• Michael Brown, Ph.D.

Dr. Mario Molina died on October 7, 2020. His is not a household name. But he left behind a giant legacy and inspiring case study about solving global environmental crises.

Molina, who was born and raised in Mexico and moved to the U.S. to earn a PhD in physical chemistry from UC Berkeley, became a postdoc in Sherwood Rowland’s chemistry lab at UC Irvine in the early 1970’s. There, they embarked on a quest to understand what happened to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a class of chemicals used as aerosol propellants, solvents, refrigerants and more, when they were released into the atmosphere. Their work, propelled by Molina’s innovative and dogged lab methods, resulted in identifying the human-made CFCs as a primary cause in reducing the concentration of ozone in the stratosphere, the upper layer of earth’s atmosphere.

This “ozone hole” as it came to be known, which caused UVB radiation to penetrate the stratosphere and reach the earth, was one of the first acknowledged human-caused global environmental disruptions. The impacts of increased UVB reaching the earth’s surface are significant—increased cases of skin cancer, disruption of plant growth, reductions in ocean phytoplankton that are the base of the marine food chain and increased deterioration of materials exposed to sunlight.

Twenty years after their discovery, Molina and Rowland, along with the Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, won a Nobel Prize in chemistry. But Molina and Rowland did not just discover the relationship of CFCs to ozone depletion; they became activists for the control and elimination of CFCs and other ozone depleting compounds (ODCs). Their work and the efforts of other activists, countries and even companies led to President Reagan signing the Montreal Protocol in 1987, an international treaty phasing out the use of CFCs and other ODCs. Notably, it was the U.S., under the leadership of the Reagan State Department, that was a key leader in the successful negotiations over the treaty and it was Reagan that urged the Senate to ratify the treaty promptly as a signal to other nations to get onboard. Senate ratification followed Reagan’s quick signing on a voice vote with no opposition. Of the 39 cosponsors of the resolution of ratification, 10 were Republicans.

My first professional job was in the Chemical Control Division at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) headquarters. Fresh out of graduate school in 1980, I was assigned to the team developing regulations for the control of ODCs. The EPA and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under President Carter acted quickly following publication of key papers in 1973 and 1974 describing the relationship of CFCs and related compounds to the depletion of the ozone layer. The agencies initially banned aerosol uses and then contracted with the RAND Corporation to analyze innovative ways of controlling and ultimately eliminating all other uses—uses that were much more deeply embedded in the American economy inside durable consumer goods (refrigerators, freezers, air conditioning units) and in manufacturing (solvents for electronics and military equipment).

Dupont, the major manufacturer of CFCs, organized opposition to regulating ozone depleting chemicals and went on a crusade against using innovative incentives for replacement substances. The company asked all of its customers who use CFCs to submit comments opposing any regulations, which resulted in over 10,000 comments to EPA, a record number at that point. One of my job responsibilities was to read and catalog incoming comments. My favorite was submitted by the owner of an air conditioning service and repair business based in Texas. Paraphrasing the closing remark in his comment, he argued that regulating CFCs would be equivalent to a “one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.”

Before EPA could issue a draft regulation, Reagan trounced Carter in the 1980 election and all work stopped on the ODC regulations shortly before Reagan took office. While I had some work duties, the new EPA administrator, Ann Gorsuch, made it clear that new regulations were not on the Reagan administration’s agenda and that relaxation and elimination of regulations would be the focus. My time at EPA was up and I left in the summer of 1981.

In the period when EPA wasn’t moving all that quickly on the issue, some local governments were taking action. One was the City of Irvine in Orange County, California, a county not known for being progressive on environmental issues. The City passed a local ordinance restricting the use of CFCs within the City limits and created a Director of Environmental Affairs position with the responsibility of figuring out how to implement the ordinance. I was the person they hired. Irvine got a great deal of attention, partly because it was a planned community (population at the time was about 120,000) and partly because the community was perceived as primarily a white bread bedroom community. However, the Irvine Co., which created the initial planned community, had astutely incorporated a significant amount of industrial and commercial property with the goal of having a wide variety of jobs in relatively close proximity to residents. Few people knew that what appeared to be light industrial properties with “clean” business occupants was in reality contributing an estimated 3% of the total U.S. emissions of ozone depleting compounds in the late 1980’s. Irvine’s industrial base was heavy in electronics, military equipment and weapons, biomedical products and other users of CFCs as solvents and other ODCs as sterilization agents.

When I came to Irvine in early 1990, the City was looking to have these businesses find alternative ways of making their products and make steady progress towards elimination of CFCs and the other restricted substances. I was greeted by the City’s CFC advisory committee, on which sat Sherwood Rowland! I called on “Sherry” and his colleagues regularly in developing the implementation program. It didn’t take long for the City to begin making progress on reducing emissions. After I left at the end of 1992, EPA adopted regulations that superseded Irvine’s ordinance and continued the march towards elimination. DuPont got on the band wagon stopping production of CFCs and investing in alternative refrigerants and solvents. Today, about 98% of ODC use in the U.S. has been eliminated.

Mario Molina and Sherry Rowland never stopped arguing for action on the ozone depletion problem and they also called for action on global climate change. They and the scientists who worked with them and followed them have made a difference in the world. It is possible to address global environmental problems, it is possible to gain the consent of nations in a joint effort to save the planet and it is possible for political parties and politicians who do not typically share perspectives on the environment to coalesce around the need for action on a global threat.

