April 13, 2006

Toxic (Press) Releases

Good news about pollution?  The US EPA says so.  This Washington Post story makes it seem like the US made great strides in reducing toxic emissions in 2004.

The Environmental Protection Agency said Wednesday that chemical pollution released into the environment fell more than 4 percent from 2003 to 2004...The agency said releases of dioxin and dioxin compounds fell 58 percent; mercury and mercury compounds were cut 16 percent; and PCBs went down 92 percent. [Emphasis added.]

DioxinusNow, the fall in dioxins in particular seemed like pretty big news.  But it also struck me as a bit suspicious.  So I looked into the numbers a bit. 

The EPA's Toxics Release Inventory Explorer is pretty simple to use, so it didn't take long to zero in on why, exactly, dioxin emissions fell so much. The basic scoop -- it's not so much that dioxin emissions fell in 2004, as that they spiked in 2003.  The nation's dioxin emissions (at least, those captured by the TRI) in 2004 were comparable to levels from 2000 through 2002.  The 58 percent "decline" was just relative to 2003, which was abnormally high.

Then the question becomes -- what happened in 2003?  Apparently, there was a single wood-preserving facility in Lousiana that was responsible for the 2003 spike.  (I don't know for sure, but I'd guess they landfilled a bunch of contaminated waste.)

So the national "good news" story about dioxins in 2004--a 58 percent decline in releases--turns out to be, if anything, a bad news story about 2003. Or, more properly, it's an artifact of the way the data are reported:  the dioxin "released" in 2003 was likely just transferred from one place to another, in a way that triggered EPA's reporting requirements.

The thing is, it took just a few minutes to figure out that the EPA's press release was, at least in part, full of hot air.  Obviously, reporters are under tremendous pressure to churn out stories.  But I do wish that basic fact-checking was a higher priority for them.  Bum facts passed off as "good news" should be recognized for what they are:  a form of toxic information pollution.

Closer to home, the news seems a little bit better for dioxin trends.  In Washington, Oregon, and Idaho combined, releases to air, water, and land have fallen from 163 grams in 2000 to 46 grams in 2004.  "Off-site disposal" -- transfers for storage or treatment -- has climbed a bit, though.  On net, 2004's total dioxin releases were a bit higher than 2002 and 2003, but have fallen by about a quarter since 2000.  And the three states combined now account for about 2 tenths of one percent of national dioxin emissions, as measured by TRI data.

That said, there are some facilities that escape TRI reporting requirements, and much of the dioxin releases from the region are now from activities such as backyard trash burning.  But the numbers, for the northwest at least, do seem modestly promising.

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April 10, 2006

Sturgeon's General Warning

Sounds as though salmon aren't the only Columbia River fish in trouble:

A team of researchers that examined 174 sturgeon caught by commercial and tribal fishermen found male and immature females tricked by chemicals into thinking they are full of estrogen, a female hormone with feminizing effects. Male fish tainted with a cocktail of compounds including mercury and a byproduct of the banned pesticide DDT showed depressed testosterone levels, which could keep them from maturing enough to spawn.

A few sturgeon even had bizarre combinations of male and female sexual organs. [Emphasis added.]

All I have to say to that is:  eewww.  If that doesn't serve as a wakeup call about gender-bending pollutants, I'm not sure what will.

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March 29, 2006

Last Stop in the Free Ride Zone

Usedcomputerssmall The market for electronics just got a little fairer. Starting January 2009, my fellow Washington residents will no longer be unfairly punished for my penchant for electoxics (you know – toxic electronics – like it?). That’s because the Washington State legislature just passed the most advanced producer responsibility law in the United States - ESSB 6428 – the Electronic Waste Recycling bill.

The bill basically says, “You can make and sell toxic electronic products, and you can buy them, but Washington's taxpayers are no longer going to foot the bill for cleaning up your mess.” Put more diplomatically, it establishes a “shared responsibility” model, where those who enjoy the benefits of the transaction (the producer and buyer) are those who pay for its negative impacts. Or, as dad used to say, “You gotta pay to play.” Or mom, more to the point, "Go clean your room."

