November Total: There is no away

-7 Chip Bags
-5 Mesh Bags
-1 Organic Cane Sugar Bag
-12 oz Coffee Bag
-1 Padded Envelope
-1 Decrepit, Reusable Grocery Bag
-3 Almond Milks
-1 Orange Juice Container
-12 oz Sparkling Water
-2 Thin Plastic Packaging (bread, TP)
-3 Dog Biscuit Bags
-2 Noodle Bags
-Frozen Pea Bag
-5 Bread Bags
-2 Gallon Ziplocks
-Miscellaneous Film
-1 Pretzel Stick Bag
-1 Computer Mouse Packaging
-2 Cranberry Bags
-6 Cheese Bags
-1 Organic Condensed Milk Container
-1 Shredded Cheese Container
-1 Basil Container
-18 Lids
-2 Single Use Coffee Lids
-1 4oz. Saline Solution Bottle
-2 Styrofoam Plates
-1 Polypropylene Food Bowl
-1 Pill Container
-1 Toothpaste
-2 Condiment Cups
-1 Pen
-1 Fork
-4 Vegetable Ties
-1 Vitamin Package
-1 Bread Tab
-2 Bar Straws
…and a smorgasborg of other bits and pieces

This month I investigated where “away” is when I throw items in a local trash bin.  It turns out that they get trucked to the Southeastern Massachusetts Resource Recovery Facility SEMASS waste-to-energy facility in West Wareham run by Covanta Energy.

SEMASS Waste to Energy Facility

SEMASS Waste to Energy Facility

On November 22, 2013 I met Patti Howard to get a private tour of the SEMASS facility. Patti greeted me with a firm handshake and a big smile. She has been working at SEMASS for 20 years, first as an accountant and now, because she is a “people person”, as a MSP program coordinator giving tours and presentations about the benefits of incineration. As she gave me an introduction to the facility it was obvious that we were getting into controversial territory. A woman clearly accustomed to conflict, Patti started by admitting that waste to energy facilities are not popular with everyone, but she stressed that people need to “have all the facts” before making judgments about it. She consistently tended towards defensiveness and chose her words deliberately throughout the tour.  She spoke with a firm conviction that we need to reduce our waste coupled with a harsh realism about the amount of trash we currently produce. She said that they Covanta sees trash as a resource and that it is much better to incinerate it than put it in a landfill. When my trash arrives at SEMASS it is dumped onto the “tipping floor”, an expansive room that holds mountains of trash that are inspected for hazardous materials (like propane tanks) and where most ferrous metals are removed with magnets to be recycled. At this point Patti noted with pride that SEMASS is the “largest recycler of metal in Massachusetts”, recovering nearly 40,000 tons of ferrous and non ferrous metals every year

The Tipping Floor

The Tipping Floor

SEMASS currently combusts over a million tons of waste a year, providing 25% of the “renewable energy” in Massachusetts. The facility qualifies as a Class II renewable energy source, giving 50% of its renewable energy credit value to boost local recycling programs. They are able to produce just under 600,000 megawats a year, or enough to power 75,000 homes. But is this the “clean, renewable energy” that Covanta claims it to be?
One of the challenges of incineration is pollution. Even the fanciest modern incinerators send CO2 and supertoxins like dioxins and furans into the air. They liberate toxins bound up in our industrial and municipal waste and release them into the air and water. This inevitably includes chemicals that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and developmental, endocrinological, neurological, circularoty and reproductive problems. Combustion can even create new toxins that were not in the original waste, like dioxins that are created when items containing chlorine are burned. Globally, incinerators are the leading source of dioxins.
Incinerating does not make waste disappear, it produces ash. “In general, for every 3 tons of waste one shoves into an incinerator we get one ton of ash that requires landfilling” (Annie Leonard The Story of Stuff, 2010, p. 424). The ash is more toxic than the original waste, containing concentrated heavy metals and pollutants. About 1/3 of the SEAMASS facility is devoted to processing the ash, and their emissions of heavy metals and other pollutants consistently measure 60-90% below EPA limits. To avoid groundwater contamination SEMASS collects rainwater in three onsite ponds and has a water treatment plant on site. They also utilize local landfill leachate to meet almost 30% of its water needs and conserve roughly 40 million gallons per year of groundwater resources.

