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EcoFacts: Trash Talk

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

RecyclePoster_City_2015Considerably more than half of all of our trash ends up in ever filling landfills. Besides the sheer transport of hundreds of thousands of tons per day to those landfills, they are the third largest emitter of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Certainly recycling is good, but far from good enough. So called “single stream”, recycling – all in one bin –  was to make it easier for consumers. The result is tremendous cost to municipalities and uneven results, including pollution.

Of our recyclables, more than half of them get shipped to China, mostly plastic and paper. (The only U.S. product we ship more of to them is soybeans.). A few years ago in an effort to clean up their environment, China began to reject much of the recycling (the Green Fence) coming into their ports. The great amount of contaminants was being burned and polluting. It is now diverted to other countries for further removal of contaminants, and associated pollution.

From a recent piece in the Guardian “by pushing to increase recycling rates with bigger and bigger bins – while demanding almost no sorting by consumers – the recycling stream has become increasingly polluted and less valuable, imperiling the economics of the whole system.”

For another side of the story, here is a rosy story of recycling, though definitely worth a viewing, from Santa Barbara.

EcoFacts: The State of Recycling, Part II‏

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

recycling_symbolSafe to say that recycling takes a back seat in public consciousness.  So many issues are of greater importance, but overall, resources must be an issue of primary concern – how we humans use the planet, not only how we live with each other!  Towards Resource Wisdom is a phrase that moves me.

We can only handle increasing needs of an increasing population if more materials are recovered than currently are, and if we are much more efficient in our use of them. Every product we use requires energy and water besides the other resources needed. For example, recycling one aluminum can  saves enough energy to power a 100 watt lightbulb for 4 hours, uses far less water and emits much less pollution, than making one from mined bauxite. Plastic is another version of oil, and most of it is not recycled.

A glimpse at the state of recycling:In the U.S. in 2013 about a third of all MSW (municipal solid waste) was recovered/recycled.

34% of glass bottles, 14% of all plastic packaging, including 30% of plastic bottles,  55% of beer and soda cans, 67% of papers of all kinds. Of the waste that is generated, 44% of it is packaging!

In California, AB 341 will require us to recover 75% of all MSW five years from now, we are currently at half. This will mean getting us down to less than 2.7 lbs of garbage per person per day.  Source reduction will be a key method of achieving this. The more we have, the more we toss!  And for business, extended producer responsibility makes both economic and environmental sense.

Cheers to that other 3 Rs – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, which supposedly came from our Earth Day 45 years ago!

EcoFacts: The State of Recycling, Part I

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

recycling_symbolYou may have noticed curbside and public recycling bins with lots of unrecyclables in them, and conversely garbage bins with lots of recyclables.

What can be recycled differs everywhere, but here is a simple guide for Californians and others unsure.
There are thousands of workers who work to separate our recycling streams, let’s give them a hand and increase the value of reusable materials by not contaminating them.

The following can not be recycled, they are landfill. These contaminate materials that can be recovered. Hence, it is a NO to:
used tissue and paper towels,   paper drinking cups,   plastic eating utensils,   bits of plastic wrapping,   food, liquids,   paper plates,   takeout food containers,  plastic container caps,  styrofoam,  dishes,  drinking glasses, mirrors, lightbulbs,  chip bags,  candy wrappers,  shredded paper,  register and atm receipts,  compostable plastics,  household and automotive containers of liquids, powders, e.g. insecticides, cleaners.
These items generally CAN be recycled:
Beverage containers including plastic cups (should be empty.)
Tetra pak – those rectangular waxy things that hold drinks and soups, and milk cartons
Aluminum and steel cans, solid metals
Office paper and envelopes, newspaper, cardboard
E-waste – all electronics, by drop off or special pickup
Batteries, easier if you place them in a bag.
Plastic bags – bagged together, not individual, due to sorting machines
large plastic items, as valued materials can easily be separated
Textiles should be dropped off at a thrift store or bin.

EcoFacts: Less Cool

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Perhaps you’ve heard the news this past week, (so well timed for ecofacts) which must be just thrumming through officeland. In short, for the last FIFTY or so years, building air conditioners have been generally set for the comfort of the average sized (then 155 lbs) 40 year old man, and he happens to have considerably higher metabolic rates than women. Men are warmer, women are cooler, because muscles burn more energy than fat, accounting for this difference.

health-graphics-20_1052695aOf course it was men who mainly populated those office buildings then and were in control of their environment. Businessmen also wore wool suits and ties, while women wore dresses, although often with sweaters and those iconic nylons that thankfully kept their legs warm.

