Thursday, January 17, 2008

Plastic comes from the sun

albatross with plastic in gut: Photo by Cynthia Vanderlip

(Most) plastic is derived from petroleum products, which of course was made eons ago by storing the sun's energy in decomposing plants. But what we've done with the sun's energy is nothing to be proud of. I found an interesting website about all you need to know about plastic while searching for an appropriate picture for this entry - at

Now-a-days, we're rushing through this stored solar power like nobody's business and messing up the planet with it at the same time. Burning the stuff lets out CO2 and other nasty pollutants. Particularly burning plastics, like PVC creates enormously toxic dioxins.

If we dump plastic wastes in a landfill, they'll be there the next 1000 years according one reference I read, although no one can know for sure, because there's never been any plastic around that long. At any rate, some of the components will leach into the soil and the ground water long before that.

If we don't take care of our wastes, but throw empty plastic bags on the ground or out the car window like cigarette butts, they (and balloons, and other wonderful plastic items) will end up in the waterways, eventually leading to the sea. An special series about the Oceans in the LA Times a while back really brought this home to me, particularly Part 4 about the plastic trash in the ocean. See also Plastic in the Seas and Lakes.

For shopping bags, I had always wondered whether it was better to use paper bags (from trees from our time) or plastic (ancient trees,) although after living in Europe for so many years, I had developed a habit of using cloth bags. I had gotten rather lax on this after moving to California, but the recent ban on plastic bags in San Francisco as well as an offer of 10 reusable bags for $10 at Mom's supermarket made me rethink all this again. So now I have a bag in my knapsack, in my bike basket, several in my shopping cart and in the car, so they're always there when I need one (except today, when I got a paper bag and put the rest in my knapsack.) I've even stopped getting the small plastic bags for the larger veggies. But you have to be quick to say "No plastic please" when the baggers start packing!

For refrigerator storage of leftovers, we bought a number of glass containers in various sizes (with plastic tops, however) to prevent seeping of chemicals into our food. I even found some unbleached waxed paper sandwich bags in a store the other day, so we can store like Mom did. Waxed paper seems otherwise to have become parchment paper (also unbleached,) but I doubt it is as good for storage.

Food packaging is becoming my newest issue, as you have noticed if you read this blog regularly. I've written blogs about Green Mountain Coffee Roaster's plastic K-Cups and Clif Bars (and many others) non-biodegradable mylar packaging. So I look now to see if there is an alternative with a better package. Like glass bottles, paper milk cartons, not plastic jugs, etc. But companies do not make this easy!

A really old issue for me is throw-away diapers. When my children were born I didn't have a washing machine, so we opted for the new Pampers and other products. A friend had read about a survey that said that the use of water, soap and energy was actually less with Pampers, so I went along with it. But many years later I started a diaper service (Blebilen) in Denmark, designing my own diaper which was used with covers, and working with a laundry that is now environmentally certified. In other words, diapers from a diaper service is the very best for the environment.
I am really worried about the effects of the non-recyclable diapers. They not only fill people's trash containers so they have to borrow space in the neighbor's, but the plastic in them will clog landfills for centuries. Even more worrying is that kids take forever to stop using them because they feel so dry and comfortable. And worse yet, there are chemicals in the diapers that are very close to their genitals, and possibly causing infertility that the first Pampers generation has been experiencing.

And while we're talking about babies - I hope those wonderfully light plastic baby bottles that my kids could hold themselves haven't also played havoc with their endocrine systems!

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