Sunday, January 20, 2008

Peak(ed?) Oil

You may or may not have heard of the concept 'Peak Oil' by now. It is something you are likely to hear a lot more about in the coming year. The concept is basically that there is a limited amount of oil in the ground; at some point we will reach the peak of oil's availability and that from there our ability to extract it will decline. Imagine if the amount of oil extracted is shown as a line graph that travels up to a peak and travels back down. The question is: where are we on that line right now in 2008?

Some people have gone on to surmise that since so much of the world's economy depends on the availability of oil, that the dwindling supply will lead to chaos, wars, and the complete breakdown of society as we know it. British energy economist David Fleming was quoted as saying "Anticipated supply shortages could lead easily to disturbing scenes of mass unrest... For government, industry and the wider public, just muddling through is not an option any more as this situation could spin out of control and turn into a complete meltdown of society."

In October, a German-based research group called the Energy Watch Group released a report claiming that global oil production peaked in 2006. Their data comes from studying current and past oil production levels. On the other hand, the International Energy Agency, the energy policy adviser to 27 member countries, including the United States, believes that oil's peak is far in the future.

With the chief executive of General Motors, Keith Wagoner, giving a speech this week stating that oil has already peaked, (according to the Australian television station ABC Victoria. You can learn more by watching the video on the link.) I predict that this will soon become a hot topic. As for the total breakdown of society, I prefer to think that running out of oil will necessitate major lifestyle changes for much of the world's population, but that it will ultimately change things for the better, forcing municipal governments to invest in mass transit and a pro-bicycling infrastructure.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Save the Polar Bears!!

On January 10th, I wrote about the US Fish & Wildlife Service's delay in listing the polar bear as a threatened species. At the end, I recommended that you contact Dirk Kempthorne, the Secretary of the Interior. (1849 C St. NW, Washington, DC 20240 or (202) 208-3100 and (800) 344-9453)

I realize that some of my readers may be really busy and unable to take the time to do this, so I have found an online petition you can sign instead. However, I really recommend that you personally contact the Interior Secretary if you have any extra time at all. It would make a much bigger impact.

Whatever you have time to do, thanks!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Some Facts About Aluminum

The United States is the only country to call it aluminum. The root 'alum' comes from a white powder (often aluminum oxide) that has been used throughout history as a mordant for dyes, in the tanning of leather, as an additive in adhesives and make-up. It wasn't until 1787 that scientists knew alum was the oxide of a metal. In 1807, Sir Humphrey Davy proposed that the metal be called aluminum. Soon after, it was altered to 'aluminium' because most elements end in "ium." In 1925, the American Chemical Society officially reverted the calling it aluminum, so that's what we call it here.

Mainly, it comes from bauxite ore, named after the French village of Les Bauxs. Bauxite ore is any ore or mixture of minerals rich in aluminum oxide. It can be found all over the world. It took some time to figure out how to extract pure aluminum from the ore, but in 1866, two inventors, Charles Martin Hall of the United States and Paul L. T. Héroult of France patented a process known as the Hall-Héroult process, which is still used today. This is a very energy-intensive process, especially since the ore is first hauled from remote regions, and because 1 ton of the ore yields 1/4 ton of the pure metal.

Recycling aluminum uses 20 times less energy (statistics I have seen vary, but it's a lot) than manufacturing it from raw materials, but only about half of the approximately 200 million aluminum products used each day get recycled. Next time you have an aluminum can or aluminum wrap that you want to dispose of, but you can't find a recycling bin, please consider carrying it until you find one. Most jurisdictions accept the foil wrap, too. Your town or city probably makes a profit from selling aluminum to recyclers that funds other recycling programs. Aluminum can be recycled again and again without changing its properties. If you throw it out, then its value is gone forever and more land will have to be mined to replace it.

Another fact about aluminum: the reason the foil is often called 'tin foil' is because a similar product was made from tin until 1910 (it's funny how long our collective memory has retained that).

If you want to buy recycled aluminum foil, you can get it from Greenfeet.

