Toxic Love Story objects – The disposable lighter

The Cricket, developed in France in the early 1960s, was the first disposable lighter. It was one of countless objects that helped usher in the era of what Life magazine dubbed “Throwaway Living”.

Now lighters are one of the most common trash items collected in beach clean-ups.  Artists Richard Lang and Judith Selby Lang have pulled dozens of lighters from one remote beach they visit regularly in Point Reyes, California. They assemble theirs finds into striking photo tableaux:

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Toxic Love Story objects- The blood bag

The plastic blood bag was developed in the late 1940s by Boston surgeon Carl Walter, who wanted to replace the breakable, cell-damaging  glass and rubber blood bottles then in use:

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Toxic Love Story Objects – The Frisbee

Walter Frederick Morrison brought us new worlds of fun with his “Pluto Platter,” later renamed the Frisbee by Wham-O:

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Toxic Love Story Objects – The chair

The evolution of the plastic chair:

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Life in the Plasticene

These extraordinary photos were taken by Chinese photographer Gangfeng Wang. This kind of unofficial recycling is a common sight in Chinese cities. But the pictures also seem to me a perfect metaphor for what it can feel like living in the age of plastic, or what some have called, the Plasticene.

A friend purchased these photos for me at a gallery in Shanghai, and the bio that came with them tells of an extraordinary life:  Wang grew up during the Cultural Revolution, worked in an orchard after graduating from high school, then was trained to play violin in a Revolutionary orchestra organized to inspire the workers at the Great Leap Forward Commune where he lived, and then he was sent to Shanghai to work as a machine repairman. He received his first camera as a gift in 1981 and, obsessed with the idea of becoming a professional photographer, set out to teach himself the basics of photography. It has been his sole focus since the mid-80s. His work has  been exhibited in galleries and museums around the world, and you can see more of his striking images of everyday life in China at his website, Gangofone.


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Ocean Microbes that Eat Plastic

There’s a fascinating report in Naturenews this week on how marine bacteria are dealing with the bazillions of pieces of  plastic debris that now float in the sea, like a vast microscopic armada. The bacteria seem to be eating the plastic, though whether they are absorbing toxins the plastic may contain or just passing it up the food chain is still unclear.

Tracy Mincer, a marine microbiologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, examined bits of plastic debris pulled from the Sargasso Sea — a “garbage patch” in the north Atlantic similar to the one in the north Pacific where ocean currents cause debris to accumulate. An expedition to the region last year  found more than 48,000 pieces of plastic. Mincer examined bits of debris — plastic fishing line, a plastic bag and a pre-production pellet — and found that each was “an oasis,  a reef of biological activity.” Looking at the bits through a powerful electron microscope, Mincer found bacteria-like cells living in pits in the plastic, as if they chewed had away the surface to carve out little burrows. Mincer said this is the first evidence of marine microbes breaking down plastic in the ocean.

Yet, while the bacteria may be eating the plastic, it’s not clear what they’re doing with chemical toxins that may be contained in the plastic. These microbits not only contain chemicals from manufacture, but also sop up pesticides, PCBs and other persistent chemicals that are present in the ocean.

Mincer presented his findings at the 5th International Marine Debris Conference in Hawaii last week, which concluded with the drafting of the “Honolulu Strategy,” a call to arms for governments, businesses, non-profits and citizens around the world to really tackle the problem of plastic pollution.

Reading about Mincer’s work made me think of two interviews I did while researching my book. One was with a plastics industry veteran who presents himself as an expert in sustainability. “The problem,” he said, “is that bottle caps float.” If only they sank, no one would be worrying about plastic pollution in the ocean. Out of sight, out of mind, and, as far as he was concerned, caps resting at the bottom of the sea posed no threat and would have no effect on the ocean’s ecology. His way of thinking doesn’t  even consider the possibility of impacts occuring at the microscopic level.

The other was an interview I did with another marine microbiologist, David Karl of the University of Hawaii, who has looked at plastic debris in the Pacific Ocean. He too has found all those scraps of plastic are a magnet for many of the microscopic critters — from bacteria to phytoplanktom — floating in the ocean. And he has found that the plants that find a landing spot on this plastic flotsam are copious producers of oxygen, producing even more than is normally produced in the open ocean. When I talked to Karl last year, he speculated that plastic debris may be “improving the efficiency of the ocean to harvest and scavenge nutrients and produce food and oxygen.”

This isn’t to minimize the seriousness of plastic pollution in the ocean or its often devastating effects on marine wildlife. But the ecology of the ocean is also incredibly complex and the arrival of these vast amounts of synthetic materials will inevitably have a complicated impact — sometimes unforseen and even unforeseeable — that can’t be easily reduced to “it’s good” or “it’s bad.” In order to deal with the problem we need to understand all the ways plastic pollution is affecting the health of our oceans.






