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Category Archives: Environmental Issues

February Green Tip: Use Less Plastic

If you missed this little bit of news earlier this year, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by the year 2050 – 124 million tons of plastic to be exact.

If that doesn’t scare the heck out of you, I’m not sure what will.

What’s more, plastic production is expected to double in the next 20 years. DOUBLE!

Plastics are made from petroleum, rarely recycled, and will never biodegrade. They actually photodegrade – breaking into smaller and smaller bits when exposed to sunlight – but they never, ever go away.

In fact, every piece of plastic ever made still exists today. EVERY. SINGLE. PIECE.

If, like me, you find this a little unnerving, you may want to take some steps to contribute less plastic waste to our world, and ultimately our oceans.

Here are a few simple things that we can all do:

Replace disposable plastics with reusables.

Because this…

plasticspoon

With just the slightest amount of effort, it’s quite easy to avoid disposable plastic. Bring reusable shopping bags to the store, bring a reusable water bottle to the gym, and whenever you can, use real dishes and utensils – wash don’t toss.

Avoid Styrofoam.

Otherwise known as the plastic polystyrene (Number 6 plastic), Styrofoam is one of the worst ocean polluters. In addition, it’s virtually unrecyclable.

Although I try to avoid disposable plastics as much as possible, PET (Number 1 plastic) – like that found in disposable water bottles – is highly recyclable. If you must use disposable plastic, it is a much better choice than Styrofoam.

For more information on the types and safety of plastics, see my related post “Plastics by the Numbers“.

Consider packaging.

32% of plastic packaging falls outside of collection systems – yes, a full 32% of it doesn’t even find it’s way in to the trash can. It’s litter!

Buy in bulk; purchase un-bagged produce (and bring your own reusable produce bags to the store); and refuse to purchase products with excessive packaging. Finally, let manufacturers know that you want less, more streamlined packaging. Consumer-driven change can have a big impact.

If you must use plastic, recycle it.

Although most plastics can be recycled, only 14% of them are. Recycling uses much less energy than incinerating, and plastics can be recycled into a wide range of products.

If it can’t be recycled, at least make sure it ends up in the trash.

At the very, very least, make sure the plastic that you do use is disposed of properly. Plastic trash that starts on the road side, eventually ends up in the oceans – killing marine life and impacting our water quality.

More plastic than fish by 2050?! I believe that we can change that. And there is no better time to start than today.

 

 

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January Green Tip: How to Dispose of Hazardous Waste

For each month of 2016, I plan to highlight a simple, easy tip to help you to contribute to a better, cleaner, greener environment. All of the tips will be either little or no cost, easy to do, and help you generally be a better local and global citizen.

For my first post, I will cover how to dispose of hazardous waste. During this post-Christmas, pre-Spring-cleaning time of year, it’s the perfect time to cover this topic.

Hazardous waste includes items like household cleaners, paint, automotive products, pesticides, fluorescent light bulbs, batteries of any kind, and e-waste (computers, cell phones, or almost any other electronic device). These items should NEVER be placed in your curbside bin, flushed down the drain, or dumped in the storm drain. They are toxic to plants, animals and humans and must be disposed of properly.

Some items (rechargeable batteries, CFL’s) can easily be disposed of at your local home improvement store. For example, the Lowe’s in Rancho Santa Margarita has waste bins for these items conveniently located by the customer service area. I know, the photo is not great, but here is what the bin at that store looks like:

IMG_0066

Cell phones can generally be returned to your carrier or donated to charities, like Cell Phones for Soldiers.

Many local schools and organizations collect e-waste such as computers, monitors and digital cameras as a fundraising opportunity. Our local high school has a collection event next month.

Flyer_Trabuco Hills HS_02-06-2016_Front

But other items like paint, motor oil, and pesticides may be a bit trickier. That’s where the hazardous waste services come into play. These free services are located in most counties. There are four here in Orange County – Irvine, Anaheim, Huntington Beach and San Juan Capistrano.

Maybe you think it takes too much time, or it’s a hassle, or “it won’t make a difference if I just throw these few batteries in the regular trash can.”

So to demonstrate just how quick and easy it is, here is a video I did a few years ago for my OC Family blog where I take you along on a trip to Orange County’s household hazardous waste collection center in Irvine.

The trip didn’t turn out exactly as I planned (or maybe didn’t plan) – take a look:

Needless to say, I do recommend you leave your iPhone safely stowed away, but I can’t stress enough how fast and simple it is to dispose of this stuff properly. Also, it’s completely FREE.

A complete list of items accepted at these locations can be found and downloaded here.

Instead of throwing out those old cleaning products, paints, batteries, fertilizer, pesticides, or e-waste, place them in a box in your garage, and make a quick trip once or twice a year to your local hazardous waste disposal facility.

