Tag Archives: Year Of No Garbage

Don’t Be Fooled: Wipes Are Plastic

Wipes are sneaky. Environmentalists can spend countless hours discussing the benefit-versus-harm of everything from glass jars and compostable forks to Legos, but when if you bring up wipes you’re likely to get a lot of blank looks.

That’s because wipes fly under the radar. They look like paper, but their whole purpose in life is to do what most paper can’t: hold together while wet. If you don’t know what I’m talking about think about the last time you ordered a messy meal in a restaurant and with your napkins they brought you a Wet Nap.

In fact, the Wet Nap was where it all started over a half century ago when it was invented and trademarked by a guy named Arthur Julius, among whose first customers was a little fast-food chain named Kentucky Fried Chicken. Today the wipe, or “moist towelette” as it is also known, has morphed into literally thousands of different products. There are wipes for polishing furniture, stopping acne, cleaning babies’ bottoms, and disinfecting countertops. There are wipes for applying perfume, lotion and deodorant, wipes for sanitizing make up brushes, soothing hemorrhoids, and removing nail polish. PS: Disposable face masks are wipes, too. (I first wrote about wipes in this post in 2021.)

Ninety-nine percent of wipes are made with varying combinations of plastics and cotton which are bound together by a big machine that sprays high pressure water at them until they become hopelessly enmeshed. Impress your friends when you tell them this process is called “hydroentanglement”! The material that results from this process is appealingly called “spunlace,” although I was disappointed to learn that it involves no lace and no spinning.

So, when we talk about staying away from Single Use Plastics and Disposable Plastics, or the harm they do to the animals and the landscape and our bodies, we are not just talking about Styrofoam cups and plastic take-out containers, but we’re also talking about wipes.

But it gets worse. Because even though wipes contain plastic, they feel like cloth or paper, so lots of people flush them down the toilet. Have you ever heard of a fatberg? It is a monumental sewer blockage. The term was coined around 2010, and in 2015 a British sewer company reported that two-thirds of their blockages are now caused by… wipes.

Fun, right?

But what about “flushable” wipes? You may reasonably ask. The good news is that if a personal care wipe (the kind you clean your tush with) is labeled “flushable” it cannot contain plastic. Yay!

The bad news is that sewer experts will tell you that when it comes to preventing blockages, it probably doesn’t matter. This is because the wipe just doesn’t have enough time or agitation to disintegrate before it reaches the sewage pump. If we are lucky, the wipe gets filtered out and set aside to be either landfilled or burned. If not? Fatberg.

What’s more, in 2019 Forbes conducted an independent study that tested 101 different kinds of wipes, 23 of which were labeled “flushable,” for disintegration and “flushability.”

Ahem. Not one of them passed.

My take-away? Wipes are pretty much all bad news. Yes, they belong in some places— emergency medical kits so cuts can be quickly sterilized, for example. But on the whole wipes represent yet another example of the drive towards Extreme Convenience in contemporary culture, one that depends upon disposable plastic to exist. And if you’ve read any of my previous posts you know that disposable plastic represents such drastic, irreparable harm to our bodies, the animals and our environment that we need to kick our addiction to it, and the sooner the better.

The Shell Game of Carton Recycling

I’m excited. I finally found a place I can buy milk in returnable, refillable bottles. No longer do I have to worry that my milk contains synthetic chemicals leached from the container’s coating, and neither do I have to agonize about where that container will end up after I’m done using it.

Is it expensive? Yes and no. My new milk is half the price of supermarket milk. But… I have to drive 25 minutes to buy it at the actual dairy, so I figure between the time and gas involved, I’m not actually saving too much.

Me? Skeptical?

I first started looking hard at cartons way back in 2020 during our Year of No Garbage. I learned that cartons— whether shelf-stable “aseptic” such as those used for juice or soup, or refrigerated “gable-top” which are used for things like milk and cream— are all made with multi-layers. Multi-layer packaging is made with plastic and paper, and sometimes aluminum, all scientifically smooshed together in micro-thin layers that are difficult to separate for recycling.

Back then I discovered the Carton Council, an industry organization whose whole mission in life is to promote carton recycling. According to the Carton Council’s website, carton recycling is  now available to more than half of U.S. households. But if you don’t have access to a single stream recycling service that accepts cartons, the Carton Council advises that you collect and mail them to places like Denver or Omaha. Back in 2020 I was excited about this news.

My new milk. When I was a kid milk in glass bottles was left in a box on our doorstep. Also there were dinosaurs

Since then, I’ve become more skeptical.

The question we must ask ourselves is: does collection equal recycling? Unfortunately, the four global carton manufacturers who teamed up to form the Carton Council, (Elopak, Evergreen Packaging, SIG and Tetra Pak) all stand to benefit from a perception of cartons being recyclable, whether it is true or not.

So what’s really happening?

Although you’d never know it from their website, it turns out that the Carton Council itself doesn’t actually recycle anything. Instead, in a slide presentation I dug up online, they describe themselves itself as a “matchmaker” between sorting facilities and the paper mills who can separate the materials out for reuse. Which is to say, the Carton Council acts as a go-between. The Carton Council is evasive on their website on the question of how many places are actually doing the work of separating micro-layers of paper, plastic, and aluminum, so I e-mailed them to find out more.

The Carton Council is made up of four major carton producing companies

Interestingly, the response came not from the Carton Council, but from a representative at Hill and Knowlton Strategies, which is a public relations firm. I’d never heard of HKS, but this firm has a very long history. Long enough to include representing some very controversial clients, including the National Conference of Catholic Bishops in an aggressive anti-abortion campaign, the Church of Scientology, and countries charged with human rights abuses. Oh, and the tobacco industry in the 1950s and 1960s.

