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  • bw-environmental

Many of us try to make the world a better place for others, often it is our family and friends, sometimes co-workers or members of our community. There are a small number of individuals in the world who possess a combination of talents, drive and capacity to make the lives of thousands and perhaps millions of people better in concrete ways. I was privileged to know one of these people—Joan Parker, whose advocacy for protecting people from hazardous workplace conditions knew no bounds.

My career path was set when I enrolled in a course during my first year of grad school at Cornell University with the unlikely title of Politics of Technical Decisions. I had a glimmering of what it was about but knew little about the professors teaching it – Dorothy Nelkin, a sociologist, and David Milch, a political scientist. As an undergraduate, I majored in politics at UC Santa Cruz, took a couple of political science courses and focused my studies on political theory, and “minored” in surfing and anti-war organizing (it was the Vietnam War era). The course turned out to be just what I was looking for in grad school—an exploration of policy, politics, and social justice issues that at their core were a mashup of science, economics, equity, and power. The syllabus covered controversies ranging from nuclear power to creationism to vaccines and recombinant DNA. One of the students in the course was a senior staffer at the federal Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) who was taking graduate courses for a year. He had worked on the OSHA regulation for vinyl chloride, a carcinogen that is the precursor for PVC, that went into effect a few years earlier after longtime controversy. My brother had worked in a factory making PVC pipe and I was scared stiff that he would get cancer from that job. I wrote a term paper on the fight over regulating vinyl chloride and that launched me into the world of occupational and environmental health with Dorothy (Dot to her friends) as my mentor.

A few more years of grad school and I left to join the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency working on regulations for ozone depleting compounds. The election of Ronald Reagan put a halt to that effort, and I returned to my grad school to work with Dot who was the principal investigator on a National Science Foundation funded project investigating workers’ responses to health risks on the job, which I intended to use in writing a dissertation for a PhD. Dot hired several others to work on the project including Joan Parker, a Cornell Plant Science grad who was working at the Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research (now Boyce Thompson Institute) located on the Cornell campus. Joan became a mentor as well and for much of my career and my volunteer life, a guiding light.

Joan had become an activist on health and safety issues when she developed a sensitization reaction to chemicals on the job. Despite legal requirements to protect workers’ health, Joan had to fight to keep her job and protect her health. A prodigious intellect and a righteous sense of justice led her to learn about occupational health laws and regulation and to demand better working conditions for herself and her co-workers. She read up on occupational health issues and reached out to health and safety activists in the New York region who supported her in her efforts.

Through Joan, we had access to some of the leading thinkers and doers on workplace health, the pinnacle of which was a chance to sit and talk with Tony Mazzochi, a union leader in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union, who had led the fight for the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 and was at the cutting edge of the workplace health and safety movement. To a great degree, Joan was Tony’s equal in passion and smarts. She came up with the idea of starting an occupational health information service while we were working on the project to serve workers in the Finger Lakes region who didn’t have access to union resources on workplace health. The two of us set up a phone line, took calls, did research as needed and provided information and potential resources to remedy the risk of harm.

By the end of the project, Joan had decided to become a full-time workplace health and safety advocate. She became involved in the Coalitions for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) activist movement and got me to join in. Moving to Boston, she received a Master’s in Industrial Hygiene from Harvard’s School of Public Health and went to work in the Division of Occupational Hygiene at the Massachusetts Department of Labor and Industries, inspecting workplaces, responding to workers who were harmed by hazardous chemicals on the job and pursuing criminal penalties against polluters. She moved over to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s office to lead its Division of Occupational Safety investigating nightmare conditions in factories and construction sites and bringing justice to workers. And through it all she was a tireless educator, volunteer, and general advocate for a world that was safer, healthier, and more just.

Joan died in January 2021 from a long bout with cancer. Perhaps there was an environmental or workplace source or maybe it was some other cause. I lost a friend and a role model. The world lost a person who made a difference.

