April 18, 2013
by Peggy
Comments Off on Ethane Crackers are Unsavory

Ethane Crackers are Unsavory

Have you ever heard the term “ethane cracker”?

Far from the familiar crunchy snack that may spring to mind, an ethane cracker is a type of hydrocarbon processor that breaks oil and gas into smaller molecules, creating ethylene, the monomer used in the production of polyethylene and MEG (mono-ethylene glycol). Ethane crackers also produce some propylene, used in the production of polypropylene (plastic #5).

Last year, NPR was following the saga of a particular ethane cracker, one that Royal Dutch Shell wants to build in the U.S.  Multiple states were vying for the hosting honors, because building and operating an ethane cracker creates jobs, and jobs, as we all know, are in demand.

Pennsylvania ultimately got the nod, though not without the governor, Tom Corbett, promising extremely generous terms to Shell:

Pennsylvania wooed Shell by granting the company a fifteen-year tax amnesty window. In June [2012], Governor Corbett successfully pushed for an additional tax break that will grant Shell a $2.10 credit for every gallon of ethane it purchases from Pennsylvania-based natural gas drillers. Over a 25-year window, the credit has been valued at $1.65 billion, making it the largest tax break in state history.

Shell has said that the proposed plant will turn out “more than a million tons of ethylene a year,” creating the feedstock for plastics like PET (polyethylene terephthalate, plastic #1), polyester fiber, LDPE (low density polyethylene, plastic #4), HDPE (high density polyethylene, plastic #2) and polypropylene (plastic #5) which in turn are made into things like plastic bottles, clothing, bags, wraps, packaging, caps and straws.

As of this writing, the Shell plant in Pennsylvania is not a certainty, and although Gov. Corbett is enthused about the jobs, it’s worth looking at the environmental costs of this heavily subsidized business deal. I have to say, I pity the poor folks near Monaca in Beaver County—the likely site.  If the plant does indeed get built, air quality and health will suffer for sure, both locally and down wind.

Neil Carman, clean air program director for the Sierra Club in Texas, has plenty of experience with gas crackers.  An ethane cracker produces emissions of carcinogenic chemicals as well as particulate matter.  Breathing that, he says, is “like injecting someone with cancer.”

Thanks to the fracking boom, four new “world scale” crackers (including Shell’s) are planned for the U.S. by 2017.  Together with upgrades to existing facilities, FrackCheck WV reports that the “outlined expansions total an estimated 7.4m tonnes/year of ethylene capacity by 2017, representing 28% of existing US ethylene capacity of around 26.6m tonnes/year.”

To learn more about hydraulic fracturing of the Marcellus shale for natural gas in Pennsylvania, watch this investigative report from Link TV (18 minutes).


The Ridiculous Death Threat

April 8, 2013 by Peggy | Comments Off on The Ridiculous Death Threat

Did you read it in the newspaper recently? Deaths in San Francisco Spike—Bag Bans to Blame!  It might be scary if it were true.

Red Reusable Bag with Produce

Via Flickr. CC Attribution, Non-commercial, Share -alike by MD Anderson’s Focused on Health

The “big scoop” arises from a study commissioned by the American Chemistry Council (a trade group that represents plastic manufacturers) of 84 reusable bags used for grocery shopping that were tested in Arizona in 2009. The bags were sampled for the following bacteria: listeria, salmonella and E. coli.  No listeria or salmonella were found, but E. coli was found in seven bags.  What kind of E. coli? Dr. Susan Fernyak, director of San Francisco’s Communicable Disease and Control Prevention division, was interviewed by NPR and stated that the study failed to identify the type of E. coli in the bags, “a significant shortcoming.”  According to the CDC, most strains of E. coli are harmless.

Nevertheless, those philosophically and financially opposed to bag bans have made much of the American Chemistry Council study and it keeps popping up, years later, and needing to be aired out all over again.

In 2012, a lawyer/economist named Jonathan Klick and a colleague, Joshua Wright, suggested a link between San Francisco’s plastic bag ban and the city’s death rate from foodborne illness. I find this dramatic video risible, but if you can believe it, blogger Andrew Sullivan had linked to it in a post last year (that’s how I first came to see this), with the shocking “news” of a reusable bag health crisis occurring in San Francisco. 

In early February of this year, conservative writer Ramesh Ponnuru published an opinion piece in the Denver Post entitled “The Disgusting Consequences of Plastic-Bag Bans” re-hashing the ACC study and hyping the death threat angle. (“Klick and Wright estimate that the San Francisco [bag] ban results in a 46 percent increase in deaths from foodborne illnesses….”) This time San Francisco’s Department of Public Health felt compelled to respond with a detailed memo to illustrate unequivocally that Klick and Wright’s conclusion was “not warranted.”

