Wunderground Meteorologist Shaun Tanner

Big Changes For The Weather Underground Broadcast Network! Welcome Dr. Jeff Masters!

By: shauntanner, 6:18 AM GMT on May 29, 2010

As the start of the hurricane is just around the corner, we have decided to shake up the schedule. The Weather Underground Broadcast Network will air Tuesdays and Thursdays from 3-5 P.M. Eastern Time, 12 noon-2 P.M. Pacific Time.

3-4 P.M ET. will be The Daily Downpour with meteorologists Shaun Tanner and Time Roche.

4-5 P.M ET. will be the NEW show Hurricane Haven with Dr. Jeff Masters. Notice that Dr. Masters' first show coincides with the start of the Atlantic hurricane season. As such, the show's topic will be all things hurricanes.

In both cases, programs will be taking your phone calls and questions. Just call 415-983-2634 to get through to these professional meteorologists. Also, you can submit questions by WunderMail. To do this, log into the site, then click on "Mail" at the top of the page. Then, compose a message to member handle "broadcast". Those messages will go through to the hosts of the shows.

But wait, there's more...prize packs!

I have consulted our vast legal department and got the okay to provide a few gift Weather Underground Prize Packs to callers who want to play a game. So, it should be fun!

We have also made it easier to find the Weather Underground Broadcast Network's homepage. You can now find the page by going to the top of any page and mousing over Local Weather. Then click on "Broadcast Network". Or you can just bookmark this page.

The Giving Continues!

We have also got the podcast system up and running. You can listen to past shows by going to the Weather Underground Broadcast Network homepage and clicking on a link under the "Archived Shows:" section on the right hand side of the page.

Also, we have submitted the Podcasts to iTunes and are waiting for confirmation. You will be able to find Podcasts in iTunes by searching the iTunes Store for "Weather Underground". There, amoung the other Weather Underground products will be the Podcasts of past shows.

Updated: 7:22 AM GMT on May 29, 2010


The Daily Downpour at 4 p.m. Eastern, 1 p.m. Pacific today!

By: shauntanner, 6:54 PM GMT on May 27, 2010

The best weather related show on the internet today at 4 p.m. ET, 1 p.m. PT today!
Listen here!

Weather Underground Meteorologists will talk about their No New Plastic Month challenge, as well as get you all caught up on National Weather and weather news topics. You will learn something and be entertained!


Plastics and Your Health

By: shauntanner, 5:15 AM GMT on May 26, 2010

Wanna see something disgusting? Look at our sponge problem.

Camping Without Plastics

For those of you who are following my family's journey with this No New Plastic Month Challenge, I am sorry I haven't updated the blog last Thursday. I have been busy with a lot of family time as we attempted to go camping along with many other things. This relates to the No New Plastic Month Challenge because we had to plan the camping trip without the use of plastics. This was initially challenging because we had to plan around the fact that we couldn't buy any ice from the store because all store-bought ice comes wrapped...in plastic. To prepare for this, took a couple days and started freezing water in our home freezer in various containers including milk cartons, ice trays, and various other tupperware that could be reused. While this was a great idea, it turned out we need a lot more ice. Thus, rather than let the food spoil and my family starve, we were forced to buy one package of ice in plastic.

Another thing we had to get around was the fact that we didn't have a tent big enough to hold the four of us. Thus, instead of buying a new tent (that has plastic), we borrowed once from family members. We also borrowed various pots, pans, and other cooking utensils. As it turned out, the challenge of camping without plastic was not as hard as camping against Mother Nature. The San Francisco Bay Area is currently experiencing well below normal temperatures. We couldn't handle the cold temperatures, rain, hail, and wind, so we came home a day early.

Plastics and Your Health

This topic will most likely be the most controversial one I will take up this month. I doubt anybody could honestly say that we don't consome too much plastic, that reducing our consumption isn't necessary, or that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a wonderful and scenic vacation spot. However, there are two different viewpoints to how plastics affect your health, so I expect a healthly debate here.

In the past few years, there has been a lot of media attention focused on Bisphenol A. This chemical is a polycarbonate which is a fancy word for saying that is a carbon-chemical that is used in plastics. It is extremely common in many products and is characterized by its strength. Plastics that have BPa are extremely rigid and nearly shatter-proof. This You can find BPa in many of the things you touch everyday, including baby bottles, dental fillings, lenses, DVDs, etc.

The United States uses over 1 million tons of BPa each year. This is up from just over 7,000 tons in 1991. Think about that. In less than 20 years, we have increased our use of BPa by 142%. To determine what if you house includes BPa, simply look for the familiar triangle on the item. If there is a "7" in the middle of that triangle, it may have BPa in it. I say "may" because the number 7 is a catch-all for everything not covered in numbers 1-6. So, in fact, number 7 is a combination of a lot of things.

So, why do I bring up BPa at all, you ask? Well, over the past few years, study after study have come up to say that plastics containing BPa are leaching harmful chemicals not only into you and me, but into the environment. Now, before you jump on my back and say that I am only taking facts from activist sources, I have specially tried to find articles about studies from reputable sources. In other words, I did not take any facts from www.ihateplastics.com. Rather, the sources are more mainstream.

For instance, I believe the Environmental Protection Agency is reputable. It should be noted that the "EPA intends to consider...to identify BPA on the Concern List as a substance that may present an unreasonable risk of injury to the environment..." The document, appropriately titled "Bisphenol A Action Plan" (scary) goes on to say "Beginning in April 2010, EPA intends to...encourage reductions in BPA manufacturing and use to facilitate reductions in environmental releases and subsequent exposures." Now, if this was the only evidence given on a certain chemical commonly found in your home, would you do what you could to avoid it? That is, if I walked up to you on the street with a chemical you have never heard of before and said "take it, it will make your life easier, I promise", followed by "by the way, this may or may not be extremely harmful to both you and the environment", would you take this magical chemical? Would you? This is essentially happening what is happening our BPa containing plastics.

