30 September 2019

Go retro – one simple solution to thwart climate change

Are you old enough to remember simpler times? Maybe you have watched films or TV shows from the 50s and 60s. No plastic, less stuff, less people. And yet we all managed quite nicely. These days so much plastic and stuff. So much we can learn from back then, so here is a delightful tale, but first

         Thought for the day

   I was sitting on a hilltop looking 
   At the endlessly expanding horizon under the blue sky …
   A bliss began to permeate my body and mind. 
   I didn’t know that my eyes welled up with tears. 
   I bent down to kiss this earth. 
   This is a magic land, a sacred pureland…

                 Chen Xiaodong
   freelance Buddhist writer based in Shanghai

Checking out at the store, the young cashier suggested to the much older lady that she should bring

her own grocery bags, because plastic bags are not good for the environment.

The woman apologized to the young girl and explained,

"We didn't have this 'green thing' back in my earlier days."

The young clerk responded,

"That's our problem today. Your generation did not care enough to save our environment for future generations."

The older lady said that she was right our generation did not have the "green thing" in its day. The older lady went on to explain: Back then, we returned milk bottles, soda bottles and beer bottles to the store. The store sent them back to the plant to be washed and sterilized and refilled, so it could use the same bottles over and over. So they really were recycled.

But we did not have the "green thing" back in our day.

Grocery stores bagged our groceries in brown paper bags that we reused for numerous things.

Most memorable besides household garbage bags was the use of brown paper bags as book covers for our school books. This was to ensure that public property (the books provided for our use by the school) was not defaced by our scribblings. Then we were able to personalize our books on the brown paper bags.

But, too bad we did not do the "green thing" back then. We walked up stairs because we did not have an escalator in every store and office building. We walked to the grocery store and did not climb into a 300-horsepower machine every time we had to go two blocks. But she was right. We did not have the "green thing" in our day.

Back then we washed the baby's nappies because we did not have the throw away kind. We dried clothes on a line, not in an energy-gobbling machine burning up 220 volts. Wind and solar power really did dry our clothes back in our early days.

Kids got hand-me-down clothes from their brothers or sisters, not always brand-new clothing. But that young lady is right; we did not have the "green thing" back in our day. 
Back then we had one TV, or radio, in the house - not a TV in every room. And the TV had a small screen the size of a handkerchief (remember them?), not a screen the size of the state of Montana.

In the kitchen we blended and stirred by hand because we did not have electric machines to do everything for us.

When we packaged a fragile item to send in the mail, we used wadded up old newspapers to cushion it, not Styrofoam or plastic bubble wrap.

Back then, we did not fire up an engine and burn gasoline just to cut the lawn. We used a push mower that ran on human power.

We exercised by working so we did not need to go to a health club to run on treadmills that operate on electricity.

But she's right; we did not have the "green thing" back then.

We drank from a fountain when we were thirsty instead of using a cup or a plastic bottle every time we had a drink of water.

We refilled writing pens with ink instead of buying a new pen, and we replaced the razor blade in a razor instead of throwing away the whole razor just because the blade got dull.

But we did not have the "green thing" back then.

Back then, people took the tram or a bus and kids rode their bikes to school or walked instead of turning their moms into a 24-hour taxi service in the family's $45,000 SUV or van, which cost what a whole house did before the "green thing."

We had one electrical outlet in a room, not an entire bank of sockets to power a dozen appliances. And we did not need a computerized gadget to receive a signal beamed from satellites 23,000 miles out in space in order to find the nearest burger joint.

But it is sad the current generation laments how wasteful we old folks were just because we did not have the "green thing" back then?

Of course, my older generation poisoned rivers and streams, created havoc with DDT, lead based paints and many other environmental disasters. So while we have made good progress in some areas, and there is much more needed in many, maybe we can learn from going retro in others...

