The Time for Environmental Action is NOW!

The EFM Notebook

Photo by Robert Badger and Nita Winter

A Biweekly Commentary on What’s New and Newsworthy

The EFM Notebook is a resource for information about the environment and climate change. In each post I’ll bring you news and insights from experts, activists, and policy makers and I will suggest ideas for moving towards environmental sustainabilitySubscribe to the EFM email list and we will send you new Notebook posts when they are published.  #EFMNotebook

by Susan Holloway | Bio


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  • 4 Jun 2020 12:21 PM | Gayle Marsh (Administrator)

    In the midst of the dual crises of pandemic and social upheaval, I am reluctant to nag anyone about lawns, no matter whether they are grass or artificial turf. We are doing what we can for ourselves and others, and this is not the time to beat ourselves up for failing at perfection. Indeed, there have been times in my life when I was too busy to do anything more than stick a six pack of marigolds alongside the mangy lawn in our back yard. Somehow, my kids managed to survive childhood without a beautiful lawn or a fantastic discovery garden. In any case, I hope this post offers you some nonjudgmental perspectives on the substance your feet may encounter in your yard or on a soccer field.

    Current problems aside, there are many reasons to feel conflicted and confused about natural grass vs. synthetic turf options for lawns and fields. We may love the tidiness of a lawn or its allure as a child’s play area. Or we may resist the water, chemicals, and sheer time needed to maintain a lawn, and be attracted to a synthetic alternative. We may also feel overwhelmed by the conflicting and sometimes deliberately deceptive claims about the risks of artificial turf to our health and safety. Or we may be OK with either option, simply appreciating the outdoor public spaces in our communities no matter what they are made of.

    The Rise of the Lawn

    For centuries, the expansive, well-tended lawn has symbolized prosperity and moral virtue. In 1850, American philosopher Andrew Jackson Downing wrote, “When smiling lawns and tasteful cottages begin to embellish a country, we know that order and culture are established.” In the next century, lawns became widespread throughout the US.

    However, in the 1960s and 70s, concerns began to emerge about the harm to wildlife and the pollution of waterways caused by toxic fertilizers and pesticides used on lawns. As drought conditions became more widespread, criticism focused on the huge amount of water used to irrigate lawns. And a search for alternatives began in earnest.

    Synthetic Grass: Solving Some Problems, Creating Others

    Astroturf at the Astrodome

     

    In the mid 1960s Monsanto Industries created the first artificial turf, marketing it under the name Chemgrass. The new product burst into public awareness when it was installed in the Houston Astrodome and its name was changed to the much cooler-sounding Astroturf. For the next two decades, synthetic turf was installed throughout the country not only in professional venues but also on playgrounds and community athletic fields. It was also beginning to be used in private homes in place of natural grass lawns. Easy maintenance, no downtime needed to let the grass grow back, theoretically doesn’t need sun, water, or pesticides. Awesome!

    Problems with Artificial Turf

    The original plastic turf was made from carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen and polyethylene. Eventually, Monsanto and other companies began adding a layer of infill made from recycled tires to hold up the plastic blades of grass, create a soft cushiony feeling, and prevent injuries. Tires contain natural and synthetic rubber as well as other petroleum products. They also contain a variety of metals including lead, which is neurotoxic. Some of the chemicals in tires, such as dibenzopyrenes, are known carcinogens. One study found that tiny particles from the crumb rubber can become suspended in the air above the turf and inhaled by anyone playing on it.

    Patti Wood, founder of Grassroots Environmental Education, has summed up the situation succinctly, “This crumb rubber is a material that cannot be legally disposed of in landfills or ocean-dumped because of its toxicity. Why on earth should we let our children play on it?”

    In response to these concerns, companies are currently experimenting with alternative materials for infill, including plant-based substances like soy and coconut husks.  

    However, bad news came recently in the form of a study by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility and the Center for Ecology. They tested eight samples of turf for 36 types of PFAS. All the samples tested positive for total fluorine, which suggests the presence of PFAS. PFAS are synthetic organic compounds known for their resistance to stains and heat and their nonstick, waterproof qualities. These nasty customers remain for decades in soil and groundwater. Studies of the best-known PFAS show links to kidney cancer and testicular cancer as well as endocrine disruption.

