Monthly Archives: July 2009

Plastics Debate Continues with Artist Chris Jordan Weighing In

Yesterday, I mentioned a conversation I had with plastics proponent Greg from Plastics.com and posed several questions for Fake Plastic Fish readers to answer.

Greg has responded to my post with an article on his own blog: “Plastic: What is it good for? Absolutely lots!” Greg invites your comments on his blog — comments which members of the plastics industry will read!

Visual artist Chris Jordan, whom you might recognize for his brilliant social & environmental series called “Running The Numbers,” attempted to respond on Greg’s blog, but his comment was too long. So here it is. Feel free to respond, forward, and discuss with friends. Chris raises important issues about all corporations and whether or not they actually respond to consumer demand or are actually in the business of manufacturing the demand they want.

Hello Greg, greetings from Seattle. I’m an artist and cultural activist who appreciates your posting here.

I think of myself as an anti-plastics activist (among other things) and I have personally met hundreds of anti-plastics activists all over the world. But I have never met anyone who is rabidly anti-all-plastics as you characterize most activists to be.

The few activists who are totally anti-plastics would have to live in denial of the fact that we all benefit enormously from living with plastics. For example, I write this message typing on a well-designed and durable plastic keyboard; I’m looking at a computer monitor that is loaded with plastic components (including the screen I’m reading); I’m sitting in a comfy Aeron chair that’s about 90% plastic.

Most Americans live with plastics like this, and we all recognize the many benefits of plastic. The whole set of arguments that the plastic companies like to make about how great plastic is, misses our point entirely, because the vast majority of plastic activism has very little to do with plastic computer keyboards or Aeron chairs.

The kinds of plastic we rage against are the same kinds that you disparage in your posting above: wasteful disposable plastics that have no real value in our culture, and that are causing harm to the environment and people in numerous ways that we are still discovering. To be specific: plastic soda bottles, plastic water bottles, plastic bags, disposable plastic toys, plastic packaging of all kinds, plastic cups, plastic juice bottles, plastic eating utensils, plastic take-out containers, and all the other cheap plastic junk that didn’t exist just a few years ago and that could be eliminated without any significant sacrifice to humanity.

That is the kind of plastic consumption that the vast majority of activists are trying to put a stop to. I think it’s great that you don’t like that kind of plastic either– and you even believe that using wasteful plastic packaging should be a crime. That’s the kind of thing we activists like to say!

One reason there is so much emotion involved in the activism community is that the few chemical company executives who are personally making billions from manufacturing and selling this kind of stuff do not hold the beliefs that you set out above. I wish you were speaking for the plastic industry in your posting, but you are not. Not by a long shot. As far as I can tell, the small community of billionaires who run the big chemical companies are lost in a fog of ego-driven personal greed. Their actions suggest that they care more about the game of power and big business than they care about the well-being of our world. Their skewed priorities drive them to make decisions that more awake people around the globe consider to be atrocious.

For example, they invest millions in marketing campaigns designed to make problems like the Pacific Garbage Patch look innocuous, so they can continue profiting a little longer from the harmful junk they produce. This was the same attitude the oil company executives displayed when they invested millions hiring quack scientists to make global warming look innocuous so that oil consumption would not decline. The only kind of person who would do this is someone who is driven by fear and greed; someone who lacks emotional depth and complexity, compassion for others, and any meaningful spiritual connection with the earth. I know this because I was like that for many years myself, as a corporate attorney who represented insurance companies and big oil interests.

With the help of a good therapist, I made the journey over from the dark side. But not everyone does. Plenty of people unknowingly stay stuck and lost in the machinations of fear, ego, power and greed for their whole lives, and unfortunately many of them are politicians or executives at giant corporations. These people hold tremendous power over enormous resources, and collectively they are fostering the continued ruination of the world that we activists hold sacred. This is an incredibly frightening and destructive situation that brings out a deep rage in those of us who care about our world and can see what is happening to it.

These guys hold onto shallow justifications for their actions, refusing to take responsibility (and the opportunity) for making our world a better place from an authentically altruistic position. One example is a common position they take: “we just produce what the public demands, and someday when the public demands environmentally responsible products, we will produce them.” It’s a lame argument that is transparently motivated by the desire to delay changing. Apple Computer didn’t wait for the public to “demand” an iPhone; Toyota didn’t wait for the public to “demand” the Prius; the Lego company didn’t wait for children to “demand” the best toy ever invented. Those companies put millions of dollars behind their most creative engineering resources to proactively develop something new and exciting that the public couldn’t even imagine. That’s how innovation has always happened. The plastics companies should not delay until they think the public “demands” environmentally responsible plastics; the companies should be investing billions in inventing them because it is simply the right thing to do.

