Monday, May 30, 2011

Plastic Is a Gas

The latest buzz from the big multinational bottlers is plant plastics. Giants like Coke and Pepsi have unleashed a flurry of press releases touting this "green" invention. And self-professed green blogs eat up the writings of PR/marketing departments as fact. Or worse, misunderstand the facts, spreading misinformation.
From -- in an article that gets
its facts badly wrong about Pepsi's new product
So is this invention actually green? Set aside the logic of locking nature's nutrients and compost into polymers that nothing in nature will break back down. Just look at the argument that plastic from plants reduces our use of fossil fuels.

Since plastic is petroleum-based, switching to plants will free us of a major source of petroleum dependency, right?


There's a lot of confusion & spin about this, and it's time to clear that up. #1, #2, #4, and #5 plastic comes from ethane. Ethane is a waste by-product found in natural gas fields and oil wells. It is a volatile, hot-burning natural gas. It is so unstable burns so hot that, by U.S. & UK law, it must be separated and removed from the methane that constitutes "normal" natural gas before that methane is piped around the land. And we've all seen images of oil refineries flaring off gas:
Gas flare in Thailand
(picture from Wikimedia Commons)
That's ethane (p. 6 in the PDF file). It's so useless to this refiner that it's just burned right into the air. Junk.

As the plastics industry was being born in the years leading to World War II, someone learned that ethane can be converted to ethylene (and propylene) by steam-cracking. Basically, a hydrocarbon like ethane is mixed with steam, then flash-heated in an oxygen-free furnace to a very high temperature. By tweaking the temperature & hydrocarbons, you can come out with a whole laundry list of petrochemicals. But most of what you get is ethylene & propylene. These can then be polymerized into the polyethylene that makes up #1, #2, and #4 plastics, or the polypropylene that makes up #5. **

At last, some refiners finally had an outlet for all that ethane. (Though as the picture above makes clear, the world still produces far more of it than can be used.)

In short: Nobody drills an oil well to make plastic. Nobody fracks a gas field to make plastic. Plastic comes from the unavoidable, and otherwise mostly unusable, waste by-product of fossil fuel refining. If plastic were suddenly, miraculously removed from the world tomorrow, not one well or field would close shop.

Steam-cracking is energy intensive. There's an agument that getting plastic from plants is less so. That somehow this reduces fossil fuel use. There's two problems with this line of reasoning:
  1. The science is secret; there's no way to know how much energy it really takes to convert plant matter all the way into polymers.
  2. There's also no breakdown of how much energy it takes to grow the plant material. Agriculture is extremely energy intensive. Stocks must be planted, fertilized, weeded, watered, harvested, dried, processed, transported -- all of which is only to make yet another plastic bottle.
Creating plastic from plants is not about being green, being responsible. It's about being seen as green & responsible. So far, traditional journalism has been far too complacent in helping the process. Don't get fooled.

** Ethylene is also a precursor to creating PVC (#3 plastic), and ethane is now even being used to create styrene, from which #6 plastic, polystyrene, can be produced.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Collection Report May 6, 2011

May 6, 9:30AM. Seems a lifetime ago. Sunny skies, 60 degrees, and a surprisingly relaxed wander on the beach just a few hours before beginning my trans-Atlantic adventure. Plus, I was joined by a young beachcomber-in-training.
Have pail, will travel
The restless energy that builds up inside Mainers over a long winter needs its escape. And where better than the shore? Seems somebody else had agreed.
[I] feel a spirit kindred to my own/
So that henceforth I worked no more alone

-- Robert Frost, "The Tuft of Flowers"
The days of solitude are fading. And there's more than footprints in the sand to remind you that yours is not a road less-traveled.
Intact shovel #5 for the collection -- completely buried under
kelp clump. Beachcombers: Always kick the kelp!
It had been another week of energy. A steep slope to the beach, new cusps carved from the northeast toward the southwest. Fresh seaweed -- mostly rockweed/knotted wrack. Curiously, little plastic tied up among it. Could it be brand new spring growth that hasn't floated around long enough to catch debris?

Well, let's see the breakdown. Zone N:
48 finds:
  • Building materials: 16 (11 asphalt chunks, 3 brick bits, 2 wooden posts/slats)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 3
  • Fishing misc.: 7 (5 rope scraps, scrap of lobster trap, vinyl trap coating)
  • Food-related plastics: 6 (3 straws, bottle cap, 2 baggie tags)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 2 (sea glass)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 7 (tampon applicator, kite package, silly band, bag scrap, lid rim, small screw cap, 1 scrap < 1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 2
  • Paper/wood: 2 (sparkler sticks)
  • Misc./unique: 3 (aluminum scrap (maybe building mtrl?), leather shoe sole, string)
Tops on the yuck list:
4th applicator in the past 2 months
These are almost certainly entering a river from storm drains and riding the currents to the shore. There's no way to tell which river. Not that it really matters. It's still something that shouldn't be sharing the beach with our kids. Please remember, there is usually -nothing- separating your town's storm drains from the ocean. If you lose it in the gutter, it will end up on a beach. Your beach, your neighbor's, some poor soul's across several time zones. There is no "away."

