Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Recycle Your Christmas Lights!

Don't ask me how, but the City of Chicago will be recycling your old, broken, and unwanted strands of Christmas lights! Visit any one of their twelve drop-off locations now through January 18th to keep these old decorations out of area landfills. Both indoor and outdoor light strings are being accepted. For more information, or to print out this flyer, call 311 or visit www.chicagorecycles.org.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Hexavalent Chromium Found in Cities' Water Supply

Remember the based-on-real-life movie, "Erin Brockovich", starring Julia Roberts as a feisty, lingerie-flaunting, single mother? Yes? Well, you may also remember that Robert's unemployed character was so desperate for a job that she took an entry-level position at her lawyer's firm, which was seemingly offered to her out of pity. And I'm sure everyone remembers that Brockovich stumbled upon a covered-up accusation of water pollution by corporate behemoth Pacific Gas and Electric, and took it upon herself to conduct follow-up research and rally more than 600 residents of the town affected to become plaintiffs of what turned out to be a huge class-action lawsuit (which, by the way, they won) against PG & E. This true rags-to-riches story ends with Brockovich going to law school and becoming one of the nation's most prolific environmental lawyers.

What you may not remember, however, is the contaminate at the center of this legal battle. The alleged cancer-causing metal in question was hexavalent chromium, or chromium-6. The good news is that the NIH finally labeled chromium-6 as a "probable carcinogen" (it's believed to cause stomach cancer, among other ailments) back in 2008, and that the great state of California (which has led the way in setting environmental standards and regulations since the 1970s) proposed to set a MCL (a limit on the acceptable amount of contaminate present) in its drinking water to 0.06 parts per billion. The bad news is that the EPA has no limit on the allowable amount of Cr-6, nor does it regularly test the nation's water supply for the presence of such a chemical.

So why do I think this is a big deal? Well, an independent environmental organization, the Environmental Working Group, took it upon themselves to test the drinking water of 35 cities around the U.S.; chromium-6 was found in the water supply of 31 of those cities, and in 25 of those cities, the amount was well above California's proposed limit.

In Chicago, the tests revealed Cr-6 amounts of 0.18 parts per billion; three times what California suggests is safe. Uh oh. The water pollution in this city is suspected to have come in part from the south side steel mills and other riverside industries, as the substance was widely used until the mid 1990s. Although the EPA has agreed to review its stance on hexavalent chromium, utility companies and industrial polluters are already fighting back. If the EPA does in fact set limits on the allowable amount of chromium-6 to enter the water supply, it will be very difficult (not to mention expensive!) to clean up, and companies are reluctant to dip into their profit shares to remediate the problem in the interest of public health. We're all drinking the water, though, so if I knew there was a way to lower my family's risk of certain cancers, liver and kidney damage, and leukemia, I'd consider it a small price to pay.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Meigs Field Now Bird Sanctuary

Northerly Island is, by all accounts, an enviable piece of real estate. Located just southeast of the Museum Campus, the peninsula was once home to a little airport known as Meigs Field, which met its now-infamous end back in 2003, when Mayor Richard M. Daley covertly sent a fleet of bulldozers to tear up the runways in the middle of the night, without warning the public or getting approval from any of the city's usual legal channels. Unapologetic in his actions, Daley cited only a concern that having an airfield so close to downtown posed a "terrorist threat", in a very-belated response to the September 11th attacks.

Although pilots and other aviator enthusiasts still harbor a great deal of resentment toward the mayor and his seemingly rash decision, it sounds like Northerly Island will soon become a permanent hub for winged creatures of the feathered variety.

In the years since the runway debacle, the Park District has already made great strides in beautifying Northerly Island. They have done a good deal of prairie restoration on the southern half of the peninsula, and erected the Charter One Pavilion, a 7,500-seat (temporary) concert venue to the north. This article in yesterday's Tribune details how architects plan to unveil green designs for a permanent concert facility (revenue from these concerts will help fund this project) and to restructure the old terminal building, by removing the walls (which have claimed the lives of many a migrating bird) and turning it into an open-air pavilion.

A more concerted effort will be made to turn the island, which is on the direct flight path of many migrating birds, into a bird sanctuary and hospital, while underwater rock formations will harbor many more species of aquatic plants and animals. I walked the length of Northerly Island earlier this fall, and despite a group of tourists on Segways, I found it to be a surprisingly peaceful place. I think a nature sanctuary is a great idea, and the views can't be beat!

Saturday, October 30, 2010

What's in YOUR Water?

Just as many people find it hard to remember life before cell phones, others can barely remember life before bottled water. Do you remember when bottled water was "invented"? I do. We must have all been so primitive and uncultured before then... to think that we all used to drink (*gasp!*) tap water... the horror!

Oh, wait. I still drink tap water, and I think all of you should, too. Now, I'm not normally one to blatantly impose my views on others; as long as your actions aren't affecting me and you're not hurting yourself or anyone else, I'm willing to put up with a myriad of different things. But in this case, I think the actions of bottled water drinkers are hurting themselves and others, and here's why.

We've all heard the alarming statistics of the number of plastic beverage containers that wind up in landfills: they make up 45%-60% of all litter in this country, and the number of bottles discarded last year alone, when stacked end to end, would be enough to reach to the moon and back six times, or something crazy like that. Discarded plastic bottles are also clogging up our oceans, comprising a hefty percentage of the giant patches of garbage floating in our polluted seas; the 21st century version of the plastic six-pack rings people got so fired up about back in the '80s.

I know what you're thinking: "Of course litter is bad. I recycle my plastic bottles. What else have you got?"

If pollution doesn't weigh as heavily on your eco-conscious as it does mine, then consider this. Our government, in its infinite wisdom, passed a great deal of environmental legislation back in the 1970s and 80s, and as a result of pieces of legislation such as the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, all municipalities have to meet very specific criteria when it comes to the treatment of drinking water. This includes regular, daily testing of the water that comes out of our tap. And no, it's not 100% pure, but some minerals are good for us and we can rest assured that it has been tested for a myriad of toxins, and test results came in below the MCLs for each of those toxins. We can use additional in-home filtration systems as an extra safeguard or if we object to the taste, but know that in the 21st century, the water that comes out of the tap in this country has been thoroughly tested and is safe to drink.

Still not convinced? Then consider this: bottled water came onto the scene several years after the afore-mentioned bills were passed, so our government, in its infinite wisdom, delegated the regulation of bottled water to the FDA instead. The FDA is so huge that it can't really test every product under its jurisdiction to the extent that is sometimes needed, and often approves items (such as water) that are "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) without closer inspection. The FDA does not investigate advertising claims of "mountain-pure spring water" and the like, and only gets around to testing bottled water every three to six months... if we're lucky.

