Tag Archives: Recycling

Death by Plastic- Another Inconvenient Truth

The Seattle City Council last week held a hearing on its new plan to further reduce waste and promote more recycling and reuse. One of the proposals pushed by citizens was to ban Styrofoam use in the city. Another was to require stores to charge for plastic and paper bags to encourage people to bring their own reusable bag.

What the hell, one might ask. What’s the big deal about Styrofoam and plastics? Isn’t Styrofoam just a bunch of small beads of light weight inert plastic particles clumped together to form take out food containers and such? Who ever got killed or even maimed by a Styrofoam food container? Isn’t their benign nature one of the reasons they are used for food?

I remembered reading an article last year on the Internet about Styrofoam particles accumulating in the oceans and being ingested by zoo plankton. Concern was raised about the impact on the food chain.

I decided to look again to see if I could get more information. And now I am much more concerned. The first article I checked out was one that the Seattle Times printed last year in the Pacific Northwest Magazine. The article was entitled “Oceans of Waste – Waves of junk are flowing into the food chain”

It seems that all the plastic flowing into the sea has created a huge garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean , some 1000 miles across, twice the area of Texas and full of plastic. A researcher named Charles Moore described what he found:

In August 1998, Moore and his crew extensively sampled the surface waters of the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre with a fine-mesh net resembling a manta ray. “What we saw amazed us,” Moore said in an analysis for the 2001 Marine Pollution Bulletin. “We were looking at a rich broth of minute sea creatures mixed with hundreds of colored plastic fragments — a plastic-plankton soup.” The team collected six times more plastic particles (by weight) than zooplankton.
Moore calls the plastic particles “poison pills” because they absorb and concentrate toxic chemicals, acting like sponges for DDT, PCBs and other oily pollutants. “It’s a serious situation,” he says, “when you’ve got a material that comes in all shapes and sizes, can mimic every type of food in the sea, and is capable of absorbing persistent pollutants that are endocrine disruptors. . . . One hundred thousand marine mammals a year are killed by entanglement (with plastic six-pack rings, fishing lines and nets); I’m not minimizing that. But the actual ability to wipe out the entire vertebrate kingdom in the ocean is with the plastic particles.”

In an interview in Satyya Magazine on line just last month Moore again emphasized the concern:

“…most of this garbage is salt-shaker stuff, the breakdown of plastic products. When we trawl a net, we get a kaleidoscope of different colored little plastic particles, mostly whites and blues. We think the reds are taken by birds and fish because they look like shrimp. And inside the garbage patch we’ve found over six times as much plastic as plankton. While outside it’s over three times as much plastic as plankton. So if you’re a fish trying to choose whether something is food or not, you can easily be confused. Gelatinous plankton feeders are heavily impacted by this. Then they’re eaten by fish, birds and turtles and so it accumulates up the food chain. And [the plastic particles are not] just indigestible, they are also a sponge for toxics, so it’s like poison pills being ingested.”

In a study Moore did for the state of California he found that some 80% of the plastic waste originated from the land. Only 10% originated from industrial sources. The rest is going into the ocean from household and municipal waste and storm runoff. Some 87 % of the particles going down rivers were less than 5mm in diameter.

In an August 6, 2006 LA Times article on our altered oceans they note that industrial spills of larger plastic pellets are also occurring.

“The pellets, like most types of plastic, are sponges for oily toxic chemicals that don’t readily dissolve in water, such as the pesticide DDT and polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs. Some pellets have been found to contain concentrations of these pollutants 1 million times greater than the levels found in surrounding water.

As they absorb toxic chemicals, they become poison pills. Wildlife researchers have found the pellets, which resemble fish eggs, in the bellies of fish, sea turtles, seabirds and marine mammals.

Over time, plastic can break down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually turning to powder and entering the ocean in microscopic fragments. Some plastic starts out as tiny particles, such as the abrasives in cleaning products that are washed down the sink, through sewage systems and out to sea.

The chemical components of plastics and common additives can harm animals and humans. Studies have linked the hormone-mimicking phthalates, used to soften plastic, to reduced testosterone and fertility in laboratory animals, and to subtle changes in the genitals of baby boys. Another additive, bisphenol A, used to make lightweight, heat-resistant baby bottles and microwave cookware, has been linked to prostate cancer.”

In another recent article entitled “Our oceans are turning into plastic … are we? ” for Best Life Magazine, the discussion continues, noting it’s not just the toxins that adhere to plastics in the ocean that enter our food chain that are of concern, it’s also the toxic chemicals that are used in making plastic that we are exposed to:

“…there’s growing—and disturbing—proof that we’re ingesting plastic toxins constantly, and that even slight doses of these substances can severely disrupt gene activity. “Every one of us has this huge body burden,” Moore says. “You could take your serum to a lab now, and they’d find at least 100 industrial chemicals that weren’t around in 1950.” The fact that these toxins don’t cause violent and immediate reactions does not mean they’re benign: Scientists are just beginning to research the long-term ways in which the chemicals used to make plastic interact with our own biochemistry.”

The health and environmental issues involved in plastic production, use and disposal are serious ones that we need to address. If you are likewise concerned I urge that you contact members of the Seattle City Council to urge that they take action to address the growing plastics problem.

