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 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!)

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Plastic Free Recipe: Soy Milk!

At first glance these cartons seem destined for paperboard recycling

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Think again! What you’re looking at is are Tetra Pak aseptic bricks, featuring 6 super-thin layers of low density polyethylene (plastic), paper, and aluminum foil.  Lightweight, airtight and strong these are a miracle of  food engineering allowing storage for over a year.  These rectangular bricks stack side by side in boxes meaning no wasted space during shipping (take that jugs!)

Any trip to the grocery store will feature various non dairy milks, juices, and pre-made soups sealed in these wondrous cartons.  Production for this Swedish company is soaring, exceeding 167 BILLION cartons last year!  They are now operative in 170 countries with over 22,000 employees.

If you visit Tetra Pak’s website the majority of it is devoted to boasting the sustainability of their products.  It paints a happy picture, and I do appreciate their effort, but I think they gloss over the real consequences of our wasteful habits.  Last year they posted that 35 billion of their containers were recycled.  If you do the math that is 20% of their product.  In what logical mind is 20% something to boast about? Would you feel pride if you got a 20 on an exam?  We need to make sure we don’t get seduced by the idea of recycling.  It is a great idea, but it is not a solution to our waste problem.  It still drives consumption and has its limitations. This recycling figure means that 132 billion cartons were NOT recycled.  If you want to recycle them it is extremely difficult to find a recycling center to take them (to see if your town will accept them click here).  The 6 layers of paper, plastic, and aluminum have to be separated and sorted to make recycling an option.  Not many places have the capacity to do that (my town doesn’t).  Also, in some cases the paper layer is removed and recycled and the rest is thrown away.

I don’t want to totally bash Tetra Pak’s here, if fact I am thoroughly pleased that their website provides craft ideas of how to reuse your Tetra Paks (check them out here!) We are still bound to buy some throughout the year and we will be experimenting with ways to reuse them (window basil planter??).  I think they are an intelligent innovation, but we need to consume them intelligently.  We need to realize we are one of over 7 billion humans, so we cannot consume mindlessly, assuming that recycling will fix everything.  With a little effort we can reduce the amount of Tetra Pak waste we produce throughout the year.  Can you get milk locally and support local dairy farmers?  Do you know of any farmers markets that sell milk? Can we design a system where local farmers recollect used glass milk bottles, wash them, and refill them rather than a couple milk monopolies mass producing milk from animals existing in deplorable conditions to be shipped across vast distances resulting in a dramatic carbon footprint? Yes, I want to see a resurgence of the milkman!

Or you can be your own milkman and follow these simple steps to make your own lactose free soy milk!

Step 1: Before you go to work throw 1/2 cup of soy beans in some water to soak.  Leave in on your kitchen counter and go about your day as usual

Step 1: Before you go to work throw 1/2 cup of soy beans in some water to soak. Leave in on your kitchen counter and go about your day as usual

When you get home this is what you need: A blender, medium pot, fine mesh strainer, liquid measuring cup, stirring spoon, and a container to hold your milk!

Step 2: Gather your materials: A blender, medium pot, fine mesh strainer, liquid measuring cup, stirring spoon, and a container to hold your milk!

Step 3: Dump the beans and water in your blender.  Ad another cup of water.

Step 3: Dump the beans and water in your blender. Ad another cup of water.

Step 4: Puree it until it's delightfully fomy!

Step 4: Puree it until it’s delightfully foamy!

Step 5: Pour the whole foamy mess into your strainer (make sure to hold it over your pot of course).  Mush the beans around with a spoon to press out the liquid.

Step 5: Pour the whole foamy mess into your strainer (make sure to hold it over your pot of course). Mush the beans around with a spoon to press out the liquid.

Step 6: Return the bean puree to the blender and add a couple cups of water. Puree again!

Step 6: Return the bean puree to the blender and add a couple cups of water. Puree again!

Step 7: Repeat the straining process.  You now have a pot full of raw soy milk!

Step 7: Repeat the straining process. You now have a pot full of raw soy milk!

Step 8: Put your pot over medium-high heat and bring it to a boil.  Boiling the soy milk eliminates potental harmful bacteria.  Boil for 2-3 minutes then remove from heat.  Make sure you pay attention to the pot and stir frequently, the milk can get VERY foamy and overflow if you're not careful!