Independent testing has since revealed that many of these claims are false, and that most bottled water is just packaged tap water. It's rarely cleaner than what comes out of our faucet, and in some cases the level of contamination is worse. If, for example, bottled water is contaminated during the packaging process, it could take months to detect the toxin, and by that time, thousands of people could have already consumed the tainted water. Tap water contamination is detected and remediated much more swiftly than that.

My final argument against bottled water is this: bottled water came about because giant corporations such as Nestle and Coca Cola and the like found a sneaky new way to increase their sales. They've profited so much from designing clever advertising campaigns and making unfounded health claims about the benefits of their bottled water product, they've monopolized and have all but depleted once-public water sources in areas (such as northern Michigan) just to make a buck. Bottled water is the first step in turning a natural resource into a commodity, and that's a slippery slope to venture down.

Water is vital to our very existence, and the thought of allowing large companies to seize our water supplies and claim ownership of this crucial element is terrifying, indeed. So the next time you reach for an Ice Mountain or a Dasani, I challenge you to stop and think about what you're actually drinking!

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Climate Change Exhibit

I practically skipped down to the Museum Campus last week to take advantage of one of the Field Museum's free days, which means reduced-price admission to their normally pricey special exhibits! I've been meaning to go see the Climate Change exhibit (as well as the robotic dinosaurs, which were very cool) all summer, as I'd heard so many good things about it that I wanted to see it for myself.

In my excitement, I arrived at the museum shortly after it opened, and had the entire Climate Change exhibit practically to myself. So I took my time meandering through the aisles, crammed floor to ceiling with historic facts, photos, meteorological diagrams, and flow charts, reading both the interest-piquing tidbits and the heavier scientific evidence behind the findings presented.

Of all the information presented, my only beef with the presentation was with the giant stuffed polar bear picking its way over a mound of garbage. I found the display to be apocalyptic and over the top; the present facts are scary enough, there's no need to make wild predictions about the future.

Although the subject matter was still alarming, it was not alarmist by any means, and I was pleased as punch to see no partisan politics in play whatsoever (which, in my opinion, is exactly as it should be!). The exhibit did exactly what exhibits do best, and that is to present the facts in a clear and concise manner. It's funny, but without partisan rhetoric and cliche talking points, skeptics have a much harder time arguing with the facts!

And the fact is that our planet is getting warmer. The all-encompassing takeaway I left with is that, while the rising temps may be due in part to the natural cycle of the Earth (take heart, skeptics!), our habits and actions as a society certainly aren't helping matters and may in fact be making things worse (hug a tree, hippies!). The exhibit left visitors with a sense of hope, detailing how a few small actions by many could change the trajectory of our future, because the health of the environment and the health of all species (humans are not immune!) are inexorably linked.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Ding Dong! The Well is Dead!

Ding Dong!
The Well is dead.
Which oil Well?
The BP Well!
Ding Dong!
Macondo well is dead!

Scrub oil off the pelican's head,
pull trawlers along the Gulf Sea bed.
Coast Guard said the oil well is dead!

Say skeptics, "Where'd the oil go?"
Below - below - below.
let's open up the beach
and wring the booms out.

Ding Dong the merry-oh,
never mind the slick below.
Let folks know
Macondo well is dead!

The well's been plugged but it's a pity,
Offshore drilling all had to be stopped.
Spillcam's off; we're not the enemy!

But we've got to verify it legally, to see

To see?

If she

If she?

Is morally, ethic'lly

Spiritually, physically

Positively, absolutely

Undeniably and reliably Dead

Adm. Thad Allen
As Admiral I must aver,
I thoroughly examined her.
And she's not only merely dead,
she's really most sincerely dead.

This is a good day for Gulf dependents,
For all marine life, and their descendants

If any...

Yes, let the joyous news be spread
Deepwater Horizon's well is dead!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Stearns Quarry Wetlands

I learned of this ecological gem while waiting on the Roosevelt el platform, of all places. The CTA has TV screens at some of the larger stations that encourage passengers to explore different areas of the city by mass transit, by showcasing certain attractions near different el stops. Advertised as being just steps from the Halsted Orange Line station and bus hub, I hopped a train to the south side and spent a morning wandering through one of the Park District's newest open areas and wetlands restoration sites.

The site of this abandoned stone quarry lies just southeast of the Stevenson Expressway, but despite its proximity to such a major vehicle thoroughfare, the quarry is surprisingly tranquil. The topographical variation itself is reason enough to visit; the mound of unused land left by the site's previous industry is now a grass-covered hill, criss-crossed by paved pedestrian walkways, and the mining pit has been filled with water and stocked with native fish and aquatic plants.

The walkway into the park is lined with large stones, a reminder of what the land was once used for, and the water's source is at the site of the quarry's old well. It circles the well in a growing spiral trench until it reaches the edge of the pavement and meanders down the hill into the quarry pit below. Sedges and tall grasses have already taken root in the fertile soils lining the newly formed stream, and should be completely grown in by next summer. Although the fishing area is not yet open to the public, residents are already taking advantage of the open space; runners were tackling one of the largest hills in the city and families were picnicking atop giant boulders.

After I toured the wetlands, I briefly considered continuing south on Halsted to lunch in (and explore) the Bronzeville neighborhood, but was skeptical of the neighborhood that lay in between, so I (somewhat reluctantly) hopped back on the train and made my way north. Kudos to the Park District and the Transit Authority, however, for enticing me to visit a part of the city I wouldn't otherwise have considered!

Monday, August 23, 2010

Lincoln Park Nature Boardwalk

With the end of summer looming, I packed my camera, field guides, and water bottle and headed down to Lincoln Park to see the Nature Boardwalk, which opened in June. The park's South Pond had been under construction for more than a year, with bulldozers and backhoes tearing out the old and making way for the new, native ecosystem. About the only wildlife remaining from the old pond is a colony of endangered herons (in fact, construction was scheduled around their breeding season), as all of the non-native fish that had once called it home had to be destroyed (because it's illegal to release non-native species into local waterways).

The pond was filled and surrounded by regional vegetation and stocked with native minnows, bluegill, turtles, and other wildlife. Filtration systems were installed in the pond to keep the water's pH as close to a naturally formed pond as possible. An island in the middle of the pond and ledges under the bridges were meant to
encourage swallows and other non-aquatic species to take up residence as well.

As much as I enjoyed my stroll around the pond's perimeter, I think the habitat will be far more impressive in a couple of years.
The newly transplanted sedges, grasses, and wildflowers will need time to take root and grow tall enough to cover the ground, and once the vegetation is established, even more species will come to settle in this ecological sanctuary. It was definitely worth the el fare, though!

