I send the kids to eat outside with it. Then they jump in the pool with it or swing on it. We play with it, eat with it, carry water in it–our lives, our homes, and our bodies contain plastic. The ocean has a huge floating plastic pile. Firefighters must now wear respirators to keep safe from the toxic-by products of burning plastic.
This post is about plastic. I’m going to review the common types of plastic, compare it to paper, and focus in on plastic bags.
Both paper and plastic are polymers, or chains of chemicals. Paper is made from chains of sugars. Plastics are made from chains of various other chemicals–some natural and some not. Polymers are big flexible molecules. Your proteins and hair are polymers so just being a polymer isn’t in any way associated with being synthetic.
In the US, about 33 million tons of plastic is discarded each year, about 13% of the waste stream. By comparison, paper and cardboard make up 35% of our solid waste. However, over half of all paper and cardboard are recycled. In Europe over 70% of paper products are recycled. Making paper is a dirty process. Recycling paper is an easy process and if not heavily inked, paper can be composted. As for plastics, we have a ways to go before they are commonly recycled–less than 10% are recycled and about 8% are burned for energy. When recycled, plastic can be remade into everything from furniture to clothing but it is a dirty process often done in low income neighborhoods. However, it does save energy compared to making new plastic.
#2 HDPE (high-density polyethylene). The most commonly used plastic, it is not particularly toxic but it is flammable. Seen in the photo below of a bag that comes from the local farmer’s market (along with my book that I’m trying to promote.) #2 is found in jugs and consumer product bottles and the light weight plastic bags that are a focus of this blog post.
#4 LDPE (Low-density polyethylene) is the sturdier version of #1. It contains more branched areas and fewer long polyethylene chains so it is sturdier. A few studies have hinted that it might leach a chemical that is toxic.
#5 Polypropylene is used for containers for things such as carpets, Playdough, yogurt, butter, margarine, and cottage cheese. It’s used to make sandwich bags and sand bags. It can leach chemicals but not to a large extent.
#6 Polystyrene such as found in foam cups, meat trays, and some plastic forks, knives, and spoons is one of the worst plastics. It leaches styrene and other harmful compounds such as benzene. I can taste these things when I drink of out styrene. ABS styrene plastic as found in Legos, phone cases, and highchairs is considered safe.
#7 Polycarbonate makes up water bottles and baby bottles and some food storage containers. This plastic is controversial because of the bisphenol-A content. This plastic can release endocrine disruptors when headed and after many washings. Plastic additives such as BPA and DEHP can be toxic and cause behavior and prostate problems. Fast food containers–often made from #7–are a rich source of this unhealthy compound. Most plastic bags are free of these dangerous additives.
The rule for storage of chemicals is “glass for organics, plastics for inorganic.” Thus, things such as minerals are stored in plastic because minerals are attracted to glass. Things that are organic, as in our food, blood, etc, are stored in glass because tiny plastic molecules are found in substances stored in plastic. As a scientist, I won’t use a plastic pipet to dispense anything organic. I always use a syringe. I’m considered old school in this but I get better and more consistent results sticking with the no plastic for organics rule. Thus, at home, I store in glass as much as I can and don’t cook with carbon-baed plastics. I even have a stainless steel kettle to heat water and pour over my coffee into a glass carafe.
On to plastic bags:
We don’t curbside recycle plastic bags here in Pella. They must be brought back to retail stores for recycling. I called Midwest Sanitation and asked them why this is. The answer is simple: they get caught up in the machinery.
Most plastic bags are made from polyethylene. These plastics are chains made from a natural compound released by ripneding fruit–ethylene. As far as dangerous chemicals are concerned, plastic shopping bags are not as harmful as vinyl and polystyrene and don’t contain the dangerous additives found in polycarbonate. However, they are dangerous in other ways.
They suffocate aquatic life and raise nitrate levels The bags smother the sediments of a water ecosystem and keep away oxygen. Ammonia, nitrate, and nitrite levels double in a bag-infested river or lake bottom due to microbial imbalance. The bags change the microbiome. Some microbes now have developed the ability to eat the plastic but no one is sure that the by-prducts produced are healthy.
Plastics can harbor bacteria. Bacteria sticks to plastic in what is called a biofilm. Plastics can harbor more bacteria than a cotton bag, although you should wash your cotton bag frequently as it will harbor bacteria and is more prone to mold.