History of Aluminum
Aluminum: History
About: Inventors
Energy Kid's Page
Paper or Plastic, by Daniel Imhoff

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Two Steps Forward; One Step Back

I really feel that 2008 is going to be the year that things take a turn for the better and people get really serious about preserving the future earth. The evidence is coming in every day. (For every 2 steps forward, it seems we take at least one back, but today I want to focus on the positive.

First of all, China announced on Tuesday that the country will ban the use of plastic bags, starting June 1st, 2008. According to USA Today, under the new rules, businesses will be prohibited from manufacturing, selling or using bags less than 0.025 millimeters (0.00098 inches) thick, according to the order issued by the State Council, China's Cabinet. The council's orders constitute the highest level of administrative regulation, and follow-through is carefully monitored. More durable plastic bags will be permitted for sale by markets and shops. The regulation, dated Dec. 31 and posted on a government website Tuesday, calls for "a return to cloth bags and shopping baskets to reduce the use of plastic bags."

Second, the New York City Council passed a bill yesterday that will require retailers who distribute plastic bags to collect and recycle them. The bill was originally introduced by Christine Quinn and Peter F. Vallone Jr. It applies only to stores larger than 5,000 square feet or with more than 5 branches in the city. It is expected that Mayor Bloomberg will sign the bill within days. It will go into effect 6 months after that. Notice that the city has not banned the bags altogether, like San Francisco and China. Ms. Quinn says this is because they don't want to encourage the use of paper bags, which are also not an environmentally-sound choice. For more information on the story, see today's New York Times.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in New York verses China and San Francisco, which have taken very different approaches to the problem. It will also be interesting to see if a large enough market develops for recycled plastic products.

But, with those two steps forward, we did take a step back this week too. One year ago, the US Fish & Wildlife Service proposed listing the polar bear as an endangered species due to predictions from climate scientists that their habitat will go into extensive decline over the next 50 years. Under the Endangered Species Act, the US Fish & Wildlife Service has one year to announce a final decision. Instead, they have delayed the decision one extra month. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, many environmental groups suspect that this is so that the administration can move forward with an oil lease sale on February 6th of land in the Chukchi Sea, which is an important part of their habitat.

This delay comes despite the overwhelming public support for the polar bear's listing. According to the National Resources Defense Council, to date, the government has received more than 500,000 comments in support of protecting the polar bear under the Endangered Species Act, including letters from eminent polar bear experts, climate scientists, and more than 60 members of Congress. This is a record number of public comments in support of an Endangered Species Act listing.

If you want to make your opinion on this matter heard, you can contact the secretary of the interior, who oversees the Fish & Wildlife Service, Dirk Kempthorne. His address is 1849 C St. NW, Washington, DC 20240. His telephone numbers are (202) 208-3100 and (800) 344-9453.

Tuesday, January 8, 2008

Don't Throw Away Old Cell Phones

Where to Recycle Your Cell Phone

The EPA has launched a consumer-information campaign aimed to increase the number of cell phones that get recycled. According to their website: As cell phones, computers, and Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) become more prominent in our everyday lives, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is taking steps to encourage consumers to recycle these products instead of adding them to our nation’s landfills... Cell phones and accessories are made from valuable resources such as precious metals, copper, and plastics - all of which require energy to extract and manufacture. Recycling cell phones reduces greenhouse gas emissions, keeps valuable material out of landfills and incinerators, and conserves natural resources. Recycling just a million cell phones reduces greenhouse gas emissions equal to taking 1,368 cars off the road for a year.

As part of this initiative, EPA’s Plug-In To eCycling program has teamed up with leading cell phone makers, service providers, and retailers to launch a national campaign encouraging Americans to recycle or donate their unwanted cell phones. The “Recycle Your Cell Phone. It’s An Easy Call” campaign aims to increase the public’s awareness of cell phone recycling and donation opportunities...

EPA has targeted cell phone recycling because, despite the large number of programs, most consumers still do not know where or how they can recycle their cell phones. Consequently, less than 20 percent of unwanted cell phones are recycled each year.

