Patricia DeMarco Ph.D.

"Live in harmony with nature."

Earth Day 2018 – A View of Hope from the Pit of Despair

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April 22, 2018

by Patricia M. DeMarco

A bright profusion of daffodils rims the pond.  Young mourning doves explore the edge of the waterfall with their fuzzy plumage offering camouflage from the Coopers hawks soaring overhead.  Blossoms and tree leaves swell in readiness to burst forth with the rich foliage of summer.  I listen to the songs of the birds in their Spring courtship calls and take comfort that the flow of the seasons continues.  At the micro-level of a single back yard, the thrum of Life pulses within the Earth and gives me peace. So much of what gives life meaning is embedded in little things. Priceless things like Spring.

Those who contemplate the beauty of the Earth
find reserves of strength that will endure as long as life lasts.
Rachel Carson (The Sense of Wonder. P. 100)

My thoughts turn to Rachel Carson this Spring of 2018. Her heroic battle to complete her book Silent Spring in the face of the devastation of metastatic invasion of breast cancer into her bones, her lungs, her every nerve ending wracked with the devastation of a disease that in her time was a death sentence.  The one in eight women in America who face this same disease have a much more favorable trajectory for survival.[1] Rachel Carson’s voice calling for precaution in the use of man-made materials that are biologically active has fallen on deaf ears.  Even the protections for clean air and water and the toxic substances controls imposed by law have failed to stem the flow of toxic releases. Now labeled as “burdensome regulations” even the minimum standards in place are under attack in favor of unfettered pollution to create short–term economic profits. The myth that protecting the environment costs jobs is well entrenched and shows no sign of abatement. I look at a trajectory forward from this year and see nightmare visions of rivers flowing black with coal waste, plastic suffocating the life of the oceans, air thickened by noxious emissions newly relieved of constraints.  I think of the Pittsburgh of the late 1950’s when I was old enough to notice and complain of the sulfurous smell that suffused my world. Is it even remotely possible that this past will be the future my grandchildren know? I tremble in rage at even the possibility of such an outcome.

For the first time in the history of the world,
every human being is now subjected to contact with dangerous chemicals,
from the moment of conception until death. 
Rachel Carson. (Silent Spring. P.12)

Rachel Carson’s precautionary message, vilified in the industrial mainstream in America, has taken hold in the regulatory systems of other countries, especially Europe. In the EU, the burden of proof of safety rests on the manufacturers who must demonstrate that products and their breakdown components pose no health or toxic danger to people or living things.  Not so in the US.  Here, the industry meets minimum requirements, and whole categories of materials are “generally regarded as safe” without testing for health effects.  The burden is on the consumer to prove that their illness was caused by exposure.  According the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention biennial bioassay of the US population, for example, the average American has over 300 synthetic chemicals in his or her body, 75 of which are known mutagens or carcinogens.[2]  93% of the adult population has Bis-Phenyl-A in their bodies, a known endocrine disruptor found in plastic container linings, thermal paper such as receipts, and plastics used for food.[3] Even babies are born pre-polluted, as documented by a study of cord blood in newborns that showed 237 synthetic chemicals present at birth, including carcinogenic and mutagenic compounds.[4] The wanton disregard for post-consumer fate of synthetic materials now forms a global chemical stew that surrounds all living things. The modern Age of Plastic has been a massive experiment on life without any controls.

Global awareness of global pollution as an existential problem is growing across the world.  It is impossible to ignore the millions of ocean creatures coming to land dead from consuming plastic debris floating in the ocean in great gyres concentrated by the currents. Our habit of converting fossil raw material to trash as rapidly as possible with no plan for retrieving the waste creates millions and millions of pounds a year of synthetic material that does not break down into smaller molecules that can re-enter the cycle of life.  Synthetic materials made from fossil resources, extracted with great damage to the living systems of the Earth, transported, manufactured into materials for convenience. 300 million tons of plastic is produced every year, over half for single use items that become trash – More than eight million tons of plastic debris ends up in the ocean every year.[5] Modern living has hundreds of daily actions depending on plastics- structural components of buildings, vehicles, electronics, tools, instruments, fibers. The problem of plastic pollution is complex, and has evolved over fifty years at least.  The solutions will require dedicated effort, but most critically, a force of will to change the process toward solutions.

It is a moral and ethical problem, not a technology problem. The plastic pollution of the globe is the most serious unintended consequence of convenience combined with a failure to take responsibility for the waste produced at any level.  Manufacturers have failed to take responsibility at the design stage to prevent toxicity and harm in the biological activity of the synthetic material they produce.  Unless regulatory restrictions are imposed and enforced, there is no ethic of assuring safety in the products or their degradation by-products.  Industry, especially in the US screams about burdensome regulation and insists that restrictions limit profits and kill jobs. Producers of plastics, especially single-use consumer convenience products, take no responsibility for reclaiming or recapturing the waste. There is no profit in recapturing the used materials, it is apparently cheaper to make new plastics from more fossil raw resources like petroleum and natural gas liquids.  Retailers and advertisers promote ever more items for convenience, representing the single use and throw away concept as a convenience to the consumer. Cutlery, plastic cups, dishes, straws, food containers, take-out foods, packaging everything within packages then clad in shrink-wrap… the list is endless. Consumers take little responsibility for the waste created with all this “convenience.” Americans recycle less than 5% of the plastic waste.  The ethic of taking responsibility for recycling plastic has evaporated with the old-fashioned practice of returning beverage bottles for re-use. Soda. Milk, beer, water once came in bottles with a deposit and refund on return.  Glass bottles could be cleaned and reused five or more times before being recycled and reformed for renewed use.  A circular fate for the silica based resource of glass.  This practice is routine in Germany, where re-use of beverage bottles is standard.[6]  They also recycle and re-use some plastic bottles with machines that shred the bottles at the point of sale for a deposit.

