The epiphany came when a certain coffee chain started replacing plastic straws with paper ones. Despite increasingly dire warnings about Texas-size islands of plastic in the world's oceans, the sudden public debate over straws was arguably a turning point in how American consumers think about sustainability.
On one hand, the rise of paper straws is a brazen case of green washing, because straws make up only a tiny share of waste. On the other, the proliferation of paper and bamboo straws marked the beginning of a larger commercial pivot away from plastic.
Companies are beginning to realize there's more to lose from offending consumers who are aware of how cheap plastic products feed global warming, choke oceans, kill wildlife and - more slowly -threaten us. This is especially the case when it comes to packaging.
Containers, cartons, wrapping and everything else discarded after a product is used make up about 30% of all American trash, or more than 76 million tons annually. Now the biggest retailers and consumer goods giants are racing to replace everything from plastic envelopes to plastic foam meat trays with fiber-based iterations.
The U.S. paper recycling industry, it turns out, has suddenly found itself in demand- and may be just in the nick of time.
Until 2018, recycling in America - from plastics to paper to assorted waste-was propped up by China's willingness to purchase much of it, ostensibly for recycling and reuse by its domestic industries. Instead of returning to China empty, shipping containers were filled with refuse, bales of plastic bottles, cardboard and wastepaper. But when Beijing decided it didn't want the world's garbage anymore, slashing the amount it would take while requiring the rest to be near-pristine, the value of American recyclables plummeted.
With an excess supply and no one to sell it to, prices for recycled residential paper even touched negative territory. That means cities have to pay someone to take away the material they collect. The S&P 500 Paper Packaging Index has plummeted more than 25% since China started restricting trash.
For U.S. towns and cities, with their colorful recycling barrels and bins, what was at best a breakeven proposition suddenly became very expensive. Unable to sell recycling at a high enough price, they either had to raise taxes to pay for collection, dump it all into landfills or burn it. Many chose the latter options.
This has been "a challenging year" for municipalities that collect paper, said Renee Yardley, a senior vice president at recycling company Sustana Group.
But consumer goods companies might be starting to turn that around. Trying to get ahead of regulations in countries that ban or tax plastic packaging, some product manufacturers are turning to recycled paper for the first time. With restrictions on single-use plastics in place across 60 nations and 350 U.S. municipalities, analysts on MSCI's environmental, social and governance research team said plastics "could lose market share to alternatives."
More than 200 businesses, representing about 20% of all packaging used globally, have made commitments to reduce plastic waste, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Coca-Cola European Partners became the latest to do so, saying it will replace plastic shrink wrap with cardboard for its can multipacks across Western Europe, removing about 4,000 tons of plastic annually.
A ton of recycled paper saves the equivalent of 17 trees, more than 16,000 gallons of water and 5,500 pounds of carbon dioxide, according to Sustana. Americans are also more likely to recycle paper; collection rates for paper are above 60%, compared with 30% for common types of plastic. But it's expensive to recycle paper: The process begins with fleets of trucks to pick it up and facilities to clean it, pulp it and eventually turn it into rolls of recycled paper. Then it's sold to manufacturers for use in their products or packaging.
As demand for paper packaging rises, however, the U.S. recycling sector faces another challenge: a critical need for expanded infrastructure. Therefore, while the low price of discarded paper makes it cheaper for consumer companies to use it in their products, it's also attracting the attention of European recycling executives. One is Miles Smith, chief executive officer of DS Smith, Europe's largest cardboard-packaging recycler. He's betting big on the U.S.
This summer, DS Smith opened a $100 million paper packaging and recycling plant in Indiana that's set to become one of the largest in North America, with a team of 160 employees. Smith said a key draw of the American market is that the price of recycled paper has become competitive with that of paper made directly from trees.
"It just takes a few years to get the investment in infrastructure going," Smith said. "We're really just at the start."
London-based DS Smith's customers include consumer giants such as Mondelez, Nestle, P&G, Danone and Unilever. They have been pushing the company to create the same types of cardboard packaging in the U.S. for their products. (Think TV dinner trays made from paper and paper alternatives to plastic bubble wrap.)
