What is the benefit of PLA?

9 10 2018

Much of this article came from the Smithsonian Magazine written by Elizabeth Royte – to whom we owe our gratitude.

Near Blair, Nebraska is the largest lactic acid plant in the world.  Into one end goes corn, and out the other comes white pellets, which some say is the future of plastic.  The substance is PLA – Polymerized Lactic Acid, or polylactic acid.

Globally, bioplastics (of which PLA is a member) make up nearly 331,000 tons (300,000 metric tons) of the plastics market.[1]  That may sound like a lot, but it only accounts for less than 1 percent of the 200 million tons (181 million metric tons) of synthetic plastics the world produces each year. Still, the bioplastics market is growing by 20 to 30 percent each year.[2]  In the US, plastics take up 25% of landfilles by volume.[3]

Even the Biodegradable Products Institute notes that NOTHING biodegrades in a landfill because nothing is supposed to. Furthermore the Biodegradable Products Institute notes that “Uncontrolled biodegradation in a landfill can cause ground water pollution, methane gas emissions and unstable sub-soil conditions.”

The benefit of PLA is that is that it’s made from Midwestern corn, not Middle East oil[4]. It’s a renewable resource, but more than 93% of the corn produced in the USA is genetically modified in some way.  NatureWorks (owned by Cargill, the world’s largest corn merchant) insists that you don’t have to worry about consuming genetically modified proteins because these are destroyed in the transformation from plant to PLA plastic.[5]  NatureWorks, acknowledging some of those criticisms, points out that the corn it uses is low-grade animal feed not intended for human use. And it processes a small amount of non-genetically engineered corn for customers who request it.[6]

Producing PLA uses 65% less energy than producing conventional plastics, according to an independent analysis commissioned by NatureWorks. It also generates 68% fewer greenhouse gases.  And, if incinerated, bioplastics don’t emit toxic fumes like their oil-based counterparts.

PLA does releases toxicfumes known as VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds). Not all VOCs are actually toxic, but some may be, especially for younger users. Before this becomes a serious health issue, a new study has analysed the exact quantities of toxic VOCs – as well as potentially dangerous nanoparticles – in order to assess the potential health risks. The new study, presented by Dr. Fabrizio Merlo and Dr. Eng. Stefano Mazzoni, starts off from other previous research conducted in the early 90’s, which demonstrated that during the fusion and processing of plastic materials, several toxic particles are released as gases, including ammonia, cyanidric acid, phenol, and benzene, among others.  PLA is a corn-based polymer and is not exempt from dangerous emissions, especially if extruded at temperatures higher than 200°C.  Among the effects that the absorption of toxic VOC’s and nanoparticles can cause to humans, the most common are pulmonary pathologies, such as bronchitis, tracheitis, asthma. In some cases, these substances can also cause certain types of cancers, so this is not something to be taken lightly. [7]

Another problem with PLA is that , as one of the producers, Joe Selzer a vice president at Wilkinson Industries, puts it:  “I had my takeout box in my car in the sun and it melted into a pancake!” So PLA  can’t be used for such things as containers made for holding hot liquids.   He continues: “Our number-one concern is PLA’s competitive price, and then its applications. After that comes the feel-good.”  In the beginning, it cost $200 to make a pound of PLA, now it’s less than $1.[8]

PLA produces the greenhouse gas methane when it decomposes so composting isn’t a perfect disposal method.

But the biggest problem with PLA is it’s biodegradability:  PLA is said to decompose into carbon dioxide and water in a “controlled composting environment” in fewer than 90 days. What’s a controlled composting environment? Not your backyard bin.   It’s a large facility where compost—essentially, plant scraps being digested by microbes into fertilizer—reaches 140 degrees for ten consecutive days. So, yes, as PLA advocates say, corn plastic is “biodegradable.” But in reality very few consumers have access to the sort of composting facilities that can make that happen. NatureWorks has identified 113 such facilities nationwide—some handle industrial food-processing waste or yard trimmings, others are college or prison operations—but only about a quarter of them accept residential foodscraps collected by municipalities.

Moreover, PLA by the truckload may potentially pose a problem for some large-scale composters. Chris Choate, a composting expert at Norcal Waste Systems, headquartered in San Francisco, says large amounts of PLA can interfere with conventional composting because the polymer reverts into lactic acid, making the compost wetter and more acidic. “Microbes will consume the lactic acid, but they demand a lot of oxygen, and we’re having trouble providing enough,” he says. “Right now, PLA isn’t a problem,” because there’s so little of it, Choate says.  (NatureWorks disputes that idea, saying that PLA has no such effect on the composting processes.)

To plastic processors, PLA in tiny amounts is merely a nuisance. But in large amounts it can be an expensive hassle. In the recycling business, soda bottles, milk jugs and the like are collected and baled by materials recovery facilities, or MRFs (pronounced “murfs”). The MRFs sell the material to processors, which break down the plastic into pellets or flakes, which are, in turn, made into new products, such as carpeting, fiberfill, or containers for detergent or motor oil. Because PLA and PET mix about as well as oil and water, recyclers consider PLA a contaminant. They have to pay to sort it out and pay again to dispose of it.

Wild Oats accepts used PLA containers in half of its 80 stores. “We mix the PLA with produce and scraps from our juice bars and deliver it to an industrial composting facility,” says the company spokesman Sonja Tuitele. But at the Wild Oats stores that don’t take back PLA, customers are on their own, and they can’t be blamed if they feel deceived by PLA containers stamped “compostable.” Brinton, who has done extensive testing of PLA,says such containers are “unchanged” after six months in a home composting operation. For that reason, he considers the Wild Oats stamp, and their in-store signage touting PLA’s compostability, to be false advertising.[9]

Despite PLA’s potential as an environmentally friendly material, it seems clear that a great deal of corn packaging, probably the majority of it, will end up in landfills. And there’s no evidence it will break down there any faster or more thoroughly than PET or any other form of plastic. Glenn Johnston, manager of global regulatory affairs for NatureWorks, says that a PLA container dumped in a landfill will last “as long as a PET bottle.” No one knows for sure how long that is, but estimates range from 100 to 1,000 years.

Environmentalists have other objections to PLA. Lester Brown, president of the Earth Policy Institute, questions the morality of turning a foodstuff into packaging when so many people in the world are hungry. “Already we’re converting 12 percent of the U.S. grain harvest to ethanol,” he says. The USDA projects that figure will rise to 23 percent by 2014. “How much corn do we want to convert to nonfood products?” In addition, most of the corn that NatureWorks uses to make PLA resin is genetically modified to resist pests, and some environmentalists oppose the use of such crops, claiming they will contaminate conventional crops or disrupt local ecosystems. Other critics point to the steep environmental toll of industrially grown corn. The cultivation of corn uses more nitrogen fertilizer, more herbicides and more insecticides than any other U.S. crop; those practices contribute to soil erosion and water pollution when nitrogen runs off fields into streams and rivers.

