July 6, 2007 – Volume 11, Issue 4
I N · T H I S · I S S U E


Plastics and the Man in
the Mirror

This week EcoMotion Network News features perspectives on plastics: bags and bottles. Fantastic, our society is stepping up efforts to eliminate wasteful patterns. I flew to DC this past week and got some high altitude perspective on bags and packaging and my own complacency.

Short-lived products. Short sighted? Energy irresponsible, no doubt. Our society - and that be us -- has blessed consumption patterns that make little sense. With water, we've taken a most basic commodity, put it in tiny packages, sold it for obscene prices, and created massive wastes.

I fess up to my own complacency: I waste too and conveniently overlook it. Plastic bags epitomize this. I often forget my canvas bags and accept far too many plastic bags to get my groceries from scanner to car and kitchen. Then I end up with a huge wad of bags that I stuff madly into the cutting board cabinet. This week we feature another intern perspective. Daughter Skye presents her views on plastic bags.

Plastic bottles - and plastic water bottles in particular - have become equally accepted in society, ironically, most so among the most health-conscious circles. Rather than pounding sodas, it's not only accepted - but hip - to be toting a water bottle. I must admit, I do it all the time. But individual-serving water bottles are another form of accepted waste. I'm the man in the mirror, advocating one thing but doing another. Somehow, I've got turn my perspective into a new reality, one that's eco-logical.

I salute Gavin Newsom, San Francisco's mayor, for banning the use of City funds for plastic water bottles. We each need to take San Francisco's lead and take it home, breaking away from "convenience" to be on the right side of lifecycle costs, and changing our complacent patterns. It's not hip to be any part of a wasteful society.

EcoMotion in the Beltway!

This past week Ted Flanigan headed to Washington DC for EcoMedia's first advisory board meeting. The meeting brought together supporting corporations, recipient cities, non-profits, government agencies, and environmental experts together at the World Wildlife Fund's Russell Train Conference Center to guide EcoMedia's project activities.

Before and after the meeting, Flanigan met with colleagues at the Edison Electric Institute, the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, the International Finance Corporation of The World Bank Group, Good Energies, and The Heinz Center. Back home in California, Flanigan now prepares to act locally on the beltway's exciting policy framework, this weekend helping the City of Laguna Beach take its first steps with climate mitigation.

"Best newsletter ever! Also enjoyed the light side of 'bagging it' to Costco's. I'll have to use my Trader Joe's bags, which may lift eyebrows, but it'll work!"
Sylvia Fascio Gerlach, Nevada

My Plastic Bag Perspective
- EcoMotion Intern, Skye Flanigan

Plastic bags have become an unquestioned normality that is taking an enormous toll on the environment. Because they are cheap and convenient, plastic bags are used 80% of time in grocery and convenience stores. Worldwide, somewhere between 500 billion and a trillion plastic bags are consumed each year, a rate of about a million a minute, with less than 1% recycled. Modern Plastics reports that the average Taiwan citizen uses 900 bags a year; the average Australian uses 326.

Not only are plastics bags to blame for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of birds and marine animals each year, and for litter-stricken landscapes around the world, but they too are a huge contributor to global warming. The production and distribution of plastic bags is a complex process which involves burning large amounts of our Earth's precious fossil fuels. According to The Wall Street Journal, the U.S. goes through 100 billion plastic shopping bags annually, requiring 35 million barrels of oil.

For what? A short walk out of the grocery store to your car? The underlying problem is revealed: Yes, plastic bags are convenient, but they are usually very short lived. Many times plastic bags are only used once before they are thrown away. If plastic bags are responsibly recycled, they will be very easily re-melted, reformed and reused. But the vast majority of plastic bags are thrown into the regular garbage bin where they face a grim future: First the garbage is hauled off to the dump by a gas-guzzling trash truck, where the bags are doomed to a long life of misery. Think about spending thousands of years in a dump. Gross!

Plastic bags do not decompose. Eventually they break down into millions of plastic particles which contribute in a big way to plastic pollution scattered across the land and in the oceans. The Australian government suggests that 46,000 plastic pieces are in every square mile of ocean. On land, this litter is referred to as "White Pollution" in China and "National Flower" in South Africa.

Fortunately people are becoming more aware of the issue. They are finally seeing how incredibly wasteful plastic bags are. Many countries are taking actions to slow this dreadful cycle. In China, a program called "Bye, Bye Throw Away Culture" hopes to reduce plastic bag consumption by 50%. In Ireland, a more extreme approach was taken as they introduced a 20 cent "plastic bag tax" to encourage people to bring their own shopping bags. Furniture giant Ikea has taken an active step, working with environmental agencies to cut back on the consumption of plastic bags in 2007 by 20 million. Cities are also stepping up to the plate to counter plastic bag use. The City of San Francisco banned plastic bag use in large stores in March. Just last week the City of Glendale, California passed a law requiring stores to recycle their plastic bags.