On to Zone S:
43 finds:
  • Building materials: 17 (11 asphalt chunks, 2 brick bits, tile, 2 wood shingles, fence slat)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 9 (inc. large wedge with grass shoved/growing through it??)
  • Fishing misc.: 2 (claw band, trap coating)
  • Food-related plastics: 1 (safety pulltab for water bottle)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 1 (sea glass)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 6 (1970s PVC "linoleum" floor tile scrap, Clorox label, shrinkwrap bottle thermo-seal, "Eagle Claw" fishing hook package top, intact orange shovel (not in pic -- in daughter's collection), 1 scrap < 1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 4
  • Paper/wood: 2 (sparkler sticks)
  • Misc./unique: 1 (string)
OK. What's the story here?
Nature, or nurture?
And how many of these things were likely left behind by beachgoers?
Maybe someone bleached their
old PVC "linoleum" beach blanket?
An ugly 40-year-old plastic floor tile persists, just as this year's plastic Clorox label. And why is that label even plastic? Is it because it looks shiny & crisp in a grocery aisle, enticing people to buy it? If so, how does it look now, Clorox Company?

Anyway, doing a full collection with a 4-year-old in tow is tricky business. Even so, I managed to scoop 91 pieces of junk off the ground. (Though I may do a rethink about asphalt once I hit my 1-year anniversary in June.) There was plenty of evidence of thoughtless beachgoing. But there's also continuing proof that what reaches our shores didn't always start on our shores.

My new motto is: "If it isn't made of plastic, it will be." And the consequences of this are becoming clearer every day. As is the choice: stop it, or drown in it.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Flotsam by Another Name

In this case, "sewage."

We don't often think much about where our waste goes. It's an inescapable part of life. And really, it's always just gone "away," right? But really, there is no "away." Sewage goes into our waterways, and greater populations mean far more of the stuff to deal with. Poor stewardship in one place can cause harm far downstream.

We're starting to learn this. Most people now get that the Ganges provides dangerously polluted drinking water to millions, or that farm/field waste pouring into major rivers worsens oceanic dead zones. But stewardship isn't just the purview of cities & nations & factory farms. How individuals and local businesses handle their waste can impact the environment as well. Which is why the Twice Brewed Inn in rural Northumberland, UK is a nice ray of light.
Downtown Twice Brewed, Tynedale, Northumberland, UK
The "Twicey" sits in the majestic central region of Hadrian's Wall -- the ancient Roman border wall built at the far northwest of the empire 1900 years ago. Hikers, wall-walkers, tourists, and archaeology volunteers from nearby Vindolanda call on the Twice Brewed for a clean bed, a hearty breakfast/dinner, good ale, and a lot of laughter. It's by far the busiest place in central Wall Country.

It also generates the most sewage in the area. For decades that sewage was treated by an aging, underpowered septic system out back. A tank collected solid waste, the liquid flowing into a stony "leach field" underground, where it percolated through the soil. Polluted leachate seeped into a small stream nearby, flowing from there into Brackies Burn, then Chinely Burn, and finally the river South Tyne, eventually emptying into the North Sea 40 miles away.

When it finally came time to redo the system, pub owner Brian Keen wanted to do things better. So instead of another tank and leach field, he installed a revolutionary new system. And by "revolutionary new" I mean "millennia old." The system still starts with a tank for solid waste. But then, the liquid is run through several steps to super-clean it before it re-enters the stream:
Aerator with rocks for sifting liquid to...
Two wetland pools (each the size of a shipping
container) stocked with local marsh grass to...
Piping down to streambed in valley
The aerator separates out the last of the solids and gets oxygen into the liquid. It's then piped by gravity to the two consecutive wetland pools. The pools act like a sponge and slow down the water flow along its course. The marsh grasses pull out a small percent of waste, and natural bacterial action takes care of the rest. By the end, what flows out of the last piping into the stream is clean, drinkable water! Instead of waste left to percolate & die deep underground over months or years, oxygen & bacteria attack it right away. Nature's recycling.

