Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Product Stewardship -- phone books and pharmaceuticals

Verizon delivered its white pages and its "superyellowpages" yesterday. Two sets, because I have both residential and business accounts, one to the sunporch door and one to the front door. Go figure. But now I have eleven pounds of paper that will probably remain mostly unused. If I don't remember to put the old books out on recycling day, then my cupboard will overflow with unwieldy hold-overs from the pre-google/yahoo days. I imagine, too, that the official Yellow Pages will come someday soon, adding another 5 to 10 pounds to the heap.

I am not the only one who feels somewhat assaulted by the phone books.

I noticed that the Boston-based Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) had taken on the issue of telephone books in its broad agenda to have producers and users and government create workable approaches to waste reduction. You can review, and download if you wish, PSI's action plan for telephone books at its website: www.productstewardship.us

If I can work it into a conversation, even inappropriately, I will tell people that the PSI is one of the most saintly environmental initiatives of which I know. Setting a stage for the kind of three way dialogue that PSI hosts to work on issues such as "how to reduce distribution of unwanted telephone books and reduce their environmental footprint" is not for the feint-hearted and those without courage, because, if for no other reason, results are SO slow to realize. And, of course, no one solution works for all, and what has worked in North Dakota may not work in Pennsylvania. So there is no one endpoint in the dialogue.

My introduction to PSI was in the arena of the fate of pharmaceuticals and personal care products once their human user had finished with them. PSI has blazed important ground in identifying the options for disposal of unneeded and expired prescription medicines, particularly alternatives to toilet flushing. And, PSI is the right place to talk to manufacturers about the persistence in the environment of chemicals that wash down the drain and get into the public sewers.

Substantial media coverage has been given to the evidence that we have come in an unwelcome circle with our drug disposal practices. Drinking water supplies are showing evidence of trace amounts of pharmaceutical compounds. Wastewater plant effluents apparently alter the gonads of fish near the outfall with the "endocrine disruption" caused by hormones that pass through conventional treatment plants. Many compounds that are active ingredients in soaps and detergents are carried along with the solid particles removed from effluent, but where the solids are recycled, these compounds can be traced to the soil.

The question that we all need to ask ourselves, that is the community of producers, users, regulators and scientists, is "are we comfortable with what we know we know about the fate of these various organic compounds in the environment such that human and environmental health are being protected?"

I have been vigilant in watching for evidence that we are not. I am inclined to be a strong proponent of water reuse and biosolids recycling, but my antenna remain alert to evidence that something may be one day uncovered that calls for a different approach.

Recent science journal articles still hold out mostly comfort in this regard. Gretchen Bruce published a paper in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technology that reviewed the occurrence of a wide number of pharmaceutical compounds in drinking water supplied in water-scarce regions of the U.S. and concluded that "adverse effects... are not expected." A paper by Britta Stumpe in the Journal of Environmental Quality on the fate of waste-borne estrogen compounds in agricultural soils documented that a sustained mineralization of estrogen occurred in the soil, effectively degrading these compounds.

So, we still have a thumbs up for biosolids recycling and water reuse.

The Journal of Environmental Science and Technology is putting together a global summary of the fate of persistent organic pollutants (POPs). The interesting overarching viewpoint is that primary sources of many POPs have been greatly reduced, as in the emissions of dioxins by incinerators. But the caution is that POPs residing in sinks can be re-released and become the dominant secondary sources.

I understand from my colleagues at the Philadelphia Water Department that a survey of sources of PCBs in the watersheds in and around Philadelphia suggest that PCB-laden sediment behind dams and in buried sediments constitute the larger risk of re-exposure of aquatic organisms, rather than releases from the land. But on whose shoulders will go the burden of managing the proper treatment of POPs that reside in environmentally-significant concentrations in secondary sources such as sediments? We would love to take down some dams on the Schuylkill, but can we safely do so without extraordinary releases of POPs?

This brings me back to the work of the Product Stewardship Institute. We need to be asking the questions among ourselves as to how we can close the loop on the chemicals that we are using daily so that they do not cause problems for people in other places, people down the watershed, people in other countries, or people who are vulnerable. And, not just people, but all of our animal and plant cousins with whom we share planet Earth.

Now, how do I look in the Yellow Pages for help in answering this question?

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