Boiler Aggregate Ash

Boiler Aggregate Ash

Covanta boasts that this ash can be used as landfill cover and does not emit methane like decomposing landfill waste. It has potential to be used as a building material but has not been approved by the state of Massachusetts. It sounded like regulations on incinerators in Massachusetts are stringent and that Covanta was making a sizable effort to “green” their business, but as my nostrils protested the nauseating decomposition and chemical smells throughout the facility I thought it was a stretch to call this energy “clean”. When I asked Patti if the workers at SEAMASS showed physical effects from working at SEAMASS she assured me that HEPA masks were used when appropriate and that high risk workers were tested multiple times a year for negative health effects. If our communities were to shift our focus away from toxin releasing incinerators and towards zero waste programs we could create more jobs. “For every dollar invested in recycling ad zero waste programs, we get ten times as many jobs as in incineration” (Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff, 2010, p. 429). Not only are there more jobs, these jobs are also cleaner and safer jobs that help conserve resources and create a more long-term solution.
I also think that it is a stretch to call this energy renewable. Ultimately, they depend on fossil fuels and trees for much of their fuel. Recoverable energy could be a more appropriate term. At least 15% of what they combust is food waste that could instead be composted and reused as fertilizer. They burn valuable resources and I can’t help but think that we could produce more energy by conserving rather than combusting. It is like choosing between pulling the plug or turning off the faucet to lower the water level in a bath tub. Turning off the faucet has a less immediate effect, but the tub will never really be empty if you leave it on.  I would much rather see comprehensive composting and reduction initiatives in my town than an incinerator. Until we change our minds over to a reusable mindset, this incinerator will keep on burning. Visiting this incinerator made me more proud than ever of the efforts we have taken this year to reduce our waste!

Sources:
Annie Leonard: The Story of Stuff
Susan Freinkel: Plastic a Toxic Love Story
Charles Moore: Plastic Ocean
SEMASS website and personal communication with P. Howard

Week 16: Introducing… Soap Nuts!

IMG_5639

-5 BandAid Wrappers
-1 Pasta Bag
-1 Produce Bag
-1 LAZ Parking Ticket
-5 Kale/Arugula Ties
-2 Toothpaste Tubes
-1 Bread Bag
-1 Mint Package
-2 Lids
-2 Field Roast Packages
-3 Safety Seals
-Misc. Bits and Films

It is hard to tell from the photo, but this week’s plastic stash is tiny! Definitely the smallest pile to date!  Perhaps Earth Day inspired us to have a particularly plastic-free week :O)

The rest of this week’s post is about how we got plastic out of our laundry routine:

Why give up traditional detergent? When it comes to laundry detergent it isn’t the plastic that concerns me the most, it is the nasty chemicals lurking inside.  A study in 2002 linked phalates, BPA, and triclosan to laundry waste water. Acting as hormones, the dosage of these chemicals doesn’t matter much.  Research indicates that levels as low as one part per trillion can cause adverse health effects.   Not worried? Consider the following:

“Adult men with higher levels of phthalates in their bodies are more likely to show signs of hormonal disturbance, including reduced sperm concentration and motility, increased damage to sperm DNA, and altered hormone levels (Duty 2003, 2004, 2005; Hauser 2007). Baby boys exposed to higher levels of phthalates in the womb or in breast milk are more likely to display reproductive system abnormalities (Swan 2005). And women with polycystic ovarian disorder, a leading cause of female infertility, or those who suffer recurrent miscarriages, are more likely to have higher levels of bisphenol A [BPA] in their blood (Sugiura-Ogasawara 2005; Takeuchi 2006). Though no epidemiological studies of triclosan are available, a recent animal study suggests that this substance may be a potent disruptor of the thyroid system (Veldhoen 2006).” (http://www.ewg.org/research/down-drain)

The damages of chemicals like these are not confined just to our own bodies, they also pose an ecological threat.  Once we are done with them, they go down the drain, and many times end up in wastewater treatment plants that effectively remove food and human waste, but were never designed to remove the broad spectrum of unregulated chemical pollution in our household products.  These hormone disrupters have developmental and reproductive effects on animal populations, and some chemicals bioaccumulate in animal tissues and come back to haunt us again in the food we eat.

Isn’t it important to know what chemicals are sneaking into our homes? I think it is, and after a bit of searching I found a hopeful alternative to keep the chemicals out of my clothes, body, and environment: soap nuts.

IMG_5644

Soap nuts are no more a nut than a jellyfish is a fish.  They are the fruit of the tree Sapindus Mukorossi, found primarily in the India, Nepal, and Indonesia.  This is no new thing.  The indiginous people of the Himalayas have been using these bad boys for centuries.  These dried fruits contain saponin, a natural substance known for its ability to cleanse and wash.  It is gentle and residue free, no sulfates, toxins, or harsh chemicals.  Soapnuts contain one ingredient: Soap nuts.  This makes them particularly great for people with sensitive skin, allergies or those of us just looking for a greener way to live.  Put in your laundry they are a 100% natural, 100% biodegradable, excellent alternative to traditional laundry detergents.  We decided to give them a try.

I bought my soap nuts from Laundry Tree.  I guess there are some sketchy soap nut distributors out there, so I went with a company that had great reviews.  There are so many things I love about this company.  They don’t hide the details from you.  They talk about where their soap nuts come from, and how they were harvested.  You can buy in bulk quantities, meaning less packaging.  They tell you exactly what you will get when you order, including how it will be packaged (which I am delighted to inform you is all plastic free, thanks to Beth Terry).  And they offer a 100% money back guarantee, so why not try them out!

