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

3 Months To Go: September Total

IMG_0087

-4 Almond Milk Bottles
-1 Uncle Matt’s Orange Juice Bottle
-2 25 Pound Dogfood Bags
-8 Chip Bags
-11 Bread Bags
-1 Toilet Paper Wrapper
-4 Bunched Basil Bags
-1 Carrot Bag
-Packaging for L L Bean sheets, pillowcases and towels
-1 Coffee Bag
-2 Avocado Bag
-1 Lime Bag
-6 Produce Bags
-2 Dog Treat Bags
-2 Toothpaste Tubes
-1 Raspberry Container
-1 Chocolate Covered Graham Crackers Container
-1 Tofu Container
-20 Lids
-3 Cheese Films
-1 Ziplock Bag
-3 1 oz. Spice Containers
-2 Airbourne Tubes
-1 Vegan Marshmellow Bag
-1 Sundried Tomato Packaging
-1 Earthbalance Bin
-4 Contact Cases
-8 Lobster Bands
-1 Plastic Cup
-1 Pill Container
-2 Pens
-Miscellaneous Bits
-Miscellaneous Films and Bags

There you have it, the plastic footprint of 2 people and a big fluffy dog for the past month.  It’s not pretty, and it reminds me of the places where I have been slacking (bread).  There are too many bags this month, definitely something to be more aware of.

If you have been following us, you may know this already, but its been on my mind this week as I restocked out cleaning supplies… toxicity.  Most people out there are aware of BPA, or Bisphenol A.  BPA mimics estrogen, a hormone linked to everything from fetal development to metabolism.  Guys, this is not just a female thing, you have estrogen too!  It is a key player in the maturation of your sperm and may even be necessary to have a healthy libido.  It makes sense that we do not want BPA in our bodies messing with our development and a couple years ago there was a big push to get it out of our waterbottles.  But did you know that BPA is still in the lining of most cans? (This is why I do not drink beer out of cans)  You can find guides (like this one) online to help you identify companies that took the CPA out of their canned goods.

It’s not just BPA we need to think about.  There are thousands of ill-studied chemicals in the products we use such as detergents, soaps, household cleaners, toothpaste, shampoos, and other toiletries and cosmetics.  This became increasingly apparent to me when my allergist told me that I was severely reactive to Thimerosal.  Thimerosal is a mercury based preservative that was routinely used in childhood vaccines in the past but has fallen out of favor in recent years.  It is 49% ethyl ethyl mercury, which is recognized as a potent neurotoxin.  The FDA banned the sale of topically applied antibiotics containing thimerosal in the 1980s.  Nevertheless, Brandon and I were able to identify it under different names in multiple products in our own bathroom!

Why are companies allowed to put harmful chemicals in our products?  Shouldn’t we be able to trust them to do what is best for their customer’s health? The short answer to this question is no.  Producers do not have to prove that a chemical is safe before putting it in their products.  It is up to us to prove harm (which is very hard to do!).  Every day we are exposed to harmful chemicals in our household cleaners, toiletries, and many other products.

The best thing to do is to be as informed as possible and make the best choices for you and your family.  So here are some resources to get you started!

-Watch Chemerical!.  This documentary follows a family as they challenge themselves to rid their home of harmful chemicals.  This ends up being a lot more challenging than they expect, but rewarding in the end.  You can stream it on Netflix, check it out!

-Look up the products you use and find out more about what is in them.  http://www.goodguide.com/  and http://www.ewg.org/ (Environmental Working Group) both offer easy online guide that allow you to search for and compare products as well as learn about ingredients and find healthier options.

Lastly, I will share with you my recipe for our household all-purpose cleaner.  Last week Brandon was using it to clean our kitchen and couldn’t believe it was homemade!  Not only is it way cheaper to make it yourself, it is also free from the harsh chemicals in factory made cleaners :O)

-Combine 1 tsp. Borax, 1/2 tsp washing soda, 1 tsp of Dr. Bronners liquid castile soap, 2 cups of water, and essential oil as preferred (I used about a 20 drop combo of lavender and eucalyptus).  Mix it up and you are done!