The only scent comes from the aerator. (It's not vile, and rarely reaches beyond the immediate vicinity.) The system has one moving part -- the aerator has a catch basin that tips out the liquid evenly among the aerator rocks when it gets filled. The two wetland pools can have their water level raised or lowered if needed -- though they self-regulate amazingly well. It's all so simple. And the cost was half a traditional setup.

So now, a pub/inn that can sleep dozens of people each night and serve over a hundred with drinks & dinner is also among the cleanest, best stewards of the area's waterways. (It's also a proud member of Britain's Green Tourism board, and uses a lot of innovation to conserve without sacrificing convenience.)

Generally the Flotsam Diaries is about... well... non-organic waste & pollution. But it's all part of the same story. And it's great to see folks doing their part to make the world a bit cleaner for all of us.

Note: Neither I nor the Flotsam Diaries received any promotional consideration for the above. It just seemed like a good idea. Brian & Pauline have been very kind to this traveler for many years now, and I'm thrilled to get a chance to repay the favor in a small way.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Collection Report April 25, 2011

Back stateside after a great week in England. And slowly getting back into the flotsam frame of mind. At long last, the collection report from April 25.
9:50 AM, 2 hrs past high-tide; drizzly
For the first time in weeks, the beach held a visible kelp line -- finally things were making it back in to Saco Bay from the wider Gulf of Maine. (And of course, where there's kelp, there's plastic.) Then again, it wasn't really surprising that kelp had returned. I mean, when you stroll a familiar beach and find this washed up:
21+ feet of ancient tree brought in by a recent tide know it's been an interesting week. How interesting? Well, let's see. First, Zone N:
105 finds:
  • Building materials: 16 (10 chunks of asphalt, fence slat, 3 wood offcuts, brick, tile)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 25 (all kinds)
  • Fishing misc.: 17 (lobster trap bumper, shotgun shell wadding, 2 trap coatings, 2 trap scraps, 5 claw bands, 4 bits of rope, 2 bait bags)
  • Food-related plastics: 6 (Capri Sun + straw wrapper, straw, Mondavi wine label scrap, "Simplify" Advanced H2O water bottle, Blue Diamond hickory-smoked almonds wrapper)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 5 (can, scrap, glass mouth fragment, unID'd metal scrap, toothpaste tube)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 26 (5 baggies/wrappers, 8 string/ribbon/tiestring, twisted coil, black tape, 5 scraps > 1", 6 scraps < 1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 8
  • Paper/wood: 1 (note)
  • Misc./unique: 1 (string)
On Sunday, April 1417, there had been some surfing event that had filled the main parking lot & half the overflow. Given human nature, clearly some of the above comes from those beach-goers. (The food packs, cigarettes, probably some of that explosion of styrofoam.) Still, some stuff clearly wasn't the result of local litter.
Decaying aluminum toothpaste tube
It's hard to see a scenario where someone has chucked a tube of toothpaste out at the beach -- or out a car window into a gulley. There's surely a more interesting story behind this bizarre find. Much as there is with many of the pieces of debris that I find washed in. Careless & malicious littering are part of the story. They are not the whole story.

The bad news: Toothpaste tubes are one of the latest casualties of the "Make Everything Plastic" campaign. This aluminum tube is returning to the dust from which it came. 2011's varieties won't ever do that. As more of our world becomes plastic, more of it will persist when it gets lost to the environment. That's our future. Our present.

On to Zone S:
54 finds:
  • Building materials: 17 (14 asphalt chunks, 2 brick, shingle)
  • Foam/Styrofoam: 10 (inc. obvious bits from Zone N)
  • Fishing misc.: 4 (2 trap bumpers, 2 trap coatings)
  • Food-related plastics: 3 (straw, cup, cap seal)
  • Food-related metal/glass: 3 (can scraps -- one freshly torn)
  • Non-food/unknown plastics: 13 (2 bag scraps, 2 string bits, 1 tiedown, golf ball, pushpin head, melted cup, 1 scrap > 1", 4 scraps, < 1")
  • Cigarette filters/plastics: 3
  • Paper/wood: 0
  • Misc./unique: 1 (cloth rope)
Little of note here, except a nice window into how styrofoam blows down a beach.

So after a few weeks of calm, the storm returns. 159 more pieces of manmade junk, from a quiet beach in Maine.

A parting photo for this week, from Zone N:
I will always wonder just what on earth this means.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Throwing Stones Across a Pond

A quick touch-in to say I haven't left the blogosphere. I've just left Maine, for a week! The past week I've been rummaging through another era's flotsam. Doing archaeological excavation at Vindolanda, a Roman fort set just behind Hadrian's Wall in northern England. It's a brilliant place where, across 300+ years, a succession of forts was built one on top of the other. The result is that, today, in some places the archaeology goes down 18-20 feet!