There are also places to donate old cell phones. Collective Good and Recycle Wireless Phones accept phones, pagers and PDAs. They sell them, donate the money to the charity of your choice, and you get a tax credit. The Wireless Foundation accepts cell phones and uses the proceeds to fund their own charities, and again, you get a tax break.

Also, the US Copyright Office has ruled that it is perfectly legal to break the lock that your provider has put on your cell phone to prevent you from using it with another provider. I don't have the technical knowledge to tell you how to do this, but I invite anyone who can explain it to do a guest post on this blog. Or just leave an informative comment.

Monday, January 7, 2008

If You Want to Read More About Endocrine-Disrupters

The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel is featuring an ongoing investigative series on endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Here is an exerpt from Part 1, which relates a timetable for the EPA's inaction on the issue.

Congress unanimously passed two laws ordering the EPA to begin screening and testing chemicals and pesticides for endocrine disrupting effects by 1999...In the beginning, there was a groundswell of enthusiasm. Then-EPA administrator Carol Browner said in 1998 that her agency would begin fast-tracking efforts to screen these compounds by the end of that year...Officials identified the program as a top priority. Browner appointed the first panel of scientists to build a framework for how to screen the chemicals. She left the agency after the presidential election in 2000.

More than $80 million later, the government program has yet to screen its first chemical...Frustrated at the lack of action, a consortium of environmental, patient advocacy and labor groups filed a federal lawsuit, prompting the EPA to promise that screening would begin by the end of 2003...Annual federal funding for the endocrine disruptor screening program peaked at $12.6 million in 2000 and has dropped by about one-third...By April 2006, 10 years after the congressional order to begin the screening, progress stalled altogether.

Gerald LeBlanc, chairman of the committee charged with developing the screens, got a call from an EPA administrator, assuming that the two would be setting the committee's next meeting. Instead, LeBlanc was told the committee was being terminated. "They were not going to allow me to take this job to completion," said LeBlanc, toxicology professor at North Carolina State University.

Edward Orlando, a biology professor at Florida Atlantic University and a member of the last committee, said its abrupt dissolution came as a disappointment - not to mention a waste of public money.

Part 2, discusses the dangers of Bisphenol A. Here is an exerpt: Bisphenol A was developed in 1891 as a synthetic estrogen. It came into widespread use in the 1950s when scientists realized it could be used to make polycarbonate plastic and some epoxy resins to line food and beverage cans.

With the advent of plastic products such as dental sealants and baby bottles, the use of bisphenol A has skyrocketed. The chemical is used to make reusable water bottles, CDs, DVDs and eyeglasses. More than 6 billion pounds are produced each year in the United States.

In recent decades, increases in the number of boys born with genital deformities, girls experiencing early puberty and adults with low sperm counts, uterine cysts and infertility prompted some researchers to wonder whether the prevalence of bisphenol A could be interfering with human development and reproduction.

I recommend reading the full text of these stories. They are very well-researched and well-written. I look forward to Part 3!

Friday, January 4, 2008

Plastic Baby Bottles Without Bisphenol A

If you are worried about exposing your newborn to Bisphenol A in baby bottles (explained in a November 8th post and in this December 2nd newspaper article), but you don't like the idea of using glass either, there are some plastic alternatives. One is called BornFree. According to their website, BornFree™ is made of a new, safe, honey-colored plastic called PES (Polymer) that is free of Bisphenol-A. BornFree™'s special plastic is also more resistant to detergents. They also make plastic cups for toddlers.

Another is called Green to Grow. It is also made from the PES polymer. According to, Green to Grow also spot test their line to ensure their remain free of phthalates (as found in PVC) and lead, providing further transparency by publishing those test results as PDFs on their site. Nipples for their bottles are of a medical grade silicone that like the PES in the bottle is also considered heat-resistant and non-toxic...Their corporate responsibility extends to packaging using 100% recycled paper and soy inks and donating 1% of our annual sales to environmental causes, via their membership of 1% for the Planet. Plus Green to Grow have set up a program called Bottles to Babies to encourage families to donate pre-loved baby bottles to not-for-profits and they will donate new nipples for these re-used bottles.