The fear is that residual amounts of BPA are not completely locked in the plastic when it is manufactured. This residual plastic can then be leeched out of the plastic (through heating or some other altering action) into the food the plastic is rubbing against, the watershed, or your body. Once in the body, the National Center for Biotechnology has proven that BPA acts basically like estrogen. This ability to act as a synthetic hormone has caused concern that it can create early puberty, changed thyroid behavior, and increased chances of obesity. The possible effects on your body can be on and on. A Harvard study found that the use of plastic water bottles actually increased the amount of BPA in the participants' bodies over just a short period.

But the possible effects of BPA are not limited to your body. A Japanese study tested the water near the shores of countries in North America and Southeast Asia. They found BPA in every (EVERY!) sample tested in 20 countries. An interesting note in that article is that Environment Canada proposed a maximum concentration of BPA in industrial waste. The lowest concentration Japanese study found in the water tested was six times greater than the proposed Canadian standard. Time to rethink the standard. The BPA is entering the ocean from dumped plastic that then degrades, releasing the chemical into the water.

Listen, I can go on and on with the studies that link chemicals in all sorts of things from changes in uterine development to a reduction in IQ, but that would useless and you would think I'm crazy.

But, why not do something about all of this. We surely have people who we elect that look after us, right? Well, California Senator Dianne Feinstein is planning on introducing an amendment to the FDA Food Safety Modernization Act that would ban the use of BPA's. Of course, this amendment is being opposed by industry heavyweights like the Grocery Manufacturers of America and the Chamber of Commerce who say that it is not Congress' job to rule on the safety of any chemical. Rather it should be the job of the FDA and EPA. The heavyweights have threatened to oppose the bill should the amdendment be adopted. I didn't realize they get a vote.

While the United States continues to argue about the effects of BPA, Canada has taken some actions. Baby bottles made with BPA are not longer allowed to be advertised, sold, or imported into the country. BPA itself has not been banned completely, but it has been recommended to be added to the "toxic" list since 2008.

Many, many other countries are assessing the risk of BPAs in various products, but especially in kid-based items. I did notice that some countries initially said that BPA is safe only to refine their conclusions are better technology to detect BPA was made available.

Again, I believe there are healthier alternatives to using plastic in general. When it comes to your health, there ought to be a push by everybody to have items that we own that are better for us. All we have to do is ask for them.

Updated: 8:31 PM GMT on May 26, 2010


The Daily Downpour

By: shauntanner, 5:23 PM GMT on May 25, 2010

The best weather related show on the internet today at 4 p.m. ET, 1 p.m. PT today!
Listen here!

Weather Underground Meteorologists will talk about their No New Plastic Month challenge, as well as get you all caught up on National Weather and weather news topics. You will learn something and be entertained!

Updated: 5:31 PM GMT on May 25, 2010


The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

By: shauntanner, 6:09 AM GMT on May 20, 2010

We have a very interesting Daily Downpour Thursday at 4 p.m. ET, 1 p.m. PT. You can listen here.

Shaun and Tim will be welcoming documentary-maker Sam Green to the studio to discuss past projects as well as his more recent documentary regarding fog in the San Francisco Bay Area.

We will also interview Rebecca Jewell of the Waste Management Davis Street tranfer station. She has some interesting information about composting, including things you may not have known about organic compost and how compost is made on a large scale. If you have ever been interested in the process of composting, this is for you.

Lastly, we will see if we can get a representative of Environmental Defence, an organization based in Canada. They have lobbied the Canadian government to adopt legal changes regarding plastics and health so it will be interesting to hear what they have to say.

In any event, it will be a busy show so we hope you can join us!

Great Pacific Garbage Patch

People are visual beings. Seeing is our most important sense, so it is no wonder we rely on it so much. This being so, we have a habit of not believing something until we see it. This is true with regard to the atmosphere and environment as well. One of my fears is that the hesitancy to accept the science of human-based climate change is that the gases we are pumping into the atmosphere are invisible to us. I wonder what the general public would think about climate change if carbon dioxide was actually dyed red or some other visible color. Would we react differently and more swiftly to counteract the effects of climate change if we saw the gases being emitted directly into the atmosphere?

This idea of atmospheric "seeing is believing" has some credence. In the late 1970's and early 1980's, scientists began to warn that ozone was being depleted in the stratosphere at an alarming rate. Then, pictures of the ozone depletion really brought the problem home to the general public. By 1987, the Montreal Protocol was signed by many countries, and ozone depleting CFC's were banned. My point is this, unless we see the effects of our "problems" we don't take precautions to help ourselves.

I put the Great Pacific Garbage Patch into this category. You see, when the garbage man comes to your house and magically takes away your stinky garbage, it is "out of sight, out of mind." We don't really care where he takes it, as long as it is away from our houses. Let's say for a moment that instead of taking your garbage to a landfill or recycling center, the garbage man takes your garbage and puts it directly into your backyard. So, every week this pile of garbage becomes bigger and bigger. Suddenly, it is not out of sight and certainly not out of mind. For this example, I would hope for your sake that you would take steps to minimize your garbage output. That seems like the logical thing to do. But perhaps my logic does not fit yours.

Recently, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has gained a lot of attention. The patch is a large part of the Pacific Ocean where the currents push all of our sea-based trash to. Now, before you write this off by saying, "I have never thrown a piece of trash into the ocean," indirectly, you have. At least a small portion of the trash you have generated in your lifetime has ended up in a sewer, river, or stream that empties directly into the ocean. Ocean currents then take this trash on a long, long ride to the garbage patch in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. And, don't worry if you live on the East Coast and think your trash won't end up in a ocean patch. More recently, an Atlantic Garbage Patch was found.

For more information about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, watch the video below.

So, now we have the "seeing" part of "seeing is believing". What's next? When is it enough? A significant portion of the trash that we generate ends up outside of landfills. And, a large portion of this misguided trash is plastic. Get it? So, what's next? Seeing...is...believing.

Is it worth it to consume just a little less plastic in our daily lives?

