Wednesday, May 05, 2010

McElligott's Plastic

“Ask for a cone, save the environment!” proclaimed the sign at the local Creamee. The girls asked for cups anyway, to catch the drippings of the oversized soft-serve half-and-half cones they'd ordered. “Guess we’re not saving the environment today,” said one, dipping her plastic spoon into the Styrofoam cup.

Styrofoam is one incarnation of polystyrene plastic – more affectionately known as “#6” or, the plastic we can’t recycle. Polystyrene is also the black polystyrene casing of my computer, my bicycle helmet, the foamed polystyrene clamshell we were offered to carry home the remainders from a local restaurant and, the countless little white Styrofoam pellets degraded from sheets of weathered insulation I spent the weekend picking from the weeds at the local junk-yard turned conservation land along with a handful of diligent volunteers.

While collecting the little white bits from the earth, I imagine how each year some portion of those beads along with larger rafts of insulation are blown or washed into the bordering Sawmill River, some journeying only as far as the local swimming hole, while others carried by the Sawmill make their way to the Connecticut and beyond. I imagine their journey a perverse version of Dr.Seuss’s McElligot’s Pool, where you never know what exotic species might make their way from the deep ocean to a backyard pond, only these make their way to the deep ocean. This isn’t fanciful fiction. Just this year scientists confirmed the presence of a plastic “patch” of our own in the North Atlantic, the evil twin of the infamous North Pacific trash gyre – a region known for its accumulation of plastic from soccer balls to microscopic bits of Styrofoam and other assorted plastics. Looking around at all the Styrofoam I’ve missed, the scientist in me wants to radio-tag those naughty bits and send them on their way. Maybe in a few years we’d know for sure if pieces of Montague were swirling about the wide Sargasso Sea.

Captain Charles Moore, an adventurer, environmentalist and researcher, credited with discovering the North Pacific patch once commented on the return of plastic to the oceans and its consumption by marine life in an article for Natural History Magazine, “Ironically,” wrote Moore “the debris is re-entering the oceans whence it came; the ancient plankton that once floated on Earth's primordial sea gave rise to the petroleum now being transformed into plastic polymers. That exhumed life, our ‘civilized plankton,’ is, in effect, competing with its natural counterparts, as well as with those life-forms that directly or indirectly feed on them.” Research by Moore and others, now shows that plastics in the ocean can accumulate toxicants long banned like PCBs and DDTs, and there is some concern that once ingested, contaminated plastics might release these chemicals, along with others used for plastics production including colorants, fire retardants and plasticizers into their host. Someday there may be no need to shrink-wrap seafood.

Like other plastics, polystyrene – the base material for Styrofoam or foamed polystyrene clamshell food containers, microwavable cups (think cup-o-noodles), plastic plates and coffee cups – is a polymer, a chemical chain of repeating units, like beads on a string. In this case the beads or monomers are styrene. Produced naturally by plants and animals, styrene – like many chemicals - is relatively non-toxic in these small amounts. And, like many chemicals, natural production is dwarfed by human production (at least in localized concentrations,) which in the case of styrene tops 13 billion pounds a year in the US alone. The majority is used to produce polystyrene. While polystyrene might not appear on the top ten list for toxic chemicals, it is made from benzene. Over 50% of all benzene that is produced from oil is eventually turned into styrene. And sweet smelling benzene is nasty stuff. Just a whiff brings me back to organic chemistry lab in college. We used it without a care until the day it was officially deemed a carcinogen – and then we didn’t. At the risk of showing my age, that was in 1979. And in a strange case of collective heads- in-sand, benzene was known to cause cancer since the 1920s. (We can thank industry along with federal regulators to for that small lapse.) Benzene is now one of the few industrial chemicals officially listed as a known human carcinogen – causing leukemia in this case – and it is industry workers who are most at risk.

So what happens to all that polystyrene? The EPA estimated that in 2007, nearly 3 billion pounds of it was used in the production of disposable goods, including foamed polystyrene plastic plates, cups, egg cartons, and packaging peanuts. Aside from the packaging peanuts we might bring to a UPS store for reuse, with a recycling rate for all polystyrene estimated as a mere 0.8%, most will end up in a landfill. At worst it’ll end up our local streams, rivers and oceans.

And, when it does according to new research by Katsuhiko Saido and colleagues from the Nihon University, in Chiba, Japan, it will not only degrade more rapidly than it would on land (under certain marine conditions) but it will also release toxicants including a small amount of bisphenol A, notoriously linked with polycarbonate plastics, and styrene which brings us back to – d’oh!

The good news is that like most other plastics, technically, polystyrene foam is recyclable. In fact, it can be recycled back into many of the products from which it came – plates, clamshells, egg cartons and insulation, or into less desirable “dead end” products like light-weight concrete. The bad news is that the process isn’t cost effective, at least in the US – and so isn’t all that popular.

Then there are the more creative uses for this problem plastic. Some, like Cass Phillips, writer and co-owner of Kamuela Greenhouse/Specialty Orchids in Waimea, Hawaii have considered turning the environmental blight into beauty. With USDA grant funding, Phillips is currently testing the utility of various locally collected and processed recycled plastics as a growth medium additive with an eye to providing a durable low cost product for the Hawaii orchid industry. When asked about foamed polystyrene, she responded:

“I found that a certain type of orchid, miltoniopsis (aka the pansy orchid), grew fastest and largest in straight granulated polystyrene foam, in a trial that included three controls (cinder, coconut fiber and orchid bark)…... What truly stunned me is that the pansy orchids went into their bloom cycle 2-3 months before any other sample." There could be several reasons for the accelerated growth. One might suppose improved water retention could be a factor, but the ground polystyrene foam dried out almost instantly. That leaves us pondering other possibilities, including one that could be considered insidious: the release of growth-inducing chemicals. Sorting out the differences will require further analysis, but in the meantime Phillips has found herself wondering about the wisdom of schools using Styrofoam plates in their lunch programs, and the consequences of slurping down cups-o-soup from Styrofoam tubs.

Of course the best way to keep this ubiquitous plastic from polluting the oceans and clogging the landfills is to reduce use (according to the American Chemistry Council, the PS industry has been in decline for the past four years, though they give no reason), and close the recycling loop. More immediately, I’m sure there’ll be many more opportunities to pick Styrofoam from newly acquired conservation land, and for those rare occasions when I can’t clean my plate while dining at one of the local eateries, I’ve begun asking for foil or cardboard for the leftovers.