Friday, June 29, 2007

Some Vegetables have more Pesticides than Others

I just wanted to alert everyone to the Environmental Working Group's list of 44 fruits and vegetables and their pesticide score. This is based on the results of 51,000 tests conducted by the FDA between 2001 and 2005. Not everyone can afford to buy organic all of the time, so if you have to pick and choose, they recommend that you always buy organic for the top 12 items on the list. You can also get a printable list of "The Cleanest 12" and "The Dirty Dozen" to take with you to the store.

Sadly, my very favorite fruit, the cherry, is one of the Dirty Dozen! And organic cherries are very expensive, so I can't eat as much of them as I would like to. This list does not indicate which fruits and vegetables tend contain pesticides within their flesh, and which ones tend to have surface residues that could be potentially washed off. When you buy fruit out-of-season, it is more likely to come from other countries with less restrictions on pesticides. This is especially true of strawberries and grapes.

Washing should certainly help to remove some residues. Even if the fruit or vegetable is organic, it should still be washed to remove bacteria. Always wash produce in cold water, as warm water opens up pores, enabling the residues to be absorbed. Scub with a soft brush. If you are eating non-organic apples, pears, or other fruits with a skin, it is best to skin them. Remove the outermost leaves of lettuce and spinach.

The EPA website says: Wash and scrub all fresh fruits and vegetables thoroughly under running water. Running water has an abrasive effect that soaking does not have. This will help remove bacteria and traces of chemicals from the surface of fruits vegetables and dirt from crevices. Not all pesticide residues can be removed by washing.

What is so weird about pesticides and bacteria is you can't see them. You have no idea when and how much you are eating them. If you think about it too much, it could ruin a perfectly good meal.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

It's a Shame that You Can't Trust the EPA

I was not living in New York on September 11, 2001. If I had been, I would be outraged at the government's response to the contamination spread by the disaster across parts of lower Manhattan and Brooklyn (including the neighborhood I live in now). The then EPA chief, Christine Todd Whitman, assured New Yorkers that the debris was not toxic, with quotes such as "Given the scope of the tragedy from last week, I am glad to reassure the people of New York and Washington, D.C. that their air is safe to breathe and their water is safe to drink." A 2003 EPA report from after she left the agency found that she was told by the White House to make these false assurances. What kind of person would accept the job of EPA chief while having such little regard for the health of US citizens? What kind of president would have such little regard for the health of the country's citizens? What kind of people would re-elect a president like that?

A group of people exposed to the debris brought a class action lawsuit against Ms. Whitman. The US District Court Judge who rejected Whitman's request for immunity against the suit said "No reasonable person would have thought that telling thousands of people that it was safe to return to lower Manhattan, while knowing that such return could pose long-term health risks and other dire consequences, was conduct sanctioned by our laws," and called Whitman's actions "conscience-shocking." However, a 3-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit later ruled that no EPA officials can be liable for the statements made in the days after September 11th.

Recently, the GAO come out with its own report that federal government officials deliberately misled New York residents about the safety of working at the site or returning to their apartments. Tomorrow, Whitman will be testifying before a House committee investigating the EPA's actions on the matter. I will be very curious to read about what she says. But it sounds like she will never be prosecuted.

So what justice is available for those who have been or will be suffering from the effects of the pollution? The Senate appropriations subcommittee has included $55 million in the 2008 budget for the testing and treatment of people exposed to the dust. So it looks like us taxpayers will again pay for this administrations lies and ineptitude, while they continue to do and say whatever they want.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

USDA Organic Standards

Many consumers want to buy organic products for health and environmental reasons. Organic products cost more money, but people make the choice to spend that money because they would prefer that their food is not produced using chemicals that harm people, wildlife, and bees, and other beneficial insects. They ought to be able to trust that when they spend that extra money, they are getting what they pay for.

On October 21, 2002, the USDA organic label was implemented. According to the USDA website "Organic food is produced by farmers who emphasize the use of renewable resources and the conservation of soil and water to enhance environmental quality for future generations. Organic meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products come from animals that are given no antibiotics or growth hormones. Organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides; fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge; bioengineering; or ionizing radiation. Before a product can be labeled "organic," a Government-approved certifier inspects the farm where the food is grown to make sure the farmer is following all the rules necessary to meet USDA organic standards. Companies that handle or process organic food before it gets to your local supermarket or restaurant must be certified, too."

Organic standards have been strict because the term implies a certain purity. It is easy to meet these standards if you are a small food producer, committed to quality. Since World War II, many food producers are large corporations committed to making profit for shareholders. So, since these large corporations can't meet the standards, they want to have the standards lowered. Rather than being committed to the spirit of organic food, they want to change their methods of production as little as possible while tapping into the extra money that people are willing to spend.

