For Earth Day: Count Your Plastic and Make it Count

In Plastic: A Toxic Love Story, I describe how I planned to spend a day not touching any plastic, only to be foiled first thing that morning by my plastic toilet seat. So I spent the day making a list of all the plastic things I touched. By that night, I had a tally of nearly 200 items – and a new way of thinking about coping with our era’s explosion of throwaway goods.

For one thing, it opened my eyes to how thoroughly plastic pervaded my life – from the “brass” doorknob on my front door to the tiny stickers on my organic fruit, and even in the gum I chew which contains the plastic polyvinyl acetate! If I divided the total number of items on my list by the fifteen waking hours in my day, I was touching plastic roughly every five minutes – actually even more often than that, since I only tallied new plastic things my fingers encountered.  The list made me see the ubiquity of plastic – and how its presence virtually everywhere has made it all but invisible.

Looking more closely at the list, I recognized plastic things that were indispensable  — my computer, my phone, my refrigerator; and minor conveniences I could easily do without – grocery bags, seltzer bottles, a picnic fork.  There were also less essential items I might need to worry about, like that water bottle I packed in my daughter’s lunch, which reportedly contained a chemical that mimics estrogen.

Breaking the list down further, I was surprised to find that the biggest category of entries consisted of packaging and throwaway items, accounting for 72 of the 196 things I’d jotted down. As I later learned, packaging consumes about a third of all the plastic produced. Add in all the other kinds of disposable things made of plastic, such as plastic syringes or lighters, and you find that that single-use products –whether important or trivial — account for half of the nearly 600 billion pounds of plastic produced annually.

That’s a lot of plastic we’re throwing away – or worse, allowing to foul land and sea with ever-lasting litter. It’s especially perverse when you consider the effort, money and environmental impact incurred to extract the fossil fuels used to make plastics, which we then bury in landfills or burn up in incinerators.

But we can change our ways. It starts with seeing there’s a problem.

This Earth Day, trying doing your own plastic count. Spend the day tallying the plastic in your life and then take a good look at the list. What plastic things do you need? What could you live without?

Don’t expect that you can eliminate plastic from your life. That’s not practical – or even desirable, given the many benefit plastics have to offer, from life- saving medical equipment to fuel-efficient cars and planes.  But all of us –from industry to individuals—can and must use plastic more wisely. We need to make sure the plastic we use really counts.

Here are some ways you can make plastic count:

1. Refuse single-use freebies: Bring your own bag when shopping. Carry a travel mug for your daily caffeine fix.  Tell your waiter you don’t need a straw.

2. Instead of buying bottled water, stay hydrated from reusable bottles made of metal or BPA-free plastic.

3.  Reuse where possible: Give that sandwich baggie a week’s workout; use that empty yogurt tub for leftovers.

4. Use your purchasing power to support companies that are trying to use less packaging and healthier kinds of plastic.

5. Recycle as much as you can. Find out what plastics your community recycler accepts and explore other avenues to take care of the rest. UPS stores will take back shipping peanuts; many grocery chains will take used bags and plastic film; many office supply chains will take back used printer cartridges.

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The Bag versus the Bay

Here’s a great video from San Francisco’s Save the Bay:


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Earth Day Actions

When you start taking a  hard look at plastics, it often leads you in new and unexpected directions. For instance, you may start wondering about packaging. You stand there with quartet of cucumbers nestled on a plastic tray, cocooned in triple layers of plastic wrap, emblazoned with plastic stickers and think  — is all this packaging really necessary?  Well, it may be if those cucumbers came from half a world away.

A third of all plastic produced goes into packaging. And one reason for that staggering fact  is that so much of our food is transported from far-off locales. Want to avoid that plastic? You may have to avoid those cucumbers grown in Chile and opt for the unwrapped,locally-grown ones at the farmer’s market. To be more sustainable in how you use plastic, you need to be more sustainable in the food choices you make.

And that’s the idea behind an earth day celebration The Nature Conservancy is sponsoring: Picnic for the Planet. Visit their website to host a Picnic, find one in your area or simply learn five easy ways to eat more sustainably.