18 September 2019

Toxic tide - marine plastic pollution and what to do

In 2016, a Senate Committee released "Toxic tide: the threat of marine plastic pollution in Australia". This report contains alarming concerns about the impact of plastics found in abundance in our environment and provides suggestions. So this week we reproduce details to complete our 3 part series on plastic pollution, but first

            Thought for the day

     Power without love is reckless and abusive, 
     And love without power is sentimental and anemic. 
     Power at its best 
     Is love implementing the demands of justice, 
     And justice at its best 
     Is power correcting everything that stands against love.

                            Martin Luther King Jnr 

One generation ago, plastics were not part of our daily lives. Cloth, boxes or paper bags were used for shopping and there were no plastics for storing food in the fridges. Now it is part of our daily lives even for single-use packaging of food! The problem is global and widespread.

Go to Asia and places such as Bali and experience swimming in one of their beaches with plastic debris floating in the water and brushing up against your skin. 

It is not a pleasant experience!

The World Economic Forum warn plastics are increasingly being used across economies in sectors ranging from packaging to construction, transportation, healthcare and electronics. 

This increasing use is reflected in the rate of increase in global plastic production: in 1964, 15 million tonnes of plastics were produced, in 2014 that had increased to 311 million tonnes. According to the World Economic Forum, plastics production is expected to double again in 20 years, and to almost quadruple by 2050.

In summary, the Senate report raises serious concerns and highlights the following points:2
There is an alarming production and use of plastics worldwide. 
The vast majority of plastics is non-biodegradable and can persist in the environment for hundreds of years.
Majority of marine-based pollution comes from land, originating from urban and industrial waste sites, sewage outlets, stormwater and litter discarded by recreational users of our coasts and marine waterways.
A major national study led by CSIRO, documented the state of marine plastic debris in Australia and its negative impact on marine wildlife.  The study suggests most marine plastic debris in the Australian region is domestic and correlates with increase in local population, urbanisation and human activity. 

Stormwater drainage is a significant contributor of plastic debris in the marine environment which often delivers directly to coastal areas, or via catchment runoff into coastal areas. 

Other sources include: urban litter, garbage from shipping and abandoned fishing gear from local, national and international fishing operations.

Marine plastic pollution in Australian waters can also originate from international sources with ocean currents transporting plastic debris over long distances. According to the World Economic Forum’s best available data, Asia accounts for more than 80% of the total leakage of plastic into the ocean.  CSIRO also note that China and Indonesia are significant sources of plastic pollution.4
Due to their light weight, plastics are readily transported by wind and water.
National and international studies demonstrate significant quantities of hard plastics, plastic water bottles and packaging litter found in our coastal and river waterways such as Sydney Harbour and Port Phillip Bay. 2, 
Plastic debris found in the marine environment is either larger debris (macroplastic) or small particles (microplastic) i.e. tiny plastic fragments, fibres and granules of less than 5 mms in size from intentionally produced items, inherent by-products of other products or activities, emitted through accident or unintentional spill or macroplastic degradation.

Substantial human voluntary hours such as Clean Up Australia and BeachPatrol are expended on collecting record numbers of plastic littering on coast and land. 

The cost of removing litter by local and state Government is enormous. 

For example, the Victorian Government in 2012–13 spent $80 million in removing litter, including the removal of over 7,800 tonnes of litter from Melbourne waterways.2