Last week, the USDA caved to industry pressure. They gave interim approval for 38 non-organic ingredients to be used on foods that will still win the coveted label while accepting public comment for 60 days. Friday's LA Times said The list approved Friday includes 19 food colorings, two starches, hops, sausage casings, fish oil, chipotle chili pepper, gelatin, celery powder, dill weed oil, frozen lemongrass, Wakame seaweed, Turkish bay leaves and whey protein concentrate. Manufacturers will be allowed to use conventionally grown versions of these ingredients in foods carrying the USDA seal, provided that they can't find organic equivalents and that nonorganics comprise no more than 5% of the product. A wide range of organic food could be affected, including cereal, sausage, bread, beer, pasta, candy and soup mixes. The rule change is "good news for consumers," said Barbara Haumann, spokeswoman for the Organic Trade Assn., which represents food makers.

"Good news for consumers"???? You can bet that if organic standards are lowered, organic prices won't be lowered.

The Organic Consumers Association website writes This latest sneak attack on organic standards was developed with absolutely no input from consumers. The USDA proposal has raised the concerns of the Organic Consumers Association (OCA), as well as a number of smaller organic companies and organic certifiers who say that if passed, this proposal will weaken the organic seal and damage consumer confidence in products labeled “USDA Organic.

The public comment period is open now. You can make a difference one of two ways. Go to the Organic Consumers Association website and sign their petition. Or, if you a have a few hours to spare, you can read the 4-page PDF on the USDA website and comment directly to them.

Since people don't have the time or the resources to research the origin and the ingredients of the food they buy, wouldn't it be great if they could trust that the USDA organic label implies certain standards?

Monday, June 18, 2007

Cigarette Butts

Why do people who would not otherwise litter think it's OK to throw a cigarette butt on the ground? (True story: I was behind a car with Greenpeace, Sierra Club and Peta bumper stickers and I saw the driver toss a lit cigarette toward a stand of trees on a dry day.) There is an urban myth that cigarettes are biodegradable because they appear to be paper and cotton. Well, the filter is made of cellulose acetate (a plastic), and contains trace amounts of cadmium, lead and arsenic, and of course, nicotine. And they are all over the place, and ending up in the sewers, in the waterways, in the soil. Yuck! Years ago, I used to manage a retail store. Every morning, I would sweep the front of the store and discard about 20 cigarette butts. A day! And this was on a nice, suburban, tree-lined street. I'm sure shop managers in cities sweep up hundreds a day. What will it take to make this a socially- unacceptable practice? What other options do smokers have if they finish a cigarette while walking somewhere?

One Word: Plastics

Another fascinating article, reprinted here, from the Monterrey County Weekly:

Drowning in Plastic
Every bit of plastic ever made is still with us—and it’s wreaking havoc on the ocean.
Jun 14, 2007
By Kera Abraham

LIFE ON EARTH depends on little specks floating in the ocean. Tiny plankton convert sunlight to energy to form the base of the marine food chain, sustaining all seafaring creatures, from anchovies to whales and the land-based animals that eat them.

But increasingly, researchers are peering through their microscopes at the specks in seawater samples and finding miniscule bits of poisonous garbage instead of life-sustaining mini-critters.

It’s plastic— broken by sunlight and water into itty bitty pieces, but still intact. And now scientists are discovering the implications of one troubling attribute of petroleum-based plastic, known since its invention, but ignored under the assumption that technology would eventually resolve it: Every plastic product that has ever been manufactured still exists.

Only 50 years since we began mass-producing it, our plastic waste has built up into a poisonous mountain we have never really learned how to deal with. It makes up 10 percent of California’s garbage, is toxic to burn and hard to recycle.

Out in the Pacific Ocean a vortex of trash swirls and grows, forming a garbage dump twice the size of Texas.

ea turtles choke on plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish. Albatross parents ingest lighters and plastic shards along with squid and small fish, regurgitating them into their chicks’ open throats, eventually killing them.

Shrimp, jellyfish and small fish eat the particle-sized plastic debris that look a lot like plankton, and which, in some places, are three times more abundant than the real thing.

A 2004 report from the congressional Commission on Ocean Policy identifies synthetic marine debris as “a serious threat to wildlife, habitat, and human health and safety,” calling for a set of immediate measures to address the crisis. A growing number of decision-makers are finally paying attention, positioning California to lead the world in staunching the flow of plastic to sea.

~ ~ ~

CAPTAIN CHARLES MOORE stands in a business suit before an audience of about 50 California district attorneys attending an environmental law-enforcement conference at the Asilomar Conference Grounds, giving his pitch about just how abundant and dangerous marine debris has become. The mass of plastic already in the sea is so big that researchers with his nonprofit, Algalita Marine Research Foundation, have found it throughout the water column in every sample they’ve ever taken from the Pacific Ocean. Most of it is so small and so abundant that it would be nearly impossible to filter out.