Because of the burial of earlier forts, much "stuff" is preserved in anaerobic conditions. Without oxygen, nothing rots. (The same is true at modern landfills.) So Vindolanda has been a treasure trove of the kinds of wooden, leather, cloth, hair, bone, and uncorroded metal artifacts that just don't survive anywhere else. It's a brilliant site. (Check out the Vindolanda writing tablets and prepare to have your socks knocked off.)

But what's fascinating about Vindolanda is that it all comes back to trash. Most of what is brought up today was just Roman trash back in AD 100-400 or so. A delicate hair moss wig that had gotten threadbare and was left behind when one garrison shipped out. Half of a wooden bread-oven spatula that broke in use, and was tossed into a ditch when nobody was looking. A worn-out sandal tossed into another ditch by a lazy soldier.
Hobnailed sole of a Roman leather sandal
I dug up in summer 2005
On and on. Thousands of such items have been uncovered at Vindolanda so far. Litter is not a new thing.

Trash from the ancient world helps us tell something of the lives of forgotten societies. It's a gold mine. And it's a gold mine precisely because it is so rare. If the world was awash in Vindolandas, where most of their garbage didn't rot, didn't break down, didn't go away -- well, that wouldn't be very special. In fact, that would be today.
Plastic bag caught in a tree.
Vindolanda, May 11, 2011
By the way, the whole Tynedale region of Northumberland is bursting with history & natural beauty. Small villages, vast open rolling fields, industrial heritage, what-have-you. An amazing place to spend a week. Or as much time as you can. I'll be back again, looking for more ancient trash, some day.
Field of oilseed rape, Haydon Bridge, May 7, 2011
Caught ray of sunlight, un-Photoshopped

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Swimming Upstream

I hear talk that the tide is turning in the fight against plastic pollution. That laws are being passed, people are waking up, corporations are coming up with solutions. A sense of hope that scenes like this:
Ocean Park, Maine
or this:
Albatross belly, Midway Atoll, North Pacific
will soon be a thing of the past.

Reality check. Corporations are not poised to shun plastic. Quite the opposite. In our household, no product we've been using has turned away from plastic. In fact, we've noticed:

* Snapple, formerly bottled in glass, is now bottled in #1 PET.
* Honest Tea, formerly bottled in glass, is now bottled in #1 PET.
* Noxzema, formerly bottled in glass, is now bottled in #5 PP.
* Nivea aftershave, formerly glass, now unidentified plastic.
* Tom's of Maine toothpaste, once aluminum, now unid'ed plastic.

Among others.

The trend is global. In Europe, the plastic industry is nearing a tipping point: public acceptance of #1 plastic for beer/wine. Long a stronghold of glass, beer has begun to come in plastic in Eastern Europe. It's poised to enter the massive Western market. Elsewhere, Coke in Indonesia is ramping up its single-use #1 PET bottles in a nation that already can't handle the waste produced today.

More insidious is the trend to bioplastics. Turning food or compost into persistent, undecomposable polymers is folly. Yet self-described "green" blogs have fawned over the announcements, with only a few voices doing honest journalism and asking questions.

Couple this with high-profile failures in the Bottle-2-Bottle recycling world. In March, Coke quietly pulled the plug on its vaunted plant in Spartanburg, SC. This happened at precisely the same time that a rep from Coke was addressing the Marine Debris Conference, touting its commitment to recycling. Turns out that, surprising nobody, turning old plastic into new, food-quality plastic is extremely hard. Even "easy to recycle" #1 PET.

More and more of what we use is made of plastic. Whether that plastic is from oil, gas, compost, or sugarcane, it's still persistent, hard to refashion cleanly & cheaply, and deadly once in the environment. Millions of tons of new, virgin plastic are created each year. The old "recycled" stuff mostly becomes cheap feedstock for the stuff you see & buy at big box retailers.

Look at everything in your house that isn't yet made of plastic. Somewhere, there's an engineer in a company trying to change that. And some of every new thing made from plastic that was formerly made from paper, glass, wood, aluminum, steel, or anything else will end up in our persistently polluted oceans.

There are real successes in curbing the spread of this waste. Plastic bag bans and taxes are slowly making headway, despite the efforts of the American Chemistry Council with its dishonest "Bag the Ban" Web site and the equally misleading "Save the Plastic Bag" operation. A 9-year-old boy in Vermont is opening many eyes to the silliness of throwing away 500 million plastic straws a day. And speaking of tipping points, I'm an optimist that there will be a global tipping point against this rampant, unchecked pollution.

But for now, those of us who see the damage that our plastic world is causing have to be honest: The reach of plastics is growing, not shrinking. If we recognize and admit that, there's a better chance we can do something about it.