Eric Lombardi, president of the Grassroots Recycling Network and a leader in the international Zero Waste movement, takes a nuanced view of PLA’s progress. He says it’s “visionary” even to think about biologically based plastic instead of a petroleum-based one. True, he says, there are problems with PLA, “but let’s not kill the good in pursuit of the perfect.”

So in the end, what have we learned?

  • It produces no toxic compounds when burned, unlike many plastics.
  • Like conventional plastic, it’s not likely to break down in a landfill.
  • It produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
  • Also like conventional plastic, it doesn’t break down quickly on land or in the ocean.
  • And finally, it only can be composted in commercial-grade composting plants, while failing to break down in a backyard compost pile.

Until the kinks are worked out on the disposal and reprocessing end, PLA may not be much better than the plain old plastic it’s designed to make obsolete.

 

[1]”Bioplastics Frequently Asked Questions.” European Bioplastics. June 2008. (Nov. 6, 2008)http://www.european-bioplastics.org/index.php?id=191

[2]https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/corn-plastic2.htm

[3] Royte, Elizabeth; Smithsonian Magazine, August 2006

[4] Wood, Shelby,  The Oregonian; posted October 27, 2008   https://www.oregonlive.com/environment/index.ssf/2008/10/pla_corn_plastic_problems.html

https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/corn-plastic2.htm

[6] Ibid.

[7] https://3dprintingindustry.com; accessed on 9.28.18

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

 

 

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Why are “endocrine disruptors” a concern?

19 06 2018

We published this in March, 2015, but it’s worth going over again.

In 2012, Greenpeace analyzed a total of 141 items of clothing, and found high levels of phthalates in four of the garments and NPE’s in 89 garments – in quantities as high as 1,000 ppm – as well as a variety of other toxic chemicals. Phthalates and NPE’s are among the chemicals known as “endocrine disruptors” (EDCs) – chemicals which are used often and in vast quantities in textile processing.

The endocrine system is the exquisitely balanced system of glands and hormones that regulates such vital functions as body growth (including the development of the brain and nervous system), response to stress, sexual development and behavior, production and utilization of insulin, rate of metabolism, intelligence and behavior, and the ability to reproduce. Hormones are chemicals such as insulin, thyroxin, estrogen, and testosterone that interact with specific target cells.  The endocrine system uses these chemicals to send messages to the cells – similar to the nervous system sending electrical messages to control and coordinate the body.

Diabetes, a condition in which the body does not properly process glucose, is an endocrine disease, as is hypoglycemia and thyroid cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 29.1 million people have diabetes.[1] The three types of diabetes are a good illustration of the two main ways that something can “go wrong” with hormonal control in our bodies. In type I diabetes, a per pancreas is unable to make insulin. Without insulin, the liver never “gets the message” to take glucose out of the bloodstream, so blood glucose remains too high, while the stores of glucagon in the liver are too low. In type II diabetes, the person’s pancreas is making enough insulin, but the insulin receptor sites on the liver cells are “broken” (possibly due to genetic factors, possibly do to “overuse”) and cannot “get the message.” Because the liver is unable to receive the instructions (despite the presence of lots of insulin), it does not take glucose out of the bloodstream, so blood glucose remains too high, while the stores of glucagon in the liver are too low. In type III diabetes (AKA Alzheimer’s Disease)[2], it is the neurons in the brain, specifically, which “don’t get the message,” (though it sounds like researchers have yet to determine whether that’s due to lack of the brain-produced insulin upon which they depend, or whether that’s due to receptors on the neurons that either are or become “broken”) and thus, cannot take in the sugar that they need, with the result that, without an alternative fuel source such as medium-chain triglycerides, the neurons will starve.

endocrine disruptor

Over the past 60 years, a growing number of EDC chemicals have been used in the production of almost everything we purchase. They have become a part of our indoor environment, found in cosmetics, cleaning compounds, baby and children’s toys, food storage containers, furniture and carpets, computers, phones, and appliances. We encounter them as plastics and resins every day in our cars, trucks, planes, trains, sporting goods, outdoor equipment, medical equipment, dental sealants, and pharmaceuticals. Without fire retardants we would not be using our computers or lighting our homes. Instead of steel and wood, plastics and resins are now being used to build homes and offices, schools, etc.  A large portion of pesticides are endocrine disruptors.

What this constant everyday low-dose exposure means in terms of public health is just beginning to be explored by the academic community. We have learned over time that many chemical substances can cause a range of adverse health problems, including death, cancer, birth defects, and delays in development of cognitive functions. For instance, it is well established that asbestos can cause a fatal form of lung cancer, thalidomide can cause limb deformities, and breathing high concentrations of some industrial solvents can cause irreversible brain damage and death. Only relatively recently have we learned that a large number of chemicals can penetrate the womb and alter the construction and programming of a child before it is born. Through trans-generational exposure, endocrine disruptors cause adverse developmental and reproductive disorders at extremely low amounts in the womb, and often within the range of human exposure.

Recent research is giving us a new understanding of EDCs since Dr. Theo Coburn wrote Our Stolen Future.  Thanks to a computer-assisted technique called microarray profiling, scientists can examine the effects of toxins on thousands of genes at once (before they could study 100 at a time at most). They can also search for signs of chemical subversion at the molecular level, in genes and proteins. This capability means that we are beginning to understand how even small doses of certain chemicals may switch genes on and off in harmful ways during the most sensitive period of development. In a recent talk at the National Academy of Sciences, Linda Birnbaum, the head of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the National Toxicology Program, called toxicogenomics—the study of how genes respond to toxins—the “breakthrough” that pushed the study of poisons beyond the “obvious things,” that is, the huge doses that led to “death or low birth weight.”

