Blue Marble - June 2010

Is Washing Out Sandwich Baggies a Waste of Time?

| Mon Jun. 28, 2010 6:30 AM EDT

Is it environmentally efficient to wash all of our Ziploc bags for reuse, or do we use more resources than it is worth? And do the bags maintain their integrity for continuous washing, or does the hot water affect their chemical structure? Econundrums reader Susan B. 

I've often wondered the same thing: It'd be nice to have an excuse to do away with the annoying task of washing and drying sandwich baggies. Unfortunately, the poor Ziploc bag doesn't receive nearly as much attention as its politically polarizing cousin, the plastic grocery bag: While countless studies have weighed the pros and cons of shopping bags, as far as I can tell, no one has ever published a single life-cycle analysis of the Ziploc baggie. (SC Johnson, owner of the Ziploc brand, conducted one when they were formulating their new Evolve bag, but they didn't share it with me.)

What we do know is that like grocery bags, most sandwich baggies are made of polyethylene, a substance derived from natural gas. Although sandwich bags are smaller and denser than grocery bags, the two kinds actually weigh about the same: .01 pounds each. So allow me a back-of-the-napkin calculation: One study (PDF) showed that 58 gallons of water were required to produce 1500 plastic grocery bags—about .04 gallons of water per bag. Let's say it takes you five seconds to wash out a baggie. Since most kitchen faucets flow at about two gallons per minute, that's roughly .17 gallons of water per washing, or four times the amount required to make a new plastic bag.

But despite the water cost, the other benefits of reusing baggies—savings on raw materials, emissions from shipping, and landfill space—make washing worthwhile, says Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "When plastic bags are reused, fewer plastic bags need to be produced," writes Hoover. "The production of plastic bags uses energy, water, and in most cases a non-renewable resource (fossil fuel-derived); reusing bags, even when you use water to wash them out, saves resources overall."

As for using hot water for washing: There's been some concern that chemicals from bags leach into foods at high temperatures (and Ziploc doesn't recommend microwaving or boiling its standard sandwich bags), though I haven't seen any studies about whether hot washing changes the chemical structure of a bag. If you're worried, you could always use cold water and a little soap. But "if they change color or opacity, I’d say that to be on the safe side, you should discontinue using them," warns Hoover. "I’d also caution against reusing bags that have held raw meat, greasy food, or anything else that might be difficult to rinse out entirely." 

Depending on where you live, you might be able to recycle old baggies. Better yet: You could invest in good quality reusable baggies instead. ReusableBags.com sells a bunch, in all different sizes and patterns.

Got a burning question? Submit your environmental dilemmas to econundrums@motherjones.com. Get all your green questions answered by signing up for our weekly Econundrums newsletter here.

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Cloudy With a Chance of Tarballs?

| Mon Jun. 28, 2010 6:00 AM EDT

Can it rain oil? A video shot after a recent storm in River Ridge, Louisiana, which has been making the rounds online in recent days, purports to show exactly that. "You can see that this is oil," the narrator says, sweeping a camera over puddles and patches of road bearing a telltale rainbow sheen. "Isn't that crazy dude… It's oil everywhere. And it's thick over there, like we're seeing in the Gulf." The video should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism. But it does raise an interesting question. Is such a thing even possible?

For the most part, oil itself doesn't actually evaporate, though some of the chemical elements in crude oil can. (The sticky tar balls washing ashore are the remnants.) That hasn't stopped some from hypothesizing that, given the dispersants BP has been applying in unprecedented quantities in the Gulf and the lack of information about how they work, it's possible that dispersant-altered oil may indeed be entering the atmosphere. The EPA says this isn't the case. "EPA has no data, information or scientific basis that suggests that oil mixed with dispersant could possibly evaporate from the Gulf into the water cycle," the agency said in a statement. (But then again, the EPA also has very little science on the environmental or health effects of dispersants, as it has admitted previously.)

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says largely the same thing:

The notion of oily rain is a myth. Oil as a whole does not evaporate—it is not possible that it would be in the clouds or coming down in the form of rain. Oil is made up of component parts, some of which are volatile and do evaporate into the atmosphere, but these separate and diffuse out into the air. Other component parts do not evaporate and are left behind as weathered oil, residue or tar balls.

There's a bigger concern than oil visibly raining from the sky; it's the toxins you can't see. Gases in oil that can evaporate are known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. A 2003 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report notes that light crude can lose up to 75 percent of its initial volume due to evaporation of VOCs after a spill. That study also notes, troublingly, that "despite the importance of the process, relatively little work has been conducted on the basic physics and chemistry of oil spill evaporation."

