Folks, this is about my "consumption" of plastic over the next year. I'm looking at what I have, what I buy, and why I seem to need this hundred and fifty year old man-made concoction more than my mother's fried chicken.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Week 17: Merry Plastichristmas

With my plastic Jesus
Goodbye and I’ll go far

I said with my plastic Jesus

Sitting on the dashboard of my car
When I’m in a traffic jam

He don’t care if I say damn

I can let all my curses roll
‘Cos Jesus’ plastic doesn’t hear

‘Cos he has a plastic ear
The man who invented plastic

Saved my soul

Plastic Jesus, original by Ed Rush & George Cromarty (extended lyrics by Ernie Marrs), covered by Billy Idol, Paul Newman, Jack Johnson, Flaming Lips, The Dead Kennedys, and 2 US Soldier in Iraq

Pick your favorite version! It's hard not to love Cool Hand Luke's, but Billy Idol's got me up & dancing and the 2 soldiers in Iraq left me drop-jawed. It's hard to choose just one! And please don't ask me how much time I spent on You Tube reviewing all of well as the ones I didn't want to help promote like Desire Dubounet's version. Doh!

I came across this website: Fishermen. The concept is kind of amazing--especially for me--being an ex-con of the Southern Baptist Megachurch movement in the late 80's. So, here you have this rock-climbing, Harley-riding, and not to mention WASPy-looking Jesus. Likely an ethnic reflection of the founder of this little company, right? Dude is black. So umm...who is his target market?

On the subject of plastic doll races, I was reminded of a short documentary my friend Pandora sent me about 2 years ago called A Girl Like Me by Kiri Davis. I know I can overload my posts with links, but please watch this if you haven't already. As a little white girl, it never once occurred to me to pick out a black doll from the shelf. I was more of a stuffed animal kind of girl. However, I did inherit a cherished and ever-so-creepy collection of little dolls...not the kind you play with, but the kind that live most of their lives in plastic viewing cylinders. They looked kind of like this:

In fact, I had this same exact doll. It was my favorite. I also had a black "Aunt Jemima" looking doll. Might I have been surprised when I finally learned that all Native & African American didn't look this way? I don't remember. It's just interesting to think about how a simple plastic doll can say so much without ever saying a word.

Where am I going with this?

Christmas, dolls, toys, Jesus...hmmm.

How did Christmas culture in the US evolve or devolve?
Can I make a confession? Christmas just gets weirder and weirder for me. What used to be my favorite time of the year has now become a season in which I try to sail through as quickly and painlessly as possible. Here is a day that has been usurped and morphed so many times, that it can't tell its arse from it's elbow...

There was this god see, and earth people in Rome were like, "Oh Saturn, god of agriculture: Thanks for the crops. We lift our glasses to you and will turn our society upside down for a little while in honor of you." And so, for a month--people celebrated Saturnaila by eating, drinking, raising hell and playing Freaky Friday with the social order.

And then there was Mithra, god of the unconquerable Sun (who was born of a rock on December 25) and the Romans again were like, "For those born of a rock, we salute you." From the 4th century to the 8th century, there was bunch of back & forth about needing to settle on an official birthday for Jesus (because the not knowing was killing them and history needs dates like the addict needs the needle) and even though he was likely a spring or summer baby, they thought, "why not just ride the coattails of the already established generic god B-Day on December 25th and call it a night?"

And so it was...the quiet little baby Jesus was born in the middle of a bacchanalian celebration that practiced cutting trees down to put them inside & hang apples on them, beggars role-playing as king, slow-burning logs, mass slaughter of cattle, copious wine intake, and people getting wicked excited about putting the longest nights of winter behind them.

Eight centuries later, Oliver Cromwell and his posse of Puritans ride up like Scrooge on steroids and cancel Christmas in England in 1645. You would think that the Pilgrims (who left England 25 years prior) would be getting their Christmas on in the New World, but they were having none of it either. Their influence spread into Boston, MA where it was declared illegal (5 shilling fine) to celebrate Christmas from 1659-1681.

Almost two hundred years later in 1870, Christmas was declared a federal holiday in the US. Over the past 140 years, this day (for many people) has become a worrisome yet cathartic binge of decorating, listing, cooking, traveling, partying, driving, shopping, buying, wrapping, gifting and returning of superfluous stuff. And plastic is an integral part of this process.

Decorating your tree (which may be plastic) with plastic ornaments while listening to plastic holiday CD's. Lining a plastic-sided house with plastic lights and sticking an inflatable light-up polyester Santa kneeling next to a sleeping plastic baby Jesus in the yard. Making a list with your plastic pen & checking it twice. Taking photos with your plastic digital camera to send out on your plastic computer or print out on plastic paper to friends & family. Driving to the stores in your plastic lined vehicle. Parking on asphalt, plastic's cousin. Making sure you have portable plastic cards that represent money you don't have to buy many plastic things packaged in plastic that you can't afford, which may include an alarm clock on wheels, the Hillary Nut Cracker, or for those who like to simulate the feeling of being shot by a weapon, the Laser Tag Shocking Electronic Shock Game. Toting all of these plastic items back in plastic bags. Baking various items and packaging them in cute little plastic wrapped bags with plastic curly ribbons. Wrapping the presents with plastic coated wrapping paper & plastic tape. Plastic ladling a healthy cup of eggnog from a plastic punch bowl at a holiday party. Pictures with Santa in his acrylic throne and polyester suit. Wearing a plastic apron & gloves as you serve a cheap Christmas dinner at a soup kitchen with plastic utensils. And then there's Hanukkah...

I can just picture Saturn, Mithra, Jesus and all the rest watching this process, slapping their holy foreheads crying, "Oy veh! What in tarnation are these mortals doin'?" And like any good educator, I answer: "I don't know; that's a really good question. What do you think?"

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Week 16: Tripping the Lactide Fantastic

In the words of Huey Lewis & the News, I want a new drug. I believe I have found one in Polylactic Acid. PLA and other "green plastics" have been steady back-up singers for the plastics industry diva. In fact, they were around when the diva was still in diapers. So, don't call it a come back. They've been here for years.

Celluloid for photographic film and flammable billiard balls, whale baleen for corset ribs and umbrella handles, and soy for steering wheels and dashboards each had their 15 minutes of market fame until that silly old dinosaur juice was discovered as the source of a whole new kind of synthetic wonder drug. It goes without saying that I am relieved that we're using synthetic polymers for umbrella handles and billiard balls rather than sacrificing whales & elephants for such luxuries. However, I've still got this itch that I can't scratch. Asking first, "How can we maintain the products & services with new materials & methods?" is easier than addressing the deeper questions of "How are these products & services being recirculated into natural cycles?" or (gasp), "How can we phase these products & services out of our lives completely?"

A couple of weeks ago, I went to Boloco; this great little Burrito chain that is part of the Green Restaurant Association. I usually just get a burrito to go, but I had a lunch meeting AND I forgot my trusty mason jar of water. Parched, I decided to suck it up and get a plastic cup of root beer. I finished my meeting and stuffed the empty cup into my bag. After lamenting that the ephemeral root beer fix wasn't worth the cup, my friend gleefully informed me that the cup was made from corn. I inhaled with excitement and experienced what I call the bioplastic high. The mindless, numbing satisfaction of tossing my trash and then running free, empty-handed & headed through my guiltless imaginary corn field.

My name is Sunnye, and I'm a corn-a-holic. It's been 2 hours since my last drink.

The funny thing about alternatives is that sometimes, that's all they are. And while the practice of diversifying the way we think about and do things is an honorable path, I wonder if some alternatives to the traditional begin to resemble sidewalks in the suburbs...

And then there's the politics sandwiched between each and every one of these simplified steps...