Updated: 6:33 AM GMT on May 21, 2010


The Daily Downpour welcomes Norm Avila today at 4 p.m. Eastern, 1 p.m. Pacific today!

By: shauntanner, 5:42 PM GMT on May 18, 2010

The best weather related show on the internet today at 4 p.m. ET, 1 p.m. PT today!
Listen here!

Weather Underground Meteorologists will talk about their No New Plastic Month challenge, as well as get you all caught up on National Weather and weather news topics. We will also welcome Norm Avila in studio, who is one of Dr. Jeff Masters' Central America helpers during the hurricane season.

On Wednesday at 1:30 ET, 10:30 PT Shaun and Tim will be interviewed by Susan Davis of the Good and Green Radio show about their experiences with the No New Plastic Month challenge. You can listen to the interview here.

Updated: 6:09 PM GMT on May 18, 2010


Battle Of The Single-Use Plastic

By: shauntanner, 6:40 AM GMT on May 16, 2010

Tim and I have decided to go through with this No New Plastic Month for a few good reasons. Tons of plastic ends up in our landfills every year, and worse yet, tons more end up in our streams and rivers. You would be hard-pressed to find somebody who can honestly disagree with the statement that we, as consumers, use far too much plastic. Yet, there are good uses for plastics. Plastics have revolutionized our medical world both inside and outside the body. Plastics also make the products we buy cheaper and lighter than their alternative. Can you imagine how difficult a simple household object like a vaccuum would be to handle if it were made out of metal instead of plastic. You can do with with most of your household appliances. Oven? Microwave? Television? Computer?

So it is not one of our goals to write off all plastics. Not only is that impossible, but ridding ourselves of plastics completely introduces a whole new set of problems. Instead, our main goal is to bring a brighter spotlight to so-call single-use plastics and their hefty harm to the environment. Even if these plastics were deposited correctly into a landfill, they would still sit there for at least 1,000's of years. But the terrible thing is that a large portion these single-use plastics are not disposed of correctly. They end up in our streams, gutters, and streets. They cog our sewers and choke our marine life. And that is not responsible.

I ran into a single-use plastic on Friday. Here is my video of the experience.

Something as simple as a straw ends up being throw away and not recycled. These straws end up being deposited directly into the landfill simply because we want to be lazy in the way we drink a soda. Would it really have hurt to go without a straw? The problem is, we have to train ourselves to stop using these types of single-use plastics. We have to catch ourselves and make a habit out of asking whether our products contain plastic. Since beginning this project, I have gone to several meat counters asking if they wrap their meat in plastic. For the most part, the person behind the counter usually asks me to repeat the question before slightly rolling his/her eyes in the back of his head. But, in my head, I see the plastic from my meat being ritually thrown into the garbage and it makes me feel guilty.

Cities and companies are starting to fight back against the use of single-use plastics. Cities are finding that they do not like the sight of plastic grocery bags littering their streets, while companies find it cheaper to just tell the shopper to bring their own bags.

San Francisco became the first city in the United States to ban platic bags in 2007. Before the ban, city residents used 180 million plastic bags each year. Due to the thin nature of plastic bags, they are hard to recycle.

Ikea imposed a plastic bag "tax" in 2007 when it began charging customers 5 cents per bag in a big to get customers to bring their own bags or buy a reusable one for $0.59 at the store. They have found that the "tax" has been incredibly successful. Their initial goal was to cut the plastic bag use in half the first year to 35 million bags. Instead, they cut the plastic bag consumption at U.S. stores by 92%. In other words, customers stepped up.

The world's largest retailer, Walmart, has a plan to reduce its plastic bag consumption by 33% by 2013. If the plan works, it will plastic bag consumption by 9 billion each year. EACH YEAR!

Other cities and countries have either already banned plastic bags or are considering bans.

The power in this situation is with the consumer. We get what we demand. If we demand that companies not treat our environment and resources like something other than garbage, then companies change their way of thinking.

Updated: 6:41 AM GMT on May 16, 2010


The Most Anti-Economy Blog Ever - and a bit of hyperboyle (just read it before forming an opinion)

By: shauntanner, 5:36 AM GMT on May 14, 2010

I will explain the title of this blog further down the blog.

Homemade Toothpaste Experiment

So meteorologist Tim and myself (including my family) have been attempting to go the entire month of May without consuming any new or additional plastic. We have decided to do this for two reasons. The first is to specifically learn about plastic and its affect on the environment (and we have learned a lot). The second is to determine or prove how tough it actually is (and it is tough).

As a testament to the second reason (the toughness), my family recently ran out of toothpaste. In an ordinary month, we would just hop into the closest grocery store and pick out the cheapest tube, problem solved. But, we have challenged ourselves to not put extra plastic in the landfills this month, and we are bound and determined to do just that. So, my wife found a simple recipe for homemade toothpaste that includes hydrogen peroxide, salt, water, and baking soda. The salt gives it the grit. It tasted very much as if I plunged my toothbrush into the ocean and brushed with seawater. The video of my first experience with this weird solution is below.

Reason for the blog title

Tim and my visit to the garbage transfer station was eye opening for more than one reason. First, we learned that all of the recyclable plastic that comes into this transfer station gets put on a container ship and sent to China for the actual recycling process. Second, we learned that plastic actually is only a very small part of the total amount of recycled material. According to the EPA, plastics represented only 12% of the municipal solid waste in 2008. While that is a very slim portion of our garbage, in 1960 the amount of plastics in the waste was only 1%. So, in 50 years, the amount of plastic in our garbage has increased by 11%.

Our guide, who is the recycling program manager at the transfer station, took a minute to draw the following triangle on a whiteboard.

This triangle should be somewhat familiar to all of us as we saw it when we were kids in grade school. It represents the 4 things that happen to the things we consume and, more importantly, ways to keep the garbage going to the landfill to a minimum. The rung at the top is the most important and reads "Reduce". Then, the rungs below this read "Reuse", "Recycle", and then "Rot". This little triangle ignites the most important thing Tim and I have learned so far. This thing, however, is the most anti-American sentiment ever. That is, if you want to minimize the amount of garbage ending up in landfills, buy less stuff...reduce.