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Trashy Bags

After my op-ed came out in the New York Times last week, I got an e-mail from a recent Harvard graduate telling me about a very cool company in Ghana called Trashy Bags, which collects and recycles discarded plastic water bags and uses them to make messenger bags, backpacks, purses, wallets and so on.

According to the Trashy Bags website, the plastic water sachets are a ubiquitous variety of  of the growing problem of plastic waste in Ghana. Plastic waste there has risen 70 percent  in the past ten years; Ghanaians are now tossing 270 tonnes of plastic packaging a day. Yet there’s scant garbage collection, few landfills and little recycling –  only about 2 percent of plastic gets recycled. As a result much of it winds up as that ever-lasting type of litter that is so effective at blocking gutters and storm drains. This is a story that you hear over and over again in developing countries — and one of the prime motivations for bag bans in places such as Bangladesh and Mumbai.

In Ghana, a British entrepreneur named Stuart Gold saw opportunity in that trash and a chance to do some good. He founded Trashy Bags, which now produces some 250  products a week  while its network of its collectors has gathered millions of water sachets that might otherwise be on the streets of Accra.

Trashy Bags — and other companies like it, since I know there are similar outfits in other places — offer a great set of solutions to the problem of plastic pollution. As the Trashy Bags website explains:

  • Demonstrating that waste plastic can still be useful long after it has outlived its original purpose.
  • Using an opportunity to educate people in Africa about the dangers of land pollution and encouraging them to dispose of their rubbish responsibly.
  • Creating employment by paying for sachet collections, employing people to wash the sachets and then stitching them into bags. At our Accra workshop we employ over 60 full-time workers.
  • Helping to keep our streets and residential areas cleaner, thereby making the environment more attractive and safer for us all.
  • Reducing the need for new single-use plastic bags to be manufactured and given away at food and other retail outlets.

I love this photo of a little girl completely decked out in their products:




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Maybe Pepsi has the real thing

In my book I write about Coca Cola’s quest to create a more sustainable plastic bottle, culminating in its introduction last year of what it calls the “PlantBottle.”  The bottle is  made of conventional PET plastic, but about a third of the plastic is derived from plants — sugar cane, to be precise. That gives the bottle a lower carbon footprint than the typical one made from fossil fuels and it can still be conventionally recycled. Coke said eventually it hopes to have a PlantBottle made entirely from plants.

Now along comes Pepsi, which apparently has done just that. Actually it’s gone one even better. The company today unveiled its “Green Bottle,” a PET container made entirely 100 percent from plants. But unlike Coke’s bottle, Pepsi isn’t using any food crops– its bottle comes from switchgrass, pine bark, corn husks and other materials, which also has the benefit of making it compostable as well as recyclable.  Ultimately, according to The Huffington Post, Pepsi plans to “also use orange peels, oat hulls, potato scraps and other leftovers from its food business” to make the bottles. Look for them starting in 2012. If we really want to make sustainable bioplastics, this is the way to go — using waste materials rather than agricultural crops.


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Is working in plastics safe?

An explosion at a plastics plant outside Boston on Sunday made me wonder again about the safety of the plastics industry. Historically, it was rife with hazards: fires were so common in early celluloid factories that workers were continually dousing themselves with water. And up through the 1970s, high exposures to vinyl chloride  put vinyl workers at risk for a rare form of liver cancer. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration raised the threshholds for exposure and since then no new cases of the liver cancer have been reported.  Experts say the industry has improved its safety record.

Plastics is still not a risk-free business. I spent some time today going through archives of the trade paper “Plastic News”  back to the year 2000 and found that there were a few fires and explosions almost every year. Some have caused significant loss of life, such as a 2004 explosion at a Formosa plant in Illiopolis, IL in which five people were killed or a 2003 blast and fire at a composite molding plant in Kentucky in which seven people died.

When I looked at data collected by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, plastics comes up far less risky than a lot of other fields. There were 15 fatalities in plastics manufacturing in 2009, which is far fewer than notoriously dsangerous occupations like farming (278 deaths that year), mining (101),  construction (816) or metal fabrication. Still, making plastics cost more lives than the making of paper (10 deaths) or concrete (14 deaths).

A new  kind of risk may be rearing its ugly head — occupational exposure to the long-term effects of endocrine disrupting chemicals. For instance, studies by researchers looking at a group of 427  Chinese factory workers found those who were exposed to high levels of bisphenol A were more likely to suffer erectile dysfunction and other sexual problems than men at factories where no BPA was present.

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Cellophane babies

Pollsters in 1940 found people considered “cellophane” the third most beautiful word in the English language, right behind “mother” and “memory”. This 1954 ad (featuring my friend Michael and his twin brother) ties all those sentiments up with a nice big bow.

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