In a 2006 story in Smithsonian Magazine (yet another fantastic piece by Elizabeth Royte), PLA is crafted into a double-edged sword. It may use less energy to produce than something like PET, but what is it really doing to address our to-go-cup addiction?

The Corn is my Shepherd; I shall not want...any less than I did when I used regular plastic.

I know...I'm a real stick in the mud, but I'm sincerely struggling with the long term intention of bioplastics. I ain't sayin' they're bad, but I ain't sayin' they're good either. I am officially on the fence and that's all I have to say about that...for now.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Week 15: I'm not dead yet.

Many of you may be surprised to know...that I am not yet dead. I manage to survive (quite well, in fact) despite sharing my space with my waste AND greatly reducing (or forgoing entirely) my use of coffee lids, plastic bags, bottles, disposable feminine products, and so may other things I thought I might wither up and die without. Or, at the very least totally inconvenience my established lifestyle.

But Lo! I am still here...even healthy enough to run half naked through the streets of Boston in the annual Santa Speedo Run. Team Numbass ran in an 18 degree windchill, and you know something? None of us died. And Nope, I'm note the cute one. I'm the pensive-looking viking...

I even turned down the free plastic bag from Puma to hold my clothes, and I STILL didn't die. Incredible...might there be some things I can live, and dare I say, be HAPPY without? It got me thinking about the spectrum of inconvenience...running in the cold causes one to think about these things.

So, what do you consider an inconvenience?
  • Is it the wind blowing hair in your face as you're crossing the street?
  • Is it an out-of-order ATM?
  • Is it losing power for a week after an ice storm or hurricane?
  • Is it not having electricity at all?
  • Is it having wet firewood?
  • Is it having to fix dinner for yourself when you're tired?
  • Is it not having quite enough food for to feed your family?
  • Is it missing the bus?
  • Is it losing your job (or needing one in the first place)?
  • Is it losing your keys? Dropping your keys? Needing to lock things up in the first place?
  • Is it your child waking up too early or going to sleep too late?
  • Is it having to pee in the woods (or not being able to?)
  • Is it having too much stuff (or not enough)?
  • Is it debt?
  • Is it family holidays (or lack thereof)?
  • Is it people?
  • Is it sharing the road with drivers? pedestrians? cyclists?
  • Is it sharing the planet with other animals?
  • Is it sleeping, walking, crying, or coughing?
  • Is it the urge to change, but having no clue how to enact it?
  • Is it TV, cell phone, computer, or lack thereof?
  • Is it having to dodge someone throwing a shoe at your face? Is it having bad aim?
  • Is it the language barrier? The cultural barrier?
  • Is it sharing a seat with someone on the train?
  • Is it a dull knife, a bad hair day, or having to share your bath with mosquito larvae?
  • Is it elephants trampling through your garden?
  • Is it stepping in poop or even having to smell it? Is it being around people who think that theirs doesn't stink?
  • Is it a broken copy machine?
  • Is it child support? Children in general?
  • Is it dreams, ideas, or lack thereof?
  • Is it development or red tape?
  • Is it a flood, drought, heat wave, blizzard, or earthquake?
  • Is it an endangered species?
  • Is it chipping a nail or biting your tongue?

In my 15th week, I've just realized that my list of "inconveniences" is evolving:
  • not being charged $5 for every plastic bag I receive with my purchase.
  • not being able to bring in my empty shampoo bottle for a discounted refill at most supermarkets
  • not receiving a "return-packaging-to-manufacturer" envelope with all the products I buy.
  • being entirely reliant on e-mail, internet, and phone communication in order to do my job well
  • having to reconfirm with employees at various stores that "no, thank you" I do not need a plastic bag...if I was able to carry everything to the register, I imagine that truth will hold as I walk out the door, right?
  • being grouped in with the millions of other straw-abiding citizens
  • having adapted to WAY too many conveniences via plastic
  • the line of thinking that I need to fill my life with stuff rather than relationships and experiences and still believing that relationships and experiences need to have a lot of stuff in order to function properly
  • having trash barrels everywhere
These are just a few...

At my grandpa's funeral, I met a friend of my mom's for the first time...a wonderful woman who I felt like I'd known for years. She recalled a humorous story about ringing my grandparents doorbell (my mom was staying there) at 1:00 in the morning after a "libatious" high school reunion. The two friends who accompanied her whispered, "Are you sure we should be doing this? We're going to wake them up!" She pursed her lips and furrowed her brow and said exclaimed (in an animated & exasperated southern accent), "Nobody's gonna die!"

I have applied this wisdom many times since. So, next time you think about buying something (plastic or other)...ask yourself..."Am I gonna die if I don't buy this?" If that approach is too extreme for you, you can tone it down a notch by asking..."Is this going to bring me happiness?" or "How is this going to improve mine or my family's health or appreciation for life?"

Just try it...

Often, I just turn on my robot switch when I enter the grocery. Now I realize that I can't even mindlessly order a glass of water at a restaurant or I get a free straw for my new straw house that I am slowly building in my guest room.

Wake up & abre los ojos. If you are reading this, it probably means that you're not dead either.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Week 14: PC (#7)

Before I begin the end of this 7-step journey, I need to confess something. I'm obsessed with the Feedjit widget on my blog. I look at it religiously and I found something very strange. I recently finished reading The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert (who I am completely enchanted with--as well as Kristen Wiig from Saturday Night Live--I LOVE TALENTED STRONG WOMEN!!) I had never heard of Boone, North Carolina until I read about Eustace Conway and Turtle Island. This is a man who I'm pretty sure could lovingly kick my rear end into next Tuesday, but again...I digress AND recommend reading this book.

ANYWAY--I saw that there was a hit on the FEEDJIT map from Boone! I have no idea if the reader is connected to Turtle Island, barn kitties, Peter Rabbit or the fine art of dumpster diving, but CHEERS to Boone, NC reader, whoever you may be!

Polycarbonate & Co. #7, AKA--"and all that other plastic crap" and "other". Have you ever filled out a questionnaire that asks about your ethnicity? Many say "Caucasian, Native American, Hispanic, Asian American, African American, Pacific Islander..." Some of the older questionnaires (which always make me laugh) boil it down to "white, non-white, or other." I like checking "other" because who really knows, right? So, just like number 7, I'm a mutt. Besides serving as the grey "coating" inside pet & people food cans, polycarbonate has been more popularly linked with the ubiquitous Nalgene (and many baby) bottles. Many studies link polycarbonate (and by default ALL #7's) to BPA (bispehenol-A), which has caused a big scare because of BPA's knack for royally messing with your endocrine system. I took the following exerpt from National Geographic's Green Guide:

In 2003, a study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), reproduced the same results as the earlier studies when new bottles were tested. However, after repeated washings and scrubbings, the levels of BPA leaching from the bottles increased significantly. The study concludes, "The increased migration levels may be due to polymer degradation."

During the same year, two more studies were published in EHP, which came about after researchers traced BPA in lab mice to the PC cages in which the mice were housed. These studies share several of the same conclusions: 1) Polycarbonate exposed to harsh detergent is prone to leaching; 2) The older the polycarbonate, the more it leaches; 3) High temperatures cause higher rates of leaching. One study found that polycarbonate will leach into water at room temperature. Of even greater concern, the laboratory plastics studies were initiated by sudden abnormalities in mice egg cells after polycarbonate animal cages were mistakenly washed with the wrong detergent.

According to NY Times article, for the #7's that contain it, BPA gives a hard plastic feel (like the traditional Nalgene or a water filtering pitcher) and that most of our exposure to BPA comes from the canned foods we eat. I wonder if the ever-increasing rate of dog & cat cancer has anything to do with canned foods.