Over the past year, Austrian packaging company Mondi Ltd. rolled out paper-based packaging for everything from deli cheese and premium watermelons to wine glasses. The company notes, though, that plastic packaging will still be needed in the medical and food industries, where other materials would be unsafe or impractical. Indeed, Mondi's more deliberate approach is more likely to be the rule than the exception; the company said its strategy is to use "paper where possible, plastic when useful."
It bears noting that some recycled paper products aren't as biodegradable as advertised: Some are coated in plastic or contain chemicals. Still, the demand for recycled paper products in America is rising, Pat Lindner said. The new president of Atlanta-based consumer packaging at WestRock Co., he contends that "retailers are now saying, 'We need solutions for this, and we need it now.' "
Lindner joined the company in March, taking over a $20 billion business after spending two decades in, ironically, the plastics industry. WestRock has gone from working on a handful of new packaging projects to working on hundreds in the past year, he said. It has replaced plastic wrapping for beer cans with printable paper labels suitable for advertising, and it is substituting paper for plastic lipstick and deodorant containers, as well as envelopes, e-commerce packaging and the dreaded Styrofoam meat tray.
That last item has been reborn in a new pressed-fiber version that's fully compostable.
Ecologic, which makes molded paper bottles out of old corrugated cardboard boxes, said it's seeing growing demand as well. The Manteca, California-based company said it has sold 10 million paper bottles since it opened in 2011 and expects to sell as many as 6 million next year alone.
"We're a little bit more expensive than plastic, but there's a desperation right now at so many levels to start looking at alternatives," said founder Julie Corbett. The company sells paper bottles for use with laundry detergent sold under Unilever's Seventh Generation brand, and the Seed personal care line made by L'Oreal.
A Douglas County district judge has ordered that a case involving a teen accused of shooting at Omaha police officers be transferred to juvenile court, frustrating law enforcement officials and the Omaha police union.
The decision marked the second time Judge Marlon Polk has transferred a case of a teen shooting at law enforcement officers to juvenile court.
Esai Pinales, 16, has been charged with eight felonies, including attempted assault, use of a deadly weapon to commit a felony and discharging a firearm at an occupied motor vehicle. Polk ruled last week that the case will be moved to juvenile court, which will have jurisdiction over Pinales until he turns 19.
Authorities have said Pinales and 18-year-old Keven Solorzano shot at an unmarked Omaha police car with two detectives and an intern inside near 1314 Pine St. Two bullets hit the car, but no one was injured in the shooting, which occurred in June. The officers did not fire their guns, the Police Department said.
Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine said Friday that Pinales is a documented gang member who also has pending cases tied to an unrelated robbery and shooting and an assault at the Douglas County Youth Center.
Pinales also has admitted in Sarpy County juvenile court to theft by unlawful taking of more than $5,000, tampering with physical evidence and creating a visual depiction of sexually explicit conduct of a child. He was given nearly 3½ years of probation starting in March 2018.
Kleine said his office plans to appeal Polk’s ruling.
“We’re very frustrated and disheartened,” Kleine said. “His intent was to hurt somebody seriously by firing a gun at him. It’s as serious of a felony as it gets.”
Kleine said Polk ruled from the bench but said he hopes to see a written order to understand the judge’s thought process.
Two years ago this month, Polk ordered that then-17-year-old Tyler Pitzl should be tried in juvenile court on allegations that he shot at Douglas County deputies, striking one. Polk said Pitzl would be better rehabilitated in juvenile court. An appeal from Kleine’s office reached the Nebraska Supreme Court, which said Polk did not overreach in his decision.
Pitzl was ordered by a juvenile court judge to serve probation until he turned 19 — which would occur four months later — and perform 240 hours of community service.
Earlier this month, Douglas County District Judge Duane Dougherty ruled that Nick Cisar, 17½, should be tried in juvenile court in connection with a stabbing of a classmate at Burke High School, noting Cisar’s history of mental illness.
Both judges are up for retention in next year’s general election.
Anthony Conner, the president of the Omaha Police Officers Association, said the union’s members are upset and demand action. The group plans to launch anti-retention campaigns against Polk and, possibly, Dougherty.
Conner recently trained with one of the officers who was shot at near 13th and Pine Streets. The officer, Conner said, reacted angrily to the news of Polk’s decision.