They create garbage–100 billion are thrown out every year in the United States. Ten percent of solid waste is plastic bags. The main problem with plastic bags is their sheer number. Most are used once, or perhaps twice when they are used to line a wastebasket. Only 3-10% of these bags are recycled, making them one of the planet’s most prevalent and wasteful items. Within the next 30-40 years, plastic will outweigh fish in the ocean.
They are a money drain. Some sources say that the world spends a trillion dollars a year on these bags, then we pay to have them cleaned up. In California, twenty-five million dollars a year is spent cleaning up plastic bags–LA spends 4 million alone. Plastic is the most common type of waste in our Great Lakes. Although the bags themselves cost pennies, each can cost up to 19 cents per bag to recycle, dispose of, and clean up. Most often, the taxpayer foots this bill.
They use oil. The plastic bags used in the US require 12 million barrels of oil each year.
They break down into tiny particles known as microplastics. These can be found on every shoreline and are so small that water filters don’t remove them!
In summary, plastic bags won’t poison you but that doesn’t mean they aren’t trouble. Plastic bags are cheaper to make and produce less energy than paper bags, making paper bags a difficult alternative. What’s the solution? Reusable bags. Each reusable bag can replace hundreds to 1,0000 of disposable plastic bags. That’s more money in your pocket and less plastic in your drinking water. One source says that the “break-even” point for a reusable bag is 27 uses.
Meanwhile, I’ll not reuse PETE water bottles or containers, let the kids use plastic cups etc on occasion, and we’ll enjoy the vinyl pool–followed by a nice shower. And when fall comes, there will be a reason to drain the pool, put away the spandex swimsuits, and move on to other things. As for those old vinyl toys I had stored in the basement and attic: I threw most of them in the recycle bin after writing this. That’s less mess and less to catch on fire or leach hormone-like chemicals. If this post doesn’t inspire you to use cloth bags, perhaps it will prompt decluttering. As I am thinking about it, the best solution is simply consuming less.
Sabrina came from the stray dog shed at the vet’s. She was next up to be put down and when my son bent down to look at her in her cage, she put her paw on the wire. He had to have her. He named her after a song.
She was not yet a year old but full grown, meek and anorexic. That soon changed. A new home and plenty of strokes on the couch transformed her into a joy machine filled with enthusiasm that never let up. She was reliably happy and hungry.
She adapted to my rhythm. She was a lark and my morning company. The cheerfulness of the dog kept me going many times. New studies have come out about how much emotional burden some family members–usually the alpha female–carry for the rest. This dog carried some of my burden by making sure that each day had some measure of spunk. She also worked–she caught mice and kept the squirrels and rabbits at bay.
She was far from perfect. As one person observed, she wore her eyeliner thick and dark. For example, when my daughter baked a cake and put it in a cake stand on the table, this beagle sized dog somehow got it down and ate half of it. She also ate a pound of raw meat and got sick all over, requiring us to get new carpet in the spare bedroom. And when my mom was in the hospital at Christmas and I was trying to serve dinner for the rest of the family to keep tradition going, Sabrina snapped a turkey bone from a child’s generous hand and needed a doggy Heimlich.
Her legs were strong and so are mine. A year ago she was walking miles with me, and six months ago, a mile, and then around the block, and then around the yard, In the end, I carried her. She couldn’t even walk. At first, she struggled to be normal again, but then, we resigned ourselves and I took care of her.
A month ago, when she was sixteen, I woke up to joy, for she was alive to greet me. We’d taken her to the vet the week before. She wasn’t walking, wasn’t eating. Her heart was still strong and we decided not to give up just yet. The vet thought it was something neurological, perhaps inner ear, and prescribed some steroids and antibiotics. They didn’t work. It was hopeless and so each new day when she was still with me, I celebrated. I’d come home from work and there she was, her eyes glistening as she looked up from her pillow. It was as it had been when she was a puppy, sprung from the pound, and each day she couldn’t believe that she had a family. Only now it was me in happy disbelief.
As time dictates, I lost her. This once vibrant creature so filled with joy was released to the universe. I still miss her and her crazy ways. I am trying to tell myself that things are on an even keel for me and the dog I have left. He’s over his mourning–she’d acted as a mother to him. I suspect he’s enjoying being the only dog. There’s far less dog poop to pick up, less expense, and I can sleep in–nobody is eager to start the day with me. I can travel more easily. I have one less thing to worry about. There will never be a beagle, mini pin, corgi mix to replace Sabrina. Why do I keep looking at puppies and telling myself that my next novel needs a puppy and I must get one for research?
