Friday, December 22, 2006

A Minor Plastic Debate

This week, after I sent out the zen kitchen's monthly newsletter (which you can sign up for at the tzk website), which mentioned my recent entry on turning off your surge protectors, I got an e-mail from a reader who mentioned that, while the surge protectors were a great step towards saving energy, the plastic used to make them is petroleum-based, which makes the net result not really worth it.

While I don't know that I completely agree with that (in the long run, I think that the energy saved from shutting things off can offset the amount of petroleum used to make the surge protectors; plus, you don't need that many of them to control the average-sized apartment, which makes things SO much easier - I only have about three in my place), I do agree that our dependence on petroleum-based plastics is troubling.

This tip from Ideal Bite talks a bit about the value of surge protectors, and makes some recommendations, but I do wonder if there are surge protectors out there made from non-petroleum plastic. I also wonder if there is such a thing right now. I know that there's hemp plastic being used for a whole host of things (kitchen scales and CD/DVD cases being what I most often hear about). However, I don't know if they use it to make things like surge protectors, and I don't know enough about how it's made to be able to say whether it's ACTUALLY petroleum-free in the long run.

The same thing goes with corn based plastic (called PLA). At the moment there seems to be much debate surrounding it - Boing Boing warns about the intense treatment procedure required to handle PLA, while Treehugger seems to really like the stuff. Honestly, I don't trust the stuff yet. Aside from the fact that it looks too much like regular plastic for consumers to easily tell the difference, we still don't have an easy way for consumers to actually deal with the stuff.

Let's say you get two bottles of water over two days. The first is a regular plastic bottle, like Poland Springs or something, which you finish and throw in the recycling bin. The next day you get Biota, which is bottled in PLA. It doesn't really look any different - so what do you do? Most likely, throw it in the recycling bin, where it will probably be tossed into the trash once it hits the recycling center. Or, let's say, you figure out that it's PLA and you throw it in the compost heap. But then, after the prescribed 80 days, it's still not gone. What happened? They said it was compostable! Now you don't trust them anymore.

What's the solution? Honestly, I don't know, but I think the start is to equip recycling centers to do industrial composting as well - that way, consumers don't have to think about it. PLA gets sorted with all the regular recycling, and consumers can keep their food waste in separate bins for composting pickup as well. Seems like a win-win for me.

In regards to the surge protectors, I still recommend it as a way to save energy. And hopefully the plastic thing will start working itself out soon.

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