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Reader on Recycling

When I saw this story on the front page of the Chicago Reader, I wanted to bend down and hug the squat little distribution box just north of my el stop. Upon further reading (and it's quite a hefty article, at least by free newspaper standards), I began to wonder whether its author was making legitimate complaints or just adding fuel to this already fiery debate. I've included some of the most telling excerpts below, with minimal commentary, so readers can formulate their own opinions on the matter. The article opens:

If you live in a residential building with four or fewer units, you're supposed to put your recyclables into blue carts and set them out by your trash every two weeks—though ... in most neighborhoods there are no blue carts yet. [Or] you can take your recyclables to one of the city's 33 drop-off centers and hope the bins there aren't already too full.

[But] if you live in a building with more than four units, your garbage is picked up by private waste haulers ... If your hauler isn't recycling, you can press the building owner to comply with the law, but he doesn't really have to fear being fined for violating it. Or you can take your stuff to one of those 33 drop-off centers and hope the bins there aren't already too full.

If you live adjacent to a neighborhood that has the blue carts, maybe you can slip your recycling into the ones across the street, if they're not already too full—but don't get caught, because it's illegal. If you live next to a park, or visit the airports regularly, maybe you can take your materials to their plentiful recycling bins.

Or you can do what most Chicagoans do: say to hell with it.

Confusing, right? I think so, too. A good deal of funds allotted for recycling have been spent on studies, which show that only 8% of waste from city garbage haulers is diverted from landfills (private sector haulers fare slightly better at 19%). Studies also project that this number could easily be raised to 40% in both public and private sectors. So why is Chicago's recycling program still such a failure?

In April, city officials quietly released the results of a pair of studies they'd commissioned to help figure out how to reduce the amount of garbage produced in Chicago. One, a "waste characterization study," sampled trash around the city to determine what Chicagoans are throwing out. It found that we produced about 7.7 million tons of waste in 2007, most of it metals, paper, food and yard waste, plastics, used clothing, and construction and demolition (C & D) debris like concrete and steel.

The other, a "waste diversion study," analyzed what's happening to the city's garbage after it's picked up. It determined that most C & D debris is recycled and reused—as much as 65 percent, the result of a 2005 city ordinance as well as demand for the materials in the marketplace.

But the study also found that even with the high recycling rate for C & D debris, most of Chicago's waste ends up in landfills: 56 percent of metals from homes and businesses, 69 percent of discarded paper, 96 percent of food and yard waste, 96 percent of plastics, and almost all clothing.

The study authors, from a consulting and engineering firm called CDM, offered city officials some straightforward recommendations: offer blue carts citywide, provide more opportunities for residents to recycle clothing and compost organic waste, launch education and outreach programs, and start enforcing recycling laws already on the books. (The studies cost $494,250, about half of which was covered by grants, the rest by funds drawn from the city budget.)

Enforce laws already on the books. That seems obvious to me. So obvious, in fact, that I bristle every time I hear lawmakers debating issues into the ground for which practical (albeit unenforced) solutions already exist. Even more alarming to me, though, are these findings: almost all clothing is tossed instead of being donated!?! 56% of metals, 69% of paper, and 96% of plastics are NOT being recycled!?! And 96% of food and yard waste is NOT being composted?!? Not cool, Chicago. Not cool.

According to the study results released by the city this spring, just 14 percent of the city's waste is produced by the homes served by city garbage crews. About 61 percent comes from the C & D sector, whose efforts are one of the city's few recycling success stories.

The other 25 percent comes from businesses and what the city refers to as high-density residential buildings—those with more than four units, for which garbage collection and recycling are already in the private sector. For the last 20 years recycling in these buildings has been an even lower priority for the Daley administration.

In 1993 the City Council passed the Chicago High Density Residential and Commercial Source Reduction and Recycling Ordinance ... It requires that building owners set up recycling for at least three kinds of materials. If they don't, the city can issue warnings, impose fines of $100 a day, or take away the business licenses of retailers and offices ... In practice, however, the ordinance is almost meaningless, because city officials quickly decided that they didn't want to alienate property owners and building managers by enforcing it.

Well, so much for that idea. The article attempts to leave the Chicago's readers with a glimmer of hope in the closing paragraphs:

In lieu of curbside programs or a coherent high-density policy, the city has created 33 recycling drop-off centers that are well used, to the point where they're often overflowing. In fact, two south-side aldermen recently proposed fining suburbanites who sneak into Chicago to dump their recyclables at city-owned drop-off facilities. From the beginning of the year through the end of May, 1,900 tons of recyclables have been left at the sites, according to Matt Smith.

Recent changes to city and state law have made composting more feasible. The city's website offers tutorials, even for apartment dwellers, and several new commercial composting ventures are opening on the far south side. But for many people—even those with a deep interest in recycling—the city's current web of programs and possibilities is too difficult to navigate.

And where will that leave us, Chicago? Before too long, I imagine it will leave us wallowing in our own waste, because we've been clogging up the landfills with recyclable materials for far too long.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Greening of Brownfields

photo via Exelon Corporation site

Stop the presses! Chicago is the Second City no longer! At least not in the realm of environmental initiatives, that is. I personally thought the segment on this Brightfields Initiative that has come to fruition in the West Pullman neighborhood on Chicago's far south side was more of a headline story than an end-of-broadcast blurb, but these days, I'll take my good news any way I can get it.

For those of you unfamiliar with the EPA's Brownfields Initiative, Brownfields sites are perhaps better known as former Superfund sites. These sites, even after successful cleanup and remediation, are ill suited for most types of developments. For example, no one would want to purchase a Brownfields site and build a subdivision or an elementary school, or cultivate a community garden because -- despite even the most successful cleanups -- these sites are still heavily contaminated, it's just that the amount of contamination has been reduced to acceptable EPA levels. So the Brownfields Initiative exists to find viable uses for this spoiled land, such as turning it into a parking lot, or building a big-box warehouse or retail location (with provisions made, of course, for importing potable water).

The Brownfields to Brightfields Initiative takes this task one step further and put solar panels on these undesirable pieces of real estate, which brings clean energy, jobs, and (eventually) power savings to the surrounding communities. And in this, Chicago is leading the nation! Not only is Exelon City Solar the largest urban solar power plant in the country, it's also the first of its kind!

The 32,000 solar panels, which were sourced and manufactured from south side companies, are equipped to follow the rays of the sun as it makes its way across the sky, and will generate enough power to power 1,500 homes. Exelon has leased the 40-acre Brownfield site from the City of Chicago in a long-term deal, and according to the EPA:

"The City of Chicago and Commonwealth Edison have jointly committed $8 million to purchase solar systems in the next five years. The solar systems will be installed on other [B]rownfield sites as well as schools, office buildings, transportation routes, and municipal and commercial properties."

