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The Consumer

Somebody Fouled Up

Consumer interest in pollution is compelling industries accused of polluting to seek remedies without sacrificing their investments. The president of Coca-Cola, J. Paul Austin, promises a new ad campaign for returnable bottles with the slogan, “wouldn’t you rather borrow our bottle than buy it?” He says his corporation has invested in water purification programs and in an unusual anti-pollution device: the glass-grinding machine. The experimental grinders were installed in an Atlanta supermarket, where one-way bottles could be dumped. Customers presumably brought back empties for the pleasure of having them ground; there was no cash compensation. After grinding, what was left? Sand: “not of playground quality,” said Austin, but suitable for industrial use in building materials.

Glass and can manufacturers don’t like to talk about the difficulty of hauling and storing billions of empty containers every month, but they donate several millions of dollars a year to “Keep America Beautiful.” Austin says the can industry has underwritten “at considerable expense” a vast retooling of metal dies. Soon every container will declare in embossed print: “Please don’t litter—dispose of properly.” It is part of a plan to shift responsibility to consumers.

Corporation executives who have treated consumers as passive subjects may take a lesson from the Bowie City Council in Maryland. Under pressure from voters, the council decided in July to ban all one-way drink containers. Beginning next April, supermarkets in Bowie will be liable to $100-a-day fines if they sell drinks in anything but returnable bottles. This is not an anti-litter campaign; it’s a first attempt to block the yearly flow of 36 billion one-way cans and bottles from factory to junk pile. Washington State voters will have a chance in November to vote a five-cent minimum deposit on all soft drink bottles sold there.

The Reynolds Metals Co. has stepped up its program to collect old cans and u^e them for scrap. The company pays 10 cents a pound or a half cent a can for aluminum; steel cans aren’t acceptable. Collecting, shredding, and recasting aluminum is expensive and requires thorough reorganization of aluminum production to be effective. Reynolds reports 16 million cans collected during the first half of 1970—on the surface, a good job. But at that rate—32 million cans a year—24 billion are left uncollected, many of them aluminum.

The packaging industry is embarrassed by polyvinyl chloride containers. When burned, this plastic produces chlorine gas, which can corrode incinerators, destroy air-cleaning filters, and harm nearby trees. Several ecology groups have complained to plastic companies and have attempted a boycott. But there’s a catch-it’s almost impossible to describe PVC, and even more difficult to tell the difference between it and another, harmless plastic. They are both clear and glass-like, used chiefly to store liquid shampoos containing alcohol. To avoid confusion, buy glass bottles.

Soap chemistry is even more controversial than plastics. Ecologists say that detergents dump 50 to 70percent of the phosphate that now flows in metropolitan sewers which empty eventually into lakes and rivers. Algae growths, which feed on phosphate and other chemicals, have become a serious pollution menace, particularly in the Great Lakes. Some scientists blame the death of Lake Erie on detergent and agricultural phosphates. The soap industry has responded with heavy lobbying and massive promotion of an opposing scientific claim that carbon—not phosphate—is the key factor. Ignoring pressures, Canada has banned all detergents with more than 20 percent phosphate.

Industry was stung by that and is preparing for battle in the US: “We’ve tried hundreds, literally hundreds of substitutes for phosphate.” And though they don’t believe phosphate is the culprit, they are ready to drop it. Lever Brothers, Procter & Gamble, and others who have found new hope in a nitrate compound called nitrilo triacetic acid (NTA). They are slowly replacing phosphate in many detergents with the new chemical, which supposedly doesn’t feed algae but didn’t retard algae growth when it was tried in Sweden. NTA soaks up more oxygen than phosphate. Harvard scientist Samuel Epstein has suggested that NTA could form a link in a chemical reaction that produces cancer. No one knows how it will affect the lakes when used in large quantities. The big companies face a more immediate problem in trying to find enough NTA to fill the demand. At the same time, they are reluctant to abandon valuable phosphate mines that produce 2.6 billion pounds a year. Sears Roebuck is now marketing a no-phosphate, no NTA, detergent said to be unaffected by hard water. The formula is a secret.

