Post Tagged with: "EPA"

The most recycled waste

The most recycled waste is not glass, aluminum cans, plastic, or electronics, according to the EPA’s Municipal Solid Waste Report, last compiled with 2008 data, which I was referred to from a recent Scientific American article.   It is car batteries, almost all of which are recycled.  I actually have wondered what happens when they die, but I’m so glad to know that they ARE recycled.   Just a nice tidbit of knowledge for you there.   Recycling is more or less on the rise overall (see graph from the EPA report), thank goodness, despite the persistent folk out there who firmly believe that recycling has no net benefit and therefore don’t even try.

Recycling is obviously on the minds of environmentally-conscious chemists (and other people, I hear other people exist) – but when you think of recycling and trying to green up your daily work life, what do you think of?  Recyclable catalyst, acetone recycling, reading articles on your computer screen instead of on paper (including opting-out of C&EN’s print issues which, consequently, has decreased the degree to which I use it as a procrastination tool and the depth in which I read the non-science concentrates).  But what do YOU do?  I’m really curious to know.  Do you just shrug and carry on?

Guilt about the waste that we generate – and I can only attest to synthetic organic chemists and those who deal with tissue culture when it comes to the byproducts of science – is so, so heavy on my shoulders.  I’m not a crunchy tree-hugger (despite being a vegetarian, yes), but I AM uncomfortable with generating a crapload of waste in order to obtain a few pieces of paper – a couple JACS articles, a Ph.D., etc.  I know I’m not the only one that is frustrated to burn through so much physical material in the name of progress and intellectual/industrial pursuit.  But what else can you and I do, besides cut down on our chromatography, not use disposable items, recycle our acetone and keep all of our data and journals electronic?   How about big corporations?  Are they making efforts at sustainability so that they can claim they are, or to actually conserve resources?  Does it even matter?  Take for example the new SunChips bag released by Frito-Lay/PepsiCo, the first compostable chip bag ever.  It’s a start, no?

[I didn’t mean for my first post to be so depressing!  It’s an honor to be here and I hope to bring you more lively topics in the future.  Both the Chemistry Blog (naturally) and Chemical Crystallinity are on a list of top chemistry blogs for students; I don’t know why this list was generated from the particular source it is hosted on, but it is pretty reasonable.]

By April 24, 2010 5 comments opinion

The Name(ing) Game

legislationCheryl Hogue’s recent piece entitled “Naming What’s in Cleaning Products” caught my attention earlier this past weekend (C&EN, February 23, 2009).  Cheryl does a great job covering the interface of chemistry and the environment—hitting the high points while remaining concise—and the brief article in question is no exception.  However, the issue at hand was rather concerning.

In a nutshell, activists from an Oakland-based firm called EarthJustice recently filed a lawsuit in New York State demanding that several manufacturers/distributors disclose ingredients on the label of their household chemical products (detergents, cleaning agents, etc.).  Companies named in the lawsuit include Church & Dwight, Colgate-Palmolive, Procter & Gamble and Reckitt Benckiser.  The suit accuses manufacturers of failing to comply with a New York law that was enacted over 30 years ago.  The legislation at issue was passed in 1976 and makes two specific requirements.  First, the law essentially bans the presence of phosphates and nitrilotriacetic acid in household chemicals sold within New York State.  Second, the law requires household chemical manufacturers to stamp a list of ingredients onto the labels of their products.  From what I understand, this act was implemented to protect the overall environment of New York State (from urban areas to surrounding watersheds).  Ultimately, EarthJustice claims that forcing companies to comply with the law purportedly will increase public awareness, which, in turn, will help the environment

The lead attorney for EarthJustice, Keri Powell, made this argument to C&EN:

“People deserve to know whether the products they use to wash their dishes, launder their clothes, and clean their homes could be harmful.” 

I’m skeptical of this argument/lawsuit for a couple of reasons.  First, if this law has been dormant for the past 30 years, why is EarthJustice now pushing the issue?  Was New York State asleep at the wheel?  Isn’t this something that should’ve been handled by the EPA?  I realize environmental awareness is a hot topic and a popular vehicle for political action.  While the act of suing over labels to protect the environment is (in my mind) illogical, I am troubled over whether the issue is truly legitimate or a way for an unbiased organization to grind a political act (yes, I’m being cynical and possibly paranoid). 

Second, and more concerning, Ms. Powell (and her colleagues at EarthJustice) assumes that proper labeling will, in fact, increase public knowledge.  Her assumption is entirely conditional (certainly not sufficient) on whether or not a reasonable consumer would understand what they read.  Example: my mother is obsessed with the product Goof Off and has two cans of it on hand at any given time.  However, if Goof Off was labeled with its ingredients, she couldn’t tell you the first thing about xylene (the main chemical in Goof Off).  It took her strapping, young (and most definitely handsome) son to explain the potential risks of using such a product.

Don’t get me wrong.  My diverse background in hard science has taught me two very important lessons: learn as much as you possibly can and label everything.  Consumer chemical awareness requires the same conditions, and simply forcing a company to slap a label on something doesn’t solve the problem.  In my mind, the issue of chemical awareness is similar to the “ban dihyrogen monoxide” prank conducted a few years back.  Without education (i.e. learning what the chemicals names actually mean), this proposed labeling crusade is largely irrelevant. 

Furthermore, chemical information is readily available (assuming you or your public library has access to the internet).  While there are a few exceptions, every chemical product (including those used at home) must have an MSDS, which can be found online.  Every MSDS identifies the chief ingredients in said product.  Granted, MSDS’s were created for the purposes of right-to-know information in industrial/commercial settings.  But, in my opinion, if John Q. Consumer can read a label, he can certainly read an MSDS.

I salute EarthJustice for all the work they’ve done to protect America’s environment.  Their commitment to public interest is genuine and deserves applause.  However, I think they are barking up the wrong tree with this lawsuit—dragging a whole bunch of companies through expensive court process to get something to happen that’s relevance is moot (at best).  My solution?  Shift the focus.  For example, serve the public’s interest by teaching them how to access/read/interpret chemical information.  Or educate the public on how phosphates are detrimental to the environment.  Lobby politicians to entirely ban certain household chemicals in the state (beyond the ppm limits currently set). 

Let’s assume EarthJustice wins the lawsuit.  What happens next?  Maybe it’s me, but I don’t see an end game in sight.  

P.S. In addition to C&ENews, this story has been picked up by Scientific American, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times.