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.