“Imagine staring down the barrel of a gun and thinking your life may be over when you have a wife and kids, and that person suffers no consequences,” Conner said. “When someone shows themselves to be violent enough to shoot at police officers, they should be held accountable at the highest level possible.”
In the June 19 incident, two plainclothes detectives and an intern in an unmarked car saw two males sprint from behind a house and jump into a Honda Accord. The detectives followed the Honda for about a mile to near 13th and Pine, where the shots were fired.
At some point as detectives followed the car, the people in the Honda called someone they knew had weapons to say they were being followed. They told the person they called that the car behind them contained either rival gang members or police officers and they asked for their help.
Conner said the judges’ decisions put officers at risk because juvenile court has limited time to help rehabilitate the offender, increasing the likelihood the youth will reoffend.
“It makes it more dangerous for the public but also the police officers that have to go after these juveniles later,” Conner said. “They’re stuck in the mud spinning their wheels going after these same people who are getting more and more violent.”
BOA VISTA, Cape Verde — She emerged from the ocean just before midnight, clambering up the shore as her ancestors have for 200 million years.
Only stars glowed on this remote beach, where the sea turtle arrived to lay her eggs. She dodged plastic, fishing nets and oil spills to get this far. But another threat to her species lurks in the ground: sand temperatures that foster only one gender.
"One hundred percent girls," whispered the biologist, crawling next to the pregnant reptile. "This nest will be 100% girls."
As the earth gets hotter, turtle hatchlings worldwide are expected to skew dangerously female, scientists predict, making the animals an unwitting gauge for the warming climate.
In the tiny West African island nation of Cape Verde — home to a sixth of the planet's nesting loggerheads — the disparity is stark. Eighty-four percent of youngsters are now female, researchers from Britain's University of Exeter said in a July report.
Populations in Florida and Australia are also showing dramatic sex imbalances, sparking fears that creatures that outlasted dinosaurs are plodding toward extinction.
"Males here could vanish in two or three decades," said Adolfo Marco Llorente, a Spanish researcher who camps every summer on Boa Vista, one of Cape Verde's 10 islands in the Atlantic. "There will be no reproduction."
The past five years have been the hottest on record for the globe. Roughly a tenth of the planet has warmed beyond 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 Fahrenheit), according to a Washington Post analysis — the point at which scientists say rising temperatures can trigger irreversible damage to ecosystems. Here in Cape Verde, the warming is above average — about 1.3 degrees Celsius (2.3 degrees Fahrenheit) just since 1964, based on records from the primary airport.
If the trend continues at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's lowest projection, researchers estimate that fewer than 1% of Cape Verde's sea turtles will be born male by the century's end. Higher rises could wipe them out completely.
This has raised alarm on the archipelago, which ties its economy to the roughly 30,000 sea turtles that annually swim here to nest. (Tourism accounts for 15% of economic growth.)
Turtle murals greet thousands of visitors each week. Turtle pottery rakes in cash. Turtle-shaped roundabouts ease traffic. Turtle signs urge four-wheelers to stay off the sand.
"Turtles are the brand of Cape Verde," said Paulo Veiga, the country's assistant secretary of state for the maritime economy.
The Cape Verdean government works with nonprofit organizations to protect the reptiles, tapping money from hotel taxes for beach cleanups, security to curb poachers and fences that keep predators like ghost crabs away.
Turtle guides on the islands, who lead visitors largely from Europe on overnight beach treks, are mandated to educate them about climate change.
"They see the turtles like toys," said Manuel Delgado Rodrigues, who has arranged such tours for two decades. "We have to tell them about the problems."
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Fund also supports conservation projects on the islands; it spent $53,800 on the effort in 2018.
Not everyone thinks such tactics stand a chance against boiling weather.
"Humans can do nothing about that," said Djamilton Ramos, a Boa Vista City Council member.
Scientists don't know why the environment shapes the gender of some lizards, crocodiles and various species of sea turtles. Even slight shifts in the land can warp their reproductive fate.
Sea turtle eggs that incubate in sand below 81.86 degrees Fahrenheit produce males, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, while nests in the mid-80s create a gender mix.
Anything higher than 87.8 degrees, though, is 100% girls.
