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Rachel's #900: The Death of Recycling


[Rachel's introduction: In this important essay, Paul Palmer argues that traditional recycling has outlived its usefulness. What we really need is a system for designing and manufacturing products with perpetual re-use in mind. We need to recycle the function of products, not just the materials they are made of. This is the true Zero Waste approach.]

By Paul Palmer, Ph.D

[Paul Palmer hold a Ph.D. in Physical Chemistry from Yale. He is interested in hearing from readers who may want to join him in starting a new organization focused on zero waste. Contact him at]

A little more than a year ago, an article entitled The Death of Environmentalism by Shellenberger and Nordhaus made a splash when it claimed that environmentalists had become complacent, relying on their time-honored methods of banning behaviors that they found objectionable through political and judicial activism, rather than through engaging the moral base of the American public. The critique was applied to the looming crisis of global warming and seemed to portend a gigantic failure if environmentalists did not embrace a new awareness of public concern and participation and stop relying on public policy correctness and technical fixes.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus noted the lack of inspiring visions to energize the public. They went on to lament the smugness of officials of environmental organizations who have become used to rich rewards in salaries, grants, dues and acclaim from growing membership lists.

There is a movement for resource recapture that suffers from the same defects. It has come to be called Recycling. Latterly it too has become lazy, relying on yesterday's methods and advancing no new ideas to inspire the public. The practitioners, while not profiting from dues or grants nearly as much as the defenders of wildlife, nevertheless have their own stultifying income source. They have become used to income derived from the low grade collection of garbage. Their method is to pick away at garbage streams recapturing small amounts of smashed up lowgrade materials. Alternatively they profit by exacting garbage dumping surcharges, resembling guilt taxes, from the dumpers. They have formed close alliances with the garbage industry, the two often being indistinguishable. Since no approach to conservation that relies on harvesting garbage can ever threaten the garbage paradigm, they have no way to inspire the public. They do promote themselves mendaciously as being fundamentally opposed to garbage, but that ideology is merely a holdover from a time when recycling was young. The contradiction is disturbing to even casual observers.

What would you think about a gigantic piece of the environmental movement, involving trillions of dollars worth of resources annually in this country alone, that environmentalists ignore? The way in which resources are used to create products is exactly such an item. After working in this field for thirty years, I have seen that environmentalists are afraid to deal with industrial production because they don't understand it. It seems like a technical subject that they have no hope of getting a handle on. If a single resource is badly harvested, like old growth trees, they will organize. If the process produces an obvious pollution, they will demand regulation to correct it. But there it stops. The way in which products are designed specifically for waste is simply not on their screen.

In the United States, recycling as a theory of resource management arose in the nineteen seventies. Since that time, no new theory or even interpretation has been put forward until today. Three major developments should be noted.

** First, the garbage industry realized that it could take over the movement for recycling, turning it into a division of garbage management, finally paying recyclers a surcharge to co-opt them.

** Second, the recyclers accepted the pre-eminence of the garbage industry and dropped any notion of replacing or closing dumps.

** Third, a few progressive individuals and organizations began to discuss a new resource management plan to which they gave the name zero waste.[1,2,3]

At some point, the recyclers, now working for garbage management, saw that zero waste could become a slogan that appeared to the public to be a higher theory of resources. Because of their immersion in the recycling paradigm as an ultimate theory, they were actually unable to put flesh on the bones of the zero waste approach, but they began to spread the bare slogan. On the ground, nothing changed. The recyclers went to a number of jurisdictions (several California cities especially) and urged the cities to join them in putting forward the facade of a new resource management plan, which a number of cities did. In actuality, the new plans concerned Zero Waste in name only. They proposed only more recycling.

How Does Zero Waste Differ From Recycling?

What should have been in such plans, that would have revealed a truly new theory of resource conservation? The essence of the new synthesis can be summed up in one pregnant phrase: redesign for reuse. But what kind of redesign for what kind of reuse? That is where the new theory flexes its muscles.

The basic problem that has always plagued recycling is that it accepts garbage creation as fundamental. Zero waste strategies reject garbage creation as a failure, actually an abomination that threatens the planet, an historical accident, a politically motivated defect in the design of our industrial-commercial system of production. Zero waste actually goes deeper in that it rejects waste of every kind at every stage of production. Zero waste demands that all products be redesigned so that they produce no waste at all and furthermore, that the production processes (a kind of product in themselves because they too are carefully designed) also produce no waste. Zero waste at no point interfaces with garbage but rather simply looks beyond it. In the theory of zero waste, once all waste is eliminated, there will be no garbage, no need for any garbage collection, no garbage industry and no dumps. All that superstructure of garbage management will fade away as simply irrelevant.