Exelon City Solar will also serve as a demonstration and educational site for other cities that want to harness the power of the sun. So let's hear it for Chicago, solar energy's First City!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

If You Can't Beat 'em... Eat 'em?

That's exactly what Governor Quinn is proposing we do about our Asian Carp problem. These pesky bottom feeders, which are too bony and taste too fishy for our weak American palates, are apparently a delicacy in China. So our esteemed Governor has partnered with the downstate Big River Fisheries and brokered a deal to market this "wild grown" fish to upscale restaurants in China.

The state's initial investment into this innovative initiative is $2 million to upgrade Big River's two facilities, which are some of the only ones in this state already equipped to handle the processing of these massive fish. Projected benefits of this investment include: 60-180 new downstate jobs, a marked reduction of Asian carp in the Mississippi River, and a local product that China actually wants to import. Quinn said that an estimated 30 million pounds of carp will be exported in the first two years of this venture.

Since this unwelcome species was introduced to American waterways down south nearly 30 years ago, they have been migrating north, largely unchecked, destroying native ecosystems as they go. Currently, their continued push has brought them dangerously close to the Great Lakes. If these fish succeed in reaching Lake Michigan, the results could be devastating to nature and industry alike.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Blue Bin Blues

This front-page story of today's Chicago Sun Times stopped me dead in my tracks this morning. The photo, which showed row after row of unused blue carts-- stacked floor to ceiling and sitting in some southside warehouse-- that have not been passed out to qualifying Chicago households. To be more specific, roughly 359,000 of the 600,000 qualifying residences in Chicago are still waiting for the coveted blue bins to appear in an alley near them.

The blue cart program, which was supposed to have been completed by the end of 2011, ground to a screeching halt when Chicago, along with many other cities across the nation, witnessed their smoke-and-mirrors method of balancing the city budget evaporate along with the nation's economy back in 2008.

Aldermanic proponents of this city-wide program have called the stockpile of pristine blue carts (with an estimated value of $45 each) a "colossal waste of money" and demand that City Hall make recycling a priority once more. Mayor Daley defends his proposal to privatize the city's recycling, which he unveiled last month (just to freak me out, I'm fairly certain), claiming that doing so would cut $40 million of the estimated $60 million it would cost for the city to see this plan through to completion.

I'm including this blurb from The Huffington Post, aptly entitled "Chicago Recycling FAIL", which summarizes the Sun Times article and offers a more pointed reaction to the city's recycling shortcomings. I hate to break it to you, Chicago, but the only thing "green" about the recycling program in this city is our collective envy of the villages, townships, and even other cities that have managed to get it right!

Monday, June 28, 2010

Why Putting-it-out-Back-for-the-Scrap-Metal-Scavengers-to-Take is NOT Recycling!

We've all seen them in the alleys behind our homes... they're about as prevalent as those rat extermination posters the city tacks to utility poles each spring. I'm talking about the scrap-metal guys that skulk through the alley ways in 30-year-old pick-ups trucks, trucks with bad spray paint jobs and hauling beds that have been built up with cheap chain-link fencing, rusty support rods, and splintered two-by-fours.

And who hasn't left an unwanted item off to the side of the dumpster, in hopes that someone else will claim it before the garbage men come? I've been guilty of this myself... both of leaving trash and of finding treasures. Well, this isn't always the best idea. I won't even go into how it provides a way for undocumented workers-- who, let's face the facts, make up the vast majority of these scavengers-- to acquire a tax-free income, even though it does.

For the purposes of this blog, I would like to keep my focus on the environmental ramifications of this phenomenon. I watched from my kitchen window today as my landlord cleaned out the garage. The pile of stuff he had amassed was astounding. Within minutes, along hobbles a rusty pick-up truck, already heavily laden with scrap metal. Not only did these guys stop and gobble up the appliances, electronics, and building materials that my landlord had already dragged to the curb, they (with his blessing) finished clearing the unwanted metal items out of the garage for him, with nothing but dollar signs in their eyes!

As the poor old truck groaned and lumbered out of the alley, I began to wonder what would happen to all the non-metal components of these items once the metal portions had been weighed and sold as scrap. While I don't have the specifics on any particular metal recycling center, if I've learned anything from my haz mat and contaminated properties remediation classes, it's that these scrap metal yards tend to not give much thought to the heavy metals, corrosive liquids, and other hazardous wastes they separate from appliances, electronics in particular. Sure, the metal gets recycled, which is great, but where does the rest of it go? Into our landfills, soil, and drinking water. Not cool.

That said, I'm willing to look the other way for scrap metal items like ironing boards and pipes that don't contain hazardous materials. But when it comes to old electronics, folks, take them to some place like Abt Electronics or the Chicago Hazardous Materials Recycling Center (it's free!) where you can be sure that all the parts of that old computer or behemoth television set will be properly disposed of or recycled. And if you get new appliances, many places will haul your old ones away-- if not for free, then for a nominal fee. Take advantage of and throw your support behind these legit services and quit relying on the scrap metal guys to do the right thing!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Privatized Recycling?

Guess what, everybody? Mayor Daley wants to privatize yet another city service! We've already leased the Skyway, possibly the airports, and of course the parking meters (and we all know how well that went over, now that we're paying 5 times as much to park on the same streets we've been parking on for years, taking away free parking on Sundays and holidays...). What could be next, you ask? RECYCLING!

[Insert collective groan and some serious eye rolling here.]

How bad could privatized recycling be, you ask? Well, we'd be paying for it, first of all, and-- once leased-- the city would have little control over things like price hikes and poor service, which is what has enraged so many residents about the parking meter deal. Secondly, who's to say that a privatized company would accept as many types of recyclables as our current (albeit imperfect) system does? And third, if people actually have to make an effort to separate their paper from their plastics, how many will be inclined just to throw the item into the trash?

According to the Chicago Reader, Mayor Harold Washington first put this plan into action back in the 1980s. His successor, Mayor Daley, who inherited the plan when he took office after Washington passed away, has been dragging his feet on the matter ever since. He's concocted a variety of schemes, such as Waste Management's blue bag program (which, as we should all know by now, was an absolute disaster), but hasn't really done much to establish an effective, functional recycling program in this city. Even the blue cart program (which is sloooooowly making its way to 600,000 residential homes in Chicago and estimated to be finished by the end of next year) does nothing to address the remaining 80% of this city's waste, which comes from businesses and multi-unit buildings.

The upside to privatized recycling, should this deal in fact go through? Maybe we Chicagoans would finally have a comprehensive, city-wide recycling program that we can call our own. That's what we really want, isn't it? Well, if so, it's looking like it may cost us... and the final price tag remains to be seen.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Dawn Saves Wildlife

Reason #37492751 to read the fine print: buying Dawn dish washing liquid in and of itself does not save wildlife like the cute little otter pictured on the front of these bottles. Consumers have to enter the long numerical code (printed in white on the lower back side of each bottle) and place of purchase at the web site listed in microscopic lettering underneath the claim that $1.00 from each purchase will go toward saving wildlife.

