By Holly Pellham Davis
On Earth Day, I attended a viewing of the documentary, Trashed produced and narrated by Academy Award winning actor, Jeremy Irons. Just a few minutes into the film, I was struck by how much its message instantly resonated with me. I guess you could say the story of trash, is my story… itʼs your story… Trash is evidence of who we are, where we have been, what we ate, drank, clothed ourselves in, read… It’s our legacy, these computers we used, cars we drove, toys no longer wanted. Todayʼs trash is tomorrowʼs waste pollution, and that waste pollution is killing us.
Trash is growing at an infinite rate, yet our resources are extremely finite. Increasingly, we’ve become a largely “throw away” society, not giving much thought (or care) to how our Earth home is affected by we things we casually toss out daily. But what happens to all of that trash stuffed into plastic bags and left at the curb, thrown on the ground, dropped in the lake, or dumped at the end of a road somewhere? Does it go away just because we can’t see it anymore? Of course its doesnʼt… we know that, but what we might not realize is the life-altering impact it’s making.
Today, there is more plastic in our Earthʼs oceans than life. In the North Pacific Gyre, (one of the five gyres, or ocean convergence cycles, found on Earth) plastic outnumbers one of the most basic sea life forms, zooplankton, 6 to 1 and covers an area twice the size of Texas. Less than 10% of plastic trash is recycled. While, industrial chemicals, oil, fertilizer, and pesticides pollute streams, rivers, oceans, and ground water, they are also polluted by trash.
From trash that began as a super market bag that blew in the wind to reach a body of water, litter that surged with afternoon rain showers down a street to wash down a storm drain, or waste once sitting at waters edge in a landfill or dump site now floating on a wave nearby, an astonishing amount of the stuff makes its way into our waterways. Fish and sea animals mistake plastic for food, get tangled in its path, and take on its toxic chemical properties now broken down into the water, sand, and air around it. In many towns all over the world, people dump trash in the same water where they bath, wash their clothes, and hydrate.
Plastic waste is indigestible (not by us or by the earth) and it’s making people and our planet sick. The beginning point of plastic is crude oil, with 5% of total crude oil or petroleum production used to make plastic. The crude oil is broken down and/or combined with other chemicals such as toluene, ethylene, and benzene — a known carcinogen used to make styrene, polyester, and plastic.
Plasticizers such as phthalates are added to make the plastic flexible. These phthalates are suspected carcinogens, containing endocrine disrupting chemicals that have devastating effects on amphibians, fish, mammals, and humans.
There is no safe plastic. The EPA reports that, “every bit of plastic ever made still exists.”
Sadly, the same is true of the toxic effects it has on life. When humans and other living species are exposed to these chemicals, they bio-accumulate in fat cells. Just as the toxic effects of trash and waste pollution ripple down and are seen for decades in every living thing on Earth, our bodies pass these toxic chemicals on to our children as well. In fact, studies have shown up to nine generations of offspring can be effected by the DNA-altering, endocrine-disrupting, cancer-causing, neurological-damaging chemicals in plastics.
This madness must stop.
But how do we reduce plastic use in our daily lives when it is so prevalent? Here are eight easy and effective ways to start:
1. Ditch Plastic Water Bottles. Instead of Plastic Water Bottles, invest in an under the sink Reverse Osmosis (RO) filter and use as your primary water source. To keep drinking water handy, switch plastic water bottles for glass or stainless steel and store them for easy grab-n-go in the fridge. Many glass and stainless steel bottles have plastic lids and covers, so be sure to hand wash in warm soapy water. Never put any form of plastic in the dishwasher or microwave, no matter the labeling, as it can increase the plastic’s ability to leach into your body.
2. Go For Glass. Serve kiddos real glass, ceramic, or stainless steel drink ware, cutlery and dishes. Life Without Plastic has great options and ideas. And while you’re at it, ditch the paper napkins and grab some fun 100% cotton drink napkins. They are perfect for lunch boxes!
3. Buy Safe Baby Bottles. Use glass baby bottles, and make sure the nipples are phthalate, BPA, and PVC free. The same rule applies for Sippy Cups, teethers, and pacifiers.
4. Ditch Plastic Toys. Make your home “rubber” ducky and small junkie toy free. A majority of these “cheapie toys” contain BPA and are made of PVC and heavy phthalates…(The whole yellow ducky in the bathtub framed with the PVC-laden shower curtain has always freaked me out.)