Pollution fighters ask consumers to use a mixture of soap and washing soda instead of detergent. It doesn’t clean as well, however, and detergent companies warn that reducing the amount of phosphate will “result in significantly poorer cleaning levels, and a cutback in the nation’s health, sanitation, and cleanliness standards.” Nevertheless, ecologists believe clean clothes are less important than clean water.

The oil industry is keeping up with environmental reform by introducing new lead-free and low-lead gasolines. Shell, Esso, and others have launched expensive ad campaigns promising clean-air fuels. Shell has announced a low-octane, completely leadless gas, while Esso has chosen to bring out a high-octane gas containing ½ cc of lead per gallon. Esso claims the lead is needed to lubricate exhaust valves on cars not designed specifically for lead-free gas. Amoco, on the other hand, has been selling a lead-free premium for years and says it has heard no complaints. The Ethyl Corporation, which manufactures petroleum additives, says Amoco has heard no complaints because other companies are using lead. Every car in the country has probably burned a tankful of leaded gas—enough to put lead in the system. Ethyl is financing an ad campaign of its own, claiming that lead-free gasoline gives off more smog than normal gas. Behind the high-pressure publicity, only one truth is certain: all the major oil companies are committed to producing lead-free gasolines in every octane grade by the mid seventies. In the meantime everything is being tried including deceptive advertising. Chevron is pushing a revolutionary new, non-polluting additive called F310, “the most long-awaited gasoline development in history.” The Federal Trade Commission, in a complaint, said F310 isn’t new and doesn’t work.

By now the proscribed list of pesticides is as long as your arm. One consumer-pollution group has a simple system for remembering the worst chemicals—their initials spell “DEATH”: Dieldrin, Endrin, Aldrin, Toxaphene, and Heptachlor. They place six others in the same category: DDT, Chlordane, Lindane, Mercury, Lead, and Arsenic. Less poisonous, but in its way more deceptive, is the Shell “no-pest strip.” The Department of Agriculture has issued two separate warnings for this insecticide. It should not be used in rooms where infants, aged or ill people are confined, and st should not be hung in restaurants or kitchens, where it might affect food. Agriculture has ordered Shell to print the food warning on its product from now on.

All pesticides are poisons, and the consumer usually must decide whether he prefers bugs or chemicals. A “Do-It-Yourself Ecology” pamphlet distributed by Environmental Action of Washington DC hints cryptically at an alternative solution. A brief note states that “some birds, such as purple martins, eat up to 1000 mosquitoes a day.” There is great potential for the 29 gecko, too. He’s a small, nocturnal lizard that thrives on cockroaches and other bugs: set him loose in the kitchen and you need never see him again. Lady bugs and praying mantises help kill garden pests, but no one has yet tried to market them on a large scale.

The consumer’s traditional lack of concern for anything but his immediate ease is a great comfort to harassed industry. Many ecologists are convinced it is more effective to attack pollution at its industrial source than to organize boycotts; thus the court suits against oil companies for water pollution, against DDT users for destruction of wildlife, and against numerous factories for air pollution. Michigan has passed a law that widens the possibilities for civil suits against polluters. State residents no longer have to prove personal damage; they need only establish the polluter. A similar federal law—guaranteeing the right to clean air and water-is now in congressional committees.

Based in Stony Brook, New York, the Environmental Defense Fund has been waging a legal attack on pollution for several years. The organization, which calls itself “one anti-pollution device that works,” collects dues from a national membership to finance a “limited number of carefully chosen” legal cases. Says the promotional pamphlet, “EDF will consider any kind of environmental case, and will tackle any offender—including the federal government.” In the future, EDF plans an attack on supersonic transport (SST), cases against oil companies for lead pollution of the atmosphere, and several wildlife preservation campaigns.

With all these new outlets, a well-oriented pollution fighter should never slow down. When he is not building a case against the nearest industrial polluter, he can devote spare moments to selling aluminum cans, grinding Coke bottles, boiling his clothes, and breeding purple martins.

This article originally ran in the October 31, 1970 issue of the magazine.