9 Oct 2019

Journals and the quest for a sustainable delivery .

Guest post by Paul Newman. Paul works as a library assistant with TU Dublin Library Service - City Campus. He has travelled extensively and lived to tell the tales. He finds the plastic / environmental situation rather concerning...

In this blog post, I will look at issues of plastic used in the delivery of Academic journals to the library, from the supply side chain to the manufacture of plastic as well as the environmental consequences.  I will also investigate paper, as an alternative to plastic, from a manufacturing and environmental point of view.  Finally I will see if th ere are any solutions to the problem.

Every day in the library, there is a new delivery of journals from various publishers and distributors.

These are often shipped labelled and in a plastic bag/sleeve.  We cut open the plastic and begin processing the journals.  However, the plastic in question is not being recycled and instead is going to landfill/incineration.  As this is just one branch of the TUDublin library system, the total amount arriving in all the libraries is much greater than the example shown in the photo.  In an attempt to rectify the issue and perhaps have paper used instead for shipping purposes, I contacted some of the publishers of the journals and some of the distributors too.

(Fig 1) TU Dublin Aungier Street - one week's plastic from journals (pic: Eaodaoin Ryan)

Both parties expressed sympathy for our plight and offered assistance.  However, both are effectively trapped in the system.  The publishers send the journals/newspapers to large distribution companies who sort and package it.   One publisher who was concerned about the environmental impacts of the plastic was told by the distributor that the plastic used was recyclable.  However, the publishers own city council’s recycling website stated that they don’t accept soft plastic for the recycling bin and that the nearest recycling nearest recycling centre was nearly a kilometre away.  A distribution centre who printed information that the plastic could be recycled on the address sheet was contacted and informed that neither their local recycling collection nor their local recycling centre accepted low density polyethylene (LDPE) plastic for recycling.  Here in Ireland, as it is not possible to recycle this type of plastic, we have to bin it.  One of the direct mail distributors had looked into using potato starch wrapping for the journals but as it was three times the cost of plastic, they kept with plastic.  A journal publisher offered to post them to us outside the normal distribution system, in a paper envelope, but said it would cost £4 minimum per issue to do this.

And that is part of the problem.  Everyone is trapped in the system, chained by the supply chain logistics. The distributors achieve large discounts from the postal/courier service which is why the comparative cost of the publishers mailing it to us in an envelope instead is much higher.  The distributers, competing to offer the best pricing, source the most economic, in the short term, mailing covers.  The manufacturers/wholesalers of LDPE material present their product in the most environmentally friendly way.  For instance, the Weifang Huasheng Plastics Products Company, on their Alibaba page, announce that they are “committed to developing environmentally friendly plastic bags.”  And this is the way plastic is being marketed now, as it has to overcome all the bad press recently.  Now there are biodegradable plastic products.  However, there are a lot of claims and counter claims about how much and how well this type of plastic degrades.  Is it a solution or just a case of putting lipstick on a pig?

As the plastic industry is putting forward an image of itself as environmentally friendly and  our suppliers and their distributors are using this to feel that these products are solutions not problems, we will look at how plastic is created.  Plastic can be transparent, have a nice feel and be hygienic but looks can be deceiving.  While it might seem with all the environmental concerns that plastic may be a thing of the past, in the US, for instance, there is $164 billion being invested in new plastic production facilities[1]Much of the plastic is sourced from fracked shale gas.  As this increase in supply needs to be sold, the US now ships gas to Europe where, for instance in Scotland, there has been a huge increase in plastic production. However, all this fracking is causing environmental and social problems. In, her article, Drilling and Consent, [2] Ellie Bastian notes how in the US, 650,000 school children live within a mile of a fracked well, while the industry itself and a republican majority senate committee in Colorado voted to defeat a motion to widen the required distance.  She writes how problems from fracking wastewater and evaporation pits kill half a million birds a year while also contaminating the land and nearby streams.  This wastewater is also a chemical soup containing heavy metals and radioactive material amongst other chemicals.

(Fig 2) Oklahoma Earthquakes 2018 - Sept 2019
(Fig 3) Oklahoma Earthquakes 1980s

In his article “Oklahoma earthquakes and the price of oil” [3] Travis Roach writes that earthquake activity in Oklahoma is 300 times the historical average and is mainly the result of fracking wastewater injection.  The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland [4] did a report on the effect of earthquakes on house prices in Oklahoma and found that there were increased insurance costs due to homeowners having to cover for earthquakes which were not needed before and that in the worst affected areas there were house price falls of between 3.4% and 9.8%.  In an article on Psychosocial Impact of Fracking [5], Hirch et al note that fracking usually happens in poorer areas, thus worsening the quality of life for those who have a lower quality of life index anyway.  They describe the effects of ‘negative externality”, meaning that those living in fracking areas are paying an additional cost for the activities of others, costs which impact their social life, the community, tourism, conservation and agriculture.  They cite a couple of studies which showed a “collective trauma” and “widespread social stress” as a result of fracking.

Meanwhile, the oil industry news site, oilprice.com, reports that the benefits outweigh the negatives: that gas is clean, with little groundwater contamination and environmental consequences and concludes that shale gas is needed for energy security, economic prosperity and a cleaner environment.  The author wonders why people are not demanding that cars be banned considering the slaughter on the roads instead of protesting about fracking.

