Recycle or Use Something Else?

One of the things I really appreciated about visiting in Seattle with my daughter is their recycling program. Everyone has three garbage cans, one for trash, one for stuff that can be recycled, and one for garden waste and food waste that can be recycled. The downside is that it is so granular that it can be confusing as to just what can and cannot be recycled. You go into a fast food joint and the directions and signs for what to recycle and what goes in what waste container is almost as big as the signs advertising menu choices. Seattle also bans plastic bags. You go to a store and you either bring your own or buy a paper bag. Seems like a boon for shoplifters, but hey, people seem to have adjusted. Travel to any underdeveloped or undeveloped country in the world and the place is awash in plastic bags often blowing in the wind.

001When I was in the San Francisco Airport after visiting my daughter in the Bay Area thee was an exhibit of art from recycled trash. This one, pictured below, really caught my attention. A full-sized Hummer made only out of waste Styrofoam! I almost had to touch it to reassure myself that it was entirely made of Styrofoam recovered from the dump.

One of the big problems with products like Covitec and M2 now being used for a lot of construction in Panama (I disaffectionately call it Styrofoam and chicken wire) is that this Styrofoam waste is filling up landfills (where we have landfills in Panama), and elsewhere being burned producing noxious fumes, or just being scattered and dumped willy nilly in the rain forest. Styrofoam, which is actually the trade name of a polystyrene foam product used for housing insulation. Styrofoam is actually a trade name for polystyrene, a light-weight material, about 95% air, with very good insulation properties and is used in all types of products from cups that keep your beverages hot or cold to packaging material that keep your computers safe during shipping to building materials.

Why not use polystrene?

  • The biggest environmental health concern associated with polystyrene is the danger associated with Styrene, the basic building block of polystyrene. Styrene is used extensively in the manufacture of plastics, rubber, and resins. About 90,000 workers, including those who make boats, tubs and showers, are potentially exposed to styrene. Acute health effects are generally irritation of the skin, eyes, and upper respiratory tract, and gastrointestinal effects. Chronic exposure affects the central nervous system showing symptoms such as depression, headache, fatigue, and weakness, and can cause minor effects on kidney function and blood. Styrene is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA and by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). A voluntary compliance program has been adopted by industries using styrene. The US Department of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration unsuccessfully (a federal court overturned the ruling in 1992) tried to limit the amount of worker exposure to styrene to 50 parts per million (ppm). According to the Styrene Information and Research Center (SIRC), they still encourage their member companies to comply with the 50 ppm exposure limit. This program would reduce styrene exposures to a 50 ppm TWA with a 100 ppm (15 minute) ceiling. -OSHA (US Dept of Labor, Occupational Safety & Health Administration)
  • A 1986 EPA report on solid waste named the polystyrene manufacturing process as the 5th largest creator of hazardous waste.· The National Bureau of Standards Center for Fire Research identified 57 chemical byproducts released during the combustion of polystyrene foam. The process of making polystyrene pollutes the air and creates large amounts of liquid and solid waste.
  • Toxic chemicals leach out of these products into the food that they contain (especially when heated in a microwave). These chemicals threaten human health and reproductive systems.
  • These products are made with petroleum, a non-sustainable and heavily polluting resource.
  • The use of hydrocarbons in polystyrene foam manufacture releases the hydrocarbons into the air at ground level; there, combined with nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight, they form tropospheric ozone — a serious air pollutant at ground level. According to the EPA (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency) more than 100 million Americans currently live in areas that fail to meet air quality standards for ozone. California, the Texas Gulf Coast, the Chicago-Milwaukee area, and the Northeastern U.S. all have “serious ozone air quality problems,” according to EPA. Ozone is definitely a dangerous pollutant. The EPA says: “Healthy individuals who are exercising while ozone levels are at or only slightly above the standard can experience reduced functioning of the lungs, leading to chest pain, coughing, wheezing, and pulmonary congestion. In animal studies, long-term exposure to high levels of ozone has produced permanent structural damage to animal lungs while both short and long term exposure has been found to decrease the animal’s capability to fight infection.” In other words, prolonged exposure to atmospheric ozone above legal limits might be expected to damage the immune system.
  • By volume, the amount of space used up in landfills by all plastics is between 25 and 30 percent. -“Polystyrene Fact Sheet,” Foundation for Advancements in Science and Education, Los Angeles, California.
  • Polystyrene foam is often dumped into the environment as litter. This material is notorious for breaking up into pieces that choke animals and clog their digestive systems.
  • Many cities and counties have outlawed polystyrene foam (i.e. Taiwan, Portland, OR, and Orange County, CA).[Source: Interesting Polystyrene Foam Report]

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