    Three More Things to Consider

    1. Synthetic turf absorbs sunlight very...ummm…efficiently. One study found that the temperature of a field made of synthetic turf can reach 140 degrees when it is 78 degrees outside. Sunlight reflected off the windows in a home can actually melt synthetic grass in the yard. You may have to water the artificial grass to keep it cool.
    2. After synthetic turf’s lifespan of 8 to 10 years is over, it can theoretically be recycled but this expensive and labor-intensive process is rarely undertaken. In the US, we discard about 80 million square feet of turf a year. Typically, it all goes in a landfill where it sits for centuries.
    3. Synthetic turf does not provide a home to burrowing insects, nor does it offer sustenance for pollinators like bees and bumblebees.

    Synthetic turf continues to grow in popularity throughout the world. Market forecasts estimate that sales will surpass $3 billion US dollars by 2024! These days synthetic turf is widely marketed as “kid and pet friendly” with no apparent proof of its safety and little government regulation.

    Consider Some Alternatives!

    Plant a bee lawn: The idea of a bee lawn is to incorporate low-growing bee-friendly perennial flowers into turfgrass. Bee lawns can handle foot traffic and can be mowed less often than conventional lawns. One popular seed mix for a bee lawn relies on various kinds of fescue for the grass component, along with clover, creeping thyme, and self-heal.

    Consider lawn alternatives: For a lawn-ish look, you can plant the well-mannered Fescue californica, or go with the wild and crazy Carex tumulicola. You can also mix grasses in with wildflowers like California poppies and lupine to create a meadow that attracts butterflies, birds, and beneficial insects. Or try a hardy groundcover like Blue Star Creeper (Isotoma fluviatilis), which tolerates foot traffic.

    Create a children’s discovery garden: You don’t need a huge space – a safe balcony or outdoor patio would work. And it may be fun for your children to help you create it. Here’s one site with some ideas: 
    www.loveyourlandscape.org/expert-advice/little-landscapers/kidfriendly-play-space/15-ideas-for-a-childrens-discovery-garden/

    Or Keep the Darn Lawn and Relax Your Standards…

    I like this comment by Jane Memmott, a professor of ecology at the University of Bristol: “This whole business of keeping your lawn clipped and pulling the weeds out is part of some British obsession with tidiness. If you look back at old pictures, people weren’t as tidy. I think bohemian untidiness is what we’re aiming for – you don’t want it to look like neglect.”

    To paraphrase Kahlil Gibran: If you love your lawn, let it go (to seed)…

    On a Somewhat Different Note
    Helping Children Learn About Climate Change in Frightening Times

    Amidst the current pandemic and social unrest, people have many reasons to be anxious. How can we comfort children and is there a way to teach them about environmental sustainability without adding to their anxiety?

    I recommend looking for books and articles that offer concrete ways for children to take action within their own familiar home or community context. For example, “The Earth Book” by Todd Parr is a picture book for very young children with simple suggestions for how they can help the earth stay healthy.

    Older children are increasingly able to absorb scientific information about climate change. They also benefit from being encouraged to become active agents rather than bystanders. Climate change activist Amber Pairis argues that we need to provide children with science and solutions. Her Climate Science Activity Book provides factual information for kids along with ideas for activities and links to videos and other resources:
    www.climatekids.org/resources.

    Children can also learn about the environment at the National Geographic Kids website, and their family members can find additional information and ideas about activities at 
    www.nationalgeographic.com/family/at-home-education-resources/

    I hope these suggestions are helpful. If you want to share any other resources, email them to me and I will make them available to readers. 

    A Dialogue With Readers

    Thanks very much to those of you who commented on my first blog post about plastic wrap. One reader asked how I can be sure that the information I am presenting is scientifically accurate.

    There is indeed a mountain of information on the environment and climate change, and some of it is not based on legitimate evidence or analysis. I am not an expert on climate change, but I have training and experience in conducting research and analyzing data. I also learned how to evaluate evidence relevant to environmental advocacy in the EFM Master class.

