Plastics – part 1

28 04 2010

Philosopher George Carlin once said,   “Man is only here to give the planet something it didn’t have:   Plastic.”

And man has done well:  plastic is ubiquitous in our world today and the numbers are growing.   We produce 20 times more plastic today than we did 50 years ago.

The production and use of plastics has a range of environmental impacts. Plastics production requires significant quantities of resources:  it uses land and water, but the primary resource is fossil fuels, both as a raw material and to deliver energy for the manufacturing process. It is estimated that 8% of the world’s annual oil production is used as either feedstock or energy for production of plastics.

Plastics production also involves the use of potentially harmful chemicals, which include cadmium, lead, PVC, and other pollutants which are added as stabilizers, plasticizers or colorants. Many of these have not undergone environmental risk assessment and their impact on human health and the environment is currently uncertain.  Finally, plastics manufacture  produces waste and emissions. In the U.S., fourteen percent of airborne toxic emissions come from plastics production.  The average plastics plant can discharge as much as 500 gallons of  wastewater per minute – water contaminated with process chemicals.  (The overall environmental impact varies according to the type of plastic and the production method employed.)

Every second, 200 plastic bottles made of virgin, non-renewable resources are land-filled – and every hour another 2.5 million bottles are thrown away.  And though I can’t get a definitive answer about whether the plastics decompose (because although they don’t biodegrade they do photodegrade – when exposed to UV radiation, over time they break down into smaller and smaller bits, leaching their chemical components), most sources, if they do accept that plastic can degrade, admit that nobody knows how long it really takes because most plastics have only been around for 50 years or so  –  but estimates range into the thousands of years.   (To read how scientists make estimates for plastic decomposition rates, click here. )

How do we cope with this plastic onslaught?

Recycling is the most widely recognized concept in solid waste management – and the environmental benefits of recycling plastic are touted elsewhere.  I’ll just give you the highlights here:

  • It reduces the amount of garbage we send to landfills:  Although plastic accounts for only 8% of the waste by weight, they occupy about 20% of the volume in a landfill due to their low bulk density.
  • It conserves energy:  recycling 1 pound of PET conserves 12,000 BTUs of heat energy; and the production of recycled PET uses 1/3 less energy than is needed to produce virgin PET.
  • It reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
  • It helps conserve natural resources.

But it should be remembered that some items are much better candidates for recycling than others.  Aluminum recycling, for example, uses 95% less energy than producing aluminum from bauxite ore, and aluminum cans can be recycled into new aluminum cans.  There is no limit to the amount of times an aluminum container can be recycled. The PET bottle, which is used for everything from water to wine,  was patented in 1973 – that’s only 27 years ago!  Prior to that most bottles were of glass.  Glass, like aluminum,  is infinitely recyclable.  As late as 1947, virtually 100% of all beverage bottles were returnable; and states with bottle deposit laws have 35 – 40% less litter by volume.  I found this image while looking for Earth Day anniversary images, and think it’s a great example of how corporations will slant anything to their purposes.  (Please note that the company in question is Coca Cola – I’ll have a lot to say about Coke’s recycling efforts in 2010 in upcoming blog posts):

There are different costs and benefits for other recyclable items: plastic, paper, electronics, motor oil… They each have their own individual problems.

With reference to the textile industry, 60% of all the virgin polyethelene terephthalate (PET) produced globally is used to make fibers, while only 30% goes into bottle production.  As I explained in a previous blog,  the textile industry has adopted recycled polyester as the fiber of choice to promote its green agenda.   What I want to do is expose this choice for what it is: a self-serving attempt to convince the public that a choice of a recycled polyester fabric is actually a good eco choice – when the reality is that this is another case of expediency and greed over any authentic attempts to find a sustainable solution.  My biggest complaint with the industry’s position is that there is no attempt made to address the question of water treatment or of chemical use during dyeing and processing of the fibers.

So to begin, let’s look at what plastic recycling means, since there are many misconceptions about recycling plastic – especially plastic bottles from which (some) recycled polyester yarns are made.

