Building Bridges from Bottles

Tom Nosker, a polymer engineer at Rutgers University, has invented a method for turning used plastics into an incredibly strong, durable building material. In Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, I describe how a New Jersey company is using Nosker’s technology to transform used milk jugs and car bumpers into bridges strong enough to hold locomotives or Abrams M-1 tanks weighing thousands of pounds. Nosker’s interest in recycling plastics goes back to the field’s birth in the early 1980s, when faced with growing concern over plastic pollution, the plastics industry set up a center for recycling research at Rutgers. At the time the only business recycling plastic was Wellman Industries, a textiles company that had figured out how to turn PET beverage bottles into polyester fiber. But as Nosker says, “they weren’t telling anyone how they were doing it.” With backing from the industry, Nosker developed a bottle recycling plant and helped set up the country’s first curbside collection program for PET bottles in Highland Park, New Jersey. He’s been looking at ways to give old plastics useful new lives ever since. I talked recently with Nosker about how he came to develop the technology, as well as a new approach to fireproofing plastics:

SF: Why did you get interested in recycling as opposed to working with new plastics?

TN: I saw that people were attacking thermoplastic materials used in packaging. I thought it was ridiculous that people were going to ban the materials when you could melt them and do other things with them. I knew it was an easy thing to tackle – easy in a relative sense. That’s what I decided to spend my life doing.

SF: So you’re making these very strong materials out of plastics like the high- density polyethylene used in milk jugs?

TN: High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is one of the most durable materials in the world made out of a hydrocarbon. Like all thermoplastics, it’s prone to a problem called creep. Which means if you put some stress on it, if it’s a high enough stress, the plastic will change shape as a strict function of time. So you build a picnic table or park bench or bridge or something from it, it will get saggy with time.

SF: Is this the same quality you get with a plastic bag, when you load it up and the handles stretch?

TN: Yeah it’s like that. I had to solve the problem of creep. We had to develop a method to gauge creep, to see if over a few months you can predict how it will behave over 25 years. Then you get to the point of the game, which is to modify the plastic somehow and make it so it’s creep-resistant. HDPE normally creeps at pressures of less than 100 pounds per square inch, which is pretty low — prohibitively low. You could never build a bridge or picnic table or park bench without using some other kind of material in it to take care of that creep issue. So we made composites, different kinds of composites with blends of plastics and fibers.

SF: The bridges you were making were made of milk jugs and car bumpers — and bumpers are made of polypropylene, right?

TN: Fiberglass-filled polypropylene.  That’s where the fiber comes in. We chop those bumpers up and we blend that with bottle-grade high-density polyethylene.

SF: And that’s how you get the strength to have it be a bridge?

TN: Yeah. With that composite material I can go to a stress of at least six times or more of what I can do with regular HDPE. I can leave a tank on the bridge for 15 years and drive the tank off and it will go back to its original shape.

SF: Can you do this sort of thing with other of the main packaging plastics, like low- density polyethylene (a film plastic used in baggies) or just plain polypropylene (used in yogurt or margarine tubs)?

TN: I look at each material and think what can I make out of that which would be useful. I would never try to turn low-density polyethylene into a bridge. It’s less stiff than HDPE. It actually belongs in asphalt in my opinion, as an addition to asphalt binder. In fact, there are people that make expensive version of asphalt with virgin low- density polyethylene. Doesn’t that seem like just like falling off a log?

SF: What about polypropylene? What could you make with polypropylene?

TN: Polypropylene can be used to make railroad ties. Railroad ties are big deal in this country.  I actually started working on those in 1994. Now there’s 1.25 million recycled plastic railroad ties. And I’ve got a $15 million purchase order from a class one railway somewhere in the United States. We’re working on a much bigger contract with another company that’s maybe 20 times as big. I’m really pleased the technology is taking off.

SF: Could you make a car out of recycled plastic?