The currently operative theory of recycling is entirely different. It contemplates the continual, even perpetual collection of garbage and then attempts to find innovative ways to reuse the maximum part of that garbage. In the current jargon, recycling is an end-of-pipe theory. Zero waste is a redesign theory. Because end-of-pipe approaches are necessarily inefficient and difficult (since products were never designed for reuse) the best that recycling is able to hold out for in most cases is destruction of products after one use (through smashing, chopping, grinding, etc.) and the laborious recapture of only the bare materials. Thus the common recycling obsession with steel, aluminum, paper, glass and plastic, ignoring fifty thousand additional common chemicals, plastics, metals, glasses, minerals etc. It is no exaggeration to say that recycling has no comment on the vast majority of products, processes and materials, while zero waste has solutions or improved practices to offer for every single product, production process, material and (current) waste. In addition, zero waste offers a compelling spirituality as it elevates the conservation of our one precious planet to the level of a holy creed and demands that our design for resources usage reflects that creed.

Recyclers also try to find last-minute ways of reuse, such as is done by thrift shops, by turning junk into artwork or by construction reuse yards which resell doors, windows, sinks and more. While a single piece reused is indeed a victory, these are again end-of-pipe enterprises which probably account for less than 1% of all discards. Zero waste seeks to elevate reuse into an integral part of the design of 100% of all of these products.

In the new zero waste theory, products are designed from the start to be reused over and over. After many uses, including repairs, rebuilding, remanufacturing etc., disassembly into materials may become necessary for a step that resembles recycling, but even at this last stage, the reuse of materials has been carefully designed into the original product, planning for it in many critical ways. Thus even when zero waste comes down to the reuse of component materials, it does so in a way that is sharply different from an end-of-pipe method. For example, zero waste principles strongly recommend against the lamination or joining of different materials in an indissoluble bond unless the lamination can be reused as lamination, or disassembled. All parts must be well identified by markings and history, not something to be guessed at with inadequate symbols (like the recycling labels on plastic) of such generality that they convey little information of any use. Extensive information about every part, every piece, every material will be key, using every tool of modern information tracking such as radio frequency tags (rfid's), bar codes, public specifications and the internet. Recyclers, by contrast, have no response to difficult items like laminations except to toss them into a dump, as non-recyclable.

If zero waste thinking is new to you, you may be wondering how all of this can be done. In my book, Getting To Zero Waste, I detail many practical applications that are simple and straightforward even in this world of production dedicated to waste. As one simple example, repair has all but faded away. Repair of electronic and other technical instruments has been replaced with discard followed by purchase of a new, cheap product from China. But why did repair become so economically disfavored? For electronics, four major reasons were these:

** Circuit diagrams were generally unobtainable, necessitating a constant series of educated guesses.

** When circuit diagrams were obtained, they were filled with arcane, uninterpretable proprietary symbols. Even a simple resistor could be unrecognizable.

** Parts, including simple mechanical ones, were not grouped into standard, interchangeable assemblies such as a standard circuit board or a tape loading mechanism.

** Lastly, parts themselves became unavailable, sometimes after a few months or at most after a few years.

Look at this list! The needed changes leap off the page at you. Begin by demanding, under pain of not being allowed to sell product, that every single circuit diagram must be published openly on the web, for all to see. Then demand that all symbols used on the diagrams must be publicly understandable and explained. Insist that repair shops be established, or certified, for every group of products or by every manufacturer. Require long-term availability of parts. This is only the beginning, yet it shows the narrow end of a funnel opening up to a revolution in reparability.

Even products that the recyclers have no clue how to reuse or even think about are commonplace for zero waste strategizing. I worked successfully and easily in chemical reuse for thirty years. The recyclers have never had any ideas to offer except fear, bans and urging users to discard chemicals into dumps. The software industry depends critically on reuse of its intellectual creations, yet the recyclers have only the trivial focus on the paper or discs that are used for storage of software.

Why have the designers been able to design waste so cavalierly into their products? A large part of the answer is the ready availability of a subsidized dump. As we get further into a zero waste society, dumps will not only become unnecessary but as soon as any zero waste solution can be applied, the dump can be legally put off limits. When there is no eternally welcoming dump for a product, there will be no alternative to designing for perpetual reuse.

Necessarily, this is only a hint of a long discussion. Are there too many products and designs for you to contemplate? Simple, establish Zero Waste Divisions in the Engineering Departments of every university. Obviously this author, or a hundred like him, are not going to be able to subject every product to a deep analysis with solutions. That is the function of research. Let us give employment to thousands of industrial redesigners, chemical engineers, biologists, fermentation technicians and every other kind of professional. The kinds of jobs found in the garbage industry are not worth hanging on to, compared to the brand new jobs needed for innovative, intelligent and responsible design of products for perpetual reuse. Design for responsibility should create a flood of new patents, protecting designs which can then spread worldwide as brand new businesses carry the message around the globe that the Age of Garbage has ended.