In 1970, at the time of the first Earth Day, Gary Anderson won a contest sponsored by Container Corporation of America to present a design which symbolizes the recycling process.  His winning design  was a three-chasing-arrows Mobius loop, with the arrows twisting and turning among themselves.   Because of the symbol’s simplicity and clarity it became widely used worldwide and is a symbol now recognized  by almost everyone.  Today almost all plastic containers have the “chasing arrows” symbol.  We’re bombarded with that symbol – any manufacturer worth his salt slaps it on their products.

But the symbol itself is meaningless.  This symbol is not a government mandated code, and does not imply any particular type or amount of recycled content.  Many people think that the “chasing arrows” symbol means the plastic can be recycled – and that too is untrue.

The only useful information in the “chasing arrows” symbol is the number inside the arrows, which indicates the general class of resin used to make the container. There are thousands of types of plastic used for consumer packaging today. In 1988, the Society of the Plastics Industry devised a numbering system  to aid in sorting plastics for recycling, because in order to be recycled,  each plastic container must be separated by type before it can be used again to make a new product. Of the seven types, only two kinds, polyethelene terephthalate (PET), known as #1, and High Density Polyethelyne (HDPE) – or #2 –  are typically collected and reprocessed.   Some of these resins are not yet recyclable at all (such as #6 or 7), or they’re recyclable only rarely.

In addition, a resin code might indeed indicate #1 (PET) for example, but depending on the use (yogurt cup vs. soda bottle) it will contain different dyes, plasticizers, UV inhibitors, softeners, or other chemicals.
This mix of additives changes the properties of the plastic, so not all #1 resins can be melted together – further complicating the process.  Here’s a list of the seven resin codes and some of the concerns associated with each:

Consumers see the symbol and  – thinking it means the plastic can be recycled – drop bottles into recycling bins, feeling they’ve “done their part” and that the used bottle is now part of the infinite loop, becoming a new and valued product.  But does the bottle actually get “recycled”, returning to a high value product, staying out of the garbage dump?

Well, uh, . . .  not really.  Collecting plastic containers in a recycling bin fosters the belief that, like aluminum and glass, the recovered material is converted into new containers.  In fact, none of the recovered plastic containers are being made into containers again, but rather into new secondary products, like textiles, parking lot bumpers, or plastic lumber – all unrecyclable products.  “Recycled’ in this case merely means “collected.”

A bottle can become a fabric, but a fabric can’t become a bottle – or even another fabric, but we’ll get to that later.  There are far too few exceptions to this rule.

Plastic has what’s called a “heat history”: each time it gets recycled the polymer chains break down, weakening the plastic and making it less suitable for high end use.  PET degrades after about 5 melt cycles.  This phenomenon, known in the industry as “cascading” or “downcycling,” has a troubling consequence.    It means that all plastic – including the tiny proportion that finds its way into another bottle – “will eventually end up in the landfill,” said Jerry Powell, editor of Plastics Recycling Update.

The technology exists to recycle most kinds of plastic, but a lack of infrastructure prevents all but the most widespread kinds of plastic from being recycled.  Collection is expensive because plastic bottles are light yet bulky, making it hard to efficiently gather significant amounts of matching plastic.  For recycling to work, communities must be able to cost effectively collect and sort plastic, and businesses must be willing to accept the material for processing. So no matter whether a particular plastic is in a form which allows it to be melted and reused, something is only recyclable if there is a company out there who is willing to use it to make a new product. If there is no one who will accept the material and make a new product out of it, then it is not recyclable.

Only a few kinds of plastic have the supply and market conditions that make recycling feasible. With plastics in particular, how the plastic particles are put together (molded or extruded) changes their chemical make up and make them non recyclable in certain applications. Some bottles make it to a recycler, who must scramble to find a buyer.  The recycler  often ends up selling the bottles at a loss to an entrepreneur who makes carpeting or traffic strips – anything but new bottles.

Recycling reduces the ecological impact of plastic, but it remains more complicated, more expensive and less effective than other parts of the recycling industry. No matter how many chasing arrows are printed on plastic products, it doesn’t change the fact that plastic is largely a throwaway material.