Measures likes these are progress in the right direction but we as individuals can't stop there. It is up to each and every one of us to cut back on our own consumption of plastic bags and to make sure to recycle the bags we do use. Our careless cycle with plastic bags is hugely unnecessary and is severely damaging. Why not say "no, thanks" to a bagger if you only have a few items? Why not BYOB?? (bring your own bags!)

San Francisco Bans Plastic Water Bottles

First plastic bags, now bottled water. San Francisco is certainly setting an example, citing environmental concerns with bottled water. Mayor Newsom recently signed an executive order banning the use of City funds to purchase bottled water. The Mayor claims that the transportation and distribution of the water, developing the plastic for the water bottles, and the cost of the water, have huge environmental and economic impacts. Each year, some 40 million gallons of oil are used to produce plastic water bottles for U.S. consumption. One billion water bottles end up in U.S. landfills each year.

"These people [bottled water companies] are making huge amounts of money selling God's natural resources. Sorry, we're not going to be part of it," said the Mayor. The executive order went into effect on July 1 and includes all City departments, agencies, and contractors. (The ban extends to City and County offices for water coolers beginning December 1, 2007.)

Newsom justified the ban on purchases of bottled water: "The difference between bottled water and Diet Coke is that you can't get Diet Coke from the tap. It's not like any other bottled liquid. Our water in San Francisco comes from the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and is some of the most pristine water on the planet. It is arguably cleaner than a vast majority of the bottled water sold as pure." Plus, for the price of a single gallon of bottled water, San Francisco residents get 1,000 gallons of tap water direct from the High Sierra.

Newsom expects the City to save $500,000 each year.

A Green Coal Town!

Powder River is home to the nation's largest open pit coal mine. So it's hard to believe that a small Wyoming town in the heart of the nation's top coal- producing area has committed to powering its municipal facilities with renewable energy. But it has. The Town Council of Wright, Wyoming voted to purchase carbon offsets for all its city electricity use through the Powder River Energy Corporation's Green Tag program.

With a population 1,600, Wright has coal - or at least fossil fuels -- in its blood. In fact, a local coal company financially supported the town's incorporation in 1985. Today Wright is home to hundreds of workers in the coal, oil and natural gas industries.

According to Powder River Energy, the Green Tag program will be open to all customers, even its largest customers: the coal mines. Wright's switch to renewables will reduce annual carbon emissions by 345 tons, which is the equivalent of planting 1,310 trees or conserving 2,669 barrels of oil. Far from an assault on the town's mining heritage, according to a Powder River Energy spokesman, "We surveyed our members about a year ago, and the overwhelming response was that people want green options."

Colleges and Carbon Neutrality

There are 3,000 American colleges and universities with some 17 million students nationwide. Now many of their leaders are taking action to promote carbon- neutrality, reducing their carbon footprints. Some schools consider it a moral responsibility to be at the forefront of the green movement. Thus far 280 chancellors representing 15% of college students have signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment.

Participating colleges are well aware that steps that make sense in the long run may be expensive and in the short run may be controversial. The colleges will take action such as instituting green building codes, promoting transportation alternatives, purchasing energy from renewable sources, and using their endowment investments to support climate sustainability. Participating colleges are asked to commit to a target date for becoming carbon neutral. Middlebury College in Vermont, for example, has targeted 2016 for carbon neutrality.

A Transportation/Electricity Grid Vision

Well over 95% of transportation energy in the United States is based on the combustion of oil. For decades and with some notable exceptions, personal transportation - cars and trucks - have been completely independent of the electricity grid. Thanks to promising developments with "plug-in hybrids" this classic separation may be coming to an end.

Google and Pacific Gas & Electric have unveiled their vision of a future in which cars and trucks are partly powered by the country's electric grids, and vice versa. And recently their technology partnership unveiled six Toyota Prius and Ford Escape hybrid vehicles modified to run partly on electricity from the power grid. (A plug-in hybrid can go three to four miles on a kilowatt-hour.) One modified vehicle actually shunts electricity back to the power company. Could vehicles actually become "net power providers" to society?

The experiment is taking place at Google's Mountain View headquarters where the vehicles are parked under a carport of solar cells. (That's just part of Google's record-sized 1.6 MW photovoltaic installation.) For the Prius that has been converted to allow two-way flows of electricity, PG&E will send wireless signals to the car while it is parked and plugged in to determine its state of charge. The pilot system can either recharge the batteries or draw out power.

The transactions may be tiny, a few kilowatt-hours at a time, worth a few cents each, but if there were thousands of such vehicles, each with a robust battery pack, such a car owner/utility partnership could result in power produced in slack hours that could be stored in the cars until it was needed by the utility at peak times. Instead of building and paying for massive and contentious power plants to fulfill peak demand, plug- in hybrids could take this role, providing a win-win-win for utility, car owners, and society alike.

...And EcoMotion would like to welcome all its new readers! If you have your own stories -- or opinions -- to share, send them to Virginia Nicols. .