A co-worker and I had kitchen duty last Friday and she pointed out the bottom of a 1 gallon Arizona Iced tea bottle. Not only did it say #7, but #5 as well. She consulted me on the matter and given my recently acquired plastintuitiveness, I thoughtfully replied: "Hmm, that's weird. I have no idea what that means."

As beysn commented in an earlier post, #7 not only includes all the other plastics, but bioplastics as well (corn, potato, sugar-based alternatives to conventional plastics).

I've also seen the universal recycling symbol with no number inside the arrows and I have to wonder if Gary Anderson intended his little design to cause such widespread confusion. You see, Gary won a contest sponsored by the Container Corporation of America in 1970, which was later swallowed by Smurfit-Stone. I swear I wasn't looking for this, but here's a little controversy about Smurfit-Stone: sweatshop strike in Chicago. What I was really looking for was this:

Papa Smurf says: JUST SMURF IT!

What is funny is that CCA established this design contest because of the growing public concern about recycling, wastefulness, etc. and they wanted to try and establish a universal symbol to communicate recycled content & recyclability of a material. I'm sure public relations were at play here, but also an earnest effort in the beginning to do some good. So, I smurfed around on Smurfit's website and found lots of smurfy photos of children holding recycling bins and happy safety-goggled workers looking pensively at a sheet of corrugated cardboard. They recycle a smurf-load of paper (I believe about 700 million tons a year). So, I'm thinking, "Please tell me that the company credited with the global push of the recycling number system actually recycle all those plastic numbers..."


They only recycle #1, #2, #4. So, this begs my ongoing question, "How did we come to trust so unquestioningly in this 40 year-old number system and why do we continue to do so?" So, after a little bit of thought, I want to boycott the recycling symbol number system. I know. You probably want me to smurf off at this point, but here are the questions I have asked myself (and my answers) that have led me to this state of discomfort:

1) How often do you look for a recycling number before tossing the object into the garbage or into the recycle bin? (80% of the time, I think)

2) When you do look for the recycling symbol, what is your first feeling for each number?
  • #1 = "OK, I can buy's the most recyclable."
  • #2 = "I can buy this too, because it's kind of like #1."
  • #3 = "Crap. What does 3 stand for again? I feel like it's not good."
  • #4 = "Hmm, what is #4 again? Oh right, LDPE. Umm, I don't feel as solid on my recycle info for this one."
  • #5 = (Homer Simpson blank stare.),
  • #6 = Polystrene. I hate that stuff. I'm not buying it if I have other choices."
  • #7 = "No man's land--Frankenstein, Chimera plastic nonsense making the number seven look not-so-lucky."
3) How often do you factor in the plastic number at the point of purchase? (almost never)

4) Do the recycling numbers enable you to buy & use more plastic since you loosely believe that it can be thrown into the recycling bin and therefore recycled? (Yes.)

5) Have you ever been to a recycling facility? (Yes)

6) Do you know where your recycling bin contents go after it leaves your curb? (No.)

7) Do you trust/know that it is not co-mingled with your trash? (No.)

8) How does the plastic recycling number system help reduce plastic consumption? (I think the system may serve to foster awareness about the different types of plastics, but until they move from a number system to a life cycle paragraph on the ingredients, resources, and statistics on plastics recycling feasibility ON EVERY plastic product, they're just numbers...a hopeful idea from the 1970's turned crusty two-dimensional gimmick.)

SO...what? Have I gone through this process only to say "bah humbug" to recycling? To be honest...I don't know. What I do know is that I continue to put other things in my recycling bin, faithfully put it out on the curb every other Thursday, and trust that my offering will appease the recycling gods and cushion the blow of my own consumption habits. Just like the disappearing cookies and carrots left for Santa & his reindeer, my empty recycling bin is there for me when I get home. I hook it with the ends of my fingers, nestle it back in a nook in the kitchen, and pray that I might have the same bounty of empty containers to offer again in 14 days...

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Week 13: PS (#6)

I'm feeling very stream of consciousness right now, so don't expect any sort of transitional sentences. If you find one, it was probably an accident.

I have this childhood memory. My family gets some appliance that is wrapped in a warm blanket of Styrofoam end pieces and a large cardboard box. Once the appliance is out, my 7 year-old brother works like a rabid squirrel to craft the cardboard box into a fort for himself and his band of little plastic army guys. And then, for some strange reason, he shreds the Styrofoam into little tiny pieces.

Did he need more snow in his life? Would it serve as cover for he and his men in the imaginary tundra? My brother also went through a phase of slashing bananas on the kitchen counter while no one was looking--his own interpretation of Zorro, I think. You'll all be relieved to know that my brother is a fully functioning member of society. He has lots of good friends and is living happily in Los Angeles. He long ago gave up slashing bananas once he realized how tasty they were, but I haven't checked in with him on the destructive tendencies towards the plastic of the week.

Polystyrene: #6, white dragon, evil cloud, Styrofoam (Dow's brand), snow clams, burger blankets, cacahuate blancos, snowman poop...CD jewel cases & clear salad to-go containers are also made of PS, but I'm not going to focus on these (although this was new to me!)

Many folks don't even know polystyrene is a form of plastic, but it is by far the easiest to identify. If you don't know what it is, just check out the big white chunks included in this week's plastic pile. I swear I didn't plan it this way. My husband bought two garbage bins and he asked if the store could take back the polystyrene cushions because he knew I would give him "the look" when he got home. Even after he told them about the blog, they still looked at him as if he had 6 heads and refused to take the packaging back. So, now I am left with large chunks of my LEAST favorite plastic. I am experiencing my first real plastidepression. This is the first week that I have not been able to fit my week's worth of plastic into my tidy little milk crate. Foiled by the ostentatious, extruded "possible" carcinogen, #6. PS...I hate you. I'm beginning to understand the shredding tendencies...

So, let's revisit our friends at the Plastics Foodservice Packaging Group (AKA, the American Chemistry Council). The PFPG touts polystyrene's sturdiness, cleanliness, convenience, and affordability (especially for those low income schools on a tight budget). In other words, if it weren't for polystyrene, the proverbial cafeteria lady would still have a job, we'd have less garbage output each day, and we'd have to eat food made by...people. Ick.

SO, I get it. I'm not completely blind. If a school wants to save money, they outsource their lunch program and to the untrained eye, they save loads of money looking through the foggy lenses of traditional economics. And it looks something like this:
  1. Mr. Delivery Man from Acme National Food dollies up milk crates loaded with neatly stacked #6 trays of food.
  2. These food trays are grouped by classroom and student couriers work in tandem with a very part-time "food coordinator" to get the trays delivered to each child.
  3. The sectioned food trays may contain: a white bagel (wrapped in plastic), a piece of fruit, a single-serve plastic bowl of Frosted Flakes or Cheerios, a pint of whole milk, and a plastic bag containing a napkin and plastic spoon (made of PS too) & straw.
  4. Students eat the bagel and the dry cereal and wash it all down with a sip of milk as they slam dunk their tray, utensils, napkin, packaging AND fruit into the garbage can.
  5. And that's just breakfast. We do the whole routine over again for lunch.
Considering this school had about 300 kids with around 90% on the lunch program, let's have fun making generalizations with arithmetic:
30 % of 300 = 270 students

270 x 2 polystyrene trays/day = 540 trays/day

540 trays x 5 days = 2,700 trays/week

540 trays x 185 school days = 99,900 trays to the incinerator each year.

99,900 x 67,291 (# of US public elementary schools) = 6.7 billion polystyrene trays to the GAR-BAHJ.

Just ONE KID has the potential to add up to 2,200 trays to that dinky classroom trash can throughout her/his K-5 experience.
(185 school days x 6 = 1,110 days x 2 trays/day)
This is, of course rough & speculative math...but it's fun, right? And that's just trays. Now, let's do the calculation for spoons & straws...just kidding.