By now the reader can see that zero waste differs from recycling approaches in an important way: its intellectual roots. Recycling is a simple notion, hardly more complicated than the dumping of garbage into a hole in the ground. Simply find some component of the garbage being collected and divert it into a (usually existing) alternate process as a raw material. True, recycling encounters many political problems needing to be solved, collection and diversion systems to be designed, as well as the difficulties of introducing mixed or contaminated materials to a processing system used to completely refined and "clean" raw materials. Engineering and scientific professionals play almost no role. Zero waste, on the other hand, essentially requires high level redesign. Every product being made needs to be designed under a brand new constraint -- the disappearance of easy discard. Chemical products will require chemists and chemical engineers. Other technical products will likewise require help from other professionals. Contamination will be fundamentally unacceptable.

Hopefully the reader begins to see the outlines of a new paradigm which will make garbage creation obsolete. Yet it is only common sense applied to production. We have come back to a tenet of The Death of Environmentalism -- the one that laments the lack of inspiration. Is it not an inspiring vision to demand that rational design be applied to reuse? Is the complete elimination of garbage and dumping not a vision that ordinary people can seize and insist on? In another hundred years, people will read with disbelief that in the twenty- first century, industry actually designed products for a single use, then to be smashed and buried underground. That will seem to be a story about Neanderthal behavior.

I have had to digress to explain zero waste so that the reader will be able to understand the most recent developments.

All design work takes place in a universe of broadly shared assumptions. These include the availability and cost of materials, the price of robots or labor, consumer acceptance, etc. Sometimes the intended use controls everything, such as with high end research equipment or racing yachts. But there is one assumption that always pervades the entire design process -- waste is to be expected and it costs practically nothing.

Eliminate this one assumption of wasting and the whole design process will be turned on its head. Time-honored methods of designing for cheap assembly and quick obsolescence will themselves need to be discarded. Instead, quality components, expertly assembled will be the norm and the design will necessarily become one for perpetual repair, refurbishment, upgrading, reuse of every part and every function.

The recyclers also like to talk about an end to dumps. So how does this vision differ from theirs?

One can reasonably say that recycling and reuse has always been with us. We wash our clothes hundreds of times; we do not throw them out after one use. We repair our automobiles endlessly. Home Depot counts on the fact that we will fix up our houses. We patch roads. Since airplanes can never be allowed to fall out of the sky due to obsolescence, the airplane industry maintains a kind of zero waste attitude, constantly repairing and downgrading for decades. Yet in spite of these conservative attitudes, garbage dumping exploded in the last century and is still growing. Various studies claim that Americans account for many tons of garbage for every pound of product they buy.[4] The recycling approach has clearly failed to stanch this torrent of garbage.

More troubling is the development over the last thirty years of a close, symbiotic relationship between the methods of the garbage industry and the recycling movement. When recyclers seek inputs of materials, they primarily employ collection methods based on discard. Classically, they simply task the garbage collector to set out one more green or blue or red container next to his garbage can. The result is predictable -- the public frames recycling as tantamount to garbage collection and treats it with disdain. Households have no idea which container to use for what and everything gets mixed up. If there is any doubt, it is understood that recycling is just garbage anyway so what difference can it make which can is used? The recyclers themselves go along with the garbage company pleas and accept the nonsensical notion that everything can all be mixed together (i.e. making garbage) and then sorted out later.

The public acceptance of waste comes from two sources. First, the unconcerned public have come to accept the canard that garbage is natural. They support the whole superstructure of subsidized dumps and profitable garbage collection. We hear that "you have to put it somewhere"; "just get rid of it" and we treat garbage as a social "service". Second, the only claim to a popular alternative is the recycling one, which in turn supports garbage to the hilt. The developing crisis in planetary resources will force the abandonment of both of these defective notions.

Recyclers have recently begun to create analyses claiming to be based on zero waste. Many of these claim to be aware that zero waste is not just more recycling. However, despite the good words, not one of them presents any programs, projects or ideas which go beyond mere recycling or challenge the primacy of garbage. This is not an accident. The close relationship to garbage methods contaminates the analysis. These erroneous writings are easily available on the web under the name of various cities and counties, especially in California, that have adopted putative zero waste resolutions. These include Palo Alto, San Francisco, Oakland and Nevada County.[5] It is essential that newcomers not accept every program that calls itself "zero waste" as part of the new paradigm.

Even without its crippling association with the garbage industry, recycling suffers from a crippling constriction of goals. At its best, the ideology of recycling has always been limited to an enervating focus on the dump! Because it has never transcended its early ideology, which was forged in the 1960's and early '70's, recycling has never claimed to do more than target the elimination of dumps, yet even this modest goal is unattainable by recycling. Even if recycling were amazingly effective, taking out 90% of some material which was heading to the dump (no project is close to this effectiveness), ten percent would still go into the dump on every cycle. After about eight cycles, virtually the entire load of original material will be sitting at the bottom of a dump and it is only new, virgin materials which are still circulating. In the case of aluminum cans, the project that recyclers like to point at with pride, about fifty percent of the aluminum ends up in the dump on each cycle and the typical cycle is about three months long. At the end of a year, just about the whole load of aluminum is found in the dump and all the cans in circulation are made of new material which will likewise soon be residing in the dump. No wonder the garbage industry is hardly shaking in its shoes over the success of recycling. The deficiencies of recycling are even worse than this. As I said earlier, recycling entirely overlooks the processes that call for the materials that it is concerned with. So the processes can continue to be as wasteful as a waste oriented society can make them. Instead of a tightly designed process, we find them designed in a lazy way to create, for example, chemical excesses for which recyclers can find no use. No problem: our society reserves portions of soil, water and air by regulation that are good for nothing but being polluted. So long as the regulations are followed, pollution is accepted. But who is to question why unusable excesses are produced in the first place? Recycling makes no objection, while zero waste thinking demands that cheap disposal eventually be eliminated and that wasteful practices be redesigned to function without the benefit of the welcoming dump.