5. Buy in Bulk. This one takes a little extra work, but it makes a huge impact. When grocery shopping, buy bulk items when possible, and bring your own glass containers or fabric bags to the store for filling. The cashier only needs to pre weigh your container to deduct weight difference. Instead of plastic produce bags (most programs will not recycle them) opt for mesh produce bags, natural cloth bread sacks, and shopping bags.
6. Revamp Your Pantry. Use glass containers to store pasta, rice, nuts, cookies, and pretty much anything else you can think of in your pantry. Anything you can put in a “Ziploc” plastic bag (leftovers, fruits, veggies) and freeze, you can put in a glass Pyrex container instead. Just top with parchment paper, close with plastic lid, and freeze.
7. Shop Green. If purchasing packaged goods, glass or paper cartons always win over plastic, as you can repurpose them for future storage. In addition, choose produce free of bagging and containers such as fresh heads of lettuce, and tomatoes on the vine, and bulk potatoes, onions, and citrus (not the jumbo plastic bags of them). If produce is only offered in that form, I take it to the check out counter, have them ring it up, put it in one of my own mesh produce bags and tell the store to take care of the “trash” the produce has caused. It’s important to send the message loud and clear to stores, especially “health food” stores that should be leading the way in environmental responsibility, that you do not want trash with your groceries.
8. Get Smart About Tetra Packaging. The jury is still out on Tetra packaging, with conflicting stories of whether or not they can be recycled. Many are made of an aluminum, paperboard, or plastic mesh. Buy glass when there is a choice.
Ok, now let’s talk Pre-Cycling & Recycling. (You knew it was coming!) It’s good to avoid all plastic as a rule, but geez, letʼs face it, for now, plastic is everywhere. When it cannot be avoided, choose product containers that CAN be recycled (pre-cycling). But just because you see the “chasing arrows” sign on the packaging doesnʼt mean it is recyclable (confusing, yes?), so let’s make sense of it. Knowing the differences between different types of plastics and packaging can help our health and mother Earth.
You will find a recycle number on the bottom of most plastics to help recycling center employees sort the goods. This number also tells us something. Here’s the breakdown:
- #1: PETE – This plastic is typically used for water bottles, soft drinks, and packaging. It may leach carcinogens, so be very careful with heating it or exposing to UV rays, as both degrades the chemical bonds in the plastic. It is easily recycled, but should not be reused. Commonly recycled into polyester fiber, fleece and carpeting.
- #2: HDPE – This is considered the best option for plastic with its ability to be easily recycled and to withstand UV light and chemicals without breaking down. It’s commonly used for household cleaning products, detergents, park benches, and picnic tables.
- #3: PVC – Poly Vinyl Chloride is a bad boy. Commonly dubbed, “the poison plastic,” it is used in household items, industrial pipes, housing materials, garden hoses, medical blood bags and tubing, wire and cable insulation packaging, floor mats, and kid and pet toys. This plastic contains numerous toxins and should never be used or touched by children or expecting mothers. Warning should also be given for all clothing containing PVC such as “jelly” sandals. Less than 1% of PVC is recycled, making it disastrous for the environment as it sits in landfills. The use and manufacturing of PVC plastic should be outlawed.
- #4: LDPE – This is low-density plastic, and it is just as it sounds (think film plastic, shrink wrap, dry cleaner bags, some household product containers). Although it is considered generally safe, it is almost never recyclable, meaning it’s destined to sit in a landfill (aka: our soil) for eternity. We can all easily refuse use of this plastic.
- #5: PP – Polypropylene is a strong plastic with a high melting point, making it a favorite for yogurt (yogurt goes in hot- then refrigerated), take out food packaging, straws, medicine bottles, and syrup bottles. Check with your local waste collection agency to see if they accept this type of material. (Ed. Dallas County’s recycling program accepts plastics with the recycling symbol for numbers 1-7.)
- #6 PS – Polystyrene is horrible. Full stop. Not only is it linked to endocrine system disruption and reproductive dysfunction but also lung cancer in factory workers using it in manufacturing. Polystyrene is highly toxic to our Earth and is found in alarmingly high amounts on our beaches, poisoning all marine life surrounding it. This is your typical take out material, Styrofoam cup/clam shell food containers, foam shipping packaging, and plastic picnic or sack lunch cutlery. It’s also used in homes for laminate flooring and insulation. Styrene should NEVER be heated, as it has a low melting point and can leach into food products. Hot food alone is enough to cause harmful chemicals to be ingested. Never allow a child to drink from a Styrofoam cup commonly used by fast food restaurants. Think of hot coffee served in a Styrofoam cup! Eeks! Please never consume or purchase products that use PS containers. Most home recycle programs do NOT accept this type of material, making it even more detrimental to the health of our society. (Ed. Dallas County’s recycling program does not accept Styrofoam products.)