Yet the state’s current response to the proliferating debris, Moore tells the prosecutors, wrongly puts the most emphasis on cleanup, followed by control and prevention. He argues that it would be much more effective for the state to flip priorities and dedicate a majority of resources to preventing plastics from reaching the ocean in the first place. The DAs, here to discuss environmental crime prosecution, listen attentively.

After his keynote, Moore changes into a Hawaiian shirt for our lunchtime interview. He seems more comfortable this way, like he’d rather be playing on the beach than giving presentations. The founder of the Long Beach Surfrider chapter briefly considers catching a few waves with Monterey chapter chair Ximena Wiassbluth before heading back to the airport, but there’s no swell. He tells me that just a few weeks ago, on his 60th birthday, he surfed 30 waves in 90 minutes. “It’s a way to stay in contact with Mother Ocean,” he says.

Moore stumbled into his career as an environmental pioneer 10 years ago. In the summer of 1997, while steering his catamaran home from a sailing competition in Hawaii, he ventured into the North Pacific Gyre, a 10-million-square-mile, slow-moving vortex that sailors usually avoid. What he saw there shocked and disgusted him: truck tires, disposable utensils, shopping bags, buoys, toys, a mountain of trash spread across hundreds of miles— the world’s largest garbage dump, circling unceremoniously in the open sea.

Upon his return to the mainland, Moore took up his cause through the Long Beach-based Algalita Marine Research Foundation, which he’d founded in 1994 to do restoration work on kelp forests and wetlands. The nonprofit has since become the West Coast’s go-to organization on the topic of synthetic marine debris. “The ocean is still beautiful,” he says. “We’re really taking on this issue because we’re mad as hell that the most common thing that we find in the ocean now is plastic.”

Algalita researchers have found that the amount of micro plastics in the Central North Pacific has tripled in the last decade. Their colleagues on the other side of the Pacific concluded that off the coast of Japan it has shot up by a factor of 10 every two to three years.

A recent study found that plastics now make up 90 percent of all floating marine debris.

Plastic is not biodegradable, but rather photodegradable. Sunlight makes plastic brittle and breaks it down, but leaves its molecular structure intact. The little plastic shards disperse throughout the ocean, with buoyant pieces floating and denser bits sinking to the sea floor, in so many shapes and textures that hundreds of marine species mistake it for food. It can travel thousands of miles across the sea and wash up on remote uninhabited islands, whose beaches are beginning to look more trash-strewn than LA’s worst. The rate of trash accumulation is greatest at the poles, with Antarctica’s shores becoming the industrial world’s junkyard.

~ ~ ~

THE MOST DRAMATIC accumulations of trash are found in “gyres” such as the one Moore sailed into— these sort of giant toilet bowls where atmospheric pressure weakens currents and winds, causing marine debris to idly swirl toward the gyre’s eye. Researchers know of six such gyres, including the one in the Pacific north of Hawaii that Moore is credited with discovering.

Researchers dubbed it the Eastern Garbage Patch, a neighbor to the Western Garbage Patch off the coast of Japan. In 1999, Algalita’s samples from the eastern patch contained six times more plastic than plankton by weight, roughly 400,000 particles per square mile— triple the amount counted in 1990.

The expanse of trash is estimated to be 540,000 square miles, but Moore says it’s growing so fast it’s nearly impossible to give it dimensions. When he sampled water 600 miles from the center of the gyre in November 2006— an area that had contained relatively low debris levels six years earlier— Moore was horrified to find nearly as much plastic as he’d found in the center of the gyre in 2000.

He now thinks the Eastern and Western Garbage Patches have merged into a mega-garbage patch stretching across the Pacific Rim, like sprawl connecting New York and Boston into a megacity of continuous development.

“It’s a single strip of polluted ocean,” he says. “Huge increases in production are making the whole ocean this plastic soup. Every creature in the ocean is eating plastic.”

Blending a seaman’s charisma with a businessman’s polish, Moore has managed to capture the attention of some powerful players— he’s met with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the heads of various state agencies, and the Pope’s science advisor.

~ ~ ~

ALGALITA STAFF MEMBERS conduct their own research, and also compile and analyze hundreds of other studies to understand the implications of a plastic-choked ocean.

The worst effects are seen in a sea-going bird that lives on Midway Atoll in the north Pacific. Researchers estimate that 40 percent of the albatross chicks that die on the atoll are killed by the plastic filling their guts, fed to them by their parents. The plastic contaminates their blood and blocks their digestive tracts, leaving them dehydrated and undernourished.

Dr. Curtis Ebbesmeyer of Beachcombers Alert says that plastic debris is taking a toll on hundreds of marine species. Baby sea turtles who get stuck in six-pack rings grow distorted shells; birds choke on plastic shards that mimic fish and krill; and sea lions are caught in nylon nets abandoned by fishing vessels.

Ebbesmeyer believes that plastic marine debris is also hurting people. Because plastic accumulates up the food chain, be says, some level of plastic is present in all of the seafood we eat.