Step 8: Put your pot over medium-high heat and bring it to a boil. Boiling the soy milk eliminates potental harmful bacteria. Boil for 2-3 minutes then remove from heat. Make sure you pay attention to the pot and stir frequently, the milk can get VERY foamy and overflow if you’re not careful!

Step 9: Add some sweetness.  I added about 1/8 cup of sugar. Honey is also an option.  I also added a teaspoon on vanilla extract to jazz it up. Ta da! Toss it in the fridge and let it chill :O)

Step 9: Add some sweetness. I added about 1/8 cup of sugar. Honey is also an option. I also added a teaspoon of vanilla extract to jazz it up. Ta da! Toss it in the fridge and let it chill :O)

This Post is Brought to you by the Letter I

 

The Mighty I, to be exact.  After Zora’s comment on our last post I skeptically dropped one of these nuts in a glass of water and watched it dissolve in a matter of seconds.  What an unexpected turn of events! What are these biodegradable packing peanuts made of and how did I not know about them??  This discovery reduces last weeks plastic footprint by about 50%!

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Expanded polystyrene packing peanuts were introduced by Dow Chemical in 1965.  Prior to their debut natural materials like newspaper, hay, and wood shavings were used to protect packages during transport.  Unfortunately, newspaper had a tendency to compress and goods would shift and arrive damaged.  Hay and wood chips could get infested with pests.  Lightweight and strong, polystyrene peanuts not only protected your precious cargo from damage and infestation, but they also cut down on shipping weight and cost.

Although they seemed like the perfect solution for shipping, concerns about their environmental impact began to arise.   Notoriously difficult to recycle, these morsels could be reused to ship with your family’s christmas gifts, but more often than not they ended up in a landfill, where they would inevitably stay for generations! centuries! millenia!  No conceivable time span can explain the life of these plastics. They simply do NOT break down!  Another concern was the space they would take up in landfills.  My 14 x 14 box unveiled these peanuts like a clown car.  When not compressed they spread themselves out with reckless abandon (aided by their notorious static charge).  Light and clingy, they are easily airborne or shirtborne into the environment, where they can break down into dangerous ingestible foamy morsels that can wreak havoc on marine life.

In the wake of these environmental concerns some innovative companies responded by using partially recycled material to make their peanuts.  California went as far as requiring recycled content packing peanuts statewide in 2012.  This is a positive first step, but once made these recycled peanuts will still be around for centuries (or longer!) and have the same environmental consequences as a pure peanut.  In the 1990s the first biodegradable packing peanuts hit the market.  Usually made from corn starch these peanuts are non toxic, dissolve in water, don’t get static cling, and are stripped of their nutrients to avoid infestation.  They are sturdy enough to still be reused, composted, or you can dispose of them down the drain! (Or popped in your mouth as a shocking party trick)

We will still be keeping these peanuts, but we look at them much differently now.  This was a great lesson in producer responsibility.  Sustainable packaging is becoming increasingly popular in todays “green” market.  I am much more inclined to buy from Container and Packing Supply now that I know they take responsibility for their impact on the environment!

It is also important for consumers to speak up! When you order a product online you can contact the company and ask them if they will avoid using polystyrene packing peanuts for your shipment.  Tell them about more eco-friendly alternatives.   Companies want their buyers to be happy, so we need to make sure they know this is important to us!  See, it’s only week 2 and we’ve already learned something :O)

To close this post, here is what you can do with any polystyrene peanuts you may have inherited:

1. Create a closed loop with you family! Hang on to them and use them to ship gifts for birthdays and holidays.

2. Find them a happy home by listing them on the Freecycle Network.  Someone in your area is bound to be moving or shipping.

3. Get crafty!  Use them to stuff a Halloween costume or a pillow for your pet.  Make a floating keychain.  Glue magnets to the back and put them on your refrigerator.  There are tons of peanut craft ideas you can find online!

4. Put them in your cooler! No seriously, next time you go for a picnic (and you should go for a picnics ALL the time!) put your ice in a reused ziplock bag with packing peanuts.  The ice will stay colder and last longer!

5. Visit the Plastic Loose Fill Council’s website to find a drop off site near you.  With over 1500 drop-off sites in the US (19 in Ma) to take back used packing peanuts there are, of course, NONE near me.  Interestingly, when I did the same search on Earth911 it said my local recycling center accepts them. This just gets curiouser and curiouser.