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Weird plastic fads

Thankfully this one failed.

Why, you may ask, are these women wearing plastic beaks? To protect their faces from falling snow!  Luckily, in case of cone-failure we could always fall back on the hat.

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It’s official

Plastic: A Toxic Love Story is out. This is a sight that warms my heart:

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Fun plastic facts

Here, in no particular order, are some interesting factoids about plastic. I’d love to hear any that you know.

Bakelite was invented to replace shellac, then in high demand as an electrical insulator. But supplies were running short as it took 15,000 beetles six months to excrete enough resin to make a pound of shellac.

Leo Baekeland, the inventor of Bakelite,  detested the use of the word “plastic” to describe the new family of synthetic materials.  “The name has no meaning,” he complained. He preferred the term “resinoid.”

The first use of the word “plastic” to connote artificial, superficial or insincere was in 1963, nearly a century after the invention of the first plastic materials.

RCA issued the first vinyl LP in 1946: a transparent bright red 12 inch 45 rpm recording of “Till Eulenspiegel,” by composer Richard Strauss.

The U.S. produces enough polyethylene each year to duplicate the combined mass of every American man, woman and child.

Describing the surgery to implant the first artificial human heart, surgeon William Devries, said the new heart snapped into place “just like closing Tupperware.”

One of the first uses for Teflon was for the Manhattan Project, where scientists needed a material that could withstand intensely corrosive gasses.

Silly Putty was invented in response to the military’s desperate search for a synthetic rubber during World War Two.

The Russian military has been investing in inflatable plastic decoys that offer the illusion of a range of armaments from tanks to complete radio stations to MiG-31 fighter jets.

If you stacked all the credit cards in use in the U.S, you’d get a pile reaching 70 miles into space, nearly the equivalent of 13 Mount Everests.

In the 1940s, people told pollsters they considered “cellophane” the third most beautiful word in the English language after “mother” and “memory.”

It took DuPont 12 years to come up with a name for the amazing fiber eventually dubbed “nylon.” One executive’s favorite was “Duparooh”,  an acronym for “DuPont pulled a rabbit out of a hat.”

The first plastic bags were sold with instructions on how they could be washed for reuse.

Bic sells five million disposable lighters a day.

The first artificial Christmas tree was introduced in 1957: it came with numbered parts, a brown polystyrene trunk and green polyethylene branches. Still people complained it lacked “the smell of a real tree.”

The plastic polyvinyl acetate is a common ingredient in chewing gum.

Each cigarette filters contains 10,000 fibers of the plastic cellulose acetate.



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Are phthalates safe?

The Huffington Post has a piece today by Jon Entine who argues there’s no scientific basis for continuing concerns about the health effects of phthalates, a family of chemicals that are ubiquitous in consumer goods, widely used as plasticizers, lubricants and solvents. Entine is a self-professed contrarian and fellow at the Statistical Assessment Service, a  group which in the guise of correcting scientific illiteracy often attacks environmentalist and liberal causes. The group does not reveal its funding, but according to Source Watch, it is affiliated with the Center for Media and Public Affairs, an organization which has received money from such conservative funders as the Scaife,  Carthage and Olin foundations.

Entine takes as his launching pad a recent German report that found the dust in day care centers and schools was chockful of phthalates. As Entine correctly pointed out, this report was not based on any kind of rigorous scientific methodology. But when he pushes past his criticism of the report to a positive defense of phthalates, his arguments begin to all apart. Having spent a whole chapter of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story looking at the research on phthalates, I had a lot to say about Entine’s commentary. But the Huff Post allows only 250-word responses. Here’s what I wanted to say in full:

It is disingenuous for Mr. Entine to maintain that there is little scientific evidence that phthalates pose a threat to human health. The evidence has been mixed, and yet there have been enough consistent red flags in both animal and epidemiological studies to suggest that the question warrants further investigation.  Mr. Entine ignores those, and instead cherry-picks studies and facts to bolster his contention that phthalates are safe. And he’s flat-out wrong when he asserts that phthalates are “tightly bound within PVC”. Actually, these additives are not chemically bound to the polymer matrix, which is why they can and do leach out, especially in the presence of heat or fatty liquids.