CSIRO report highlights the cost of littering to local government is substantial.4
There are international efforts to address the global concern of plastic debris and pollution. At present this issue is addressed on a state by state level in Australia, yet the problem is not a boundary issue and the Senate recommends it be addressed on a National level.2
The Senate committee received considerable evidence on the impact of plastic pollution on marine fauna and flora from leading Australian academics, government agencies and community organisations. The evidence indicates that plastic debris affects marine life through ingestion, entanglement, the transport i.e. plastic acting as a medium and bioaccumulation of harmful chemicals.2
Plastic ingestion is well documented in a large range of marine species, shorebirds and seabirds - small plastics look similar in appearance to prey for marine animals. The Senate also received evidence in relation to ingestion of plastics by turtles, seabirds, cetaceans (e.g. dolphins and whales), corals and zooplankton.2
Marine plastic pollution also acts as both a transport medium for accumulated chemicals present in seawater, and is a source of toxic chemicals such as pesticides (e.g. DDT, polychlorinated biphenyls and endocrine-active substances).2 These substances are well known to be bio-accumulative and impact marine and human health. 1, Many toxic chemicals are fat soluble, lasting decades in the environment where they undergo biomagnification (tissue concentrations increase) as they pass up the food chain.1
The effects of plastics on human life e.g. ingestion of plastics through consumption of marine life, is not well recognised or studied, and warrants further research in view of the growing contamination of plastics in the environment.

In summary, the Senate has made a number of recommendations to address the problems of plastics.2 

Every effort should be made at the State, National and International level to help raise community awareness of the problems of plastics on the environment. 

This includes a reduction in the production of plastics by industry and finding alternative options and the need and use of plastics by communities, e.g. one use plastic products. Additionally, the community and government should prohibit the supply of plastics where suitable options are available, e.g. shopping bags made of plastics, and for improved discarding and recycling programs of all types of plastics.

02 September 2019

Chemicals in food plastics and how to avoid them

Basically there are heaps - and many have been subjected to little scrutiny. Last post we examined BPA - whose problems are well documented. However, the expense and time required to research each new plastic and its chemicals seems to take a back seat to the expediency of the next “convenient” product.

So this week, some more real culprits and how to avoid problems.

Also, many thanks to all who have expressed their condolences following the death of my main teacher Sogyal Rinpoche. Rinpoche was an extraordinary teacher. In my long experience with him, unfailingly kind and caring, incredibly knowledgeable and wise and hilariously funny!

Coming from the dzogchen tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, Rinpoche came to know the Western mind extremely well and he melded this knowledge with the ancient wisdom and profound understanding of the mind that came from his traditional training. As such, he shaped my life and my work.

If you feel any benefit from what I may have to offer, then you have benefited from the life and work of Sogyal Rinpoche, yet life goes on and so first …


     Thought for the day

     If we listen with a silent mind, 
     As free as possible 
     From the clamour of preconceived ideas, 
     A possibility will be created 
     For the truth of the teachings to pierce us, 
     And for the meaning of life and death 
     To become increasingly and startlingly clear.

                            Sogyal Rinpoche

PVC is used for bottles, cling wrap and screw-cap jars. It is hard and rigid (think pipes for drains and gutters etc), and it is regarded as relatively inert. However, it can break down, form microplastics and then initiate problems of its own.

The real issue with PVC, as with most base plastics, is that to make it malleable, plasticisers are added in much the same way water is added to clay for softening. Plasticisers can make up as much as 40% of the plastic material and 2 of the common ones used for food packaging, phthalates and epoxidised soybean oil (ESBO) have serious doubts raised about their safety.

DEHP is the phthalate most often used as a plasticiser for PVC. There is general agreement it can affect reproductive development, particularly in young boys, and a US study has found an increased risk of diabetes and obesity in men.

ESBO is another frequently used additives to PVC, especially when used for containers or packaging for food. It functions as a stabiliser as well as a plasticiser. Lid seals made with it end up producing some chlorohydrins that are known to be toxic. Chlorohydrins have been detected in foods closed in glass screw-cap jars - check inside the lid for a plastic layer… that is the potential source.

polyethylene terephthalate or PET, is in the polyester family (polyester is the common name used for fabrics and includes Trademarks like Terylene and Dacron) and it also is used widely for food and liquid containers and other packaging (where it is commonly called PET).

PET is also suspected of being an endocrine disruptor, particularly through leaching of phthalates and antimony.