If you are in a CSA or, as I am, friends with an organic farmer, you might find yourself in possession of a large amount of Swiss Chard. There’s plenty of it at farmer’s markets, too. This bitter vegetable is packed with Vitamins A, C, and K and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and iron. Vitamin A is associated with skin health. Vitamin C is touted as a preventative for maladies associated with aging and also for cancer. The minerals in Eating Swiss Chard contribute to bone health. Swiss Chard can lower blood pressure. It’s a great addition to your diet. But what can you do if you don’t really like it? My answer for this is: put it in a smoothie. Here’s how I “got rid of” a large sash of Swiss Chard.
This was amazingly good. Now I can’t wait to get more Swiss Chard.
A disclaimer–too much Vitamin K can excessively thin your blood and Vitamin A in huge doses can be toxic. As with anything, moderation is the key. This smoothie should keep you from reaching for your daily vitamin and add phytonutrients to your diet.
Alpha Chi Sigma is a professional society for chemists. One thing that I like about them is that they honor chemistry’s alchemical roots. They even have a cool coat of arms.
Do I consider myself part alchemist? Of course I do! Alchemists developed many of the “wet” chemistry techniques we use today including precipitation, sublimation, and distillation. Yes they added prayers and chants to their formulas but I’m sure many students today do likewise. Possible the chants might include curse words. The truth about chemistry is that it is a discipline that requires some seasoning, some experiences, some sort of unmeasurable history with the techniques. Chemistry honors the ancients. The more time you spend with it, the easier it becomes.
I was recently interviewed for the AXE magazine, The Hexagon. I appreciated the opportunity to share my experiences as a scientist and an author. In fact, I thank everyone who has read my writing, everyone who has encouraged me, and all who have left positive reviews.
Here’s a transcript:
(1) Describe your projects. I have two novels published by small presses. Natural Attraction came out in 2015. It’s a comedy about Clementine, who longs to be a scientist in 1871. She drinks a tonic which helps her partially transform into a man and takes part in a prospecting expedition as a naturalist. Mixed In—a comic dystopia– just came out this month. It features Catrina, a chemist in the agricultural industry, who gets mixed up with a man on the wrong side of the law.
(2) Describe your motivations. Besides wanting to entertain people, I’m responding to a lack of interesting scientific characters in fiction. Must scientists always be anti-social side characters obsessed only with their work? Can’t the female scientist be adventurous, flawed, and get the guy now and then?
(3) Why do you think these topics are important? Science has enriched our lives and yet people have this fear of it and even a disregard of scientists, seeing them as walking brains and not as real people with normal wants and needs. I admit that my characters are quirky and maybe even nerdy at times but they have the same desires and the same problems at work as many people along with loads of passion and curiosity. They even have friends and care about humanity.
(4) What sort of distinctive twist do you bring to the discourse? I don’t shy away from having my protagonists deeply involved in plausible science. I also bring in social issues that scientists and women in particular face as they struggle to balance all of their desires. I must admit that the novels are also a little naughty. They’re not erotic but they are aimed at an adult audience. To add to the mix, I’ve made them comedies because science plus tragedy was done well-enough in 1816 with Frankenstein. Of course things go wrong in my novels but I’m hoping to demystify science, not make it dreadful.
(5) Any connections to your AXE experiences? In Natural Attraction Clementine gets her tonic from and later becomes close friends with chemist Theophrastus. Yes, there is a chemical basis for all that happens with that tonic but maybe a little romantic alchemy was involved as well.
(6) Other reflections on AXE to share. One of the first things I ever published was a monologue called I the Great Paracelsus based on the writings of Paracelsus. It was even performed at a conclave. I am a lot richer as a chemist due to my understanding of chemical history and I still have connections with Alpha Theta. My publishers are small and I’m not on the New York Times best seller list but if any brothers want more information on fiction writing or publishing I’d be happy to offer my advice. They can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or through my blog at catherinehaustein.com.
You may think of the sun as a Goddess or a God or consider it just a ball of gas but it makes sense that humans have worshipped the sun as a giver of life. Summer is a time to boost Vitamin D levels through sun exposure. Reduced sun exposure and pollutants have resulted in a pandemic of vitamin D deficiency across the globe. Here is more information on Vitamin D and all the reasons you need it. The diagram below shows how it is made. See how it involves your liver? Drunk in the sun is not a good combination if you want to take advantage of the sun’s health boosting properties.
