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Danger feared from chemicals getting into bay

Jane Kay, San Francisco Chronicle
Chemicals found in household products like antibacterial soap and plastic bottles are found in sewage water that is discharged into San Francisco Bay, posing a threat to wildlife and humans, according to new data.

Sophisticated sewage systems treat biodegradable food, human waste and metals, but they are not designed to capture the thousands of tons of synthetic chemicals used to manufacture consumer products, say officials at the East Bay Municipal Utility District, who found evidence of potentially harmful substances in sewage from businesses and homes.

Chemical ingredients are leaching out of toothpaste, deodorant, canned food liners and vinyl and polycarbonate plastics. They pass through the municipal sewage plants virtually untreated, the experts say.

Over three months last year, EBMUD grabbed two dozen samples from sewage pipes leading from a veterinarian’s office, a nail salon, a diaper service and a coin laundry, among other businesses, as well as from a medical clinic, a hospital and manufacturing plants. Samples also were collected from residences from Richmond south to Oakland. The results will be released today in a report by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization with offices in Oakland.

The inspectors found three types of chemicals — phthalates, bisphenol A and triclosan. All are suspected of interfering with hormone systems of humans and wildlife.
(11 July 2007)

Brick maker saves cash going green

Paul W. Sullivan, Montgomery Advertiser
..About 75 pipes are strategically placed deep in the trash throughout the city’s 200-acre landfill. They are fitted with holes where the methane gas is sucked in by equipment connected to the pipes. The gas is produced as trash decays in the dump. ..

In 1999, Jenkins converted the Montgomery plant from full reliance on natural gas to obtaining about 55 percent of its heating energy from landfill gas. Sims said the transition wasn’t always smooth and is still a work in progress. Part of the learning curve involves watching the weather.

First, different pipes for natural gas and the methane were run into the kilns. The landfill methane, which is not as pure a fuel as natural gas, requires wider pipes to provide the same power punch as natural gas.

The weather also can foul up the quality of methane, Sims said. When it rains, the moisture content of the gas arriving at the plant is higher. The moisture can make it difficult to maintain the proper temperature in the kilns, Sims said. The machines respond by adding more natural gas to the fuel mix. ..
(2 July 2007)

Earth to shoppers: Bag the plastic sack

Leslie Earnest, LA Times
As stores devise ways to cut back on the environmental hazard, IKEA is charging 5 cents each. Not everyone is warming to the idea.

When it comes to sacrificing to help the environment, IKEA shoppers are like everybody else: conflicted. Even if what they’re sacrificing is a nickel.

The home products retailer charges 5 cents per plastic checkout bag, and customers are either happy that IKEA is doing something positive for the planet or irritated that they would have to fork over anything for a flimsy little sack or some combination of both.

“It’s pretty ridiculous,” said Will Sisto, balancing 12 drinking glasses and two glass coffee pots in this arms as he headed to his car in the Costa Mesa store’s parking lot last week, nursing a nasty sprained ankle. “I’m not going to pay any money to get a bag.”

In the big business crusade to be greener than the other guy, IKEA gets kudos from environmentalists who recognize the Swedish chain as the first major retailer in the U.S. to put a price tag on the bags made of thin, flexible plastic film that clog landfills, don’t readily decompose and can suffocate wildlife.

The infamy of the nonbiodegradable plastic shopping bag is recent, but the war against it is moving fast. The bags will be banned altogether in San Francisco this fall, and similar embargoes are being considered by other jurisdictions.
(5 July 2007)
UPDATE. Reader Matt P. writes:
The widespread ban on plastic bags is only a partial solution. If enacted, consumers and retailers will move en masse to paper and cardboard, greatly increasing demand. Without a similar charge on paper bags, and widespread recycling, that means many more trees. A lot of those trees come from the pacific northwest, where majestic old-growth forest is sometimes sacrificed not to make 2×4 lumber, but to make paper pulp. This is another potential illustration of the law of unintended consequences.

The cost of a diaper and other trash

Editorial, Seattle Times
Seattleites are enthusiastic recyclers, and they can do more. But in recycling there is a law of diminishing returns, and each step needs to justify itself.

Overall, the garbage not recycled costs the city $50 a ton to put on a train and send to Oregon. That means that any recycling that costs less than $50 a ton is worth doing. The current recycled share is 44 percent, which includes most of what is worth doing, but not all.

The city has a study that says it could increase the recycled share to 72 percent, but the director of solid waste, Tim Croll, says some of that is too expensive. One is composting of pet waste, which is estimated to cost $1,700 a ton. Another is subsidizing cloth-diaper services in order to cut down on used disposable diapers. That pencils out at more than $2,000 a ton.

Another is a ban on plastic shopping bags. The current alternative, says Croll, is a cornstarch bag that biodegrades into little waxy pellets that aren’t good in compost. The cost for a ton of garbage saved is more than $2,000. It is an amount that would tend to get rolled into the price of groceries, which makes us wary of supporting it.

The best opportunity is in recycling the construction and demolition waste generated by builders. Nail-scarred studs can be chipped and used for boiler fuel. Broken wallboard and metal can be recycled. Some of this is done today without subsidy because it pays; with some incentives, a much larger sorting station could be built.
(3 July 2007)
As the Seattle editorial points out, it is useful to prioritize efforts and an economic payback analysis can be helpful. The problem is, their analysis is simple-minded. They have omitted costs that are currently externalized. For example, plastic bags become litter which does not degrade. Picking up the litter is a cost which is born by others – not to mention the deleterious effects of plastic on wildlife.

Secondly, the Seattle Times makes its calculation based on a current figure. ($50 a ton to transport trash to Oregon). This figure is apt to change, as Oregon becomes less eager to serve as Seattle’s dumpsite, and as fuel prices rise (trash is bulky).