Each location in Orange County is open from 9:00am to 3:00pm Tuesday through Saturday – swing by on your lunch break, or when you are out running errands on Saturday. It only takes a minute to make a difference.

Why Pope Francis and the Encyclical Matter

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If you follow me on Facebook, you know that I am beyond thrilled about Pope Francis’s papal encyclical, released today. As stated in this New York Times article, “The new papal encyclical on the environment is a ringing call to action, a critique of consumerism and a prophetic warning about the dangers of ignoring what Pope Francis calls “the ecological crisis.”’

Pope Francis Photo

The Pope’s message on this issue is important. Scientific studies and facts do not appear to be making a meaningful impact. I am hopeful that this is the game changer the movement needs. This quote from the New York Times article states it better than I can – “The hard lesson scientists have learned in recent years, Dr. Schellnhuber said, is that presenting the facts and data about global warming and other environmental problems has not been enough to move the public to action. The issues have become so serious that only a broad moral awakening can offer hope of solving them, he said.”

My enthusiasm at this news was quickly met by comments and messages from friends, criticizing the contents of the encyclical and my enthusiasm for this Pope. I have been called misguided and ill informed of the facts.

There are few things in life I feel more strongly about than my belief that the Pope, 95% of the scientific community, and the majority of Americans are on the right side of history on this one. The sooner we all get on board, the sooner we can become better stewards of our planet. How taking better care of our collective planet is up for argument is something I will never understand.

Some say the Pope has no business getting involved in this issue. I could not disagree more. I don’t see how the Pope’s role is not to look out for God’s creatures and God’s creation. Nothing threatens both more than the environmental degradation we are inflicting on our planet.

Even IF you do not agree with the facts about climate change, we are damaging our planet in many ways that go beyond climate change – pollution, pesticides, rainforest destruction, and the incredible damage that we are doing to our oceans has to scare you. These things are all real. This photo right here. This is a photo of a landfill in India. This is happening. This is happening right now.

Trashdumpindia

One last note on climate change. The science is settled on this. It is happening, and the result of human activity. Lots of smart people have spent their entire lives studying this problem, dissecting it from every angle, and offering solutions. The Pope is listening to them. We should too. Science is “bought and paid for” say the conspiracy theorists. Here’s the thing – of course scientific study is funded, but that is not the same as being bought and paid for. There is no “scientific conspiracy” on this issue. There’s a quote by Benjamin Franklin I like that says “Three can keep a secret, if two of them are dead.” The science is settled. There is no “cover up” or “conspiracy”. It’s time to listen to smart people who know much more than we do, as armchair critics and observers.

Thank you Pope Francis, for shining a bright light on this issue and bringing it to worldwide attention. Thank you for lighting a fire under me to get back to my blog and my message. You give me hope. Hope for the church, hope for change, hope for the future, and hope for our planet. God bless you on this journey. You have my full support and overwhelming gratitude.

Everything You Need to Know About California’s Plastic Bag Ban

On Friday, August 30, 2014, the California state legislature enacted a ban on plastic grocery bags. If signed into law, the measure would become the first of its kind in America.

OCGreenMama_PlasticBag

A number of cities and counties in California, including Huntington Beach and Laguna Beach, have already passed their own ordinances against use of plastic bags by retailers. But at a state-wide level, this ban will be the first in the United States.

The bill, approved by the CA Senate, must still be signed into law by Sept. 30 by Democratic Governor Jerry Brown.

The measure would ban grocery stores from handing out single-use grocery bags with customers’ purchases, but does allow retailers to charge 10 cents per bag for paper and reusable bags. The bill also includes $2 million in loans to help plastic bag manufacturers shift to the new model.

The ban prohibits the use of plastic bags in grocery stores and pharmacies beginning July 1, 2015, and goes into effect for convenience and liquor stores on that date a year later.

Although the ban is still not officially signed into law, the naysayers are already speaking up to offer criticism and complaints. Here are just a few that I’ve heard so far, along with a response to each…

It’s too hard to remember to bring my own bags.

If you are like most Californians, you spend a lot of your time in the car. Just stash your reusable bags in your trunk, so you will always have them with you when you are running errands. After unpacking your groceries at home, simply put the bags back in your car for your next use.

If that’s still not convenient enough for you, stash a couple of Chico Bags in your purse, backpack or bag. Small, reusable bags that shrink into a small pouch, Chico bags take up virtually no room and are always with you when you need them. They wash super easily too. They are literally one of my favorite inventions ever.

But, I still might forget my bags.

You may still purchase either paper or reusable bags for 10 cents each at the time of purchase. You will not be forced to carry all your items in your arms to the car, I promise.