The most problematic VOCs in oil are hydrogen sulfide, benzene, and naphthalene, writes NRDC senior scientist Gina Solomon, though she lists a number of other troublesome compounds in oil as well. Hydrogen sulfide smells like rotten eggs and can cause headaches, confusion, and respiratory problems. Benzene and naphthalene are known carcinogens. The bigger concern than rain is that these VOCs are being carried ashore by wind currents. The EPA is monitoring the VOCs in the air, and Solomon says that her study of that data finds "some levels that could raise health concerns." Exposure to the crude oil itself, either on land or in the water, is also not particularly good for humans. There's also concern that storms in the Gulf could sweep up the oil and push more onto land, and hurricane season is already upon us.

We also know that one of the dispersants that has been used in the Gulf carries its own health concerns. Corexit EC9527A contains 2-butoxyethanol, which can cause headaches, vomiting, reproductive problems, and "liver and kidney effects and/or damage." More than 300 cleanup workers have already reported feeling ill, describing symptoms ranging from vomiting and stomach pain to headaches and chest pain.

Point is, there are plenty of serious health concerns posed by the spill and the widespread use of dispersants that have nothing to do with oily rain.

So what to make of the video? I'd guess we're probably seeing the sheen of runoff from roads, parking lots, etc. (Let's not forget that the cars we drive every day are burning and sometimes leaking a refined version of what is currently spewing into the Gulf.)

Judge for yourself:

Rape-aXe UPDATE: What CNN Got Wrong

| Fri Jun. 25, 2010 8:30 PM EDT

Yesterday, I reported that women should never feel the need to arm their vaginas to snare rapists. But that's the unfortunate case/real-life horror show since the patented device called Rape-aXe arrived.

CNN reported that the Rape-aXe's creator, Sonnet Ehlers "is distributing" the device during the World Cup, a statement which was picked up by bloggers and daily news sources all over. This, however, is not true, which sucks since, as I pointed out, 317 South African women will be raped during one 90-minute World Cup game. The truth is Ehlers wants to pass out the toothed condoms during the World Cup, but she hasn't and won't be able to unless she receives enough donations. I discovered this fact this morning after reading an email she sent me last night. I emailed her back to find out if there's been any fallout from CNN getting a vital part of the story wrong, and to get her take on why South African donors aren't breaking down her door to jump on this (unfortunately) much-needed product. Once she replies, I'll update this post. In the meantime, here are Ehlers' responses to my other questions:

MJ: Why did you choose the distribute the Rape-aXe during the World Cup?

SE: Because I wanted to protect women against possible rape. You know parties and with parties comes liquor.

MJ: How many have you distributed during the World Cup?

SE: I received by then only $120. Could not give out free condoms with such little money. I hope donations will come in so that I can give free condoms to women.

MJ: Has anyone outside of South Africa ordered the Rape-aXe? If so, where were they from?

SE: From all over the world. Head office for license rights and distribution is in Germany

MJ: How much does it cost?

SE: It will differ from country to country

MJ: I've read reports that South African officials are determining if and/or when to make the Rape-aXe available in the tampon aisle of stores. Is this true?

SE: It will be sold in the aisle of condoms

MJ: Will the Rape-aXe be readily available in stores?

SE: It depends on the distributors in each country

MJ: When will the Rape-aXe be in stores?

SE: It depends on the country

MJ: According to your previous answer, you have not distributed Rape-aXe condoms so far for the World Cup. Is this correct?

SE: Yes

MJ: Do you intend on distributing 30,000 Rape-aXe condoms in South Africa during the World Cup if the donations come in?

SE: Yes

MJ: Also, when (what date) will the Rape-aXe be available in the condom aisles in South Africa?

SE: As soon as a South African becomes a distributor. No one has come forward.

BP Still Playing Dumb About Size of Gulf Disaster

| Fri Jun. 25, 2010 4:24 PM EDT

In an interview with the New Orleans Times-Picayune published today (via ProPublica), BP chief operating officer Doug Suttles maintains that how much oil his company is responsible for letting loose in the Gulf is irrelevant. The flow rate, he said, "has never impacted the response."

It sure does impact the destruction in the Gulf, and the amount of money the company may have to pay in civil and potentially criminal penalties. As we've reported here before, the company could owe $4,300 a barrel for Clean Water Act violations alone. BP's earliest estimates said at first that no oil was leaking, then 300 barrels a day, and then 1,000 barrels. The latest government estimates, however, put the flow rate as high as 60,000 barrels per day.

BP would have us believe that at this point, 65,000 barrels have leaked into the Gulf, a fine of $279.5 million. If the high-end government estimate is right, the disaster is already at more than 3.9 million barrels (or 164 million gallons)—$16.7 billion in fines. Yes, billion, with a "b."

Suttles says that estimating the size is "extraordinarily imprecise and we took a view very early on that we didn't think you could do it and we didn't think it was relevant either." (This despite the fact that company bragged two years ago about how awesome their technology to measure flow rates is.)