Looking through the lenses of TRUE COSTS of this kind of a program, we have to consider many more factors in our equation that are currently currently considered externalities, but I digress.

Bottom line? Viva la Wonder Woman & Beatles Lunch boxes! Easier said than done for parent(s) working two jobs and coming home after their kids...

ANYWAY--back to the white dragon. I heard a story 10 years or so ago about a squiggly white anomaly seen from SPACE in China. The tale goes that it was a stream of polystyrene along the main train line. Anyone heard that story?

Like the majority of plastics, the economics of recycling polystyrene doesn't make much sense according to the ACC, BUT there are folks out there working to counter that argument. Check out this photo. It BLOWS my mind. Ah, the beauty of polystyrene...never as heavy as it looks.

I got this photo (and the two below) from a very interesting website:
Does anyone remember Shrinky Dinks? OK, so basically Styromelt (UK based) does something similar. It appears to market to businesses with large amounts of polystyrene waste. I WOULD LOVE to see them shrink this:
Into this:and then sell it to recyclers for use as diesel fuel or material for garden furniture?

There's also a publicly traded company in Florida recycling/reclaiming polystyrene through a different process. Blue Earth Solutions--scroll down the page to check out their video here.

If you click on anything from this post--CLICK HERE, tilt your neck 9o degrees and read page 3 of this document from the Department of Conservation in Cal-ee-fohn-yah. I've had my hunches about scrap value, but it's nice to see the numbers side by side--make sure you look at the value of polystyrene.

Generally, curbside recycling programs MAY take your polystyrene, but you can bet your bottom dollar that it is NOT recycled (right along with your yogurt containers and your #7's.) Once again, stop trying to make yourself feel better by stacking your recycling bin to the brim with the assumption that the magical recycling fairies will turn them all into park benches for sweet little old ladies. It ain't happenin' least not for the time being. Do yourself a favor and try and tap into what you buy, what you need, what you want. Will you die if you never drink out of a Dunkin' Donuts coffee cup again?

On the note of Dunkin Deezee's--I have to include one short rant. Why the &^%$ do they serve their iced coffee in a plastic cup and then slip it into a polystyrene cup? I'll tell you why. It's because human hands must NEVER be cold...not ever...because if they get cold, discomfort comes quickly. And once that discomfort sets in, everyone knows that death is sure to follow. I've seen it happen too many times. So, the next time you order an iced coffee (if you can call it coffee), just say--"I don't need the Styrofoam sleeve...I live life on the edge, my friend."

This practice is ridiculously excessive and they should only double cup it if people ask...and they should be taxed on it. We'll call it the Rachel Ray Pansy Hands Tax.

TRY THIS AT HOME: I found this on Grinning Planet. The next time you inherit some polystyrene, try squeezing some fresh lemon on it, let it sit, and see what happens. I haven't tried this yet, so I would love to know what happens...

I'll close with a childhood song:
"Oh, give me a home
Made of white Styrofoam.
Where the plasphalt paves our new way.
Where seldom is heard a sweet song from a bird
Cuz the air we breathe has tuned dark gray."
(Sunnye's bastardization of Higley & Kelley's original song "Home on the Range")

And with that, I bid you a fantastic week as my styrofoam stream of consciousness screeches to a halt at 12:25 am.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Week 12: PP (#5)

So, here it is...the 3 month plastic collection:

What do you think? Here are a few observations so far...
  • I have consumed the contents of 25 snack bar packages.
  • I have collected 26 lids and 39 caps of varying shapes and sizes.
  • I have struggled with the new knowledge that a thin layer of plastic coats a ton of stuff I've been tossing out (rice milk cartons, just about all labels, and pasta boxes, to name a few). So, I'm kind of feeling like a pansy.
  • In total, I have collected 501 plastic items. (In 90 days!)
All righty then--let's look at PP, or Polypropylene. I don't think many of us really think about PP on a daily basis. I mean, I don't...until I recently discovered that my nemesis, THE DRINKING STRAW is made from polypropylene! Drinking & PP? I see all sorts of sick middle school jokes stemming from this...

Anyone have any idea what straws used to be made of? Yes, wax & paper, but even before then. I'll give you a hint: it has to do with the NAME. Give up? It is very likely that drinking straws used to be made from...straw. I know. It boggles the mind. Given that we devote our world wheat production (600 million tons in 2007) to things like bread, pasta, fried chicken, donuts & beer, it is understandable why the original drinking straw got the shaft. After all, you can't make beer from PP. Ah, the jokes.

Polypropylene is basically a beaded necklace of propylene gas molecules, which is turned into powder and then pellets/nurdles and then whatever you want from there. . You may remember polypropylene from such films as:
  • The Margarine Falcon
  • One Flew Over the Yogurt Container
  • Dr. Propylene: How I learned to stop worrying and love the AstroTurf
  • Requiem for a Drinking Straw.
  • Sisterhood of the Travel Mug Lid
  • Raiders of the Lost Carpet Backing
  • All About Flip Top Caps
  • In the Heat of the Long Underwear
  • 12 Angry Food Labels
  • The Suture Redemption
  • There Will Be Pasta Bags
  • Candy Wrapper Named Desire
  • The Treasure of the Rubik's Cube Stickers
  • The Magnificent Medicine Bottle
  • Eternal Tupperware of the Spotless Mind
  • Million Dollar Baby Diaper
  • The Lord of the Kitchen: The Fellowship of the Appliances
  • Car Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Durable Interiors
  • No Country for Photo Sleeves
...Just to name a few.

But let's talk about AstroTurf for just a bit. I've been sick all weekend and am still not feeling great, so I promise this won't take long.

It's plastic grass....PLASTIC GRASS. See, I feel like I've always known what AstroTurf was because Putt-Putt golf was a part of my childhood. What I did not know is that synthetic grass was invented in the decade of plastics (the 1950's) by 2 guys from a little company that invented saccharine in 1901. They're called Monsanto...ever heard of them? Anyway, a subsidiary of Monsanto known as Chemstrand put their noses to the grindstone to develop this plastic grass specifically for urban playing fields. So, their first installation of "Chemgrass" happens in 1964 at the Moses Brown School, a college prep school in Providence, RI. Something tells me that a name like "Chemgrass" might not sell as well today as it did back then. A couple of years later it is installed in the Astrodome in my hometown of Houston, TX and finds a new name: AstroTurf.

I had a hard time finding anything substantial on the economic feasibility of recycling PP, but the Australians seem to be working on that. As with most, if not all plastics, PP can really only be downcycled into other plastic products. However, with a little creativity one can create some pretty interesting pieces of functional art from polypropylene rope. Check this out and have a nice day.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Week 11: LDPE (#4)

I found this interesting excerpt from the American Plastics Council's website (which is a division of the American Chemistry Council):

MYTH: Our city would be solving its litter problem by banning plastic bags.

REALITY: In effect, banning recyclable plastic bags will not significantly reduce litter or the amount of waste in our sewers and landfills. Litter problems must be addressed directly by targeting littering and providing recycling and waste bins. Banning a certain product will only cause a switch from one form of litter to another. There is no such thing as environmentally preferable litter. Such approaches merely create new problems.

Keep in mind that the members of the APC include Advance Polybag, Inc., The Dow Chemical Company, Exxonmobil Corporation, Hilex Poly Co., LLC, Inteplast, Superbag Corporation, and Total Petrochemicals USA, Inc. Advance Polybag HQ is close to where I grew up (not to mention a few of these other members). Located in Sugarland, TX, they are one of the largest manufacturers of plastic bags in the world and the only hint of environmental responsibility I could find on their website was an association with NextLife Recycling in an effort to make plastic stepping stones out of recycled bags. However, I discovered that NextLife is no longer in business. However, they do work with the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children by printing photos of the missing on their bags. Hilex Poly Co. is a little greener to the eye. They acknowledge that litter is an issue and that only 5% of plastic bags are actually recycled and they offer concrete solutions to dealing with the issues (unlike most politicians!) Bottom line? It seems from everyone's current home pages--even Exxonmobil that being socially and environmentally responsible is (at the very least) on their radar.