Click here to contact Seattle City Council members

see also:

Residents urge council panel to ban Styrofoam, end proposed landfill, Seattle PI, 6/8/2007

Foam Free Seattle

Policy Options under consideration for possible waste reduction, City of Seattle – 5/21/2007

Forget plastic bags, foam cups if zero-waste strategy adopted, Seattle Times 6/8/2007

Washington State Again Leads Nation in Recycling

Governor Christine Gregoire of Washington State has signed into law the electronic waste recycling bill, SB 6428, passed by the Legislature. This puts Washington State into the forefront of dealing with this issue. The New York Times today credited Washington state as “enacting the most far-reaching electronic waste bill to date.”

In her press release Gov. Gregoire notes “This bill puts our market-based economy to work for the environment…. “It’s a responsible step in the best interests of the public, because no matter who owns the equipment at the end of its life, it will be recycled – free of charge.”

In an article in the Seattle PI today byThe Associated Press, Rachel La Corte states that Washington state residents throw out more than a million TV’s and computer monitors each year. This figure comes from a two year study by the Department of Ecology.

Nationally about two million tons or 4,000,000,000 pounds of electronic waste are generated each year according to the U.S. environmental Protection Agency.

The New York Times notes that televisions and computers can contain up to 8 pounds of lead as well as other toxic materials like mercury and cadmium which can leach into and poison drinking water supplies.

The new Washington state law requires that computer and electronic companies establish and set up a program to collect and safely dispose of discarded electronics. Manufactures will pay for the system, rather than consumers paying to dispose of the old products.

We know consumers will still pay for it as part of overall system costs but still the disincentive to recycle when you have to pay for disposal when your TV dies is not there. You will be able to do it for free under the new law.

Hewlett Packard and the Washington Retail Association among others testified in support of the bill.

Locally this legislation was spearheaded by Washington Citizens for Resource Conservation.Further excellent analysis of the bill and their efforts can be found on their website.

The passage of this bill is one of the recent success stories of the environmental community here is Washington state. The e-waste recycling bill was picked as one of the 4 priorities of the environmental community this year under their Priorities for a Healthy Washington Campaign. Three out of their four prime bills were enacted.

The text of this legislation and the history of the Legislature’s actions on this bill can be seen at the official website for the Legislature. The following Washington State Senators were original sponsors of the bill:

Senators Pridemore, Esser, Poulsen, Morton, Schmidt, Fairley, Benson, Berkey, Regala, Kohl-Welles, Weinstein, Prentice, Kastama, Johnson, Thibaudeau, Kline, Eide, Shin, Rockefeller, Jacobsen, Haugen, Doumit, Oke, Franklin, Swecker, Carrell, Rasmussen, Spanel, Fraser, McAuliffe, Keiser, Brown, Finkbeiner, Brandland, Benton were prime sponsors of the original bill. You can send an e-mail to them to thank them for their support by clicking on their name above.

The final vote in the Senate was 38 to 11. In the House it was 69 to 29.

Washington Citizens for Resource Conservation is one of the success stories come out of progressive politics in Washington state. In 1979, I worked with others to put together and run Initiative 61 for deposits on beverage containers. It was an initiative to the Legislature. We secured 43 Legislative sponsors but the Legislature ultimately didn’t act.

I-61 was placed on the November ballot. We faced a record spending blitz at the time of over a million dollars by grocery stores like Safeway and bottling industry distributors for Coke and Pepsi among others.

Initially having over 70% support in the polls we wound up losing 43% to 57%. As a grassroots organization with little funds we couldn’t compete with their million campaign.

After the election the volunteers and campaign people involved in our organization, Citizens for Returnable Beverage Containers, were polled to see what they wanted to do next. Despite our loss they wanted to continue working for increased recycling. We reformed under the banner of Washington Citizens for Recycling and successfully engaged over the years in promoting recycling in Washington State.

A number of years ago the organization changed names to Washington Citizens for Resource Conservation, to broaden its focus but it continues to be an active and successful grassroots organization in this state. A special thanks to all those continuing the good fight.

Rabid Talk Radio

Talk radio has been ranting about Seattle making recycling mandatory. How stupid! It’s only common sense and dollars and war. What do I mean?

Well recycling means we pay less for garbage disposal. That issue was decided long ago when special interests proposed that Seattle burn its garbage. The recycling community and others asked the City Council to do what any sensible business does – do a cost effectiveness study of the various alternatives to disposing of Seattle’s garbage. When it was completed the results said it would cost Seattle ratepayers less to recycle as much waste as it could and work to reduce waste in the first place than it would to burn it or bury it.

Burning garbage produces toxic incinerator waste and ash as well as emitting chemicals into the air we breathe. These include dioxin which is produced when plastic is burned. The incinerator industry’s solution to toxic ash was a prolonged attempt to try to declare it non-toxic by bureaucratic fiat, namely rename it as non-toxic.

Dumping garbage in the landfill is costly. We currently ship our garbage to eastern Washington – a not in my back yard, an out of sight out of mind solution.

Recycling saves both materials to be reused or remade into new products. Like plastic into picnic tables. It also saves energy. For example recycling aluminum into new cans uses 1/20 of the energy it takes to produce one from raw bauxite. Producing aluminum is very energy intensive and competes here in the NW with other energy users like Seattle’s electric ratepayers.

And my punch line – is this why we are in Iraq, so we can keep access to oil so we can continue to produce more plastic and other throwaway garbage instead of reducing waste and recycling? It’s a question of priorities as well as cost. Recycling makes sense and saves dollars and makes us more responsible world citizens. How many people have to die in places like Iraq and elsewhere so we can continue a throwaway society? Seattle is doing the right thing.