These are compounds that can leech out of cans and their linings into our food. If you are into canned food, you might want to sit down here…

Migrates from cans may contain oligomers, catalysts, reaction accelerators, epoxidized edible oils, amino resins, acrylic resins, various esters, waxes, lubricants, and metals. Furthermore, non-intentionally added substances (NIAS) such as impurities, reaction by-products and degradation products generally constitute a part of the migrate. Exposure estimates for these often complex mixtures are difficult or even impossible to calculate, because many NIAS are unknown or unidentified substances.

Many migrating substances are completely unknown, but they may strongly contribute to the toxicity of the migrate.

The real answer is actually simple and I suspect we all know what it is but shirk making it due to a combination of convenience, habit and money.

The real answer is to keep all plastics away from your food.

As much as possible, grow your own food or buy organic. Then prepare as much as possible from base ingredients. For example, instead of using a prepared, packaged pasta sauce, start from scratch and make you own. To help overcome the time issues, celebrate good health for you and the family, as well as making food preparation an active form of mindfulness and meditation. Win - win!

Do all possible to avoid buying anything wrapped in plastic - those supermarket trays of cling wrapped vegetables give me the horrors.

Find stores that do supply paper bags for food or take your own recycled ones.

Use glass, stainless steel, ceramics for food storage.

We have quite a stock of stainless steel containers as our garden can be very productive at times and we regard freezing as a reasonable way to extend the season.

Use wooden or stainless steel cooking implements - so much nicer to the feel anyway.

Avoid cans wherever possible.

Maybe the occasional one is OK; it does seem BPA is excreted from our bodies relatively quickly, however, regular ingestion is associated with all the problems listed so beware. Tuna and condensed soups in cans seem to have the highest levels of BPA. Canned fruit seems less problematic than canned vegetables.

Avoid exposing plastics used for, or containing food to high temperatures. This includes avoiding microwaving (really bad), high cooking temperatures and cars on hot days - especially with water bottles in summer

Buy a reusable drinking cup and carry it with you.

Avoid water and other drinks in plastic bottles - big source of microplastics and huge waste issue.

If on town water, use a water filter - either in-line (as in integrated into your plumbing) or as a water filter jug. These clear microplastics and may well filter unwanted chemicals including drugs in the water system. Portable water filter jugs are available for travel and we use ours regularly.

If the plastic content of a product is not clearly labeled, know some but not all plastics marked with recycle codes 3 or 7 may be made with BPA. Remember, BPA substitutes like BPS and BPF seem to have similar “anti-androgenic” hormonal effects as BPA.

If you do have to use a plastic, then it seems numbers 2 and 5 are probably the safest - high density polyethylene and polypropylene.

This is a tricky one given they are in such widespread use.

We do now know holding a receipt and eating food, especially after using hand sanitizer, results in high blood levels of active BPA, so at least wash well before eating.

Consider carrying an envelop for receipts so they do not contaminate clothing or wallets.

Do not necessarily be re-assured by new receipts proclaiming to be ‘BPA-free”.

They may be just BPS instead.

And, the BPS in receipts may be up to 40% more BPS than the amount of BPA, so BPA-free could be even worse! In fact, all BPA-replacement products tested to date released chemicals “having reliably detectable oestrogenic activity.”

We all know this now… Do all possible for all the good reasons to remove single-use plastic from your life and support companies that are moving away from plastic packaging.


Lobby your local and national office bearers and parliamentarians urging them to to support all these recommendations with their own support and legislation where needed.

Our local council of Yarra Ranges is about to vote on a bill to declare a climate emergency and take strong action within our area. Ruth and I have actively supported this push and it may well succeed.

It does seem there are healthy and viable alternatives industry could use; the problem is they may cost a few cents more. Let people know you are willing to pay - including the supermarket operators and your local stores.

And remember, for millennia the world managed just fine without any plastics at all. With thought, planning and a willingness to change some deeply ingrained habits, we may well retain the benefits plastics have brought and do away with the almost disastrous consequences that have followed.

Next post will feature the summary of a recent senate enquiry into the damaging effects of plastics that is full of references and confirms the need for major action…