Next week:   what is the plastic industry doing to create a stronger recycling market for its product?


Happy 40th, Earth Day!

22 04 2010

I remember the spring of 1970 vividly, but not  because of the first Earth Day.  I remember that  Richard Nixon was president,  Simon & Garfunkle’s  “Bridge over Troubled Waters” was playing on the radio and the Flip Wilson Show was on TV.   The academy award for best movie went to “Patton”.  (Actually I had to look that up.)  I was in college  –  and it was spring, for heaven’s sake!

I remember thinking that these Earth Day folks should get a grip:  political turmoil had sent the country reeling and students across the country were up in arms about the draft, civil rights and other issues.   Protests against the escalation in Vietnam had reached a fevered pitch–demonstrations had reached hundreds of college campuses. Violence peaked during an antiwar protest at Ohio’s Kent State University in May 1970, when National Guard troops gunned down four student protesters.

But many people had been paying attention to some of the more obvious signs of our careless treatment of our environment:   Pollution from cars and industry had led to several fatal smog events, including a 1965 episode that killed 80 New Yorkers. Scientists told us that Lake Erie was dying and that the other Great Lakes were threatened by pollution from the steel plants, oil refineries, paper mills, and city sewage plants which for the previous one hundred years had befouled the world’s largest fresh water system.  In January 1969, a massive oil spill near Santa Barbara blackened 30 miles of California’s coastline.   For eleven days, 200,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the channel from a disabled oil rig. In the aftermath, 3600 birds were dead along with ten seals and dolphins and countless fish and marine invertebrates.  Then in June, 1969,  Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River, a dump for steel mills and other industries, had burst into flames – one of many “river fires” caused by oil and chemical pollution.   (This was not the first time the Cuyahoga had caught fire.)  Time magazine reported on the event:

Some River! Chocolate-brown, oily, bubbling with subsurface gases, it oozes rather than flows. “Anyone who falls into the Cuyahoga does not drown,”  Cleveland’s citizens joke grimly,  “he decays”. . . The Federal Water Pollution Control Administration dryly notes: “The lower Cuyahoga has no visible signs of life, not even low forms such as leeches and sludge worms that usually thrive on wastes.” It is also — literally — a fire hazard.

Five months before Earth Day, on Sunday, November 30, 1969, The New York Times carried a lengthy article by Gladwin Hill reporting on the astonishing proliferation of environmental events:

“Rising concern about the environmental crisis is sweeping the nation’s campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam…a national day of observance of environmental problems…is being planned for next spring…when a nationwide environmental ‘teach-in’…coordinated from the office of Senator Gaylord Nelson is planned….”

On April 22, 1970, some 20 million people across the country rallied to protest the state of the planet.  This first Earth Day was, as American Heritage Magazine said, “one of the most remarkable happenings in the history of democracy.”  Earth Day was a spontaneous response  at the grassroots level  which spurred Congress to create America’s core environmental protection laws, and continues to be a day of celebration and activism worldwide.

Much has been achieved.  Because of Earth Day,  Congress passed basic legislation designed to preserve our environment, including the foundation of the Environmental Protection Agency.   Efforts to clean up air, land, and water have yielded all of us inestimable benefits and will continue to do so.   But 40 years later there is still much to be done.  Why is it that – even though many agree that ignoring the needs of our ecosystem puts us in mortal peril – we continue to bicker like school kids about who is responsible rather than putting our great minds to solving this  problem facing mankind?   I think David Suzuki expressed it very well:   “We’re in a giant car heading toward a brick wall and everyone’s arguing over where they’re going to sit.”

Curtis White, writing an article entitled “The Idols of Environmentalism” in the March/April 2007 issue of Orion magazine, presents a thought provoking explanation of why we seem to be in this predicament.  I found his article to be inspired and inspiring, and I’ve copied it here:

ENVIRONMENTAL DESTRUCTION proceeds apace in spite of all the warnings, the good science, the 501(c)3 organizations with their memberships in the millions, the poll results, and the martyrs perched high in the branches of sequoias or shot dead in the Amazon. This is so not because of a power, a strength out there that we must resist. It is because we are weak and fearful. Only a weak and fearful society could invest so much desperate energy in protecting activities that are the equivalent of suicide.