    For the Notebook, I read widely to ensure that multiple sources concur on a particular point before I include it in a post. I am really careful to keep in mind the professional affiliation of authors in order to evaluate their credibility and ascertain possible financial interest in promoting a particular issue or product. And when a topic is particularly complex, I seek guidance from an expert in the field.

    To Learn More


    That’s it for this post of the EFM Notebook! Do you have comments on what you’ve read so far? Suggestions for future Notebook topics? Send me your thoughts at susanh@marinefm.org.


    Many thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Nita and Rob’s new award-winning call-to-action book, “Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change,” is available at www.wildflowerbook.com. To see more birds and other images visit www.winterbadger.com.

  • 20 May 2020 12:48 PM | Gayle Marsh (Administrator)

    The next few posts will focus on the impact of plastics on human and animal wellbeing. I will also look at what is going on locally to offset current efforts by the petrochemical industry to boost plastic use here and across the globe. And I will share some of my recent finds as I search for alternatives to using plastic in my own home.

    My name is Susan Holloway. I am a graduate of the EFM Master Class and a member of the EFM board. I bring a lifelong passion for the natural beauty of Northern California, and professional experience in writing, data analysis, and policy development.


    This Week: The History, Promise, and Challenges of Plastic Wrap

    See-through plastic wrap is very popular in the United States. During a six month period in 2019, nearly 80 million American used at least one roll of plastic wrap, and more than five million Americans used ten or more rolls. Plastic sits in landfills for decades if not centuries after a single use. In this post we’ll explore the history of plastic wrap, examine its properties and effects on health, and analyze the options for mitigating its negative effects on our lives.

     

    Miles and miles of Texas…..Each year, Americans buy enough plastic wrap to shrink-wrap Texas!

    The Accidental Birth of Saran Wrap

    Plastic wrap was “invented” in the 1930s when a lab procedure went awry, resulting in a sticky gunk so water resistant that it couldn’t be washed from the bottom of the beaker it was created in. The molecules in this new chemical — PVCD (polyvinylidene chloride) — were so tightly bound together that they were nearly impenetrable by water and oxygen molecules. Recognizing the potential value of this impermeability, the military started using it to protect military gear from water. And scientists at Dow Chemical began conducting experiments to determine whether it could be useful in food storage. Their product, Saran Wrap, was ready for purchase in 1949.


    Plastic Wrap: Health Effects on Humans

    Two aspects of film wrap are primarily responsible for its toxic effects on human health. Monomers are the basic building blocks of plastics. In the case of plastic wrap, the key monomer unit is vinyl chloride, which forms a chain to create polyvinyl chloride or PVC.

    Additives such as phthalates are a second component of plastics. They are used to make the plastic item softer, more flexible, and more transparent. In the US, plastic wrap contains a phthalate-like “plasticizer” called DEHA. Studies have shown that DEHA migrates from plastic wrap into food—particularly high fat food such as cheese and particularly when it is heated.  

    Moreover, when PVC ends up in landfills or incinerators, it can release dioxin, a highly toxic chemical.  

    All these chemicals are endocrine disruptors. They copy or mimic the actions of the hormone estrogen in the body. Endocrine disruptors may interfere with the development of babies in utero, and are associated with autism, learning disabilities, and attention deficit disorder as well as fertility problems, cancer, obesity and type-2 diabetes.

    Studies conducted in the 1990s showed that DEHA can cause liver tumors in mice. Specific evidence on humans is lacking, in part because the effects occur over a prolonged period of time. Nevertheless, the long-term effects of significant exposure to PVC and DEHA are of concern to many scientists. 


    Why is Saran Wrap So Beloved?

    Some of you may know the work of comedian Mel Brooks. In one of his most famous sketches, playing “the 2,000 Year Old Man,” he claims that Saran Wrap is the greatest invention of humankind, gushing “You can look through it. You can touch it. You can put it over your face and you can fool around and everything. It’s so good and cute….I love it.” 

    Plastic wrap has escaped much of the criticism raised by environmentalists concerning other single use plastic products. But why?