Despite Suttles insistence that their low-balling "has never impacted the response," as the Times-Picayune notes, the federal on-scene coordinator, Coast Guard Rear Adm. James Watson, sent a letter to the company on June 11 complaining that their response was inadequate because they were underestimating the size. "I am concerned that your current plans do not provide for maximum mobilization of resources to provide the needed collection capacity consistent with the revised flow estimates," Watson wrote to Suttles.

So yes, in this case, size does matter Mr. Suttles. For many reasons.

Audio: How Green Was My Organic Milk?

Fri Jun. 25, 2010 3:08 PM EDT

Think you’re saving the environment by buying organic or fueling your car with corn oil? Heather Rogers, author of “Green Gone Wrong, How Our Economy Is Undermining the Environmental Revolution,” says that “green” products aren’t always as environmentally responsible as they appear. In this interview with Need to Know host Alison Stewart, she discusses the reality of organic foods and biofuels, among other things.

World's Only Full-Scale Oil Spill Test Tank Springs a Leak

| Fri Jun. 25, 2010 1:20 PM EDT

There's just one facility in the world where scientists and emergency responders can run full-scale oil spill response tests and research. It's housed at US Naval Weapons Station Earle in Leonardo, New Jersey. But when Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) tried to arrange a visit to the facility earlier this week, he learned that the facility is presently inoperable. Why? The tank researchers use to simulate spills has sprung a leak. 

The Oil and Hazardous Materials Simulated Environmental Test Tank (OHMSETT) is owned by the Minerals Management Service (recently renamed the "Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement"). The wave pool there, which is used to test oil spill response technologies and techniques, was closed last month "because of multiple leaks" and is expected to remain out of commission until sometime in July.

Menendez, a major opponent of offshore drilling, says the situation demonstrates just how unprepared the federal government is to handle an oil disaster like the one in the Gulf. "I believe that the fact that this facility is inoperable during the nation’s largest oil spill is indicative of a complacency and lack of investment in oil spill response technologies," he wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on Monday. "The industry and even the government has substantially invested in new technologies to drill in deeper water and deeper into the Earth, but little has been invested in safety or oil spill response and clean-up."

The Department of Interior issued this response today, arguing that maintenance on the tank was planned and that the Coast Guard doesn't need to use the facility right now because they are "too busy with the response" in the Gulf. Here's the full statement:

OHMSETT is currently closed to testing because of planned maintenance. Prior to the closure, BOE consulted with the USCG to see if they needed the tank after the Deepwater Horizon incident and they said that they were too busy with the response. No testing was delayed or postponed due to the planned closure. The tests normally conducted at the facility are scheduled months in advance and are more oriented to advancing research and development than to addressing current issues.
If the research is promising, it can and often is developed into procedures or equipment used to deal with real-world events. We also have the ability to bring the facility back on line in several days if the tank is needed for testing to help the spill response effort.

Even though it was inoperable at the time, Sharon Buffington, chief of the engineering and research branch of MMS, touted the tank as "a vital component" of MMS' oil spill research in testimony to a House panel on June 9. "It is the only facility in the world that allows for full-scale oil spill response testing, training, and research conducted with a variety of oils in a marine environment under controlled conditions," Buffington told a House panel. Now-dismissed MMS head Liz Birnbaum also talked up it at a hearing last month as integral to "ensure that the best and safest technologies are used in offshore oil and gas operations." Neither Birnbaum or Buffington mentioned that the facilty was offline.

Menendez, who is sponsoring an MMS reform bill in the Senate, says this is yet another example of why the divsion needs an overhaul.

"The need for the MMS reform could not be clearer when the agency charged with preventing Big Oil from spilling into our waters cannot keep water in its own testing tanks," Menendez tells Mother Jones.

Seems like the hole in the bottom of the Gulf isn't the only one we should be worrying about.

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Eco-News Roundup: Friday June 25

| Fri Jun. 25, 2010 11:00 AM EDT

Cough, Cough: Did the anti-vaccine activism help create a whooping cough outbreak?

Healthy Anniversary: On health reform's anniversary there's still lots of work to do.

View From Here: Healthcare has gotten a lot of media coverage, some of it confusing.

Coming Soon: A Democratic-led climate and energy bill is being debated.

Fast and Famine: In Niger, people are starving because they can't afford food.

Spill to Thrill?: Is Obama's new spill commission just a show?

One Man's Poison: BP's oily disaster may benefit "clean coal."

Raw Hides: An Iranian cleric calls dogs "un-Islamic" as Baghdad euthanizes strays.

Twilight Zone: Wingnuts ask if the Bermuda Triangle or the Jews caused the oil spill.

Worst Case: New info puts BP's worst case scenario at gushing 100,000 barrels a day.