For instance, trading carbon emission credits and creating markets in greenhouse gases as a means of controlling global warming is not a way of saying we’re so confident in the strength of the free market system that we can even trust it to fix the problems it creates. No, it’s a way of saying that we are so frightened by the prospect of stepping outside of the market system on which we depend for our national wealth, our jobs, and our sense of normalcy that we will let the logic of that system try to correct its own excesses even when we know we’re just kidding ourselves. This delusional strategy is embedded in the Kyoto agreement, which is little more than a complex scheme to create a giant international market in pollution. Even Kyoto, of which we speak longingly—“Oh, if only we would join it!”—is not an answer to our problem but a capitulation to it, so concerned is it to protect what it calls “economic growth and development.” Kyoto is just a form of whistling past the graveyard. And it is not just international corporations who do this whistling; we all have our own little stake in the world capitalism has made and so we all do the whistling.

The problem for even the best-intentioned environmental activism is that it imagines that it can confront a problem external to itself. Confront the bulldozers. Confront the chainsaws. Confront Monsanto. Fight the power. What the environmental movement is not very good at is acknowledging that something in the very fabric of our daily life is deeply anti-nature as well as anti-human. It inhabits not just bad-guy CEOs at Monsanto and Weyerhaeuser but nearly every working American, environmentalists included.

It is true that there are CEO-types, few in number, who are indifferent to everything except money, who are cruel and greedy, and so the North Atlantic gets stripped of cod and any number of other species taken incidentally in what is the factory trawler’s wet version of a scorched-earth policy. Or some junk bond maven buys up a section of old-growth redwoods and “harvests” it without hesitation when his fund is in sudden need of “liquidity.” Nevertheless, all that we perceive to be the destructiveness of corporate culture in relation to nature is not the consequence of its power, or its capacity for dominating nature (“taming,” as it was once put, as if what we were dealing with was the lion act at the circus). Believing in powerful corporate evildoers as the primary source of our problems forces us to think in cartoons.

Besides, corporations are really powerless to be anything other than what they are. I suspect that, far from being perverse merchants of greed hellbent on destruction, these corporate entities are as bewildered as we are. Capitalism—especially in its corporate incarnation—has a logos, a way of reasoning. Capitalism is in the position of the notorious scorpion who persuades the fox to ferry him across a river, arguing that he won’t sting the fox because it wouldn’t be in his interest to do so, since he’d drown along with the fox. But when in spite of this logic he stings the fox anyway, all he can offer in explanation is “I did it because it is in my nature.” In the same way, it’s not as if businessmen perversely seek to destroy their own world. They have vacation homes in the Rockies or New England and enjoy walks in the forest, too. They simply have other priorities which are to them a duty.

THE IDEA THAT WE HAVE powerful corporate villains to thank for the sorry state of the natural world is what Francis Bacon called an “idol of the tribe.” According to Bacon, an idol is a truth based on insufficient evidence but maintained by constant affirmation within the tribe of believers. In spite of this insufficiency, idols do not fall easily or often. Tribes are capable of exerting will based on principles, but they are capable only with the greatest difficulty of willing the destruction of their own principles. It’s as if they feel that it is better to stagger from frustration to frustration than to return honestly to the question, does what we believe actually make sense? The idea of fallen idols always suggests tragic disillusionment, but this is in fact a good thing. If they don’t fall, there is no hope for discovering the real problems and the best and truest response to them. All environmentalists understand that the global crisis we are experiencing requires urgent action, but not everyone understands that if our activism is driven by idols we can exhaust ourselves with effort while having very little effect on the crisis. Most frighteningly, it is even possible that our efforts can sustain the crisis. The question the environmental tribe must ask is, do our mistaken assumptions actually cause us to conspire against our own interests?

The belief that corporate power is the unique source of our problems is not the only idol we are subject to. There is an idol even in the language we use to account for our problems. Our primary dependence on the scientific language of “environment,” “ecology,” “diversity,” “habitat,” and “ecosystem” is a way of acknowledging the superiority of the very kind of rationality that serves not only the Sierra Club but corporate capitalism as well. For instance:

“You can pump this many tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere without disturbing the major climatic systems.”