Reducing our consumerism is, far and away, the most important thing we must do to reduce our waste. It is simple, yet we are bombarded by everything in the economy that tells us otherwise. We are told to buy this, buy that, and buy this again, even though we do not need these extra things. Yet, if the current recession has taught us anything, it's that we really don't need all that extra stuff. We can go without them, and instead, enjoy the simplier things in life. We learned, much to Starbucks' dismay, that not only do we not need a third huge mug of some weird coffee in a day, but that we can make coffee ourselves. In fact, as our transfer station guide relayed to us, the recession has directly translated to less garbage and recyclables coming into the transfer station. When people become bigger penny pinchers, they buy less stuff that ends up in the landfill or recycling center. I am no economist, but the economy will find its ground no matter what we consume. If we support sustainable products, then the economy will produce better products that are more sustainable.

Sure, we can't reduce our consumerism to nothing. But that is what the other rungs of the triangle are for. If reducing doesn't work, the next best thing is to reuse. I call this the "Craigslist Factor". If you absolutely have to buy something, why not try to find it used first. Yeah, yeah, I know. Buying something used can be icky, but it can save a lot of money and you can be satisifed that what you bought did not end up in a landfill.

So, the triangle is good thing to live by for sustainability. Note that the last rung of the triangle is "Rot". This is the landfill or compost level. Organic material can be composting, while everything else ends up in the landfill. Our goal is to put as many things as possible in the first three rungs of the triangle.

Inevitably, someone will read this blog and point the finger at me. "Shaun, why don't you consume less?" I get it, I do. I am going through this month to learn more about myself and my true needs. I am finding that I do not need as much as I consume. Yet, certain amenities I am unwilling to live without. And for those luxuries I am willing to at least try to find a more sustainable ways of utilizing them. What will you do?

Updated: 5:58 AM GMT on May 14, 2010


The Daily Downpour at 4 p.m. Eastern, 1 p.m. Pacific today!

By: shauntanner, 5:05 PM GMT on May 13, 2010

The best weather related show on the internet today at 4 p.m. ET, 1 p.m. PT today!
Listen here!

Weather Underground Meteorologists will talk about their No New Plastic Month challenge, as well as get you all caught up on National Weather and weather news topics. You will learn something and be entertained!

Next Wednesday at 1:30 ET, 10:30 PT Shaun and Tim will be interviewed by Susan Davis of the Good and Green Radio show about their experiences with the No New Plastic Month challenge. You can listen to the interview here.

Updated: 5:35 PM GMT on May 13, 2010


No New Plastic Month: Biodegrade Vs. Just Plain Degrade

By: shauntanner, 6:01 AM GMT on May 12, 2010

If you live in a city that participates in a recycling program, chances are that your recyclables end up at a transfer station that sorts it into aluminum, plastic, and paper. Most people don't actually see or pay attention to where their garbage goes, but Tim and I actually went up to the conveyor belt when the garbage is sorted. You see that first in the following video. Please note that the 4 people standing around the conveyor belt are the first line of defense in sortin the recyclables. These people are responsible for taking out all the non-recyclables before they get into the system. Note that these people are mostly taking out plastics, and of those plastics, most of it are the flexible plastics such as grocery bags. These bags are not recycled as you might have thought.

The recyclable items are then put through a large machine with numerous conveyor belts that sorts the material. A magnet pulls the aluminum out, and a special machine shines a light on the plastic to determine whether the plastic is a #1 or #2 type. That machine is in the video and is orange. If you listen carefully, you can hear the hiss of the machine when it finds a specific type of plastic. The hiss is air that pushes the plastic onto a new conveyor belt. It is quite amazing.

Over the course of the modern "natural" movement, there have been certain catchphrases that are initially used for the benefit of all before being used to muddy the movement's actual intentions. For example, the word "natural" used to mean something that is pure, grown with Earth-friendly processes. Now, "natural" is slapped onto nearly every product in the grocery store and its meaning is unknown. Have you ever wondered what the difference is between natural and artificial flavors? According to Scientific American, "There is little substantive difference in the chemical compositions of natural and artificial flavorings." Basically, there is no difference other than a legal definition.

The word "organic" is another one. A few years ago, organic used to mean what you think it means. Now, who the heck knows what it means? It has been gobbled up by legal and federal standards that are so muddled, they really don't mean anything at all.

The term "biodegradable" has been a talking point for several years. But, have you ever stopped to wonder what it means? It turns out, the term has been used by many manufacturers with little oversight into their claims. The term biodegrading specifically refers to the breakdown of a material into elemental compounds including some words with big names, carbon, and water. So, when something dies, be it plant or animal, it biodegrades into carbon and water over a long period of time. As it turns out, many so-called "biodegradable" products actually do have some chemical breakdown, but some harmful materials will remain unbroken. In this case, the material is not biodegradable, but rather only degradable. One such degradable product is, of course, plastic. Plastic is completely unnatural and therefore, is incapable of breaking down into elemental compounds required for it to be biodegradable. Instead, it is put into a landfill where it sits for thousands, if not millions, of years.

There is something important to note here. Plastic that degrades somewhat is more harmful to the environment than plastic that does no degrading whatsoever. The reason is that some degradation of the plastic will produce harmful chemicals that can find their way into watersheds and contaminate groundwater. Instead, landfills are specifically designed to prevent decomposition of garbage. That's right, landfills are designed to PREVENT decomposition. If all of our garbage were to decompose and degrade, it would lead to a tremendous amount of chemicals leaking into our watershed. I would not have believed this before Tim and I visited the transfer station. In the education building of the station, our guide picked up a glass box that was filled with old newspapers and glass bottles. Then she explained that the garbage in the glass box was pulled from a landfill directly underneath the education building before it was constructed. She asked Tim to read the date on the newspaper. It read 1948. The newspaper text was still readable, even though it had been sitting in the landfill since 1948. It had not biodegraded even though it was made of only flimsy newspaper. The video below is of this garbage. In order for biodegradation or degradation to occur, oxygen and water are needed. Landfills are purposely kept in an environment of low oxygen and dry so degradation occurs very, very slowly. So slow that a newspaper thrown away in 1948 did not degrade in the 54 years it was in the landfill.