  1. Age at time of exposure is critical. There is even a new terminology to explain the consequences of exposure to EDCs: “the fetal basis of adult disease”, which means that the maternal and external environment, coupled with an individual’s genes, determine the propensity of that individual to develop disease or dysfunction later in life.  This theory, known as the “developmental origins of health and disease,” or DOHad, has blossomed into an emerging new field. DOHad paints a picture of almost unimaginably impressionable bodies, responsive to biologically active chemicals until the third generation.
  2. The developmental basis of adult disease also has implicit in its name the concept that there is a lag between the time of exposure and the manifestation of a disorder. In other words, the consequences of exposure may not be apparent early in life.
  3. Exposures don’t happen alone – other pollutants are often involved, which may have additive or synergistic effects.[3]
  4. Even infinitesimally low levels of exposure – or any level of exposure at all – may cause endocrine or reproductive abnormalities, particularly if exposure occurs during a critical developmental window[4]. Surprisingly, low doses may even exert more potent effects than higher doses.
  5. EDCs may affect not only the exposed individual but also the children and subsequent generations.[5]

TEDX (The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, Inc.) is the only organization that focuses primarily on the human health and environmental problems caused by low-dose and/or ambient exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals.

eD

Carol Kwiatkowski, director of TEDX

TEDX’s work is prevention driven, and it is the only environmental organization that focuses on the problems associated with endocrine disruption attributable to synthetic chemicals found in the general environment. While there are other national, international, and local organizations that address the public health and environmental consequences of toxic chemicals in the environment, none of them expressly emphasize endocrine disruption. By mainly focusing on substances in the environment that interfere with development and function throughout all life stages, TEDX has one of the most complete databases in the world on this topic, available for those concerned about public health and environmental quality. This database was developed because traditional toxicological protocols have used high doses on fully developed tissues and individuals that heretofore missed the consequences of chemical substances on developing tissues.

TEDX is unique because it focuses on the damaging activity of chemicals on biological systems from an entirely new approach. This new approach focuses on the effects of very low and ambient levels of exposure on developing tissue and resulting function before an individual is born, which can lead to irreversible, chronic disorders expressed at any time throughout the individual’s life.

Endocrine disruption takes into consideration the vulnerability of every individual in the population during their most vulnerable life stages. By providing this unique perspective on the actions of endocrine disruptors, TEDX fills in the very large gap in public health protection that traditional toxicology and government regulatory agencies do not fill. Drawing upon its computerized databases on endocrine disruption and coordination with researchers in the field of endocrine disruption, TEDX provides the very latest summaries of the state of knowledge and its meaning for human health and the environment.

 As the TEDX website states:   “The human health consequences of endocrine disruption are dire. Yet, no chemical has been regulated in the U.S. to date because of its endocrine disrupting effects – and no chemical in use has been thoroughly tested for its endocrine disrupting effects.. The U.S. government has failed to respond to the evolving science of endocrine disruption. While much remains to be learned in regard to the nature and extent of the impact of endocrine disruptors on human health, enough is known now to assume a precautionary approach should be taken. TEDX provides concerned persons and organizations with a science-based foundation for individuals to act and promote responsive public policy-making. Moreover, as federal government resources devoted to research on endocrine disruption have diminished due to budget cuts, TEDX must assume an even more prominent role in developing and disseminating information on the human and environmental impacts of endocrine disruption.”

To date, no chemical in use has been thoroughly tested for its endocrine disrupting effects. Traditional toxicological testing protocols were not designed to test for endocrine disruption and to test at ambient or low exposure levels.

[1] http://www.cdc.gov/diabetes/pubs/statsreport14/national-diabetes-report-web.pdf

[2] De la Monte, Suzanne, and Wands, Jack R., “Alzheimer’s Disease is Type 3 Diabetes – Evidence Reviewed”, J. Diabetes Sci Technol 2008 Nov; 2(6): 1101-1113

[3] Crews D, Putz O, Thomas P, Hayes T, Howdeshell K 2003 Animal models for the study of the effects of mixtures, low doses, and the embryonic environment on the action of endocrine disrupting chemicals. Pure and Applied Chemistry, SCOPE/IUPAC Project Implications of Endocrine Ac- tive Substances for Humans and Wildlife 75:2305–2320

[4] Sheehan DM, Willingham EJ, Bergeron JM, Osborn CT, Crews D 1999 No threshold dose for estradiol-induced sex reversal of turtle embryos: how little is too much? Environ Health Perspect 107:155–159

[5] Anway MD, Skinner MK 2006 Epigenetic transgenerational actions of endocrine disruptors. Endocrinology 147: S43–S49





Nichlos Kristof gets it!

24 04 2018

Nicholas Kristof had an editorial in the New York Times on February 25, 2018. This is a reproduction of his editorial:

 Our bodies are full of poisons from products we use every day. I know – I’ve had my urine tested for them. Surprised? So was I when I had my urine tested for these chemicals. (A urine or blood test is needed to confirm whether you have been exposed.)

Let me stress that mine should have been clean.

Almost a decade ago, I was shaken by my reporting! on a class of toxic chemicals called endocrine disruptors. They are linked to cancer and obesity and also seemed to feminize males, so that male alligators developed stunted genitalia and male smallmouth bass produced eggs.

In humans, endocrine disruptors were linked to two-headed sperm and declining sperm counts. They also were blamed for an increase in undescended testicles and in a birth defect called hypospadias, in which the urethra exits the side or base of the penis rather than the tip. Believe me, the scariest horror stories are found in urology journals. If you’re a man, you don’t wring your hands as you read; you clutch your crotch.

So I’ve tried for years now to limit my exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals. Following the advice of the President’s Cancer Panel, I eat organic to reduce exposure to endocrine disruptors in pesticides. I try to store leftover meals in glass containers, not plastic. I avoid handling A.T.M. and gas station receipts. I try to avoid flame-retardant furniture.

Those are all common sources of toxic endocrine disruptors, so I figured that my urine would test pristine. Pure as a mountain creek.

                        Here are 12 chemicals found in everyday products:

Chemical Details Found in products like:
Antimicrobials Can interfere with thyroid and other hormones Colgate Total toothpaste, soap, deodorant
Benzophenones Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen Sunscreen, lotions, lip balm
Bisphenols Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen Protective lining for canned goods, hard plastic water bottles, thermal paper register receipts.
1,4-Dichlorobenzene Can affect thyroid hormones and my increase risk of cancer Mothballs, toilet deodorizers
Parabens Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen Cosmetics, personal care products like shampoos, hair gels, lotions
Phthalates Can disrupt male reproductive development and fertility

 

Vinyl shower curtains, fast food, nail polish, perfume/cologne
Fragrance Chemicals Can exacerbate asthma symptoms and disrupt natural hormones. Perfume/cologne, cleaning products, dryer sheets, air fresheners
Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) Can affect hormones, immune response in children, and may increase risk of cancer. Scotchgard and other stain-resistant treatments, fast-food wrappers.
Flame Retardants Can affect neurodevelopment and hormone levels, and may increase risk of cancer Nail polish, foam cushioning in furniture, rigid foam insulation.