Consider now the enormous waste of designing products to be fragile, breakable, trashy, lightweight and with signature, critically weak parts inside. This practice is part of the strategy called "planned obsolescence". When the pieces immediately break, the recyclers may be standing by to snatch some of the materials, but how does that compare to a product that is so well designed for reuse that only a tenth as much raw material ends up passing through the industrial meatgrinder? Only a fraction as much energy has to be used. Only a fraction as much soil exhaustion is caused in extracting the natural resources that go into the product. And remember that among those natural resources is food for the humans working in the factory as well as fuel for their transportation and the resources for their education, entertainment and all the rest of life. That can all be minimized by repairing and refurbishing the products endlessly. The recycler, by contrast, accepts this wasting as natural, so long as a portion of the bare materials are captured for reuse at the last moment.

The conceptual analysis which ties up all the loose ends is functional reuse. This means the reuse of the highest function of every product, not the lowest materials. For example, the unfortunately classical method of recycling a glass bottle is to destroy its function. As a container, its function is to contain. The fact that it is made from a nearly valueless glass material is of virtually no interest. Yet the recycler will gleefully abandon the valuable function for the valueless material and crow about his success. This is a serious failure of design. The common-sense way that zero waste approaches this reuse is by using the containment function -- by refilling the bottle. All of the value is recaptured and there is no reason to transport broken glass across the country, remelt it, fill it in a distant factory and ship it back to where it started.

Recycling claims to save energy, but this is by and large an empty claim, Recycling actually is a way to insure that energy is wasted for no reason. Zero waste already shows the way to recapture almost 100% of the energy, by refilling, so why are we still smashing bottles? Only because garbage fleets demand methods which make use of their core capability -- hauling heavy loads around the country, no matter whether to a dump or a recycling facility.

Functional reuse is a broad general principle that applies to every single product made anywhere. Not to ten or twenty percent of the contaminated materials in a garbage can, but to everything. It is only from working with inherent functions that new patents and new worldwide businesses can emerge.

One estimate says that industry produces seventy-one times as much garbage as households,[4] while producing the products we want. A theory that ignores 98.5% of a problem no longer commands respect.

The conclusion is inescapable. Recycling has had its day and is now moribund. Those of us concerned about the destruction of the earth need to adopt a new, healthier understanding of the real world. That new synthesis is Zero Waste.


Paul Palmer wants to hear from readers who may want to join him in starting a new organization focused on zero waste. Contact him at


[1] Grassroots Recycling Network

[2] Eric Lombardi, Boulder oWaste/index.cfm

[3] Paul Palmer, Getting To Zero Waste, http://gettingt

[4] Brenda Platt and Neil Seldman, Wasting and Recycling in the United States 2000, pg. 18, citing Office of Technology Assessment, Managing Industrial Solid Wastes from manufacturing, mining, oil, and gas production, and utility coal combustion (OTA-BP-O-82), February 1992, pp. 7, 10.

[5] Oakland Zero Waste Resolution, and http://ww


From: Collaborative on Health and the Environment
March 26, 2007


Elizabeth Edwards and Breast Cancer Prevention

[Rachel's introduction: Because of Elizabeth Edwards' breast cancer, "... A new story might be told. It is a story about the need to prevent breast cancer.... It is not an easy story to reduce to a sound bite. But here are the basics. There is an epidemic of breast cancer. The causes of the epidemic are clearly environmental. ..."]

By Michael Learner

During the past week, John and Elizabeth Edwards announced that Elizabeth's breast cancer has returned. The cancer is in her rib. It may be in her lungs.

My thoughts kept coming back to Elizabeth this week. I thought about what she and John have been through since the doctor gave them the news. I thought about the conversations they had before they told their staff of their decision and stepped into the sunlight to make their private grief public before a media-drenched world.

For the past twenty-two years, I have worked closely in the Commonweal Cancer Help Program with hundreds of mothers like Elizabeth Edwards who are facing metastatic breast cancer while their children are still young.

I know Elizabeth hopes for many years of life. I imagine she also decided that if she has less time, making John president would be the greatest gift she could give to the man she loves. I imagine she wants to go out fighting for the things she believes in and taking care of her family.