Once I finally sat down to claim my $2.00 in donations to this timely and worthwhile cause, it only took a minute, but it made me wonder how many people take even that much time to follow through on this extra step, or if they read the fine print at all.

I've been fighting an overwhelming urge to take my Dawn dish washing liquid, along with my pink-and-brown plaid Wellies, yellow rubber gloves, and an animal carrier down to the Gulf shores, and to just start catching and cleaning oil-covered animals. As much as I would like to be fighting the good fight on the front lines-- from the marshlands of Louisiana to the once-white, sandy beaches of Florida-- it's simply not a feasible option at this time. Entering a product code into a web site, however, is.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

World Environment Day

Well, it seems like there's a day for everything-- National Donut Day, Talk Like a Pirate Day, and today, it's World Environment Day. The United Nations actually began celebrating this day back in 1972, so I'm almost embarrassed to say this is the first I've heard of it. I know about Earth Day in April and even Earth Hour in March, but what is World Environment Day?

With the tag line of "Many Species. One Planet. One Future.", the UN Environmental Programme boasts June 5th to be the "most widely celebrated, global day for positive, environmental action." Activities are meant to promote awareness, champion biodiversity, and spur individuals and communities to action.

On the local level, the Chicago Botanical Gardens has a whole schedule of activities planned to commemorate WED, including used plant container recycling, gardening demonstrations, kids' activities, and a farmer's market. We Chicagoans are always looking for a reason to celebrate, and today, the environment is reason enough!

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Green Festival 2010

I made my way down to Navy Pier this morning to attend this year's Green Festival, free pass in hand (thanks in part to the shelter where I volunteer). I went a few years back when it was at McCormick Place, and left with an entire bag full of free samples, including laundry detergent, energy bars, beauty products, and paper products. This year's Festival didn't disappoint, and in addition to restaurateurs, trade schools, and natural-products vendors, I noticed quite a few activists and non-profit organizations.

I spent some time chatting with the Environmental Law and Policy group based right here in Chicago, and filled out post cards to my senators and alderman to vote to close the coal plants operating near Pilsen and Little Village. I also picked the brain of a woman working to collect signatures for the Food and Water Watch, a group that was petitioning to have BP's Deep Water Atlantis rig shut down as well, because this well was missing even more safety records than the Horizon, which as we all know, blew up last month.

If I were a home owner, I would have enjoyed learning about geo-thermal energy, solar panels, eco-friendly windows and energy-efficient appliances, but for the time being I just scooted right past. There's a little something for everybody at this festival: fair-trade edibles (from chocolate to coffee) for the foodies; hemp purses and clothing for the tree-hugging hippies; one-of-a-kind pieces of jewelry for the classy folk; organic t-shirts with clever quips or creative graphics for the hipsters; and volunteer/non-profit organizations passionately supporting some noble cause for the do-gooders, like me!

If you can't make it to Navy Pier this weekend, keep the 2011 festival on your radar; for anyone who's even remotely interested in all things environmental, it's worth the price of admission. And if you ride your bike or take public transit, that admission price will be reduced!

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

If I Were President...

I really don't envy President Obama right now. Hundreds, thousands, or possibly millions (no one seems to know) of gallons of crude oil a day are gushing into the Gulf of Mexico right now, weeks after the Deep Water Horizon platform exploded and killed 11 workers, and there's no end in sight. People are scared and angry, myself included. We feel helpless because we don't know what to do, and many people want someone to blame.

While these feeling are completely justified, I'm afraid our anger is a little misdirected. Every time I see the live footage of that thick, nasty sludge spewing into the sea, I feel a bit nauseated myself. Many people are mad at the president for working with BP and for not making more of a presence in the coastal regions that have been most affected. And others want to channel their anger into a boycott of BP. Neither approach is going to bring about the solution we crave.

Yes, Obama has been relying heavily on BP for the solution to this problem, and all their hair-brained schemes to date have focused more on recovering their precious commodity rather than stopping the actual flow of oil into the Gulf. That makes me mad, too, but I realize the president has to work with them; their people are some of the only ones on the planet who have the knowledge and expertise to shut off this well. The president certainly can't don scuba gear and swim a mile down to the ocean floor with a wrench in one hand and a giant lid in the other and fix the pipe himself!

President Obama has spent a great deal of time meeting with experts and organizing aid and response; he has already deployed more than 17,000 National Guard to the Gulf, and has provided additional military vessels and equipment to aid in clean-up efforts. He is also pushing his clean energy agenda harder than ever, and although it isn't providing the instant gratification people crave, it is the best long-term solution to ensuring that a tragedy like this doesn't happen again. Much more aid is on the way to Gulf residents, but the seemingly slow response isn't apathy on the part of the president, it's because of our tri-cameral government. If you want to be mad at a president, direct your anger toward our forefathers, who designed this system of checks and balances and bureaucratic red tape that is holding up the Federal aid package.

Equally ludicrous is the small but boisterous movement to boycott BP gas stations. This is ineffective for a number of reasons. In the short term, the only people a BP boycott will hurt will be the local gas station owners and workers, most of whom are not even directly affiliated with BP. Also, BP gasoline is sold under many names, not just British Petroleum. Who knows where Huck's or Meijer's or Sam's Club gets their gasoline? And ultimately, if a boycott of BP were to succeed, the company could potentially go bankrupt. This would be the worst outcome of all, because they would no longer have to pay to clean up the enormous mess they've made. We're the ones who have created such a high demand for gasoline; we the people of the U.S. of A, making up only 2% of the world's population, use more than 20% of the world's oil. We're the ones who want the oil, and it has to come from somewhere. Our best revenge would be to reduce our individual consumption, thus making the need for deep sea drilling unnecessary.

That said... If I were president, I would acknowledge peoples' feelings of heartbreak, helplessness, and outrage, and channel those emotions into clean-up efforts and other solutions. I would highlight environmental non-profits that are already in the marshes and on the beaches that don't have to sift through the same bureaucratic bull sh*t that the government does, and encourage people to donate or volunteer. I would demand that BP hire any out-of-work fisherman, shrimper, or oyster trawler with a boat who wants to pull a skimmer or lay out booms or shovel tar balls off the beach, because I guarantee you there is no one on this planet with a more vested interest in getting this spill cleaned up than those whose livelihoods depend on the waters of the Gulf. I would insist that all the aid and relief workers-- military and civilian alike-- stay in the hotels and eat at the restaurants that have been hardest hit to keep the local economy afloat.