And by the way, the public is already demanding environmentally responsible actions with respect to plastic. On the global stage, the United Nations chief environmental officer has called for the ban of thin film plastic bags globally. What more public demand could be made than that? And on a more local level, here in Seattle our City Council recently passed a new law attempting to reduce the use of disposable plastic bags. The chemical companies’ response was to invest $200,000 in a campaign to get the law changed back, so they can keep selling and profiting from plastic bag production in our area. That’s what happens when the public demands something from the big companies that doesn’t involve increased profits: stonewalling, pushback, lawsuits, and sleazy marketing campaigns.

If the guys who run the big chemical companies could honestly come around to the views that you set out in your posting, and put their millions into authentic and responsible engineering and marketing programs to help the public end its addiction to disposable and single-use plastics, then most of us plastic activists would celebrate with joy. The executives themselves would experience a revelation too: coming out of the bubble of fear that drives their lust for power and money is liberating, exciting, connective, fulfilling, and nourishing for the soul. I know personally that it can leads to happiness and fulfillment, two things that are sadly lacking in the hearts of too many powerful corporate leaders (and their lawyers). These companies could lawfully and successfully turn their resources toward ethically responsible tasks such as eliminating single-use plastics worldwide, and the people who did it would reap the personal rewards far greater value than they ever imagined.

But I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Do you?

With best regards from Seattle,

~chris jordan

www.chrisjordan.com

Plastic: What is it good for?

This morning, I had a telephone conversation with a plastics industry insider who runs a web site dedicated to supporting plastics professionals. Greg from Plastics.com is a nice guy. Very sincere. And surprisingly, we found many more areas of agreement than probably either of us expected.

I won’t go into the details of the conversation in this post, except to tell you that I expressed to him my major concerns with plastic: non-biodegradable waste from disposable plastic containers and packaging; chemicals that can leach from plastics and the fact that those chemicals are not disclosed to consumers; harm to wildlife, etc. Greg shared with me his views and expressed that he has some of the same environmental concerns that I do.

Now we’d like your input.

What do you see as the major problems with plastic?

What uses for plastic (if any) are necessary and beneficial to society?

Would you like to see a world without any plastic at all? What would that look like?

Do you trust the plastics industry to tell you the truth about their products? Why or why not?

Do you trust the American Chemistry Council to tell you the truth?

What questions would you ask a plastics professional if you could?

What role do you think the plastics industry should play in solving the environmental problems associated with plastic?

What else would you like to share?

As you know if you’ve read this blog a long time, I’m not out to demonize anyone or any product. But I’ve seen the harm caused by the overconsumption and misuse of plastic, and while my personal environmental efforts have broadened to include other issues, reduction of harm from plastic pollution (out in the world and inside our bodies) continues to be my main passion and purpose.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. I’m hoping we can begin a real, honest dialogue with the manufacturers and purveyors of plastic.
 

Plastic Sea Monster crashes Marin’s Green County Fair

I’ve bragged about how green we are here in the Bay Area before, right? Well, leave it to Marin County to host what it called “The Greenest County Fair On Earth” this past weekend. Powered by solar and biodiesel, providing compostable containers and flatware as well as recycling and compost stations to collect them, offering many opportunities for environmental education throughout the fair, and actually becoming a Bay Area Certified Green Business last year, the Marin County Fair is the last place you’d expect to see a lot of plastic, right?

Well, as great as it was, nothing is perfect, and there’s always room for improvement. Plenty of fairgoers were drinking from disposable plastic bottles which had been provided by a few of the vendors. Enter the Plastic Sea Monster! I was actually invited to come and hang out with fairgoers, educate them about plastic, hand out some small flyers, play with the kids and accost the adults. And that’s what I did. For two days. In baking heat. Inside slowly photodegrading plastic. Man, was I happy to get that costume off of me on Saturday night and enjoy the fair like a real person.

Here are a few photos of the event. I was sorry to miss Deborah Hladecek from the Puremothers blog who showed up Saturday evening. We should have exchanged cell phone numbers since we were both there at the same time. She has more photos of the Marin County Fair on her blog. Don’t miss the cutest little piglets you’ve ever seen.

Eco stations:


Solar-powered carousel:


Solar-powered stage:


Corie from Clean Conscience Goods, a company that offers tote bags and other products made in the United States from recycled water bottles. These are not the cheap recycled bags you find in the grocery store but are actual sturdy cloth that looks and feels like canvas.


Alan Godley from Blue Dolphin Alliance who is trying to help people see the connection between about how our actions here on land affect the health of our oceans.


Richard Renner and his Recycle Cycle.