Goon Squad: Local police are doing BP's dirty work for them, like harassing activists.

Drill, Baby, Drill: Louisiana Tea Partiers want more drilling and they made signs that say so.

Enviro Links: Tea Partiers Love BP, Democrats' Climate Hug Fest, and More

| Fri Jun. 25, 2010 8:26 AM EDT

In climate news:

I got the impression from yesterday's Senate caucus meeting on energy plans that Democrats spent the two hours doing trust falls and practicing their "Go team!" cheers, but reached little consensus on specifics for what their package will include. Politico, however, got the impression that Harry Reid plans to come out guns blazing with a tough climate and energy package. Next week will be interesting, in any case.

And in BP oil disaster news:

More on the despondent boat captain in Alabama who took his own life in despair over the Gulf oil disaster, and on the mental health impacts for many across the region.

Dave Weigel tries to get Kentucky Republican Senate candidate Rand Paul to say whether or not he supports the $20 billion escrow fund to ensure victims of the spill are compensated. He tried three times in fact, but Paul just wouldn't answer.

In two decades, the Minerals Management Service collected just $21 million in fines from oil companies. And no, it's not because the industry is so safe and honest. As ABC News reports, "In the overwhelming majority of cases where workers were actually killed, there was no record of fines being paid. Where fines did occur, the maximum penalty was only $25,000."

Joe Scarborough asks Eric Cantor (R-Va.) why Joe Barton gets to keep his job as the top Republican on energy issues despite his BP butt-kissing last week (and subsequent apology for the apology and later unapology). Greg Sargent argues that it's because Republicans think any discussion of oil, including bashing Barton, is bad for Democrats since Obama hasn't stopped the spill yet (with his super powers, natch).

Did BP engage in organized crime? Some lawyers in the Gulf think so, and have filed suit alleging that the company gave false assurances that it could handle a worst-case scenario oil spill. Among list of crimes they think BP is guilty of: mail fraud and wire fraud. This is just the latest of now more than 200 suits filed against the company, Brendan DeMelle reports.

BP's in-house "journalists" have posted some real whoppers on the company blog, reports the Columbia Journalism Review. The "reporters" have been busy putting out BP propaganda: comparing BP to a humble taxi driver on Social Security and quoting locals who say "There is no reason to hate BP."

Shocker: Tea partiers still hate government, even when it comes to cracking down on BP for destroying the Gulf of Mexico and enforcing regulations to prevent something like this from happening again. "I think BP is being extremely generous and they should be commended for that," says one tea party organizer in Mississippi.

The other companies with a stake in the Deepwater Horizon have been busy avoiding liability for the disaster. Halliburton, who poured the cement for the well; Transocean, who owned the rig; and Cameron, manufacturer of the failed blowout preventer are building up their legal case to avoid any guilt in the incident.

And in other environmental news:

Beware of impostor organics from China.

Anti-Rape World Cup Condoms...With Teeth?

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 6:03 PM EDT

Women can now arm their vaginas with a latex condom fitted with internal hooks to snare rapists. The Rape-aXe, shown at left, was invented by Dr. Sonnet Ehlers in South Africa to help curb the country’s alarming rape rate. She’s seeking donations to distribute the device during the World Cup, which is appropriate since about 317 South African women will be raped during one 90-minute game.

Basically, the Rape-aXe fits inside a woman’s vagina like a tampon. During penetration, it hooks onto the penis resulting in excruciating, debilitating pain for the attacker while allowing the rape victim to (hopefully) escape. Only surgery can remove the Rape-aXe from a penis once it’s attached, which will alert doctors (and the authorities) that the patient’s a likely rapist. A possible Rape-aXe ward installed in every hospital (My idea) sounds great, the hope being that once a few rapists get their wickers nicked, word would spread and cause other men to think twice before they assault women.

Jerry Brown's Clean Energy Revolution

| Thu Jun. 24, 2010 5:27 PM EDT

Trivia questions for energy geeks: Which state approved the country's first energy-efficiency standards for appliances? The first green building codes? The first big wind farms? And who was governor when all those fine things happened?

The answer is California under Gov. Jerry Brown—aka Governor Moonbeam— who just happens to be running for the office again, some 30 years later. Last week, Brown, the Democratic nominee, unveiled a clean-energy plan to put far more solar panels on California's rooftops, in addition to appointing a renewable energy czar and strengthening those sexy appliance standards.

Of course, plenty of politicians make lofty promises about ushering in an energy transformation, to little or no result. Like the last eight presidents, for example. But there's good reason to take Brown seriously.

"He's done it before. And really if you look across the landscape in American political history, there's nobody else that can say that," said John Geesman, who was executive director of the California Energy Commission during part of Jerry Brown's first stint in the governor's mansion. "Nobody at all."