Simple DIY cleaners

Simple DIY cleaners

August Total: What a heap!

IMG_6418

Total:

1 25 lb Dog Food Bag
8 Chip Bags
17 16oz Single-use Water bottles with caps
2 48oz Almond Milk Bottles
1 Gallon Distilled Water
2 Amazon Shipping Package
1 Sugar Bag
5 Dog Treat Bags
2 Toilet Paper Bag
9 Bread Bags
6 Produce Bags
1 Miscellaneous Plastic cover
1 Miscellaneous Wraps and Films
1 Stapler Package
1 Headphones Package
1 Soy Milk Container
1 Ziplock Bag
3 Cheese Film
2 Frozen Fruit Bags
4 Toiletries Bottles
1 Avocado Bag
15 Lids
1 Fire Wood Mesh
6 Plastic Containers
2 Plastic Cups
1 Small Plastic Plate
5 Pill Containers
2 Glue Sticks
1 Parking Ticket
1 Toothpaste Container
4 Contact Container
1 Fork
Ipad Mini Case

Titan, always down to get his face in our trash, has proven himself a great model, giving scope and scale to our monthly plastic piles.  This one, as you can see, is huge compared to many previous months.  It left us shaking out heads and vowing to do better next month.  This is the point right?  To see the damage we have done?  To know that there is no “away”?  To feel the repercussions of our daily choices as they add up over the year?  I am already dreading the annual total, but I am also excited.  This year has taught us so much, and we have made some meaningful changes to reduce our plastic footprint.  Here are some highlights:

1.  Still no ‘poo.  That’s right, I have not ‘pooed since March, and Brandon hasn’t ‘pooed since 2 months ago.  (I mean shampoo of course!) And to be honest, we don’t see ourselves ever going back to our old ways.  My hair feels healthier and my reason for showering is never “my hair feels greasy” anymore.  But the best part about it is that by using baking soda and apple cider vinegar on our hair the only plastic we produce is the plastic cap to the vinegar bottle, and we are not using any nasty chemicals on our bodies or putting them into our wastewater.  It feels good to no-poo!

2. Never again will we wash chemicals through our laundry again either because, quite frankly, soap nuts rule!  We started using soap nuts in April and have been impressed by their natural ability to clean.   In addition, we are thrilled at how long they last!  I feel like our bag of soap nuts is just as full as when we got it in April.  If you want to give them a try I highly recommend The Laundry Tree because of their commitment to plastic-free, recycled packaging.

Never going back :O)

Mother Earth, I apologize for our pile this month.  We have had victories and failures, and learn more about ourselves and our relationship to you every day!

Homegrown :O)

Homegrown :O)

~Kim

Starting Out Strong

Week 9 heralds the shortest list to date! Check it:

-1 Pita Chip Bag
-1 Shipping Envelope
-2 Tempeh Packages
-1 Arame Package
-2 Caps
-1 Pair of Contacts
-1 Mouthwash Bottle
-3 Bread Film
-1 Basil Bag
-2 Cheese Film
-1 Plastic Cover from National Geographic Magazine
-1 Toothpick Container
-1 Toothbrush
-1 Saffron Container

I am proud of this week.  A handful of the items, like the toothpick container, saffron container, and mouthwash bottle have been with us for at least 6 months, and finally decided it was their time to go.  Others, like the pita chips, are indications of the things we just cannot give up (yet?).  And others, like the bread bags, are a reminder of how hard it is to break our plastic habits (I got a loaf of bread from a local bakery, asked them to put it in my reusable ziplock, and they put it in a new bag anyways… womp womp).  Overall, this list is a great sign of progress, a tangible way to see our footprint has decreased in the past 2 months.

One area of our home  that houses the most seemingly unavoidable plastic is the bathroom.  Toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, floss, the very shower itself! – all plastic.  How do we reduce our plastic use in our bathroom??  I suppose the kitchen was my first target, but now I turn to our bathroom and wonder: Do we really need all of this stuff.