In short, I would try to turn this nation's anger into action. We can sit around and be as angry as we want, but if all we do is sit around and kvetch nothing will ever get done. Unfortunately, I won't be eligible for the presidency until 2016 (so save your votes!), but I can encourage everyone I know to be part of the solution, which will empower us all to deal with the problem.

BP logo image: © BP p.l.c.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Hair Soaks up Oil Spills!

I stumbled on this video a day too late to badger my own hairdresser to participate in this project, but there's still time for all of you to pester your stylists and barbers (and even pet groomers!) This awesome and innovative non-profit, Matter of Trust, takes hair and fur trimmings (and even fleece and feathers!) that salons, farms, and groomers package up and mail in from around the country and turn them into hair mats and booms, which are in turn used to soak up oil.

In light of the devastating spill in the Gulf caused by the explosion of BP's Deep Water Horizon well, donations are needed now more than ever! Oil continues to gush from this broken well and is making its way toward the shores of our southern states. I feel powerless to help all the way up here in Chicago, but sending money and supplies to agencies and non-profits that do have the ability to help makes me feel like I'm being part of the solution. The group also accepts donated nylons as well as monetary donations to cover operating costs.

For a demonstration of how these hair mats and nylon booms work in the battle against spilled oil, check out the video posted above, and consider asking your hair person to support this creative, timely, and very worthwhile cause.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day!

Happy 40th Earth Day, y'all! Did you know that 20 million people celebrated the first Earth Day? Or that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Occupational Safety and Health Agency (OSHA), and the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts were all "born" the same year?

1970 was a landmark year for environmental awareness, but sadly, we're still facing many of the same problems we were 40 years ago. All this talk we hear in the news on building more fuel-efficient cars, reducing our dependence on foreign oil, and reducing our energy use and waste production... that's nothing new. As times changed (and fuel prices went down) these eco-friendly ideas became less urgent. Let's not make the same mistake this time around!

So here's to making the next 40 years even better than the first... how will you help? Celebrate Earth Day by doing something as simple as planting flowers, picking up garbage, or recycling old electronics. Or you can join forces with like-minded folk and help spruce up a park or clean up a portion of a river bed or lake front. Every little bit will help!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Living Downstream

Sandra Steingraber, ecologist, cancer survivor, and fellow Illinois Wesleyan (and U of M) alum, made the University's news page today because a documentary has just been made about her book, Living Downstream. I took a May Term class with Steingraber back in 1997, right after her book had been published. The ecology class focused heavily on her area of research, which linked environmental contamination (toxins that include chemicals, heavy metals, and industrial and agricultural wastes, to name a few) to cancer. And, quite frankly, it was fascinating.

Steingraber first became interested in the environmental causes of cancer when, as an IWU student, she was diagnosed with a rare bladder cancer at age 20. Casual onlookers could attribute her disease to bad genes, because her mom developed breast cancer in her 40s, and an aunt had died of the same type of bladder cancer with which Steingraber was diagnosed. But she was adopted; genetics had nothing to do with it.

When Steingraber began researching this book, she collected a great deal of already-recorded data, which had just been made available to the public under the newly passed Right-To-Know Act, and started connecting the dots. She grew up in central Illinois, just like I did, but she lived in a rural town along the Illinois River. With her home town being as small as it was, it seemed like a disproportionate number of its citizens had some form of cancer. So she made her way "upstream", so to speak, and identified industrial waste dumps, agricultural run-off sites, chemical incinerators, and coal-burning facilities as the sources of the toxins that wound up in the water of her town downstream. Because none of these things are unusual to find in the Midwest, further research revealed just what she suspected: her town was not unique.

Yes, her book is full of the names of various chemicals and contaminants that have found their ways into our food, water, air, and soil. But by intertwining this scientific data with her personal story of cancer and survival (as well as a clear and concise writing style), she makes years of intense research (or scientific gobbledy-gook, to us non-brainiacs) not only palatable, but relatively easy to understand. Critics, doctors, and environmentalists alike have hailed her book as "the Silent Spring of our generation", but let me assure you... having read both, Steingraber's novel is a much more enjoyable read.

On the first day of class, Sandra Steingraber used a parable to depict the backwards way in which we are going about treating cancer patients. She told the story of residents in a small town who noticed more and more people getting caught in the current of a nearby river and drowning. The townspeople invented all of these pricey and elaborate ways to rescue and resuscitate the drowning victims, but no one thought to venture upstream to stop whoever was pushing these victims into the river in the first place. And so it is with environmental contamination.

More than a decade later, the specifics of this class are a bit fuzzy in my head, but I know for certain that Steingraber's passion and enthusiasm for her work is what first got me interested in matters of nature and the environment. I also remember learning about Maximum Contaminant Levels (MCLs), or the amount of each chemical that is allowed to remain in our drinking water. Anything at or under these levels is considered to be safe... more or less. There was an MCL Cafeteria in my hometown at the time, which I thought was a surprisingly inappropriate name for a restaurant. If any of those stores still exist, do yourself a favor and eat somewhere else... unless you know for a fact that MCL stands for something else. Yikes!

My take-away from this one-month course, which involved more reading, studying and research than any other class I had taken before (or have taken since), was that we can greatly reduce the number of "suspected carcinogens" (cigarettes were "suspected carcinogens" for decades before the Supreme Court passed their definitive ruling on the matter, which has upgraded them to plain old carcinogens) in our environment if-- and only if-- we make a fundamental shift in the way in which we dispose of our waste and operate our businesses, both in the industrial and agricultural fields. Regardless of what the news tells us, we can't avoid these environmental contaminants just by individual lifestyle changes; change has to come from upstream.

Here is the schedule of upcoming screenings of her film. If it comes to your area, I strongly encourage you to go see it. You can thank me later!

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Plastics #7

Number 7 plastics include a hodge podge of resiny materials that don't really fit into any of the other categories. In fact, the abbreviations for #7 plastics range from MISC to OTHER. The hard plastic polycarbonate falls into this polymeric catch-all, which contains Bisphenol-A (BPA), a chemical compound that it has become trendy to fear in recent years, after studies have suggested that-- when leached-- it acts as a hormone disruptor in animals and humans.

The best "plastic" in this bunch, in my humble opinion, is polyactide (PLA). While at first glance it may seem that these letters are an obvious abbreviation for "plastic", it actually gives savvy recyclers a hint as to what it is really made of... plants! Remember back in Plastics 101 when we learned that cellulose (plant material) is a naturally occurring polymer? Well, some innovative scientists are using the power of nature to create compostable plastic packaging! The only catch is that, because it is biodegradable, it is not recyclable.