The one thing Elizabeth Edwards' new diagnosis -- and their shared decision to stay in the race -- makes almost certain is that breast cancer will be front and center in the presidential campaign. The predictable course of media coverage will be stories about her courage, about new treatments, about the need for more research, and about living with recurrent breast cancer as a chronic disease.

What interests me is the possibility a new story might be told. It is a story about the need to prevent breast cancer. It is a story that a number of us across America have been telling for some time. It is not an easy story to reduce to a sound bite. But here are the basics. There is an epidemic of breast cancer. The causes of the epidemic are clearly environmental. We do not know which environmental factors contribute how much to the epidemic.

More important, we may never know which environmental factors contribute how much to the breast cancer epidemic. Because breast cancer is a disease that is amplified in industrial civilizations by an infinitely complex interaction of many factors. Diet, exercise, and chemical exposures make some contribution. There are many other possible contributors.

If it were "just" a breast cancer epidemic that is amplified by industrial civilization, maybe we would throw up our hands and say: "This is a tragedy but it is too hard to deal with all the complexities to try to do something." But the breast cancer epidemic is not the only epidemic. And it is not separable from the other epidemics of our time. How many of our children struggle for breath? How many cannot read, or write, or pay attention to what is happening around them? How many are autistic? How many have birth defects that you can see? How many have birth defects that you cannot see at birth - defects of the heart, the immune system, or the mind? How many have childhood cancers?

How many young girls have premature puberty? How many develop endometriosis? How many young couples struggle with infertility? And, as we get older, how many of us develop cancers -- like Elizabeth Edwards -- in the prime of life? How many develop allergies, chemical sensitivities, or autoimmune diseases? How many develop early onset Parkinson's Disease, or ALS, or early onset Alzheimer's? And how many are subtly altered, in ways that do not manifest as frank disease, but shift the experience of what it is like to be human?

It may be too much to ask Elizabeth and John Edwards to talk about breast cancer prevention. It seems indecent to intrude on their private and public tragedy and to tell Elizabeth Edwards what her message about breast cancer should be. We cannot decently ask Elizabeth Edwards to make the link between preventing breast cancer and preventing many of the epidemic diseases of our time.

But it may be that some of the rest of us can say a word or two on the subject. Because -- after over twenty years of working with hundreds of young mothers with metastatic breast cancer -- there is only one thing I am sure of.

I know Elizabeth Edwards is strong enough to face life and death with metastatic breast cancer. But I also know, deep in her heart, Elizabeth Edwards absolutely does not want her two daughters, one adult and one eight years old, to face the same disease. She does not want her daughters, when they have young children, to face what she is facing now. She has lost one son already, claimed by a car accident at age 16 in 1996. She has no need, whether she is alive or dead, to lose another.

Elizabeth Edwards is now among the thousands of mothers with stage IV breast cancer who know in their bones what it means that their young children may lose their mother. But what is even harder for Elizabeth, and all those like her, is the thought that her daughters, who may lose their mother at an early age, might face the same disease when their children are young. It is this tragic lineage of preventable grief that stands at the heart of the breast cancer prevention movement.

That thought may lead Elizabeth Edwards where many of the courageous women with breast cancer I have known have been ineluctably led. They know how difficult a cure for breast cancer has proven to find. Billions of dollars and decades of research have not found one. They know what living with breast cancer is like. The surgeries, the chemotherapies, the radiation. They know about living from one check-up to the next with the ever-present fear of recurrence. And when recurrence comes, they know what it means for them and the ones they love.

Many of these courageous women have come to understand that the only sensible thing to do is to make the kind of investment in breast cancer prevention that we have made in breast cancer treatment research. And they understand that this investment in prevention should be not only investment in a research agenda but investment in public policies that protect public health as well.

These courageous women have come to understand that the breast cancer epidemic is essentially inseparable from the other epidemics of environmentally related disease in our time. And so they have decided to fight for a world where every major contributor to breast cancer and other chronic diseases is minimized.

That means a return to some basic public health values. It means clean air, clean water, and safe foods. It means schools where children eat nutritious meals and exercise vigorously every day. It means eating the foods our grandparents and their parents for thousands of generations before them ate. It means reducing the terrible gap between rich and poor which is the largest single contributor to the burden of all disease in this country and every other country. It means health care for all. And it means a systematic and thorough approach to reducing our body burdens of thousands of toxic chemicals and radiation exposures that were not in our grandparents' bodies and should not be in ours.

Politics completely aside, from a public health perspective John Edwards is talking about the real issues. He talks of universal health care. He talks of narrowing the gap between rich and poor. That yawning gap in the distribution of wealth is the single greatest cause of ill health. It is also the single thing we could most readily change with a simple vote in Congress and the stroke of a pen. Edwards talks of the need to spend at home the billions we are now spending in the Middle East. It is not a political statement to say that it is a good thing that at least one candidate is talking about the real issues in public health.