Yes, extreme heat is anti-productive, but so is chill (the cold kind). When a heavily air conditioned insurance office was brought up to 77 degrees, typos went down and productivity went up.  And, if the thermostat is changed from 72 to 77 degrees, electricity bills can go down 11% – that’s a lot of bucks.

I mentioned the recent plea in New York City to raise thermostats to 78 degrees to avoid blackouts. Well for a decade, Japan’s government has encouraged the country (Cool Biz) to have summer office settings at 25 degrees celsius ( 82.4 F ! ) for energy and CO2 emission savings. It helps that their obesity rate is much lower than ours.

Older people also have slower metabolic rates and get chilly more easily. And, air conditioning heats outside air in cities. 

So not only must we fundamentally change the ways we use energy, but women and men over 40 make a majority –  it’s time for an AC attitude change!

Also probably time for another subject.

EcoFacts: Cool II

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

In the 1920s movie theaters began to lure people in during the summer with images of icicles. In the 30s, trains, department stores and some offices got cooler, increasing business and productivity. Much later, large computer systems could not exist without cooling technology.  Growth of the south in the U.S. and other southern climes has happened because of air conditioning.

As always there’s a flip side to the benefits of air conditioning. There have been health issues and research is showing it may even be contributing to obesity. But the bigger hugeness is simply energy use. Temperatures rise, the chances of power outages increase, and then there is no relief whatsoever. And most of us have experienced buildings that are simply too chilly, over air conditioned. NY’s mayor just implored people to help avoid blackouts in the summer heat by setting their thermostats to 78 degrees.
ImageProxyMid day heat is peak energy use time, when the grid is most stressed. What if the work to cool us could happen at night?  Recently a very cool company relocated to Santa Barbara – Ice Energy systems. Energy is stored in ice. If it is made at night and used for cooling during the day…. pretty simple, eh? And so effective that Edison has teamed up with them.

Sadly, this ice could not be used in the summer.

EcoFacts: Cool Man

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

What is the state of air-conditioning, you might ask?  Well, it’s been a warmer summer than usual, so I did.

“Two-thirds of all homes in the United States have air conditioners. Air conditioners use about 5% of all the electricity produced in the United States at an annual cost of more than $11 billion to homeowners. As a result, roughly 100 million tons of carbon dioxide are released into the air each year — an average of about two tons for each home with an air conditioner.”
air-conditioning-furnace-repair-installationThe electricity in the U.S. used for air conditioning is more than all of the electricity used on the continent of Africa. As the world gets warmer and incomes rise, more energy will be used to cool homes, cars and buildings. Sales of air conditioning units are increasing every year, China will soon surpass us in number of units employed…and India is a very warm place.

The refrigerants used in air conditioners now no longer damage the ozone layer, but are still extremely potent greenhouse gases. The EU has banned the ones currently being used. The EPA is working towards progress in this realm, by approving new more climate friendly refrigerants.

Meanwhile here are some ways to use less carbon based cooling. And, Umbra of Grist suggested wearing your clothes right out of the washer and letting them dry while on you!

EcoFacts: Great Unseen Waters

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

19125The water we use not only falls from above, in rain and snowmelt. Ever more critically, it flows from under us. Aquifers sometimes supply rivers, lakes, recharging them from below. Wells are drilled into them. Some are ancient, geologically sealed lakes deep under the surface of the earth, filled with pure clean “fossil water“. In many parts of the world, water that is thousands of years old is continuously being drawn to supply drinking water, to irrigate farmland or for mining and industrial practices, as the rain and mountains do not supply enough.

This water from below supplies an estimated 35% of the world’s needs. In California, it is currently 60%, much more than usual. Texas gets 80% of its water from aquifers. The amounts that remain are as yet unknown, but Nasa gravitational data indicates that a third of the world’s largest aquifers are highly stressed, they are being depleted at a much greater rate than they can be recharged. California’s Central Valley is one, others are in the Middle East, Africa and China. The Ogallala Aquifer lies under 8 midwest states, supplying as much as 30% of U.S. agriculture. It is being depleted at an annual rate equivalent to 18 Colorado Rivers.