But everyone knows that too much sun exposure can cause skin damage and even skin cancer. Thus, if you are out in the sun for more than fifteen minutes-an hour in the summer, using sunscreen is advised. Sunscreens can work by either absorbing or blocking ultraviolet radiation–which has an energy of less than x-rays but more than visible rays. Some of the molecules used in sunscreens are synthetic carbon-based compounds.Others, such as zinc oxide and titanium oxides are inorganic or “mineral.” I prefer these as being less stinging to my eyes. Here is a nice overview of the chemistry of sunscreens.
Sunscreen is not benign. Side effects can include rashes, itching, and skin irritation. Retinol based sunscreens can harm sun-exposed skin. In fact, retinol based skin products should only be used at night and even then, sparingly as they can build up and become toxic! They might even contribute to bone loss.
Benzophenone containing sunscreens are associated with endometriosis.
Don’t depend on sunscreen too much. Some sunscreen manufactures cheat to get their high SPF ratings and add anti-inflamatories and pain relievers such as benzocaine to their products. You might not feel or see a sunburn but the damage has still been done.
My tactic for sun blocking is to use a combination of zinc based sunscreen, make-up, clothing, and a hat. As with most anything, a variety of approaches is best. The good news is that the Vitamin D you create will be stored in your fat for later use. The bad news is, it probably isn’t stored more than a few months so you can’t just bank on that summer tan all year long. Also, once your body has produced its maximum, more Vitamin D won’t be made. In fact, some studies say that the best course of action is to alternate time in the sun with time away from it.
My Dad always said that when he was reduced to riding a three-wheeled bike, it would be time for him to throw in the towel. If he had been able to ride a three-wheel bike for the last seven years of his life, we would have rejoiced. Instead, he lived in a care facility. He was unable to walk or care for himself. You see, he’d had Parkinson’s disease for the past twenty-five plus years.
The cause of his Parkinson’s was unknown. Before that he’d been healthy and fit. He joined a genetic study on the disease and no genetic markers were found. It only confirmed what his mother had proudly declared as her heritage–British with a touch of Scandinavian and doses of Irish & French, and a big helping of Western European. He blamed his love affair with pesticides although it should be noted that he also played football. He’d been an athlete and even a coach.
He fought off his symptoms with exercise. Medications were able to control his tremors. Most of his life with Parkinson’s was happy and fairly normal. He even got a hole in one–his second–after his diagnosis. The most frustrating aspect of the disease progression was that his voice became barely audible and his handwriting unreadable.When my mother passed away three years ago, so did his ability to engage in conversation. Never a talkative man, he became someone who mostly listened.
He got weekly visits from his great-grandchildren. They ate ice cream together. They played with toy cars. We made sure visits were special by having a drawer of toys that included Silly Putty–something banned at home–in Dad’s room.
He died in his sleep at the age of 88. The months before had been happy ones. He had a lasagna party for his birthday. By Easter he was having trouble swallowing so we had a malted milk party. The first week in May brought a former student to visit and push him around town in his wheelchair. (I always looked at wheelchair pushing as a great way to work out my arms, by the way and a RAV 4 is a great car for wheelchairs–kind of low and lots of room in the back.)
After his death I looked through photos of him. I noticed one thing–he looked happy in all of them even if he did have a bit of the Parkinson’s mask face. He was happy! The point of my post is this: you can be in a wheelchair, barely able to speak, and you can still find joy. You can still savor life. You can give and receive love.
I don’t just want to remember the man with the disease. That’s not fair to history. But damn, that guy was brave, persistent, and uncomplaining. And yes, even happy. The purpose of this post is to tell anyone diagnosed with Parkinson’s that it doesn’t have to steal your joy.
Jane Addams was born in 1860–the daughter of a wealthy Illinois businessman. At the age of two, her mother died after falling on ice while pregnant. This left Jane empathetic to how fate could work against a person.
This past session, the Iowa Legislature banned banning plastic bags in the state. Yes, Iowa is now a pro-plastic bag state and cities are not allowed to ban them. I am not sure why a state would forbid banning plastic bags. I wrote to my state representative and asked him for some explanation. So far, no answer.
Plastic bags came about in the 1960s and their use skyrocketed in the 80s and 90s. The ANS Plastics company claims that they make a good proportion of these bags in the US. AEP Industries is another player in the bag market. Are these companies in Iowa? No. New Jersey. So we can’t say that we are protecting our state’s economy with this ban. Or can we? I dug a little further. We have prisoners make plastic bags here in Iowa. There’s a small company that makes them as well. However, the pesky things are expensive. The average grocery store spends between $1,500-$6,000 per month on them and passes the costs on to us.
