The Time for Environmental Action is NOW!
The EFM Notebook
Photo by Robert Badger and Nita Winter
A Commentary on What’s New and Newsworthy
by Susan Holloway | Bio
NOTE: EFM Notebook is best viewed horizontally, when using your phone. EFM Notebook Index
Every year, about 8 million tons of plastic waste escape into the oceans from coastal nations. At this rate, it has been estimated that plastic in the ocean will outweigh the fish by 2050.
Five accumulation zones of marine debris have formed across the world. The so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch is the biggest one of them all, twice the size of Texas.
The cost to wildlife of plastic consumption is high. Millions of birds, mammals, and fish are killed by plastic objects in the ocean every year. Seals, turtles, whales, and other mammals are tangled in plastic bags and strangled by plastic six-pack rings. Plastic items block animals’ digestive tracts, pierce their organs, or pack their stomachs so that they cannot or will not eat.
Microplastic Particles: Stealth Villains of the Plastic Story
The research on how ingestion of microplastic affects living organisms is in its infancy but preliminary evidence suggests that these substances can be very toxic. For one thing, we know that microplastics absorb and give off harmful bacteria and chemical pollutants such as DDT and PCBs. Certain of these chemicals are highly toxic to fish and other ocean animals. If you eat a fish that has ingested microplastics you may be exposing yourself to these toxins as well.
No Butts on the Beach!
It’s hard to make jokes about cigarettes, but that hasn’t stopped many writers from working amusing puns into articles on cigarette butts in the world’s waterways. But that’s where the hilarity ends because the story itself is grim.
In 1900 the average American adult smoked 54 cigarettes
per year; by 1960, the number had risen to 400.
4.5 trillion cigarettes are discarded into the environment
every year making them the “most littered item on earth.”
Plastics are in cigarettes, too: their filters are made of a plastic called cellulose acetate. Like other plastic objects, cigarette filters are harmful to wildlife when consumed and they last in the environment for decades if not centuries. Cigarettes—and their filters—are full of chemicals including pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, fungicides and rodenticides, which leach out when cigarette butts are washed into the ocean. A study published in 2011 found that cigarette filters are “acutely toxic” to small marine and freshwater fish.
Vaping and e-cigarettes produce even more plastic pollution than conventional cigarettes. The plastic pod that holds the “e-juice” is sometimes reusable, but in the case of disposable e-cigarettes the heating element, battery and mouthpiece are all thrown away! They are a hazardous waste as well as e-waste.
Close to Home
Deep-sea octopus from Monterey Bay
In fact, the San Francisco Bay contains abundant amounts of this “relentless toxic confetti.” Recent research shows that water passing through urban streets carries bits of trash into the storm drains and from there into the Bay. Microplastics are also present in water dumped into the bay from our 40 local sewage treatment plants. It was surprising and hard to hear that washing my fleece jacket causes the synthetic elements in the fabric to shed microplastic into the wash water.
Indeed, the comparatively high concentration of plastic particles in the San Francisco Bay has taken many people by surprise. As reported by the San Jose Mercury News, Jared Blumenfeld, secretary of the state’s Environmental Protection Agency, admits that microplastic pollution is “one of these things that has kind of crept up on us.”
Part of our microplastic problem is caused by the narrow Golden Gate opening, which limits tidal actions and natural flushing from the bay to the ocean. But it’s important to remember that microplastic pollution is swept everywhere across the globe by ocean currents, often migrating far from its point of origin. Even the Monterey Bay, a national marine sanctuary far from major population centers and polluting industries, contains proportionately as much plastic debris as does the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. So local actions are not enough to protect our own shores.
Here’s a link to an informative Mercury article about San Francisco Bay: https://www.mercurynews.com/2019/10/02/7-trillion-pieces-of-microplastic-wash-into-san-francisco-bay-every-year-new-study-shows/
What can we do?