One item we have cast aside is liquid soap.  We traded it for the bar.  The switch got me wondering, just why is liquid soap in a plastic squeezable bottle so much more popular than bar soap anyways??  Is it our obsession with efficiency and convenience?  Have we grown to expect those superior bubbles liquid soap provides? Maybe its the loofas….

Whatever it is that draws so many American’s to liquid soap, it is unfortunate.  Why?  Well, first, look at the ingredients? The American government does not require pre-market testing of the chemicals that go in our personal care products.  Plenty of American’s look at the ingredient lists (or at least the calorie counts) on our food packaging, but how many of us flip over our bottle of liquid soap, or shampoo, or deodorant, and read those ingredients?  This list was taken from Dove Deep Moisture Body Wash with Nutrimoisture.

dovely

Soybean oil, sunflower oil, sodium lauroyl isothionate, sodium laureth sulfate, cocomidopropyl betaine, lauric acid, stearic acid, glycerin, fragrance, sodium isetheonate, lauryl alcohol, tallow acid or palmetic acid, guar hydroxpropyltrimonium chloride, DMDM hydantoin, methylisothiazolinone,  tetrasodium EDTA, etidronic acid, iodopropynyl butylcarbamate, bht.

Hmmm… one look at this list sets off alarms for me.  During my EMT training I learned that our skin is our largest organ, and it does much more than sweat and get sunburns, it also absorbs!  Do I want all these ill-tested, unpronounceable chemicals on my absorbent skin?? Some of these ingredients are potentially toxic as well.  Just to name a few: BHT is a known immune toxicant or allergen and may also be a carcinogen, DMDM hydantoin is a skin, eye, and lung irritant, and iodopropynyl butylcarbamate is a suspected gastrointestinal and liver toxicant.  These products may be approved to go to market, but I have the choice of what I expose my body to, and I say “no thank you” to these suspicious chemicals.  If you are interested in learning more about the ingredients in your toiletries I suggest you check out Envionmental Working Group’s Skin Deep database.  They provide online safety profiles for over 79,000 products and can help you find healthier options.

The second unfortunate thing about liquid soap is the environmental impact.  Housed in a plastic bottle, liquid soap aids the petroleum industry (in fact, petroleum products are often in the soap too!!) and once you are done lathering up, that bottle could easily outlive your grandkids.  These bottles are usually #2 plastic, or high density polyethylene.  That is a fancy scientific way of saying they float in sea water and are one of the most commonly found plastics in the ocean gyres.

This was all motivation for us to find a bar soap with natural ingredients that is packaged in paper.  Right now we are quite smitten with Nubian Heritage.  Born in New York in 1992, this company’s mission is to “produce luxurious natural products from African recipes with organic and fair trade ingredients”.  Organic, ethically traded, AND cruelty free!!! But the best part is their scents.  Some of our favorites are goats milk and chai, black soap with shea butter, and carrot and pomegranate.  But the true test is to look at the ingredients.

RAWR!

RAWR!

Honey and Black Seed Soap: Shea butter, coconut oil and/or palm oil, apricot oil, black seed, honey, vitimin E, vegetable glycerin, mineral pigment, essential oil blend.

That ingredient list is a whole lot shorter, pronounceable, and recognizable than Dove’s.  The ingredients come from nature, not a lab or an oil refinery, and the paper package can turn back into Earth again.  Honey has historically been used in healing balms.  The use of black seed can be traced back more than 3000 years to the ancient Egyptians!  It was discovered in the tomb of King Tutankhamen and reportedly used by Queen Nefertiti to maintain her flawless complexion.

However, writing this post I realized that this soap isn’t perfect.  The production of palm oil can sometimes result in deforestation of critical rainforest habitat.  And the box fails to disclose the full ingredient list to their consumers by listing “essential oil blend”.  I plan on writing Nubian Heritage this week to inquire about the sourcing of their ingredients.

Washing our hands and bodies with bar soap may not be as excitingly 21st century as a sudsy, loofa-led liquid soap down, but we choose it because small choices can add up to big change over time.  We choose to ditch chemicals because we love our bodies, and want to nourish and respect them.

What ways do you keep your bathroom plastic and toxin free?