June 2007 Archives

Evolution and Religion, Past and Present

Lapham's Quarterly: "The journal that enlists the council of the dead", juxtaposes Senator Brownback's repudiation of evolution, with Darwin's skeptical analysis of Christianity.

Plastic and Styrofoam Legislation - How it Goes

Plastic and Styrofoam Legislation

Recent state legislative actions across the U.S. aim to limit the use of products that pose environmental hazards. Here are some highlights:

  • California State Assembly passed Bill 1108 last week. Bill 1108 originally aimed to ban the use of both phthalates in children's toys and the endocrine disruptor bisphenol A. However during its torturous trip through the legislature, 1108 was excised of all bisphenol A references in the face of effective lobbying by the American Chemical Council. So the resulting measure applies only to phthalates. Last week's vote overturned a previous Assembly defeat of the Bill May 30th.
  • San Francisco's new Food Service Waste Reduction Ordinance, bans the use of Styrofoam (polystyrene foam), by restaurants and food vendors. Seattle is aiming for a similar ban, which is already in effect in Portland, OR, Berkeley, CA, and Oakland, CA.
  • Baltimore and Annapolis, MD are considering banning plastic bag use in their city. San Francisco passed a bill last April limiting plastic bag use by groceries and pharmacies.

In response to news of the Maryland ban, a state Alderman objected:

"We have more pressing problems...[like] growing greener to help with the air. Getting into the minutia of plastic bags is beyond our scope..." He asked, "So like now, we're going to have the plastic bag police?"

He really cares about "growing greener"? And is not getting rid of tons of wildlife choking, people killing flood producing, ocean clogging plastic bags "growing greener"?

Shop owners in Maryland also complained, saying that removing the plastic would deprive people of "choice". Uuuyyyy, whatever. People have choice in American Idol, they really care about that.

Plastic Minutiae

Once legislation passes, implementation and enforcement does usually face an uphill battle from more lobbyists, industry lawsuits, businesses, and individuals. In August of 2005 Acronym Required reported on Maharashtra's plastic bag ban efforts. In the wake of severe flooding in Mumbai caused in part by plastic bags clogging drains, the Indian state banned them.

Organizations today try to enforce the ban by raiding businesses, however there are loopholes in the law that basically enable ubiquitous plastic bag use by shop owners. It's an ongoing battle in India, as everywhere, to remove handy, profitable items from the market, destructive as they may be.

Despite slow progress, cities and countries find that controlling plastic bag use is more economical than cleaning up the litter that accumulates in rivers, in oceans -- everywhere in fact -- mountains and mountains of plastic. Simultaneously, the public public is more cognizant of the dangers of Styrofoam and plastics, especially the health effects of certain chemicals that give plastic products their special plastic-ness, like Bisphenol A and phthalates.

More awareness hopefully translates to more action, since all of these bills, throughout their legislative perambulations, require sustained action on the part of politicians, citizens, and environmental groups. The plastics and chemical lobbies devote significant time and money to convincing us that banning these chemicals is bad for the economy and is based on 'unsound science' -- despite an abundance of scientific studies on derogatory effects and the existence of viable alternatives. To date, industry admonishments are too often reported verbatim by reporters and politicians as the "science" of "the other side".

Shun Plastic, Catch West Nile Virus?

But the other side is solely about business -- companies in various industries pay money to these lobbies to assure that the industry continues to profit from the sale of plastic products. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a leaked memo from ACC in 2003 that outlined the ACC's plans to undermine California's environmental protection legislation efforts. It presented a plan of action to redefine the issues, generate support, and challenge adversaries on what it perceived as growing public support for the "precautionary principle" in California. The memo prescribed a slew of action items, and asked member companies to fund the efforts. Here are some excerpts...

"3. Use satire and humor to demonstrate how, taken to its logical extreme, application of the PP [precautionary principle] would set Californians back to the stone ages. Tactics, through third-parties, would include websites, posters, bill boards, radio placements and internet communications..."

"5. Provide a steady stream of information: studies, reports and other media products to advance the message and agenda of the coalition. Approach and educate conservative columnists and talk radio hosts on the issue to stimulate debate...."

"6. Recruit and energize the business community by creating and publicizing a coalition-sponsored business roundtable or lecture series and/or conferences to educate potential allies about the PP and the consequences of its implementation. These could be...done in conjunction with other business associations and/or California based think tanks."