The industry is now promoting itself as clean and environmentally caring.  Plastic is recyclable and now there is an increasing amount of biodegradable plastic coming onto the market.  This is quite a controversial issue as there is still a lot of debate about whether the products are actually biodegradable. The Oxo-Biodegradable Plastics Association [6] acknowledges the existing problems with plastic, such as the 150,000 tons dumped in European seas each year which decompose into microplastics, but claim that the solution is to redesign plastic itself.  This is normal LDPE, which has chemical additives that allow it to be broken down by micro-organisms combined with oxygen.  They will not breakdown, for instance, while buried in a landfill as they need oxygen and the right type of micro-organism or fungus to decompose.  While the plastic industry extolls the virtues of oxy-biodegradable plastic, Recycling Magazine [7] reports that Spain, France and Italy have already banned oxo-degradable plastics.  There is a lot of lobbying going on from the industry who have heavily criticised the EU over the proposed ban as part of the EU single use directive and lobbying by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.  We do have a publisher who sends us journals with a message on the address slip informing us that the plastic used is biodegradable. Technically it is, but we are unable to place it in a suitable situation where this will occur.

We did suggest to some of our suppliers that a paper envelope might be a better alternative to plastic, and there was a commitment from one publisher on that, but at quite an additional cost.  Then there is the environmental cost of paper.  Is it as clean as it looks?  It appears not.   In his article The Environmental Sustainability of Paper [8], Smith outlines some of the problems such as the heavy use of chemicals including “chlorine, mercury, absorbable organic halogens, nitrates, ammonia, phosphorus, and caustic soda”, the pesticides used on forests, the wastewater issue, that it takes 17 watts to produce 1 piece of paper. The American Chemical Association in a paper titled Plastics: An Energy-Efficient Choice [9] claimed that in 1990 alone the use of plastics versus alternatives resulted in enough energy savings to provide power for 100,000 homes for 35 years.  However, paper is actually bio-degradable, and is made from renewable resources something the petro-chemical industry cannot say.

So, a journey that started off as a suggestion to use a more sustainable option for the supply of journals turned into an investigation into fracking, earthquakes, oxy-biodegradable plastics, the paper industry and the logistics of journal distribution.  Though the distributors claim to be eco-friendly, they are foregoing other, more environmentally friendly, materials because plastic is cheaper, we have seen that there is are hidden costs.  There is the cost of pollution caused by fracking, the reduced value of a family home in Oklahoma, the social cost paid by low income families, the collective traumas affecting communities, earthquakes, environmental problems.  Paper too has problems but seems to be the lesser of two evils. Could going completely digital be the solution. However there are the associated problems of server farms gobbling up electricity…….

It would ease the problem if our refuse collection service accepted LDPE plastic for recycling but at the moment it is not recycled.  The Irish Independent [10] reported that the government wanted to ban non-recyclable plastic by 2030.  Government targets for 2030 include “ensuring that all plastic packaging is reusable or recyclable.”   Can we presume that this means that there will be recycling facilities for LDPE?  Should we be moving away from the petro-chemical industry and forgetting about plastic products regardless of whether it is recyclable or not?  Why should we need to wait until 2030?

While a small library on its own might not be able to have much leverage to achieve this type of change, as we have seen in the case of TUDublin City Campus Aungier Street, perhaps on a higher level, on a consortium level of some sort, it might be possible to pressurize suppliers now.  An additional factor might be to use the greater economies of scale to bring down the additional cost of non-plastic wrapping.

(Fig 4) TU Dublin Compostable packaging screenshot
We can see that TUDublin used compostable wrap, with recycling instructions, for their student welcome pack.  It can be done and, after all, the suppliers and distributors of journals will have to change anyway.  So why not start now?

  1. Centre for Environmental Law: How Fracked Gas, Cheap Oil, And Unburnable Coal are Driving the Plastics Boom.
  2.  Minnesota Law Review (2017) Drilling and Community Consent: How Oil andGas Boards Can Address the Public Health ThreatsPosed by Fracking / Ellie Bastian
  3. Energy Policy(2018) Oklahoma earthquakes and the price of oil/ Travis Roac
  4. Ron Cheung, Daniel Wetherell, and Stephan Whitaker (2016)  Earthquakes and House Prices:Evidence from Oklahoma  [Federal Reserve Bank of Cleaveland Working Paper 16-31]
  5. International Journal of Mental Health Addiction (2018) Psychosocial Impact of Fracking: a Review of the Literature on the Mental Health Consequences of Hydraulic Fracturing / Jameson K. Hirsch & K. Bryant Smalley & Emily M. Selby-Nelson3 & Jane M. Hamel-Lambert  & Michael R. Rosmann5 & Tammy A. Barnes6 & Daniel Abrahamson6 & Scott S. Meit & Iva GreyWolf &Sarah Beckmann9 & Teresa LaFromboise
  6. Oxo-Biodegradable Plastics Association (2019) Comments on the Ellen MacArthur Foundation 
  7. Recycling Magazine (2019:2) ECHA withdraws its intention to restrict Oxo-degradable plastic under REACH
  8.  Graduate Studies Journal of Organizational Dynamics (2011): The Environmental Sustainability of Paper / Richard Smith
  9. The American Chemical Association: Plastics: An Energy-Efficient Choice [https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/Plastics-An-Energy-Efficient-Choice/]
  10. Irish Independent 16/09/2019 Plastic straws, cups and cutlery to be banned by minister /Caroline O'Doherty.

Fig 1: Eadaoin Ryan, TUDublin, Aungier Street Library.
Fig 2 and 3 : Govt. of Oklahoma, United States.
Fig 4.  Still from video curtesy of Brian Gormley, TUDublin.

1 comment:

  1. there's only 1 thing transparent about plastic. That's a marvellous read Paul. Often change can only start with one small gesture. You say in the last para that a small lib on its own might not have much leverage but perhaps on a consortium level "it might be posssible to pressurize suppliers". So could we take this to the conul board or one of its sub groups? And ucc as you (and Martin) knows have their green campus initiative, regards brian gillespie