This is how the Washington program will work:

  • In every county in the state, consumers (including residents, schools, charities, small businesses and small governments) can drop off their old monitors, computers and TVs at convenient no-charge collection centers, including retailers, non-profits, and local waste facilities. Retailers will be required to let buyers of new equipment know about the recycling centers, and the Department of Ecology will maintain an informational website.
  • Manufacturers can either finance and set up an independent program, or participate in a standard program if they don’t want to set up their own. Regardless, each manufacturer will have to pay their “fair share” of the overall costs of the program based on their share of the products being brought to the collection facilities.
  • The Department of Ecology will establish the processing standards that manufacturers must meet, and provide general oversight and enforcement.

Washington’s law is a great example of a policy solution that gets prices to tell the truth (at least to stop lying through their teeth, anyway), and it gives manufacturers ample incentive to design products that put safety first, causing fewer problems down the road.

Imagine you’re a manufacturer of a super cool electoxic. There are lots of things that determine how you design your product – features consumers want, how it looks on the shelf, what price point you’re trying to hit, what will get CNET reviewers raving, cost of materials, etc. But what it costs to dispose of your product at the end of its "useful" life (which is less than 5 years for a typical electronic product) has never entered your equation. Nor has the cost of the myriad health impacts your product contributes to.

Now imagine that you’re actually responsible for collecting and figuring out what to do with your toxic components. Not only do you have to collect, but you have to disassemble the products to extract the toxic stuff, and pay for the safe disposal of every pound of toxic. Talk about a great incentive to innovate!

Now this law is by no means perfect, and there's still a lot to work out between now and 2009. But what I especially like about this approach is that it provides at least some pressure on both sides of the P&L for manufacturers. On the revenue side, demand for toxic products will drop because consumers won’t want to pay higher prices as the costs of recycling get passed on to them by the manufacturer. (Even better would be if buyers knew what share of the purchase price was going to pay for disposal of the toxics within. I can dream, right?) On the expense side, manufacturers will start to figure out ways to reduce their recycling and disposal costs, namely designing products that are easy to recycle and use fewer toxic components. And, because the manufacturers will be involved in the creation and management of the program, the feedback loop to the product design process will be much quicker than if they just had to pay an annual polluter fee like some other programs. 

E-waste legislation is the hottest sector of the nascent “extended producer responsibility” policy category. According to Washington Environmental Council, 19 other states plus New York City currently have electronic waste bills pending. If you’re interested in learning more about EPR, check out the Product Policy Institute.

Kudos to Washington Citizens for Resource Conservation, WEC, and all the others who got the WA bill passed – with huge bipartisan support to boot.

And please, can anyone think of a better name for “extended producer responsibility?” I love this stuff, but that name makes even my eyes glaze over.

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March 24, 2006

Does Pollution Vanish in Sunshine?

Here's a bit of good news:  I was trolling through EPA's Toxics Release Inventory for some data on pollution trends, and came across this for King County, Washington, the home county of Seattle.

King_county_triair2 The upshot: since reporting requirements began in 1988, toxic air emissions from major facilities in King County have fallen by almost 90 percent.

Mind you, this isn't the complete story.  Not all facilities that pollute have to file reports with the EPA. Also, not all chemicals are covered in this graph -- some compounds have been added since 1988, and some potentially hazardous compounds aren't covered by reporting requirements. Plus, this doesn't cover emissions from cars, trucks, or other mobile sources. 

And the King County's pollution decline may be less impressive than it seems at first blush. Some of the decline may have been the result of "outsourcing" pollution to other parts of the state, or other parts of the world.  And perhaps most importantly, this line represents the total volume of pollution, not its total toxicity.  The toxicity might have fallen more slowly (or quickly, for that matter) than the volume -- but that's much harder to figure out.

Still, despite all those caveats, it's a pretty impressive feat, no?  Fifteen years of "sunshine" -- in which major facilities are required to face public scrutiny for how much they pollute -- and they manage to cut the annual volume of pollution to a tenth of its former level, even as the county's population and economy grew rapidly.  This gives me hope, and some confidence that  even further reductions in pollution are possible, if not inevitable. As the song goes:  "Please don't take my sunshine away."