I never met Mario Molina. I wish I could have shaken his hand and thanked him as I did with Sherry when I first met him in 1990. But I very much appreciate that Mario is just one of so many immigrants to this country who have made the U.S., and the world, a better place.

Packaging has many purposes, including product delivery (think shampoo in a bottle, milk in a carton), protection (cushioning for breakable products), safety (protection from inadvertent exposure), communication (product information) and marketing (product benefits and appeal). Some of these purposes are fulfilled once a sale has been completed, while others continue as long as the product remains usable. Every packaging solution is a balance between the intended purposes, functionality, aesthetics, and cost.

Environmental and social considerations are slowly coming into the equation for packaging, which is increasingly being viewed from a circular systems lens. This has prompted packaging developers to use more materials that can be recycled, which in turn presumes that consumers will be motivated to recycle the packaging, that there is a means to do so, and that once the packaging is collected, there are processors that will turn the packaging into a useful material that can be sold to create more packaging or other products.

None of this is a given.

On its own, using recyclable materials is not enough. What’s needed is a packaging system with three key elements:

1. Packaging materials that are made with recycled content and are readily recyclable and/or compostable

2. Technical means for collection and processing of recyclable packaging materials for further use

3. Markets for secondary uses of processed recycled materials including packaging—a virtuous circular system

It’s the last element that is particularly challenging as markets for recycled packaging materials can be highly volatile. And while there are multiple reasons for that volatility, one of the most significant reasons is the demand for recycled materials, which is fundamentally a demand for raw materials in manufacturing.

If factories aren’t running due to a global pandemic, no one will want to buy processed recycled material. Where a trade war disrupts established markets for recycled materials, alternative markets may not be able to absorb the surplus. And as countries that sought out recycled materials as cheap inputs to building industrial capacity mature into industrial powerhouses, lower quality materials may not find a home.

There are no easy answers to these challenges, but one possible approach to limiting global volatility in recycled materials for packaging is a threefold policy:

A) tax non-recycled content in packaging;

B) support Research & Development that improves collection and processing of recyclable materials; and

C) increase support for domestic manufacturing.

These policy tactics, technical improvements and regulations require heavy lifting and even government involvement, but they are achievable and offer immeasurable benefits to people and the planet.

Life in a pandemic is challenging in many ways, especially when it is compounded by economic stress and an awakening to the consequences of systemic inequality, racism and injustice all in a world increasingly pressured by climate change. We are all challenged to stay safe and healthy and to take responsibility for helping others who are struggling with daily living. None of this is easy. But some things should be easy, like doing things to lessen our impact on the planet.

Households have long been a target for messages on ways to reduce environmental impacts of daily life. In the 1970s, home energy use was targeted in response to the oil embargo imposed on the U.S. and on the pollution caused by using fossil fuels. In the 1980s, drought brought messages on water conservation to communities and households. In the 1990s, curbside recycling became commonplace along with instructions on source-separating recyclable materials.

For household energy and water use, technology became the primary means for maintaining ongoing reductions—low flow plumbing fixtures, energy and water efficient appliances, drip systems for landscaping, insulation for dwelling units and solar systems for electricity and hot water. There are still some behavioral actions that contribute to reduced energy and water use—shorter showers, laundering in cold water on short cycles—but these are incremental additions to the major environmental benefits provided by improved technologies.

Recycling, however, is different. There aren’t any household-based technologies that offer primary benefits. Recycling depends wholly on resident behavior— albeit with a little help from simple technology (bins!). And despite decades of messaging, the recycling rate remains stuck at around 35% of household and other municipal solid waste. As a country, we seem to be incapable of solving what should be a relatively easy problem. That’s because reality turns out to be quite complicated.

Household behavior is just one part of an extensive system that involves local jurisdictions, collection specialists, contractors, intermediaries, processors, re-formulators, transporters and logistic companies and manufacturers. No entity coordinates any of these actors, rather they are driven by market conditions and, in some cases, contractual obligations. Think of the packaging that the products we buy comes in, which is immediately rendered useless when it is opened, and the product is removed. You’re immediately faced with the choice of putting that packaging in the recycling bin or the trash. What goes through your mind when you’re faced with that choice?

If you’re conscientious, you’ll ask yourself if the packaging is recyclable, which requires that you know the material(s) in the packaging, the materials that are recyclable in your community, which bin to use if you have a multi-bin system, and what you have to do before putting the packaging in the bin (clean, remove stickers, tape, etc.). And since recycling is driven by market conditions, the answers that were appropriate last month, may not be appropriate this month. It takes work to make recycling work and that reality leads many to conclude it’s easier to put recyclable materials in the trash.

But what if we had a different system?

What if we had a system where we didn’t have to do all that work? What if we had a system where all packaging is recyclable all the time? Would we push the recycling rate up over 50%? What would it take?

Before we do anything, we would need to recognize that packaging (and all other products and materials) are part of a system that allows manufacturers to use just about any materials that they want (subject to limited regulations around safety) and households to decide whatever they want to do with that packaging.

Change will come if we create a system where the only packaging that is used is made from widely recyclable (and recycled) materials and where packaging is prohibited from being thrown in the trash.

While this sounds radical, particularly the no packaging in the trash part, it is achievable. It’s already illegal to throw electronics, paint, batteries, and toxic chemicals in the trash in many communities. A ban on the disposal of packaging is not out of the question. But a ban would need to be accompanied by other actions to make a packaging system work.

In Part 2 of this blog post, I’ll talk about the other parts of a functioning packaging system.

© 2020 by Brown & Wilmanns Environmental, LLC

Santa Barbara, California 93110