Will Elizabeth Edwards' new cancer diagnosis lead her to do the kind of thinking so many thousands of women across the country have done? Will it lead her to think about breast cancer prevention? Will she do the research and come to understand how complicated breast cancer prevention is? Will she go deep enough to recognize breast cancer as an ecological disease that is part of the whole fabric of ecological diseases we face today? Will she see the need to do what the Europeans are doing and what people are doing in states across the country -- to work for clean air, clean water, and safe foods, and to systematically reduce the thousands of untested toxic chemicals building up in our bodies? And if she makes the connection, will she discuss it with John Edwards? And if agrees, will Elizabeth and John Edwards be the ones who finally bring breast cancer prevention into the American mainstream?

I don't know the answer. I only know that if Elizabeth doesn't do it, we need to continue to do it. We need to tell the simple truth that breast cancer prevention is part and parcel of preventing most of the major diseases of our time. It is only complicated if we get caught up in the game of trying to figure out which specific stresses are responsible for what proportion of what disease. It is simple if we just say we need to make our country safer for our children and for all of us again. We know how to do that. It is common sense. That is our choice, and Elizabeth's choice.

Michael Lerner is president of Commonweal and a Co-Founding Partner of CHE, the Collaborative on Health and the Environment.


From: Risk Policy Report
March 27, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: As the scandals of his Presidency hold our attention, Mr. Bush is busy in the back room, rolling back laws and regulations that were intended to protect the natural environment and public health.]

By Douglas P. Guarino

A recent executive order signed by President Bush revokes Clinton-era measures requiring federal facilities to report their pollution releases to EPA's Toxic Release Inventory (TRI), which the agency uses for a slew of regulatory decisions governing water quality, emissions and other regulatory requirements.

While the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) is drafting guidance that a spokeswoman says will continue to require federal facilities to report TRI releases, environmentalists are concerned that it could further diminish TRI data after EPA issued a controversial regulation last December that scales back industry's reporting requirements.

Environmentalists say that if the upcoming CEQ guidance does not clarify that federal facilities must still report to TRI, they will call on Democratic lawmakers to mandate federal facility TRI reporting in pending legislation seeking to block EPA's new regulation from taking effect.

Rep. Frank Pallone (D-NJ), one of the sponsors of the pending legislation, told reporters March 22 that Democrats may seek to attach the TRI legislation to must-pass appropriations legislation later this year. Last year, the House approved similar legislation as an amendment to the fiscal year 2007 Interior and Environment Appropriations bill.

The legislation could gain a further boost after EPA unveiled TRI data for 2005, which shows a three percent increase overall in total disposal and other releases. "Annual changes are not unusual," EPA said in a March 22 press release, saying that possible reasons for the increase include production increases, fluctuations in the content of raw materials used in particular industries and changes in releases at large facilities that impact the national data. Relevant documents are available on

Executive Order (EO) 13423, which the Bush administration published in the Federal Register Jan. 26, revokes EO 13148, which former President Clinton issued April 21, 2000. Section 501 of the Clinton order required federal facilities to report to TRI under section 313 of the Emergency Planning & Community Right-to-Know Act (EPCRA).

Environmentalists are raising concerns federal facilities may be exempt from all TRI reporting in the future as a result of the Bush order, given that federal facilities are not required to report to TRI by law. The exact impact of the order, however, will largely depend on what guidance CEQ issues to EPA and other federal agencies on how to implement the order, activist sources say.

"Given that E.O. 13148 was the only order still in place requiring federal facilities to report under the TRI program, Bush's new order may exempt all federal facilities from reporting to TRI in the future," an analysis of the order prepared by the activist group OMB Watch says.

A CEQ spokeswoman says federal facilities are still required to report to TRI despite the Bush executive order. The CEQ spokeswoman says TRI reporting requirements under previous executive orders will continue despite the order. The spokeswoman expects CEQ will issue guidance within "the next week or so" that "should spell out implementation requirements" for the new order.

Environmentalists say they are concerned about the possibility of a TRI exemption for federal facilities due to the significant amount of toxic releases from Defense Department (DOD) and Energy Department (DOE) facilities. "In 2004, the most recent year of TRI data, 313 federal facilities reported 90 million pounds of toxic chemicals released to the air, water and land," according to OMB Watch.

Activists are particularly concerned about air releases from coal- fired power plants under the Tennessee Valley Authority, one environmentalist adds. The Tennessee Valley Authority had more than 69 million pounds of TRI releases in 2004, the environmentalist says.

Controversy surrounding the executive order comes as Pallone and other Democrats are vowing to pass legislation that would block EPA from implementing its rule scaling back TRI reporting requirements for industry. The rule, which EPA finalized Dec. 18, raises the reporting threshold for chemical releases under TRI from 500 pounds to 2,000 pounds and for the first time allows facilities that manage up to 500 pounds of persistent bioaccumulative toxins (PBTs) to use a simplified reporting format.

Sens. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), together with Pallone and Rep. Hilda Solis (D-CA), have introduced bicameral legislation that would block EPA's regulation from taking effect.