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February 22, 2006

Always Low Toxics? Well, Sometimes, At Least

A while back I wrote about all the "fake news" -- really, just corporate P.R. -- that comes into my email inbox as a result of our work on flame retardants in people's bodies.  Most of the news stories are really just press releases from companies touting the fact that they'd removed PBDEs and other hazardous substances from their products.  Any single press release, by itself, is hardly worthy of notice.  But viewed as a whole, the steady drumbeat of companies announcing that they'd managed to make their products less toxic seemed like an important, if unheralded, good news story.

So here's some more "fake news" that just came into my inbox that I thought might be worth mentioning:

Wal-Mart First to Retail Market with Notebook Computer that Restricts the Use of Hazardous Substances

Now, I'm not trying to toot Wal-Mart's horn; I'm sure that there are plenty of legitimate criticisms of the company's business practices.  Still, the fact that Wal-Mart is selling computers that comply with Europe's toxicity standards strikes me as significant for two reasons.  First, Wal-Mart is such a major retailer that this might signal a significant boost in sales of less-toxic computer equipment in North America.  And second, the fact that it's being sold by Wal-Mart probably means that this computer meets the retailer's standards for cost efficiency -- which probably means that this computer not only meets European toxicity standards, but does so at little added cost compared with similar models.  And this second point -- that manufacturers can reduce hazardous materials in consumer products without adding major costs -- really does seem worthy of note.

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February 17, 2006

All's Well that's Gladwell

Looking for something cool to read?  Try this article by Malcolm Gladwell in this week's New Yorker.  Gladwell discusses an unusual intersection of policy, politics, and mathematics--namely, social ills that follow the "power law," in which a relative handful of bad actors are responsible for the bulk of a problem.  Take, for example, pollution from cars:

Most cars, especially new ones, are extraordinarily clean. A 2004 Subaru in good working order has an exhaust stream that’s just .06 per cent carbon monoxide, which is negligible. But on almost any highway, for whatever reason—age, ill repair, deliberate tampering by the owner—a small number of cars can have carbon-monoxide levels in excess of ten per cent, which is almost two hundred times higher. In Denver, five per cent of the vehicles on the road produce fifty-five per cent of the automobile pollution. [Emphasis added.]

The problem, according to Gladwell, is that even if the lion's share of problem is caused by the statistical outliers, our solutions tend to treat everyone the same -- as if we're all equally responsible.  The patina of fairness may be reassuring to politicians.  But substantively, fairness doesn't always lead to the best outcomes.

We deal with emissions, for example, by requiring each car--even the cleanest models--to be tested every year or two.  For dirty cars, that's not often enough: a polluting car in need of repair can stay on the road for quite a while before anyone checks on it.  But for owners of relatively clean cars, the vehicle emissions test is just a time-wasting formality.  And all the while, it's easy enough to monitor a vehicle's emissions from the roadside as the car passes, which would let police pull over polluters as if they were speeders.  The technology's been around for decades.  All that's missing, apparently, is the political will, or maybe the creativity, to make it happen.

Of course, there's plenty of reason to be cautious here.  The most polluting cars tend to be owned by the most economically vulnerable among us; pulling them over for polluting would just add to their burdens.  But here, too, Gladwell's approach to "power law" problems might offer a solution:  offering free repairs, or letting the owner of a severely polluting vehicle trade it in for a non-polluting one at no cost, might well be cheaper than maintaining the existing vehicle inspection system.  Of course, it hardly seems fair to deal with this sort of problem by handing out clean cars or free repairs; that's a benefit that the rest of us certainly didn't get. But for some things, fairness and efficiency don't always go hand in hand; sometimes we have to choose one or the other.

Update:  Just to be clear, I don't know that I agree that .06 percent carbon monoxide is "negligible," as Gladwell says.  For any individual car it may be.  But there are an awful lot of cars out there, cumulatively producing an awful lot of CO.  Even if you could get rid of the outliers, I'm sure that people who live near highways and busy streets would be grateful to get those emissions down.

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January 26, 2006

Puget Sound: Cruisin' For a Bruisin'

Washington's leaders have been making a lot of noise about cleaning up Puget Sound. Governor Gregoire wants to boost Sound restoration dollars by $42 million, or about 50 percent. It's earning the governor heaps of glowing media attention.

