Notes on waste, water, whatever
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How much BPA does the human liver filter?

The New York Times reports today on a study in Environmental Health Perspectives: humans may be exposed to eight times the “safe” level (as determined by the U.S. EPA) of BPA, and the liver isn’t clearing all of it — according to studies that extrapolate from mice and monkeys to humans. But is what remains in our blood biologically active? The regulatory and scientific debate goes on.

September 21, 2010   No Comments

Inching toward the compost revolution

Seattle Public Utilities just announced that by July 1st, 2010, “all food service products designed for one-time-use must be replaced with one-time use products that are either compostable or recyclable.” Yahoo. The rule covers restaurants, grocery stores, delis, coffee shops and institutional cafeterias. But since many Seattle recyclers already accept plastic clam shells, yogurt cups, berry boxes, and so on, I wonder how many food outlets will go to the additional expense of purchasing compostable containers.

The city collects food waste already, so the service ware and food scraps will now go into the same bin. Is collecting and processing biodegradable material less energy and water intensive than collecting and processing materials for recycling? I don’t know. But the end product – fertilizer or mulch – seems like an unmitigated good (so long as there’s an outlet for the material), while the consumer products made from mixed plastics (T-shirts, carpeting, strapping, sleeping bag filling, etc.) will merely be landfilled at the end of their useful lives.

Still, the recycled plastic is replacing virgin plastic…. Have you checked out the live feed from the BP spill lately? Start here.

June 4, 2010   No Comments

One Australian’s take on water privatization

Interesting piece at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s “The Drum Unleashed” website on water privatization. Author Ian Douglas is largely against it.

May 26, 2010   No Comments

“Recycling’s so boring….

We tried to make it a little bit more exciting.” That’s David Belt, developer and art entrepreneur, speaking about his latest project, Glassphemy!, in the New York Times today. Visitors to Glassphemy (by invitation only), on a lot near the Gowanus Canal, will stand on low and high platforms at either end of a 20 foot by 30 foot box made of bulletproof glass. (That’s a bird’s eye view, above. Photo by Piotr Redlinski.) Folks on the high end get to peg beer bottles, donated by nearby bars, into the pit or at visitors on the low end. The vibration and noise set off flashing lights.

It sounds like great fun: who doesn’t love smashing glass? But there’s another dimension to this installation. ReadyMade magazine is sponsoring a contest, asking readers to submit their best ideas for recycling the glass, and Belt’s company, Macro Sea, will produce the design. According to the Times article, the reuse will help “counter the widespread suspicion that recyclables are just thrown out anyway.” I hate to say it, but in New York City, which no longer mixes glass with asphalt in paving, our glass is pulverized for use as cover (a legal requirement) at landfills. If Belt can come up with a higher and local use (local is important: glass is too heavy to haul very far) for the city’s constant stream of broken, mixed-color glass, I’d love to see it. Until then, I remain reluctant to spend too much time and water cleaning out my peanut butter jars for “recycling.” Blasphemy? Maybe.

Of course, those beer bottles he’s using are exactly the sort of material we don’t want smashed up: beer bottles can be refilled with beer, or broken down to make new beer bottles (an energy saver). That’s why we have a bottle bill in New York State: it helps gets this relatively clean, homogeneous stream back into production. If Belt invites me in to smash (please, sir?), I’d love to bring my own projectiles — the mixed up glass containers not covered by the bottle bill, the stuff that’s otherwise headed to the dump. Lord knows, there’s plenty of it, and it keeps on coming.

May 12, 2010   No Comments

Dear Tom

I was going to post a comment in my comment section in response to Tom Lauria’s comment on my post of yesterday but decided to answer him here instead. (Tom is vice president of communications for the International Bottled Water Association.)

Tom, I admire your vigilance and your stubbornness! The International Bottled Water Association is really getting its money’s worth out of you.  First: Yes, reuse takes precedence over recycling (and this isn’t exactly new), but reducing (whether it’s the number of refillable or recyclable bottles produced or the number of delivery trucks they ride around on) comes even higher in the 3R hierarchy.

A question: how old are you? Do you remember when “low cost,” convenient, single-use containers of water didn’t exist? I do. (Yes, there were five-gallon reusable jugs here and there, but they were hardly common in public places.) And yet I wasn’t dehydrated. Were you? There’s no medical basis for this idea that we must drink 64 oz of water a day.  If “bottled water is only for hydration,” as you state, and we’re adequately hydrated through other media (tap water, other liquids, and foods that contain water), there goes one of your rationales.

I do think people should have a choice of tap or bottled water, but the playing field is hardly level if water fountains continue to disappear and citizens mistakenly believe their local water supply is tainted.  (Sure there are some problems with tap water, but the vast majority of Americans has decent water. Those that don’t need to know exactly what’s wrong, then work on solutions to the problem.) I think people should know the facts about bottled water and tap water, then make an informed choice, a choice that doesn’t depend on ignorance.