In my career and my volunteer work, I have tried to live up to Joan’s commitment to a safe and more just world. May her life imbue all of us with a passion for making a difference.

  • bw-environmental

Dr. Mario Molina died on October 7, 2020. His is not a household name. But he left behind a giant legacy and inspiring case study about solving global environmental crises.

Molina, who was born and raised in Mexico and moved to the U.S. to earn a PhD in physical chemistry from UC Berkeley, became a postdoc in Sherwood Rowland’s chemistry lab at UC Irvine in the early 1970’s. There, they embarked on a quest to understand what happened to chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a class of chemicals used as aerosol propellants, solvents, refrigerants and more, when they were released into the atmosphere. Their work, propelled by Molina’s innovative and dogged lab methods, resulted in identifying the human-made CFCs as a primary cause in reducing the concentration of ozone in the stratosphere, the upper layer of earth’s atmosphere.

This “ozone hole” as it came to be known, which caused UVB radiation to penetrate the stratosphere and reach the earth, was one of the first acknowledged human-caused global environmental disruptions. The impacts of increased UVB reaching the earth’s surface are significant—increased cases of skin cancer, disruption of plant growth, reductions in ocean phytoplankton that are the base of the marine food chain and increased deterioration of materials exposed to sunlight.

Twenty years after their discovery, Molina and Rowland, along with the Dutch atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen, won a Nobel Prize in chemistry. But Molina and Rowland did not just discover the relationship of CFCs to ozone depletion; they became activists for the control and elimination of CFCs and other ozone depleting compounds (ODCs). Their work and the efforts of other activists, countries and even companies led to President Reagan signing the Montreal Protocol in 1987, an international treaty phasing out the use of CFCs and other ODCs. Notably, it was the U.S., under the leadership of the Reagan State Department, that was a key leader in the successful negotiations over the treaty and it was Reagan that urged the Senate to ratify the treaty promptly as a signal to other nations to get onboard. Senate ratification followed Reagan’s quick signing on a voice vote with no opposition. Of the 39 cosponsors of the resolution of ratification, 10 were Republicans.

My first professional job was in the Chemical Control Division at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) headquarters. Fresh out of graduate school in 1980, I was assigned to the team developing regulations for the control of ODCs. The EPA and Food and Drug Administration (FDA) under President Carter acted quickly following publication of key papers in 1973 and 1974 describing the relationship of CFCs and related compounds to the depletion of the ozone layer. The agencies initially banned aerosol uses and then contracted with the RAND Corporation to analyze innovative ways of controlling and ultimately eliminating all other uses—uses that were much more deeply embedded in the American economy inside durable consumer goods (refrigerators, freezers, air conditioning units) and in manufacturing (solvents for electronics and military equipment).

Dupont, the major manufacturer of CFCs, organized opposition to regulating ozone depleting chemicals and went on a crusade against using innovative incentives for replacement substances. The company asked all of its customers who use CFCs to submit comments opposing any regulations, which resulted in over 10,000 comments to EPA, a record number at that point. One of my job responsibilities was to read and catalog incoming comments. My favorite was submitted by the owner of an air conditioning service and repair business based in Texas. Paraphrasing the closing remark in his comment, he argued that regulating CFCs would be equivalent to a “one-legged man in an ass-kicking contest.”

Before EPA could issue a draft regulation, Reagan trounced Carter in the 1980 election and all work stopped on the ODC regulations shortly before Reagan took office. While I had some work duties, the new EPA administrator, Ann Gorsuch, made it clear that new regulations were not on the Reagan administration’s agenda and that relaxation and elimination of regulations would be the focus. My time at EPA was up and I left in the summer of 1981.