So, please, please think about what you are actually throwing away. It will end up in a landfill for a very, very long time.

Updated: 9:47 PM GMT on May 12, 2010


The Daily Downpour at 4 p.m. Eastern, 1 p.m. Pacific today!

By: shauntanner, 5:51 PM GMT on May 11, 2010

How are Shaun and Tim doing on their No New Plastic Month journey? Tune into The Daily Downpour today at 4 p.m. ET, 1 p.m. PT to find out! Also we will discuss the flooding in Tennessee and the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Listen for the most updated information. Listen here!

Updated: 5:52 PM GMT on May 11, 2010


The unrecyclable recyclables?

By: shauntanner, 6:08 AM GMT on May 10, 2010

For those of you that missed my previous post about Tim and my visit to a garbage transfer station, you can read all about it here. There are some really interesting things that we learned on the visit as part of our No New Plastic Month where we discover if we can live without consuming any new plastic.

You can also join the Green Earth Society to participate in the discussion of ideas of how real people can be more green in their daily lives.

Like I said before, I learned a lot by listening and watching garbage being pushed around a transfer station very near the San Francisco Bay. One thing that washed across my brain today was the information we were told about some plastics that are not recyclable. In my house, I throw a lot of the family's plastics directly into the recycling bin with a healthy dose of trust that it will somehow end up in a recycling center where it can be converted into something new. But, how do we really know that these things get recycled? The biggest hole in this recycling circle are the items that are mixed with different materials.

An item can only be recycled if it is at least 90% of the material you are recycled. For instance, a plastic, one-time use water bottle (Crystal Geyser, Alhambra, etc.) is recyclable because it is at least 90% plastic. Even though it is plastered with paper labels, there is not enough of paper to put it below the 90% threshold. If that plastic botttle was made up of at least 11% something else other than plastic, then it would not be recyclable and would have to be thrown directly into a landfill. So, as you can see, mixed material items can be particularly tricky to recycle.

Let me give you an example. Capri Suns have become iconic in school lunch rooms over the past several decades partly because of their packaging. Have you ever wonder what those famous pouches are made out of? They are actually polyester printed on aluminum, then laminated to polyethylene (this is the actual plastic). I know this sounds confusing, and it most likely is a complex assembly process. All of this is a fancy way of saying that Capri Sun pouches are made out of much more than just plastic. But, because there is widespread belief that it is made out of mostly plastic, people toss it into the recycling bin with the belief that it will make its way to a friendly recycling plant to be morphed into some other exotic product.

In fact, the Capri Sun pouch is not recyclable and will make its way directly to the landfill should you toss it into the recycling bin of the regular old trash bin. This is because it is made up of less than 90% plastic, less than 90% aluminum, and less than 90% any other recyclable product. Once in the landfill, it then sits there, biodegrading very, very slowly (so slowly it basically does not biodegrade). Unfortunate.

The owners of the Capri Sun brand, Kraft Foods, has possibly sensed this harm to the environment and has put together a campaign to creatively recycle these Capri Sun pouches. The campaign is through Terracycle.net and allows people to collect empty pouches and send them to TerraCycle. This company then creates various products with the pouches themselves such as tote bags, lunch boxes, backpacks, and more. You can see the items by going here.

So, credit is deserved in this instance because Kraft Foods at least has realized that their product is terrible for the environment. It would have been more advantageous for the environment for Kraft Foods to have redesigned the pouch once they were proven to be unrecyclable.

Kraft Foods is not alone in this, but only one example. There are countless products in your local grocery store that are contained in what you believe may be completely recyclable material, but in fact are not. The terrible thing is that most people, including myself before Friday, believed that much more things are recyclable than what actually are.

My next post will have to do with what we can do to send less to landfills.

Updated: 7:01 PM GMT on May 10, 2010


One Week Down...Visit to a Transfer Station...What the heck are plastic numbers?

By: shauntanner, 6:09 AM GMT on May 08, 2010

Well, my family is one week into our challenge of buy, obtaining, or taking in no new plastic for the entire month of May. While the first day was definitely the toughest, there have been several speed bumps along the way. The latest occurred on my drive home today and it may be a small thing for most people. I only drive to work once a week. The other days I take the train in. Today, however, Tim and I visited a garbage transfer station in Oakland, CA and I was required to drive to it. Normally, on my way home I stop by a gas station and pick up some chocolate milk and bag of sunflower seeds. Eating the seeds keep me awake on my hour long drive home from work. However, I could not buy the sunflower seeds today because they are all sold in plastic bags. Bah. I got home safe, although there were times I was slapping myself in the face.

We are off to the garbage!
Like I said, Tim and I visited a garbage transfer station in our quest to follow the garbage from our homes to its final resting place. A garbage transfer station is where your garbage goes directly after it is picked up from your house. At the transfer station, the recyclables are sorted and trucked off to other locations, the straight garbage is crushed and rolled over before taken to a landfill, and the compostables are built into large piles before being shipped out to compost farms. It is important to note that nothing "lives" at a transfer station. This are always coming and going. We also wanted to visualize first hand the steps recyclable items, especially plastic, take after they leave our house and got to do deep inside the huge recycling process at this station. I do have to say that I learned a ton. Some of it was startling, while other items turned out to be refreshing. I am compiling this experience in the documentary I will be finalizing at the end of the month. However, I can share a small video about one building at the transfer station. There is a lot more that I am saving for later.

