Waste & Recycling


Plastic waste article (and a note about global warming)

An article in the Los Angeles Times about environmental hazards from certain kinds of plastic gives food for thought. The article was circulated recently by the Product Policy Institute (productpolicy.org), and was based on an article that appeared in the journal Nature.
At a minimum, this article serves as a reminder that all this sort of plastic should be collected and managed in a sustainable manner at end-of-life, notwithstanding that some of its uses should be phased out entirely.
(Note that I’m sharing this article as I begin to research a forthcoming longer blog entry on the global warming/climate change topic. I haven’t written on that in a long time, largely because I got tired of it. It’s been a while since I went “deep” on the file; I got inspired to revisit the topic because I noticed in the past year or two an increased abundance of media reports about man-made global warming being real, as evidenced by ice caps melting, weather changing, etc.
I found it interesting in that regard to discover that James Lovelock, perhaps the most well-known and respected environmentalist in the world, and a highly credible scientist, has renounced what he now calls his mistaken agreement with global warming “alarmism.” This was written up in a National Post article by Lawrence Solomon last year, who pointed out that Lovelock’s change of opinion was grossly underreported in the mainstream medium because it’s out of step with with the cant of our time.
Most interestingly, ice caps have been melting on Mars, where surface temperature has changed (infinitesimally) the same as on Earth, suggesting increased radiance from the Sun. Oh, and it turns out that the Earth’s climate has not warmed as expected in recent years, contrary to the computer models. You read that correctly: there has been virtually no warming. Arctic and Antarctic ice has returned to seasonal norms, without the big open spaces some people thought all the polar bears would drown in. And a large group of NASA staff and scientists have publicly denounced their co-worker James Hanson, perhaps the world’s leading proponent of the global warming theory.
My forthcoming blog will not attempt to definitively prove man-made climate change is not upon us; I will simply present some information that the “consensus”-driven media underreports. More importantly, I will investigate the question of why it is that two intelligent, educated people interested in environmental issues with access to the same information can draw completely opposite conclusions about a topic such as climate change. There’s something going on there that must be examined, that seems to relate to people’s belief systems.
Oh, and if you accuse me of being a shill for big oil or anything like that, you can just bleep-ity bleep off! I have no vested interest in this issue, and it would actually be GOOD for me as an editor of environmental magazines if the man-made global warming were undoubtedly underway. It would be in my professional self interest (although personally I think it would be awful, for me, my children and the planet).
Alas, I’m not convinced. Not even slightly. And I’m using my own free-thinking brain to draw that conclusions. Interesting, huh?)
Anyway, here’s the LA Times article.
February 13, 2013
Some plastics should be classified as hazardous, scientists say
By Kenneth R. Weiss
Less than half of the 280 million metric tons of plastic produced each year ends up in the landfill. A fair bit of the rest ends up littering the landscape, blown by the wind or washed down streams and rivers into the sea.
So far Americans spend $520 million a year to clean up plastic litter washing up on West Coast beaches and shorelines. Efforts to clean up the oceans’ enormous swirling gyres of garbage has an incalculable cost. Thus, much of the focus has been on how to stop the river of trash from entering the ocean.
A team of 10 scientists has come up with an idea of how to make that happen: reclassify the most harmful plastic waste as hazardous material. That simple adjustment, the scientists write in the journal Nature, could trigger sweeping changes in how environmental agencies clean up plastic waste, spur innovation in polymer research and replace problematic plastics with safer ones.
The United States, Europe, Japan and other nations classified plastic as solid waste, treating their disposal much like food scraps or grass clippings, said Mark Anthony Browne, a coauthor of the article. It’s an outdated view that plastics are inert, he said, ignoring scientific evidence in recent years including work of coauthor and doctoral student Chelsea M. Rochman that plastic debris is laden with highly toxic pollutants.
As plastic breaks down into microscopic fibers and specks, it can be inhaled or ingested by humans and wildlife. One study found that such microscopic fibers were present in human lung cancers. Seabirds that have consumed plastic waste have 300% greater concentrations of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) in their tissues than other birds.
Governments have struggled to reduce plastic marine debris, with 134 nations banning the dumping of plastics by international convention in 1988. Yet it seems to have made little difference.
So the authors modeled their proposal after what has been arguably the most successful international environmental agreement in history: The classification of refrigerants called chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, as hazardous under the Montreal Protocol in 1989. Production of CFCs, which were burning a hole in the atmosphere’s protective ozone layer, stopped within seven years, and nearly 200 countries replaced 30 dangerous chemical groups with safer ones.
Rochman believes the same thing can happen if major plastic-producing nations were to take the first step of going after four types of plastics that are made of the most potentially toxic materials and are particularly difficult to recycle.
On the short list are: polyvinylchloride, or PVC, used in making plastic pipes; polystyrene, often known as Styrofoam and used in cups and clam-shell food containers; polyurethane, used in making furniture and car seats; and polycarbonate, a hard plastic used in making baby bottles, electronics and appliances.
Once that is done, the authors say, governments might look at other types of plastic that are not made of particularly hazardous materials, but act like sponges absorbing toxic pollutants once unleashed in the oceans.
“We feel,” the scientists write, “that the physical dangers of plastic debris are well enough established, and the suggestions of chemical dangers sufficiently worrying, that the biggest producers of plastic waste — the United States, Europe and China — must act now.”

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