Monday, August 24, 2009

Back to school with less plastic

For those interested in the LA Times op-ed Back to School with Less Plastic -- a teaching moment, I've posted a slightly longer version of the editorial below, along with a few links to reports associated with the editorial. For those of you seeking to reduce plastics from school and office, there is also a sampling of sites offering alternative school and office supplies.

My thirteen year-old daughter and I have just returned from the annual back-to-school pilgrimage to the local Big Box Office Store and I am appalled. While for me the leathery smell of new shoes stirs sweet pangs marking those precious last days of summer -- for my children it will most likely be the smell of vinyl and assorted plastics that will remind them of those bitter-sweet end-of-summer days.

As a child of the ‘60s, back when plastics had yet to touch every aspect of our lives, my pencils and rulers were wooden, my binder cardboard and fabric, my book bag canvas, and back-to-school shopping wasn’t a major industry – let alone a “season.”

As a toxicologist who's spent much of the past year studying the world’s overabundance of plastics and their associated toxicities and a consumer who carries cloth bags, avoids over packaged lunch items, much to my kid’s dismay, and diligently recycles -- though admittedly I am not a purist when it comes to plastic-- this year’s shopping trip has left me feeling particularly hypocritical. We entered Big Box armed with “the List.” Parents of school-age kids, know to expect this list sometime in July, the kickoff for the “season.” We left Big Box with an armful of poly vinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene, polypropylene, polyethylene – all neatly packaged in yet more polystyrene and PVC. We passed on the plastic bag at the checkout counter. At least we could do that much. Never mind that the store's bags were among the few easily recyclable or reusable plastic products available.

The hundreds of brightly colored disposable plastic pens sold by Big Box certainly are not recyclable. Not only are the plastics often mixed (polystyrene, thermoplastic elastomer and polycarbonate, for example) but without a sufficient market for the materials recycling is not feasible. By some estimates hundreds of millions if not billions of disposable pens are bought in the U.S. each year. Once disposed or lost, bits of those pens will eventually add to the earth’s expanding “plastic layer,” a marker of our twentieth century penchant for the disposable rather than reusable.

Then there is the scourge of the 3-ring binder. I’ve got a stack in the corner of my office. Some are reusable. Others not. Their covers and inside pockets are torn, the rings sprung partly open, their cardboard innards peek through the corners and the colors are all wrong. Last year’s binders were orange and yellow. This year according to “the List” binders must be purple, blue, green and red, a different color for each subject. No kidding. While binders in good condition can be reused, eventually, they will join their plastic companions in the waste-pile.

If Big Box Office Store can collect e-waste and printer cartridges, you’d think they could collect and encourage reuse and recycling of school and office supplies. Apparently once all that plastic leaves the door – it’s our problem not theirs. So much for "extended producer responsibility." And with nearly 56 million k-12 students returning to school, all of those new plastic binders, lunch boxes, pens, rulers and pencil sharpeners (which break more easily than an egg shell,) are a big problem.

A problem which, with a little creativity, could be turned into a sobering educational opportunity --just as students now study the water cycle, what if they studied the life-cycle of their pen or better yet, their PVC notebook? What if they learned that the production of PVC may contaminate the air of local neighborhoods with vinyl chloride, a known carcinogen, and may be associated with increased dioxin concentrations in local residents? Or that some portion of the plastics in their school supplies could end up circulating for decades in remote ocean regions? What if they learned that in some locations marine birds have been found with guts full of colorful plastic bits? Or that plastic could even be a good thing if we reused or recycled over and over?

Of course, school supplies are only a drop in the plastic bucket. A small fraction of the over100 billion pounds of plastic resin reportedly produced by US industries. This is 100 billion pounds of substances resistant to degradation. Substances that will, over the years break into smaller and smaller pieces, some of which will release their chemical building blocks and additives like heavy metals and phthalates– several of which are now known to interfere with endocrine function – into the environment. But plastic school supplies for many kids are, in addition to all those lunch baggies and packaging, part of a yearly ritual which teaches kids that our disposable plastic culture is normal and acceptable

Each new mechanical pencil, binder, report cover and lunch box adds to the planet's steadily accumulating plastic burden. According to the EPA, we discarded thirty million tons of plasticin 2007, 12% of our municipal waste. Back in the 1960s less than 1% or our waste was plastic. Of those thirty million, we recycle a paltry 2.1 millon tons. The rest is landfilled, burned in incinerators, washed up onto remote beaches, or is swirling around in the great Trash Gyre of the North Pacific, where scientists from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography are busy sampling little bits of our discarded plastics.

By sending our kids back to school with a backpack that is, if not plastic, filled with plastic, what are we teaching them? Buying new shoes each year made sense – kids grow out of shoes. Buying a whole new set of school supplies which last barely a year under the best of circumstances, does not.

But there’s hope. Just as plastic is a man-made modern miracle of chemical-engineering, cleaning up after the plastic mess could be this century’s modern miracle. For some products, closed loop processing – fully recyclable carpets for example - reduces resource use and waste. For school supplies that can’t be easily recycled, what if kids were challenged (or bribed) to keep their plastic binders, rulers and pencil sharpeners safe and in good shape so they can be reused the next year? For items that fail to last– perhaps a collection box piled high – sent to key politicians or even back to Big Box, who might in turn, send a message to industry. And better yet, what if teachers - creators of “the List” - urged students to seek out recycled, recyclable or plastic-free school supplies?

At the very least, let’s teach them that it’s time to slow the growth of the plastic layer, a worthy goal for the 21st century.

There are plenty of sites out there to help reduce plastics in school and office too - below is just a sampleing :

The Green Office

Care2 make a difference

Center for Health and Environmental Justice

For binders, try recycling industries near you, some may take back and redistribute binders that are in good condition.

For pens, try the Pen Guy - not exactly recycling but reuse as art!

Thursday, August 06, 2009

A lot of information on a little topic: EPA's Nanotitanium Case Study

Still stuck in the sunscreen limbo? Wondering which to choose - "chemical" filters or "natural" filters like nanotitanium? While we know chemical filters tend to be absorbed into the skin, should we be concerned about absorption of nanotitanium as well? Or perhaps you're wondering when anyone is going to get around to really thinking about how best to evalute risks of nanomaterials? Well here's your chance to read all about it - at least all about the life and times of nanotitanium in one relatively complete report.

EPA has just releasee their Nanomaterials Case Studies: Nanoscale Titanium Dioxide in Water Treatment and in Topical Sunscreen DRAFT. I haven't read the section on water treatment, but this past winter I was involved in the review of the section on sunscreen - sure to be a hot topic even as summer is sadly winding down. While the report won't help you choose which sunscreen to use, it provides a fairly comprehensive review of nanotitanium.

The document, according to EPA is, "...a starting point to to identify what is known and, more importantly, what needs to be known about selected nanomaterial applications."

And, as they tackle the moving target (in the sense that research and publications just keep rolling in) that is nano from production to product, birth to afterlife they invite readers to:
....consider the questions listed throughout the document and offer specific comments on how individual questions, or research needs, might be more precisely or accurately articulated. If additional questions should be included or if information is already available to address some of the questions posed here, readers are encouraged to provide such comments as well. These or other comments on any aspect of the document should be submitted in writing in accordance with instructions, including the specified time period, stated in a Federal Register notice appearing on or about July 31, 2009 referring to Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-ORD 2009-0495.

So have at it. It'll be interesting to follow the further development of this report.