Blogs > Matt Power > April 2010

Dow's "2,300 Percent" Plastic Surge

It's hard to know whether to cheer or weep about Dow's announcement yesterday that their net income surged by 2,300 percent, because they're selling more plastic wrap.
Let's face it. We're all deeply involved with plastic. Look around your home or office and count the number of items that contain plastics. From a manufacturing perspective, it's almost the perfect product: moldable, waterproof, flexible, long lasting (although that depends to an enormous degree on the item in question, the type of polymer).

Economists yesterday were cheering about Dow's announcement of enormous profits from the sale of plastic wrap and plastics for cellphones and other gadgets. But as a chemist at Bill McDonough's (Cradle to Cradle) office pointed out to me recently, not all plastics are created equal.

Most plastic, contrary to what you may think, is not recycled--only about 6.8 percent, according to Discover. It either languishes in landfills, or worse, may make it's way to waterways, or end up in the Pacific Gyre, the nightmarish swirling mass of discarded plastic that is growing like a cancer in the Pacific ocean.

About 70 percent of our plastics are made from domestic fossil fuels. Did you happen to notice what's happening in the Gulf of Mexico this week? That disastrous oil spill isn't the fault of plastic manufacturers. But we all bear some blame--every time we buy a pre-packaged salad or unwrap an overpackaged, plastic-wrapped pallet of windows.

So what's the solution? That we stop using plastics? Obviously, that's not going to happen right away. But a change in the plastic culture is clearly needed. My suggestions for both manufacturers and consumers.

* Use it Again. Reduction and reuse of packaging. Manufacturers could make pallet wrap removable and reusable. This will mean accepting used wrap back at the plant, and offering a small recovery incentive to end users who participate.

* Make it Hurt. This tactic is already in play in many municipalities, including my own, here in Maine. If I don't recycle my plastic, I have to pay ever increasing fee for putting it into the landfill.

* Add Consumer Caveats. Why not label plastics with information labels, telling consumers where to recycle them, and what will happen to the plastics if they don't manage them responsibly?

Now here are a couple of ideas for Dow--something constructive to do with all that surging income from sale of plastics.

* Change to Bio-Based Plastics. New R&D is underway on corn-based polymers and other materials that may replace polymer plastics. Polymers don't break down naturally, so they're essentially toxic to the natural world. It's time for plastics that are truly biodegradable--that break down into natural molecules. It looks like Cargill Dow is already working on this problem. But it's time to move faster.

* Clean Up the Gyre
The Pacific Gyre is an immense source of already produced plastics. It can't simply be ignored. Companies making a profit from these non-degradable products have a responsibility to help deal with their mess. I'm betting someone will figure out how to turn a profit at the same time by harvesting some of that 26 million square kilometers of debris, containing about 100 million tons of plastic.

Posted: 4/29/2010 6:58:24 AM by Matt Power | with 0 comments

Greenwashing Away Our Future

Companies that are weakening the green brand with false claims, self certification and hype are doing a disservice to every firm that's trying to do the right thing.
Imagine for a moment that you're transported to a parallel universe where "good, clean living" is seen as the best way to save the planet from cultural anarchy. You're not a big believer. In fact, you’re about to get remarried for the third time. But there’s a snag: Your wife’s family insists that only someone “pure of heart” may marry their daughter. They ask that you be tested and certified by an uninterested party on issues of honesty, financial management and piety. But instead, you decide to write your own test, and have one of your employees tally your score. Not surprisingly, you pass with flying colors. In fact, you're recommended as a contestant for the popular "Who's the Cleanest of Them All" game show.

You show up on the wedding day wearing a blazing white polyester suit of purity.

So why do the inlaws still look terribly unhappy?
Back to our reality. Green claims seems to be everywhere. People are confused. If vinyl siding is "green," does that mean wood isn't? If VOCs cause cancer, why are low VOC paints green? Shouldn't they be No-VOC paints? Part of the blame must fall on manufacturers. Many claim to have “embraced” the green revolution, but they don't like the rules. They dislike third-party certification programs, so they make up their own programs, staffed with their own sycophants who always seem to find something glowing to say about their employers.

Result: They weaken what green labeling means to consumers. The latest edition of a study called “Seven Sins of Greenwashing” from Terrachoice lists some common examples of how product makers use marketing ploys to corrupt the green message.

• In the United States, there is a brand of aluminum foil with certification-like images that bear the name of the company’s own in-house environmental program without further explanation.

• In Canada, one paper towel product uses a certification-like image to make the bold (if vague statement) ‘this product fights global warming.'

• Several brands of air fresheners give the impression of certification of the claim ‘CFC-free’ (thereby committing both the Sin of Worshipping False Labels and the Sin of Irrelevance)
From: (

The same thing is happening in the building industry. For example, I read recently about Sherwin Williams’ decision to create its own paint certification instead of conforming to GreenGuard standards. I can’t say I’m surprised. I remember visiting SW’s booth at the Builder’s Show a few years ago, where I grilled them about a new line of washable paints they had developed for kids’ bedrooms. At a time when other manufacturers such as Glidden, Mythic Paints and Benjamin Moore were introducing low-VOC products, SW’s personnel shrugged at the concept, saying they were mainly concerned about performance. Now they want to play in the sandbox with the other green kids, but make their own rules. Is their product really green? It’s tough to tell. That’s one of the problems with private labeling. Each company uses its own mathematical formulas.