In spite of this, Professor Klick (he teaches at Penn Law) is still out there promoting his hypothesis that reusable bags pose a serious health risk. The March/April 2013 issue of the Penn Gazette features Klick’s  outlandish speculation in an article titled “Getting to the Bottom of the Bag,” and of course makes no mention of the San Francisco Department of Health’s take down.

Brng.it champions the BYOR (Bring Your Own Reusable) ethic, so we love reusable bags.  Bringing your own shopping bag is one of the most effective ways to limit unnecessary waste of resources and to reduce environmental damage, human health effects and pollution associated with the life cycle of plastics.

To ensure your bags aren’t harboring any bad bacteria it’s a good idea to wash them periodically with soap and water. Another good way to avoid risk of foodborne illness is to wash or cook your food, and wash your hands before eating. But we bet you already knew that.

March 19, 2013
by Peggy
Comments Off on Coke, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Responsibility for your Packaging?

Coke, Why Hast Thou Forsaken Responsibility for your Packaging?

6.5 oz. and 16 oz. reusable Coke bottles

6.5 oz. and 16 oz. reusable Coke bottles

Coke was once an exemplary steward of resources and demonstrated respect for the environment and for the virtues of thrift and conservation.

Witness these two glass Coke bottles, a 6.5 oz. and a 16 oz., that are real workhorses,  specifically designed for refilling and repeated reuse.  They carry the words  “return for deposit” on one side, and on the other, “money back bottle.”

These durable bottles show some wear, but they are ready to be washed and refilled again, and again.

Beginning in the mid-’60s, Coke (and to be fair, most other beverage makers) rejected the deposit and refill model. Because they could. Because we let them.

Now people, wildlife and the environment bear the impact of “one-way” containers.

Bottle deposit systems and refillable bottles are proven to minimize resource waste, associated pollution, litter, disposal expenses and wildlife impacts.  But in Australia, Coke has tried to bring an end to the Northern Territory’s existing container deposit system. (To read more about Coke’s recent legal action check out this article: “Coke chokes the NT container deposit scheme.”) And Coke’s efforts are by no means limited to Australia.  I find this attitude on Coke’s part inexcusable. They know what policies would reduce the true environmental costs of their packaging– because they used to employ them.

Money Back Coke Bottles, Return for Deposit

Money Back Coke Bottles, Return for Deposit

March 18, 2013
by Peggy
Comments Off on Repair and Remanufacturing are the Future

Repair and Remanufacturing are the Future

iFixit Logo

Kyle Wiens, founder of iFixit, delivered a web-presentation this week organized by the EPA.  iFixit is based on the simple premise that “Repair is a cornerstone of our environmental and economic future.” Those of us concerned about a steadily growing human population on a planet of limited size and resources naturally appreciate this understanding.

iFixit has tapped into the fact that many consumers are interested in being able to repair their own things, whether cars or cell phones, and they are more likely to develop an allegiance to a brand whose product they have been able to fix themselves.  iFixit facilitates repair by making instructions and how-to videos available online, and can even provide specialized tools to make the job easier. They have also investigated the repairability of various consumer electronics, so you can weigh in advance if you ‘d rather buy a Dell tablet that you can disassemble yourself for repair, or a tightly glued together model like the iPad that could prove extra challenging.

Wiens believes we are on the cusp of a 6th wave of innovation that will emphasize resource recovery, specifically reuse and remanufacturing, over recycling.  I encourage you to read his recent post online at the Harvard Business Review entitled “We’re Running Out of Resources, and It’s Going to be OK ,” where he goes into more depth about the need to transition from a linear economy to a circular economy. iFixit has joined with other companies in the Circular Economy 100, to look at ways to develop new circular economy projects.

iFixit also promotes a growing number of community collectives that support reuse (like Free Geek) that repair computers, organizations (like Maker Media, publisher of Make Magazine) that promote repairing, reusing and related hands-on creative endeavors, and sharing ventures (like Yerdle).

While doubtful that new manufacturing will enjoy a renaissance in the U.S. on a big scale, Wiens is certain that repair, reuse and remanufacturing will make better use of valuable resources while creating new types of jobs here in the U.S.  From that perspective, the future of manufacturing looks bright.