The Silent Spring Institute near Boston, which studies chemical safety, offers a “Detox Me Action Kit” to help consumers determine what harmful substances are in their bodies. Following instructions, I froze two urine samples (warning my wife and kids that day to be careful what food they grabbed from the freezer) and Fed-Exed them off for analysis.

By the way, the testing is for women, too. Men may wince as they read about miniaturized alligator penises, but endocrine disruptors have also been linked to breast cancer and gynecological cancers. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists warns women that endocrine disruptors can also cause miscarriages, fetal defects and much more.[1]

As I waited for the lab results, I continued to follow the latest research. One researcher sent a bizarre video of a mouse exposed to a common endocrine disruptor doing back flips nonstop, as a kind of nervous tic.

Finally, I heard back from Silent Spring Institute. I figured this was a report card I had aced. I avoid all that harmful stuff. In my columns, I had advised readers how to avoid it.

Sure enough, I had a low level of BPA, best known because plastic bottles now often boast “BPA Free.” But even a diligent student like me failed the test. Badly. I had high levels of a BPA substitute called BPF. Ruthann Rudel, a toxicologist who is the head of research at Silent Spring, explained that companies were switching to BPF even though it may actually be yet more harmful (it takes longer for the body to break it down). BPF is similar to that substance that made those mice do back flips.

“These types of regrettable substitutions — when companies remove a chemical that has a widely known bad reputation and substitute a little-known bad actor in its place — are all too common,” Rudel told me. “Sometimes we environmental scientists think we are playing a big game of whack-a-mole with the chemical companies.”

Sigh. I thought I was being virtuous by avoiding plastics with BPA, but I may have been causing my body even more damage.

My urine had an average level of an endocrine disruptor called triclosan, possibly from soap or toothpaste. Like most people, I also had chlorinated phenols (perhaps from mothballs in my closet).

I had a high level of a flame retardant called triphenyl phosphate, possibly from a floor finish, which may be “neurotoxic.” Hmm. Whenever you see flaws in my columns, that’s just my neurotoxins at work.

                            My lab results: high levels of FOUR chemicals were found

CHEMICAL DETAILS
1,4- DICHLOROBENZENE Can affect thyroid hormones and may increase risk of cancer
ANTIMICROBIALS Can interfere with thyroid and other hormones
BISPHENOLS Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen
FLAME RETARDANTS Can affect neurodevelopment and hormone levels, and may increase risk of cancer
BENZOPHENONES Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen
PARABENS Can mimic natural hormones like estrogen

Notes: Benzophenones and parabens were also found, but in lower levels than in most Americans. Tests for phthalates and fragrance chemicals were not included.

Will these endocrine disruptors give me cancer? Make me obese? Make my genitals fall off? Nobody really knows. At least I haven’t started doing random back flips yet.

The steps I took did help, and I recommend that others consult consumer guides such as at ewg.org to reduce their exposures to toxic chemicals. Likewise, if I had downloaded the Detox Me smartphone app, I would have known to get rid of those mothballs, along with air fresheners and scented candles. (Science lesson: A less fragrant house means cleaner pee.)

Yet my takeaway is also that chemical industry lobbyists have rigged the system so that we consumers just can’t protect ourselves adequately.

“You should not have to be a Ph.D toxicologist to be safe from so many of the chemicals in use,” Dr. Richard Jackson of U.C.L.A. told me. “So much of what we are exposed to is poorly tested and even less regulated.”

The Trump administration has magnified the problem by relaxing regulation of substances like chlorpyrifos, Dow Chemical’s nerve gas pesticide. The swamp has won.

So the saddest lesson is that even if you understand the peril and try to protect yourself and your family — as I strongly suggest you do — your body may still be tainted. The chemical companies spend tens of millions of dollars lobbying and have gotten the lightest regulation that money can buy.

They are running the show, and we consumers are their lab mice.

[1] “Exposure to Toxic Environmental Agents”, The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, University of California San Francisco Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment.





On Microfibers

19 03 2018

 Microfibers are, as the name implies, synthetic fibers that are far smaller in diameter than “typical fibers.” As an example, they are 100 times finer than a human hair, one-third of the diameter of cotton, one-fourth the diameter of wool, and one-half the diameter of silk.

The measurement that is used for measuring such fibers is “denier.” Silk has a denier of 1.25, and for a synthetic fiber to be deemed a “microfiber,” it has to be less than 0.9 denier. Most microfibers used for upholstery are .4 to .5 denier.

Microfiber is a textile made from ultrafine synthetic yarns, usually polyester and nylon. Polyester is derived from crude oil. It is also the terminal product in a chain of very reactive and toxic precursors. Most are carcinogens; all are poisonous. And even if none of these chemicals remain entrapped in the final polyester structure (which they most likely do), the manufacturing process requires workers and our environment to be exposed to some or all of the chemicals. There is no doubt that the manufacture of polyester is an environmental and public health burden that we would be better off without.

What does all of that mean in terms of our health?  Just by looking at one type of cancer, we can see how our lives are being changed by plastic use:

  • The connection between plastic and  breast cancer was first discovered in 1987 by
    research scientists Dr. Ana Soto and Dr. Carlos Sonnenschein at Tufts Medical School. In the midst of their experiments on cancer cell growth, endocrine-disrupting chemicals leached from plastic test tubes into the researcher’s laboratory experiment, causing a rampant proliferation of breast cancer cells. Their findings were published in Environmental Health Perspectives (1991). [1]
  • Spanish researchers, Fatima and Nicolas Olea, tested metal food cans that were lined with plastic. The cans were also found to be leaching hormone disrupting chemicals in 50% of the cans tested. The levels of contamination were twenty-seven times more than the amount a Stanford team reported was enough to make breast cancer cells proliferate. Reportedly, 85% of the food cans in the United States are lined with plastic. The Oleas reported their findings in Environmental Health Perspectives(1995). [2]

And nylon is not such a great thing to use with polyester. It too is derived from crude oil. The New York Times reported in 1991 that nitrous oxide is increasing in the earth’s atmosphere at a rate of about 0.2 percent a year. In the journal Science, two chemists reported that nitrous oxide is generated and emitted during the manufacture of nylon. [3] The nitrous oxide is a greenhouse gas that is 310 times more potent than carbon dioxide, and because of it’s long life (120 years) it can reach the upper atmosphere and deplete the layer of stratospheric ozone, which is an important filter of UV radiation. In fact, during the 1990s, nitrous oxide emissions from a single nylon plant in the UK were thought to have a global warming impact equivalent to more than 3% of the UK’s entire CO2 emissions.[4]   It’s also a very energy-hungry process, which contributes to environmental degradation and global warming. Very large quantities of water are used to cool the fibers, leading to environmental contamination and pollution.