Obviously it is easy for me to sit in judgment of all these big corporations and accuse them all of greenwashing. The truth is...I just don't know what to believe anymore. Sheesh...have I already started my diatribe?

Let's focus on the LDPE at hand...
LDPE, numero cuatro, low-density polyethylene. According to one website, #4 is the most widely used plastic due to it's flexibility, durability, chemical resistance, and cost. How do we apply thee? Let me count the ways:
  • coating on paper, textiles, & other plastics ("Tetra-pak" used for some milk, rice, soy, almond milk containers, maybe all my corn chip bags too...)
  • various disposable bowls, lids, etc.
  • packaging film (you know, like the thin stuff you peel off of chicken, cheese, & tons of other crap wrapped in filmy plastic goodness)
  • shrink wrap
  • disposable diaper flaps
  • bread bags
  • honey bear bottles
  • power cables
  • caps & closures
  • garment bags
  • disposable table "cloths"
  • stand-up transparent zip pouches (I think I get my dog's treats in these types of bags--Trader Joe's carries a lot of their products in these!)
  • cycling water bottles
  • toys
  • various lab containers & bags (biohazard bags)
  • lip gloss wands
  • garbage bags & other bin liners
  • play pit balls (you know, like the plastic ball "pool" at Chucky Cheese? I've always wanted to know this!)
  • "Caution wet floor" cones (Cuidado piso mojado!)
  • traffic cones
  • bubble wrap ("Bubbles! Bubbles! Bubbles!")
  • coffee cup inner coating (your coffee cup is not really recyclable by the way--hate to burst your LDPE bubble)
  • plastic bags
  • safety flotation rings
  • outdoor repair tape
  • medical shoe coverings
  • heavy duty plastic drums
  • wet ports (What is a wet port, you ask? Something we clearly CANNOT live without. You can ask me to cut corners during wartime, but I ain't givin' up my wet port!)
  • packing foam sheets (usually what you get when you buy new electronics)
  • Heatsheet emergency survival blanket
  • ...and anything else you see at the grocery and wonder, "I wonder what kind of plastic this wrap is". Chances are, it's probably LDPE.
LDPE is the free spirit of the plastics family. Their make up is such that they branch out, they go with the flow, and may be less confined to structure, but have a varied skill set, which makes them more resilient, but not a good candidate for redundant reuse. Ah yes, a new ice breaker at staff retreats: "If I were a plastic, I would be number blah, blah, blah because of it's refusal to be broken down by even the toughest challenges."

We use 2 kg of oil for every 1 kg of LDPE we produce and not surprisingly, the US & China tie for first in consuming almost half of the world's LDPE. W. Europe comes in as a close second. The world market for LDPE is projected to reach 20 million metric tons by 2012. According to my animal conversion calculator, that is the equivalent of 150,000 blue whales OR 73 million gorillas. (As a side note, we only have about 100,000 actual gorillas left in the world)

All this animal conversion calculating makes me think of a wise old sage...
What would Dr. Seuss say? Let us imagine...

I do not like those plastic bags...
They seem to make the turtles gag.

I do not like them in a tree.
I do not like them blowing free.
I do not like them in a store.
I do not like them anymore!

I do not like this plastic crap...
From drinking straws to bubble wrap.

I do not like them in a boat.
I do not like them in a goat.
I do not like them as they float.
I do not like them in my coat!
I do not like them on a floor,
I do not like them anymore!

Not on a beach
Or with a peach.
Not in the air
Or in my hair.
Not in a drain
Or in a plane.
Not in a turtle
Not even a nurdle.

I do not like these plastic things...
Or all the piles of waste it brings.
I do not like them for the earth
I have not liked them since my birth!

I do not like them
So I say...
but I still use them every day!
So, if I look and dig real deep
Will I learn from what I keep?

Yes, I'll learn!
Yes, I say!
My plastic never goes away...

So, if I keep it
I will see
just how much I think I "need".

Stay tuned for next week's photo of my entire plastics collection!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Week 10: PVC (#3)

As an appetizer, please enjoy this great link to a PVC Noir Cartoon from the Grassroots Recycling Network.

Polyvinyl chloride, or vinyl is one of the most dangerous substances ever made according to the Center for Health, Environment and Justice. You know how sometimes you can have a friend or a co-worker who is really cool & nice in the beginning, and she does all these really great things for you? And you're like, "OMG! This co-worker is so fantastic and does all these really great things for me!" And then, as time goes by she totally stabs you in the back by giving you cancer. That's like PVC.

As a disclaimer, I'm not even attempting to be objective about PVC. We need some serious reflection & rethinking on this material. I applaud the mantra of "do no harm", but I have higher expectations for my species. We should look at every material with a "do good" mantra. Does PVC do good?

We got a new heating system this week and as I was working on last week's post, something foul wafted up through the basement. I later found out that it was likely PVC cement. I gather this is not something I want to spread on my morning multi-grain toast. I went downstairs and saw the familiar white 4 inch pipes weaving through the other dark spaghetti of pipes that float overhead. It's so hard to imagine something so benign-looking and apparently indispensable to modern heating & plumbing can be so harmful. Last year, the humans of the world used about 35 million metric tons of PVC (the rough equivalent of about 250,000 blue whales).

When I think of PVC, the white pipe always comes to mind, but we have basically surrounded ourselves with PVC. Here is a list of some potentially vinylicious products:
  • shower curtains (my co-worker is frowning right now...I can feel it.)
  • ceiling tiles
  • carpet backing
  • upholstery fabric
  • window treatments
  • children's clothing (Greenpeace study on Disney clothing)
  • toys
  • inflatable pools
  • fake leather bags
  • garden hoses
  • blood bags, medical tubing and a variety of other medical supplies
  • home siding, flooring, roofing & windows
  • gutters
  • electrical wire
  • cable insulation
  • credit cards
  • records (ancestor of the iPod)
  • commercial signage (trade show banners, car magnets, decals, lettering...)
  • Barbie, Ken & Skipper too.
  • Jelly Glitter Bell Boots...for horses. I'm not kidding.
  • Jump ropes (did you know there is a Jump Rope Institute?)
The Vinyl Institute (which coincidentally has a little blurb about the importance of PVC in aquariums) is based in Arlington, VA has been working hard to carry out the vision for 27 years:
"Vinyl is the global plastic of choice for infrastructure and diverse applications."
Is that a vision or a command?

Anyway, the VI "is a U.S. trade association representing the leading manufacturers of vinyl, vinyl chloride monomer, vinyl additives and modifiers, and vinyl packaging materials." According to the VI, vinyl saves lives and is the backbone of modern medicine. They also have a very organized and vague list which comprises their commitment to health, safety & the environment. But the question remains: how can you have ANY commitment to the environment when the core product you promote contains and emits harmful byproducts throughout its entire life cycle? Once again, is there a way to make PVC good for the earth?

PVC is a tireless giver. It freely donates to earth, water, and air: mercury, phthalates, and dioxins or more simply translated into "brain fry", "likely cancer", and "cancer." This is our entree for the evening. I like to call it the "death kabob."