In fairness to Sherwin Williams, we contacted GreenGuard and found out that they do certify several brands under the GreenGuard program, and staff has likely changed since that visit a few years ago. I'd welcome comment from them about why they chose to go the self-certification route with these new products.
Advertising spending on so-called green products is way, way up. But it’s often meaningless. As I reported in a previous story, for example, Whole Foods has a tremendous reputation as a “green” company. In reality it’s no more green than Rite Aid. And a new certification (called the Sustainable Forestry Initiative or SFI) for sustainably harvested wood products has just been introduced by industry to compete with the reputable FSC certification. That's a topic for another blog, but suffice it to say environmental groups have many, many reservations about SFI.
The news is not all bad, however. Terrachoice says that a reckoning may be imminent. They note that estimates that more than 300 watchdog groups have formed. Increasingly sophisticated, they’re not likely to be fooled by green colored brochures, logos that look like certifications, and fast-talking sales reps.

Posted: 4/28/2010 1:58:39 PM by Matt Power | with 0 comments

Gypsum Wallboard--Quietly Turning Toxic?



We've all heard the horror stories about Chinese gypsum imported to the U.S. by now. And the first lawsuit just handed a couple of million to one of the aggrieved homeowners who used the stuff. We still don't know quite how far and wide that product nightmare will go.

But if we look at the event as simply a "one bad apple" situation, the same way Enron was "one bad apple" and Bear Stearns was "one bad apple," we're not investigating the underlying chemistry of what went wrong.

Reading my usual barrage of news stories and releases this morning, I came across a disturbing release that talks about a topic I've been hammering on for years--the dangers of using unregulated waste from coal-fired power plants in building materials. It's not only used in gypsum, but also in certain lightweight concrete, along with new faux-wood composites.

The problem, as this report suggests, is that we simply don't know enough about this stuff. Also, they argue that efforts to keep toxins such as mercury out of power plant emissions mean that those heavy metals are now more heavily deposited in the leftover solid wastes being used as synthetic gypsum.

Here's the factoid that caught my eye:

"In 2001, only 15% of the total domestic gypsum supply was synthetic gypsum. By 2009, synthetic gypsum use had more than tripled, accounting for more than half (57%) of the national supply."

They add that: "the EPA is finding mercury in the synthetic gypsum itself, both Chinese and domestic. In fact, the mercury levels in one major source of U.S. synthetic gypsum was the highest of six sources EPA tested - more than three times the highest Chinese sample (2.08 parts per million versus 0.562 ppm) - in 2009."

It's time for all manufacturers using coal combustion byproducts to demonstrate the chemical composition and safety of their products.


Demand for synthetic gypsum to rise--Story Here.

Posted: 4/13/2010 8:14:20 AM by Matt Power | with 0 comments

Obama Puts the Screws to Earth

You might have expected President Obama to forward some of his more progressive green ideas after passing his watered down health insurance bill. Instead, he's pillaging America's coastal regions for oil.

James Lovelock recently published an article asserting that humans are too stupid to reverse global warming. Whether or not you agree with his assessment, stupidity, it may be argued, is an inherited condition. In that sense, it's forgiveable, if unfortunate. But when a smart guy like Barack Obama does idiotic things like opening up America's coastline for years of oil drilling, it's a conscious choice that forces us all to act as co-conspirators in a bad decision for our future.

Two questions come to mind. First, why is Obama adopting the Sarah Palin "drill, baby drill" dominionist view that humans can and should exploit every last resource on earth? And second, assuming his plan comes to fruition (a plan second in short-sightedness only to his Nuclear power fantasies), what will it mean in real terms?

1. First, the why: Despite the continuing nonsense and racism from the far right, Obama is neither a socialist nor a communist, not fascist nor leftist. If we must label him with a word with "ist" as a suffix, his policy record could probably be best described as an unwavering corporatist, with close ties (like most in Congress) to multinational business. Hope-laden rhetoric aside, his policies rarely waver from the playbook written by lobbyists from big banks, big pharma, big insurance and (in this case) big oil.

2. Estimates suggest that the oil and natural gas available in the coastal regions Obama wants to open up will provide the btus to fuel our economy for two or three years, tops. That sounds to me like a golden parachute for oil barons, not a life raft for average Americans--and at what long-term damage to fragile ocean ecosystems?

“Drilling our coasts will doing nothing to lower gas prices or create energy independence,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. It will only jeopardize beaches, marine life, and coastal tourist economies, all so the oil industry can make a short-term profit.”--NYT

Even more egregious than Obama's decision to open up drilling in sensitive ocean areas, however, is his misdirected view of what America's "clean" energy portfolio should look like. In Obama's corporatist world view, our future lies in biouels (starving the world to feed automobiles), nuclear energy and non-existent clean coal technology. But in the view of many eminent scientists, much better, less destructive technologies--combined with conservation can take us where we need to go. Where is the vision and leadership we need to make the transition from technologies of the 1950s to technologies of the future? If a hope-monger like Barack Obama can't see the light, maybe Lovelock is right. Maybe we're just stupid enough to keep fiddling while Rome burns.

more info:
PDF of study on Alternative Energy's Viability as future energy source HERE.

Posted: 4/1/2010 6:21:52 AM by Matt Power | with 0 comments

About Me

As a veteran reporter, Matt Power has covered virtually every aspect of design and construction. His award-winning articles often tackle tough environmental challenges in a way that makes them relevant to both professionals and end users. An expert on both building science and green building, he has a long history of asking hard questions--and adding depth and context as he unfolds complex issues.




Social Media