Also in attendance, Betty Biodiesel, riding around on her little biodiesel-powered scooter and doing interviews with other eco folks, like me! Stay tuned for the web interview to be posted soon.

All in all, two productive, fun, and exhausting days. And as Stuart from Green Sangha advised, I probably need to detox after sweating in all that plastic. It’s all for the cause.
 

Time is Running Out for 2 Causes I Care About!

This month I’ve asked you guys to participate in two quick and painless campaigns to help out some worthwhile projects and organizations. This is the final stretch. The Netflix Find Your Voice Contest ends Sunday at 3AM ET (Voting extended due to Netflix error! Future Weather has dropped to second place! Please continue to vote and spread the word!) and our $1 for Charity drive ends this coming Wednesday. Please take a minute to help out if you haven’t already.

Help Jenny Deller’s environmental feature film Future Weather win the Netflix competition and receive the help she needs to get the film made.

Jenny is not only making an environmental film, but she’s trying to run her production as greenly as possible. Read my interview with Jenny Deller here. Read more about the Netflix competition here. And please vote 5 stars for Future Weather here.

Even if you’ve already voted via the Netflix web site, you can vote a second time through the Facebook app. Both votes will be counted. Please also vote here: http://apps.facebook.com/netflix-vote/

Time Is Running Out to Spend a Buck for Charity

7/08/09 UPDATE: The poll and donation drive is over. The winning organizations are Water for People and Sustainable Harvest. A total of $643 was raised. Thanks for voting and contributing!

Thanks to everyone who has reached into their pocket and kicked-in $1. Hundreds of you have responded (many with more than a dollar) as eleven environmental websites team up to make the world a better place. Together, we’re supporting some great organizations. And you get to help choose the two from this list which will receive 100 percent of the collected donations:

Please take a moment to look these organizations over. Pick your favorite, then go to my $1 for Charity Page and vote with your dollar. You can also donate directly through PayPal to this address: 1dollarcharity@gmail.com.

Summer is a lean time for charities

The summer months are always tough for charitable organizations: People are busy, discretionary funds get diverted to well-deserved vacations, and economic times are hard. To be honest, donations have slowed since our initial call, and we’re playing catch-up to meet our goals.

We’d love to present the winning charities with meaningful checks. So would you please consider donating right now? Deadline is Wednesday, July 8th. Each of these charities matter, and every dollar counts.

Share both messages with others!

You can multiply your Netflix vote and your $1 donation by passing the messages along to others. Twitter about them; email the article to friends; post it on StumbleUpon or your favorite social media service. There’s still time to help!

Thank you, thank you. I promise that once Pledge Week is over, we’ll go back to our regularly scheduled uninterrupted programming. :-)
 

No Technology is Truly Green: A guest post from Alyssa J. Pasquale

Before you invest in that new “green” computer or purchase those fun solar deck lights, read this insider’s perspective from Fake Plastic Fish reader Alyssa J. Pasquale and consider whether buying new technology is ever truly green. If you have an idea for a guest post, please contact me and let me know. I’d love to feature more of your ideas here!

I would first like to thank Beth for allowing me to write this guest post. My name is Alyssa and I am a PhD candidate at a very large university in Boston. I work in electrical engineering and have a focus on photonic devices. These are generally nanometer-scale devices that use light to do something cool. Some people in my department work on biological sensors, some on solar cells, some on lasers, and some on LEDs.

I’ve been doing research for a long time (I started as an undergrad) and one thing that’s prevalent in my work is lots and lots of waste. As I told Beth, I find it awfully ironic that the technology that is being hailed by many as able to save the world is such a large producer of toxic waste. And people who don’t work in R&D or in high tech industry might not be aware of what goes into your LED flashlight or the laser that does your eye surgery.

Being a PhD candidate can be disillusioning in many ways. Not only are you constantly surrounded by many of extremely intelligent people who know more than you, but you learn about all of the limitations of everything. LEDs will always consume power. Solar cells will never be 100% efficient. Lasers will never be perfectly coherent. In other words, nothing comes for free.

My work brings me into a class 1000 clean room quite often. (A class 1000 clean room means that there are 1000 particles of dust allowed in any cubic foot of airspace. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s clean!) This is probably the area of my research that creates the most waste, and much of it is plastic. What follows is a list of the plastic things that I interact with in the clean room, as well as whether or not it’s reusable, disposable, or can be reused.


(Shown in photo: two bouffant caps, four nitrile gloves, a few strips of Parafilm, one small wiper, one petri dish with lid, one gel pack sample holder.)