Some (but not all) of the products made by Playtex are Bisphenol free. One BPA-free baby bottle is the Playtex nurser for breast milk.

Happy Feeding!

Thursday, January 3, 2008

The Fight for Emissions Standards in California Continues

As expected, California sued the Bush Administration on Wednesday in an attempt to overturn the EPA's decision not to grant it a waiver allowing the state to impose stricter emission standards for Automobiles. (See Updates, Dec. 29th)

From today's LA Times: The lawsuit, filed in the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, marks a new round in an epic five-year struggle between California and the federal government over whether states have the power to regulate carbon dioxide and other pollutants that cause global warming.

The controversy also spilled into Congress, as Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) prepared to hold hearings on whether the White House and automakers influenced the Environmental Protection Agency's decision, which was required to be based on scientific and legal grounds.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that oversees the agency's funding, on Monday called on the EPA's inspector general to "immediately open an investigation. . . . The thought has occurred that this was a political decision rather than an environmental decision and that cannot be countenanced."

15 other states joined California in the lawsuit: Massachusetts, Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont and Washington. 12 of those states plan to adopt the same standards when and if California is allowed to.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

New Jersey Considering Ban on Plastic Bags

Keeping with the theme of local governments enacting environmental legislation, two New Jersey state Assemblymen (Herb Conaway, D-Burlington and Jack Conners, D-Camden) have co-sponsored a bill that would phase out the use of plastic bags in stores larger than 10,000 square feet over three years.

According to, plastic bags, which were introduced in 1977, account for 90 percent of the bags used in stores. An estimated 100 billion of them are used in the United States each year -- about 332 per person. Only about 4 percent are recycled, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The bags are considered an environmental menace because they aren't biodegradable. Although many are reused to line trash cans, collect animal droppings or in other ways, they also end up in landfills, flapping in trees and in the ocean, where hundreds of thousands of whales, turtles and fish die each year after eating plastic.

Cities and countries around the world are grappling with what to do about plastic shopping bags... San Francisco became the first U.S. city to ban plastic bags. Similar bans have been considered in Annapolis, Md., Baltimore and Philadelphia. In Maine, a legislator wants to charge a 20-cent fee on plastic bags. A measure that passed last week in Suffolk County, N.Y., promotes reusable totes.

Rwanda, Zanzibar and Paris have banned plastic shopping bags. Bangladesh outlawed the bags -- anyone caught with one faces a $2,000 fine -- after they got stuck in storm drains and caused havoc during monsoons. Ireland imposed a 15-cent tax on bags five years ago, reducing their use by 90 percent. Measures in Australia, meanwhile, have resulted in a 34 percent drop in plastic bag use in the past three years -- a savings of 2 billion bags.

"...hundreds of thousands of whales, turtles and fish die each year after eating plastic..." I checked this statistic and found another site that estimated the total at tens of thousands, including birds. I'm sure no one knows the exact figure.

Regardless, this is a huge problem that we can all do something about. Get some reusable bags and use them as often as you can. It's easy! And it gets easier the more you do it. When I first started trying to reuse bags, I met with a lot of resistance from sales clerks. That has changed a lot in the last year and they are very understanding nowadays. Reisenthal makes a bag that can be stowed in a little pouch for easy transport when you aren't using it. They make great gifts! Even if you don't remember to bring a bag with you every time you go to the store, it would make a huge difference if we all cut back on plastic bag use even a little.

For those extra bags you do end up with, find out if you can recycle them in your area. If you live in Brooklyn, plastic bags are collected for recycling at the Park Slope Food Co-op (see schedule) several times a month, in addition to other plastics.

Ironically, when I purchased my Reisenthal bag, the sales clerk tried to put it in a plastic bag. I stopped him in time, but I don't think he understood why I was so amused.