So why do places wish to ban them? Many who ban them cite their ugliness. Iowa is filled with them flying on fences as if they are the state flag. They can strangle wildlife. They plug sewers. They release toxins into our water.
A recent study even says that they diminish oxygen in marshes, harming the aquatic animals by suffocating them even if they don’t become ensnared. They keep algae from producing chlorophyll. It doesn’t matter if the bags are pure plastic or biodegradable. They kill the life of the pond. They are then, anti-fishing.
Arlington,Massachusetts just voted to ban plastic bags. Journalist and writer Laura Kiesel –who has a Master’s degree in natural resources and environmental policy–explains the vote this way:
“Plastic bags are the single most common item on the planet and we use and dispose of 100 billion every year in the United States (to put that in perspective, that’s double the amount of plastic bottles). Here in Arlington, we use and throw out 1 million monthly. Plastic bags devastate marine ecosystems, killing well over 1 million sea birds and 100,000 marine mammals and sea turtles annually, while plastic waste is responsible for the endangerment of nearly 300 species. For those animals plastic bags don’t kill, their toxins enter their bloodstream and become part of the food chain, where they enter our own bodies and that of our children. Plastic bags have an extremely low recycling rate (<5%), while recycling the bags is actually an environmentally hazardous process that often takes place in low income communities here and abroad where they shoulder the health burden of our consumer choices. This is why we need to phase out these harmful bags in favor of more sustainable, equitable and humane options. The ban would cover plastic bags offered at points of purchase (checkout) only and has a long phase in period (well over a year) for small businesses. Paper bags would not be regulated.”
I’ve always been torn in so many directions but inevitably find myself drawn back to science. You might ask why. The answer is–scientists themselves. Why do I love them–other than the fact that I don’t need to dress to impress? As this article states, they believe deep down that they are here to serve the people.I love that and I love to write about scientists…because they are kind-hearted and yet misunderstood. The perfect protagonists.
Here’s what the March for Science told me about them:
They get to the point. Six speakers with evidence and data can deliver their messages in a half an hour, even when juggling their kids.
They don’t panic or run on raw emotion. They ned evidence. (Raw emotion makes me suspicious.)
Last week I walked to see a friend who was in the hospital. As I got closer to the place, the air had a sting to it and the sidewalks were covered with weed-killer infused pellets. Joggers dashed by me, kicking up pellets as they went. The trail of pesticides went right to the front of the hospital. It looked as if some pellets had even been tracked in on the carpet. Lawn chemicals are associated with breast cancer and erectile disfunction. You thought I was making it all up in Mixed In. No, it’s all plausible. My unhealthy path to the hospital was Pella’s toxic push to get rid of dandelions. But the hospital is not the only place with killer values. Today I walked across a campus dedicated to sustainability. A worker was apply lawn care products. He was wearing a mask and rubber boots but I wasn’t as I crunched across the sidewalk covered with materials that any chemist would call hazards. This green lawn look is way too costly health wise and financially. As one blogger points out, as a nation, we spend more on lawn care than we do many aspects of the national budget. Face it, even Crayola doesn’t like dandelions. But they’re wrong, so wrong.
I’ve already written about the joys of dandelions. Now there’s more to love about these sunny flowers. They may be a sustainable source of rubber. Rubber that we use today comes from a tree –Hevea brasiliensis-the rubber tree -that grows exclusively in the hottest parts of the globe. Rubber plantations are forcing out native trees. Plantations use arsenic to control pests. Rubber production is nasty and we can’t grow rubber trees here. Bringing raw rubber to North American manufacturing plants is costly and contributes to global warming. Dandelions fit in perfectly with our climate. They are an exciting new possibility for agriculture. Tire manufacturers are already experimenting with dandelion rubber–particularly Continental Tires of Germany which has issued the following statement:
“In agricultural terms, dandelions are an undemanding plant, growing in moderate climates, even in the northern hemisphere, and can be cultivated on land not suitable for food production. This means that rubber production is conceivable near our tire factories, for instance, and the significantly shorter transport routes would also reduce CO2 emissions.”
Furthermore, we need to change our mindset about what our lawns should look like. We don’t want poison ivy or brambles, but a diverse lawn is a healthy one. As with most things sustainable and ecological, dandelions are an opportunity, not a threat. Within ten years, you could be riding the roads on dandelion tires and perhaps we will look at a beautiful lawn and see the diversity that belongs there.