During a March 22 conference call, Pallone told reporters that Democrats may seek to attach the legislation to appropriations language later this year.

Pallone told reporters the first step for the bill in this Congress would be for the House Energy & Commerce environment subcommittee to host a hearing on the legislation, but said he had not yet secured a date for a hearing due to a slew of recent budget hearings that have occupied the committee's schedule. Asked if full committee chairman John Dingell (D-MI) supported the legislation, Pallone said Dingell "for the most part has been pretty supportive of community right to know over the years."

Pallone and Solis participated in the conference call in order to announce the release of a new analysis of 2004 TRI data prepared by the activist group U.S. PIRG, Toxic Pollution and Health. The lawmakers said the study, which analyzes chemical releases reported by TRI and categorizes them by known health effects, is an example of the type of information that will be limited if EPA's new rule is allowed to go forward.

The environmentalist says the study, along with recent reports that the rule will lead to significant decreases in agency estimates of national environmental and human health risks, will help bolster arguments in support of the legislation.

An informed source familiar with modeling EPA conducted prior to releasing the rule told Inside EPA recently that scaled-back reporting would result in a decrease of 10 to 20 percent of calculated potential risk nationally using some agency assessment tools, even though EPA estimates the new rule will only result in a 1 percent decrease in reported releases. Alterations to EPA data on potential risks are significant because federal, state and local regulators use the data to set enforcement and air monitoring priorities.

A supporter of the rule argues that a 2004 study prepared for the Small Business Administration (SBA) shows that "for 99 percent of all of the nation's 3,142 counties, the changes in reported risk are not significant." However, the same report shows that reported risks for some counties, such as Arapahoe, CO, will decline by nearly 80 percent under the new thresholds using EPA models. Charleston, SC, will lose nearly 70 percent of its reported risks, according to the study, and Caddo, LA, will lose nearly 60 percent.

EPA officials could not be reached for comment.


From: Earth Policy Institute
March 21, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: The ethanol craze -- growing corn to fuel our automobiles -- is having serious side-effects throughout the global food system.]

By Lester R. Brown

If you think you are spending more each week at the supermarket, you may be right. The escalating share of the U.S. grain harvest going to ethanol distilleries is driving up food prices worldwide.

Corn prices have doubled over the last year, wheat futures are trading at their highest level in 10 years, and rice prices are rising too. In addition, soybean futures have risen by half. A Bloomberg analysis notes that the soaring use of corn as the feedstock for fuel ethanol "is creating unintended consequences throughout the global food chain."

The countries initially hit by rising food prices are those where corn is the staple food. In Mexico, one of more than 20 countries with a corn-based diet, the price of tortillas is up by 60 percent. Angry Mexicans in crowds of up to 75,000 have taken to the streets in protest, forcing the government to institute price controls on tortillas.

Food prices are also rising in China, India, and the United States, countries that contain 40 percent of the world's people. While relatively little corn is eaten directly in these countries, vast quantities are consumed indirectly in meat, milk, and eggs in both China and the United States.

Rising grain and soybean prices are driving up meat and egg prices in China. January pork prices were up 20 percent above a year earlier, eggs were up 16 percent, while beef, which is less dependent on grain, was up 6 percent.

In India, the overall food price index in January 2007 was 10 percent higher than a year earlier. The price of wheat, the staple food in northern India, has jumped 11 percent, moving above the world market price.

In the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture projects that the wholesale price of chicken in 2007 will be 10 percent higher on average than in 2006, the price of a dozen eggs will be up a whopping 21 percent, and milk will be 14 percent higher. And this is only the beginning.

In the past, food price rises have usually been weather related and always temporary. This situation is different. As more and more fuel ethanol distilleries are built, world grain prices are starting to move up toward their oil-equivalent value in what appears to be the beginning of a long-term rise.

The food and energy economies, historically separate, are now merging. In this new economy, if the fuel value of grain exceeds its food value, the market will move it into the energy economy. As the price of oil climbs so will the price of food.

Some 16 percent of the 2006 U.S. grain harvest was used to produce ethanol. With 80 or so ethanol distilleries now under construction, enough to more than double existing ethanol production capacity, nearly a third of the 2008 grain harvest will be going to ethanol.

Since the United States is the leading exporter of grain, shipping more than Canada, Australia, and Argentina combined, what happens to the U.S. grain crop affects the entire world. With the massive diversion of grain to produce fuel for cars, exports will drop. The world's breadbasket is fast becoming the U.S. fuel tank.

The number of hungry people in the world has been declining for several decades, but in the late 1990s the trend reversed and the number began to rise. The United Nations currently lists 34 countries as needing emergency food assistance. Many of these are considered failed and failing states, including Chad, Iraq, Liberia, Haiti, and Zimbabwe. Since food aid programs typically have fixed budgets, if the price of grain doubles, food aid will be reduced by half.