Faced with devastating images of animals strangling on plastic straws, a common human impulse is to try and clean things up. For example, the waters of Baltimore Harbor are patrolled by anthropomorphic litter interceptors (say hello to Mr. Trash Wheel) that cruise around and suck up plastic objects from the water. On a larger scale, Dutch entrepreneur Boyan Slat and his nonprofit organization called The Ocean Cleanup have developed a large interceptor that they are currently testing in several highly impacted areas around the world. It is not clear whether these interceptors can remove microplastic particles as well as larger items, although Slat and his group claim they can.
Mr. Trash Wheel at rest in Baltimore Harbor
Cleaning up heavily polluted coastal areas may be part of the solution but it is a sisyphean task. How do we attack the problem at its source?
Reduce, Reuse, and….Recycle???
Clearly we need to reduce the manufacture and consumption of plastic items, particularly single-use products. Clamshell packaging is one target of many plastic pollution activists, along with plastic bags, foodware, and cigarette products. The reduce-and-reuse concept is not difficult to understand. But it is no small matter to overcome the power of the gas, oil, and other industries with a financial stake in continuing to produce plastic. If you are interested in learning more about this struggle, take a look at this well-researched article in Rolling Stone by Tim Dickinson: https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/plastic-problem-recycling-myth-big-oil-950957/
In the last few years, the utility of recycling has been increasingly called into question. The bottom line is that recycled plastic has little economic value. It’s cheaper to make virgin plastic than to recycle the old stuff. The industries that generate the most plastic, with Coca-Cola topping the list, are spending money on developing new technology to improve recycling, but this is not something that many climate scientists think is a feasible solution to our overall plastic problem.
Udall and Lowenthal’s bill would ban some single-use plastics such as plastic bags, styrofoam items, and plastic utensils. It would also impose a deposit on beverage containers to encourage return for recycling. It would ban the export of plastic waste and halt construction of new plastics facilities until the EPA can develop more effective regulations. Check out Senator Udall’s forceful comments in this 8-minute presentation: https://www.ksfr.org/post/senator-udall-break-free-plastic-pollution-act
The New Normal
As I write this installment of the Notebook, Covid-19 cases in California are on the rise. An estimated 129 billion face masks and 65 billion gloves are being used around the world every month to protect us from the virus. However, single-use masks and gloves contain plastic that poses a significant risk to animal and plant life. We need these items in order to survive but should make sure they do not end up in the ocean.
Another unintended consequence of the pandemic is that many communities have suspended their bans on single-use plastic bags. At the same time, a surge in takeout and delivery orders has increased consumption of disposable plastic food containers and cutlery.
Even during these really challenging times, we have options for reducing plastic waste. Here are a few ideas:
See if you can find a takeout place that uses paper rather than plastic containers and avoid using plastic straws or cutlery.
If you are shopping online for home delivery, use companies that minimize the plastic they use in their packaging. For example, I try to order pet food from Chewy because they typically pack items in paper rather than plastic bubble wrap.
If you shop for groceries in a store that doesn’t allow you to bring your own bags, ask if you can put the items directly back in the cart after they are rung up and then put them in your recyclable bags when you are back at your car.
If you have children, help them discover and inventory the plastic objects in your home and brainstorm about alternatives.
As always, support government efforts to change the way we produce, use, and dispose of plastics. You can write a letter to your local representatives in support of a single-use foodware ban in your community. Or contact your elected officials in the US House of Representatives and Senate to signal your support for the Break Away from Pollution Act. And with elections coming up, work for or contribute to the campaigns of candidates with a good environmental track record.
That’s it for this installment of the EFM Notebook! Do you have comments on what you’ve read so far? Suggestions for future topics? Send me your thoughts at email@example.com.
Many thanks to Rob Badger and Nita Winter for sharing Rob’s beautiful image on the Notebook banner. Nita and Rob’s award-winning call-to-action book is available at www.wildflowerbook.com. To see more birds and other images visit www.winterbadger.com.
When Climate Change and Racial Injustice Interact
On June 18, the EFM sponsored a Community Education Event called “Water: Sea Level Rise and Nature-based Adaptation.” In this Notebook post I follow up on one theme of the discussion: the effects of sea level rise in Marin City, a vulnerable community already experiencing flooding from storm surges.