A 2018 study on green turtles near Australia's Great Barrier Reef found 116 female hatchlings for every male. The study found that 99% of hatchlings from the warmer northern beaches were female, while the share in the cooler south was much lower (69%).
NOAA researchers determined that the gender chasm in Australia started widening after the early 1990s, when the temperature started climbing. Female turtles that hatched before that period outnumbered males by a dramatically smaller ratio - 6 to 1.
A 2015 report from San Diego also showed a shift after years of hotter nesting seasons: Sea turtles tested on the Southern California shores had gone from 65% to 78% female.
Researchers at Florida Atlantic University estimate that hatchlings on Boca Raton's beaches these days are at least 90% female.
"All over the world, the sea turtle gender balance is being thrown way out of whack," said Lucy Hawkes, the English ecologist who led the study on Boa Vista.
Tourists won't see the effects immediately, Hawkes said, because the animals can live for 100 years and lay more than 1,000 eggs. Plus, sea turtles are polyamorous. One male can find dozens of romantic partners.
During nesting season on Boa Vista's southeastern edge, 20 researchers and college biology students live in tents and on mattresses under a giant acacia tree. From a distance, the leaves hide any trace of human activity. Tourists who make the 90-minute, off-road drive here see only plants, sugar-cookie sand and endless ocean.
Sea turtles move in the dark, so the team from BIOS.CV, one of the island's conservation groups, eats a spaghetti breakfast at 7:30 p.m. and works all night.
Scientists have been testing methods to cool the nests. Gently digging up eggs and moving them to shadier parts of the beach has proved to work. So do sprinkler systems and dividing offspring into smaller batches. (Eggs crammed together tend to warm each other up.)
Once replanted, the hatchlings burst from the ground about 50 days later in 1-by-1-foot enclosures, crawling in circles until someone scoops them into a crate and carries them to the shore, where they scramble into the waves.
Human guardians stand watch, ready to intervene if a crab attacks. It all starts with tracking pregnant turtles. On a recent September night, Llorente, the camp's senior biologist, carried a red flashlight - white distracts the reptiles - and followed stone markers to the pitch-black beach.
He was looking for mothers dragging their 100-pound shells from the sea, leaving behind flipper marks that resemble snowmobile tracks.
Instinct propels them to Boa Vista each July through October. Noises and light can spook them back into the water, so researchers must tiptoe until the reptiles pick a spot. Then the contractions start, and nothing can stop nature's plan.
"Here," Llorente said, pointing to the tracks.
He followed the lines to a sea turtle the size of a coffee table. She was frozen. Maybe asleep. Sometimes, the animals snooze after their long journeys.
Five minutes later - the signal. She slowly scooped up sand with her right flipper. Then her left.
Llorente and two other researchers crouched beside her, taking her measurements. She looked healthy.
Everyone was on their bellies, watching the turtle dig deeper and deeper.
"It's like 50 centimeters deep," Llorente whispered. "Oh, my God."
An egg plopped down. Another. Another. They looked like shiny golf balls under the red light.
After about an hour, the mother was done. Llorente's team counted 74 eggs, slightly smaller than the average batch.
The sea turtle kicked sand over the hole and pushed away from her babies, never to see them again. The nest was about 150 feet from the water - the sand would be hot.
Llorente waited for her to disappear in the darkness.
He collected the eggs into a sack that became as heavy as a bowling ball. Then he carried them behind a fence on the beach, where researchers could ward off predators and watch their temperature.
HOWELLS, Neb. — Iowa has its “Field of Dreams,” a baseball field built in a cornfield.
Now Nebraska has a “Field of Flags.”
Down a gravel road from the Molacek farm, the family has built a veterans memorial topped by a 120-foot-high flagpole, flying a 30-by-50-foot American flag. Five other flagpoles display the banners of every branch of the U.S. military.
The flags are situated on top of a rise just east of the intersection of Nebraska Highways 32 and 15. They are brightly lit at night and visible for miles.
“We wanted to show how we feel about veterans, so they’re recognized 365 days a year and not just one,” said Don Molacek Jr., who now lives in the home place.
He and his wife, Donna, an Air Force veteran, pooled their resources with Molacek’s two sisters, Ardene Belina of Howells and Renee Tichota of Lincoln, to design and build the memorial.