In addition to the physical impacts, plastics are wreaking biological havoc on both marine and land-based animals, including humans. Virtually every kind of petroleum-based plastic leaches chemicals into the substances it encounters. Some of the chemicals added to make plastic products more flexible, durable and flame-retardant are suspected endocrine disrupters and hormone mimickers that can affect the development of creatures exposed to them. For example, recent research has linked bisphenol-A exposure with early breast development and menstruation in girls, feminine characteristics in boys, and decreased fertility in both sexes.

Tim Shestek, a spokesman for plastic industry group the American Chemistry Council (ACC), argues that the studies are misleading— that the effects of high concentrations of plastic additives on lab animals don’t translate to humans exposed to chronic low doses.

“The scientific consensus is that these compounds are safe in the current applications that they’re being used for,” Shestek says.

Moore counters that industry is on a mission to confuse consumers with biased science. He notes that of 149 government-funded studies on bisphenol-A, 93 percent found that the compound is harmful, but all 12 industry-funded studies concluded that it is benign.

Plastics also can absorb hazardous synthetic chemicals such as PCBs and pesticides. Researchers are finding that plastic debris pick up these compounds from the sea water, carry them for hundreds of miles, and then leach them out elsewhere, leading Algalita staff to dub them “poison pellets.”

~ ~ ~

MANUFACTURERS make 60 billion tons of plastic every year, the majority of it for products that will be used once and thrown away.

Many of those single-use products are molded from melted pre-production resin pellets as tiny and light as lentils, and known as nurdles. A June 2006 Algalita report, funded by a state grant and produced in collaboration with the state Coastal Commission and Water Control Board, concluded that nurdles manufactured in the LA area often fly into the air or spill out of shipping containers, slipping through storm drains into coastal waterways and out to sea. They look disconcertingly like fish eggs to marine mammals with a taste for roe.

Escaped nurdles may now comprise about 10 percent of the ocean’s plastic debris. Abandoned fishing gear and trash from ships account for another 20 percent. The rest, 70 percent, is post-consumer litter from the land: fast-food containers thrown from car windows; renegade stuff from insecure loads on the backs of pickup trucks; litter that flows down rivers, spews from sewage treatment outfalls, and runs from urban streets through storm drains to the sea. And, of course, beach trash washed away with the tides.

While it might be feasible to clean up drift nets and other large marine debris, the Algalita report concludes that there’s just no way to scoop the billions of little bitty pieces of plastic out of the sea. The best we can do, the authors write, is to prevent more junk from flowing to the ocean.

Easier said than done.

Algalita reports that each person throws away an average of 185 pounds of plastic every year, and knee-jerk disposal has become a cultural habit. People tend to get rid of used products as soon as possible— and if there’s not a garbage or recycling can nearby, they often litter.

But as surely as plastics are flowing to the ocean, awareness of the problem is flooding into the mainstream.

This February, the Governor’s Ocean Protection Council unanimously adopted a six-part resolution to reduce and prevent marine debris. The Council suggests expanding California’s bottle bill to create rebates for recycled plastic debris; beefing up enforcement of litter laws; researching alternatives to petroleum-based plastic; coordinating regionally to reduce plastic pollution; banning the most toxic kinds of synthetic materials; and launching an anti-littering campaign called “Don’t Trash California.”

The OPC’s resolution set the stage for a raft of five Assembly bills, collectively called the Pacific Protection Initiative, aimed at tackling the problem. AB 258 would regulate nurdle discharge; AB 904 would require 25 percent of food service packaging to be compostable or recyclable; AB 820 would prohibit the use of Styrofoam at state facilities; SB 899 would phase out packaging containing certain compounds known to be toxic to ocean creatures; and SB 898 would set benchmarks for cleaning up abandoned fishing gear. The American Chemistry Council is lobbying against two of the bills.

Shestek, the ACC’s Sacramento lobbyist, attacks AB 820, the bill to ban polystyrene (Styrofoam), on the grounds that alternative packaging materials are just as ecologically questionable. Paper, he points out, takes about three times more water and energy to produce. “We haven’t really figured out how this [bill] is going to address litter other than change the composition of it,” he says. “There’s an environmental footprint no matter what kind of packaging you manufacture.”

The ACC also opposes AB 904, the bill regulating restaurant packaging. Shestek notes that even bio-plastics made from vegetable materials such as corn, sugar and potato starch linger in the environment, only biodegrading quickly in compost.

The ACC does not oppose the bill regulating nurdle discharge. Shestek notes that the industry already has a set of internal Best Management Practices aimed at proper nurdle containment, with suggestions as simple and cheap as using a shop vacuum to clean up spills.

Algalita’s June report found that most plastic producers ignore the BMPs because there is no penalty for violating them. That, Shestek admits, is a shame: “Anybody who’s using resin pellets ought to be taking responsibility for keeping them out of the storm drains.”

