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.

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...


beyesn said...

Just to claify -- not ALL #7 plastics contain BPA. Your paragraph that starts "According to NY Times article" makes it sound like they all do. Bioplastics are #7, for example.

Sunnye said...

roger that--I made a slight change in my wording on this post--thanks for catching that! : )

Beej said...

FYI - I work for the Smurfs. If you live near one of our recycling facilities, try for a tour. We use a method called "single stream recycling" in most of our locations. This means we have a large machine that sorts your stuff into the items we can recycle, ourselves, and those we can't. The "can't" items are then sold/sent to companies that "can" recycle them (as much as possible - which is a lot). Congratulations on your quest!

Sunnye said...

Hey Beej--so glad to have an actual Smurf tuning in! I'm in Beverly, looks like Wakefield, MA might be the best? I would LOVE to get a tour. Let me know what you recommend.

Thanks for commenting!