TN: Sure, if you can build a bridge, you can build a frame of a car. In some ways I went for making the things thing that were the hardest things to do. That was to make a point — that if you can do what I did, there are a lot of easier things that are like falling off a log.  There are a lot of different uses of these different materials and we’re at the beginning of people using them intelligently.  There’s a lot of stuff in our waste bin that people in the future will look at as raw material.

SF: What about trying to recycle plastics back into the same products they were before – you know, closing the loop?

TN: People say crazy things like ‘if we don’t close the loop, it’s not recycling.’ That’s baloney.  I don’t think its necessary to close the loop. And that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.  I’ve been looking for things that don’t necessarily close the loop but are ways I can create something of really good value so you’re not just landfilling this stuff. (In fact, in the long term, I don’t care if it gets landfilled because one day when plastic recycling is well established, I believe the value of the plastic will be more recognized and people will actually mine landfills for some of the things that are valuable in there. So if it gets stored in landfill for a generation or two, that’s okay. )

You need to think what is the smartest thing to do with this material. And at the end, after you’ve recycled something as many times as you can, if you can close the loop, that’s great. But if you can’t or it doesn’t make sense, or something else makes more sense economically, then just do that. And eventually when you’re done and there’s nothing else to do with the plastic, you can always convert it back to oil or natural gas.

SF: You said you are also doing work on non-toxic flame-retardants?

TN: I have had to develop flame-retardants because people are really nervous about the fact that plastic things burn.

SF: And these are non-brominated fire-retardants?

TN: Absolutely non-brominated. Bromine is a halogen; I don’t use any halogens in my stuff. I use radiation. I have a material in the plastic or the coating of the plastic. When it gets warm it radiates ultraviolent light and that actively removes heat from the flame area so it drops the temperature down. So the plastic may burn, but it’s going to take forever for the plastic to burn up

SF: Could this be used in furniture in place of halogenated fire retardants (which are suspected hormone disrupters)?

TN: Yeah, it could be used for a lot of things.

SF: How come it’s not being used?

TN: I just developed it –this is new stuff! How come there aren’t more plastic bridges out there?

SF: Why not?

TN: Why not? We’re working on it.

Posted in Business of Plastics, Recycling | 1 Comment

A New Bag Battle


In the old days — say, four years ago — bag battles  were centered on the plastic or paper question. Which was always something of a red herring since the issue at stake is really our dependence on single-use products made of any materials, our habit of using finite natural resources for trivial uses, like carting groceries from the the store to the front door. But over the past year or two, bag activists have been increasingly successful at reframing the issue as disposability versus resusability. And not surprisingly, the industry has stepped up its efforts to discredit resusable bags. Now that effort is taking a new and nasty twist.

Three of the country’s biggest bag makers have sued Chico Bag, a small California firm that makes reusable bags, accusing the company of causing them “irreparable injury,” according to a story in the San Francisco Chronicle. The suit reportedly accuses Chico of using false or misleading information on its website and in its marketing materials in a deliberate effort to “misappropriate customers and potential customers.”

Chico Bag founder Andy Keller has acknowledged posting some inaccurate information, including statistics from an out-dated EPA website, but also has said he took them down once informed the facts were wrong. He told the Chronicle he considered the suit an attempt to squelch his company — and silence the bag-ban activism he has supported since founding Chico Bag six years ago. For instance, Keller created a costume, the “Bag Monster,”  a shaggy suit made of 500 plastic bags, which he says is the number of bags the average American shopper uses in a year. Though Keller trademarked the costume, he has lent it out freely in support of bag ban activities.

Keller sees the suit against his company as a strike against bag activism in general. “The plastic bag is under attack all around the world,” Keller told the Chronicle. “I think the plastics industry doesn’t know what to do, and they’re scared, in my opinion.”

The bag companies told the newspaper the suit isn’t about politics, but about truth in advertising . “It’s not fair for any company to go around and publish any false or misleading marketing materials,” said Philip Rozenski, the director of marketing and sustainability for Hilex Poly Co., one of the plaintiffs, along with  Superbag Operating Co. and Advance Polybag. (Hilex, incidentally, has been leading the charge to quash an Oregon proposal to ban plastic bags and put a fee on paper ones.)