And it’s a plastic, which contributes to our body burden.

  • Chemicals added to plastics are absorbed by human bodies. Some of these compounds have been found to alter hormones or have other potential human health effects.
  • Plastic doesn’t biodegrade – it sticks around in the ecosystem long after natural fibers have returned to the soil.
  • Plastic debris, laced with chemicals and often ingested by marine animals, can injure or poison wildlife.
  • Floating plastic waste, which can survive for thousands of years in water, serves as mini transportation devices for invasive species, disrupting habitats.
  • Plastic buried deep in landfills can leach heavy metals, including antimony, that spreads into groundwater. If plastics are burned for energy, the chemicals are released into the air.
  • Around 4 percent of world oil production is used as a feedstock to make plastics, and a similar amount is consumed as energy in the process.

But let’s say that you did use a microfiber. What then? According to CLEANFAX, a website for cleaning and restoration professionals, “considering the strength and durability of the two dominant fibers used in microfibers (polyester and nylon) one might consider microfibers to be an “idiot proof” fabric. This, unfortunately, is not the case.” The information below was taken from the CLEANFAX website:

A polyester microfiber may adsorb more than seven times its weight in water. This makes microfiber a great cleaning cloth, but a “spill magnet” when used for upholstery fabrics.

Microfibers will hold great volumes of dried sugary materials from spills, and may require heavy preconditioning and hot water extraction to completely remove such materials.

Polyester is also very oil loving; thus hair and body oils will take thorough preconditioning to break these oily films down so that they can be emulsified and flushed from the fabric.

Microfibers will flatten out and become permanently distorted in heavy usage areas, and care must be taken to open available vacuum relief valves when using a truckmount to clean microfiber upholstery; otherwise, permanent wand marks could be caused by excessive vacuum, especially if the cleaning tool has sharp, angular edges and lips.

Microfibers are also heat-sensitive, and ultra-high temperatures could potentially create nap distortion, depending on the type of cleaning tool and spray nozzle being used. To be on the safe side, keep cleaning temperatures at the machine below 200 degrees Fahrenheit.

Due to the need to restore as much of the product’s soft hand as possible, microfiber fabrics should be rinsed with acidic rinse agents or clear water, rather than with extraction detergents.

Likewise, solvent-based protectors are preferable to water-based products, as water-based protectors also likely stiffen the hand of this otherwise soft fabric.

Don’t let the relatively “easy care” advantages of microfibers lull you into carelessness.

From a different website, microfibers tend to create a lot of static, making it hard to move around on furniture. They are also a magnet for pet hair and clothing fibers.

Formaldehyde is found in microfibers, and emits the volatile organic compound as a gas at room temperature.

And finally, 85% of the human-made material found on the shorelines of the world are microfibers. Researchers at the University of California at Santa Barbara found that, on average, synthetic fleece jackets release 1.7 grams of microfibers each wash. It also found that older jackets shed almost twice as many fibers as new jackets. “These microfibers then travel to your local wastewater treatment plant, where up to 40% of them enter rivers, lakes and oceans,” according to findings published on the researchers’ website.

[1] http://www.bu-eh.org/uploads/Main/Soto%20EDs%20as%20Carcinogens.pdf

[2] http://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/zwa-reports-are-plastic-products-causing-breast-cancer-epidemic-76957597.html

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/1991/02/26/science/science-watch-the-nylon-effect.html

[4] Fletcher, Kate, Sustainable Fashion and Textiles, Earthscan, 2008, Page 13





Why does the Cape Town water crisis impact the textile industry?

7 03 2018

This blog post was taken largely from Leon Kaye’s article in The Guardian newspaper.

Day zero for the Cape Town water crisis is predicted to fall on May 11, 2018, according to an analysis of current usage patterns and dam levels. The drought-stricken city will have to cut off taps to all homes and most businesses, leaving nearly all of the city’s 4 million residents without access to running water.

Residents will then have to go to roughly 200 collection points scattered across the city to collect strictly rationed water. People will be allowed just 25 liters — about 6.5 gallons — of water a day. That’s all the water they’ll have for drinking, bathing, flushing toilets, and washing their hands. Some services, like hospitals, clinics, and schools will be exempt from the cutoff and will continue to have access to running water. But the overwhelming majority of the megacity’s residents will have to work with their tiny daily allotment.

Experts say the possibility of civil unrest is high.

Water doesn’t get the respect it deserves.  Did you know that more than one-quarter of all bottled comes from a municipal water supply – the same place that tap water comes from.  And since the average faucet releases 2 gallons of water per minute, you can save up to 4 gallons of water every morning by turning off the tap while you brush your teeth.  There is about the same amount of water on Earth now as there was a million years ago.

And – it takes 2,641 gallons to produce one pair of jeans!  Textiles have one of the largest water footprints on the planet; some say it is the #1 industrial polluter of water on the planet (after agriculture).

Dyeing poses an especially big problem. Dye houses in India and China are notorious for not only exhausting local water supplies, but for dumping untreated wastewater into local streams and rivers.  Up until now the effluent from dye houses that can often be seen in rivers flowing through the textile manufacturing areas of India, China and elsewhere is a result of unabsorbed dyes, chemicals and heavy salts that are used during the dyeing process.

The industry’s challenge is to adopt more water-friendly technologies to dye cotton and polyester, the two most mass marketed textiles. So what can companies do to mitigate the effects of this timeless, yet toxic, dyeing process?

“There is no silver bullet,” said Kathy Hattori, who runs a natural dye manufacturing company Botanical Colors. “There are so many ways to reduce the impact of textile dyeing,” she continued, “because, for example, it’s not realistic to eliminate a product such as polyester.” Hattori explained many factories could start by tackling the wasteful dye-to-water ratio. A 1-to-30 ratio is common.

Reaching a 1-to-10 dye-to-water ratio is an accomplishment, Hattori explained, and when asked whether the manufacturer would then simply need more dye, she replied with an emphatic “you don’t”. Diluting a dye, she countered, simply means wasting more water: much of the answer in solving the waste involved in dyeing textiles lies in a factory’s mechanisation. Various fabrics require different manufacturing processes, so one best technology does not exist for low-water or waterless dyeing.

Waterless dyeing should be the textile industry’s holy grail, but widespread adoption is years away. In Hattori’s view, polyester is the prime candidate because dyeing performs best in an airless environment with pressurized high heat, allowing dyes to disperse throughout the fabric. Coloring fabric using this waterless method could be feasible for polyester; natural fibers such as cotton and wool, however, can become damaged undergoing a similar process. Cotton comprises 45% of all fibers used within the global textile industry, so a sharp reduction in water consumption would be a huge process improvement for this sector.