The participants speaking to this topic were Terrie Green, Co-Director of Shore Up Marin and Kristina Hill, Associate Professor, UC Berkeley. They are working together on planning and advocating for short- and long-term adaptation actions that Marin City can make to offset the effects of sea level rise.
A Snapshot of Marin City
Marin City is built on marshland at the base of Mt. Tamalpais. Prior to World War II, the area now occupied by Marin City featured a few houses and a dairy farm. However, during the war years, the government used the land to create housing for workers at the shipyard in Sausalito, including a significant number of African Americans who had migrated to the Bay Area from the South. After the war, work in the shipyards diminished and the workers dispersed throughout the county and elsewhere. Many of the African American residents remained in Marin City, in part because they were restricted by exclusionary covenants from moving to other towns in the county. By the 1970s, over 75% of the population of Marin City was African American.
In subsequent years, residential and commercial development continued in Marin City, including construction of a large shopping center. Currently, 25% of the residents identify as African American and another 22% speak Spanish as their primary language. As of 2014, approximately half the total population was living in public housing units. Approximately 22% of the population lives below the poverty line, and the median family income is roughly $40,000, one third the median income in Marin County.
Marin City is Already Impacted by Flooding
Marin City sits in a low-lying area to the west of the hills forming the Sausalito Watershed and one mile east of the San Francisco Bay. There is only one connecting road from Highway 101 into Marin City. During high tides and after rainstorms, this access road is sometimes flooded, backing up traffic and preventing residents from moving expeditiously in and out of the area. In her EFM presentation, Ms. Green described the array of effects experienced by Marin City residents as a result of these transportation problems, including difficulty in getting to places of employment and accessing medical care. The flooding also causes damage to homes and businesses.
What Does the Future Hold in Store? Water From Above and Below
In the not-too-distant future, Marin City will be affected by sea level rise in addition to seasonal flooding. Sea level rise worldwide is a consequence of climate warming caused by excessive amounts of greenhouse gases being released into the atmosphere. Climate warming leads to the melting of continental glaciers and alpine glaciers. The warm air also heats up the ocean water, causing it to expand.
There is another aspect of sea level rise that I had not been aware of, namely the hidden phenomenon of groundwater rise. When the sea level rises and moves toward land, the salty water under the bottom of the sea also moves inland where it mixes with fresh groundwater. The saltwater pressures the ground water upward into the unsaturated zone above the water table. This rising groundwater damages transportation networks as well as sewage and water systems. It also distributes soil pollutants and it destabilizes the land, causing building foundations to heave. All of this can happen before the surface water from the ocean has visibly breached sea walls and other barriers.
At present, models of sea level rise used in planning adaptation by Bay Area communities do not take ground water rise into account, making them unrealistically conservative. However, scientists, including Dr. Hill and her research team, are developing accurate methods for making these calculations.
The reality of sea level rise cannot be denied. A report called “Adapting to Rising Tides Bay Area” (ART Bay Area) released in March of 2020 provides a detailed analysis of the potential consequences the Bay Area faces in the absence of coordinated, prioritized adaptation to sea level rise. The authors identified Marin City as a “high consequence hot spot” in part by being a “vulnerable community in which social and economic conditions make it more difficult to prepare for, respond to, and recover from flooding.”
What are the Solutions?
In the short term, Dr. Hill and Ms. Green recommended that the county consider creating at least one additional drainage culvert to carry water from the town toward the Bay. Temporary mobile pumps are also essential to remove water from the most flood-prone areas. Other possibilities include dredging the existing detention basin and building a levee between the low-lying area adjacent to Highway 101 and the detention basin. The County should also consider making significant improvements to Highway 101, including raising the highway and the on- and off-ramps connecting to Marin City. It may also be possible to create a canal system and additional artificial ponds to wick away the rising ground water that is associated with sea level rise.
As part of a later phase, the community should begin to envision alternative forms of housing. Dr. Hill has proposed that housing and commercial developments in Marin City may need to be moved to higher ground. Another possibility would be to replace existing structures with a lagoon dotted with floating homes, as is already the case in parts of Amsterdam.
We Know Adaptations Exist But Will They be Implemented in Marginalized Communities?