There were two things that really stuck out for me during this visit:

1. You know those plastic bags that we all get from the grocery stores? It turns out, those are not as recyclable as they seem. There Tim and I stood, on the sorting deck of the large recycling building watching workers pick out these plastic bags and dropping them down a large shaft that signified these items are unrecyclable. I was stunned. After inquiring about this, our host, Rebecca Jewell, simply stated that these bags are best left in the grocery store and ignored. While all plastics are recyclable depending on the market price for plastics, these low quality plastic bags are near the bottom of the recycling totem pole.

2. The transfer station we toured was located in San Leandro, CA, near Oakland. Thus, it is very near the Port of Oakland, which is major exporting and importing port for the West Coast. When recyclable plastic materials are sorted and stuff into cubes at the transfer station, there next stop is actually the Port of Oakland. They are put into containers, put on ships, and head to China. That's right, China. It turns out, for this particular transfer station, recyclable plastics are sent to China. This isn't true for all recyclable plastics. Due to direct cost benefits, it costs less for this transfer station to send its plastic materials to the nearby port than to the next nearest recycling center. Since China is the largest manufacturer of plastic materials, they require a tremendous amount of recycled plastics to keep that part of their economy turning.

So let me sum that up quickly. I am sitting in my home in Oakland, CA, drinking a bottle of soda. If I throw it in the recyling bin, it will make its way to this transfer station where it is sorted from other plastics, put with its own kind, put on a ship, and sailed across the vast Pacific Ocean to China. When it arrives in China, it is melted, and the actual recycling process begins.

After staring, stunned at the mass amount of garbage we generate, it dawned on me that this is where those little numbers marked on all plastic items come into play. Have you seen them? Next time you are drinking a soda or water from a plastic bottle, turn it over and look at the bottom of the bottle (put the cap on first, of course). You will see a number from 1 to 7 surrounded by a triangle made out of three arrows. This number tells a knowledgeable fellow what kind of plastic the bottle is made of. The number system was set up by the Society of the Plastics Industry to recycling centers can better sort items.

Our transfer station tour guide provide us with the following key to help us determine what each number stands for:

#1 - PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate)
These types of plastics are very common and are found in soft drink, water, and beer bottles. Many other items such as salad dressing bottles, peanut butter containers, etc. also contain this type of plastic.

PET plastics are recycled into many things such as polar fleece, furniture, carpet, and occasionally new containers. This type of plastic are common for single use items because it is very inexpensive. Only about 20% of this type of plastic is recycled, even though it is in very high demaned for re-manufacturers.

#2 - HDPE (high density polyethylene)
These are your milk bottles, juice bottles, laundry detergent bottles, trash bags, cereal box liners, etc.

Plastic #2 are highly recyclable and can be re-made back into new bottles, pens, floor tile, pipes, benches, etc. This type of plastic is highly sought, especially for packaging.

#3 - V (Vinyl) or PVC
Most commonly used in piping (PVC pipe), window cleaner bottles, clear food packaging, wire jacketing.

This type of plastic is rarely recyclable, but some centers recycle into decks, mudflaps, flooring, or even speed bumps.

It is important to note that this plastic will release toxic chemicals if burned, and should not be used to cook with.

#4 - LDPE (low density polyethylene)
This is the very flexible type of plastic that is used to produce shopping bags, clothing, furniture, carpet, etc.

It is important to note that many curbside recycling programs do note accept this type of plastic for recycling, although some are beginning to accept it. Can be recycled into other flexible products like trash can liners, compost bins, shipping envelopes, etc.

#5 - PP (polypropylene)
Yogurt containers, syrup bottles straws, medicine bottles.

This type of plastic has a high melting point so is used by products that can be hot.

Recyled into stop lights, brooms, brushes, bicycle racks, pallets, trays, etc.

#6 - PS (polystyrene)
Disposable plates, meat trays, egg cartons, carry-out containers, compact disc cases.

Only some curbside programs accept this type of plastic.

Recycled into insulation, egg cartons, ventus, rulers, carry-out containers.

#7 - Miscellaneous
3 and 5 gallon water bottles, bullet proof materials, DVDs, iPod cases, nylon, etc.

Generally not recycled, but some programs accept them.

Polycarbonate is found in this category and some studies have shown it can leach chemicals that are harmful. More on this some other day.

So, consider yourself informed. The main point I want to point out to all of you is that not all plastic is the same, and not all (in fact, only a few) are recyclable. I would check with your recycling collector to see what they actually accept. I may be that much of your recyclable plastic end up in your local landfill.

Updated: 6:10 AM GMT on May 08, 2010


New Daily Downpour 4 p.m. ET, 1 p.m. PT!

By: shauntanner, 7:26 PM GMT on May 06, 2010

How are Shaun and Tim doing on their No New Plastic Month journey? Tune into The Daily Downpour today at 4 p.m. ET, 1 p.m. PT to find out! Also we will discuss the flooding in Tennessee and the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Listen for the most updated information. Listen here!

Updated: 7:27 PM GMT on May 06, 2010


Day 5: What is plastic?

By: shauntanner, 8:11 PM GMT on May 05, 2010

When you are in the grind of your everyday life, you are unaware of the extent at which plastic runs our lives. It is everywhere. But, did you ever stop to think about what plastic actually is?

It is difficult to actually define what plastic is chemically or structurally without having a chemistry degree. Nevertheless, let's give it a shot. Plastic is polymer based. There, does that clear things up? Good, then let's move on.

Alright, I'll keep going. Chemically, polymers are repeating structural units that can give tremendous strength to a substance. If you link these polymers together, the strength is multiplied. Hence the reason a plastic grocery bag is much, much stronger than a paper one. The paper grocery bag is not linked together in these polymers, thus is much weaker.

There are two types of plastics, thermoplastics and thermosetting polymers The former is the type of plastic that can be heated and melted, while the latter can be melted only once. After that, the plastic takes its shape and holds it.