Other than nebulous talk about partnering with NGOs to reduce water consumption, few large companies currently consider new waterless or near waterless technologies. Kevin Brigden, a scientist at the Greenpeace Research Laboraties, says while waterless dye technologies do help to solve many problems, “dyes and possibly some other chemicals are still used, and it is important that hazardous chemicals are avoided.” “If there is a waste stream – even at a much smaller volume – that needs to be dealt with appropriately.”

“Right now there is very low uptake of use of these technologies,” says Andrew Filarowski, technical director at the Society of Dyers and Colorists. The textile industry is viewed as low-cost entry into industrialization of countries, meaning that lower-cost technologies are used even when superior technology is available.  The most significant problem, says Filarowski, is consumer expectations for inexpensive clothing. The textile industry is consumer-driven and unless customers are willing to pay more for products made with waterless dye technology, the industry isn’t going to adopt it.  “The only way to produce clothing cheaply is to do it abroad without any real control and certainly not by using the most modernised and sustainable technology.”

One that does is Adidas. During a telephone conversation earlier this summer, Alexis Olans, a senior director of the company’s sustainability programs, explained the challenges and successes of what Adidas brands its “DryDye” technology.

Instead of water, Adidas’ supplier uses compressed and pressurized carbon dioxide as the agent to disperse dye within polyester fabric. The CO2, which takes on liquid-like properties, is contained in stainless steel chambers. After the dyeing cycle the CO2 becomes gasified, and dye within the cotton fibers condenses as it separates from the gas. The CO2 is then recycled and pumped back into the dyeing vessel. Adidas claims using CO2 is a safe and environmentally friendly option because the gas is contained and can be used repeatedly without the risk of any emissions.

Although dyeing using compressed CO2 has existed for over 25 years, Adidas claims a supplier in Thailand operates the only factory with the ability to scale this technology. So can this process transform the textile industry? Not quite yet according to Christian Schumacher, an expert in textile dyes and chemicals, who points out that investment in such equipment is still costly.

Nevertheless, assumptions that water is integral to dyeing are crumbling. As Olans says: “Do we really need water to dye? We discovered an answer that not only solved the intended goal, eliminating water, but also had multiple positive side effects, including a reduction in energy and chemicals.”

Adidas’ work is a step, but the recent announcement it would manufacture one million yards of waterless dyed fabric is still a relative drop in the ocean. And among large global brands and retailers, few have aggressively ventured into waterless dyeing technology.

Why are the world’s largest apparel companies not doing more?

The answer in part lies in Tirapur, India, home to scores of factories and workshops where workers dye materials for t-shirts and other garments marketed around the world. Local dye houses have long dumped wastewater into the local river, rendering groundwater undrinkable and local farmland ruined. Despite tougher regulations, a watchful local press, and the closure of companies in non-compliance, water pollution has festered. The city’s 350,000 residents, not multinational textile companies, pay the price.

The global demand for cheap clothing will push dye houses to simply react to local regulations by moving operations to another city. Moral outrage will not convince many leading clothing manufacturers to change their ways; as long as companies do not pay a price for the land and water their suppliers poison, watch for the excessive use and abuse of water to dye clothing to continue.

What can be done in the meantime?  This article by the National Resources Defense Council shows many ways for textile mills to save water.





Chemicals used in textile products

14 02 2018

No parent would want toxic materials in their children’s clothing. Yet according to a new Greenpeace study,[1] a range of hazardous chemicals is being used in the production of kids’ wear from top fashion brands.

A frequent question about producing toxin-free clothing is whether it is economically feasible for textile companies to replace hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives. The answer is resoundingly yes; doing so is essential if companies want to keep their business sustainable.

The global textile industry is notorious for using potentially hazardous chemicals. According to research, more than 550 types of dyes and over 3,000 chemicals of auxiliaries containing carcinogenic chemicals, hormone disruptors, or heavy metals, are restricted for use in textile products under the laws of different countries.

The research published by Greenpeace found that some of the chemicals widely used in the textile industry are toxic to reproductive development in mammals or interfere with the hormone system. And children may be more sensitive to the effects of these hazardous chemicals than adults. A recent UNEP and WHO report[2] supported the proposition that the timing of some impacts caused by hormone disruptors can be critical, particularly for growing children.

There is global concern over this issue (half a million people signed up to the Greenpeace DETOX campaign within days of its launch in 2012) and it has created far-reaching impacts within the global textile industry. Some leading players within the industry such as Benetton have moved to address the problem with a policy of implementing strict controls over its supply chain. Other companies have worked closely with their suppliers, often located in developing countries, to understand what is being used in the production of their products and what safer substitutes might be.

Entire groups of toxic chemicals, previously ubiquitous in the supply chain, have been phased out by such companies within a short period of time – for example, biodegradable biopolymer and fluorocarbon-free water repellent materials are used as safer alternatives. More importantly, these companies have created incentives for “upstream” players in the textile supply chain, those who provide dyes and detergents, to weigh-in and start vying for a share in the market for safer alternatives.

High-end British brand Burberry was listed as the industry leader in the 2016 Down Jones Sustainability index in the ‘Textiles, Apparel & Luxury Goods’ sector; in addition they are also listed in the FTSE4Good Index and the MSCI Global Sustainability Index series, they are members of the Sustainable Apparel Coalition (SAC).[3] This opens a new chapter in the story of toxic-free fashion and raises the bar for the luxury sector. Brands such as Gucci, Versace and Louis Vuitton now risk getting left behind.

Textile industry meetings in Beijing or Shanghai are now filled with energetic chemical engineers showing greener product lines to their potential customers in the textile business. Companies such as Mango have even produced detailed timelines about when their safer substitutes will be available in the next few years. This kind of market dynamic will almost certainly make safer alternatives more available and accessible for textile industry players who are aiming at providing toxic-free products for their customers.

Early birds have an advantage. Across the globe regulations are kicking in that will force the textile industry to shift to toxin-free mode. More stringent regulation will be the reason that brands will eventually have to change to safer alternatives.

In 2013, the textile industry was listed for the first time under China’s national five-year plan for prevention and control of environmental risk of chemicals as a “key industry for regulatory control”. The signal sent by regulators in the worlds largest textile-producing country is very clear: no more toxic clothing in our backyard.

The central government of China is also to release a blacklist of toxic chemicals that will be subject to strict regulatory control. Some of them are major chemicals used by the textile industry.