The companies reportedly want to block Chico Bags from publicly blaming disposable bags for environmental problems or claiming its reusable bags are environmentally superior. It’s true that all bags carry environmental impacts and that the significance of those impacts vary depending on what you’re measuring and your end goals (eg paper bags require more energy and water to produce and are responsible for more greenhosue gas emissions than plastic ones.) But given the wealth of facts pointing to the environmental impacts of plastic bags (marine debris, clogged storm drains, litter, tangled recycling equipment), it’s hard to see how that injunctive request can stick.

According to the Chronicle, the bagmakers want Chico Bags “to hand over any profit resulting from the allegedly false statements, and to pay for any damages suffered” by the companies. They are seeking punitive damages, as well. The suit doesn’t specify how much money the bag makers claim they have lost.  But fighting the suit, much less losing it, could be a heavy financial hit for a company that made only $5.5 million in revenues last year. By contrast, one bag maker told me, the American plastic bag industry generates about $1.2 billion a year.


Posted in Packaging, Plastics Policy, Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Blight to Beauty

Plastic shopping bags may be a blight on the landscape, but Jessica Lee, a student at Parsons The New School of Design, has found that these puffs of polyethylene also contain a certain hidden grace. For her thesis project, Lee wanted to explore ways to upcycle used bags. Her experiments transformed utilitarian products designed for the briefest uses into objects of surprising delicacy and beauty that you might be happy to have around for a good long while. Lee hopes that “by showing people the latent beauty these materials contain it is possible to change people’s point of view toward them.” Here are some examples of her work:



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To Burn or Not to Burn

The U.S. has a dismal record recycling used plastics: scarcely seven percent get a shot at a second life. But the plastics industry is starting to rally behind a new option for dealing with plastic waste: burning it for energy.

Dow Chemical – the country’s largest producer of polyethylene – recently announced a successful test project in which it burned 578 pounds of the filmy plastic scrap to generate energy. Dow was able to extract nearly all the energy embedded in the material, showing that used plastic can be used to create heat or electricity, said Jeff Wooster, plastics sustainability leader for Dow’s North American Plastics business. It also demonstrated a feasible way of dealing with hard-to-recycle plastics, like the lightweight films used in packaging, said Wooster. “We were looking for a way to make use of the material so it doesn’t just end up in landfill.”

It’s not surprising that plastics can be a source of heat or electricity; they are, after all, originally derived from natural gas or oil. Many types of plastic burn hotter than wood or coal, making them fantastic fodder for energy.

Still incinerating plastics has long been controversial. Proponents of waste to energy technology say today’s plants are cleaner and safer than incinerators of the past.   Arrays of scrubbers and filters capture dangerous chemicals – hydrochloric acid, sulfur dioxide, dioxins, furans and heavy metals – as well as small particulates. The plants are said to produce less dioxin than is released from home fireplaces and backyard barbecues.

But even those small amounts of dioxin worry environmentalists, who point out that the plants also produce a lot of residual ash.  Critics also argue that waste-to-energy facilities are so expensive to build that they end up undercutting traditional recycling programs.  The need to keep the plants going acts as an incentive to keep producing, rather than reducing waste, said Brenda Platt, of the Institute for Local Self Reliance in Washington, D.C.  “You have to keep feeding the beast.” She called the plants “wasted energy.”

In places short on landfill space, like Europe or Japan, such environmental concerns have carried little weight. Waste-to-energy plants are a mainstay of garbage disposal in Europe, as well as an important source of heat or electricity. About 400 plants are scattered across the continent, and altogether they take care of about 30 percent of the plastics Europe diverts from landfill. Even famously green countries have embraced the strategy. The Netherlands, for instance, landfills only 3 percent of its trash, and burns 35 percent for energy.

In the U.S. – where there’s room to continue the debate, so to speak — there are only 87 waste-to -energy facilities, most on the congested East Coast, and no new ones have been built since the mid-1990s.

