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

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-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

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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Happy New Year!

Naturally, as we enter a new year we reflect, we set goals and resolutions, we look to make the next year the best one yet.  This year, my boyfriend and I are taking on a challenge:

Starting today we are going to collect, categorize, and confront EVERY piece of plastic that comes into our lives in 2013.

When I first started telling people we were going to do this they looked at me like I was crazy.  Yes, inevitably my apartment is going to experience a rising tide of plastic debris, skyscrapers of tubs and lids, a cornucopia of these long lasting polymers.  Indeed, sounds crazy.  But what is important is not what we are doing, but why we are doing it.

We are doing this because Americans dispose of 2 million plastic bottles every 5 minutes.  We are doing this because endangered sea turtles are ingesting plastic bags rather than jellyfish.  We are doing this because increasing levels of toxins found in plastics are found in our bodies.  We are doing this because plastic is everywhere, and it is not going anywhere.  Every piece of plastic you have ever used is still with us.  We want to keep our waste where we can see it, to better understand our relationship with plastic.  And we will actively seek ways to reduce our plastic footprint, and welcome any ideas that come from you!

Join us and learn about what it means to live in this Plastic Age.  Share stories and support, laugh at our follies, and perhaps we can all learn to treat both the Earth and our bodies with more care and respect.  Tune in every Tuesday to hear about our waste of the week!

This cup goes down in history as the first plastic item of 2013.  All because we wanted real maple syrup with our breakfast. He looks bitter, doesn't he?

This cup goes down in history as the first plastic item of 2013. All because we wanted real maple syrup with our breakfast. He looks bitter, doesn’t he?

~Kim~