I don’t think I should have to pay 10 cents for something that is now free.

If you think you aren’t already paying for plastic bags right now, think again. More than 10 billion plastic bags are used in California each year, according to an estimate by Californians Against Waste, an advocacy group that supported the bill. This group further estimates that California’s tax payers spend between $37 million to $107 million annually to manage plastic bag litter in our state.

Plastic bags are also an environmental nightmare, littering our roadways, rivers, oceans, mountains, and everything in between.

In California, there is particular concern that the bags, when swept out to sea, harm ocean life. When floating in the ocean, plastic bags look like jelly fish, and end up being consumed by loggerhead sea turtles and other marine life. If not consumed, the bags break down into micro-plastic particles, which are toxic to marine life – and to humans. Those small bits of toxic plastic end up in the guts of animals or wash up on shorelines, where we come into direct contact with the toxins.

Can’t we just recycle the plastic bags?

The reality is, plastic bags are rarely recycled. In fact, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) indicates that in 2012, the category of plastics which includes bags, sacks, and wraps was recycled at a rate of only about 12 percent. What’s more, the plastic recycling process is very labor and energy intensive – as compared to aluminum, glass and paper. There are also fewer applications for the resulting recycled material.

When plastics are recycled, it’s generally referred to as “downcycling”, which basically means that the incoming bottles, bags, etc. can only be recycled to make a lower-quality form of plastic. Plastic water bottles, for example, cannot be recycled into new plastic bottles. Instead, the resins from plastic bottles are used to make fibers, that can be used in pillows, insulating fill for jackets, etc. Common products that are made from recycled plastics (toys, car parts, plastic lumber, drainage pipes, clothing fibers, and trash receptacles) usually cannot be recycled – making plastics a “dead-end” waste stream.

While recycling plastic is still much better than throwing in the trash, reducing the overall use of plastics is the best possible scenario.

But I use my plastic bags to … (clean up dog messes, line my trash cans, carry home dirty clothes, etc.).

There are still plenty of plastic bags in the world – and most are used only once thrown in the trash. There are produce bags; bread bags; bags your to-go restaurant orders are packaged in; and many, many more.

If you think outside the box a little bit, you will see that you already have enough plastic bags for most purposes. For example, my favorite doggie waste bags are tortilla bags – yes, the bags that your tortillas are packaged in. They are great because they are a perfect size for dog waste cleanup, and have a ziplock-type closing at the top that seals in that unpleasant smell – keeping your outdoor trash can smelling like something other than dog poop when you open the lid.

Finally, whether measured by dollars and cents or in terms of our own health, we are all already paying the price for those free, cheap, ubiquitous plastic bags. It’s time to step up and do the right thing. This new ban may cause you to have to think (for ten seconds when you immediately get out of the car), “Oh wait, let me grab my bags from the trunk”, or pay a few extra cents at checkout, or save a few of the plastic bags that you normally toss to use again.

You have to ask yourself if this small inconvenience (that you will become accustomed to with just a little time) will be worth the long term gains for our environment, our health, and ultimately future generations.

As for me, I vote yes. I hope you will do the same.

Wordless Wednesday: The Ocean Begins at Your Feet

I met with Jeff Coffman from Clean Green Technology yesterday for an upcoming story I’m writing for OC Metro magazine.

I can’t wait to share all the exciting solutions they have for cleaning up our storm drains, and ultimately, our oceans.

In the meantime, I wanted to share my favorite quote from Jeff yesterday –

“The ocean begins at your feet.”

Which reminds me of this image that is on all the storm drains in my neighborhood.

Drains to Ocean Image

Because as much as good people like Jeff are devoting their lives to cleaning up our oceans, it ultimately depends on all of us.

“How inappropriate to call this planet earth when it is quite clearly Ocean.” – Arthur C. Clarke

Plastics by the Numbers

I get asked a lot about plastics. I think it’s because many people are confused about the different types of plastics, what is and is not recyclable, and what all those little numbers in triangles mean.

Plastics are a big problem. They are made from a non-renewable source (petroleum), can leach toxins into your food or drink, and some types are virtually unrecyclable.

In my ideal world, we wouldn’t use plastic at all. However, that’s pretty unrealistic so what’s the answer? I think it’s to use plastics more wisely and more sparingly. You can reduce your use of disposable plastic. You can also choose safer plastics, particularly for those items that are likely to come into contact with your mouth –  the most common way the chemicals in plastic enter our bodies.

The first step to choosing safer plastics is to understand what the numbers represent. So turn your plastic container over, check out the number inside the triangle, and read on to see what those numbers mean.