March 12, 2013
by Peggy
Comments Off on Coke’s Motto: No Deposit, No Refill

Coke’s Motto: No Deposit, No Refill

10 oz. colorless glass Coke bottle, ca. 1970s

10 oz. NO DEPOSIT, NO REFILL glass Coke bottle, ca. 1970s

Not so long ago I was picking up roadside trash, appalled at the number of bottles and cans I found along a short stretch of suburban asphalt.  255 bottle and cans to be exact. Among them, one stood out to me. It was a 10 oz. colorless glass Coke bottle, grooved and curvy, weighty and remarkably, undamaged.  I recycled all the others, but I pulled that classic out, brought it home and cleaned it up.  I deciphered the numbers on the bottom, and with a little research figured out that it was probably produced in Chattanooga in the 1970s, and has no real collectible value.

In raised letters on the neck, above the trademarked Coke and Coca-Cola logos, are these words, all caps: NO DEPOSIT NO REFILL.  (Underscore that. The bottom of the bottle reads: NOT TO BE REFILLED.) How ironic, I thought, that’s classic, too!  Although it’s nothing to be proud of, NO DEPOSIT NO REFILL has been Coke’s motto in the U.S. almost since the invention of the “one-way” bottle.

It was Coke that introduced NO DEPOSIT NO REFILL glass bottles to the market in 1964.  Quickly thereafter other beverage makers followed suit. As a society, we didn’t pause (while refreshing) to consider whether the change from reusable to disposable containers was smart, and the number of “one-way” containers in our waste stream exploded.

Today just take a gander at the 2013 Container Recycling Institute’s WasteCount on their homepage—a running tally of drink containers landfilled, incinerated and littered into the environment in the U.S. so far this year.

  • 35 billion plastic bottles are thrown “away” in the U.S. each year*
  • 40 billion aluminum cans, the most valuable beverage container material, are still dumped annually into landfills in the U.S.**
  • Historically, between 6 and 7 million tons of glass bottles are wasted in the U.S. every year.***

And that’s just the material waste. Let’s also consider the enormous amount of energy used and the amount of pollution created in the making and disposing of all those containers, which will now need to be replaced with new ones.

Coke has fought efforts by state governments to institute container deposits in the U.S., and recently sued the Northern Territory of Australia, even though deposit programs are proven to substantially increase container recycling rates and decrease littering. Coke and other beverage makers are mightily concerned that deposit systems hurt their profits and therefore actively oppose their implementation. So in all but 10 U.S. states, there is NO DEPOSIT for beverage containers.

Refillable bottles are another option that would significantly reduce the amount of container trash going to landfill, incinerator, or oceans, but Coke gave up its last refilling operation in the U.S. in 2012.  NO REFILL now applies nationwide for all Coke beverages and the vast majority of other soda, water, juice, sports drink and beer products.

In 1964, NO DEPOSIT NO REFILL was novel, and in hindsight, incredibly foolish. What were we thinking?  Today, aiding and abetting rising volumes of container waste, through NO DEPOSIT NO REFILL policies, rather than doing everything possible to reduce waste and reuse resources, is not just foolish, it’s deplorable.  There isn’t anyplace in the world that can afford the amount of waste such a motto engenders.


*Edward Humes, “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash”, **As You Sow, “Unfinished Business: The Case for Extended Producer Responsibility for Post-Consumer Packaging,” *** CRI, “Wasting and Recycling Trends: Conclusions from CRI’s 2008 Beverage Market Data Analysis.”



February 24, 2013
by Peggy
Comments Off on Water Bottle Rundown

Water Bottle Rundown

Stainless Steel Water Bottle

Stainless Steel Water Bottle. Photo: Roi Brooks

I’ve been doing a lot of research recently on reusable water bottle options, and thought it was worthwhile sharing.

Many of us have already adopted a reusable tumbler or water bottle that we bring along with us every day. So first off, let me say “thank you!” to those who carry their own.  It’s a great habit.  It saves resources and energy, and if you are drinking tap, supports public water.

There is a disconcertingly large array of water bottle/drinkware options out there. I’ll state right up front that I believe in the Precautionary Principle, and I can only in good conscience recommend the safest and most environmentally responsible options. Here goes:

Don’t buy plastic. Tritan, you say?  I know, that’s the “latest and greatest” plastic and yes, I believe it’s completely BPA-free as advertised. But you’ll never know the closely-held secret recipe for Tritan, and what you don’t know can harm you.  Bluntly, plastic leaches chemicals, lingers on our Earth forever, and recycling (where possible) just transforms it temporarily on its way to the landfill or incinerator.

Don’t get aluminum. Aluminum is light-weight, doesn’t break, and is recyclable, but all aluminum bottles are lined on the inside with plastic. Leaching from that plastic may be minimal, but leach it will. (Cleaning it with a brush probably makes that even more likely.)