“This much contiguous habitat is necessary to sustain a population allowing for a survivable gene pool for this species.”

“We’ll keep a list, a running tally of endangered species (as we’ll call these animals), and we’ll monitor their numbers, and when that number hits a specified threshold we’ll say they are ‘healthy,’ or we’ll say they are ‘extinct.’ All this is to be done by bureaucratic fiat.”

I am not speaking here of all the notorious problems associated with proving scientifically the significance of environmental destruction. My concern is with the wisdom of using as our primary weapon the rhetoric and logic of the very entities we suspect of causing our problems in the first place. Perhaps we support legalistic responses to problems, with all their technoscientific descriptors, out of a sense that this is the best we can do for the moment. But the danger is always that eventually we come to believe this language and its mindset ourselves. This mindset is generally called “quantitative reasoning,” and it is second nature to Anglo-Americans. Corporate execs are perfectly comfortable with it, and corporate philanthropists give their dough to environmental organizations that speak it. Unfortunately, it also has the consequence of turning environmentalists into quislings, collaborators, and virtuous practitioners of a cost-benefit logic figured in songbirds.

It is because we have accepted this rationalist logos as the only legitimate means of debate that we are willing to think that what we need is a balance between the requirements of human economies and the “needs” of the natural world. It’s as if we were negotiating a trade agreement with the animals and trees unlucky enough to have to share space with us. What do you need? we ask them. What are your minimum requirements? We need to know the minimum because we’re not likely to leave you more than that. We’re going to consume any “excess.” And then it occurs to us to add, unless of course you taste good. There is always room for an animal that tastes good.

We use our most basic vocabulary, words like “ecosystem,” with a complete innocence, as if we couldn’t imagine that there might be something perilous in it. What if such language were actually the announcement of the defeat of what we claim to want? That’s the worm at the heart of the rose of the “ecologist.” It is something that environmentalism has never come to terms with because the very advocates for environmental health are most comfortable with the logic of science, never mind what else that logic may be doing for the military and industry. Would people and foundations be as willing to send contributions to The Nature Conservancy or the Sierra Club if the leading logic of the organization were not “ecosystems” but “respect for life” or “reverence for creation”? Such notions are, for many of us, compromised by associations with the Catholic Church and evangelicalism, and they don’t loosen the purse strings of philanthropy. “Let’s keep a nice, clean scientific edge between us and religion,” we protest. In the end, environmental science criticizes not only corporate destructiveness but (as it has always done) more spiritual notions of nature as well.

Environmentalism seems to conclude that the best thing it can do for nature is make a case for it, as if it were always making a summative argument before a jury with the backing of the best science. Good children of the Enlightenment, we keep expecting Reason to prevail (and in a perverse and destructive way, it does prevail). It is the language of “system” (nature as a kind of complicated machine) that allows most of us to feel comfortable with working for or giving money to environmental organizations. We even seem to think that the natural system should work in consort with our economic system. Why, we argue, that rainforest might contain the cure for cancer. By which we also mean that it could provide profitable products for the pharmaceutical industry and local economies. (God help the doomed indigenous culture once the West decides that it has an economy that needs assistance.) Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth may have distressing things to say about global warming, but subconsciously it is an extended apology for scientific rationality, the free market, and our utterly corrupted democracy. Gore doesn’t have to defend these things directly; he merely has to pretend that nothing else exists. Even the awe of Immanuel Kant’s famous “starry skies above” is lost to modern environmentalism, so obsessed is it with what data, graphs, and a good PowerPoint presentation can show.