- #7 Polycarbonate (PC) & Other – The catchall number 7 truly “catches all,” including BPA, Bisphenol A, and other toxic chemicals. Plastics with this number can contain a combination of the above plastics and are generally NOT accepted by recyclers. Sippy Cups and Nalgene containers are commonly labeled #7.
Plastics that are not recycled, usually end up in landfills alongside all sorts of waste, where spontaneous, deep fires burn several times a day releasing deadly dioxins, methane gas, hydrochloric acid, and carbon dioxide into the air.
The most difficult scene in Trashed was shot in Vietnam, where we saw the absolutely horrific effects of Agent Orange in deformed fetuses jarred in glass containers of formaldehyde. I canʼt even type the words without tears. Agent Orange, created by bio-chemical giants, Monsanto and Dow Corning (creator of genetically modified seeds and organisms now over taking our food supply) was a defoliant dropped by air over the jungles of Vietnam, effecting the land, water, and all living things in its path. Agent Orange contained dioxins which caused these atrocities. The chemicals contained in Agent Orange were held as a “secret” by its makers for many years. The same game is played today sacrificing the health human beings and animals alike. Chemical manufacturers, oil and gas companies, and makers of plastic do not tell us what is in the chemical cocktail that they end up burying and burning, often sending the same dioxin into the air and settling onto the water, grass, and soil. As a result the chemical enters our food chain becoming more concentrated as it goes. (Think air, grass, cow, human) These are the very same dioxins found in pesticides and herbicides. How could we possibly think that todayʼs overwhelming increase in allergies, asthma, leukemia, cognitive learning problems, ADD, and autism is not associated with these products and chemicals?
Our planet is now the “proud” owner of landfills the size of mountains, many overtaking the original land designated for it, farms, homes, and rivers just a stone’s throw away. The birds, flies, and stench from these landfills waft into adjacent neighborhoods like an unwelcome visitor. In the documentary, Jeremy Irons takes us to a farm adjacent to a landfill in York, England. The townspeople petitioned and picketed for relief from the toxic waste dump to no avail, as local government officials stated that the air, soil, and ground water were safe contrary to evidence otherwise (including cancer clusters and development problems in children). In fact, one study showed that living within 3 kilometers of the landfill resulted in a high incidence of birth defects. Jeremy took his own soil sample with results showing levels of toxins way over “acceptable” levels and all with links to the diseases afflicting the local people. I have always wondered about said “acceptable” levels of poisons, toxins, and cancer causing chemicals. On who’s child is that “level” acceptable?
I can remember, as a little girl, my grand daddy would burn trash in his trash barrel at the end of the road beside the edge of the pasture. I was mesmerized by the different colors it would emit into the air, not understanding that it was releasing PCBs, dioxins, and nano-particles to float over the land, perhaps settling on the nearby garden we ate from every day. Looking back it’s a haunting sight.
Many can see that we cannot sustain the current practice of burying our waste and therefore surmise that incineration is a logical answer. Millions of dollars have been spent in the race to build the perfect waste incinerator. But, as we saw in the film, the problem can be the same as my grand daddy’s trash barrel — PCBs, dioxins, fly ash, mercury, cadmium, lead and nano particles released into the air. A farm in a village in Greenland was completely devastated by the chemicals emitted into the air from a nearby waste incinerator. It seems, it worked for a couple of months, then broke down when the filter wore out. That filter was the only barrier between the deadly chemicals burned and the clean air outside. The gentlemen interviewed had lost his dairy output through contamination and was fearful for the health of his unborn child and expecting wife. The local authorities simply said that the contamination and poisoning could not be proven scientifically even though dioxin levels were shown to be 13,000 times over the acceptable amount. The government offered him no help or restitution. I assure you this story is not uncommon across our globe, perhaps in our own backyards.
Many manufacturers and authorities “hang their hats” on the statement that “it can not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt, scientifically, that these or any chemicals cause disease in humans.” When dealing with human beings, saying something is absolute is almost impossible. We must change our criteria and shift the burden of proof of safety to the manufacturer, demanding full disclosure of all ingredients.