Nor does Shestek dispute the fact that recent years have seen a monumental increase in plastic packaging, though he doesn’t believe that’s a bad thing. In his view, plastic pollution results from a problem with people, not with the material. “We’ve been advocating for additional recycling opportunities to reduce disposal and reduce litter,” he says.

But activists argue that the ACC isn’t making a good faith effort to deal with the plastic plague it manufactures.

“They really haven’t come up with any kinds of solutions,” says Bryan Early, a policy associate with Californians Against Waste, which sponsors two of the plastic-tackling Assembly bills and supports the other three. “It’s their lobbying that holds these bills back.”

Even if none of the proposed legislation becomes law, we have plenty of options for reducing plastic marine pollution.

~ ~ ~

ONE OBVIOUS SOLUTION is more recycling, but that’s tricky. Americans currently recycle less than 5 percent of their plastic waste, largely because only products coded #1 and #2— milk jugs, soda and water bottles— melt at low temperatures. These can’t be re-used as food containers because chemicals and residues stay in the plastic and the quality degrades, so they’re destined to become less intimate products like furniture, carpet and fleece clothing. Higher codes, including polypropylene stuff like bottle caps, need high temperatures to melt. The toxic emissions they release make them virtually unrecyclable.

Some activists are putting their faith in another kind of technology: bio-plastics made from vegetable materials. Moore is skeptical about this solution. Although the products are renewable, biodegradable and increasingly economical, he points out, they still leave an environmental footprint. And some brands are engineered to break down rapidly in compost piles, but not in a cold sea with scarce fungi and insects. Bio-plastics that are mistakenly thrown in the recycle bin can muck up petro-plastic recycling, and bio-plastic litter can still clog storm drains and choke sea creatures.

A no-brainer is to prevent people from littering, especially in coastal rivers and beaches— through placement of more trash and recycling cans, better enforcement and education. According to an article in the DA Association’s most recent environmental prosecution newsletter, prosecutors already have a bunch of legislative tools for going after marine polluters: the federal Refuse Act, Clean Water Act and Ocean Dumping Act; the state Water Code and Fish and Game Code; and the international MARPOL Protocol. If ongoing research finds plastic debris impacting whales’ and otters’ survival, plastic disposal may also be regulated under Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.

But, as Drew Bohan of the California Ocean Protection Council pointed out at the District Attorneys’ recent conference, prosecutors don’t tend to go after environmental violations with the same vigor as other crimes.

After hearing Moore’s presentation, Steve Holett, deputy district attorney for Monterey County, says he doesn’t have any fresh ideas for reducing the flow of plastic debris into the Bay. “We are not aware of any [local] manufacturers of plastic, and we have not received any reports from our health department regarding issues of plastic disposal,” he says. “I’m not aware that there is plastic in Monterey Bay.”

But other agencies are taking action. The Monterey Regional Waste Management District recently convened a Litter Abatement Task Force, co-chaired by Carmel Mayor Sue McCloud and County Supervisor Dave Potter, which set up a website allowing citizens to report litter violations. One tip about illegal dumping on Highway 68 led to a jail sentence and several years of probation for the offender. In May and June, the Salinas Valley and Monterey Regional waste authorities teamed up to sponsor a theatrical performance called “¡Basta Basura! Enough Trash!,” featuring a garbage-covered character who encouraged visitors to the Monterey Bay Aquarium not to pollute the sea.

And local activists are pushing ahead. Surfrider’s Monterey chapter has launched a campaign called “Plankton, Not Plastic,” with members working to turn back the tide of litter flowing from the Peninsula.

Monthly beach clean-ups make a difference on the ground, while a public outreach campaign encourages food servicers to shift to compostable packaging and City Councils to adopt plastic waste-reduction measures. Individual actions can be as simple as bringing canvas bags to grocery stores, re-usable mugs to coffee shops and Tupperware to restaurants.

Surfrider’s campaign builds on momentum created by other cities. In March, the city of San Francisco mandated that grocery stores use recyclable or compostable bags. And last December, Capitola’s City Council became the first on the Monterey Bay to pass a resolution regulating the use of Styrofoam take-out containers. The ordinance was to take effect on July 1 of this year, but the new City Council has announced that it will reconsider the prior council’s ban. Local Surfrider activists have joined forced with the Santa Cruz chapter to encourage the City Council to stand by its earlier decision, in hopes that Monterey County cities will follow suit.

~ ~ ~

STROLLING NEAR the Municipal Wharf, Moore shifts into research gear. Along the dock he finds a chip bag, a plastic water bottle and a broken-up Styrofoam cup floating in a mass of twigs and dirt near a sunken orange traffic cone. “What are the fish eating underneath that?” he asks. “Some of it is mimicking food.”

A few hundred yards down the shore, he discovers plastic cups and nylon rope wedged into the cracks between some boulders. He nabs a drifting plastic bag, which he calls “the modern tumbleweed,” and shakes his head at sheets of black plastic laid under the rocks, likely intended to stabilize the slopes: they’re already tearing, broken down by the sun. “That’s all becoming part of the ocean environment right now,” he says.

