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January 02, 2015     Post 55
More Plastics Part Two

Plastic is Fantastic but not in our water! Part Two

So faced with thousands of potentially harmful chemicals in our air, soil and lake water, what are we to do? Short of wearing fur, sitting on logs and sleeping on the floor, eating a paleo diet and avoiding soap how can we reduce the amount of this synthetic stew in our environment and in our Great Lake?

As individual consumers our options are limited. We can avoid body lotions with microbeads and spurious uses of antibiotics and other antibacterial products, and opt for organic foods when possible. And Professor Sherri Mason reminds us all to minimize single use plastic in our lives. Hold the drinking water straw. And the plastic water bottle! We can take our reuseable bag to the grocery store and put the blue box out every week. It's pretty hard to eliminate all plastic petrochemical products from our lives, though. While individuals attempt to balance risk and convenience and environmental costs as best they can, there is a need for government regulation, too.

Illinois has already banned the sale of soap with microbeads starting in 2017, and after an industry led effort defeated a ban by one vote in California, legislation there is being re-introduced. Other states are also attempting to pass bans but until they do the health conscious bather should be on the look out for “polyethelene” on the ingredient list on the toothpaste or body lotion cleanser labels as it is an indicator for plastic microbeads.

The scattered halting efforts to regulate microbeads at the state level point out the need for federal action. Manufacturers don't want to deal with fifty different sets of regulations (and have successfully beaten back some state laws dealing with food and product safety by claiming in court that they interfere with interstate commerce, a federal jurisdiction.). Broader oversight is clearly in order and one way to achieve that is to update the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA) written back in 1976 .

When the TSCA was passed most concern was about carcinogenic chemicals or compounds that could cause mutations in the DNA that would pass to offspring. We now know that compounds like BPA that interfere with hormone metabolism can have a host of subtle but harmful health effects. A huge rise in various disorders ranging from asthma to rheumatoid arthritis that are associated with immune system impairment is one suspected consequence of our failure to regulate chemicals that interfere with the endocrine system.

Somehow we need to make an overhaul of the TSCA an exciting glamorous cause so millions of Americans will demand it for the good of the lakes as well as their own health. Maybe some high profile celebrity will get behind it.

Until that happens our best hope may be good old American ingenuity in the form of new 'greener' products. There are biodegradable substitutes for microbeads in body soaps for those grimy people who feel the need to 'exfoliate' themselves and don't want to flush plastic down the shower drain.

The most interesting innovators are those who have embraced the total life cycle 'cradle to cradle' concepts of recycling promoted by William McDonough, John Todd and others. They are coming up with some truly green products that can be effortlessly recycled by nature. The Ooho edible container made of a gelatin like material derived from brown algae, may not save the world, but it's a noteworthy effort to substitute for all those zillions of plastic water bottles that litter our beaches. There's even a YouTube video for a DIY version.

An outfit called WikiFoods makes an edible membrane that can substitute for foil or plastic wrappers, and another company in England is developing a biodegradable film that protects meat from microbial action. If they succeed we'll eliminate trainloads of package plastic.

Other innovators are working on biodegradable plastic, packaging made from agricultural waste and mushroom mycelia, and 'green' construction materials ranging from recycled steel to thatched roofs and straw bale walls.

There are more alternatives to plastic out there all the time. One that is receiving considerable interest is a material called chitosan. Chitosan is a completely bio degradable “biopolymere” derived from crab and shrimp shells made of chiten. Chiten is to insects and other arthropods as cellulose is to trees- a complex polysccharide. Chiten makes up the sturdy shell of that pesky lady bug trying to go for a swim in your coffee cup during fall invasions of your house and the gossamer wings of the mayfly spinning over the water beside your anchored boat on a quiet summer morning.

Chitosan been used for several years for wound dressings and in other products. This material would seem ideal for single use plastics that are now so pervasive in our world assuming a sustainable supply of feed stock material exists. (Perhaps we can establish vast factory farms to raise ga-zillions of giant Madagascar roaches fed on household garbage for our chiten supplies.)

Our current medical establishment uses and disposes of staggering amounts of single use plastic. Hopefully, in the not too distant future truly biodegradable materials like chitosan may be available to use in place of the PET water bottles or the petrochemical plastic in all those tons of used IV bags that get tossed across America every year.

There are solutions to plastic trash in the water and we consumers can be part of the clean up. Check out the Net-works program initiated by a big U.S. carpet company called Interface for another interesting approach in Africa and the Philippines.


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