Plastic Number Crunching

14 04 2012

Amy West

by Amy West

With recent news of washing machines spilling microplastics into waterways, a greenwashing lawsuit involving plastic water bottle companies, and bans on plastic bags, plastics are everywhere. Literally.

They are crammed under our cupboards, spilling from trashcans, and discarded along the road. Most families are engulfed in plastic consumables, and those with good intentions, toss them into the blue recycling bin. It feels good to divert most of our consumables and packaging into the blue bin, and helps justify purchasing food such as cottage cheese, which invariably comes packaged in plastic. Out of sight, out of mind, after all.

Plastic overload. Photo by Amy West

However, with plastics recycling the average plastic consumer may believe a few myths.

1. All plastics collected for recycling are actually recycled.

2. Plastics are recycled in the U.S.

A report by Columbia University showed the U.S. generated 33.6 million tons of plastics and recycled about seven percent of that- just 2.1 million tons; the rest were landfilled. Why? Mostly because a market for plastics does not exist for plastics with resin codes #3 through 7.

There is a recycling market for plastic beverage containers (#1, #2) like bottled waters and sports drinks due to the very successful Bottle Bill California established in the late 80s.  Other states with a bottle law include Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Vermont. Unfortunately bottle laws were repealed in Delaware, and Missouri.  Allowing buyers to redeem plastics for cash is the financial incentive that really drives recycling: a nickel for containers less than 24 ounces, and a dime for containers 24 ounces or larger.

Mark Murray, the executive director or Californians against Waste explained that because of the mechanics of recycling, most of the plastics are “downcycled”, or turned into different products. For instance, California ships 60 percent of water and soda bottles overseas to turn into textiles, but the rest remain in California and molded into plastic clamshells for food or strapping. One new company Carbon Lite actually transforms the plastic into pellets so other beverage companies can convert them back into plastic water bottles- closing the recycling loop. The #2, or HDPE, containers such as shampoo bottles and juice cartons have slightly better rates- 50 percent stay in California. Detergent and oil containers can be made from these, in the case of Epic Plastics, they take these containers and a few other plastic types to manufacture thin plastic lumber for garden edging.

This 425 millions pounds of recycled plastic does not include the commingled plastic in our bins that are either landfilled, or baled into a large compressed plastic cube and shipped overseas. This scrap plastic is worth pennies, but for the recycling company, it removes the financial burden of paying to dump it.

California’s agriculture farms produce a significant source of plastic such as film, trays and covers. Known as ‘plasticulture’, the 2008 report by California’s Waste Management states this mass amount of plastic used or recycled by each agriculture sect is unclear, but is estimated to be more than 100,000 tons a year.

A Green Waste Recovery study in unincorporated Santa Cruz County in 2009 (which includes about half of the county population) found residents recycle about half of the discarded hard plastics and 80 percent of the stretchy film plastics. That percentage is relatively encouraging, but discouraging when those plastics land in Asia as scrap plastic.

The amount of crude oil involved in plastic bottle manufacturing alone is ludicrous. Oil is required to make the bottle, ship it, send it to the recycling center, ship it to plastic manufacturers, and downcycle it into something different only to go through the shipping process again. With Americans screaming about gas prices, those who purchase plastic beverage containers should reconsider their plastic consumption. They might as well be stocking their refrigerator with gold.

Beach flat (artist rendition) of Ferdi Rizkiyanto from Jakarta in Indonesia (scroll down to see on

Recently I wrote an article on how companies can stop this unrecycled plastic from leaving our shores– by melting it through pyrolysis to create fuel. It just makes more sense to retain our plastics

and finance innovative solutions to close that recycling loop.

With 145,000 Santa Cruz residents generating 66,000 tons of waste a year, plastic accounts for 12 percent of it. That means nearly 8000 tons of plastic could be converted to fuel. Producing a gallon of fuel requires 7 to 10 pounds of plastic, thus Santa Cruz potentially harbors a cache of a million and half gallons of fuel. Or for those that think in barrels-37,000 barrels.

So when purchasing grocery items like juice, choose the one in glass. Remember, its REDUCE, reuse, recycle.


For buyback centers in Santa Cruz to bring your plastic beverage containers, #1 (PET) and #2 (HDPE) for some cash.


Nemo’s troublesome cousin

7 11 2011

Amy West

by Amy E. West

Would you like lemon on your transgenic fish?