So, this drought culture we Californians are living in? We’re in it for the long haul. We can no longer afford to waste water. I hope the farmers are beginning to understand this.

EcoFacts: Ban the Beads!

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

microbeadWhat a good idea, to load a bunch o’ bits of plastic into skin washes and toothpaste to make us cleaner, eh?  Maybe not. The problem is lots of us enjoy scrubbing away the dead stuff to leave our skin glowing and radiant!  So thousands of personal care products contain polyethylene (PE) or other forms of plastic, to better exfoliate. And as usual, economics has won out and plastic is a lot cheaper to add to something than natural alternatives,  e.g. bits of clay, coffee, cocoa, salt, sugar, ground nuts, seeds, etc..

It’s been happening for many years, and like everything else that goes down our drains, those billions of bits end up in lakes and oceans  These tiny microbeads are then ingested be marine creatures. They also act as magnets for other toxins, making them even less healthy to eat!

Dentists cried out about them in toothpaste, it turned out they were getting lodged between gums and teeth. Crest is phasing them out  Word is spreading about facial scrubs, etc. like microbeads in our waters. But legislation and formulation changing takes a long time. Better to just buy smart  and throw the stuff you have in the landfill, rather than to keep using it. Here are some products that contain the beads.

Several states have passed bans and others are in process, like California, whose Assembly just passed one (only Republicans voted nay). A Federal bill is also in the works. NGOS from 33 countries are supporting these bans.

N.B. The term “biodegradable PE” in the ingredients lists is misleading, as the bits would only biodegrade under certain conditions, not being the ones in the ocean!

EcoFacts: Sunscreens

Weekly column by Barbara Hirsch

Although the Vitamin D given to us by the sun is necessary, our sun exposure has caused skin cancer rates to triple in the last few decades. UVA rays, always present during daylight hours and penetrating clouds and glass, cause much of the aging changes in the skin.  UVB rays, much more present in summer and midday, cause sunburn, which is directly linked to cancer. Both can be damaging.

sunscreen-clipart-comp-clipart-screenshot2Broad spectrum sunscreens protect against both, and usually contain both physical mineral radiation barriers – zinc and titanium – and chemical ones such as oxybenzone that absorb the radiation. The mineral ones are often produced as nano particles, making them less white on the skin.Oxybenzone scores worst among the chemical ones. The great majority of all sunscreens available offer inferior protection or unhealthful ingredients.

Once sunscreens leave our skin they enter the environment, thousands of tons per year, where their effects are not yet fully known, but they “have been shown to damage coral, accumulate in fish and the environment and disrupt hormones in fish and amphibians.” Mineral ones might seem safer but their nano versions are possibly the least understood in their effects. Sunscreens are now banned in some eco marine parks, to protect these fragile environments.

At our recent Earth Day, I found “All Good” kid’s sunscreen which appears to be mostly not bad!  In any case, EWG’s sunscreen guide  has tons of useful info, and covering up with clothing is the best protection of all.

EcoFacts: The Sun and Us

Weekly Column by Barbara Hirsch

The sun marks our days, it brings us joy and beauty, gives us vitamin D, and in the last few decades, worry.

sunAlthough it is a primary source of all life, some of its radiation – UV, ultraviolet – can be harmful at high levels to many life forms (PDF). In the 70s it became understood that certain common chemicals (CFCs) were destroying the ozone layer, which absorbed some of this UV radiation. Regulations were enacted to slow and cease production of these, resulting in a gradual regeneration, in the last few decades, of this beneficial layer, although not to its previous levels.

UV radiation that is not absorbed in the atmosphere (including by ozone) is highest when the sun is high in the sky. When lower, the angle is more dramatic, the pathway longer and there is more atmosphere to absorb it. It is also increased by reflection, which occurs with snowy and sandy surfaces.

More vitamin D is produced when the sun is high in the summer months. For those who might enjoy nude sunbathing, it takes 1 minute of 100% body exposure for our bodies to produce sufficient amounts of Vitamin D. For the rest of us,10 minutes of 10% exposure suffices.

Incidence of cataracts have increased along with UV radiation, and, of course, skin cancers, which have increased dramatically in the last few decades because of the ozone layer, but not coincidentally also due to the tremendous rise in tanning salons over the same period. Those who use them have a much greater risk of getting skin cancer.

Next up: sunscreens.