But I digress. I appreciated the response, but I still didn’t get much of a straight answer. The representative mentioned Great Lakes Tissue in Michigan and Sustana Fiber in Wisconsin, and then alluded to “manufacturing facilities in Iowa and Connecticut” without specificity.

Why does the Carton Council advise mailing cartons to Colorado and Nebraska when there are no carton recycling facilities in those states?

A Carton Council map I found online showed only four carton recycling locations in the United States: and the PR rep’s email seemed to confirm this. But when folks mail their cartons in they aren’t going to those locations; they are going to completely different states.  Are we seriously going to encourage people to mail their cartons across the country and then have them put on trucks to be hauled somewhere else entirely? Or— and here’s where I start questioning everything— is recycling even happening at all?

Remember: recycling isn’t the Carton Council’s job. The Carton Council’s job is to get everyone to feel good about buying products in cartons. If they really cared about recycling, I think they’d share more on their website about it, things like: How many tons of cartons get recycled annually? And, of the cartons produced annually, what percentage is it?

In response to these questions the PR rep said he did not know the number of tons of cartons produced annually. And yet – through ESP, apparently— they estimate the recycling rate for cartons to be 20 percent. Of course, he could have said 80 percent or 5 percent and no one could contradict him because we aren’t being given any actual figures.

Lastly, even if 20 percent of cartons are being recycled, I’m not convinced that’s necessarily a good thing. According the the Carton Council, paper mills use a hydro-pulper to separate out the paper content of cartons. And guess what they generally do with the aluminum and plastic? They “generate energy from it,” which is to say they burn it.

Burning plastic has no place in recycling.

Cartons are miracles of packaging science, but so many layers makes recycling them tricky business and not many places do it

Unfortunately, there is no recycling sheriff. There is no third-party verification system, no one checking up on industry organizations­— and their PR firms— to make their claims match the reality. The closest thing we have to regulation are the FTC’s Green Guides which are not law, but a set of recommendations as to what environmental claims companies can reasonably make.

I hate to be paranoid, but when it comes to difficult-to-recycle materials we all need to be far more suspicious.  Too much “recycling” is ending up burned, buried, strangling sea life, or clogging the landscapes of impoverished countries around the world. If it can’t be verified independently, you can’t trust that it actually exists. On top of that, “recycling” is a term being used these days to describe some very dodgy practices, including burning plastic.

The upshot? I’d love to tell you that cartons are being recycled— and that this is a great thing we should all support— but the information out there does not convince me this is so. Instead, I encourage everyone to seek out truly recyclable alternatives when possible. When faced with a carton? I’d accept that this is a problem our society has yet to solve and put it where it will do the least amount of damage: the trash. This means it will go to the landfill, where it will wait for our society to come to its senses and figure out how to deal with the chemical mess we’ve made.

P.S. A friend passed along this link to a directory of dairies selling milk in glass bottles across the US: http://www.drinkmilkinglassbottles.com/

How Hard IS a Day of No Plastic?

It seemed like everyone I’ve ever met sent me the A.J. Jacob’s article “Trying to Live a Day Without Plastic” when it came out in the New York Times a little over a week ago. I love that people thought of me when they saw an article that might as well have been entitled “Stunt Author’s Wacky Plastic Experiment!”

What also struck me as funny is the fact that I had done a similar experiment during our family’s Year of No Garbage. It turns out I am neither the first nor the last to do so, because I am told Susan Freinkel also did a ‘day of no plastic’ for her 2011 book Plastic: A Toxic Love Story (now next on my reading list!)

My Day of No Plastic: no piece of cake

The point of all these plastic-less days is not the idea that we should somehow, literally figure out how to live without plastic in our contemporary society, but rather to illustrate how very saturated we are with this material in every aspect of our lives. Anyone who tries this experiment is guaranteed to be genuinely astounded at how ubiquitous plastic really is and how quickly avoiding plastic immobilizes even the most basic aspects of daily life. Brushing your teeth, driving your car, getting dressed, eating food- in this day and age there is virtually nothing you can do that is not touched by the toxic and wasteful material plastic.

He’s got that “Oh shit, I’m surrounded” look, doesn’t he?

It reminds me of the old myth about the frog who stays in a pot of water because the temperature rises so gradually that before he knows it, he’s boiling to death. When you try to do a day of no plastic you quickly realize that we’re the frogs and what we’re being boiled to death in? Is plastic.

It begs the question: is this what we want? Did we ask for this plastic apocalypse, on some level, and if we did can we take it back? Is it possible to undo what has been done? How do we turn the stove off so we can be happy frogs again?

It seems to me that articles like Jacob’s are one of the places where we start. We start by beginning the conversation. Information leads to action. Of course, I’d love to think my upcoming book is part of that conversation as well. Speaking of which, if you haven’t already, please pre-order a copy of Year of No Garbage, because – well-— because this conversation is important, and the more information and momentum we have on this issue, the better. If you’d rather check it out of your local library, awesome. Maybe ask the librarian if they are planning to order a copy.

And speaking of which, if I haven’t mentioned it lately, thank you for being one of my readers. Without you guys I couldn’t be the Wacky Stunt Author that I am today, trying to save the world by torturing my family. Stay tuned! There is lots more to come.

And from one froggie to another—don’t let the stove water get you down. We got this.