Don’t get borosilicate glass (aka pyrex or “tempered” glass).  This seems to be the latest fad in China. It’s inexpensive, it’s inert; both count in its favor. But alas, borosilicate glass contaminates the regular glass in your community recycling programs because it melts at a much higher temperature.  As a California waste and recycling executive bemoaned, “How are we going to get to zero waste if we keep allowing things that can’t be recycled?”

Don’t get a bottle made of 200 series stainless steel.  It’s less expensive and looks just like 300 series stainless steel, but it’s not food grade, and it doesn’t have enough chromium and nickel in it to ensure long term use without corrosion.

So what are the best choices?

Use plain old glass. Any bottle or jar will do. It’s the choice of No Impact Man Colin Beavan, whose blog extolls the virtues of this inexpensive, easily available and completely inert vessel. Granted, glass can break.  You can knit a cozy, or if you aren’t the crafty type, buy one on Etsy. (Note: Metal bottle tops are often coated on the interior with plastic resin, so while the glass is inert, the cap may not be.)

Use a food grade 300 series stainless steel bottle. Not really breakable. And it’s inert, like glass, so it won’t interact with your drink. Make sure your bottle is from a reputable source, otherwise you may get lower quality stainless steel masquerading as the corrosion-resistant 300 grade you want. Stainless steel bottles are recyclable except for the plastic cap.  Klean Kanteen now offers the option of a handsome 100% stainless steel cap, for a fully recyclable product.

To sum up:

1) Carry a water bottle that’s safe for you, one that doesn’t introduce chemicals you don’t need to ingest. If you are buying one, buy from a reputable source so you know the product is as promised.

2) Consider the product’s end of life. If the bottle is both safe and capable of closed- loop recycling, you’ve found a winner.

I raise my reusable water bottle to you! Keep modeling those excellent BYOR habits!

February 20, 2013
by Peggy
Comments Off on Know Your Plastics: Melamine

Know Your Plastics: Melamine

Melamine is notorious because it was the cause of fatal poisoning and sickening of many American pets in 2007.  Chinese manufacturers added melamine to corn gluten, wheat gluten and rice protein to fake higher protein levels in their products for use in pet foods.  Again in 2008, melamine was the culprit in the death of Chinese infants who were fed milk-based baby formulas laced with melamine.

Melamine Ware

Melamine Ware on Display

Melamine, described in Wikipedia as a thermosetting plastic, is derived from the polymerization of formaldehyde and melamine resin and is widely used today in building supplies (such as Formica) and also in inexpensive, non-breakable tableware.

Tests have shown that under certain conditions, such as high heat or in contact with acidic foods, melamine is leached from dinnerware into food. And recently published research indicates that human consumption of melamine may result in kidney stones.

Melamine may also be found in our bodies due to the use of the pesticide cyromazine on food and forage crops.

January 31, 2013
by Peggy
Comments Off on Know Your Plastics: #3 Vinyl (Polyvinyl Chloride, PVC)

Know Your Plastics: #3 Vinyl (Polyvinyl Chloride, PVC)

number3Polyvinyl Chloride is a polymer made from chlorine and ethylene. Although it is a hard plastic, it can be softened by adding chemicals called plasticizers. This pliant plastic, widely used in packaging, is familiar to many of us by its dreadful off-gassing smell. Think cheap plastic shower curtain liner.  Polyvinyl chloride is in fact quite toxic.  Besides use in packaging, it is the type of plastic used in hard white plumbing pipes and in some types of house siding, outdoor furniture, billboards, flooring and carpet backing.

Surprisingly enough, plasticized PVC is still widely used in the medical industry for intravenous lines and storage of blood and other fluids for transmission. Remember the cyclist Alberto Contador, nailed last year for blood-doping? The tip-off was the plasticizers in his blood.

#3 plastic is still used commercially in film wrap for foods. This is surprising because it readily leaches phthalates (plasticizers), which are recognized endocrine-disruptors, into foods. Because of the leaching problem, it has mostly been phased out for residential use and replaced by low density polyethylene (LDPE #4) plastic wrap.

Blue Vinyl DVD

Blue Vinyl DVD via Amazon

Recommendation: avoid PVC.  To learn more, check out the simultaneously humorous and alarming documentary, “Blue Vinyl,” released in 2002.  Also see Environmental Working Group’s page on how to avoid hormone-disrupting chemicals.

PVC should be handled and disposed of as hazardous waste. It should not be landfilled or incinerated, and is generally not recycled. The more you learn about vinyl, the more you question whether the many uses we’ve found for it are worth the ongoing risks we run by using it as extensively as we do.