After combing Monterey State Beach for a half hour, Moore peers into our bag of collected litter and does an impromptu analysis. He concludes that cigarette butts, whose filters are made from cellulose acetate, are the most common plastic debris, followed by Styrofoam and bottle caps. He finds a few broken-up, brittle plastic pieces that he says have floated in from afar, but he estimates that roughly 90 percent of the beach’s litter is local. “That means that you can do something about it through local enforcement.”

Eras of human history are defined by their most prominent materials, Moore theorizes. Throughout the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, societies have followed a pattern of extracting a resource, expanding its industry, and recycling only when it begins to run out. He says that since 1979, when the tonnage of plastic exceeded the tonnage of steel produced, we’ve been in the midst of the Plastic Age. We don’t recycle much of it now; only when oil becomes more scarce will we begin “mining our landfills.” And that, Moore asserts, is the central contradiction of our times: the popularity of disposable products made from a material that lasts forever. “Plastic is the lubricant of globalization,” he says. “That’s what facilitates all this junky stuff making it to all the corners of the earth.”

He’s quick to point out that he’s not an enemy of petroleum-based plastics per se; it’s just the temporary-use stuff that gets to him. “We really have to start thinking about plastics being forever,” he says. “The world needs to wake up for the potential of plastics to be what we wanted when we got into this thing: durable. It could be OK to have something you got when you were young and lasted you your whole life. But that is bad for an economy based solely on growth and waste. That’s the same paradigm as a cancer cell.”

“It’s like when you break your leg— it never heals totally,” Moore says. “There’s no such thing as complete recovery from an environmental insult.” But that’s not to say we shouldn’t try.

“Only politics guided by sound science can save us,” he adds. “The objective is to not screw things up in the first place.”


If you are moved by this article, please BUY LESS, and when you do buy, bring your own bags to the store with you.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Environmental Procrastination Agency

This is from the website Daily Green:

EPA Late On Pesticide Short List

By Dan Shapley
News Editor

More than 10 years after being directed to do so by Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency will test 73 pesticides for their potential to damage the endocrine system and disrupt the normal functioning of hormones in the body, the agency announced Monday.

More than 2,000 chemicals are introduced to the American marketplace every year, and most are not screened for toxicity, according to watchdog groups. Even those that are, frequently, do not get tested for endocrine disrupting potential.

The EPA will test 73 pesticides that people most often come into contact with in homes and workplaces — including some pesticides that have been found in trace amounts on foods, and in drinking water. The EPA chose the chemicals from among 690 that people may be exposed to in homes, at work, by eating food or drinking water.

The EPA will develop a test this year for 73 chemicals to see if they show the potential to disrupt the endocrine system. Actual testing won’t take place until 2008, and any chemicals determined to have potential endocrine disrupting ability will be subjected to a second round of more intensive testing before the EPA would consider restricting their use.

“Ultimately this program will determine whether these chemicals disrupt the endocrine system,” said Jim Gulliford, the EPA’s Assistant Administrator for the Office of Prevention, Pesticides and Toxic Substances. He said the data collected would be “comprehensive and scientifically sound.”

Critics said the EPA’s program has been delayed for no legitimate reason, that studies already show several chemicals meet criteria to be considered endocrine disruptors and that their use should be restricted, and finally that some of the testing protocols the EPA has proposed are flawed.

The EPA was sued by the Natural Resources Defense Council in 1999 for missing early deadlines in the Congressionally mandated program. The list published today was first supposed to be issued in 1997, and after the court settlement with NRDC, was to be published in 2002, according to NRDC scientist Sarah Janssen.

“We already have enough info about many of these chemicals on the list to know they’re endocrine disruptors without putting them through a … screening which is probably going to be delayed for two years,” Jenssen said.

The endocrine system is made up of hormones, the various glands that produce them, and the many bodily functions regulated by the chemical messengers. Chemicals that mimic, block or disrupt the normal function of hormones are known as endocrine disruptors.

Animal studies have demonstrated endocrine-disrupting effects of several once-common industrial chemicals and pesticides. Many other chemicals are suspected of having endocrine-disrupting potential. The effects on humans are, largely, unknown, but health and environmental advocates say it’s wise to limit exposure to many chemicals, particularly women of childbearing age, pregnant women and children under the age of 15.

The American Chemistry Council called the EPA’s announcement an “important milestone,” but cautioned that the agency still has to finalize its testing procedures.

“Additionally, we echo EPA’s statement that this is a candidate list of substances to screen for potential interaction with the endocrine system,” the industry group said in a prepared statement. “It is not a list of endocrine disruptors or potential endocrine disruptors and EPA has not determined the potential endocrine related risks of the substances.”

In all, there are thousands chemicals that must be screened as directed by the Food Quality Protection Act of 1996. In addition to 1,077 active ingredients, there are more than 5,000 inactive and inert ingredients in pesticides used in the United States.