These solutions require focus and funding from the county. As Ms. Green described in her presentation, a history of systemic racism in Marin has exacerbated rather than diminished the gap between affluent white communities and economically vulnerable communities of color like Marin City and the Canal area in San Rafael. Will this pattern be perpetuated in planning for adaptation to sea level rise? Or will our affluent county take the steps necessary to support our vulnerable communities?
Ms. Green called for all county residents — not just those living in the most vulnerable communities — to urge their elected officials to support investment in adaptation strategies for Marin City. Ms. Green also called for an equity audit of county allocation of funds for flood mitigation and other essential adaptation solutions. Have these adaptations — temporary pump trucks, dredging, wetland restoration, new drainage pipes etc. — already been funded in wealthier parts of Marin?
Such an equity audit is underway in Oakland. Their Equitable Climate Action Plan (ECAP) will “identify ambitious actions we can take to combat climate change while also ensuring that frontline communities — those that have been harmed by environmental injustice and who are likely to be hurt first and worst by the impact of climate change — will benefit first and foremost from climate action.”
At this point, given the clear evidence that sea levels will rise precipitously in the coming decades, the need for action cannot be denied.
National Responses to Sea Level Rise: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
The response of our local, state, and national government to the suffering of citizens in less powerful communities has often been anemic at best. The “survival of the fittest” model too often dictates the flow of funds, whether it be to school improvement or environmental sustainability. And government assistance for the marginalized community comes — if it comes at all — for rebuilding after a disaster rather than for focusing ahead of time on prevention and adaptation.
At the national level, the likelihood of coordinated planning of equitable adaptations seems remote at best. In January of this year, President Trump mocked an Army Corps of Engineers analysis of the costs and benefits of building a sea wall around New York City, calling it “a costly, foolish & environmentally unfriendly idea that, when needed, probably won’t work anyway. It will also look terrible. Sorry, you’ll just have to get your mops & buckets ready!” He failed to mention that he had obtained a permit to create two sea walls to protect his golf resort in Ireland from rising sea levels and water erosion. In February, without explanation or comment the Corps halted their analysis of flood adaptation options for the Northeastern Seaboard.
So Much for the Bad and the Ugly… What About the Good?
Estimates by the World Bank suggest that every dollar that goes into flood defenses yields a return of $7 to $10. But the outlay needs to be substantial. Dr. Hill noted that the Dutch spend 2% of their national GDP on flood adaptation. The focus of flood abatement in the Netherlands for the past millennium has been to create a series of flat lands called polders that are protected by dykes. Do rich residents have a bigger polders or better dykes that poor ones? No, as Simon Kuper notes in an article in the Financial Times, the key to Dutch success has been a “system of pragmatic, unideological co-operation to protect themselves” or “a politics of eternal coalition.”
Other examples of effective adaptation to extreme weather and community flooding can be found in Elizabeth Rush’s book Rising. For instance, she describes the response of citizens in Oakwood Beach on Staten Island to the devastation caused by Hurricane Sandy, showing how extensive community organization led most residents to accept managed retreat to a new geographic location.
When communities long made vulnerable to existing structural inequalities are also directly impacted by climate change, it can awaken a sense of vulnerability, and also an awareness that this vulnerability is shared. This realization brought the residents of Oakwood Beach together: demanding access to one of the most progressive sea level rise adaptation techniques we have, and at an even more basic level, inspiring them to raise their voices and regain control over their community’s destiny.
Moving toward Adaptation in a Context of Social Justice
I hope that the voices of these writers, advocates, and scholars inspire you to contact your elected officials as well as administrators at Caltrans and the Department of Public Works. Ask them what they are doing to support proactive, equitable approaches to sea level rise adaptation in the coming decades!
To learn more…..
Elizabeth Rush talks with residents on both coasts about their experience of sea level rise in her moving and informative book: Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore, published in 2019 by Milkweed Editions.
Click here to access the video of the EFM Community Education Event called “Water: Sea Level Rise and Nature-based Adaptation”. Also, to find out more about the EFM partner organizations for this event, and learn how they can help you take action, click here.
If you need inspiration, read this article by Simon Kuper: “Can the Dutch Save the World from the Danger of Rising Sea Levels?” Financial Times Magazine, January 20, 2020.
