Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Conveniently chipper

I can’t resist another comment about the chip bag controversy. It is just too ripe! According to Green Biz contributor Suzanne Shelton’s EcoPulse survey, 65% of Americans are looking for greener products, while 76% of Americans will always choose their own convenience over the environment. Hmm, no wonder the chip bag story won’t die - it wraps up our environmental apathy in a nutshell.

However, a deeper look at this issue shows that even if all SunChips bags were still being made with biodegradable materials, consumers wouldn’t be placing them in a proper compost pile anyway. That’s because most compostable packaging that has been on the market in the US up until now has been designed to biodegrade in an industrial compost facility (of which there are few and far between depending on where you live). Industrial compost facilities reach much higher temperatures more quickly and are more consistently rotated than home compost piles. Bioplastic and starch-based packaging is usually designed to last until it should reach this type of controlled environment. That’s not to say these packages won’t ever biodegrade in your home compost pile, but it’s not going to do so as quickly as your vegetable peels.

The good news is that the FTC in the past 2 years has been enforcing its guidelines on environmental marketing claims such as “biodegradable” and “compostable” (and just release updated guidelines as well). This means that if you do choose a product with compostable packaging, you should (soon!) be seeing clear information on exactly how long and where that package will effectively biodegrade into usable compost.

Now you can get back to eating your chips!

Sunday, October 10, 2010

When the walls come down

Having gone silent for the month of September (sorry, followers!), I entered October with a mental logjam of environmental topics competing for the blog sluice. Thank you Deidre, for broadening the channel with the "Oct 8 round-up". Here's what that got flowing:

If bauxite eating through containment walls in Hungary is responsible for red caustic sludge reaching the blue Danube, what we need are better sludge pond walls, right? And maybe more monitoring of their erosion, so toxins stay right where we put them until they next generation comes along to keep an eye on them. Following this line of reasoning, as long as we provide constant surveillance for the rest of time, we should be able to go about manufacturing aluminum from bauxite until we run out of bauxite or whatever material is used to seal its processed sludge off from the ecosystem around it. At that point, the aluminum manufacturers will have to rethink things.

Meanwhile aluminum is one of the most plentiful and repeatedly recyclable materials on the planet and the need to dredge up bauxite to chunk out virgin aluminum is one we should question. Two-thirds of bauxite-mined aluminum is in use today, but annually, almost 50% of all aluminum goes to landfill. Are we really running out of aluminum, or are we just failing to collect the cans and to see the huge prevention value in working with recycled material instead of mining bauxite and stewing new batches of toxic waste?

Lately it feels like this fight-change-at-all-costs scenario has been embraced in too many industry vs. human and environmental health debates. Consider the Consumer Product Safety Commission (that's CPSC for the Acronomist List) and their uphill battle getting manufacturers to adhere to a regulation designed to keep neuro-toxins and hormone disruptors out of the mouths and hands of developing human beings. While one might argue the heavy metals and plasticizers that deliver these deleterious effects are not recommended for the health of any living thing, frogs included, the regulation targets the most vulnerable among us - children. And therein lies the loophole for manufacturers who have responded by claiming that only a very small range of products are actually made "for children" explicitly. So they'll begrudgingly comply when manufacturing pacifiers, but board games and footballs are for families, so butt out CPSC.

Maybe I'm being too hard on manufacturers here. Afterall, as consumers we supply the demand, whether it's for canned goods, toys, or Sun Chips. And as consumers we need to start sending a message back to manufacturers with our purchases. That may mean letting recycled content or a CPSC stamp of approval dictate to us in the store aisle. But even that is not enough. If we really want to demonstrate to manufacturers that they should take the risk and do the less convenient, more expensive, or not-yet-perfected thing, we have to show our support for incremental progress, and not seize up over new compostable chip bags that are so loud to open that they get us busted for snacking in the wrong place or the wrong time. But think about the message this sends.

Dear Frito-Lay,
Nice try, but we'd rather contribute to landfill than lose what we see as our inalienable right to take Sun Chips into the Acela Quiet Car. Sorry about all that retrofitting of the packaging line you did, but we're really just into closet eating.

A little perspective could go a long way. For instance, I don't know how to balance the equation for the folks in Vinylhaven, Maine who deal with the near-constant noise pollution of renewable energy in the form of wind turbines. But I'm pretty sure they deserve more sympathy than the silence-is-golden-snackers. I'd like to imagine a future when wind, solar, small hydro, and sustainably produced bio-fuels will have survived their awkward years and learned to peacefully co-exist with our cantankerous species. And maybe one enlightened elder will have designed a pedestrian warning system for the previously silent Nissan LEAFTM, (using his or her collectors item Sun Chip bag of course).

Friday, October 8, 2010

Weekly Round Up (Oct 8)

We're giving a round up of some of the more interesting articles that came across our desks this week. (Although I'll also include one from last week, since I'm just getting this going and, hey - I'm behind). 

Government busy bees have revealed that some much-needed work is getting done:
The FTC has released its proposed changes to its Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims! Its only been 12 years since the last update. Public comments are being accepted through December 10th.

And, the EPA has a 5-year plan! 2011-2015 plan outline here.

But sadly, ecological disasters aren't waiting around for legislation. The toxic mining waste that flooded several Hungarian towns and killed 4 people was a reminder that even when environmental and other groups are monitoring toxic sites, companies aren't necessarily heeding the "at risk" designations and   catastrophes like this can happen almost anywhere. The video footage of the spill seen here is truly frightening, as are National Geographic's photos.

Lastly, Treehugger noted that we're doomed as a species if people can't accept a slight change in their comfort level, as evidenced here in the big, big headline of the week: SunChip's compostable bags are just too noisy for Americans!  More from Carol soon on this groundbreaking news! 

Friday, October 1, 2010

Follow-up on microbes and bioremediation

Last month I wrote about the purported clean-up of the BP spill by oil-eating microbes gone on a feeding frenzy. This kind of clean-up by microbes has happened throughout time (such as when natural oil leaks occur on the ocean floor and the organisms kick into overdrive). In our more recent history, scientists have played with the idea of engineering microbes for purposes of this kind of "bioremediation." 

NRDC has a recent article by Emily Voigt on the subject.  She points out the problems in thinking that bioremediation will cure our ills without leaving some problems of its own in its wake:

"The microbial feeding frenzy that inevitably follows an oil spill upsets the equilibrium of the ocean: blooms of bacteria, for example, deplete oxygen levels. And should heavy hydrocarbons settle onto the cold seafloor, blanketing one of the most diverse ecosystems on earth, the resulting tar field would persist indefinitely, like some sort of deep-sea parking lot." 

And as I noted before, and she mentions here again, these oil-eating microbes are naturally adapted to consume one specific substance, and if engineered, perhaps they may consume several chemical compounds at at time. But when crude oil spills into the ocean, it contains "tens of thousands of different hydrocarbons, from simple gases such as methane to complex liquids like benzene."  Thats a tall order for such little guys.