“All pesticide chemicals must be tested, both active and inert ingredients,” said Clifford Gabriel, the EPA’s director of the Office of Science Coordination and Policy.

The NRDC’s Jenssen said the EPA has not made any announcements about its responsibility to also screen contaminants other than pesticides found in drinking water, a Congressional directive that was also passed in 1996.

The announcement coincided with press accounts about dozens of non-organic farm products that the Department of Agriculture allows to be used in processed foods labeled as certified “organic.”

For more on this, you can visit the EPA's website:

Saturday, June 9, 2007

The Right to Question

I am sure that some people reading this blog will wonder if I am a little crazy perhaps. Maybe a bit too worried about abstract things. For me, writing these posts is an opportunity to explore a lot of questions that I have. After 30 years of being focused mainly on art with little interest in science, I took 4 semesters of chemistry as a prerequisite for graduate school. Coming to chemistry so late in life may have given me a unique perspective. I was able to see it as a way of understanding the world, like a religion. I also found that when someone forwarded me an email about the health hazards of plastic water bottles, I could actually research it to find out if the claims in the email were true (they were).

Understanding chemistry is empowering, because I can read books and articles about the environment and have a deeper understanding. Many of the people in the government making decisions about science and the regulation of industries using chemicals know less about chemistry than I do! And from the kind of decisions I am seeing made, I certainly feel that I have a right to question them. I invite everyone to question whether something is safe just because the government says it is. The regulatory agencies are packed with political appointees who care more about appeasing US industries than the health of the US people.

My readers also have every right to question my assertions. This is a forum for expressing my thoughts and letting them sit here, giving people time to consider them and come to their own conclusions.

An Inconvenient Future

A recent article in Harper's Magazine written by Garret Keizer titled Climate, Class, and Claptrap generally has a very scolding tone, but the last couple of paragraphs are a well-written analysis of what truly dealing with global warming will mean to all of our lives. It is not enough to acknowledge that global warming exists; we also need to ask what global warming means. Surely one thing it means is that a culture that has as its highest aim anything remotely resembing physical work must change its life. If you want an inconvenient truth, there it is: that hte very notion of convenience upon which our civilization rests is a lie that is killing us...You do not repair the climate of an entire planet without staggering sacrifices, and people will not elect to make staggering sacrifices unless the burden is shared with something like parity.

To put that as succinctly as possible, the days of paradise are drawing to a close. The game of finding someone else in some convenient misery to fight our wars, pull our rickshaws, and serve as the offset for our every filthy indulgence is just about up. It is either Earth for all of us or hell for most of us. Those are the terms, those have always been the terms, and any approach to climate change that begins on those terms can count me as a loyal partisan.

I have included the exerpt in the interest of asking my readers to think about what you would be willing to give up and what you would not be willing to give up. How convinced would you have to be that your sacrifice would improve the conditions that future generations are living with? How many other people would you need to see making the sacrifice along with you?

Any solution that requires sacrifice from the public is not popular, and politicians stay far away from asking their constituents to lower the standard of living that they've gotten used to and the conveniences that help to make their life easier. If the threat of global warming is as dire as the predictions, that's what it would take to make a difference, though. I think, deep down, everyone knows that, but the public discourse has focussed on everything but serious sacrifice.

I'm just saying we should start to consider what it would be like. Next time you are taking a long shower, or driving a car, or running your air conditioner, ponder whether you will live to see a time when it is a thing of the past.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

G8 Update

From the London Financial Times: Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, on Wednesday accepted defeat in her bid to persuade the US to agree targets for reducing carbon emissions and stabilising global temperatures.

But she secured a commitment from President George W. Bush that the US would work within the United Nations to forge a new global climate change deal to replace the Kyoto protocol, which expires in 2012.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Books To Read Part 2: Garbage Land

---Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash, by Elizabeth Royte

Once you throw something away, you don't ever have to think about it again, but it hasn't ceased to exist. This book tells the story of one woman who tries to follow the trail of where her trash goes. She describes a day in life of New York's Stongest, the garbage collectors, she explains composting, the recycling business, and where things go when you flush them. While reading it, you can't help but assess your entire life and consider what you can do to reduce your waste. It leaves you with a lot to think about. Even though we put out all of this plastic for recycling, have you ever seen a recycled plastic product for sale? Not very often.