Plastic is in things you never even imagined. For instance, plastic lines aluminum soda cans. What, you say? Why would ALUMNINUM cans be lined with plastic? Well, it seems as though the plastic provides a protective barrier to the soda does not react adversely with the aluminum. That got me thinking. Below is the list of ingredients in a popular soda:

- Carbonated water
- Sugar (sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup depending on country of origin)
- Caffeine
- Phosphoric acid v. Caramel
- Natural flavorings

So, with all we know about soft drinks and other sugary drinks regarding our health, and knowing the ingredients of soda, what could the plastic liner possibly be protective us from? Could it be worse than the effects of the drink itself?

Anyway, I don't want to go off on sugary drinks as I am just trying to inform you what plastic is. My point is that plastic is a chemically engineered substance that is very hard to understand.

So hard that the Society of the Plastics Industry had to invent a scheme identify what type of plastic you are holding. Interested? I will be back Friday.


Day 3: Answering Questions and Plastic Consumption and The Daily Downpour

By: shauntanner, 5:00 AM GMT on May 04, 2010

How are Shaun and Tim doing on their No New Plastic Month journey? Tune into The Daily Downpour today at 4 p.m. ET, 1 p.m. PT to find out! Also we will discuss the flooding in Tennessee and the ongoing disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Listen for the most updated information.

Green Earth Society

Remember to join the Green Earth Society to discuss relevent environmental issues.

Day 3: Questions

After carrying around my camera for 3 days, people finally started to ask questions. "What is up with the camera?", "Is that thing on?", "Why are you so stupid Shaun?"

And when I finally explained that my family was not consuming plastic for the month of May and that I was documenting our experience, I got just one more question..."Why?"

It seems most people have no problem with their plastic consumption, or at least are blissfully ignorant to their own consumption. I can't help but think that more people will question what I am doing than those who will question someone littering or throwing a cigarette butt to the ground. I find something very wrong with that.

After telling my best friend what my family was doing, he was as supportive as he could possibly be. He came over to hang out at my house and brought a 6-pack of IBC Root Beer (I don't drink alcohol). He handed me one of the famous glass bottles and said, "Here, you can drink this, right? No plastic, it is made out of glass." I slowly shook my head and instructed him to open the glass bottle and look under the lid. At which point he stared in confusion and said, "they put plastic under the lid?" They sure do. It seems as though plastic is under the lid of almost all glass bottles. Ugh. I did drink the Root Beer as I did not spend my own money on the soda. But, I am not planning on making a habit out of skirting this rule.

I also ran into a conundrum. To continue documenting our experience, I would need to go out and buy new tapes. Ordinarily, I would not have had a second thought in going to the store and picking up the tapes. However, I found myself staring at this pack of 6 tapes wrapped in plastic. Not only was the entire pack wrapped in plastic, but the individual tapes themselves were wrapped in their own little plastic rule breakers. Again, ugh. I had to buy the tapes and add the plastic wrappers to my pile of plastic that I must carry around. It's only Day 3.

Plastic Consumption

When I read the follow stat, I just stared at it dumfounded.

According to www.reusablebags.com, "society's consumption rate is now estimated at well over 500,000,000,000 (that's 500 billion) plastic bags annually." That is the equivalent to 1 million plastic bags per minute.

Other sources have this value higher, between 500 billion and 1 trillion. 1 trillion! With a "t"!

I have read other sources recently that said the U.S consumption is about 380,000,000 annually. That is about 100 plastic bags annually for each man, woman, and child in the country.

While some other sources refute these statistics or at least point out that there were never sourced, the EPA has chimed in with it's own statistic.

According to the EPA, "In 2008, the United States generated about 13 million tons of plastics in the municipal solid waste (MSW) stream as containers and packaging, almost 7 million tons as nondurable goods, and almost 11 million tons as durable goods."

The total of 30 million tons represented about 12% of the total MSW for 2008.

How much do we recycle? According to the EPA, overall plastic consumption is 6.8 percent, or 2.1 million tons. Remember, this includes all plastics, including appliances, computers, and other not so recyclable stuff that goes directly into the dump. Soft drink bottles have a much higher recycle rate of 37%. But still that means if Larry, Moe, and Curly all drink sodas from plastic bottles for lunch, only one of them will have the foresight to throw his plastic bottle into the trash. Not good enough. The other two bottles will end of going to the dump, into a stream, or into the ocean.

Updated: 5:59 PM GMT on May 04, 2010


Day 1 of No New Plastic: Beach Cleanup and Growing Pains

By: shauntanner, 7:10 AM GMT on May 02, 2010

Green Earth Society

If you are reading this blog, you are probably interesting in something I am about to write. Thus, I suggest you follow the Green Earth Society and follow our goal of consuming no new plastic for the entire month of May. And, if you are really interested, try to cut back on your plastic this month and get a taste for what we are actually going through.

Day 1

This challenge did not start off well. After crawling out of bed this morning, I quickly realized that Daniela had also crawled out of bed, albeit on the wrong side of it. She often gets this way when she knows that there is not much food in the house. I think she mentally tells herself to freak out, which does not help the household. Daniela and I have gotten into many arguments about the idea of planning. She believes that things need to be planned well ahead of time, to-do lists should be crossed off, i's should be dotted, and shoelaces tied. The problem with having a detailed plan is that you have no idea what to do when the plan goes astray. On the contrary, I tend to manuever myself into a situation so I can feel my way out of it. If something goes up that is unexpected, I don't need to look down at my detailed plan to question it. I think Daniela likes to plan because that way she never finds herself in a situation like this morning.

We had no food for breakfast. This might have been okay, except that we have two kids that require food. The first wrinkle. We make our way to a bagel shop where we make our first purchase of the day and challenge. Bagels are adequately wrapped in paper. We decided to get the kids a juice in a glass jar and hope for the best. When Daniela unscrewed the cap, we realized that there was a plastic liner at the top. Damn! These types of bottles often have this type of plastic liner to get a good seal where the plastic touches the glass container. Good seal...but plastic! Our very first purchase has broken our very first rule. So, as penalty, I slip the cap into my pocket and will put it into a backpack later in the day that I will carry with me all the time.