"12. Fund a documentary and associated media blitz that examines "shocking" negative past consequences of the PP...Possible topics include: the Peruvian outbreak of cholera; African nations' battle with malaria without DDT, vis-a-vis the possible spread of West Nile virus..."

Pretty conventional marketing, but not science. The American Chemical Council (ACC) represents 150 industries and has a $100 million dollar budget to promote their business agenda, according to SourceWatch. The American Plastics Council (which merged with the ACC a few years ago), represents companies such as BASF Corporation, Bayer Material Science LLC, The Dow Chemical Company, DuPont, ExxonMobil Chemical Company, NOVA Chemicals Company, SASOL North America, Inc., Shell Chemicals L.P., Solvay America, Inc., Sunoco, Inc., TOTAL Petrochemicals USA, Inc. and the Vinyl Institute. These are all wonderful companies, to be sure, and they provide useful materials for many products. But they are lawfully beholden to their own shareholder obligations, their determined mission is annual profit and increased growth to meet shareholder expectations.

Environmental integrity and health is not their driving goal, obviously, and their "science" is often so only in label. Reporters, politicians, and publications, too often get away with ignoring or denying the fact that industry's scientific methods are more often than not, let's say, idols of the marketplace.


Acronym Required previously published several articles about bisphenol A, plastics, and California's efforts to ban bisphenol A and phthalates. Among them are Flying for Plastic Snack Packs, about airline travel, "San Francisco Phthalates & Bisphenol A Ban", November, 2006, Plastic Bottles- Protecting Your Baby, by the ACC" January, 2005, Bisphenol-A and Phthalates Bill in California, January, 2006, and San Francisco Bans Bisphenol, Phthalates, July, 2006, discussed this ordinance.

Flying for Plastic Snack Packs

Flying Tedium

Sometimes you forget about the tedium of modern day air travel because the destination turns out to be so educational, enlightening, adventuresome, or fun. Your meetings redeem your travel efforts regardless of their purpose or outcome -- obligatory, joyful, fruitful, or entertaining. But there's no denying that air travel can be tedious.

In previous eras, travel at least required attention to your surroundings. Compared to a trek through the Amazon in the early 1900's, the riverboat tour today promising a piranha supper will be way cozier -- adventures of Homo sapiens today pale next to our swashbuckling, nature enduring ancestors. The intellectual or physical engagement once necessary for travel has been commercially scrubbed from most of today's mind numbing excursions.

U.S. airline travel offers the ultimate somnolent experience, with all the industrial efficiency required to fly 30,000 commercial flights a day, just in the U.S. Save the occasional blunder, air travel has been reduced from exotic to a mundane necessary evil. Sure, you don't want your flying experience to be "exciting". But passengers have been systematically trivialized to mindless beings who welcome the airline's beverage service with saucer-eyed eagerness.

We put Pavlov's drooling dogs to shame with our anticipation of that one-ounce packet of salty peanuts doled out on a precise timetable, barring of course, the unforeseen "water landing" that would ultimately illuminate the utility or futility of grasping for our seats-cum-flotation-devices while the plane plummets towards the water.

It's like being anesthetized during an operation -- you generally wake up alive, although there's a palpable risk that you may die -- but in that case you'll most likely succumb without too much of a fuss. Once we're sufficiently numbed for the flight, with all good fortune the plane will eventually bump us out of our induced coma by landing on the runway, whereupon everyone will finally breath in one deep, enlivening breath of recirculated oxygen.

No matter how much entertainment one arms oneself with, airline travel can bore you silly. My last flight was delayed for two hours before take off. The captain's associate wisely allowed the passengers to disembark and mill about "close to the gate". So two hundred passengers promptly lined up at a nearby concession stand. A single employee tore his hair out trying to fill the espresso and lemonade orders of agitated passengers. So those of us at the end of the line, unable to discern any progress at such a distance, abandoned our quest to quench our thirst and whiled away the hours on the plane devouring our scarce reading materials.

After take-off, non-advantageous wind patterns delayed our flight further. The Linux in-flight entertainment system crashed and the self-appointed IT guru/flight attendant stared at the system console, not daring to reboot it for fear of irking those who were watching the movie. Time-wasters like collaborative trivial pursuit were therefore out of the question and so eight hours into my flight, you might see how fighting off malaria and wild animals in the Amazon seemed preferable.

This may all have been an elaborate airline ruse to get passengers to purchase absurd items from SkyMall magazine (the link is to the amusing song, not the catalog), but instead I decided to dissect the contents of my eagerly awaited "snack pack". That offered, if not nourishment, an introduction to that mysterious subject of food science.