Mr. Entine also mischaracterizes the Centers for Disease Control’s position on phthalates. The CDC has never stated that phthalates do not pose a health risk in classrooms. The CDC report he references is a biomonitoring study – one in a series the CDC has conducted since 2000 – which measures the levels of various industrial chemicals (or their metabolites) in the blood and urine of a random sample of Americans. The presence of phthalate metabolites, or any number of other industrial chemicals in someone’s urine simply indicates that person has been exposed to that chemical. The health implications of exposure will vary, depending on the chemical. As the CDC has repeatedly stressed, the fact of exposure does not necessarily mean someone has suffered, or will suffer ill effects.  But it does suggest an avenue worth investigating. The reason that researchers, as well as activists, are so interested in pinning down the effects of phthalates is because they consistently turn up in biomonitoring studies, they are ubiquitous in consumer goods and they have been shown to interfere with testosterone in repeated rodent studies.

While it is true, as Mr. Entine observes, that phthalates are quickly metabolized and excreted, the CDC has found that people are exposed to them on a such continuing basis that the levels don’t significantly change over time. But what’s most worrisome, is the CDC finding that the people with the highest phthalate levels are children and women of childbearing age – the very groups who would be most vulnerable to any hormone disrupting effects.

Finally, I have to take issue with the way Mr. Entine’s presents a Children’s National Medical Center study as the last word on the long-term safety of phthalates. Far from being “comprehensive”, this was a small pilot study involving 19 teen-agers who had been exposed to heavy doses of the phthalate DEHP when they were hospitalized as infants. The teens appeared not to suffer any serious long-term health problems, which was encouraging.

But that finding was no more a solid ground for extrapolation than the faux-scientific German report that Mr. Entine criticized. The study would have needed at least 250 participants to produce statistically significant results, according to two of its authors, Drs. Billie Short and Naomi Luban. Short and Luban told me that they had hoped to do that larger study, seeing it as a way to determine once and for all whether we have cause to be concerned about the health effects of phthalates. Unfortunately, such a study would have cost about $10 million. Short and Lubin could not get either the federal government or private industry to provide the funding. So, we’re still wondering if phthalates are safe.

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News from the South Pacific

Earlier this week I spoke by satellite phone with Marcus Eriksen and Anna Cummins, co-founders of 5 Gyres, an organization created to do research and public education on the problem of plastic pollution. By now, the “garbage patch” in the north Pacific gyre is pretty well known. But there are at least four other ocean gyres where plastic debris can  accumulate and concentrate and very little is known about them. 5 Gyres was set up to research them all. Over the past year, Eriksen and Cummins have journeyed to the gyres in the north Atlantic, the south Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. When I spoke to them they were making their way toward the center of the south Pacific gyre.

Q: Where are you at this point?

Marcus: We’re in the middle of the south Pacific subtropical gyre. We’re about 700 miles east of Easter Island.  We’re as far from land as you can get in the south Pacific.

Q: What are you seeing from the boat now?

Marcus: Right now the sun might set in about three hours. It’s 360 all around water and the water is blue, blue, blue and maybe 4,000 feet deep right here. It’s beautiful.

Q: What are you finding out there?

Marcus: So far very little, compared to other gyres. Anything is of course significant. We are finding plastic and the concentrations are growing as we approach the center of the accumulation zone. But it’s been very little compared to the north Pacific, the north Atlantic, the south Atlantic and Indian Ocean

Q: Why do you think that is?

Marcus: One reason is the coastal outputs are less. For example, in South America, you’ve got the Andes Mountains that border the western edge of the continent so the watersheds are rather small and the Chilean coast is rather unpopulated. There’s not as much in the coastline as there is, perhaps as in east Asia or the east and west coast of North America, around India and the Indian Ocean. And if you look in this region in the south Pacific gyre, there are islands everywhere. The islands act as natural nets for plastic. So any plastic leaving the islands in the Pacific or New Zealand and Australia is going to have to navigate through hundreds of islands before it gets to the south Pacific gyre. But there’s still plastic here, right where we thought we’d find it — right in the center of the gyre.