When these morsels first arrived in our home, I was giddy about the packaging.

IMG_5425

Glass safely shipped without plastic!

Glass safely shipped without plastic!

Even the glass bottles of essential oil fragrance were cushioned with shredded, reused paper.  No Styrofoam.  No unnecessary bags or wrapping.  It was simple and minimal, just enough to transport my package safely.  So we opened the recycled paper bag and grabbed a big handful of our new soap nuts, curiously sniffing these exotic nuggets.  I will be honest, they smell weird.  A bit like vinegar.  We puzzled over these mysterious, smelly nuts for a bit, then excitedly gave them a try.

The soap nuts come with a small cloth drawstring bag.  You have 2 options for your wash.

1. Throw 4-5 nuts in the bag and throw it in with your laundry.  The cycle must be on warm for this method to work.  The nuts can be reused for 5-8 loads!

2. If you like to wash with cold water, prepare an easy soap nut soak.  It is as easy as boiling water.

The results were… clean! The finished laundry did not smell like the soap nuts at all.  Just clean, fresh clothes.

Week 3: Biphenol Ewwww.

Week 3:
  • 4 Contact Cases
  • 3 Chip Bags
  • 1 Tetra Pak (soup)
  • 2 Old ziplock Bags
  • 2 Ski Lift Tickets
  • 2 Tempeh Film Packages
  • 1 Chocolate Wrapper
  • 1 Bread Bag
  • 1 Lid
  • 1 Cheese Film
  • 1 Yeast Packet
  • 1 Tortilla Bag
  • 1 Bacon Bag
  • 1 Grape Bag
  • Toothpaste Tube
  • 1 Can of organic pumpkin
  • 1 Hummus Container
  • 1 Tofu Container
  • 1 Nametag
  • 1 LL Bean Comforter Package
  • 1 LL Bean Comforter Cover Package
  • 1 LL Bean Shipping Bag
  • 1 Broken Hair Elastic
  • 1 Plastic Plate
  • 1 Duster Package
  • Miscellaneous packaging piecesIMG_5252

Week three draws to a close, featuring the usual suspects…. yup…. mostly food packaging.  It’s an unavoidable theme, and we are interested to see how it develops through the seasons.  A large portion of our footprint this week was the packaging for the comforter and its cover that I ordered from LL Bean.  It was hard to feel any ill will towards the packaging after we both enjoyed the coziest night’s sleep EVER after being the victims of blanket wars for almost a year now.  This comforter will be well cared for, and it will keep us warm for years to come :O)

Are you surprised to see that a metal can could make it onto our plastic blog? It is another sign of the hidden plastic that surrounds us, my friends.  The next time you use a can take your finger and scratch the inside.  Look real close and you might notice the super thin layer of plastic lining your can.  Surprise!  Companies started lining their cans with plastic as early as the 1950s to fend of bacteria that could get into the container if it corroded.  The biggest concern was botulism, an illness that used to kill six in ten of its victims.  These liners, along with rigorous sterilization, curbed the threat of food-bourne botulism.

Less illness, sounds great! The trouble is that most can liners contain bisphenol A (BPA).  You’ve most likely heard of it, it’s been a hot topic over the past decade.  BPA is a mildly estrogenic synthetic phenol.  It’s been used in baby bottles, water bottles, and eyeglass lenses among other things. Gleaned from a NYTimes Article, BPA was put into cans “because it helps prevent corrosion and is resistant to high heat during the sterilization process.”  The problem is that in lab studies BPA, in parts per trillion, suppressed testosterone production.  It mimics the hormone estrogen and has been linked to all kinds of health problems including early puberty in females, reduced sperm counts, altered reproductive function, obesity, and increased rates of some breast, ovarian, testicular, and prostate cancers.  A study in 2005 published in the journal Human Reproduction found that women who had miscarried three or more times showed significantly higher levels of the chemical than women who’d had successful pregnancies.

In 2009 the nonprofit Consumers Union found that in 18 of 19 tested cans Progresso Vegetable Soup topped the list with 22 micrograms of BPA per serving.  That’s 116 times their recommended daily amount! (although my recommended daily amount is zero) BPA is now detected in the urine of about 95% of Americans.  This New York Times Article describes how researchers documented a 1,221% increase in BPA levels in urine when their study subjects ate canned soup.  Eeeep!

Not all cans have a BPA lining, as this list points out.  But even if the plastic lining is BPA free, it hosts a slew of other, poorly understood chemicals.  The plastic industry doesn’t have to prove it’s chemicals are safe in order to use them… it falls upon us to prove harm, which can be hard to do.  BPA is not the only estrogen-mimicing chemical used in plastic manufacture.  And the manufactures don’t have to disclose what chemicals they are using instead.  To me, it seems safer to just avoid the cans as much as possible (and YES, this includes soda cans…. if you need that extra nudge to kick that guilty soda addiction, let this be it!)

IMG_5253