What about the USA? Here are the requirements for fabrics – mostly applying to children:

  • Section 101(a) of the CPSIA restricts children’s products, including children’s apparel and sleepwear, to a lead content limit of 100 parts per million (ppm). In addition, the use of paint or similar surface coating on children’s apparel and sleepwear must not exceed a lead content limit of 90 ppm. That compares to the GOTS (Global Organic Textile Standard) requirement that the lead content be 2 ppm.
  • Section 108 of CPSIA states that children’s toys and child care articles cannot contain more that 0.1% of six phthalates – DEHP, DBP, BBP limits are applicable to both toys and child care items while DINP, DIDP, and DnOP limits are applicable only to toys that can be placed in the mouth and are intended for children 3 and younger. Although children’s clothing does not need to be certified to this requirement, children’s sleepwear or bibs (child care article) intended for children age 3 years or younger and any children’s textile product that is intended for use in play (toy) must be certified to the phthalates requirements. In comparison to GOTS, all phthalates are prohibited.
  • In July 2011, CPSC approved a federal safety rule for drawstrings in children’s upper outerwear. Children’s upper outerwear in sizes 2T-16 must be in conformance with ASTM F1816-97, Standard Safety Specification for Drawstrings on Children’s Upper Outerwear, approved June 10, 1997, published August 1998 (incorporated by reference in 16 CFR 1120.3 (b), or such outerwear will be considered a substantial product hazard.
  • Textiles used in apparel must meet class 1 or 2 flammability requirements. Children’s sleepwear must be flame resistant and self-extinguish when exposed to a small ignition source. The rules cover all children’s sleepwear between size 9 months and size 14. The fabric, seams, trim, and garments must pass certain flammability tests or the garment must be tight-fitting as defined by specified dimensions. ( See our blog post on flame retardants, published in May, 2013)

What does this mean? It means that the United States has basically no protection for consumers in terms of textiles.

 

[1]https://www.greenpeace.org/seasia/ph/PageFiles/577958/A%20Little%20Story%20About%20the%20Monsters%20In%20Your%20Closet%20-%20Report.pdf

[2] http://www.who.int/ceh/publications/endocrine/en/

[3] https://www.burberryplc.com/en/news-and-media/press-releases/responsibility/2016/burberry-announced-as-industry-leader-for-sustainability-in-the-.html





Plastics recycling: you’re doing it wrong. And so is everybody else.

6 02 2018

In August 2014, Russell Klein wrote an article which was published in TriplePundit; much of the information in this post was taken from that article. 

For the past 25 years, our modest national efforts to do-the-right-thing by recycling plastic products have suffered from widespread misunderstanding and even marketing disinformation.

Don’t want to be part of the problem?  Consider this an intervention.

To start off, this:    type 7 recyle logo    is not an indication of recyclability.

Nor are any of these:

Other types of plastic

In fact, just to be clear, these emblems are not indicative of:

  • Recyclability
  • Recycled content
  • Compatibility with other products of the same Sustainable Greeny Goodness

In the 1980s, the American plastics industry was feeling a squeeze. Environmentalists were concerned over the abandonment of refillable glass and metal vessels by an increased use of disposable, litter-ready plastic bottles. Scrap businesses were finding it hard to sort look-alike plastics, and state legislatures were pushing for a national, codified system to help recyclers identify all of these plastic bottles.

As a result of these pressures, in 1988 the Society of the Plastics Industry (an American trade association) introduced the Resin Identification Codes (RICs), pictured above.  This was a once-in-a-generation, sector-wide initiative, intended to address the concerns of environmentalists, industrialists and state governments seeking a way to tame and organize the matter of plastics recovery.  Placed on the bottom of plastic bottles,  markings depicting numbers inside a triangle of chasing arrows identified the six most commonly used plastics (also known as resins), with a seventh class as a catchall for everything else.

Borrowing the “chasing arrows” from the internationally-recognized recycling Möbius Strip quickly proved controversial, and to this day this system conveys far less than self-appointed recycling gurus assume.

At the time of their launch, these marks were solely intended to help waste sorters identify the plastics used in bottles. The markings were placed on the bottom of the bottles so they would not affect consumer purchasing decisions. Indeed, they were never meant to be used by the general public at all!  Bottles were the original target of the Resin Identification Codes as they were the most readily collected, sorted and remarketed plastic scrap available.  Nonetheless, it was only a year after the RICs’ introduction that manufacturers of other forms, so-called “rigid plastics” (e.g. buckets, baskets, wide-mouthed jars), were invited to participate in this marking system as well.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take long for the system to outgrow its cradle.  In the late 1980s and early 1990s, states all over the country rushed to adopt language to drive public recycling in the wake of a famous national garbage scandal which occurred in 1987: That year a barge named the Mobro 4000 wandered thousands of miles trying to unload its cargo of Long Islanders’ trash, and its journey had a strange effect on America. The citizens of the richest society in the history of the planet suddenly became obsessed with personally handling their own waste. As a result, community messaging and commercial product marketing aimed at the general public began to reference the RICs to define plastic recycling opportunities and to guide consumer behaviors. Unfortunately, this simultaneously created two major, national misperceptions:  Forever after the public would a) look for the chasing arrows for reassurance of end-of-life product options, and b) rely upon RIC numbers as the end-all be-all arbiter of which plastic container should go where.  Thus, even communities who in the early days may have known enough to ask exclusively for bottles marked with 1s or 2s nonetheless eventually found their recycling containers filled with all kinds of dissimilar — and ultimately useless – packaging forms.

Why is it useless?  What is it that thwarts recyclability when plastics of a single number are lumped together?  There are two things; the first is chemistry.  Think of it this way: Every major product shape represents a different manufacturing process.  A bottle, a laundry basket and a trash bin may all contain the same ingredient – high-density polyethylene (HDPE, or No. 2), nonetheless, their chemical recipes are as different as their forms because each was manufactured for a different purpose, in a different manner, by a different machine.  The recipe that works for a machine that air-inflates bottles all day is not the same as that which is required for a machine injecting plastics into molded cups.  Nonetheless, because each manufacturer began with high-density polyethylene, both objects are marked on the bottom with the No. 2 triangle.  However, melt these products together for recycling purposes and you get … a smelly, chunky mess that’s useless to either manufacturer.

So when does recycling actually work?