Solutions to the single-use plastic problem can begin immediately with citizens calling for responsible plastic policies.[7] REFUSE single-use plastics: straws, shopping bags, water and soft drink bottles, cutlery, food containers.  REDUCE the amount of disposable plastic in a conscious effort at the point of purchase.  Ask: “Is there a reusable version of this product?  Is the container recyclable? Is the packaging excessive? What becomes of this product when I am done with it?” Plan ahead to bring re-usable shopping bags, re-usable cutlery, cups and water bottles. Bring re-usable containers fort take-out rather than Styrofoam or polystyrene take out boxes. RE-USE items that can be re-purposed for creative applications from crafts to the selection of goods made from recycled materials, such as wrapping paper, carpet, flooring, some furniture. Recycled plastic for 3-D printing and ocean recovered plastic for product containers are two initiatives from industries developing more responsible global practices. (Ref) RECYCLE responsibly. Know the requirements for recycling in your community. Sort appropriately; wash out food contamination, avoid cross-contamination that will send the entire load to a landfill. RAISE YOUR VOICE to demand better plastics management policies.  From the local level, seek community action to have efficient recycling programs, compositing clean materials for community gardens being careful to prevent plastic contamination. Stand up for state and federal rules that make product safety a priority to protect consumers. Call product manufacturers of brands you use and demand a responsible waste recovery program.  Send the packaging back! In the UK, a group of consumers have been leaving excess single-use packaging at the store after check out….. Call your Representatives and Senators to demand stronger regulations that protect consumers and the environment by reducing the production of single-use materials at the source.[8]

Forty-eight years ago, the first Earth Day called millions of people to action.  We filled the streets in droves, held Teach-Ins and demanded that law-makers pay attention to the pollution of water air and land that was killing us and our children. Today, the approach of limiting the exposure by determining allowable levels of emissions has still resulted in 5.2 billion pounds per year of toxic releases into air, water and land.[9]  Today’s technology has the capacity to go beyond the old adage that the “Solution to pollution is dilution.” We have managed to pollute the oceans globally, the air worldwide, entire watersheds, acres and acres of farmland.  It is time to exercise the precautionary principle in full force.  Design materials to be safe from the beginning – benign by design through green chemistry practices.[10] The culture of convenience based on consumer freedom to act without restraints and for industries to make decisions based exclusively on the economic profit as a driver, leaves the priceless attributes of the living Earth exposed to wanton destruction.[11] Freedom without responsibility and accountability for damage leads to chaos. The moral obligation to preserve the priceless life support system of the Earth must balance the economic drive of profits at any cost.  We can live without plastic straws; we cannot live without fresh water, clean air, fertile ground and the biodiversity of species that constitute the interconnected Web of Life, of which humans are but one part. On this Earth Day, take a walk through your neighborhood, and pick up all the trash around you. Notice how much plastic debris has become a normal part of the landscape, and resolve to be part of the solution.

 

Citations and References

[1] U.S. Breast Cancer Statistics  http://www.breastcancer.org/symptoms/understand_bc/statistics

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Biomonitoring Program. https://www.cdc.gov/biomonitoring/index.html

[3] Edna Ribiero et. Al. Occupational Exposure to Bisphenol A (BPA): A Reality That Still Needs to Be Unveiled. Toxics. 2017 Sep; 5(3): 22. Published online 2017 Sep 13.  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5634705/

[4] Sara Goodman. “Tests Find More Than 200 Chemicals in Newborn Umbilical Cord Blood.” Scientific American. December  2, 2009. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/newborn-babies-chemicals-exposure-bpa

[5] Joe McCarthy. “9 Shocking Facts About Plastics in Our Oceans.” Global Citizen. June 12, 2017. https://www.ecowatch.com/plastic-oceans-facts-images-2436857254.html

[6] James. How Does The German Pfand System Work, And Is It Effective? 21 May 2017.

https://liveworkgermany.com/2017/05/how-does-the-german-pfand-system-work-and-is-it-effective/

[7] Beth Terry. 100 Steps to a Plastic Free Life.  https://myplasticfreelife.com/plasticfreeguide/

[8] National Council of State Legislatures offers resources and model legislation.    HTTP://WWW.NCSL.ORG/RESEARCH/ENVIRONMENT-AND-NATURAL-RESOURCES/PLASTIC-BAG-LEGISLATION.ASPX

[9] Environmental Protection Agency.Toxic Release Inventory. National Analysis 2015.  www.epa.gov

[10] Patricia M. DeMarco. Pathways to Our Sustainable Future- A Global Perspective from Pittsburgh. (University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh. 2017) Pages 140-169.

[11] Report of the World Commission on The Environment and Development “Our Common Future.”  United Nations 1985.  http://www.un-documents.net/our-common-future.pdf

 

 

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