In short, there would be nothing inappropriate or undesirable were we to understand our relation to nature in spiritual terms or poetic terms or, with Emerson and Thoreau, in good old American transcendental terms, but there is no broadly shared language in which to do this. So we are forced to resort to what is in fact a lower common denominator: the languages of science and bureaucracy. These languages have broad legitimacy in our culture, a legitimacy they possess largely because of the thoroughness with which they discredited Christian religious discourse in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But many babies went out with the bath water of Christian dogma and superstition. One of those was morality. Even now, science can’t say why we ought not to harm the environment except to say that we shouldn’t be self-destructive. Another of these lost spiritual children was our very relation as human beings to the mystery of Being as such. As the philosopher G. W. Leibniz famously wondered, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” For St. Thomas Aquinas, this was the fundamental religious question. In the place of a relation to the world that was founded on this mystery, we have a relation that is objective and data driven. We no longer have a forest; we have “board feet.” We no longer have a landscape, a world that is our own; we have “valuable natural resources.” Even avowed Christians have been slow to recall this spiritualized relationship to the world. For example, only recently have American evangelicals begun thinking of the environment in terms of what they call “creation care.” We don’t have to be born again to agree with evangelicals that one of the most powerful arguments missing from the environmentalist’s case is reverence for what simply is. One of the heroes of Goethe’s Faust was a character called Care (Sorge), who showed to Faust the unscrupulousness of his actions and led him to salvation. Environmentalism has made a Faustian pact with quantitative reasoning; science has given it power but it cannot provide deliverance. If environmentalism truly wishes, as it claims, to want to “save” something—the planet, a species, itself—it needs to rediscover a common language of Care.

THE LESSONS OF OUR IDOLS come to this: you cannot defeat something that you imagine to be an external threat to you when it is in fact internal to you, when its life is your life. And even if it were external to you, you cannot defeat an enemy by thinking in the terms it chooses, and by doing only those things that not only don’t harm it but with which it is perfectly comfortable. The truth is, our idols are actually a great convenience to us. It is convenient that we can imagine a power beyond us because that means we don’t have to spend much time examining our own lives. And it is very convenient that we can hand the hard work of resistance over to scientists, our designated national problem solvers.

We cannot march forth, confront, and definitively defeat the Monsantos of the world, especially not with science (which, it should go without saying, Monsanto has plenty of). We can, however, look at ourselves and see all of the ways that we conspire against what we imagine to be our own most urgent interests. Perhaps the most powerful way in which we conspire against ourselves is the simple fact that we have jobs. We are willingly part of a world designed for the convenience of what Shakespeare called “the visible God”: money. When I say we have jobs, I mean that we find in them our home, our sense of being grounded in the world, grounded in a vast social and economic order. It is a spectacularly complex, even breathtaking, order, and it has two enormous and related problems. First, it seems to be largely responsible for the destruction of the natural world. Second, it has the strong tendency to reduce the human beings inhabiting it to two functions, working and consuming. It tends to hollow us out. It creates a hole in our sense of ourselves and of this country, and it leaves us with few alternatives but to try to fill that hole with money and the things money buys. We are not free to dismiss money because we fear that we’d disappear, we’d be nothing at all without it. Money is, in the words of Buddhist writer David Loy, “the flight from emptiness that makes life empty.”

Needless to say, many people with environmental sympathies will easily agree with what I’ve just said and imagine that in fact they do what they can to resist work and consumption, to resist the world as arranged for the convenience of money. But here again I suspect we are kidding ourselves. Rather than taking the risk of challenging the roles money and work play in all of our lives by actually taking the responsibility for reordering our lives, the most prominent strategy of environmentalists seems to be to “give back” to nature through the bequests, the annuities, the Working Assets credit cards and long distance telephone schemes, and the socially responsible mutual funds advertised in Sierra and proliferating across the environmental movement. Such giving may make us feel better, but it will never be enough. Face it, we all have a bit of the robber baron turned philanthropist in us. We’re willing to be generous in order to “save the world” but not before we’ve insured our own survival in the reigning system. It’s not even clear that this philanthropy is a pure expression of generosity since the bequest and annuity programs are carefully measured to provide attractive tax benefits and appealing rates of return.

Even when we are trying to aid the environment, we are not willing as individuals to leave the system that we know in our heart of hearts is the cause of our problems. We are even further from knowing how to take the collective risk of leaving this system entirely and ordering our societies differently. We are not ready. Not yet, at least.