Mercury. What a fantastically mesmerizing element. It's a car, it's a god, it's a surf apparel brand, and it's a wicked cute planet. If you are looking for a reliable and permanent neurotoxin, mercury is the drug of choice. Also, I just discovered something disturbing. Although many cosmetic companies are phasing out the input of mercury in their products, it still happens. Minnesota is the only state in the US to ban mercury-containing cosmetics (namely mascara). I really want to open the cosmetics-ingredients-labels can-o-worms, but I refrain. I'm already on a tangent. Maybe that will be my next blog. But ladies, thespians, clowns, and cross-dressers, please check out this link--it's awesome.

Phthalates (THAL-8's). I'm going to call them "8's" for short. There are 21 different types of commonly used 8's and 90% of all 8's are funneled into the making of PVC. It's a plasticizer, which is like yoga for vinyl, making it nice & flexible (think barbie heads). Can we assume a direct relationship between phthalates and phlexibility? For instance, does vinyl siding have a higher 8 content than the pipes underneath your sink? I'm not certain. According to the Phthalates Information Center, 8's "make our lives better and safer...and they make our homes more decorative..." The PIC also attempts to reassure us that "many independent reviews have declared them to be safe as used in toys and cosmetics." Phew, because I can't imagine what I would do if they banned the ingredient that makes my nail polish resistant to chipping. I might die. The Phthalates Info Center doesn't state outright that 8's are not harmful, and they repeat the idea throughout their site that 8's are innocent until proven guilty...all 21 of them I guess.

Dioxins. DIE...oxins. Heck of a name. Dioxins show up when the PVC is burned accidentally during manufacture or in the disposal process. If it's got chlorine in it, it's going to have dioxins coming out of it. Dioxins, also referred to as PBT's (persistent bioaccumulative toxicants)--sounds yummy, doesn't it? Mmmmm, toxicants...Not to sound too morbid, but you have dioxins swimming around in you right now. Prove me wrong--please...I really want to be wrong on this one. I think this equation sums it up nicely:
Take home message? Don't stand around staring at house & car fires like those folks on the 10 O'Clock news. House fires suck--don't make it worse by inhaling your toilet plumbing or glove compartment. Run Forest, run.

According to ICIS (please tell me what the acronym stands for--I couldn't find it on their website), "...Sears Holding, the parent corporation of retail giants Sears and Kmart, announced it would be joining Target, Wal-Mart, Microsoft and several other large retail-oriented companies in phasing out PVC." The US Green Building Council has also given PVC two thumbs down citing it as one of the most hazardous materials on the market. FOX News however, loves PVC and believes that Love Canal was a bunch of hype.

There are 4 major companies that manufacture PVC in the US.
  1. Formosa Plastics is out of Taiwan and just last Wednesday, the company made the news because they were fined over $100,000 for repeated environmental violations at one of their plants in Point Comfort, TX. This is chump change for a $5 billion a year business.
  2. Shintech, a subsidiary of a Japanese based company is the largest producer of PVC in the US and they are located in Plaquemine, LA...yet another southern state and another landmark on "Cancer Alley's" sightseeing tour. 10 years earlier, Shintech's plans to build the plant were smothered by citizen protests of environmental racism.
  3. OxyChem/Occidental, headquartered in Dallas, TX also claims that they are the leading manufacturer of PVC in the US. Al Gore has an interesting old connection with Oxy, aside from being a shareholder. In 1996, he apparently brokered the deal for Occidental to buy traditional lands from the Kitanemuk in Southern California, but that's another tangent.
  4. Georgia Gulf is headquartered in Atlanta, GA and they specialize in chlorovinyl and aromatics production. They are neighbors with Shintech in Plaquemine, LA and Formosa in southeast Texas.

PVC RECYCLING: In Cooper City, FL National Recycling can recycle pretty much any kind of plastic (including PVC), but I'm not clear on whether or not they would take a bucket full of pipes if I walked up to their security gate. I found an interesting bit from a Recycling Today article about a subsidiary of Georgia-Gulf, Royal Group Technologies, Ltd., a PVC manufacturer in Ontario, Canada who bought an Italian-designed "regrinder" to process their own PVC scrap as well as their customers' scrap. It's a closed-loop system and wouldn't you know? It saves them money. Alas, most of the PVC waste in the US, Europe & Australia is shoved off on "all those other countries" to deal with, and wouldn't you know? Many of those countries just happen to have less restrictions on materials disposal. I was only able to find 2 stats on the percentage of PVC that is actually recycled and both estimated a whopping 0.5%.

I feel like I can just keep going with this one. There is a TON of information to sift through regarding this material. If you take anything away from this post (other than a great site to buy glitter boots for horses), know that PVC #3 is a questionable material and a contaminant in your recycling bin AT BEST.

Closing questions:
What kind of relationship do you have with PVC?
What PVC items can you phase out of your life?

Closing Haiku about PVC:
PVC and me
Do I really need this crap?
Does it give me life?

Monday, November 3, 2008

Week 9: #2 HDPE

Just in case anyone is interested, I thought I would report out on a few observations so far...
  1. I average about 25 plastic items a week, except for last week. I had 100 items (half of which were band-aids as you can make out in the photo. They were part of my Halloween costume...any guesses?)
  2. Straws are my nemesis. They are so sneaky. I really have to be alert if I want to have a straw-free waste stream. Last night I had a dream I ordered a beer, and the server brought it to me with a straw...and I drank it! I never thought of myself as a straw user until I started this endeavor. Try collecting any straws you get for a'll be surprised.
  3. I eat a lot of corn chips. Like, a lot. I think the tortilla chip bag is a mainstay in my weekly plastic stream. I heart Green Mountain Gringo & Garden of Eatin' chips.
  4. Joe Plastic. I also love Trader Joe's. I have made one trip there since September and on that one trip (camera zoom in to my face & shopping cart), I realized that almost EVERYTHING there is packaged in plastic...even the bulk avocados.
OK, so on to #2--HDPE (high density polyethylene).
HDPE technology is about 60 years old. According to one website, two dudes named Paul & Bob from Phillips Petroleum came up with it and called it "Marlex". According to another website, a guy named Zeigler was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1963 for "his invention of HDPE."

Regardless, I would like to personally thank (insert true inventor's name here) for inventing a source of happiness to Friday gym class for me. "Hula Hoop War" was my FAVORITE. Eric Hammer was the best, but my best friend, Katy and I would team up to bring his hoop down by spinning into it from both sides with the advanced technique known as "chicken scratch." The hula hoop was one of the "first editions" of HDPE.

HDPE is the plastic superhero: able to withstand temps ranging from -100 C to 120 C (-148 F to 248 F), powerful enough to hold acids, alcohols & bases, and contain a gallon of milk in a single container! HDPE in its raw form (pellets or "nurdles") looks like this:

These cute lil' fellas are formed from a highly volatile compound of crude oil called naphtha (a euphemism for crude solvent coal tar and also the root of the word napalm). If you cause naphtha to get all hot & bothered, it releases ethylene gas, and these free loving gas particles join hands to form long chains of ethylene molecules. So, these "many ethylenes" are commonly known as polyethylene. Now, take this choo-choo train of ethylenes and cram them all together like drunkards at the St. Patrick's Day parade in Southie, and you've got high-density polyethylene. Because of these durable, resistant & tight-packing qualities, HDPE is the golden child of labs & medical facilities around the world.