The most interesting thing I had previously read about garbage was by the artist Mierle Laderman Ukeles, in her Sanitation Manifesto! from 1984. I have a copy of it in the book Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists' Writings. Here is an excerpt: ...I am- along with every other citizen who lives, works, visits, or passes through this space- a co-producer of Sanitation's work-product, as well as a customer of Sanitation's work...Sanitation is the principal symbol of Time's passage and the mutable value of materiality on organized urban life. Sanitation, as an environmental energy system, is trapped in a miasma of of essentially pre-democratic perceptions. The public generally doesn't want to "see" beyond the tip of its nose- or see where we put our waste, or see what we do or should do with it, or see what choices we have about managing our waste. Waste is our immediate unwanted past. Do we "conserve" its energy through transformation, or do we drown in it? We are facing an environmental crisis, because we are running out of space to put it "away." To begin to accept as "ours" the difficult social task of dealing with "our" waste at the highest, not the most mediocre level of intelligence and creativity in reality, in all its effulgent scale here, people need to understand how they connect one to the other across our society, in all its scale...As a first step, we certainly need to peel away and separate ourselves from the ancient, transcultural alienating notion and aura of the caste-stigma of waste-worker, of "garbage-man," which has already translated, trickily, into "their" waste, not "ours"; they're "dirty," we're "clean"... There's much more, but you get the idea. I just looked her up, and I'm glad to see she is still alive and living in New York. She is the artist in residence for New York City's Department of Sanitation. I have gotten totally off-subject, but I'm allowed; it's my blog.

What are Carbon Offsets and Carbon Credits?

This is a complicated topic for me, perhaps because I don't understand financial markets very well. But it is a subject that keeps coming up, so I thought I would try to get a handle on it.

"Carbon credits" put a price on the carbon emitted by a business. Countries set quots for different businesses, and if they are under, they can sell the carbon credits; if they are over, they can purchase more credits. The idea is that buying and selling carbon will drive the price up and make it financially attractive for a company to cut carbon emissions.

How does the county decide what the quotas are? The countries that signed the Kyoto protocol take the amount from that. The countries that didn't, I don't know where they derive their quotas from. Or maybe they don't have quotas yet, but some American companies are taking part in the exchange program. Is it voluntary? There are two places to buy and sell the credits: Chicago Climate Exchange and European Climate Exchange. It appears that they operate like stock markets.

This will be the major topic of the upcoming G8 Summit, which will take place in Heiligendamm, Germany next week. The German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, sent a list of proposals with the goal of fighting climate change to the participating countries. This proposal has not yet been published for the general public to read, but I found this in the Kuwait Times: The Germans have laid out ambitious targets in a draft G8 communique that was sent to partners last month. In a copy seen by Reuters, Berlin is pushing for a G8 commitment to limit global warming to two degrees Celsius this century and cut world greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent below 1990 levels by 2050. The Germans want the G8 to endorse carbon trading as a means of curbing climate change and are pressing partners for pledges on energy efficiency - an area where they hope Washington may have room to compromise. Merkel wants the June 6-8 summit to lay the groundwork for an extension and strengthening of the Kyoto Protocol ahead of a key United Nations conference in Bali, Indonesia in December. "It is absolutely necessary that in at least one of these areas a quantitative goal is agreed by the G8 states," said Hans-Joachim Schellnhuber, head of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research and an adviser to Merkel.

The summit made more high profile news here in the United States this week, when President Bush offered a counter-proposal. The initial headlines were promising. Has Mr. Bush had a change of heart regarding the climate? Is he ready to admit that something needs to be done to prevent irreversible damage to the earth? This is from today's London's Financial Times: His proposal marked a reversal of the US policy of refusing to discuss emissions cuts and rejecting a global framework such as Kyoto. But the plans are starkly different from the proposal tabled by Germany for next week’s G8 summit, which would require leaders to agree to prevent global temperatures rising by more than 2 degrees Celsius and require stringent emissions cuts. Attitudes within Europe hardened on Friday as some politicians and activists accused Mr Bush of trying to wreck next week’s summit, and UN negotiations on climate change, set to take place this December. José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, told the Financial Times Mr Bush should be “more ambitious” and said the UN must “remain the basis for setting – and achieving – binding, measurable and enforceable targets”. Sigmar Gabriel, the German environment minister, said Mr Bush’s speech could mark a “change in the US position or a manoeuvre aimed at causing confusion”. A comment by Mr Bush to German media that Ms Merkel “will be pleased” with his proposals, which run counter to her own, was seen as provocative. There were signs on Friday night that Mr Bush’s proposals would split the G8, which some sceptics argue is his intention. Stephen Harper, Canada’s prime minister, welcomed the plans, as did Tony Blair, Britain’s outgoing prime minister, and Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out during the summit next week.

Meanwhile, in addition to businesses, there are some individuals who want to reduce their carbon emissions without changing their lifestyle in any way. They can do this by purhcansing "carbon offsets." These are companies, such as DrivingGreen, Climate Care, and The Carbon Neutral Company. The company does one of 4 things: it plants trees, it invests in renewable energy research or conservation efforts, it purhcases carbon credits and takes them off the market, or it says it does one of these things, but it really does nothing. There is very little accountability. Fortunately, a 2006 publication; A Consumer's Guide to Retail Carbon Offset Providers provides a list of the best companies and things to think about before investing in them.

The following website will help you calculate your own carbon emissions: