Monthly Archives: July 2012

What’s Plastic Got to Do with Clean Air?

If I asked you to list the problems with plastic, you might mention toxic chemicals like BPA or phthalates; or the fact that it doesn’t biodegrade; or that animals ingest it; or that there is a toxic soup of plastic swirling around in the world’s oceans.  Those are the issues I’ve focused on for the past 5 years, so last year, when Moms Clean Air Force asked me to write a blog post for them, I balked.  “Clean air is a vitally important environmental issue,” I said, “but my blog focuses on plastic, not air.  Plus, I’m behind on writing my new book Plastic-Free and have no time to delve into other subjects.”

Silly me.  As I researched the book, I learned about many ways that the life cycle of plastic contributes to air pollution, both indoor and out, and that reducing our plastic consumption will help to protect the air we breathe.  So here are a few reasons why those of us concerned about reducing plastic consumption should get involved in supporting organizations working to protect and uphold the Clean Air Act:

Most plastic is made from fossil fuels like oil and natural gas, which release toxic emissions when extracted from the earth.  According to Earthworks, an organization dedicated to protecting communities and the environment from the impacts of irresponsible mineral and energy development, oil and gas drilling releases a slew of toxic air contaminants, including benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide, ozone, sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds.  Not to mention the methane gas that can leak and cause greater greenhouse effects than carbon dioxide.  And just this month, the Intelligencer/Wheeling News Register reported that sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde are some of the chemicals Chesapeake Energy is likely to pump into the air in Ohio County from its numerous natural gas drilling sites.

Many people believe that plastic bags are made from petroleum, but in the United States, the majority of them are made from natural gas, which the plastics industry touts as green and clean.   Not so clean when you consider the emissions from extraction.

Petrochemical plants pollute communities and harm workers.  In addition to the emissions from the extraction process, refining fossil fuels and processing them into plastics can create even more toxic emissions.  For example, during production, PVC plants can release dioxins, known carcinogens that bioaccumulate in humans and wildlife and are associated with reproductive and immune system disorders.  And even production of supposedly “safe” plastics like PET, the kind used to create clear plastic water bottles, requires the use of chemicals like paraxylene, a derivative of the highly carcinogenic chemical benzene, which is derived from crude oil through a refining process at oil and petrochemical refineries. Residents of Gulf communities where these chemicals are produced are regularly exposed to disproportionate levels of benzene and other carcinogenic chemicals above safe standards.

Plastics contain additives that can offgas and contaminate the air in our homes and other personal spaces.  Phthalates are chemicals added to some plastics to make them soft and flexible.  They are also endocrine distruptors associated with a whole host of health problems, including lower testosterone levels, decreased sperm counts and poor sperm quality in males, as well as obesity, reduced female fertility, preterm birth and low birthweight, a worsening of allergy and asthma symptoms, and behavior changes.  Unfortunately, they are not chemically bound to products, which makes them easy to migrate and offgas into the air we breathe. That “new car” or “new shower curtain” smell is phthalates offgasing.

Plastics release hazardous emissions when burned.  We all hope that our homes and buildings will never catch on fire.  But the fact is that fires do occur.  And because of the increase in plastics in our homes these days, the emissions from fires are becoming even more hazardous to those exposed to them.  In fact, early this month, the New York Times reported plastic furniture in homes is causing fires to burn more quickly and are becoming more dangerous to firefighters, who have traditionally broken windows to release heat and gases before entering:

Plastic fillings in sofas and mattresses burn much faster than older fillings like cotton, helping to transform the behavior of house fires in the last few decades, firefighters and engineers say.

With more plastic in homes, residential fires are now likely to use up all the oxygen in a room before they consume all flammable materials. The resulting smoky, oxygen-deprived fires appear to be going out. But they are actually waiting for an inrush of fresh air, which can come as firefighters cut through roofs and break windows.

And fires in plastics manufacturing plants and plastics recycling plants are not uncommon and hazardous for the communities in which they occur.  It seems like every few months I come across another report of a plastic manufacturing or recycling plant going up in flames.  In fact, in 2008, the recycling website Earth911 reported that “Fires broke out at recycling facilities across the country this summer, from New Jersey and Delaware to California and Arizona.”  Plastics are more dangerous than other materials in recycling plant fires because they “burn at a higher temperature and do not extinguish well with water.  Depending on the molecular structure of the plastic, some types can simply flare up when you put water on them.” As I write this post today,  residents of Summerville, GA are currently evacuated from their homes after a huge fire broke out Friday night at a facility that recycles plastic for the carpet industry.  (Yes, many carpets are made from plastic.)

Plastic recycling can be hazardous to communities and workers.  We like to think we are helping the environment when we toss our plastic bottles and containers into the recycle bin.  But did you know that most of our plastic recycling is shipped overseas to China and other Asian countries? And sadly, environmental conditions in these recycling facilities are not always the best.  In 2007, Britain’s Sky News aired an expose on the conditions in Lian Jiao, a Chinese town that had become a toxic waste dump for the West’s plastic recycling.  Workers melted down plastics without wearing any kind of protective gear, and the air was thick with toxic emissions.  Just as manufacturing virgin plastic can create air pollution, so can the processes used to recycle the material.    And air pollution generated in China doesn’t stay in China.  Pollutants can reach reach North America in a matter of days.

We are the solution. We need a two-step approach.   We need to support groups like Moms Clean Air Force, MomsRising, and other groups that are pressuring our elected officials to step up and defend the provisions of the Clean Air Act from energy and chemical industry groups that seek to to weaken its protections.  And we as individuals can take responsibility for our own choices.  We can vote with our dollars and reduce our personal consumption of plastic products and packaging.

This post is part of the MomsRising blog carnival on Clean Air and Environmental Justice.  Reducing our plastic use helps keep the air cleaner for all of us.


3-D Printing: Inspiring Creativity or Just Proliferating More Plastic Crap?

Have you guys been following the hoopla about 3-D printers? Those marvelous machines that can make just about anything you want on demand?  A year ago, reader Eleanor K. Sommer contacted me for my opinion about 3-D printers (something I hadn’t even heard of at that point) and was concerned that these machines could be another way to bring more plastic stuff into the world.  Plastic crap on demand, right?  Well, she’s done a ton more research since then and offers this guest post to share what she’s learned.  I’d love your comments after reading the post.  Some people think that 3-D printing will revolutionize and democratize innovation.   What do you think?

3-D Printing for Home and Office

Eleanor K. Sommer

About a year ago I saw a video of someone “printing” a wrench. David Kaplan, a theoretical physicist at John Hopkins University, interviewed Joe Titlow of  Z Corporation while he made a working three-dimensional copy of the tool in a couple of hours.  The demonstration, done for a National Geographic program, was captivating and awesome. The video went viral on YouTube.  [Note: The original video seems to have been removed from YouTube.  This link is to a copy of the same video on a different channel.]

Watching it, I lapsed into a Star Trek moment. “It’s a replicator,” I said to my husband. The device, a bit larger than a street-corner mail box, is so post-21st century. So far future. So full of possibilities.

Pulling myself back from warp speed, though, I became disturbed. This wunderkind appliance had implications I could not even imagine.  The substance must be powdered plastic, I decided as I watched. I cringed at the thought of household desktop “printers” adding to the mountains of plastic waste in the world. More useless stuff.

I was wrong. At least about Z Corp. Titlow told me the material is a special kind of powder and contains gypsum.  Z Corporation uses “eco-friendly, non-hazardous” building material and produces “zero liquid waste,” he said and the company tries to be eco-friendly in other ways, such as replacing plastic drums with cardboard ones for shipping the powdered materials to clients. [Note: To add strength, there is the option for parts to be "infiltrated with resin" (i.e. plastic).]

The Plastic Universe

Most 3D replicators, however, do use plastics—thus the potential for an explosion in plastic waste.

3D printing is really old tech in many ways. For decades manufacturers have used software programs to manipulate expensive equipment to transform raw materials (or parts) into products through automated molding, carving, cutting, and assembly.  What makes the 3D copying equipment rapidly emerging in the marketplace different is its compact size, speed, self-contained and self-reproducible components, and ease of use.

At this year’s Makers Faire, according to Jaymi Heinbuch, there were at least 55 3D machines and at least 23 of them were unique designs. Heinbuch focused on MakerBot and Cubify.  The most common raw materials for 3D printing are plastic polymer liquids and powders. Cubify uses the coploymer ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene). Makerbot uses ABS and polylactide (PLA), which is a thermoplastic aliphatic polyester made from renewable resources such as corn starch.

[Makerbot's site advertises, "Pack up the Bot, and grab your SD Card and you’re ready to go to your friends birthday and make all the party favors."]

But some of the more sophisticated and industrial machines create products from ceramic powders or specialized metals.  There are even biological 3-D printers that have recently become hot in R&D.  Some human tissues and even a vein have already been “printed.”

Just imagine having your own replicator at home.  Break a plate from your grandmother’s china service? Print a new one. Lost your mom’s favorite pliers? Quick make a new pair before she comes home. Like your friend’s fabulous new sandals? Throw them on the 3D copier and make your own!

Consider RepRap—one of the first incarnations of desktop 3D printing.  Besides being cheap and easy to use, RepRap can reproduce itself—nearly, anyway. You’ll need a handful of metal parts to make it work.  That’s scary. And not because of the prescience of Karel Capek (R.U.R.) or because I think the Borg are on the drawing board.  My fear is the proliferation of plastic trinkets in a world already inundated with plastic waste. Health concerns are implicit in every stage of plastic production: manufacturing, use, and disposal.  Do we really need the convenience of downloading a program (or scanning an object) to print more synthetic stuff?

Z Corporation at least has addressed environmental and health concerns.  But machines for small scale manufacturers and for home use utilize liquid plastic.  I can give RepRap kudos for cutting edge tech and open source programming, but the new polymer geeks of the world need to be on notice to address environmental and health issues. (No one from the loosely formed RepRap network could be reached for comment.)

Like all aspects of paradigm-shifting innovations, 3-D technologies are revolutionary for business and culture. Part of me finds the idea exciting and enticing: tools and household items can be custom-manufactured. Stores could downsize and stock pictures or samples of items and “print” them when needed.  However, the implications for the environment are staggering and frightening.  Instant “stuff” could easily move an already out-of-control consumer society to overwhelm the natural environment with a debilitating plastic plague.

How we refine and use this technology is the key to a safe and prosperous future.  Will we use to help people and the environment or to satisfy consumer whims? Only the future will tell.  In the meantime, I guess I’ll have to wait a bit to order a cup of Earl Grey tea from my kitchen replicator.

So? What do you think? Are 3-D copiers and printers exciting or scary or a mixture of both?



Time Sensitive: The Safe Chemicals Act Will Be Voted on Finally!

07/25/2012 Update: The Safe Chemicals Act PASSED out of the Environment Committee today!  It still has a long way to make it into law, but this is a great first step.  Thanks to all who wrote and tweeted!

After sitting in committee since last year, the Safe Chemicals Act is scheduled to be voted on for the first time this Wednesday!  Two weeks ago, I wrote about how substitutes for BPA might not be safer than BPA and why we need the Safe Chemicals Act to protect us.  Last week I wrote about how endocrine-disrupting chemicals are affecting all of us, no matter how small the dose.  This Act is so important because our outdated toxic chemical legislation does not protect us from the many chemicals that we are exposed to on a daily basis.  Please take a moment today to let your Senator know you are watching.

Here’s what you can do:

Use the form on the Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families website to send a message to your Senator:

Read the new report Chemicals and Our Health: Why Recent Science Calls Us to Action to understand the issues and why this Act is so important.

Post to Facebook.  Here are some sample FB posts:

HUGE news: the Safe Chemicals Act, a bill to protect our families from toxic chemicals will be voted on this week! Will you let your Senators know you’ll be watching? Please take action today and share with your friends

It’s go time. We’ve been waiting for this moment for a long time, the Safe Chemicals Act is being voted on in committee this week! Please take action and ask your friends to show Congress that they must protect our families from toxic chemicals.

Breaking news: The Safe Chemicals Act will be voted on this week in committee, please take action today to show Congress we need to pass this bill! Please share with your friends, now is the time to call! 

Post to Twitter.  

Safer Chemicals Healthy Families will be live tweeting the hearing.  Follow hash tag #SafeChemicalsAct.

Here are some sample tweets:

Big news: the #SafeChemicalsAct is being voted on this week! Let your Senator know, you’ll be watching.

Supporting the #SafeChemicalsAct is mainstream, not extreme. @SenateFloor, I’ll be watching!

Hey Congress, Just say no to #JoeChemical and yes to the #SafeChemicalsAct. I’ll be watching …

Senator specific tweets from your state are encouraged ie

Hey @SenAlexander, #Tennessee families are counting on your vote for the #SafeChemicalsAct! Vote YES today!  OR

Thanks @SenGillibrand for being a sponsor and leader on the #SafeChemicalsAct, please vote for the strongest bill today!

Please do everything you can to speak up!


Why Chemicals in Plastics May Have Worse Effects at Lower Doses

Why is there so much debate about whether plastic chemicals like Bisphenol-A (BPA) or phthalates are harmful to humans in the amounts at which we’re exposed to them?  And why is it so difficult to pass regulations in the United States to protect us from these chemicals?  One reason is that regulators are accustomed to following the age-old adage that “the dose makes the poison.”  But on a conference call this morning with the Collaborative on Health and the Environment (CHE),  I learned how it is that endocrine-disrupting chemicals like those found in plastics and pesticides actually do their most long-term and lasting damage at levels considered to be non-toxic.  But first, here’s a little basic biology:

The Endocrine System

To understand what endocrine-disrupting chemicals do, it’s important to understand what the endocrine system is in the first place.  According to The Endocrine Disruption Exchange:

The endocrine system is the exquisitely balanced system of glands and hormones that regulates such vital functions as body growth, response to stress, sexual development and behavior, production and utilization of insulin, rate of metabolism, intelligence and behavior, and the ability to reproduce.  Hormones are chemicals such as insulin, thyroxin, estrogen, and testosterone that interact with specific target cells. The interactions occur through a number of mechanisms, the easiest of which to conceptualize is the lock and key.

We hear about hormones most often in relation to women’s monthly cycles or adolescent sexual development.  But hormones regulate a whole lot more.  And when the natural action of hormones is disrupted by synthetic chemicals that mimic hormones, a whole host of disorders can result.

Too Many Keys; Not Enough Locks

During the conference call, I asked for a layman’s explanation of how endocrine-disrupting chemicals work and why they are so harmful at lower levels.  Dr. Laura Vandenberg, co-author of a review of the low dose effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals published in March of this year, explained it this way:

The cells in our body contain hormone receptors, molecules that bind to a particular hormone.  You can think of the mechanism as a lock and key system, with the receptors being the locks and the hormones being the keys to specific locks.  Chemicals that mimic hormones in the body will bind to those receptors and create effects in the body similar to hormones.  Those effects can increase the likelihood of diseases like obesity, cardio vascular disease, reproductive disorders, behavioral disorders, autism, diabetes, and various cancers.  But the important thing to note is that the body only has so many hormone receptors.  So once a high enough dose of a chemical is reached, the receptors will be saturated, meaning that no further hormone response will be seen, no matter how much higher the dose of the chemical.  At high doses, it becomes toxic for the receptor to keep responding, so it shuts down.

For hormone receptors located on the outside of cells, there is another mechanism that limits the amount of hormone response.  To do their work, these receptors bind to a hormone and then enter the cell, move down into the cell, and then move back up and out again to bind to more hormone.  This movement takes time, so there are only so many receptors that can be bound, no matter how much more of the chemical is in the system.

Harmful below toxic levels

At high enough levels, hormones are toxic and will cause damage and death to cells.  Traditionally, regulatory toxicologists (the people who study chemicals to make decisions on how they should be regulated) study chemicals at high doses to see what the toxic affects are and decrease the dose until they don’t see anymore toxic affects on the cells.  They then assume that below that threshold, a chemical is safe.  But unfortunately, they don’t test below the toxic threshold to take into consideration the hormonal responses that are taking place.  And it’s those hormonal responses that have long term effects and different effects at different stages of development in a person’s life.

What amount of a particular chemical will cause disruption of the endocrine system is very specific to each chemical.  But the general point is that toxicologists need to change their assumptions because low dose effects of a chemical cannot necessarily be predicted based on high dose effects.  The low dose effects are simply different.  According to the researchers on the conference call, we need a paradigm shift in regulatory toxicology.

Chemical Cocktail

Another listener on the call today asked about the effects of multiple endocrine-disrupting chemicals.  None of us is exposed to one chemical at a time but a whole Long Island Iced Tea of chemicals on a daily basis.  So while each chemical itself might be below the threshold for observed effects, the combination of chemicals can increase their effects.  In a 2002 study published in Environmental Health Perspectives, 11 different estrogen-mimicking chemicals were tested at very low levels.  The dose of each chemical was so low, no estrogenic effects could be observed.  But combined, the additive effect of the 11 chemicals led to “a dramatic enhancement of the hormone’s action.”

What does this mean for us?

The bottom line is that chemicals like BPA, phthalates, parabens, PCB, DDT,and other endocrine-disruptors can be dangerous for us no matter what the dose.  At high levels, they are acutely toxic.  At low levels, they disrupt the endocrine system.  And at very low levels, they can still combine with other chemicals in the environment to disrupt the endocrine system.  As citizens, we need to understand how these chemicals work so that we are not mislead when the chemical industry claims that a particular product is safe because the amount of a particular chemical in it is too low to make a difference.   That kind of reasoning is just too simplistic.

Starbucks Trash: Behind the Scenes

Last week, I received an email from a new Starbucks employee who was shocked by the amount of waste she sees at the store everyday. Many of us do our individual part by bringing our reusable mugs for coffee, but it turns out that, according to this employee (who wants to remain anonymous to keep her job), the waste goes much deeper. I asked if I could share her rant here with you all. I’m not sure how to get Starbucks to clean up its act, but maybe you guys have some suggestions.

Jul 12 (5 days ago)

To: Beth Terry
From: [name withheld]


I recently started working at Starbucks, which sells itself as an eco-friendly, green company to the general public. Since I began work there, I have been disgusted every day with the amount of waste, not only of cups, lids, straws, and hot drink sleeves, but also by the packaging of many things that are used in the store every day.  Many things which we sell come  packaged individually wrapped, in a box of five (like our VIA drinks, which are meant to be used as a shake-in flavor for your basic plastic water bottle). That box of five though, is then packed with maybe…7 other boxes of five in a cardboard box (which wouldn’t be so bad if we even attempted to recycle that). That cardboard box is then packed into another cardboard box which contains maybe 9 more like it. By the time this VIA drink reaches you (only to be poured into a plastic water bottle) it has been individually wrapped and packaged into THREE separate boxes like a set of nesting dolls.

Another thing I want to bring to the attention of the public is the fact that while, yes, our cups are recyclable, the percentage of cups that actually get recycled is disgustingly low. While one may assume that anyone can and will take their cup with them and choose to recycle it at another location, how about the large amount of cups that are thrown out right in our own store? Through any given day we will have thousands upon thousands of cups used and thrown out IN-STORE across the country. Does Starbucks offer any sort of on-site recycling though? Not to my knowledge, not [in my state].

Then you might consider how many cups go to waste in the store before they even meet a customers mouth. Any time a new barista is being trained, they will go through countless cups (and even drinks-how much milk can we pour down the drain before we stop to think about the starving people around the world) to learn the new drinks. Any time a drink is made, you can bet that a new cup is being used to measure out the ingredients (those lines on the sides of the cups aren’t there for looks) and any time a drink is mis-made, the whole thing is  tossed, including the cup. Any time something splashes up on a stack of cups (like mocha syrup or coffee)the entire stack is tossed out, and the same goes for lids.

Another waste of cups, and this one ESPECIALLY gets me, is when a customer believes that they ARE being green, using a reusable cup, and they are still wasting the disposable cup. The fact is, if you order it through the drive through, they are going to make the drink LONG before your precious plastic tumbler gets to the barista, they simply take your cup and throw the drink into it from the plastic cup it was made in, and toss that.  If you come inside with your reusable cup, you might have a better chance of being green, but still probably not. Only if you order a tea or a coffee with this stop your barista from using the disposable cups to measure out the ingredients for your drink. The fact is, even if they wanted to, only half of the starbucks produced reusable cups they market as “green” will even FIT under the espresso spout.

This list only skims the surface of waste that starbucks creates each day.  My goal in writing this to you is to get the picture across to a much larger pool of people how un-green the company is. I hope that if we draw enough attention to it, then maybe we can get the company to install recycling bins at each store to at least REDUCE the amount of waste that created each day. A larger response from the public concerning the huge amount of waste created is definitely something that the Starbucks company will at least want to APPEAR to care about, and I am confident that we would see a change.

Thank you for your time and your commitment to educating people about our earths needs.

[Starbucks employee]

One of my pet peeves with Starbucks is that they don’t even offer durable cups for people who are drinking their coffee in the store. Other cafes do. Peet’s, for example, has reusable mugs for patrons who ask for them. And if the reusable mugs that Starbucks sells won’t even fit under the espresso spout, then Starbucks is obviously not even trying to reduce disposable cup waste.

Here’s what Starbucks says about its waste reduction efforts ( “Customers enjoying their beverage in-store can also request that it be served in a ceramic mug where available.” I haven’t seen ceramic mugs at Starbucks (besides those offered for sale.) Have you?

Here’s a link to write the company if you feel inspired:

What do you think is the best way to get their attention?  (Boycotting won’t help if you are not a Starbucks customer in the first place.)

Sea Cave/Goat Grave: Art from Plastic Pollution

Pam Longobardi calls her art “Interventions.”  She spends many hours gathering up plastic trash from the world’s beaches and bringing it into galleries where it can be positioned, examined, seen.  Her current expedition, Drifters Project Kefalonia:  The Giant Sea Cave Excavation, was inspired by a heartbreakingly poignant discovery she made last summer in Kefalonia, Greece.   The story and photos made me cry today, so I wanted to share them with you.  Here it is, in Pam’s own words.

In July 2011, working on my Drifters Project phase I: One World Ocean, I went to a remote beach by boat with a local fisherman.  He described this beach as having some of the most debris on the island.  It was spectacularly beautiful, but even from the crystalline water 100 yards offshore, I could see the telltale signs of plastic impact.

The amazing feature of this beach were the sea caves visible in the right hand side of the image.  I swam in to shore and began to collect the plastic garbage, filling several large bags in just a short time.  I then crossed the sharp rocky divide that separated the beach from the caves and was stunned when I looked inside:  the caves were stuffed with innumerable pieces of plastic, nets, styrofoam and yes, right on top, the NUMBER ONE symbolic plastic disgust object:  a toilet seat.  If there was ever a clearer image of the plastic crap we have inflicted on our world, I don’t know what that would be.

I crawled into the very small and claustrophobic space and began throwing all the junk to the mouth of the cave so I could gather it up and remove it.  By the time I reached the back of the tiny narrow cave, I was laying on my stomach, in a space only 20 inches in height,  30 feet in, and completely surrounded by the plastic that stormy seas had shoved in there for decades and decades.

The contents of the cave were a stratigraphy of consumer culture:  water bottles, containers, net floats, hundreds of styrofoam chunks and many shoes, an veritable chronology of footwear from the 70s vinyl mega platforms to today’s plastic flip-flop-crocs in every color.  And then, I made a discovery that brought tears to my eyes: at the very back of the cave, was a goat skull and the bell collar shepherds place around their necks so they can gather them and herd them and keep them safe.

I love the goats and sheep in Greece and the gentle shepherds that spend their days alongside them.  The collar is much like a collar we put on a dog or a cat, in other words, for a pet.  The goats and sheep that give us the amazing feta cheese and yogurts of Greece, and the people that care for these animals are an example of the positive symbiotic relationship that humans can have with animals… Animals who spend their days wandering freely, nibbling scrubby brush and olive trees, protected from harm of speeding cars on the windy roads by their shepherds.

Realizing that I was in the grave of a particular goat that had once been someone’s cared-for animal, and that was now in a grave of plastic, gave me an eerie sense of dread and deep sadness.  WIth this inspiration, I created the Sea Cave/Goat Grave in the gallery last year, an exhibition of large scale sculptures and installations, to shine a light on this state we are in.  And I vowed to return this year and excavate the more massive cave I found at Liakas, to tell the stories of our civilization’s recent past that we might reconfigure the future, and The Giant Sea Cave Excavation 2012 was born.

Stay tuned for Part 2, which I’ll post here after a team of swimmers have excavated the giant sea cave. You can keep up with Pam and her progress and view photos of the project on her blog, Driftwebs.

Are BPA-Free Plastic Products, Food Cans, & Register Receipts Safer than Those with BPA in Them?

With all of the concern about Bisphenol-A (BPA), an estrogen-mimicking chemical used in some plastics, most metal food can linings, and most thermal paper receipts, manufacturers are looking for alternative materials to use so they can tout their products as BPA-free. But are the substitutes actually safer than BPA itself? The truth is, we don’t know.  As I’ve written before, studies have been done suggesting that some BPA-free products produce the same or greater hormone-disrupting effects as BPA. There are two problems here: 1) The alternatives haven’t been sufficiently tested for safety before being swapped into products, and 2) Some manufacturers won’t even disclose what alternatives they are using.

Study Finds Increased Exposure to BPS as BPA is phased out

One chemical being used to replace BPA in thermal paper receipts is Bisphenol S (BPS).  In May 2012, the journal Environmental Science and Technology published a study (Chunyang Liao, Fang Liu, and Kurunthachalam Kannan) testing 16 different kinds of paper products and found that levels of BPS, and our exposure to BPS, is approaching the same levels as its predecessor, BPA.  The scientists did not conduct the study to determine whether BPS is safe or not but simply to see how much of it we can expect to be exposed to via paper products.  Basically, the conclusion was that because we are now being exposed to such high levels of BPS, this chemical should be tested for safety.

Hold on! This is Totally Backwards!

As I was reading the study and attempting to comprehend it, I suddenly thought, This is stupid!  Why do studies have to be funded to test products to find out what chemicals are being used in them?  It’s not like it’s a big secret.  Oh wait, yes it is.  The companies that produce these products don’t like to reveal their trade secrets, and they are not required to disclose the chemicals they use.  So we can’t just, you know, call them up and ask.  Or can we?

Hey Campbell’s! What’s in Your New Can Lining?

The Campbell’s Soup company has announced it is phasing out BPA in its metal can linings.  The problem is that it refuses to disclose what it will be using instead.  And some of the possible alternatives have me worried.  PVC, for example, is a possibility.   But how can we know whether the replacement will be safe if we don’t even know what the replacement is?  Healthy Child Healthy World is running a Facebook and Twitter campaign to urge Campbell’s to tell us what it will use instead.  Please leave a message on Campbells’s wall.  Learn more at Breast Cancer Fund’s Cans Not Cancer Campaign website.

Whack-a-Mole Doesn’t Work for Knocking Out Toxic Chemicals

The tactic of going after known toxic chemicals one by one is an exercise in frustration when thousands of new chemicals are being developed each year and are not proven to be safe BEFORE being placed on the market.  Why are we being used as unwitting guinea pigs?  I’ve written on this topic on this blog and in my book.  In the United States, we do not follow the Precautionary Principle, which would require products to be proven safe before being allowed in the market.   We need updated toxic chemical legislation.  We as individuals can only protect ourselves so much through our choices, given the limited amount of knowledge we have.

Senator Lautenberg’s Safe Chemicals Act (S.847) is a federal bill that has been sitting in the Committee on Environment and Public Works since November of last year!  It must be heard and passed before the end of the year or it will die, and activists will have to start the process all over again.  Please join Safer Chemicals Healthy Families in asking your senator to support this bill.  You can use the online form to send an email, or if you have a bit more time (and this really makes a much bigger difference, according to Lindsay Dahl of Safer Chemicals) call the Capitol Switchboard at (202)224-3121 to leave a voice message for your senator asking him or her to support S.847.


Midway Journey: A Personal Plea for Your Help

Five years ago, a photo changed my life.  I was just a regular American, choosing double plastic bags at the grocery store, drinking bottled water, living on microwaveable meals and energy bars wrapped in plastic, and buying whatever I wanted whenever I wanted without ever considering how things were made or where they were going to end up.  I gave money to Greenpeace, watched environmental documentaries, and had even worked briefly for Clean Water Action right after college, but my environmental actions did not extend to my personal choices.

Images that change lives

And then one night, In June 2007, sitting alone at the computer, I stumbled across an article about the ocean plastic pollution problem and saw the photo that shocked me like no other had.  It was a poor quality image of a dead albatross chick on Midway Island–halfway between the United States and Japan and thousands of miles from any civilization–that was full of everyday plastic pieces, like the plastic bottle caps I threw away on a regular basis.  The plastic didn’t come from Midway.  It came from unconscious consumers like me.  I learned that the mother birds fly out across the ocean to pick up food for their chicks, except they are picking up pieces of plastic instead. And the baby birds starve with bellies full of the stuff.

A maternal instinct kicked in that I hadn’t even known existed.  After sobbing in my chair for several minutes, I decided that I couldn’t continue living the way I had been.  That very night I committed to stop buying new plastic, and this blog and all that followed were born.