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 is available at www.wildflowerbook.com. To see more birds and other images visit www.winterbadger.com.
In this post I give you an overview of what we know about the toxic chemicals that lurk in plastic products for babies and children, and I offer ideas for safe alternatives.
Taking care of a little kid is rewarding but difficult, and the last thing I want to do is shame anyone for giving a child a plastic pacifier or a rubber ducky. Years ago, my son spent many happy hours constructing spaceships from plastic Legos, and the only thing I worried about was stepping on them with bare feet. However, I wish I had known at the time about the possible health effects of my children’s plastic bottles, diapers, pacifiers, and toys. It would have helped me weigh my priorities and make informed decisions.
Will the shocking events and revelations of recent months galvanize us to support the right of every child to grow up in a safe, healthy environment? I hope so. This is the time to continue pressing for environmental change. As EFM Board President Susan Rusche wrote in the 2020 Summer Newsletter: “We can only hope that the seeds of real change are being sown now and will bring us to a better, more just, and peaceful world.”
I Am Therefore I Suck on Things
If you are ever around babies you know that they put everything in their mouths. This is nature’s way of ensuring that nourishment will make its way into their bodies. But it’s also their main strategy for understanding the world. They are avid learners and they explore the shape and size of an object by gumming it enthusiastically.
So it’s important that we let them put things in their mouths… but we have to be sure that those things are safe for their slobbery little selves.
Public Enemy Number 1: BPA
One of the most dangerous chemicals in plastic products is bisphenol A (BPA). BPA is an endocrine disruptor. It upsets the body’s hormonal balance and can have developmental, reproductive, and neurological effects.
BPA can leach from plastic objects into foods and liquids, especially when they are heated.
In 2012 the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) banned BPA from baby bottles and sippy cups. Problem solved?
No, in fact this limited regulation has been very ineffective. First, the ban does not apply to many products children put in their mouths. Furthermore, many companies have simply replaced BPA with other endocrine disruptive chemicals. This phenomenon is known as “regrettable substitution” because the new chemicals are also dangerous or have yet to be studied. We are engaged in a game of “whack-a-mole.” Just as we get rid of one dangerous chemical another pops up.
BPA Is Still Being Found in Things Children Suck On? You Have GOT to be Kidding!
In fact, some children’s products that are specifically labeled “BPA free” have been found to contain it anyway.
In an influential study published in 2016, Dr. Kurunthachalam Kannan and his associates tested 59 plastic baby teethers – including solid, gel-filled, and water-filled models – from 23 brand names. Nearly all the teethers were advertised as being “BPA free.” However, the researchers found BPA in almost every product along with 15 to 20 other endocrine-disrupting compounds. And they found that the compounds leached out of the products’ surfaces into water.
The need for better government regulation and oversight could not be clearer or more urgent.
Phthalates: Dangerous to Ingest, Annoying to Spell, and Impossible to Pronounce
BPA isn’t the only dangerous chemical found in children’s products. Many of them contain phthalates (pronounced “THAY-lates”), a class of chemicals used to make plastic soft and flexible (or, you might say, more suckable).
Accordingly, they can be found in baby toys, rattles, teethers, rubber ducks, and bath books. They are also in personal care products like baby shampoo, soap, and lotion.
Studies find an association between phthalate exposure and reproductive problems including testicular cancer, decreased fertility in males, and early puberty in females.
While several phthalates are banned from products marketed to very young children, many of them are not. The Consumer Product Safety Commission very optimistically suggests that manufacturers are obligated “to ensure that any alternative plasticizer used is adequately tested.”
One More Thing, and It’s Not Good News….
While we may smile approvingly when we hear the term “recycle,” it’s important to remember that recycled plastic is often contaminated with industrial chemicals. These chemicals are associated with cancer and thyroid dysfunction, as well as brain development.
When I recycle my old laptop, some of its constituent chemicals (OctaBDE for example) end up contaminating the recycling stream, which is then used to make plastic toys. Studies by IPEN, a global network of NGOs, suggest that 90% of children’s toys contain electronic waste contaminants.