In the interest of subduing the emotional reaction many have to genetically modified salmon when calling it ‘frankenfish’, I’ll refer to it by its technical title. But what is an appropriate name for a modified fish operating under the guise of two different fish genes— a deepwater eelpout and Chinook (king) salmon—but marketed as ‘farmed’ Atlantic salmon (Salmo salmar)? Transgenic (not to be confused with transsexual) is a perfect description to a scientist. Frankenfish, however, conjures images of a fish stitched together; some monster experiment gone horribly wrong. And if this franken-animal story does go awry, an aquatic ecosystem could be at stake.

Standing next to one of Alaska's Chinook Salmon- 2007, photo by and of Amy West

This situation is not about modifying food items like corn and tomatoes. They have no native or endemic counterparts that could be potentially decimated by interbreeding. This is about manipulating a living, breathing organism from the animal kingdom, which if approved by the FDA, will represent the first genetically modified animal for consumption. The chief difference here is that these salmon do have native relatives. With even just a slim chance of a transgenic fish reproducing, the potential exists to adversely affect a wild salmon population and its connected economy.

This is just one of several issues AquaBounty Technologies, the manufacturers of hybrid aquaculture fish, must address. Their goal is to produce a faster growing salmon in less time than typical farmed salmon, and bring a less expensive fish to the market. However, their sparse website misses a few key explanations.

1.) They state a Chinook gene (for faster growth) is incorporated, but make no mention of the other ingredient to the recipe; an eel pout gene (keeps the chinook gene turned on). Maybe the name alone isn’t appetizing, but the final engineered product is identified on the FDA’s website as:

Triploid hemizygous, all-female Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) bearing a single copy of the α-form of the opAFP-GHc2 rDNA construct at the α-locus in the EO-1α lineage.


Crossing salmon lines, Image: © Amy West

Creating female fish with three sets of x chromosomes (triploid) rather than two, ensures fish cannot produce gametes and, therefore, breed. Or does it? The molecular geneticist, Dr. Joe Cummins of the University of Western Ontario, has written about the need to extensively test the “leakiness of sterile triploids” to guarantee no gametes are ever produced. Molecular ecologist, Dr. Steve Palumbi of Stanford, also referred to the small percentage of triploid females that occasionally produce gametes.  If Aquabounty cited studies to prove that raising triploid fish always resulted in 100% sterility- then we could put the idea of crossbreeding to bed.

2.) Secondly, AquaBounty explains there is no threat posed by crossbreeding because the transgenic fish would be raised in closed systems that are operated inland. The company also advertizes their operations have reduced “environmental impact associated with air and ocean freight” that are normally linked to coastal enterprises.

This is confounding since these fish are to be bred in Canada, and their eggs flown to Panama to grow fish to market size. In addition, energy required to power these closed systems, process and ship the feed and market-size fish, leaves an awfully big carbon footprint. Aside from how much fish it takes to raise this new breed of salmon, where is their fish-feed coming from and what is it?

Tilapia in the US are raised in similar closed systems. But the environmental havoc suffered from escapees, in areas like Florida, has resulted in similar consequence worldwide. Would the Panama aquaculture systems be weather-tight?  What about earthquakes, fires, or tsunamis? The warm Panamanian waters aren’t conducive to salmon growth, but what are the chances of viable eggs slipping through the cracks in Canada?

“What level is the system so well-controlled and known that you can feel safe that nothing unusual will ever happen?” said Dr. Palumbi. “What are the consequences of escapes, and who is going to take responsibility?”

Though none of the fish will be raised within the US borders, other countries still face environmental risks. Dr. Jeffrey McCrary, an American fish biologist captured the aquaculture scenario best in a 2011 New York times article, “We are exporting the environmental damage caused by our appetites.”

The costs of introducing a foreign species unintentionally or intentionally has given humans plenty of environmental lessons to choose from: destructive algae let loose in the Mediterranean, zebra mussels attached to the Great Lakes, or bullfrogs taking over Australia.

Bulk salmon for sale at Costco, photo by Amoreeena Anker

FDA has been reviewing AquaBounty’s application for 15 years. Though legislators are currently voicing opposition based on potential risks, AquaBounty has yet to gain approval from Panama and Canada. Even if AquaBounty’s investors wait this out, their transgenic fish probably won’t be a menu option this year. More significant is the precedent set if the FDA approves GM salmon, which could grease the hinges to doors for other genetically engineered animals, like the Enviropig.

In the meantime, I have settled upon a new name for this genetically modified organism (GMO): Geemo.

Though I am sure Nemo, our beloved animated ocean fish, would steer clear of his man-made cousin.


Review the FDA materials on AquAdvantage salmon.

FDA accepts general correspondence from the public at any time. If you have comments on this topic, you are welcome to send them to the agency for its consideration at

'Geemo?' Image © Amy West