Consumer product recycling is only possible when you have three things going for you: consistent, post-consumer collections; economical remanufacturing; and consistent consumer demand.  If you cannot efficiently collect similar products to send to a manufacturer, you lose economy of scale.  If the used materials are too contaminated, too expensive to process (clean or sort) or too costly to ship across country, you may lose customers to your competitor in the next region or to companies selling only virgin materials. Bear in mind, clean post-consumer goods are hard to guarantee.  Sometimes what seems like a little bit of contamination in your plastic, paper or glass may produce discolored newsprint, bottles with cracks or jars with bubbles.  Nonetheless, consumers expect recycled products to be just as good as the original material … but less expensive. In reality, this is very hard to do in the absence of a well-trained, committed community that properly sorts its recyclables.

So, now the resin codes (RICs) are applied across products of all shapes and chemical variations, occasionally for the misguided, commercial advantage of ‘green credentials.’  So how does one know when a number in a recycling triangle is a legitimate indication of something?  The answer is: By and large, you don’t. Assuming a single recycling program would attempt to recover only all No. 1s, or only all No. 2s, thereby including bottles, cups, buckets, wall trim, action figures, etc., as we said before, manufacturers downstream would quickly find that melting such products together produces only a colorful, chunky, contaminated mess. To reiterate: Within the RICs, there are too many chemical variants distributed among too few categories.

At this point, as a concerned consumer, you’re beginning to recognize two major problems: a meaningless number and a misleading recycling sign.  If you’re still determined to use these marks to understand what is recyclable in your home or office collection, ask yourself a question: How could a bottling company 400 miles away possibly know what’s acceptable in this particular neighborhood or office building?  Alternatively, was the product imported from manufacturers abroad?  In that case, a meaningful indication of recyclability is even less likely.

Mandatory recycling programs aren’t good for posterity. They offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups — politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste-handling corporations — while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems. Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.

The obvious temptation is to blame journalists, who did a remarkable job of creating the garbage crisis, often at considerable expense to their own employers. Newspaper and magazine publishers, whose products are a major component of municipal landfills, nobly led the crusade against trash, and they’re paying for it now through regulations that force them to buy recycled paper — a costly handicap in their struggle against electronic rivals.  It’s the first time that an industry has conducted a mass-media campaign informing customers that its own product is a menace to society. But the press isn’t solely responsible for recycling fervor; the public’s obsession wouldn’t have lasted this long unless recycling met some emotional need. Just as  third graders believe that their litter run was helping the planet, Americans have embraced recycling as a transcendental experience, an act of moral redemption. We’re not just reusing ourgarbage; we’re performing a rite of atonement for the sin of excess.

The bottom line is: this numbered system so beloved – or hated – by consumers everywhere wasn’t meant for you, the consumer, and fell apart early on.  It’s time to let it go in favor of something better.  And to those of you who continually argue with your spouse – or your local recycling office – over the recyclability of a strawberry container “because it has a number one!” … Cut it out.  Let it go.  It’s over.

Epilogue. Where does this leave a conscientious recycler?

Ask your local government recycling office what products are mandated for recycling in your community. If you receive collection from a private company (at your office, school or apartment building), ask the property manager for a clear description of acceptable materials. Although most recyclers sort based upon shape (e.g. bottles, trays, tubs, etc.), it is possible your collection representative will offer you literature that remains mired in Resin Identification Code numbers. While you might offer to assist their future efforts to clarify this information (via the recycling center relevant to your community), until then you should follow the rules as given. Your local recycling opportunities always depend upon what materials are mandated for recycling by your local government. What else is consistently accepted by your school, home or office recycling collection service?

In 1996, John Tierney wrote an article for the New York Times Magazine arguing that the recycling process as we carried it out was wasteful.  And not much has happened since then.  Despite decades of exhortations and mandates, it’s still typically more expensive for municipalities to recycle household waste than to send it to a landfill.  Prices for recyclable materials have plummeted because of lower oil prices and reduced demand for them overseas.  The slump has forced some recycling companies to shut plants and cancel plans for new technologies.

While politicians set higher and higher goals, the national rate of recycling has stagnated in recent years.  Yes, it’s popular in affluent neighborhoods like Park Slope in Brooklyn and in cities like San Francisco, but residents of the Bronx or Houston don’t have the save fervor for sorting garbage in their spare time.  Recycling has been relentlessly promoted as a goal in and of itself: an unalloyed public good and private virtue that is indoctrinated in students from kindergarten through college. As a result, otherwise well-informed and educated people have no idea of the relative costs and benefits.

“If you believe recycling is good for the planet and that we need to do more of it, then there’s a crisis to confront,” says David P. Steiner, the chief executive officer of Waste Management, the largest recycler of household trash in the United States. “Trying to turn garbage into gold costs a lot more than expected. We need to ask ourselves: What is the goal here?”

In New York City, the net cost of recycling a ton of trash is now $300 more than it would cost to bury the trash instead. That adds up to millions of extra dollars per year — about half the budget of the parks department — that New Yorkers are spending for the privilege of recycling. That money could buy far more valuable benefits, including more significant reductions in greenhouse emissions.

So what is a socially conscious, sensible person to do?

It would be much simpler and more effective to impose the equivalent of a carbon tax on garbage, as Thomas C. Kinnaman has proposed after conducting what is probably the most thorough comparison of the social costs of recycling, landfilling and incineration. Dr. Kinnaman, an economist at Bucknell University, considered everything from environmental damage to the pleasure that some people take in recycling (the “warm glow” that makes them willing to pay extra to do it). He concludes that the social good would be optimized by subsidizing the recycling of some metals, and by imposing a $15 tax on each ton of trash that goes to the landfill. That tax would offset the environmental costs, chiefly the greenhouse impact, and allow each municipality to make a guilt-free choice based on local economics and its citizens’ wishes. The result, Dr. Kinnaman predicts, would be a lot less recycling than there is today.

Then why do so many public officials keep vowing to do more of it?

Special-interest politics is one reason — pressure from green groups — but it’s also because recycling intuitively appeals to many voters: It makes people feel virtuous, especially affluent people who feel guilty about their enormous environmental footprint. It is less an ethical activity than a religious ritual, like the ones performed by Catholics to obtain indulgences for their sins. Religious rituals don’t need any practical justification for the believers who perform them voluntarily. But many recyclers want more than just the freedom to practice their religion. They want to make these rituals mandatory for everyone else, too, with stiff fines for sinners who don’t sort properly.  Seattle has become so aggressive that the city is being sued by residents who maintain that the inspectors rooting through their trash are violating their constitutional right to privacy.

But cities have been burying garbage for thousands of years, and it’s still the easiest and cheapest solution for trash. The recycling movement is floundering, and its survival depends on continual subsidies, sermons and policing. How can you build a sustainable city with a strategy that can’t even sustain itself?