But Dow and other makers of raw plastics are hoping to bring an end to that informal moratorium, putting forth waste-to-energy as a solution to the eco-angst that has fueled calls for bans on plastic bags, take-out containers and other packaging. The American Chemistry Council has recently been touting the technology as both a renewable energy source and a form of recycling. (The European Union also counts it as recycling, which is one reason that countries like the Netherlands boast 90-percent-plus recycling rates.) To bolster its case, the ACC just released studies reporting that waste-to-energy plants in four communities were using significant amounts of unrecycled plastics, and that the programs complemented existing recycling efforts. Recapturing waste plastic would help to create a “reliable source of alternative energy from an abundant, no-cost feedstock” while diverting potentially valuable material from landfills, the ACC concluded.

Whether such arguments gain more traction in today’s political landscape remains to be seen. But stay tuned for a lively debate.


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Plastic Portraits

Tess Felix, a Bay Area artist, wrote me recently about work she has been doing with plastic beach debris.  Felix said she first got the idea after a huge storm in February, 2010:

[It] washed tons of plastic garbage out of the Sacramento Delta and flooded the shores of Stinson Beach completely with colorful fragments of plastic. Shocking was the sight. The beach looked like a mosaic. I picked up some garbage that day, went home and made a portrait out of the plastic. I returned the portrait to a little shack on the beach as a gift back to the sea. Someone found it and took it home, so I made another one. This is how the  plastic debris portraits came to be.

Fortunately, while the garbaged beach reminded me that we consumers are destroying our environment, I also saw shapes, color, and a potential to create something positive. I wanted to give order and meaning to it.”

“The new medium was exciting to work with. It reflects my passion as a painter. I continue to roam the beach picking up bits and pieces of plastic to clean, sort  by color and turn into portraits.”

Here are a few examples of her work and I’ll be posting more in the “Plastic Art” section of the website.

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Dispatches from battles of the bag (updated)

I’ve been meaning for some time now to do an update on the ongoing fight over plastic bags.  It is, forgive the pun, a mixed bag.

On the plus side: the suburban D.C. area of Montgomery County, Maryland, passed a five cent fee on all single-use grocery bags — paper and plastic. To my mind, this is the ideal approach to the problem of single-use bags; unlike a flat-out ban, it can be powerful way to raise people’s consciousness about the true costs of these throwaway freebies. And fees are effective in reducing single-bag use. The nickel fee on plastic bags in D.C. has reduced use of the bags by 80 percent since it went into effect last year, while also raising $2.75 million in funds dedicated to cleaning up the Anacosta River. That’s now 20 U.S. communities with bag measures in place.

Update: The Long Beach, CA City Council has unanimously passed a ban on plastic bags and a ten-cent fee for paper bags. The law will go  into effect August 1, a month after a similar law goes into effect in the unincorporated parts of Los Angeles County. The move is an example of how local communities are taking action on bags, having lost the fight for a statewide ban on bags last year in the wake of an intensive ad campaign and lobbying by bag-makers and the American Chemistry Council.

On the could-be-plus side: The California Supreme Court this week heard arguments in a lawsuit that may dramatically affect local communities’ ability to ban or restrict plastic and/or paper single-use bags. At issue is the question of whether communities have to conduct expensive environmental impact reports before enacting bag laws.

A group of bag manufacturers, the Save the Plastic Bag Coalition, contend state law requires the environmental reviews. Citing the law, the group has used lawsuits and the threat of lawsuit to block communities from passing various bag measures, arguing that  bans lead to greater use of paper bags, with attendant environmental impacts.  The case before the Supreme Court focuses on whether the small Los Angeles suburb, Manhattan Beach, should have done an environmental review before banning plastic bags in 2009.  Two lower courts sided with the bag makers (though one dissenting appeals court judge argued that making a town of 33,000 conduct a review, stretched state environmental law  “to an absurdity.”)