My family has a tradition every May 1...May Day. It was started by my grandfather who, every May 1, would drive around to all of his children and other relative houses and put a mason jar full of flowers on the doorstep before running away. His way of doorbell ditching. He died a few years ago and since then I have taken on the torch. But, along with all of the other stuff we had to do today, I had to get some flowers for the mason jars. The flowers in my backyard had not flowered enough because of the cool Spring, so I made my way to a grocery store to get a bouquet of flowers. But, guess what? Every flower, every bouquet was wrapped in plastic. Bah! Luckily, there was a farmers market across the street where we picked up some flowers wrapped in paper. Crisis averted and we are on our way to our first major activity.

Rule #3 of our challengee is that we must participate in clean up activities in the community. Since we have undoubtedly been responsible for many pieces of trash making their way into the watershed, it is only reasonable that our first activity be a beach cleanup. On our way, we once again realized that we had no food. So, just before we reached the beach, I once again hopped out of the car and ran into a Safeway grocery store. It was a big store so I must be able to find something in there that wasn't wrapped in plastic. I ran, oh did I run, through the store, trying desperatly to find something not wrapped in plastic. Nothing. Sure, there was a produce section full of all kinds of glorious, beauty fruit. But, to buy that fruit, you would have to place the fruit in a plastic bag. I walked back to the car, frustrated, with only a paper bag of Goldfish crackers. That was disappointing.

Ironically, the highlight of the day was the beach. Our beach cleanup occurred at 4-Mile Beach in Santa Cruz, CA. It is a cove-type beach with small cliffs near a railroad track. The cleanup was set up by the Surfrider Foundation of Santa Cruz and about 40 volunteers scoured the beach for trash. Before showing up at the beach, I had imagined the beach cleanup would include lugging huge pieces of trash to massive dumpsters. Instead, we spent a couple of hours picking up small pieces of trash. Daniela took several minutes to pick up charcoal left behind by nighttime partygoers. For my part, several bones littered the ground that I found myself picking up.

Shelley of the Surfrider Foundation (who I interviewed for the documentary I am producing for this plastic challenge) reminded me that this small garbage is what most marine life is attracted to. So it is important that everything from cigarette butts chicken bones be picked up and put in a better place.

I took a few pictures along with the video I shot. Below are pictures of the beach so you get an idea of what the place looked like.

The last challenge of the day was by far the hardest. The next time you are in your local grocery store, just take a few minutes and put yourself in our shoes. Try to shop, specifically looking for items untainted by plastic. It is difficult. Daniela required us to carry some of our old plastic bags that we kept around the house and it turned out that it was a good idea. We threw some fruit and vegetables in those bags, while also keeping our eyes peeled for items in aluminum cans or cardboard. As it turns out, there are not many items that fit the requirement. We threw in what we could and moved on.

The most difficult food item to shop for plastic-free is meat. Chicken breasts, steaks, ribs, hot dogs, anything that was once living seems destined to have its carcus wrapped in plastic one day. Luckily, Daniela convinced a butcher in the a second grocery store to wrap a few pieces of meat in paper.

All in all, the day was difficult. But, we made it. It was exhausting, but educational. I am hoping Day 2 will be a little more settling. How could it not be? Sundays are soccer days for me. Stay tuned...

Updated: 7:12 AM GMT on May 02, 2010


It Starts: No New Plastic Month Challenge and Green Earth Society

By: shauntanner, 6:01 AM GMT on May 01, 2010

Green Earth Society

Weather Underground has created the Green Earth Society as a way for ignited members of the Wunderground community to exchange ideas about the environment. Our goal is to provide ideas, facts, challenges, and questions to members on a semi-regular basis. We do not pretend to know all of the answers, but let's face it, we all pretty much live in the same house, under the same skies, on top of the same dirt. We share more than we know. It is not meant to be combative, but rather it is desired to be informative. I encourage everybody to join, discuss, and learn. It should be interesting.

The first topic the Green Earth Society will take on is plastic. A small group of people has declared May No New Plastic Month and we thought, "now that's a great idea!" Now, even the most ardent of pro-industry companions can agree that we, as Americans, consume way too much plastic. So, in order to show all of our members that we put our money where our mouths are, meteorologist Tim and myself and participating in this challenge full on. Not only that, we are documenting our experiences and will be updating our individual blogs as well as the Green Earth Society page throughout the month.

Tim and I bring two different lifestyles to this challenge. Tim is single San Franciscan with his own plastic addication, while I am a married father of two young children. Thus, the easiest way and least complicated way for me to take on this challenge is to enlist my wife in it as well. So is on board and ready for it. Here are the rules:

1. No New Plastic. To me, that means not sending a single item of plastic to a landfill or recycling center for the entire month of May. We can use the plastic items we have before the month begins (I am typing on my plastic laptop right now), but nothing new. Think about it, could you do it?

2. Plastic Penalty. Should, sometime in the month, we fail and are forced to buy something made of or containing plastic, I have to put that piece of plastic in a backpack and carry it around with me.

3. Participate in cleanups. No matter what you think of yourself and your glorious environmental attitude, chances are some of your plastics has found its way into street gutters, waterways, and even the ocean. So, my family will participate in cleaning up the neighborhood in an effort to erase some of our messiness.

Like I said, I will be documenting our experience and posting them so you can find them. I will also be compiling everything into a documentary in case you want to watch everything at one time. My goal is to teach everybody who pays attention at least one thing. I am sure I will learn a lot more than that.

May 1: Day 1

When planning the story of our month, I figured that the best place to start is at the end. The end place of much of our plastic, anyway. So, my family will trek to the beach where the Surfrider Foundation of Santa Cruz has a beach cleanup planned at 4-Mile Beach north of Santa Cruz, CA.

What will you do?

Updated: 6:04 AM GMT on May 01, 2010


The views of the author are his/her own and do not necessarily represent the position of The Weather Company or its parent, IBM.

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Wunderground Meteorologist Shaun Tanner

About shauntanner

Shaun Tanner has been a meteorologist at Weather Underground since 2004.

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