Urban food protests in response to rising food prices in low and middle income countries, such as Mexico, could lead to political instability that would add to the growing list of failed and failing states. At some point, spreading political instability could disrupt global economic progress.

Against this backdrop, Washington is consumed with "ethanol euphoria." President Bush in his State of the Union address set a production goal for 2017 of 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels, including grain- based and cellulosic ethanol, and liquefied coal. Given the current difficulties in producing cellulosic ethanol at a competitive cost and given the mounting public opposition to liquefied coal, which is far more carbon-intensive than gasoline, most of the fuel to meet this goal might well have to come from grain. This could take most of the U.S. grain harvest, leaving little grain to meet U.S. needs, much less those of the hundred or so countries that import grain.

The stage is now set for direct competition for grain between the 800 million people who own automobiles, and the world's 2 billion poorest people. The risk is that millions of those on the lower rungs of the global economic ladder will start falling off as higher food prices drop their consumption below the survival level.

In February 2007 the World Food Programme Director James T. Morris reported that 18,000 children are now dying every day from hunger and malnutrition. This daily loss of life is six times the number of U.S. combat fatalities in Iraq over the last four years.

There are alternatives to this grim scenario. A rise in auto fuel efficiency standards of 20 percent, phased in over the next decade would save as much oil as converting the entire U.S. grain harvest into ethanol.

One option that is gaining momentum is a shift to plug-in hybrids. Adding a second storage battery to a gas-electric hybrid car along with a plug-in capacity so that the batteries can be recharged at night allows most short-distance driving -- daily commuting and grocery shopping, for example -- to be done with electricity. If this shift were accompanied by investment in thousands of wind farms that could feed cheap electricity into the grid, then cars could run largely on electricity for the equivalent cost of $1 per gallon gasoline.

Encouragingly, three auto manufacturers -- Toyota, Nissan, and GM -- have announced plans to bring plug-in hybrid cars to market. Plug-In Partners, which is spearheading a national campaign to shift to plug- in hybrid cars, already has 508 partners, including electrical utilities, corporations, state and city governments, and farm and environmental groups. Among its fast-growing list of partners are the American Public Power Association, Electric Power Research Institute, American Wind Energy Association, American Corn Growers Association, and the cities of Los Angeles, Dallas, Chicago, and Boston. Already a number of Partners have collectively pledged to purchase for their own fleets more than 8,000 plug-in hybrids as soon as they reach the market.

Ethanol euphoria is not an acceptable substitute for a carefully thought through policy. For Washington, it is time to decide whether to continue with the current policy of subsidizing more and more grain-based fuel distilleries or to encourage a shift to more fuel- efficient cars and a new automotive fuel economy centered on plug-in hybrid cars and wind energy. The choice is between a future of rising world food prices, spreading hunger, and growing political instability, or one of stable food prices, sharply reduced dependence on oil, and much lower carbon emissions.


From Earth Policy Institute

Lester R. Brown, "Beyond the Oil Peak" and "Stabilizing Climate" in Plan B 2.0: Rescuing a Planet Under Stress and a Civilization in Trouble (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2006).

Lester R. Brown, Outgrowing the Earth (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2005).

Lester R. Brown, "Distillery Demand for Grain to Fuel Cars Vastly Understated: World May Be Facing Highest Grain Prices in History," Eco-Economy Update, 4 January 2007.

Lester R. Brown, "Exploding U.S. Grain Demand for Automotive Fuel Threatens World Food Security and Political Stability," Eco-Economy Update, 3 November 2006.

Lester R. Brown, "Supermarkets and Service Stations Now Competing for Grain," Eco-Economy Update, 13 July 2006.

Lester R. Brown, "World Grain Stocks Fall to 57 Days of Consumption: Grain Prices Starting to Rise," Eco-Economy Indicator, 15 June 2006.

Lester R. Brown, "The Short Path to Oil Independence: Gas-Electric Hybrids and Wind Power Offer Winning Combination," Eco-Economy Update, 13 October 2004. From Other Sources

U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2006 (Rome: 2006).

U.S. Department of Agriculture, 2007 Agricultural Outlook Forum, March 2007.

U.S. Department of Agriculture, USDA Agricultural Projections to 2016 (Washington, DC: February 2007).

U.S. House of Representatives -- Committee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Livestock, Dairy, and Poultry, Review of the Impact of Feed Costs on the Livestock Industry, 8 March 2007.


Plug-In Partners

United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization

United States Department of Agriculture

Copyright 2007 Earth Policy Institute


Rachel's Democracy & Health News (formerly Rachel's Environment & Health News) highlights the connections between issues that are often considered separately or not at all.

The natural world is deteriorating and human health is declining because those who make the important decisions aren't the ones who bear the brunt. Our purpose is to connect the dots between human health, the destruction of nature, the decline of community, the rise of economic insecurity and inequalities, growing stress among workers and families, and the crippling legacies of patriarchy, intolerance, and racial injustice that allow us to be divided and therefore ruled by the few.

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