Waking Up the World

Two years after I saw that photo, photographer Chris Jordan, poet Victoria Sloan Jordan, filmmaker Jan Vozenilek, and Plastic Pollution Coalition co-founder Manuel Maqueda, made a trip to Midway to photograph those birds properly.  Chris’s photographs shocked the world in the same way that the original photo had shocked me.  They were beautiful and terrible and relentless in their depictions of plastic-filled bird after plastic-filled bird.  

Midway Journey, the film

Ever since that first trip three years ago, Chris and the team have been working on a film, Midway Journey, to tell the story of plastic pollution and spread the message of what we are doing to other creatures on this planet–creatures that most people like me probably don’t even realize exist.
You can view the current film trailer here:


And here is a fabulous interview with Chris Jordan about the project in Outside Magazine:

Please Help Fund This Project!

To fund the project, the team have created a Kickstarter campaign with a target of $100,000.  They must make their goal in the next 11 days (July 18) or the project will not receive any of the Kickstarter pledges.  So far, they have raised an amazing $61,531 in pledges towards their goal, so I just know that with enough of us kicking in some funds and fowarding the campaign to everyone we know, they can get there!

I want this project to be funded because I want the world to see what I saw 5 years ago.  I want everyone to feel the connection that I felt and to understand that there is no separation between us and any other beings on this planet, no matter how small, no matter how remote.  Our actions matter.

Feelgoodz natural rubber and hemp flip flops

Confession: Up until a week ago, I still sometimes wore plastic flip flops.  Granted, they were flip flops I purchased back in 2005.  And I wore them until they had holes in the heels.

But still, why would I continue to wear plastic ones after discovering the natural rubber flip flops from Feelgoodz two years ago?  It had to do with the straps.

The natural rubber straps were fine for short walks, but if I wore the flip flops for an extended length of time, the straps would irritate the top of my foot a little bit.  So I would revert to the plastic ones for a while.   Many other people love the original Feelgoodz and have not had this problem, but now, I’m psyched to have discovered that Feelgoodz is offering two alternative models with soft hemp straps instead of rubber, and they feel really great.  Just in time to save my heels, Feelgoodz sent me a couple of pairs of flip flops to review.

Soft Strapz flip flops

The Soft Strapz model comes with a thick natural rubber sole (which is thicker, yet lighter than my original Feelgoodz flip flops because less rubber is used per shoe, so the consistency is different) and soft hemp fabric straps.  They are super comfortable, and I can wear them for long periods of time without any irritation.

Cinnaflopz flip flops

The Cinnaflopz model has hemp straps and a hemp upper glued with natural rubber glue to a natural rubber sole.  They also contain a layer of real cinnamon between the rubber and hemp layers.  Believe me, they smell great.  But they are not for people who are allergic to cinnamon or don’t like the smell.   The rubber sole on the Cinnaflopz is very thin, but Feelgoodz will be coming out with two new colors and a thicker sole in 2013.

Feelgoodz flip flops are made in Vietnam. Here is a video explaining how the Cinnaflopz are made.  Feelgoodz also offers flip flops for kids and flip flops with a leather upper.  (Personally, I avoid leather when possible, but your preferences may be different from mine.)

Compost or Recycle?

When Feelgoodz flip flops wear out, they can be buried in the backyard or cut up and composted.  Don’t toss them in the trash!  But what about the plastic flip flops you already have?  Wear them for as long as you can, but when you are done with them, you can send them to Feelgoodz’s Unflop Program, which will “upcycle” them through the Flip Flop Recycling Company.

Give-Away: 1 Pair of Cinnaflopz in Women’s size 7-9

Unfortunately, just as I did when I reviewed the original flip flops back in 2010, I once again requested a size too small.  The Soft Strapz flip flops fit me just right, but sadly, the Cinnaflopz leave my heel on the floor.  So I am giving away this pair to one lucky person with feet smaller than mine.   (Don’t worry.  I only tried them on once in the house and that’s the only time they touched my feet.)

07/18/2012 Update: The drawing is over.  The winner is AlmostAlltheTruth.  Congratulations!


To enter the give-away, please leave a comment with your favorite way to reduce plastic while buying clothes or shoes.  It could be a particular brand that uses all natural–or mostly natural–fibers.  Or it could be through buying secondhand or upcycling.  I’d love to hear all of your ideas.  And if there is a particular product you think I should review on this blog, let me know.  I will choose a winner at random.