Yet, accounts of the hour-long Supreme Court hearing suggest the whole case may be resolved on the basis of a technicality — that the bag-makers don’t have standing to sue. The Court is expected to pass down its decision sometime this summer.

On the down side: it looks like Oregon’s bid to be the first state to ban plastic bags has stalled out. The proposed ban on plastic and fee on paper bags is apparently one vote short of getting out of committee purgatory. And that needed vote is apparently nowhere in sight, according to a recent report in the Eugene Register-Guard. Watching the fight unfold in Oregon, has been like watching a replay of last year’s battle over a similar California proposal. (Figures for the amount of money plastics lobbyists have spent fighting the ban are not yet available from the state’s ethics commission.) In California, the fight to defeat the proposed ban was led by the American Chemistry Council (ACC).  In Oregon, Hilex Poly, one of the largest bag makers in the U.S., is leading the charge, but it’s following the same playbook the ACC employed so successfully in California and which I described in Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.

What are the key elements of that strategy?

1. Trivialize the issue. On its website, Bag the Ban Oregon, Hilex argues that  “Salem legislators have more important things to do than ban plastic shopping bags and raise taxes on Oregon shoppers.” In these hard economic times, with the state facing a deficit,  that’s an argument that plays well to legislators.

2. Frame the fee as a regressive tax. No one is required to buy a single-use bag, yet calling it a “tax” makes it sound like a mandatory charge– which never goes over well with voters or lawmakers.

3. Narrow the options. First, the plastics industry worked to keep the debate focused on the relative merits of plastic versus paper single-use bags  — a falsely limited set of choices, but one which favors plastic bags, since they have many eco-pluses over paper bags. But the tactic doesn’t work with measures, like Oregon’s, which cover both paper and plastic bags. So now, the industry is trying to discredit reusable bags. The Bag the Ban Oregon website carries this alarming headline:  “What’s in your reusable bag? Lead, cadmium, salmonella, E. coli. And that’s not all.” It’s true that some reusable bags from China have been found to contain heavy metals and lead, and that unwashed bags can harbor food-borne bacteria. But it’s not as if the only choice is either toxic, contaminated reusable bags or clean, sanitary disposable bags. There are plenty of  reusable bags that don’t contain lead or cadmium, and regular washing with soap and water will banish bacteria.

4. Push recycling, which one ACC strategist described to me as the ultimate “guilt eraser.” “As soon as [people] recycle your product, they feel better about it,” he explained. Recycling seemed especially attractive to Oregon legislators who acknowledged the problem of plastic pollution, but were loathe to enact a ban. As one senator reportedly testified: “We are a resolute state that loves to recycle…I would prefer that we recycle (plastics) and do an education system on recycling.”  These ban opponents were apparently unmoved by statistics from the Oregon Department of Environmental  Quality showing that even in this recycling-loving state, only about 11 percent of bags or plastic film are currently being recycled.


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Creative lids

There’s a great piece by Nicola Twilley at on the rise of the disposable coffee cup lid, and the astonishing variety of ways in which designers have responded to the challenge of capping a portable hot cup of joe.

Take-out beverage lids collected in the '90s and early '00s, photographed by sarcoptiform

“As early as 1995,” she write, ” design historian and author Phil Patton’s personal collection of over 30 lid types underwent categorization and analysis in a feature article for I.D. Magazine. Under the headline “Top This,” Patton noted that Americans get through about a billion and a half plastic lids each year, and marveled at “how many varieties there were, how various and intricate the device is and how intensely designed they are.”

The first drink-through lid patent goes back to 1934, but it was designed for cold beverages.  The first vented plastic lid was patented in 1967, which makes sense historically since this was a period when the plastic industry was looking everywhere for potential markets for disposable goods. But it wasn’t until the 80s, that designers really went to work on creating lids that could truly accommodate the demands of drinking hot liquids while walking, driving or commuting. It’s probably not a coincidence that this is also when bottled water began to take hold.