Anna: I wanted to add one more point. Another reason you may have less plastic in this particular gyre is you don’t have as many heavy consumer nations bordering this ocean. In the north Pacific where we find the most, we’ve got Pacific rim countries, north America, Mexico, Asia that are most likely higher producers and consumers of plastic goods.

Q: Why did you expect to find more plastic in the center of the gyre?

Anna: What we’ve been doing on these research voyages is following a current modeling study produced by Nikolai Maximenko from the University of Hawaii.  He’s done a trajectory looking at what happens when drifters [special buoys] are released and where the highest concentration would end up. He’s found that tends to be in the center of these gyres where the winds will shut down and the currents spin everything toward the center. In the south Pacific what’s interesting is it’s predicted that debris won’t escape the way it does from other gyres. The four other gyres will tend to spit debris back out onto the shorelines and islands over a period of years, whereas in the south Pacific it tends to stay concentrated. So we went into this voyage thinking that we either would find more because of that phenomenon, or we’d find less because there aren’t as many consuming nations that are inputting debris into this gyre. So far we’ve seen less.

Q: What are you seeing?

Anna: Tiny little fragments. We’ve only seen four or five pieces of macro debris. We pulled up one buoy the other day that was heavily fouled, covered with a long chain of barnacles. We saw one fishing crate and something that looked like crates just under the surface of the ocean. But we’re not seeing much micro debris either. Today, for example, we pulled in what looked like our most dense sample thus far. And it was roughly 50 small fragments of plastic that we found over a ten-hour trawl, over roughly 50 miles.

Q: This is the fifth gyre you’ve been in. Do you see differences in the type of stuff that’s accumulating?

Marcus: Each of the gyres is to a certain degree defined by the fishing activities and the coastal outputs of trash. For example, in the north Pacific, you’ve got a lot of fishing industry from Asia that contributes plastic to the gyre. Then you’ve got lots of consumer products from Japan and China like cigarette lighters and toothbrushes. But fishing gear dominates. You get to the Sargasso sea and sail from Bermuda to the Azores and you find lots of consumer products –bottle caps, shaving razors, things of that sort. Also lots of fragments of buckets and crates and lots of plastic sheeting. But most of the plastic sheeting actually occurred in the Indian Ocean. The Indian Ocean was the plastic bag gyre – we found lots of plastic film in samples there. The south Atlantic was really kind of homogenous with small, little plastic particles in every single trawl. And that’s the same thing we’re finding here in this gyre, that confetti of plastic particulate. It’s hard to source where it came from.

Q: What are you hoping to accomplish?

AC: We want to show people this problem is not just confined to the north Pacific gyre, which has had a lot of media attention, but that this is actually an international problem. We find plastic pollution in all the world oceans and as such it needs to be dealt with on an international level.  There are also several unanswered questions that we’re hoping to do research on. One is the ultimate fate of micro plastics: what happens to these plastic particles?  We’ve seen from the research of Sea Education at Woods Hole that they’re not seeing a significant increase [in small fragments in the ocean] over time. So that’s a big, big mystery that has to be solved. Where is this plastic going? Is it sinking to the ocean floor? Is it being digested by organisms? Of course the other big unknown is how this stuff is affecting human health. Are pollutants from plastics winding up in the food chains and the tissues of organisms and winding up on our dinner plates? So those are two of the questions that we’d like to further research.


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Toxic Love Story objects – The comb

The photos here and on the following posts give a sense of some of the objects I used to tell the story of plastic.

The comb exemplifies the extraordinary imitative powers of the plastic celluloid. It was used to mimic tortoiseshell, ivory, ebony and other scarce and costly natural materials.
These photos are courtesy of Julie Robinson, author of Celluloid: Collector’s Reference and Value Guide

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Toxic Love Story objects – The credit card

The credit card:

Diner’s Club, started in 1951, introduced the idea of the credit card.  In 1958, American Express gave us the card in plastic.



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