In the center is a granite monument honoring their late father, Donald Molacek Sr., who saw combat in the Korean War from 1951 to ‘53. Below the American flag flies the black POW/MIA flag.
Molacek, who farms and has a gravel business, said “you don’t want to know” how much the Field of Flags cost, but he said it took 120 yards of concrete to build the plaza and anchor the 7,634-pound main flagpole. He and his wife hauled 120 tons of red rock from South Dakota to surround the memorial and installed lights costing $5,500 to illuminate it.
There are also signs reading “Love Freedom? Thank a Vet” and “I Kneel for the Cross, I Stand for the Flag.”
“When you’re doing something for the veterans, you can’t do it halfway,” Don Jr. said.
There was plenty of volunteer help. Ron Willers of Norfolk worked a backhoe, and Hegemann Electric in Howells wired the lights. The Howells American Legion Post 155 organized a dedication ceremony that drew an estimated 200 to 250 people to the cornfield site on Nov. 10, the day before Veterans Day.
The Molacek family, which formerly operated a general store, D&A Service, along Highway 32, has several members who served in the military. Donald Molacek Sr., who died five years ago, faithfully flew an American flag at the store, which closed in 1995, as well as at his farm home. He also built metal flagpoles for every member of the family, so they could fly Old Glory, too.
Since the memorial was dedicated, there’s been a steady stream of traffic pulling off the highway to take a look. Molacek said he counted 50 cars and pickups on a recent day while combining.
The Molaceks, whose mother, Ardyth, was able to attend the dedication of the flags, said their father would have been proud of what they’ve done.
“He’d say my kids are just as good as I raised them,” Don Jr. said.
* * *
Nebraska’s oldest farmer has likely worked his last harvest.
Milford “Pete” Nodlinski, who turns 102 on Dec. 1, said last week that he’s officially retired.
Nodlinski, who lives in Grant, still makes a daily 15-mile drive to the farm near Brule. But as of last week, he said he’s now going to supervise and ride along, not drive the tractor that pulls the grain cart that carries the corn and sunflowers from the combine to the waiting grain trucks.
“I messed up. I couldn’t find the shut-off” while unloading the grain cart the other day, he said. “It was hard for me to quit, but it’s time.”
Thus ends his amazing run as probably the state’s oldest active farmer.
He began farming with his dad at age 11 or 12, driving a team of horses that pulled a “go devil” cultivator through the fields. Farmers picked and husked corn by hand in those days, thus the state’s nickname, the Cornhusker State.
Nodlinski said the biggest change over the decades has been in the machinery. Tractors, guided by GPS, pretty much drive themselves now. They’re too complicated, with computers and electronics, for farmers to do the repairs. And then there’s the air-conditioned cabs, with stereos and TVs.
“It’s just like sitting in the living room,” he said. Nodlinski said he’ll probably still do some mowing and fixing up around the farm, which is run by his son, Bob, and his son, Jeff. While being interviewed Friday morning, he was waiting for a phone call to see if he was needed to supervise the harvest of the last few acres.
“I can’t sit here and watch the four walls when I know the guys (are) out there working,” Nodlinski said.
* * *
Beware of “kamikaze deer” when driving through Pierce County.
In the past two weeks, wayward bucks have disabled two of the four sheriff’s cruisers in collisions.
Pierce County Sheriff Rick Eberhardt said it’s one of the worst years for deer in his 35 years as sheriff of the northeast Nebraska county. He’s dubbed them “kamikaze deer.” He nearly plowed into a herd on a highway, but luckily, the deer split, allowing him to pass through.
“So many people like deer. They’re real pretty and nice,” Eberhardt said. “But they ain’t so nice when you’re paying $1,500 deductible and you’re standing at the body shop.”
November is the worst month for vehicle-deer collisions. Harvesting activity moves the deer around, and this is also the peak of the mating season, so some love-crazed bucks are chasing does.
There are more troublesome states for running into deer. Nebraska was ranked 22nd by State Farm Insurance for the likelihood of colliding with a deer in 2018-19, lagging way behind No. 1 West Virginia.
Your odds of hitting a deer, according to the insurance company, are much worse in Iowa (1 in 55) and South Dakota (1 in 54) than in Nebraska (1 in 96).