But the heyday of disposable cups may be waning, Twilley notes: ” Last year, Starbucks partnered with Core 77 and others to run the Betacup Challenge, a crowd-sourced design contest to reduce to-go cup waste. The winner — Karma Cup …wasn’t even an actual cup. Instead, the Betacup Challenge incentivized the use of reusable cups by creating a chart of customers who used one, and giving away for free every tenth drink ordered in one. If the idea takes off, maybe one day the disposable plastic lid will be collected for its rarity value, rather than its everyday charms.”

And wouldn’t that be great.


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God in three easy steps….

Open. Bless. Toss.

Who knew you could get salvation on the go:

A friend told me about these single-use communion kits. I looked online and discovered several companies offer these portable  communion kits, which, as one company put it, “combine modern convenience and purity with a taste for tradition.” And, like the soul, they are recyclable too!



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Sometimes a chair is more than a chair

This essay is adapted from my book and appeared on the Speakeasy at on May 7:

The Kartell store in San Francisco is a monument to plastic. The place glitters like a diamond, or rather, a cubic zirconium — with brightly colored plastic chairs and tables and tchochkes commissioned from some of the world’s star designers. Still, the salesman seemed unfazed when I entered the store, not long ago, lugging my own plastic chair, one I’d bought at Home Depot.

My chair was an example of the breed known in industry circles as the monobloc – so called because they are made from a single piece of plastic. We all know the type: plain, lightweight chairs that can be bought for the same price as a six-pack of Bud.

The monobloc is arguably the most successful piece of furniture ever invented. You can find monoblocs in porches, poolsides and parks around the world, in cafes from Bangkok to Boston. They’ve washed up in the wake of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina or the recent Japanese tsunami. There was reportedly a monobloc in Saddam Hussein’s hidey-hole and in the prison at Abu Ghraib. People rose from monoblocs in China to celebrate sixty years of Communist rule, and in Kenya to rejoice the election of Barack Obama. Monoblocs have been spotted in reclusive North Korea, where not even that icon of global commerce, Coca Cola is allowed.

Cheap and supremely functional yes, but few would consider the monobloc a masterpiece of design. Indeed, some towns have judged the chairs so irredeemably tacky they’ve banned them from public spaces. Yet, like the chairs surrounding me at Kartell, my humble white monobloc is descended from the mid-twentieth century quest to use plastic as a medium of great design.

When plastics began appearing after World War II, the design world was enthralled. Plastics were, as one critic later wrote, an “answer to an artist’s dream” – “materials that can be made to assume virtually any size, shape, form or color the mind of man may conceive.” What’s more they were amenable to mass manufacture, offering designers a chance to fulfill their democratic goals: in the words of Charles Eames: “to get the most of the best to the most for the least.”

One after another, the era’s great designers tried to fashion an all-plastic one-piece chair that could be mass manufactured. Eames, Saarinen, Zanuso, Colombo – each took on the challenge. Each came away disappointed, stymied by the technical challenge of molding in a single shot the back, seat arms and four legs. Then in 1967, Danish designer Verner Panton resolved the technological stalemate with a radical new kind of chair. There were no arms or legs to complicate the production process. Instead it was just a long S-curve echoing the silhouette of someone seated. The Panton was all sinuous line and glossy surface, a sexy, exuberant double twist of plastic.

Though never wildly commercially successful, Panton’s chair came to be considered a Pop Art icon. And in its wake, other designers began dreaming up their own one-piece plastic chairs – wild creations that were inflatable or looked like sea urchins or molars. As processing and molding technology improved, designers began riffing plastic variations on traditional four-legged chairs.

It was only a matter of time, of course, before some enterprising entrepreneur saw an opportunity for a wholly new mass market – one predicated on low-priced raw plastics and the most utilitarian and economical of designs. Monoblocs started appearing sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s; the originator remains unknown. Soon there were factories turning out as many as 50,000 a day. Talk about democratic.