Our finite pool of worry

14 04 2010

Earth Day is coming up and I am having a hard time with climate change.  It’s such a big, complicated issue.  Climate change, according to Columbia University’s Center for Research on Environmental Decisions (CRED),  is  inherently abstract, scientifically complex, and globally diffused in causes and consequences.  People have a hard time grasping the concept, let alone taking action.  What can one person do to have an impact on such an overriding problem?

Turns out I’m not the only one who thinks that way.

Research shows that most Americans are  aware of climate change and even rank it as a concern,  but they don’t perceive it on a par with, say, the economic downturn or health care reform.   According to CRED,  most Americans do not currently associate climate change with disastrous impacts, such as drought, extreme weather events, and coastal flooding. And although most people can recite at least a few things they could do to help mitigate global climate change (like replacing light bulbs or carrying  reuseable grocery bags) – most are not doing them.

I’m ashamed to say,  I’m in that category.  I forget my grocery bags.  I use the car when I should really walk.  I  wash dishes by hand rather than using the dishwasher.  (What’s that?  Did you know that a running faucet can waste 2.5 gallons of water every minute!  So if I do the dishes by hand and it takes me 15 minutes, I’ve just wasted 37.5 gallons of water.  It’s better for me to run the dishwasher  – which uses only 11 gallons of water per use – even if it isn’t full. But I’m an old dog and habits die hard.)    It’s not easy, is it?  Don’t you just feel like throwing up your hands?

I’m faced with decisions every day in our fabric collection that could have far reaching effects – for example, a supplier wants to know if it’s o.k. to use the mill which has antiquated water treatment because that mill is closer (thereby reducing the energy needed for transport) and, not least, they’re cheaper!  There it is again –   Cost.  The bottom line in most decisions.  And if we decide to go with the sub optimal water treatment,  we might gain a cost advantage (so YOU might buy the fabric) but what will it mean in terms of the health of our children and the kind of world we leave them?

Each day I do more research into the effects that synthetic chemicals are having on us and our environment.  It chills me and I really believe that we’re causing ourselves harm.  We’re playing Russian roulette with the chemical mix we allow in our systems – thinking that since we’re not sick now it’s really nothing we have to worry about.   I absolutely believe that long term effects of our love affair with synthetic chemicals will be profound and that we must do something to stem the tide.  I proselytize to expectant mothers (I can’t help myself) about using organic fabrics and mattresses for their infants and themselves – because much of the research shows exposure in utero is when the most harm can be done.  But research also shows that future consequences are discounted, so people think they’ll just put off thinking of this until they have more time.

I guess what I’m getting at is the fact that we still behave in destructive ways – we don’t buy organic foods because it costs more (and it’s not gonna kill us – tomorrow, anyway),  we forget our reuseable grocery bags and we don’t take the time to replace light bulbs.  It’s like losing weight or exercising – we know it’s good for us, but we still don’t do it.

A report entitled The Psychology of Climate Change Communication, released  by CRED, looks at how people process information and decide to take action …  or not.  It seems people can deal with only so much bad news at a time before they tune out.   Social scientists call this the “finite pool of worry”.   And for really big threats like climate change, people are likely to alleviate their worries by taking only one action, even if it’s in their best interest to take more than one action.

For Americans, recycling has become the catchall green measure, the one action that anybody can do and feel that they’re doing something.  As with every action, there are costs and benefits.  The recycling of some products, such as computers and other electronics, creates a more severe strain on the environment that do other types of products, such as newsprint.  Again, even this topic is so fraught with subtleties and variety that dissecting it is hard.

I’d like to focus on plastics because the textile industry has concentrated sustainability efforts on recycled polyesters – many fabric collections claim green credentials because certain of their fabrics are made of recycled, rather than virgin, polyester.  And we all smile and pat ourselves on the back because we’re doing something – and hey, it doesn’t even cost any more.

Polyester is just one of the many plastics that are in use today;  plastic recycling – bottles, packaging, bags – has been adopted  as the mascot of our green efforts – as one school program says, it “teaches children social responsibility and reinforces learning to respect and take care of the environment”.   But what does plastic recycling really accomplish?

Stay tuned.