This problem also highlights the challenges of operating in a global marketplace. Countries that produce cheap plastic exports lean heavily on recycled products, typically with little oversight at the national or regional level.
Silicone: An Acceptable Alternative to Conventional Plastic
Silicone baby bottles, teethers, and pacifiers are often recommended as a healthier alternative to products made of traditional plastic. Silicone pouches can be used instead of plastic containers to store food in the refrigerator or instead of single-use plastic wrap to pack food for a child’s lunchbox.
Silicone is no angel. While many people think it is natural, it is actually a synthetic product containing chemical additives derived from fossil fuels. Like plastic, it takes a very long time to degrade in the landfill. However, neither is it a devil. Check out the excellent book “Life without Plastics,” for a careful review of the existing research and a cautious endorsement of silicone products for household use.
Given All This, What Can You Do?
Here are five specific ideas for lessening children’s chances of exposure to BPA and phthalates from plastics.
The Elephant in the Room: Diapers
Some changes are not so easy to make. You may feel this way about disposable diapers. However, disposable diapers contain plasticizing chemicals, with the attendant health risks. In fact, even the fragrance of some diaper brands is brought to you courtesy of phthalates. For a complete rundown on the chemicals present in disposable diapers, check out
One child goes through a lot of diapers, as any diaper-changing caregiver knows. An estimated 20 billion diapers a year go into US landfills where they fester for 300 years or so.
If cloth diapers are not in your future, note that several companies offer alternatives to plastic diapers, including diapers made from bamboo. Products made from bamboo are ecologically sustainable because bamboo is fast growing and does not require pesticides or anti-fungal agents. Check out babytooshy.com to see some alternatives and use their calculator to help you compare the cost of various options.
Et Tu, Cash Register Receipts?
I feel compelled to include a note of warning about cash register receipts even though they are not plastic. Cash register receipts are printed with ink that contains BPA or, more recently BPS. This is particularly dangerous because the chemical rubs off easily when the paper is handled.
Try not to accept paper receipts, wash your hands after touching one, and don’t let children play with them!
You Shouldn’t Need to Know All This!
You should not have to become a biochemist in your spare time just to keep children safe from the toxic chemicals in rubber duckies. And neither should I! I was a psychology major! I would rather take a hike than learn about phthalates!
To take the onus off the consumer, please consider supporting one of the advocacy organizations listed below. Write to your political representatives stating your concerns or send a letter to a baby product company urging them to find nonplastic alternatives. Let’s work together to elect people who support environmental sustainability over corporate profit.
To Learn More….
I highly recommend this authoritative and readable book by two lawyers, one of whom is also a biochemist: Life without Plastic: The Practical Step-by-Step Guide to Avoiding Plastic to Keep Your Family and the Planet Healthy. In addition to explaining the science behind the toxic effects of plastics, authors Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha provide many practical suggestions for eliminating plastics from your home, including a list of environmentally sustainable products in just about every category you can think of from feminine hygiene to camping equipment.
For a concise, well-researched overview of the effects of plastic on your health, check out this article by Kevin Loria in Consumer Reports:
Find out why Senator Tom Udall of New Mexico warned that each of us is consuming a credit card’s worth of plastic every week.
Earth Justice is a nonprofit, public interest environmental law organization (earthjustice.org).
The Environmental Working Group is a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting human health and the environment (EWG.org).
The Plastic Pollution Coalition is a global alliance of organizations and businesses working to free the world of plastic pollution (plasticpollutioncoalition.org).
That’s it for this post of the EFM Notebook! Do you have comments on what you’ve read so far? Suggestions for future topics? Send me your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.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.
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
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
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 NoteHelping 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:
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
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.
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.
Great 15 minute video on the history of the lawn by the New York Times:
Op ed by Stuart Shalat, researcher at the School of Public Health at Georgia State University, on health risks: www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/does-playing-on-artificial-turf-pose-a-health-risk-for-yourchild/2017/03/17/0c61b7b4-0380-11e7-ad5b-d22680e18d10_story.html
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 email@example.com.
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:
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:
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Environmental Forum of Marin is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization, and a United Way of the Bay Area Certified Agency.
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