I’d brought my own monobloc to Kartell that day to see how it stacked up against the company’s pedigreed plastic chairs. I placed it next to a Philippe Starck creation, a chair he dubbed the “Louis Ghost.” Made of a hard, glass-like plastic, it’s a beautiful gracefully proportioned chair that hearkens to some unspecified period in French history. Playful, yet elegant, solid, yet ethereal, the Louis Ghost has been featured in design magazines worldwide, in settings both modern and traditional. It’s one of Kartell’s best-selling pieces.

I took a few turns sitting in each of the chairs. The Louis Ghost was roomier and felt sturdier than my monobloc, but also more slippery. Truthfully, neither one was a chair in which I’d want to spend a lot of time. I prefer chairs made of wood.

“It could be said that when we design a chair, we make a society and city in miniature,” the British architect Peter Smithson has written. I looked at the monobloc and the Louis Ghost trying to imagine the societies they evoke. One conjured a realm of dazzling possibility; the other a land of low-cost utility. In the plastic world we inhabit, there’s a place for both.

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The Ongoing BPA Battle

The plastics industry has been touting a recent study by German researchers that concluded that the chemical bisphenol A is safe.  Written by an advisory committee to the German Society of Toxicology, the report was based on a review of more than 5,000 studies, and defenders of the controversial chemical have proclaimed it final evidence that health concerns over BPA are unwarranted.

Now the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, which has been following the BPA story for years, has a story describing how four of the authors of that study have ties to the companies and  groups that benefit from bisphenol A — some of which were disclosed with the research report.  One of the authors is an employee of Bayer Schering Pharma AG, the largest producer of bisphenol A, or BPA, in Europe; another has in the past received funding from the industry group, BPA Global. And, according to the Journal-Sentinel, “another runs a ‘consultancy for industry,’ while the fourth calls himself a ‘leading toxicologist in the chemical and pharmaceutical industry’ who is currently ‘developing and shaping’ toxicology in Germany and Europe.”

BPA, you may recall, is a chemical used in the hard clear plastic polycarbonate, as well as in the epoxy resin used to line tin cans. It is thought to be a weak estrogen mimic, and trace levels can be found in the urine of nearly all Americans. Studies have linked it to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, breast and prostate cancer and other health conditions.

The Journal-Sentinel interviewed Jan Hengstler, the lead author of the review, who did not report any conflict of interest. He said his nine-person committee did not receive funding for the work. Hengstler, a researcher at the University of Dortmund, said the committee was drawn from elected members of Germany’s national association of toxicologists, and included representatives from academia, industry and government “in order to guarantee a broad range of toxicological competence.” “After careful consideration,” Hengstler told the Journal-Sentinel, ” we came to the conclusion that the recent governmental responses of some countries do not have a scientific basis but are politically motivated.”

Prominent American BPA researchers have blasted the review report. The newspaper quotes Pete Myers, CEO and chief scientist of Environmental Health Science, a nonprofit environmental group, as saying, the report is “rife with scientific errors and misrepresentations, and it ignores or dismisses some of the best science available to date on BPA’s effects.” I heard the same when I contacted Patricia Hunt, a researcher at Washington State University, who has done research on BPA’s impact on the mammary cells of mice, who said “there is so much here  [in the German paper] that is problematic.”

The Journal-Sentinel also talked with Sarah Vogel, a science historian and researcher with the Johnson Family Foundation, who has written on the history and politics of the BPA controversy. I’ve also talked to Vogel in the past and found her a very useful source for putting some of this scientific controversy into context.

Vogel told the newspaper that while she would like to see a review conducted by researchers without any financial ties to industry, she was reluctant to say the report’s conclusions were entirely industry-influenced. Instead, she thought that the German toxicologists’ conclusions were less a reflection of industry influence than a reflection of “a shared disciplinary background and a shared way of thinking…She said there’s a deep rift between the scientific disciplines of toxicology and endocrinology, hinging on the theory that some chemicals – including bisphenol A – may behave more like hormones than traditional toxins, and therefore may affect health and development at very low concentrations. Toxicologists don’t believe that theory. Endocrinologists do.”




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