficult to get out of the water, and might actually lead to diseases because of the bacteria in the waste. It can also accumulate at the bottom of the tank. And in that scenario, there's nutrients in it that could eventually lead to algal blooms, if you're in an offshore-based system. It could also kind of suck the oxygen from the system, which can be really dangerous for fish, because fish need oxygen too. So yeah, all in all, it's so crucial to get the waste out of the system so that it's not just floating around in there. What's unique about the sea cucumbers is that it's like one man's waste is another man's treasure, literally in this scenario.

DOERING: So, I understand that using sea cucumbers to clean up farmed fish waste is just one example of something called integrated multi-trophic aquaculture, or IMTA. What is this, and what's the motivation behind it?

Some aquaculture operations are turning to sea cucumbers to consume that waste. These bottom-dwellers come in all shapes and sizes; above is Psychropotes longicauda, also known as the “gummy squirrel.” (Photo: NOAA Ocean Exploration, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

PRICE: So, integrated multi-trophic aquaculture is this technique that really is trying to mimic nature. So, basically, the goal is to have different marine species along the food chain. You might have fish, and then you might have sea cucumbers, which are a step below on the food chain. It's this very circular system, at least theoretically. You can add multiple things to an IMTA system, so you don't have to just have two things. In an ideal world, for some farmers, you could even have fish, and then kelp, and bivalves, and then sea cucumbers. And then, fortunately, you can sell all of them as products. And sea cucumbers can go for really high prices on the international market. In Asian markets, they are considered a delicacy. They can be frozen, they can be -- mostly they're dried. They can even be eaten as sashimi. There are countries across Asia that have been raising multiple marine species together in one system for a long time. So, you might find, like, shrimp in the same system as sea cucumbers, or other things like that.

DOERING: So, it sounds like even though the idea of integrated multi-trophic aquaculture, or IMTA, is not new, it is still not very common in commercial aquaculture in the U.S. So, what are some of the challenges to scaling up these strategies?

Raising sea cucumbers alongside fish is one example of what’s known as “integrated multi-trophic aquaculture.” The technique, which aims to mimic natural ecosystems, can incorporate several species along the food chain — including bivalves like mussels. (Photo: Peter D. Tillman, Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0)

PRICE: I would say one of the big ones is policy-related. Aquaculture in different countries kind of has different policies. So, in the United States, really across all of North America, and then in Europe as well, it is a bit newer of an industry than compared to countries in Asia, particularly China. And there aren't really policies that have caught up to it. So, you might file one permit to raise mullet, and then you'll have to file another permit to raise sea cucumbers and another to raise kelp, and they might even be in different departments. Another barrier to this is, it is hard growing more than one marine species at once. There are predominantly monocultures in the United States, in Canada, in Europe. These people are pros at raising that one species, so you might have a salmon farmer that knows everything about salmon farming. But then when you introduce a sea cucumber into their system, how can you expect them to have that equal amount of knowledge? Another barrier is that these farms, to scale up to the level that they want to, are probably going to need their own sea cucumber hatchery and are going to need to artificially spawn them, so, get them to reproduce. And that's really tough because sea cucumbers are little weirdos.

DOERING: Why is that so hard? I mean, they don't just naturally reproduce, make babies?

PRICE: They do, but scientists aren't sure how every species does it yet. So, you know, there's theories that it could be related to different lunar cycles, different water temperatures, things like that. So, they are surprisingly finicky when it comes to spawning. So, the folks at Kauai Sea Farm are working with researchers at the University of Hawai'i right now to figure out how to artificially spawn a couple different species of sea cucumbers, and then see which ones perform best in the pond. And that is a barrier that some of the other farmers outside of Hawai'i had mentioned to me, like in Canada. In order for this to work and to be economically viable, they do need to invest in their own hatchery. So, I think right now, where it's at with integrated multi-trophic aquaculture is, there is a lot of buzz around it, but there are these barriers. And from what I gathered, a lot of farmers are looking to other farmers almost as guinea pigs, to see how this might work. Like a, 'Let's sit back. Let's see how this is going to go. And as soon as there is a reason for me to do this, then maybe I can do it.'

DOERING: Kiley Price is a freelance journalist who wrote about this for Yale e360. Thank you so much, Kiley.

PRICE: Thank you so much for having me.

Related links:
- Check out Kiley’s story about farmers enlisting sea cucumbers
- Read about Kauai Sea Farm
- Learn more about loko i’a

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[MUSIC: Kenny Barron Trio, “Cook’s Bay” on Book of Intuition, Impulse ! A Division of Universal Music France]

DOERING: Living on Earth is produced by the World Media Foundation. Our crew includes Naomi Arenberg, Paloma Beltran, Josh Croom, Swayam Gagneja, Madison Goldberg, Mark Kausch, Mark Seth Lender, Don Lyman, Sarah Mahaney, Sophia Pandelidis, Clare Shanahan, El Wilson, and Jolanda Omari.

O’NEILL: Jake Rego engineered our show. Alison Lirish Dean composed our themes. You can hear us anytime at L-O-E dot org, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts, and like us, please, on our Facebook page - Living on Earth. We tweet from @livingonearth. And find us on Instagram @livingonearthradio. And you can write to us at comments at loe.org. Steve Curwood is our Executive Producer. I’m Aynsley O’Neill.

DOERING: And I’m Jenni Doering. Thanks for listening!

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