HDPE incarnations include, but are not limited to the following:
  • motor oil containers
  • milk jugs
  • cutting boards
  • stiff plastic bags (some retail stores have them)
  • garbage bags
  • grocery bags (aka, "plastic jellyfish", "turtle killer", "tree shower cap", "African snowflakes", "#2 for #2", "poorman's lunch box")
  • frozen food containers
  • cereal, cookie, & cracker bags inside cardboard boxes
  • milk crates
  • bread trays
  • caps & closures
  • hard hats
  • home insulation
  • storage tanks for agricultural chemicals
  • some household chemical containers
  • mooring buoys
  • covers for some electronics, furniture & appliances
  • newspaper bags
  • safety aprons
  • pipes & sheets for industrial applications
  • recycled plastic lumber (survey your local park benches)
  • toilet seat covers
  • manhole covers
  • non-carbonated drinks
  • 1/3 of all children's toys (it takes color well, so HDPE is the preferred plastic of the toy industry)
  • playground components
  • sheds & garden furniture
  • water pipes
  • gas mains
In my online travels, I discovered that I can purchase the market research report on HDPE in the world market. For a mere $4,450, I can snuggle up with 25 cups of coffee a warm blanket & a chamber pot to absorb the 400 plus pages. It's tempting. I'll think about it. What I could find out about the global market is that North America & Western Europe accounted for 44% of the market demand in 2007. Not surprisingly, China, India, Japan and South Korea are the world's leading HDPE manufacturers. Demand for HDPE has been increasing by 20% each year since 2000.

Given all of these applications, if I were stranded on a desert island and had to choose just one number of plastic, I think it would be HDPE...and then I would just rely on the tides to bring me the other plastics. ; )

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Week 8: I SPI something...PLASTIC.

I'd like to interrupt this regularly scheduled program to spotlight recent comments from the last 2 posts. I certainly don't mind small businesses making a plug for their product on my blog as long as it seems in line with what I am writing about...BUT what about comments that stink (ever-so-slightly) of burning plastic?

Comments from author "beyesn" directly or indirectly reference SPI, the Society of the Plastics Industry. I have taken this directly from their website:
Founded in 1937, SPI is the plastics industry trade association representing the third largest manufacturing industry in the United States. SPI's member companies represent the entire plastics industry supply chain, including processors, machinery and equipment manufacturers and raw materials suppliers. The U.S. plastics industry employs 1.1 million workers and provides nearly $379 billion in annual shipments. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., SPI promotes business development via a suite of commercial services and trade shows, fosters the sustainable growth of plastics in the global marketplace, provides industry representation in the public policy arena and communicates the industry’s contributions to society and the benefits of its products."
I hate to read into this, but me thinks I caught the attention of a plastic lobbying group? I'm flattered, really. Obviously I don't know what association (if any) "beyesn" has with SPI, but the second comment about bioplastics falling into #7 category, triggered the lifting of my left eyebrow and the drooping of the right...

But let's talk about B's first comment on 10.22: "Wine makers are choosing PET as the more sustainable material choice over traditional glass! Check it out: Plastics Industry Blog."

Sustainability is a tricky word, but let's see if I can take a crack at it within the context of this particular SPI blog post. Plastic bottles (within our current system of how we determine what is "economical") are most certainly more economically sustainable than glass bottles. And yes, it may be proven that the creation and transport of virgin plastic has a smaller carbon footprint than virgin glass. If you want some numbers & conversions for that--here is a great article from Ask Pablo. However, I keep coming back to this image...and then this one. And then, this one and this one.
"Plastics’ flexibility and adaptability enable them to be used in so many different ways that make our world better, safer and more fun."
I would love to hear a rep from SPI repeat these words from their website to the children pictured here. We need some REAL and TOTAL life cycle cost analysis, please! However, unless we strap GPS tracking chips on every single plastic item we produce, true life cycle cost accounting is incredibly daunting. But still, I want to know what the true social and environmental costs of plastic wine bottles (and needless to say all other plastics)?

Royte mentions in her book, Bottlemania (p. 171)
the logic of manufacturers not being blamed for any negative effects because its a consumer "choice". (This was eerily close to a statement I posted last week! I promise Elizabeth, I was only to page 77 when I wrote that statement about cigarettes & Hummers...but wanted to give you credit nonetheless.) Would SPI throw their hands up and shrug at the mess surrounding those two children because "Hey, we just make the stuff."

I hope all the christians out there will forgive me for taking Matthew 7:15-20 and slipping it into this context, but for some reason, the last verse kept fluttering about in my mind...
"Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves. By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

When a piece of fruit rots, it returns back into earth's various nutrient cycles that sustain all life. SPI and all of its members need to think about their "fruit" and the oily seed from which it came. Plastic industries cannot wash their hands of their product once it flies off the shelf. They need to see their products through from beginning to end. And the end needs to result in nourishment (not worthless & harmful waste) for the earth...and not to mention, my guestroom.

Last notes on SPI...
Take a look at their official position on global climate change.
Take a look at their official position on environmental health & safety in the workplace...especially the last paragraph.

Closing questions for beyesn. What interest, if any, do you think SPI might have in moving beyond mere "compliance" with environmental regulations?

And...who does SPI's greenwashing? (because the laundry still stinks)...

If you do catch wind of my response to your comments, please know that I mean no personal attack to you as a person, but I am suspicious of your reference to a "blog" authored by SPI. Whatever your association, I do hope that you will continue to wrestle with your own plastic use and our obsession with it as a nation. I hope that both of us can be united in our continuous questioning of both sides of the plastic argument.

Thank you for making me think.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Week 6: Playing with numbers

In honor of the current financial meltdown and election season in the US, I decided to devote this week's entry to numbers. With all this confusion about subprime plastics and plastic-barrel spending, I hope that the following information will help you translate any panic into informed decision-making about your long term consumption investments. Over the following 7 weeks, I will focus on each one of these numbers in more detail, but here is a brief summary of each. Elizabeth Royte's book, Garbage Land was my primary reference...

#1: PET (Polyethylene terephthalate)--this is the stuff of water & soda bottles. It is one of the most widely used plastics and the poster child of recyclability.

#2: HDPE (high-density polyethylene)--Got milk jugs? Got garbage bags? Then you've got HDPE--also widely used with "high" recyclability.

#3: PVC (polyvinyl chloride)--As it stands, I would be unemployed without this human carcinogen, PVC. The aquarium I work for would cease to exist without the PVC "circulatory system" that is the lifeblood of all of the tanks & exhibits. PVC also makes appearances in carpet backing, car parts, "rubber duckies", many shampoo bottles, cleaning product containers, syrup bottles, and (eww) Coffemate bottles. This CANNOT be recycled and will "contaminate" your weekly recycling bin, meaning if you throw #3 in with the rest, you risk your entire recycling efforts being dumped with the rest of the garbage.

#4: LDPE (low-density polyethylene)--this is the stuff of plastic bags & packaging, "Joe six-pack" rings, plastic lids, plastic wrap, sandwich/bread bags, lab equipment, and coated paper board (yikes, I don't like the sound of this as I have likely been pitching out a lot of coated paperboard products). Some grocery stores serve as collection sites for bag recycling...err, downcyling into more shopping bags or various construction materials.

#5: PP (polypropylene)--Tupperware party, anyone? PP is also used in bottle caps (screw on & hinged), snack food wraps. As a side note, the microfiber you see in everything from sports apparel to furniture upholstery is made from nylon & polyester, which are derivatives of polypropylene. Dare I say that I do yoga in polypropylene on a petroleum based yoga mat that off-gases right into my "child's pose" nose.

#6: PS (polystyrene)--aka STYROFOAM--you know what this is. It CANNOT be recycled, but by all means, it can be reused. So knock yourself out with that Styrofoam shed you've always wanted to build. It may blow over and you may not be able to find it in a snow storm, but by golly, it will be there forever!

#7: "other"--basically, this is just a hodgepodge of polymers and for all practical purposes CANNOT be recycled. So, don't kid yourself by throwing it in the recycle bin. In your mind it is recycled. In reality, it is dumped or burned. #7's are linked to the recent case of the "nefarious Nalgene" & "sinister sippy cups" containing Bisphenol A (BPA). I also just realized that I need to decide if I am including products with plastic lining (like tin cans) in my collection (insert colorful expletive)...I'll keep you posted.