But the media has turned a blind eye to the astronomical number of cruise ships poised to foul local waters. A single line, Holland America, just announced that it will be increasing its cruises out of Seattle from 37 to 61. In 2006, according to the Port of Seattle, 200 cruise ships with enter and depart Puget Sound (roughly a 30 percent increase from 2005) and they'll ferry an estimated 735,000 people. Those cruise ships are potential ecological catastrophes, especially when their dumping practices are not actually, uh, regulated, as they are in California and Alaska.

What damage can a cruise ship do? According to WashPIRG:

In a day, a typical cruise ship of 3,000 passengers and crew produces 30,000 gallons of sewage, 270,000 gallons of other wastewater, and additional gallons of hazardous wastes, biomedical waste, oily bilge water, and solid waste.

You do the math. What I mean is: multiply each of those numbers by 200, then multiply again by the number of days each ship is in the Sound, and you'll find the potential environmental impact of just one year of the cruise industry. And the threat to Puget Sound is not just hypothetical. A Norwegian cruise line dumped 40 tons of human waste near Whidbey Island a couple of years ago. Oops.

At present, the cruise industry in Washington is governed with the lightest of hands--unenforceable memorandums of understanding, rather than genuine legislation. What's the solution? Real legislation to prevent dumping with real enforcement mechanisms. Levying a per-head remediation fee in advance of another "mistake" wouldn't be a bad idea either.

Adding to the list of insults, the cruise ships mostly burn low-grade dirty diesel--despite promises to the contrary--and it may be fouling the air in downtown Seattle with carcinogens. I'd welcome additional legislation regulating cruise ship emissions too.

Unfortunately there's scant reason to believe Washington will get real enforcement because the issue has been largely overlooked by the media (and hence it's invisible to most citizens). Perhaps too busy heaping praise on the Puget Sound clean-up proposals, Seattle's media outlets have pretty much ignored the cruise ship catastrophe. I could find only one mention of the Port's announcement to dramatically increase cruises in 2006--and that was buried in a boosterish article in the P-I's business section--and no mention of the additive environmental effects. Have I missed something? Or is it just being ignored?

(Hat tip to Dan over at the Seattlest blog, who's been throwing haymakers at the cruise industry lately. See here and here.)

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January 25, 2006

Toxic Cocktails

Two interesting -- and a bit disturbing -- pieces of toxics news today.

First, several news outlets are reporting on a new study, coming out of UC Berkeley, showing that mixtures of several environmental contaminants (in this case, pesticides) can be far more potent than higher concentrations of a single compound.  The problem is especially bad for frog populations -- which, as frog-watchers everywhere will tell you, are in particularly bad shape.

Second, there's this new report, put together by two breast cancer groups:

As many as half of all new breast cancers may be foisted upon woman by pollutants in the environment, triggered by such items as bisphenol-A lining tin cans or radiation from early mammograms, according to a review of recent science by two breast cancer groups.

No comments here, except that, perhaps--just perhaps--the former study might help explain the latter.

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January 23, 2006

More Nails In The Coffin

Washington state's health and ecology agencies want to ban PBDEs.  Completely.

Bully for them.  Now, let's see what the legislature says.

(For more info on PBDEs, see here.)

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January 19, 2006

Take That? Take Back (e-Waste)!

ComputersTrue to its state motto, dirigo, Maine is leading the nation in electronic waste management. Yesterday a law went into effect that requires TV and computer monitor manufacturers to take responsibility for the proper disposal of their products.

TVs and monitors need to be recycled because they contain toxic lead and mercury. But only a few states have e-waste programs where those who profit from the products also pay the disposal costs. In California, consumers pay a small fee at the time of purchase to help defray the cost of recycling later. In Maryland, manufacturers pay a fixed annual fee into a recycling trust fund.

While these are great starts, I suspect that neither of these programs covers the full costs of disposal. Maine's law is great because it places the full cost where it belongs: on makers and users of the product, instead of on general taxpayers. In this way it also creates powerful incentives  (read: market economics) for manufacturers to build products that use less toxic materials in the first place and that are easier to recycle at the end of their life.

Here in Cascadia e-waste producer responsibility is still in the works. British Columbia (pdf) intends to have a program in place by mid 2007. Washington has two bills in the current legislative session. And Oregon (pdf) had a bill in 2005 to charge consumers a fee up front, although the bill died in session. Stay tuned to find out what happens with e-waste recycling in the Northwest.

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