To our government officials everywhere considering incineration: It is not the answer. It is too costly, both in dollars and in health. Just ask Detroit.
So, the answer must lie in reducing our waste and responsibly getting rid of it. With about 30% of our landfill trash comprised of paper, 18% of food scraps, and 16% of plastics… we can turn this around. Just ask San Francisco. The city has implemented a highly effective zero waste policy with the following mandates:
- Recycle all paper, newspaper, magazines, junk mail, shoeboxes, chip and cereal boxes, paper grocery bags, and unwaxed paper products. Personal documents can be shredded and recycled.
- Do not litter or dump anything. (There is zero tolerance for littering or dumping of any kind.)
- Compost food scraps and yard clippings. (Sierra Club and Earth Easy provide good information and tips on composting.)
- Pre-cycle & Re-cycle and plastics (including toothbrushes), aluminum cans, jars, glass, steel, and other waste products.
When faced with items that cannot be recycled, be sure you consider alternatives and/or understand how to properly dispose of them. Following are recommendations for the most common items:
- Baby Diapers – And estimated 27.4 billion disposable diapers end up in landfills each year (and will stay there for over 500 years). Instead use cloth diapers to avoid toxic chemicals. It seems like more work, but the cloth diaper systems and services available today are incredibly easy to use.
- Batteries — Use re- chargeable batteries whenever possible, and never put used batteries in recycling or landfill trash. Batteries become toxic to soil, leach into groundwater. Many municipalities or hardware stores, such as Elliot’s, take them directly. I store my discards in a gallon container until filled, then turn into the city waste management department. CDs / DVDs – Re-sell or donate
- Facial or Toilet Tissue — Use sparingly
- Light Bulbs and Mirrors – Properly dispose of by dropping off at authorized businesses (Home Depot and Loweʼs will take CFLs.)
- Paper Towels– Use re-usable cloth towels.
- Hazardous Materials — Plastic containers used for motor oil, antifreeze, or other hazardous materials. Limit use. Contact your municipal services for help disposing of properly
- Plastic Shopping or Trash Bags – Use re-usable cloth bags for shopping and paper bags for trash.
- Plastic Wrap or Plastic Toys – Do not use or purchase.
- Styrofoam Peanuts – When ordering products request low impact packaging.
- Wire Hangers — Most Dry Cleaners will accept them back. Use wooden hangers. They last forever.
- Old Medications — Contact your local municipality for information or drop off days for old medications (OTC and prescription). Remove label and recycle bottle. Never dump into landfill trash or flush down the toilet to enter the municipal water source returning to you in drinking water. (Doughtery’s and Preston Road Pharmacy both accept old medications.)
- Cosmetic Chemicals — Nail Polish, remover, and other cosmetic chemicals should be avoided for the sake of your health, but if you have them, you should take them to the hazardous drop off location for paints, solvents, or industrial chemicals as they contain highly toxic formaldehyde, DEP, toluene, camphor, and acetone.
- Yard Clippings — Never bag yard clippings, limbs, grass, or trimmings in plastic bags. This causes methane and green house gases to form. Most cities will compost them if you do not. Put in paper bags, and allow grass clippings to remain on the lawn to nourish the soil.
- Pet Feces – Either flush down the toilet (depending on size of the pet), use in composting, or use biodegradable bags. Never put pet feces in the landfill or wash down a storm drain or gutter.
Additionally, you can re-use or donate the following items:
- Old Electronics, phones and Computers — Donate to a shelter, a charity, or use electronic recycle programs such as Best Buy’s.
- Clothing, shoes, handbags and accessories.
- Furniture, building supplies and materials.
- Motor Oil – Most people don’t realize that motor oil is recyclable.
I realize it seems overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. With a little effort, we can make a difference. The first step is to evaluate your family’s current waste output and create a plan to reduce your daily impact on our planet. Educate your children on the importance of being a responsible steward of our Earth home. Once you have your own household plan in place you can go a step further and petition for stronger laws and legislation to protect our environment and our health. I know at the end of the day, Mother Earth will go on despite her aches and pains… it’s us and our children that will not fair so well. We need to heed her multitude of warnings, follow her signs, and turn the tide for a healthy world.
With love for our home, Holly
Holly Pellham Davis is the founder of Clean Fresh Living, Inc., a service focused on educating consumers and families on the importance of healthy, organic, sustainable living for life and generations to come. You can hear more from Holly on her Clean Fresh Living blog, twitter, and Facebook.