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Comsumers should demand recyclable alternatives

Column/Jenny Jablonski

Many of us regard the availability of disposables as a basic right. However, in order to regain a sustainable environment, we need to shift our focus away from the buy-and-toss mentality. Too often we don't ask where the product comes from or where it will go when we are through with it. We need to consider whether a small convenience is worth the cost to the environment before we buy.

Foam insulation, for example, more commonly known by Dow's trademark Styrofoam, wreaks more havoc on the environment than most people are aware of. In some foams, chlorofluorocarbons are used as a blowing agent, forming the small air-tight pockets of the insulation. CFC's are a major contributor to ozone depletion, and are also a greenhouse gas. Another large problem is that when the foam is incinerated, it produces dioxin, possibly one of the deadliest compounds known to mankind. And like all plastics, foam insulators generate hazardous waste in production and contribute to the landfill problem.

A simple trip to the grocery store presents many problems to environmentally conscious shoppers. These unsuspecting consumers will often choose such products as degradable bags and containers as ecologically-sound alternatives. However, these plastics are not degradable in that they will never be integrated into the ecosystem. Rather, the long polymer chains are simply broken down to smaller ones. What's more, biodegradable or no, the plastics are made from non-renewable petroleum, generating huge quantities of hazardous waste in production.

The real problem with the "degradable" theory is that it promotes a disposable lifestyle. After World War II throwaway products flooded the markets. The purpose behind this influx was to stimulate the nation's economy. The public soon saw this excessively consumptive lifestyle as a symbol of affluence and leisure.

Overpackaging is even more commonplace today, especially in serving-size containers and ready-made meals. The plastics used in food packaging must be made from virgin resins according to health codes. Generating these resins produced 11 billion pounds of hazardous waste in 1984. The resins must then be processed with polymers into plastic materials. In that same year, this step produced 19 billion pounds of hazardous waste. The chemicals that are integral to the industry are also extremely dangerous. When the Environmental Protection Agency ranked chemicals according to how much hazardous waste is generated in their production, five of the top six were compounds that play major roles in the production of packaging plastics.

Currently, political efforts have begun to clamp down on disposables. A bill in the Massachusetts state legislature would ban all non-renewable, non-recyclable packaging by 1996. This bill is still in its early stages, so the outcome is not clear. However, an increasing number of towns in the nation have already banned such materials as foam packaging, forcing fast food chains and supermarkets to use renewable alternatives such as paper.

The political pressure from such bans has fiercely threatened the 15 billion dollar annual plastics industry. Chemical companies have been pouring millions into researching recycling options. The major difficulty arises in separating the resins, which are typically blended in a plastic product. So far, the material can be melted into a lower grade plastic for use in park benches, flower pots, etc. Reuse in food containers is not forseeable in the near future due to the chemicals and metals contaminating the recycled material.

Non-degradability is just the tip of the iceberg as far as problems with plastics are concerned. However, by demanding reusable, recyclable alternatives to plastic packaging, consumers can send a strong message to the polluting disposable industry. For example, wood fiber cellulose is one ecologically-sound alternative to plastic food storage. It is legitimately biodegradable, non-toxic and natural. Also, buying larger quantities of foods will cut down on packaging.

Often the solution is more obvious than we think. We wouldn't need to choose between paper or plastic bags if we brought a backpack to the store. If we know we buy coffee everyday, why not bring along a mug? Weighed against the cost to the environment, a small amount of forethought is well worth the investment.

who

Jenny Jablonski, a junior in the Department of Civil Engineering, is a member of the campus environmental group SAVE.

SANDWICH QUOTES: Use as needed, but try to get at least one in. --MG.

Biodegradable or no, plastics are made from non-renewable petroleum, generating huge quantities of hazardous waste in production.

The public sees an excessively consumptive lifestyle as a symbol of affluence and leisure.