    Saran Wrap was positively associated with cleanliness, thrift, and domesticity during a period of American history when women’s role as home maker was  reinforced by cultural messages as well as  political and economic pressures. Moreover, as Mel Brooks managed to convey, plastic wrap can seem somehow “cute.” Thin and transparent, it doesn’t take up as much space in a landfill as a plastic bottle or wash up on beaches like a pink plastic bag.


    McDonald's began putting food in Styrofoam clamshells in the 1980s, but public outcry forced the company to phase these containers out by 1990. Why were they singled out while plastic wrap received little attention? When McDonald’s introduced their packaging the environmental movement was more active than when plastic wrap was introduced to consumers. Associated with a “throw away” mentality, fast-food packaging also lacked the moral virtues associated with Saran Wrap and similar products. Indeed, the bulky items were easy to imagine sitting in a landfill for hundreds of years, unlike its cute, slinky cousin.


    Can we recycle plastic wrap these days?

    It was a sad day when I finally realized that recycling is not now nor will it ever be a good solution to our plastic pollution problem. While it feels good to recycle, the reality is that a very small percentage of plastic — 10% —  is recycled. Most of it ends up in a landfill or is incinerated.

    That percentage is even lower for plastic wrap. Plastic wrap gums up the machinery at the processing plant, creating a need for expensive specialized parts. Local governments may sometimes pressure waste haulers to accept plastic wrap, but very little if any of it is actually recycled.

    A case in point: Marin Sanitary Service, the waste hauler in my community, does not accept plastic wrap for recycling. On their website they appeal to the civic responsibility of their customers, “Remember: keeping your film plastics out of your recycling may feel like a small contribution, but when it’s multiplied by the entire community, it makes an enormous difference!”

    Marin residents can go to the following website find out whether their local hauler will accept plastic wrap for recycling:

    https://zerowastemarin.org/residents/who-is-my-hauler/

    The plastics industry continues to promote plastic recycling as a solution to plastic pollution even in the face of substantial evidence that the process is too labor intensive and expensive to be a feasible option. For an excellent overview of the role of plastics ndustry in “green washing” the public about recycling, I highly recommend this episode of Frontline called Plastic Wars which premiered in March of 2020:

    https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/frontline/?q=plastics%20wars


    What you can do at home? Green alternatives to plastic wrap.

    How can you keep your leftover spaghetti fresh without some kind of plastic wrap? Well, my mother tells me that in the olden days, people used to put leftovers in a bowl or a Mason jar. She adds that it’s not the end of the world if the food isn’t wrapped up like a mummy. If you want to get fancy, protect your containers with cloth covers. You can find nice ones locally at https://www.ambatalia.com/shop/cloth-bowl-covers-basics

    OK, but what about taking a sandwich to the beach, you say? Several companies have developed a reusable wrap made from beeswax. This type of wrap softens when it comes into contact with the warmth of your hand so can be molded to wrap a sandwich or cover a bowl. Bee’s Wrap, to give one example, is made from organic cotton, beeswax, jojoba oil, and tree resin. It is washable and compostable.

    Other ways to pack a picnic include stainless steel tiffins, stacked metal lunch boxes used throughout India. Their Japanese counterparts, bento boxes, are also available in stainless steel as well as wood. Here’s one place to read about some of your options: https://www.architecturaldigest.com/gallery/plastic-free-food-storage-containers

    …AND IF YOU DO USE PLASTIC WRAP, DON’T HEAT IT UP!

    “Avoid allowing plastic wrap to come into contact with food, especially when heating or if the food has a high fat content (like meat or cheese).” Source: National Center for Health Research


    To learn more about plastic wrap and its effects on the environment and our health…..


    Many thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner of an egret landing in Marin’s Corte Madera saltwater wetlands. Nita and Rob’s new award-winning call-to-action book, “Beauty and the Beast: California Wildflowers and Climate Change,” co-published with the California Native Plant Society, is available at www.wildflowerbook.com. To see more birds and other images visit www.winterbadger.com.


    That’s it for this post of the EFM Notebook! Do you have ideas for future Notebook topics? Or a new idea for reducing waste? Send me your thoughts at susanh@marinefm.org.


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