Week One: Bread, Cheese, and Chocolate :O)

Is that a face of shame? Let’s see what we produced in week one:

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Week One:

– 4 Plastic Caps
– 4 Chocolate Bar Wrappers
– 4 Bread Bag
– 3 Tetra Paks (almond milk, soy milk, veggie broth)
– 3 Itunes Gift Cards (+Pkg)
– 3 Cheese Films
– 2 Plastic Cups- Syrup and Bubble tea
– 2 LED light Bulb Package
– 2 Name Tags
– 2 Yeast Package
– Breakfast Bar wrapper
– Tomato Container
– Earth Balance Tub
– Bread Tie
– 3×10 Cling Wrap
– Poster Bag
– Vital Wheat Gluten Liner
– Carrot Bag
– Pita Chip Bag
– Plastic Film and Packaging Tape from Ikea Butchers Block

– Pasta Bag
– Powerberries wrapper
– Hole Punch package
– Plastic Cover for Hummus
– Charlie Ticket
– Broken ID
– Kale Twist Tie
– Various Stickers and Labels

Here’s a closer look:

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It makes me wonder: What can you tell about people from their trash?

The first thing that sticks out to me is that the majority of this waste came from our food.  Take a look in your kitchen, most of what we eat comes packaged in plastic!  It contains our orange juice and milk.  It keeps our cereal fresh.  It houses our yogurt.  It even lines the metal cans in our pantry.

I think this is a good time to come clean about our pre-existing Plastiphobia.  If you look back at the list above you wont see cereal bags and yogurt containers on the list.  Instead I make granola from scratch ingredients bought in bulk and we buy yogurt in glass bottles from Whole Foods.  Noticeably absent are plastic drink bottles, the #1 most used plastic item in America.  Unlike most Americans we don’t drink soda or bottled water.  Yes, we live a “green” life, you might say.  Yes, we have vegan-like tendencies, if you ignore the cheese wrappers from this week ;O). We have already intentionally eliminated much plastic from our lives, and feel healthier and happier as a result.  I hope, through these posts, to show you why!

Yet, we obviously don’t avoid plastic completely, nor is that our intention.  Plastic is essentially unavoidable in this day and age, but we strive to only use it when necessary.  Because let’s be serious, does it make sense to use something that is designed to last forever once then throw it away?

So let’s talk films, and I’m not talking about Hollywood.  I mean the plastic films that make up grocery bags, food wrappings, and most of the packaging Brandon and I produced this week.  It kept our bread and cheese fresh, surrounded the butchers block I picked up from IKEA, and let us indulge in chocolate treats all week long.  It’s some useful stuff!  But when you look into it, most of these films are made from LDPE (low density polyethalene, or #4 plastic if you pay attention to those little recycling codes).  LDPE is notorious for having a low rate of recyclability.  Most curbside programs wont accept them, so throwing them into your curbside bin is the same as throwing them in the trash. Some grocery stores provide collection bins but seriously, how many people do you know who save all their grocery bags and return them to the grocery store?  And they also have the pesky habit of going airborne, so even when properly disposed of they can travel by wind into waterways and landscapes.

So how do Brandon and I avoid plastic films?  Well for one, we never use plastic grocery bags.  We make sure to bring our own, and begrudgingly use paper bags when we forget.  We have also been know to walk out of grocery stores with armloads of loose groceries, getting all sorts of strange looks as we go, in our stubborn effort to reduce.  While we can’t seem to get bread and cheese film-free, we can get fresh produce that way.  This fall, after returning home from researching the effects plastic has on the ocean, I got out the old sewing machine and made myself cotton produce bags. Check em out!

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And have since had many requests to distribute them.  I am not starting a business (yet?), but you can buy reusable produce bags online here and here!  The way I think of it is that using plastic bags week after week can be mindless, seemingly worth the convenience.  But there are over 7 billion of us doing just that, mindlessly consuming, and even if a small percentage of those bags escape and end up in the environment, that small percentage can be a huge number and have a huge effect decade after decade.  It’s time to inconvenience ourselves, so we can live sustainably on the limited resources our planet provides.

What plastic did you use this week? What steps do you take to use less plastic bags and films?