In the period when EPA wasn’t moving all that quickly on the issue, some local governments were taking action. One was the City of Irvine in Orange County, California, a county not known for being progressive on environmental issues. The City passed a local ordinance restricting the use of CFCs within the City limits and created a Director of Environmental Affairs position with the responsibility of figuring out how to implement the ordinance. I was the person they hired. Irvine got a great deal of attention, partly because it was a planned community (population at the time was about 120,000) and partly because the community was perceived as primarily a white bread bedroom community. However, the Irvine Co., which created the initial planned community, had astutely incorporated a significant amount of industrial and commercial property with the goal of having a wide variety of jobs in relatively close proximity to residents. Few people knew that what appeared to be light industrial properties with “clean” business occupants was in reality contributing an estimated 3% of the total U.S. emissions of ozone depleting compounds in the late 1980’s. Irvine’s industrial base was heavy in electronics, military equipment and weapons, biomedical products and other users of CFCs as solvents and other ODCs as sterilization agents.

When I came to Irvine in early 1990, the City was looking to have these businesses find alternative ways of making their products and make steady progress towards elimination of CFCs and the other restricted substances. I was greeted by the City’s CFC advisory committee, on which sat Sherwood Rowland! I called on “Sherry” and his colleagues regularly in developing the implementation program. It didn’t take long for the City to begin making progress on reducing emissions. After I left at the end of 1992, EPA adopted regulations that superseded Irvine’s ordinance and continued the march towards elimination. DuPont got on the band wagon stopping production of CFCs and investing in alternative refrigerants and solvents. Today, about 98% of ODC use in the U.S. has been eliminated.

Mario Molina and Sherry Rowland never stopped arguing for action on the ozone depletion problem and they also called for action on global climate change. They and the scientists who worked with them and followed them have made a difference in the world. It is possible to address global environmental problems, it is possible to gain the consent of nations in a joint effort to save the planet and it is possible for political parties and politicians who do not typically share perspectives on the environment to coalesce around the need for action on a global threat.

I never met Mario Molina. I wish I could have shaken his hand and thanked him as I did with Sherry when I first met him in 1990. But I very much appreciate that Mario is just one of so many immigrants to this country who have made the U.S., and the world, a better place.

Packaging has many purposes, including product delivery (think shampoo in a bottle, milk in a carton), protection (cushioning for breakable products), safety (protection from inadvertent exposure), communication (product information) and marketing (product benefits and appeal). Some of these purposes are fulfilled once a sale has been completed, while others continue as long as the product remains usable. Every packaging solution is a balance between the intended purposes, functionality, aesthetics, and cost.

Environmental and social considerations are slowly coming into the equation for packaging, which is increasingly being viewed from a circular systems lens. This has prompted packaging developers to use more materials that can be recycled, which in turn presumes that consumers will be motivated to recycle the packaging, that there is a means to do so, and that once the packaging is collected, there are processors that will turn the packaging into a useful material that can be sold to create more packaging or other products.

None of this is a given.

On its own, using recyclable materials is not enough. What’s needed is a packaging system with three key elements:

1. Packaging materials that are made with recycled content and are readily recyclable and/or compostable

2. Technical means for collection and processing of recyclable packaging materials for further use

3. Markets for secondary uses of processed recycled materials including packaging—a virtuous circular system

It’s the last element that is particularly challenging as markets for recycled packaging materials can be highly volatile. And while there are multiple reasons for that volatility, one of the most significant reasons is the demand for recycled materials, which is fundamentally a demand for raw materials in manufacturing.

If factories aren’t running due to a global pandemic, no one will want to buy processed recycled material. Where a trade war disrupts established markets for recycled materials, alternative markets may not be able to absorb the surplus. And as countries that sought out recycled materials as cheap inputs to building industrial capacity mature into industrial powerhouses, lower quality materials may not find a home.

There are no easy answers to these challenges, but one possible approach to limiting global volatility in recycled materials for packaging is a threefold policy:

A) tax non-recycled content in packaging;

B) support Research & Development that improves collection and processing of recyclable materials; and

C) increase support for domestic manufacturing.

These policy tactics, technical improvements and regulations require heavy lifting and even government involvement, but they are achievable and offer immeasurable benefits to people and the planet.

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