Until next week...

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Week 5: A letter to The Future

Mr. McGuire: "I just want to say one word to you--just one word."
Benjamin: "Yes sir?"
Mr. McGuire: "Are you listening?"
Benjamin: "Yes sir, I am."
Mr. McGuire: "Plastics."
Benjamin: "Exactly how do you mean?"
Mr. McGuire: "There's a great future in plastics...think about it."
From the movie, The Graduate, 1967

Dear The Future,
It has come to my attention that your well-being is at stake. I know this is hard for you to imagine as you have not really experienced it yet, but trust me...I've been there. I am concerned in particular about plastic on 3 levels, and I wanted to share these with you:

  1. On the surface, there is (literally) mounting evidence that something is not quite right with this material. I will be the first to admit that I have trusted in this material from its inception over 100 years ago. As it morphed and improved, so did I (or so I thought). Over time, these inventions--these wonders of innovation and convenience gradually took up more and more space in the physical landscape. Forgive me for stating the obvious, but plastic is ugly. It lacks thoughtfulness and beauty. Have you seen the plastic bags dangling off the trees like tacky earrings? And what about the beaches in the South Pacific heaving all of the diapers back to land with the tide? I have been trying to contact The Present for some time now concerning the rapidly increasing production of plastic. Virgin plastic production was over 120 billion pounds last year in the US, which is the equivalent of 1,333 Titanics! And about 98% was dumped and not recycled! The landfills, incinerators, open dumps, and ultimately the ocean will not store this material indefinitely.

  2. The space between may seem inconsequential, but I assure you that plastics occupy all of it, even on a microscopic level. Many humans are now beginning to realize that their synthetic chemicals associated in the production of plastic are now broken up into microscopic bits and outnumbering plankton 6 to 1! Leaching occurs in so many things from the insides of popcorn bags to the copier that off-gasses as they hover right over it. Imagine, over 6 billion walking & talking micro-landfills! I have been responsible for the promotion of plastics, but from what I understand The Present is becoming more and more active (on your behalf) to learn more about the effects of microplastics on living systems. This is a relief because I think all three of us need to be advocates for each other, no?

  3. Getting to the bottom of it is not difficult to pin point, but extremely challenging to change. What I am particularly alarmed at is this new identity that humans have taken on. "Consumers" is the word I keep hearing. If memory serves, they used to identify themselves with words like "survivors", "farmers", "sowers", "innovators", "participators", "fishers", "lovers" & "thinkers". I know that there are millions out there who are reassessing this identity, and this is hopeful. Some have instituted plastic bag bans or taxes in places like Canada, India, the Netherlands, Australia, the US, Pakistan and several countries in Africa. There has been a wake up call and you should be encouraged by this. I myself am relieved because quite frankly, all of this plastic build up has had a very negative effect on my reputation.
In closing, I propose that you and I do everything in our power to contact The Present, who (alas) always has a ridiculously busy schedule. I know that The Present acknowledges the two of us, but I want to have a deeper relationship (with both of you), especially in regards to our dealings with humans. One topic in particular I would like to discuss--and related to my third point--is how many humans perceive us as linear, two-dimensional, and relatively separate from one another. If anything, we need to figure out how to communicate that we are cyclical...I am the perfect example! I always catch up with people. Decisions and actions made under me don't go away. We ARE extremely interconnected, are we not?

Look, I don't mean to go on and on, but I don't really have a choice. I've been around a long time and I have much to say, but this change has to happen at the position that I no longer hold and you have yet to inherit. This is why The Present is so important. As we are only able to meet with The Present as liaison, I do hope you will do what you can to emphasize the urgency of this meeting.

The Past

P.S.--Have humans figured out a replacement for the automobile? Henry Ford was curious.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Week 4: Month's End Melancholy

It was hard for me to begin this post. I am tired (in a good way)--embracing my exhaustion and so thankful and filled with joy when I look at my map showing all the knowplastic readers. I tried to express my joy to the students in Mazatlan--joy for their interest, their growing awareness along with mine. I love the input from earthlygirl about the deeper issues around leaning on corn for fuel, food, and "product". So I was sitting here at the keyboard for quite sometime staring blankly through my plastic eyes into the plastic monitor and I got up out of my chair, went to the bookshelf in the living room and honed in on a book of poetry by Mary Oliver called Why I Wake Early. I did not know what she wanted to offer me, but I knew it was in that book somewhere, and after a minute of flipping pages and scanning titles, I smiled and ran back to the computer to share one with you. It might be the longest title of a poem ever...

What Was Once the Largest Shopping Center in Northern Ohio Was Built Where There Had Been a Pond I Used to Visit Every Summer Afternoon
by Mary Oliver

Loving the earth, seeing what has been done to it,
I grow sharp, I grow cold.

Where will the trilliums go, and the coltsfoot?
Where will the pond lilies go to continue living
their simple penniless lives, lifting
their faces of gold?

Impossible to believe we need so much
as the world wants us to buy.
I have more clothes, lamps, dishes, paper clips
than I could possibly use before I die.

Oh, I would like to live in an empty house,
with vines for walls, and a carpet of grass.
No planks, no plastic, no fiberglass.

And I suppose sometime I will.
Old and cold I will lie apart
from all this buying and selling, with only
the beautiful earth in my heart.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Week 3: The plastic poop glove

I have a dog who poops on a daily basis. And I know all you dog owners out there (especially ye who obey the 11th Commandment: "Should it not be yer own yard, ye shall pick up after your dog.") Can I get an "amen" for plastic grocery bags? Given the fact that I don't have space to compost Hugo's doo-doo nor do I have the slightest desire to collect 365 bags of poop in my guest room for this experiment, I had to come up with an alternative. In addition, I am not collecting my total garbage effluent, so I needed to come up with an alternative for kitchen garbage bags too.

I got onto and bought my annual supply of kitchen and poop bags for the year. They are not without sin to be sure--they are made from corn which is technically better than a human-made polyethylene terepthalate, but I have no idea where the corn comes from. The product is "BioBag" and they claim to use non-GMO starches and a material known as Mater-Bi which is a trademarked product of an Italian company called Novamont. I went to, but was not able to activate a lot of their links, so wasn't able to learn too much about it. On the box, it says it is a product of Norway. The company will only source corn from countries that are GMO-free, so that rules out acquiring a US corn supply. Alas, the bags make a long journey of approximately 3,500 miles (guesstimating from Oslo). They may be able to claim that no polyethylene is used in the production of the bags. So then...what--their machines to fabricate the bags run on biofuels and contain absolutely no plastic parts? And what about transport? That's a lot of fossil fuels trailing behind that 18-wheeler dashboard and plastic-coated cockpit. One step at a time, I guess.

This brings me to my ultimate justification for the time being. Most of the garbage in Boston goes to an incinerator in Ware, MA. So, I would rather have corn smoke rather than plastic smoke billowing out. However, this justification has expired because I am in Beverly and have yet to discover where our trash and recycling goes. If it goes to a landfill, I'm not sure it matters either way since corn and plastic and everything else are mummified rather than broken down in order to protect our groundwater supplies. So, how do I keep the poop out of the bags all together? Well, I have known about pet waste composters for a few years now and would LOVE to know if anyone has had first hand experience with these. I found a good step-by-step on how to make your own here. However, my issue, like many in the Northeast is that I live in a multi-family (aka, multi-opinionated) dwelling. What seems like a fantastic idea to me may likely raise the eyebrows and tempers of my neighbors. Therefore, until I get land of my "own" I will stick with BioBag unless anyone else has any suggestions.

I'll close with 2 questions: How much more resourceful and innovative would we be if we were forced to deal with all of our waste where we live and work? How would you change your habits if you went from NIMBY to YIMBY?