Because of the variety of items that fall under the category of #7 plastics, they weren't traditionally recycled. However, more curbside programs (Chicago's included) now accept this type of packaging. In addition to the now-recyclable three- and five-gallon water bottles and food containers, (which can be turned into plastic lumber and other custom-made products) miscellaneous plastics are used in bullet-proof materials, DVDs, nylon, signs, and computer cases.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Plastics #6

Number 6 Plastics, or polystyrene (PS), is a tricky polymer, indeed. Rigid polystyrene products include some carry-out containers, aspirin bottles, and compact disc cases. Foam, or expanded polystyrene (better known by its popular brand name, Styrofoam) is used in disposable plates and cups, egg cartons, carry-out containers, and packing material.

Although there are places in Chicagoland (such as the recycling station behind Abt Electronics in Glenview) to recycle expanded polystyrene, the City of Chicago does not accept #6 plastics in its blue carts or at its many drop-off locations. While this is understandable of expanded polystyrene, as Styrofoam is terribly difficult to recycle-- it's quite expensive, and Styrofoam takes up a lot of space and weighs next to nothing, so it's hard to keep from blowing away-- this leaves me with food containers and produce clam shells that I have little choice but to throw in the trash. Not cool.

Another thing that isn't so cool about polystyrene is that environmentalists and scientists alike suspect that, when heated, this plastic leaches toxins into foods and noxious fumes into the atmosphere. Looking back at the amount of hot chocolate I drank out of Styrofoam cups as a kid at camp, and the number of said cups that wound up being tossed into the campfire because it was cool to watch them burn, I cringe. So next time any one of you thinks about drinking a hot beverage out of a Styrofoam cup, think again.

Of the polystyrene that is actually recycled, it is turned into insulation, egg cartons, rulers, and packing materials.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Plastics #5

We've already discussed Number 5 Plastics, or polypropylene (PP)... to an extent. Recall if you will the initiatives taken by companies such as Aveda and Brita in finding uses for plastic bottle caps and water filters, respectively, to divert this previously little-recycled plastic from the landfills. Thankfully, more recyclers are accepting polypropylene, including Chicago's curbside program.

The appeal of polypropylene is that this particular polymer chain has a very high melting point, which is ideal for hot liquid containers. It is also used for yogurt containers, medicine, syrup and ketchup bottles, and straws. Once recycled, it becomes fodder for battery cables and casings, brooms and brushes, ice scrapers, landscape borders, bins, and pallets and trays.

Remember, plastics aren't so much recycled as they are downcycled-- they will never be as strong or as effective as they were at the start of their lifecycle. And although recycling is now possible, the best solution for recycling plastics remains to reduce the amount of plastic products used in the first place.

Monday, March 22, 2010

World Water Day

Happy World Water Day! Did you know that World Water Day has been observed worldwide since 1993? This initiative was one result of a resolution made by the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, which met in Rio de Janiero in 1992. Originally, nations were invited to "devote the Day to implement the UN recommendations and set up concrete activities as deemed appropriate in the national context." Thus far, this has included laying pipes and pouring concrete and digging wells in areas most in need of fresh drinking water. The fundraising efforts continue in hopes that providing fresh water will increase sanitation, improve health conditions, and lift impoverished people out of wretched circumstances world wide.

The 2010 celebration of this day falls right in the middle of the UN-dubbed "Water for Life" decade. Launched in 2005, the Water for Life campaign aims to reduce by half the number of people without adequate access to water (which at the time was 1.1 billion; 2.4 billion if you count everyone without clean, potable water). The aim is to implement water programs in poorer and developing nations and rural areas, and to include women in the process of establishing safe water sources within their villages, especially in areas where there has traditionally been a large gender disparity between men and women.

Safe access to clean drinking water should be considered among the most basic of human rights, and while much has been done to combat this problem, the world still has a long way to go. Fresh water makes up less than 3% of all the water on the planet, and that number is only going down. While it sometimes seems like we in the U.S. have water to spare, there are people in this world who would give anything to have collected the water wasted by even one person who left the tap on while brushing their teeth. So in honor of this initiative, think of some ways to conserve (and not waste) this precious resource, and be glad that you're not one of the 2.5 billion people in this world without a toilet.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Plastics #4

Number 4 plastics, or low-density polyethylene (LDPE) shares most of its name with #2 plastics, but not much else. LDPE most commonly used to make bags: shopping bags, tote bags, bread bags, dry cleaning bags, you name it. Also found in squeeze bottles and sometimes carpeting or furniture, plastics #4 does not hold up well to everyday wear and tear, and because the recycling process further breaks down its polymerized structures, it was long thought to be an undesirable material for remanufacture.

Thankfully, more and more curbside programs are now accepting LDPE for recycling, as manufacturers have found a way to incorporate it into trash cans and liners, compost bins, envelopes, and certain construction materials. Many stores now accept plastic shopping bags for recycling. In fact, all the big-box stores in Chicago are now required to reycle shopping bags as part of a compromise reached between retailers and the City after the proposal to ban plastic bags (or at least charge customers who chose to use them) failed miserably.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Plastics #3

The third category in the plastics family is Polyvinyl Chloride, or PVC, which is a polymerized byproduct of vinyl chloride. A highly durable plastic, it is used extensively in construction materials such as windows, siding, and piping, and is also found in yoga mats, as well as various types of medical equipment. Its composition makes it a cost-effective and long-lasting product, one that will take hundreds of years to break down.

Occasionally PVC is used to make cleaner or detergent bottles or food packaging. However, PVC is not nearly as benign as plastics #1 or #2, nor is it as easy to recycle. Because of the chlorine present in its molecular structure, highly dangerous toxins can be released into the air during its manufacture. Plastics #3 should never be used for cooking or heating food, as the toxins within are released when the plastic is heated or burned. Some studies have suggested the dreaded chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) may be present in plastics #3 as well, which is suspected of affecting human growth and reproductive hormones when leached into food or drinking water.

Of the municipalities that do accept PVC packaging for recycling (and yes, Chicago does!), it is recycled into plastic lumber and flooring, cables, speed bumps, and mats.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Plastics #2

High-density Polyethylene, or HDPE, is like a little brother to PETE. Better known as plastics #2, it is easily recyclable and can be remanufactured into a number of products. Uncolored HDPE has a milky, or translucent sheen, as evidenced in milk jugs, shopping bags, and cereal box liners. Colored, or pigmented HDPE is common as well, and tends to be a bit stiffer than its naturally hued counterpart. Colored HDPE usually packages cleaners, detergents, and beauty products.

HDPE is easy to form and easy to process. Not only does the chemical make up of high-density polyethylene make it unlikely to leach into food products or break down too much when heated, it is highly resistant to chemical reactions, which makes it ideal for packaging bleach, motor oil, household cleansers and industrial chemicals.