REUSABLE (Routinely reused.)

o Gowns, booties & hoods – It is mandatory to wear a gown when you enter a clean room. It is not to protect you from chemicals; it is to protect the clean room from all of your skin cells! The ones in my lab are made of 99% polyester and 1% carbon. (I don’t know why they have carbon in them.) These are washed once a week and are returned individually shrink-wrapped in plastic disposable baggies (to keep dust out during transit, presumably).

o Goggles – These are likely made from polycarbonate.

o Face shield
– Probably made from polycarbonate, these are important to wear when working with dangerous chemicals. The last thing you want to get is acid splashing on your face. They’re also a joy to wear when you have on glasses and goggles and your glasses start sliding down and you can’t touch your face. (Not.)

o PTFE tweezers
– When working with acids and bases, you need an inert material to use as a tweezer because metal will corrode. PTFE is polytetrafluroethylene, better known as Teflon.

o Beakers – As I said before, some chemicals etch glass, so if you have to pour them out it has to be into a plastic jar.

MIGHT BE REUSED

o Sample holders
– These can be simple like plastic petri dishes or more complicated gel packs that have a layer of sticky gel to keep samples from sliding around.

o Protective equipment covers
– These are like the film that comes over your cell phone screens. I’m not sure what exactly it’s made of but I’d be shocked if it’s not plastic. These are to protect equipment from any chemicals that may be on our nitrile gloves.

o Heavy duty chemical gloves
– These are for when you work with heavy duty chemicals. The plastic it’s made of depends on which you buy. Some can be PVC, Neoprene or heavy duty latex. Nitrile gloves are thin and easily eaten by acids. Heavy duty gloves can generally be reused until they start to break down after too much chemical exposure.

o Chemical jugs – Most chemicals we buy are in plastic jugs, some in glass. Some chemicals (such as HF) absolutely have to be in plastic because they etch glass. There are only two chemicals (out of many) that I use in glass jars, most come in plastic. We reuse them as waste jars but I honestly have no idea what happens to them after that.

DISPOSABLE

o Pipettes & wrappers

o Clean room wipers – These are pieces of “paper” that we use to wipe up chemicals, or write notes about things as we’re working. I was astonished to find out that they are not really paper, but a mix of 55% cellulose and 45% polyester. They are not supposed to release any fibers (dust) into the air, and cannot be easily ripped (if you do manage to rip one, no fibers are released, unlike what happens when you rip paper).

o Bouffant caps
– Made from 100% polypropylene, these protect the clean room from hair. (They are like hair nets that food service workers use.)

o Nitrile gloves – The clean room uses nitrile gloves. Other facilities use latex gloves but I’m not sure if they are natural or synthetic. Nitrile gloves are a synthetic rubber copolymer.

o Parafilm
– This is a thermoplastic used to seal jars and bottles.

o Tape – We use a lot of plastic tape in the lab. Vacuum tape and double sided tape are very popular.

That list just encompasses the plastic that is generated due to clean room work. It doesn’t consider any of the other waste, such as the HUGE amounts of chemical waste. (In one day I can easily use acetone, methanol, isopropanol, polymer resins, methyl isobutyl ketone, tetramethyl ammonium hydroxide, hydrochloric acid, hydrogen peroxide, potassium iodide, hydrofluoric acid, and a lot of de-ionized water. Not to mention the gases – sulfur hexafluoride, methane, nitrogen, oxygen, argon, tri-fluoromethane, etc. etc.)

There is also a lot of plastic that comes with the life of a grad student. We’re constantly buying supplies, and most of the time they come in plastic. Chemicals especially need a lot of isolation in shipping and will generally have many layers of foam, plastic, vermiculite, and lots of warning labels to keep upright. Computers come with plastic towers (and we use a lot of computers).

Seminars and other such meetings are held an awful lot in my building, and there is also plastic waste related with this. The department provides bottled water and sodas at some events (fortunately, some events have reusable beverage urns). For some strange reason the lemons for the tea are always wrapped in plastic wrap. The food is put on plastic trays (which I assume are reused). Crackers are sometimes served and they come in plastic sleeves.

Not to mention the lifestyle of being a grad student. While I personally use my flexible hours to ensure that I have enough time to home cook all of my meals (and I always bring in lunch in a glass container with a plastic – oops – lid), many grad students opt for take-out. There’s a Subway that’s not far from my building, and many students come in between noon and one with a plastic bag holding a giant sandwich. Lots of students consume lots of bottled water. I know of a few students with Nalgene bottles or reusable coffee mugs. I have a SIGG bottle. One of my office-mates actually keeps a Brita filter on his desk. But most opt for bottled water even though we have perfectly good water fountains on every floor.

So next time you buy or read about a newly engineered “green” product – such as an LED lighting device – think about what went into it. While better than older alternatives, I wouldn’t call most technology “green” at all. Although it may sound hypocritical coming from an engineer, there’s a lot to be said for old-fashioned technology.