Snack Packs

Remember when airlines tried to "...distinguish themselves from other competitors and entice passengers with their in-flight cuisine"? I don't. I wasn't around when airplanes meandered to their destinations at a leisurely 100mph, when "pilots handed out boxed lunches to passengers as they boarded", or when airlines were so hard pressed for business they vied for customers with "sophisticated menus and elaborate meal service programs." But I've dabbled in the more recent meals of the last decade, the veal parmigiana barely identifiable from the chicken Provencale or the lasagna, all gray slabs of something with tomato sauce. These offerings, long a dependable topic for water cooler griping, are now history, relative luxuries purged in recent airline budget cuts and operational restructuring.

The least promising part of the snack pack assigned to me on this flight, was the "Pasteurized Process Cheese Spread Havarti-type Flavor" in the .75 oz plastic container. This is a substance from unknown sources that has the texture and look of condensed milk. It in no way resembles Havarti, even though they don't set the bar too high since Havarti itself, that semi-soft cheese developed on a 19th century "experimental farm" (.pdf) has few notable characteristics. These so-called "pasteurized process cheese spreads" generally consist of about 10-20 ingredients including various milk products like whey and skim milk, along with a smorgasbord of preservatives, and are usually of ambiguous nutritional value. A related product, "Tuscan" cheese spread, suggests that if you wish to know the nutritional content you can snail mail a company called "Lactoprot", in Blue Mounds, WI, for the information -- hope your not anxious for the news. In the meantime, go ahead, you adventure seekers, dip your crackers into the effluent if you dare.

The accompanying crackers in .5 oz plastic wrappers offer nowhere near the entertainment value of the runny, unspreadable spread, but do contain a miserly 60-80 calories. All of these plastic wrapped items are arranged in a square plastic container that is wrapped in yet another layer of plastic, along with a plastic bottle holding 8.5 ounces of water. A tiny box of 30 or so raisins is included on special days.

Airlines realize that although passengers may complain, they're excruciatingly bored, buckled in shoulder to shoulder in those knee binding seats. Therefore they'll alight with glee on any old plastic snack pack and gobble it down with the voracious enthusiasm of a squirrel eating an acorn on a telephone wire. Look down a row and you can see the line of passengers bent covetously over their snack packs, ripping into the plastic wrap, bits of plastic falling to the left and right of the meal tray. They dismantle layer after layer of plastic, eager prying fingers searching for a tiny little morsel of cracker buried in the plastic wrap. Then they quickly move on, deftly unearthing the next plastic encased scrap of processed food. When the passengers are done with the plastic unwrapping entertainment, the cabin crew circulates with plastic bags collecting the plastic wrappers and the plastic bottles.

Meal service used to require enduring the appetite arresting slurping and slobbering of tens of surrounding passengers. Now it sounds more like the packing area of a UPS mail room. The American Plastics Council has certainly captured the hearts and minds of the airline industry.

Airline Recycling

If you've flown recently you were no doubt concerned about the environmental impact of your flight. To eschew your guilt perhaps you offset your flight's carbon emissions, after all you can't go too far on the internet without bumping into an opportunity to do so. Less appreciated is the plastic waste we generate staving off hunger and boredom by gobbling up the 200-300 calorie snack pack. A tiny source of nutrients for a heap of plastic waste.

In December, 2006, the Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), released a report "Trash Landings: How Airlines and Airports Can Clean Up Their Recycling Programs", which documented the waste generated at airports and from flights. Did you know?

The airline industry threw out 9,000 tons of plastic in 2004, and enough newspapers and magazines to bury a football field more than 230 feet deep. Nationwide, U.S. airports generated 425,000 tons of waste in 2004 -- a figure expected to increase nearly 45 percent by 2015. Each passenger today leaves behind 1.3 pounds of trash, the researchers found. Seventy five percent of this waste is recyclable or compostable. Yet the industry-wide recycling rate is 20 percent or less -- one third less than the U.S. average as a whole.

The NRDC report suggests ways to revamp the recycling and waste programs of airlines and airports. You yourself can decline the snack pack. Trust me, this particular "Havarti-type" spread doesn't capture the very ordinary essence of the Havarti you may love, either the original flavor, or the cumin, dill, cranberry, garlic, jalapeno types valiantly introduced by flavor advocates. You would look so noble declining the snack pack. What if half the passengers on every flight declined the snack pack? How easy would that be?

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