Because of its strength and stability on a molecular level, HDPE is one of the only plastics that can be recycled back into a plastic bottle or container. Other products commonly made from HDPE include: floor tiles, artificial lumber and fencing, drain pipes, dog houses and picnic tables. There's also a pretty good chance that your recycling bin is made out of #2 plastics! How many of your HDPE containers are making it into that bin?

Friday, February 26, 2010

Plastics #1

Plastics #1 is the designated number for all plastic containers made with Polyethylene Terephthalate, or PETE for short. Polyethylene (and all its variations) is the most widely produced plastic in the world, and for good reason. Used to make everything from soda and water bottles to trash bags to peanut butter jars to oven-safe food containers, the plastics in this category are the most easily recycled. They are also the least likely to leach chemicals when heated, which makes it the safest choice for food and beverage containers by far.

Recycled polyethylene terephthalate is actually in high demand; manufacturers use it to make polar fleece, furniture, carpeting, and occasionally new containers. Despite its many (re)uses, the recycling rate for #1 plastics remains quite low; several reports claim it to be as low as 20% in some areas. This is especially surprising because some programs, such as California's Bottle Bill, offer a monetary refund for the return and recycling of containers made from plastics #1.

So when in doubt, just think of PETE. PETE's your buddy, PETE's your pal! C'mon, Chicagoans-- Recycle PETE so manufacturers have a cost-effective and responsible way of making all those products we want to buy! And just think, purchasing those re-manufactured products will be much more rewarding without having a guilty eco-conscience; I don't think there's any such thing as green-buyers' remorse.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Plastics 101

Plastics are polymers, meaning that on the molecular level, thousands of like molecules, or monomers (for plastics, this usually translates into long, long, chains of hydrocarbons, with some other molecules mixed in here and there, which I'll get to in a minute) join forces to create one giant molecule.

Plastics make up one group of synthetic (or man made) polymers, the other being rubber. However, naturally occurring polymers are far more prevalent than all the manufactured rubber and plastic products in the world, combined! Natural polymers include wood, cotton, leather, and wool, which man has long used to build homes and make clothing; the synthetic polymers available today serve to complement these naturally occurring substances.

Left to its own devices, the chemical reaction that causes polymerization would continue unchecked, creating infinitely long chains of hydrocarbons, which would produce so much heat and energy that they would eventually self-combust. This is where the other elements come in; they serve as book ends, if you will, to an otherwise never-ending polymer. Some plastics might contain molecules of chlorine, fluorine, oxygen, or nitrogen, so the make up (and eventual breakdown) of plastics vary drastically from one type to the next.

Okay, so by now we all know that it's important to recycle plastics. But what many people don't know is that some types of plastics are more easily recycled than others, and discerning which containers should go in a blue bin can be downright confusing. Fortunately for us Chicagoans, the city's recycling program accepts six out of the seven basic types of plastics used for packaging and containers: #1-5 and #7.

So what does this mean? Each number represents a category by which plastics can be sorted, and for all intensive purposes, the lower the number, the easier the plastic is to recycle. The good news is that all plastics can be recycled, but the bad news is that not all plastics can be easily recycled. Adding to the bad news is that the composition of plastic changes when exposed to heat, which causes the polymers to break down, the single bonds within the hydrocarbon chains to weaken, and sometimes chemicals within the polymer leach out of the plastic itself. This is especially troubling in the case of plastic bottles or containers for food or beverages.

The other troubling thing about plastic is that, unlike recyclables made from more natural substances such as aluminum and paper, plastic cannot be recycled back into plastic, which means that we have to find other uses for recycled plastics. Without a market for products made from recycled plastics, all the recycling in the world won't do us any good! Stay tuned in the coming months for a breakdown of the seven main types of recyclable plastics, including the common uses and resulting byproducts for each.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Polystyrene Ban Proposed

Ed Burke, 14th Ward Alderman and Chairman of the Finance Committee, proposed a city-wide ban on polystyrene products-- better known as Styrofoam-- used in the food industry. Though this proposal-- spurred by the realization that Chicago Public Schools are throwing away 35 million polystyrene lunch trays each year; that's more than 250,000 trays a day!-- is a good idea in theory, every time a political figure tries to ban something in this city, people get all up in arms. And Alderman Burke has proposed to ban a lot of stuff: plastic bags, BPA, trans fats, and smoking inside public places. While I agree these would all be in the best interests of the city, the smoking ban was the only proposal to gain any traction. However, he's also had some proposals that were pretty "out there", such as banning carriage horses from pooping on the street (has anyone ever seen a horse in a diaper? Didn't think so) and limiting dogs to 10 minutes of barking within a certain time frame, which is ridiculous on a number of levels.

If passed, this proposal-- like all proposed bans-- would come with fines that would theoretically generate much-needed revenue for the city. However, it should be pretty clear by now that this simply doesn't work; nobody pays attention to these arbitrary new mandates, and few people are fined because these proposals are so hard to enforce. Didn't the city learn anything from the foie gras debacle that made Chicago the laughing stock of the culinary world? Restaurant chefs took pride in breaking that law, which was eventually rescinded. I personally disagree with foie gras from an ethical standpoint, so I don't eat it. Not everyone shares my concern, but banning the end product didn't solve anything, especially not for the force-fed geese.

No Foam Chicago, a grass-roots organization, is backing Alderman Burke's ban, but with the very thing his proposal is lacking: facts. Among the group's top ten reasons to ban Styrofoam, they cite the chemical styrene as a known environmental hazard to human health and reproductive systems. When heated (in the microwave, or by the addition of a hot food or beverage to the container), the chemical leaches into the food and is unintentionally ingested. Also, polystyrene recycling, while possible, is quite costly and largely impractical, so the bulk of these containers wind up clogging our landfills, where they take centuries to break down.

A number of eco-friendly, biodegradable alternatives to Styrofoam packaging in recent years that are more readily available and less cost prohibitive than they were in the past. Giant corporations like McDonald's have phased out their use of polystyrene products (remember when those fried, low-grade burgers used to come in watered-down, pastel-colored clam shells?) without losing profits, and the people who consume these sandwiches are *slightly* healthier because of it.

If Alderman Burke wants to make a change to the polystyrene problem in our public schools, he might be better off playing his "won't somebody think of the children!" card, and working with CPS to find a better solution. Heck-- have the high school science teachers address the problem in their lesson plans, and let the students figure out a better way. Help them help themselves! Do I think Chicago restaurants should get away from using polystyrene packaging? Yes. Is banning Styrofoam and riling up our vibrant restaurant industry the answer? No. I believe the good people of Chicago will respond better to helpful incentives than they will to heavy-handed influence; I'm no Alderman, but I think it's worth a try!