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, 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.