Safer plastics include:

  • #1 PETE or PET (polyethylene terephthalate)  – this plastic is used for most clear beverage bottles, such as water bottles, and two-liter soda bottles. It is one of the most commonly recycled plastics on the planet. The key here is to think about the No. 1 meaning “one-time use”. So don’t reuse single-use plastics. They can break down and release chemicals into your food or beverage when used repeatedly.
  • #2 HDPE (high-density polyethylene) – used to make most milk jugs, shampoo bottles, and laundry detergent bottles. Because No. 2 plastic has been found not to leach, many reusable water bottles are now made from this plastic rather than No. 7 as they were previously.
  • #4 LDPE (low-density polyethylene) – used in most plastic shopping bags, food storage bags, some cling wraps and some squeeze bottles.
  • #5 PP (polypropylene) – used in opaque, hard containers, including some baby bottles, cups and bowls, and reusable storage container (i.e. Tupperware). Drinking straws, yogurt containers, and cottage cheese containers are sometimes made with this. This plastic has a higher temperature limit than the others, so it is sometimes referred to as “food-grade plastic”.

Avoid These Plastics:

  • #3 PVC (polyvinyl chloride) – commonly called “vinyl” is used in commercial plastic wraps and salad dressing bottles, shower curtains, and believe it or not, kids toys, backpacks, lunch bags, and binders. PVC contains phthalate (softeners need to make the plastic bend) and they have been found to interfere with hormonal development. The production of and burning of PVC plastic releases dioxin, a known carcinogen, into the atmosphere. It’s bad for our health and bad for the environment.
  • #6 PS (polystyrene)  – used in Styrofoam cups, meat trays and “clam-shell”-type containers. No. 6 plastics can release potentially toxic materials (including styrene), especially when heated. Yep, that’s right, when heated. So that insulated Styrofoam coffee cup and the “to go” container that you put hot food in, well those don’t seem like such a good idea do they? Also, styrofoam is the largest contributor to ocean plastic pollution and is virtually unrecyclable.
  • #7 Other  – A wide-range of plastic containers are lumped into this category – basically any plastic not rated 1-6. The plastic to be concerned about in this category are the hard polycarbonate plastic bottles which contain bisphenol-A (BPA). No. 7 plastic is used in some reusable water bottles, baby bottles, and some metal can linings. Soft or cloudy colored plastic is not polycarbonate. Avoid polycarbonate, especially for children’s food and drinks. Trace amounts of BPA can migrate from these containers, particularly if used for hot food or liquids.

In addition to understanding the numbers, you can also use plastics more safely by following these tips:

  • Don’t microwave in plastic containers. Heat can break down plastics and release chemical additives into your food and drink. Use ceramic or glass instead. Cover food in the microwave with a paper towel instead of plastic wrap.
  • Use plastic containers for cool liquids only, not hot.
  • Don’t reuse single-use plastics (the number one – PET plastics). They can break down and release plastics chemicals when used repeatedly.
  • Do not use old, scratched plastic containers. Exposures to plastics chemicals may be greater when the surface is worn down.
  • Wash plastics on the top rack of the dishwasher, farther from the heating element, or by hand.
  • When using an electric mixer, use a glass or metal bowl instead of plastic to avoid chipping bits of plastic into your food.
  • Use wooden cutting boards instead of plastic ones.
  • Pick a cotton shower curtain instead of vinyl.
  • Choose glass or BPA-free baby bottles with a clear silicone nipple.
  • Avoid plastic to mouth contact, especially for babies and kids. Give your baby natural teethers like frozen washcloths.
  • Look for toys made of natural materials, like wool, cotton, and uncoated wood.
  • To avoid PVC in school supplies, check out the Center for Health Environment and Justice’s (CHEJBack-to-School Guide to PVC-Free School Supplies, which lists the most common back-to-school supplies made out of toxic PVC and suggests safer PVC-free products in over 20 product categories.

Finally, when rethinking and reducing your plastic, remember to recycle any that you don’t need or don’t feel safe using any more. Keep in mind that No. 1 and No. 2 are almost universally recyclable. Other numbers depend upon your trash service provider.

If you are serviced by Waste Management in Orange County, you can go to this page of their website, select your service area, and bring up a list of the types of plastics they accept for recycling in your curbside bin. In my service area (County of Orange Unincorporated), Waste Management accepts plastics numbered 1-7 for recycling.

To simplify plastics recycling, here is the basic rule of thumb – if the plastic bottle has a neck that’s smaller than the body and has “alor2” symbol on the bottom, nearly every recycling program will accept it.

And due to recent changes in the recycling process, you can now leave your caps on the bottles when you recycle them. Yay, no more removing and trashing the caps prior to recycling!