January 23, 2013
by Peggy
Comments Off on Don’t Free Your Balloons!

Don’t Free Your Balloons!

We’ve written quite a bit about the environmental hazards of litter and plastic pollution.  Thanks to an organization called Balloons Blow, which concentrates on cleaning up Florida beaches and educating about litter, the downside of pretty party balloons is getting more exposure. Nothing is more symbolic of celebration than a bobbing bouquet of bright helium-filled balloons, latex or mylar, but the sad fact is that balloons and balloon bunches escape. Occasionally they are even released en masse on purpose, a practice which has to end. (Some states have outlawed balloon releases.) And incidentally, there is the matter of the helium, which is not in unlimited supply.

Bouquet of Ballons on Beach

Via: Balloons Blow

It wasn’t too many years ago that my son’s Boy Scout troop released helium-filled latex balloons (no ribbons)– falsely believing them to be biodegradable and without harm– just as an amusement, to see whose balloon would drift the furthest.

Balloons Blow Flyer

Via: Balloons Blow

Knowing better now, as we’ve learned from picking up litter and disentangling ribbons and deflated balloons from trees and shrubbery, we wanted to pass on the educational information that Balloons Blow has prepared to share with others about this not-so-small component of marine and terrestrial pollution.

Don’t let balloons go free!  And by all means use the factsheet to discourage balloon release events, should you get wind of them.


December 11, 2012
by Peggy
Comments Off on Book Recommendation: “Plastic Free, How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too”

Book Recommendation: “Plastic Free, How I Kicked the Plastic Habit and How You Can Too”

Plastic Free, by Beth Terry

Plastic Free, by Beth Terry via: MyPlasticFreeLife.com

I’ve just finished reading Beth Terry’s new book, an inspiring guide to rethinking our plastic-laden lives.

Plastic is an amazing invention—-so light! so resilient! so malleable! But the fact is, we’ve gone way overboard with this material. I won’t argue with anyone who says there are applications for which plastic is invaluable and irreplaceable, because I believe that’s true.  Unfortunately, most of the plastic we “consume” today is completely expendable, throw-away crap. It’s also a waste of resources, polluting, toxic and kills wildlife. For these reasons, I want to avoid plastics to the greatest extent I am able, and I highly recommend this book to others with plastic qualms.

There are several things I like about “Plastic Free.” The scope is comprehensive. Much information is provided, with abundant links and referrals to other resources, so you can delve as deeply as you wish into the many problems related to the huge quantities of plastic waste we generate, as well as solutions to those problems. But it’s also a fun and interesting read.  It’s a story of Beth’s personal journey, and I believe most of us will be able to identify with her starting point:

Before June of 2007, I lived the plastic lifestyle. It’s no great surprise. Most of us do; it’s pretty standard in the United States.  It’s a lifestyle of consumption, enabled by convenience.  We can get pretty much anything we want, pretty much whenever we want it.  We don’t have to think about the costs…. We don’t have to think about the consequences…I generated bins full of plastic trash, but what did I care? I didn’t see where it went.

At the same time the book provides multiple valuable tactics for the most practiced plastic-dodgers. Even though I think I’m getting good at it, I picked up several new tips and tricks. On cheese, for example. I can’t tell you  how many plastic bags of grated cheese are in my past.  But I’m not buying pre-grated, over-packaged cheese anymore.  Instead, I bought a big chunk of cheese, grated it, and stored it in glass jars in my freezer, like Beth Terry does. Why didn’t I think of that before? I learned that many foods can be safely stored in glass jars in the freezer.

After each chapter dealing with a specific category of plastic products, the author offers a checklist of things you can do to limit the use of plastics, from basics like carrying your own reusable bags, to becoming a more outspoken advocate for change. Each checklist has a kind and reasonable preface:

Choose the steps that feel right to you. Then, as an experiment, challenge yourself to do one thing that feels a little more difficult. Only you know what that one thing is.

The book ends with nine compelling reasons to rethink your own plastics consumption, and a vote of confidence in your efforts to change and affect change.

Whoever you are, whatever your age, gender, or economic status, there is something for you to do in the fight against plastic pollution…. All talents and skills are needed.

I’ve given this book to a few friends who are aware of and disturbed by the plastic plague, yet feel overwhelmed about how to even begin.

Want to lessen the impact of plastic on Earth, improve your well-being and peace of mind? “Plastic Free” is an excellent place for beginners to start, and a very useful, motivating resource for those already committed to the cause.

The author is offering a gift package for the holidays that includes the DVD of “Bag It” with her book. Highly recommended for sharing with family members, neighbors, schools and community groups!