Btw: I don’t consider myself a bottled-water activist. Have you actually read my water book (or my garbage book or my rainforest book) or heard one of my college lectures on drinking water? (Sorry folks, I just thought I’d make a shameless plug for the entity that financially supports me: me.)

April 17, 2010   2 Comments

Do individual actions matter? The Onion says yes

Of course, this works both ways — actions for the better (what if everyone sent toxic-laden packaging back to its manufacturer?) and for the worse. Read The Onion’s recent piece, “How Bad For The Environment Can Throwing Away One Plastic Bottle Be?’ 30 Million People Wonder,” and consider that every day 30 million people (or more – I’ve seen higher numbers) do the same.  Sure, recycling rates for water bottles have gone up in the last couple years, but we’re still recovering less than 70 percent of them. Can’t find a recycling bin (one of the excuses in the Onion story)? How about not buying a single-serve beverage and seeking out a water fountain, or waiting till you get where you’re going to quench your thirst?

Thanks to Leila Darabi, over at Everydaytrash.com, and Steve Tomsik, teaching science at Brooklyn’s PS 107, for pointing me toward the story.

January 22, 2010   No Comments

Update re drugs in water

Eric Goldstein, co-director of the Natural Resources Defense Council‘s Urban Program, tells me there are actually fifteen health-care facilities that discharge into the watershed, all of them under investigation by Watershed Inspector General Phil Bein, who is — along with the NRDC — exploring options to insure that all health facilities in the state dispose of pharmaceuticals properly. Says Goldstein,  “We are also examining whether to propose legislation that would establish pharmaceutical take-back programs at drug stores around the state.”

To learn more about instituting pharma take-back programs, visit this website of the Product Stewardship Institute.  Read about Washington State’s take-back program here.

January 20, 2010   1 Comment

Shutting down, a little, the flow of drugs into waterways

Earlier this week, New York State Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced a settlement that will stop five health-care facilities from flushing unused pharmaceuticals down the drain… and out into the New York City’s vast watershed, which serves 9 million people. It’s not illegal to flush most drugs, and the drugs showed up in drinking water only at minute concentrations. Still, the EPA calls pharmaceuticals “contaminants of emerging concern” and this is undeniably a good first step. Attorney General Cuomo is investigating ten other health-care facilities that discharge effluent to the watershed. How many more such facilities are there? I’m trying to find out.

Big picture-wise, cutting the discharge of drugs from health-care and pharma-manufacturing facilities is welcome. But far more drugs make their way into waterways when humans take them and then excrete the fraction that isn’t metabolized. You can read more about the fate of pharma in our waterways in this piece I wrote for the NRDC’s OnEarth magazine.

But let’s get back to unused drugs: what should we do with them? (Some studies estimate that as much as half the medication prescribed is thrown out or sits around unused.) Consumers have been advised to put pharmaceuticals into tightly sealed containers inside our trash cans. But Maine Public Broadcasting Network reported last Friday (read and listen here) that state DEP investigations have found prescription drugs leaching from landfills in concentrations high enough to threaten surface and groundwater supplies.

Landfills collect leachate (the liquid that seeps through landfills, picking up traces of everything we’ve thrown in there) and send it through waste water treatment plants. But these plants weren’t designed to neutralize drugs: out the pipe they go, into other bodies of water. So what’s the solution?

Maine State Rep. Anne Perry has proposed a bill that would require drug companies that distribute medication in Maine to take responsibility for collecting and properly disposing of unwanted drugs in medical waste incinerators (other jurisdictions due this through pharmacies or hospitals). In the past, says Perry, pharmaceutical manufacturers have  objected to what they say would be the bill’s intensive requirements and high costs — upwards of $20 million.

Surely the cost of tainted drinking water and unhealthy aquatic ecosystems is far larger than that.

January 17, 2010   1 Comment

Beverage corporations address the right to water

The San Francisco Bay Guardian has a piece by Rebecca Bowe on the second annual Corporate Water Footprinting conference. At least this year they let journalists in.

December 16, 2009   No Comments

Nestle, seeking joy, not giving up on water

From today’s Wall Street Journal interview of Nestle CEO Paul Bulcke:

WSJ: After years of strong growth, the bottled-water market is under huge pressure now because of environmental concerns and aggressive competition from private label. Is bottled water now a fundamentally low-growth business?

Mr. Bulcke: It has been the perfect storm, both because of environmental concerns and the crisis. Water is a category that gave us so many years of joy. And all of a sudden, it changed. That is what hurts. The environmental question is going to be balanced again. We have the lightest bottle now. On the value chain, we are working hard to gain efficiencies. We are gaining market share in the U.S. and we are just starting in the developing world. [Low-price brand] Pure Life is growing double-digits. Water is going to be one of the best categories to be in.

November 2, 2009   5 Comments