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).

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