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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

December 18, 1992

Air Date: December 18, 1992


Whither Recycled Plastic Toys / Henry Sessions

Henry Sessions of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports on why there aren't many toys made from recycled plastic and what manufacturers are doing to improve the state of the art. (05:54)

Low-Impact Gifts

Ideas for gifts which won't consume lots of resources or produce lots of waste. (03:22)

New Life for Old Christmas Trees

Steve reports on the movement by Communities and businesses across the country to steer discarded Christmas trees away from landfills and into mulching machines. (01:16)

The Roots of Christmas in Natures Rythms / Marian Weinstein

Steve talks with author Marian Weinstein about the origins of Christmas traditions in early Anglo-Saxon celebrations of the northern winter solstice, and about the influence of the solstice on the psychology of the season. (04:00)

Claus Enters Low-Emission Vehicle Market / John Reiger

John Reiger reports from Los Angeles on the latest entry in California's anti-smog sweepstakes. The new Claus zero-emission vehicle promises to make both gasoline and electric motors a thing of the past, but skeptics say it will never get off the ground. (05:04)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
REPORTERS: Diana Steele, Al Goodman, Henry Sessions, John Reiger
GUESTS: Marian Weinstein

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

This holiday season reflects some basic human biology for folks in the northern latitudes. We celebrate the shortest days and longest nights in ways that date back to long before the birth of Jesus.

WEINSTEIN: Everything from the Christmas tree to the Yule log to candles to mistletoe to holly to Santa Claus to reindeer comes from the pagan, Anglo-Saxon celebration of the solstice.

CURWOOD: Also this season, the search for gifts that go easy on the Earth and toys that use recycled plastic. And, news on a promising low-emission vehicle.

KLAUS: The vehicle, as you know, is pulled by reindeer, eight or in some cases nine, and is capable of traveling enormous distances in comparison to the electric car.

CURWOOD: This holiday week on Living on Earth, after this roundup of the news.

Environmental News

NUNLEY: I'm Jan Nunley with this week's environmental news.

The number of protected plants and animals will grow by half over the next four years under a settlement between environmental groups and the Federal Government. The groups accused the Interior Department of blocking protection of hundreds of endangered species. As Diana Steele reports from Washington, the deal assures a more comprehensive approach to protecting endangered species.

STEELE: Under the settlement, the government will look at protecting an entire ecosystem, rather than assessing the status of individual species. Both parties in the lawsuit say this approach makes more sense biologically and is more cost effective. But because this agreement doesn't have the force of law, environmental groups hope this multi-species strategy will be included in the Endangered Species Act when in comes up for reauthorization. The Act expired in September of this year, but reauthorization was put off until after the election. Some activists on both sides of the highly contentious issue say this settlement is not likely to affect the ongoing debate over reauthorization. They say most of the species to be listed under this settlement are plants, which don't receive the same degree of protection as animals on private land. For Living on Earth, I'm Diana Steele in Washington.

NUNLEY: After three years of negotiations the Federal Government has released its first plan to protect rapidly-falling shark populations. It bans the common practice of harvesting sharks for their fins alone, and tightens reporting requirements for fishermen. But Dr. William Fox of the National Marine Fisheries Service says it also contains more liberal fishing quotas for some sharks than activists wanted.

FOX: The data shows that the condition of sharks was not quite as bad as what our preliminary assessment had shown.

NUNLEY: That's drawn fire from the Center for Marine Conservation, which says some shark species are living on "borrowed time. "

Weeks after the tanker accident in La Caruna Harbor, beaches along 125 miles of Spanish coastline are still coated with oil. Officials say it will take years for the local fishing industry to rebound. The Greek tanker, Aegean Sea, lost twice as much oil as spilled from the Exxon Valdez, but as Al Goodman reports from Madrid, authorities aren't sure how much of that oil actually ended up in the water.

GOODMAN: The ship was carrying 80,000 tons of oil when it ran aground during a storm. Most of the oil aboard was lost, but officials don't know just how much of it spilled into the water, and how much of it burned during a fire on the ship. Salvage crews have only recovered a fraction of the original cargo. Several thousand idled fishing industry workers are due to receive small stipends from the European Community and from local authorities. The Spanish government has not declared the coast a disaster area, but it promised nine million dollars to clean up the beaches. The government is trying to prove negligence by the ship's captain. He blames the accident on bad weather. For Living on Earth, this is Al Goodman in Madrid.

NUNLEY: A "baby boom" has forced the Chinese Government to revise its population goals. The official target for the year 2000 was 1.2 billion people. But the government says with a big increase in the number of women in their prime childbearing years they expect to miss that target by at least 100 million people.

This is Living on Earth.

New taxes on fossil fuels and gasoline have until recently been taboo in Washington. But they're being discussed by President-elect Clinton's economics advisors. Clinton rejected a carbon tax during the campaign, but at the economic summit in Little Rock, his choice for assistant budget director, Alice Rivlin, said the idea should be put on the table.

RIVLIN: We should be looking at taxing the things that we don't want to have happen - pollution, and excessive use of energy - that means perhaps gas taxes, perhaps carbon taxes, and we should look at that as an alternative to taxing the things we do want to have happen, such as more jobs and more income.

NUNLEY: Rivlin was echoed by business leaders at the summit, including the heads of Alcoa Aluminum and Union Pacific. The summit indicated that Clinton will try to make good on pledges to coordinate environmental and economic policies. Among the themes discussed at the parley was energy conservation as a spur to both a cleaner environment and a healthy economy. Dick Clark is president of Pacific Gas and Electric.

CLARK: We could save 32 to 120 billion dollars a year in people's electric bills. It also helps our businesses be more competitive, and another very positive aspect to this - we estimate a half a million new jobs could be created in this sector of energy efficiency in the next five or six years, and a million jobs out through the year 2010.

NUNLEY: Vice President-elect Al Gore also spoke in favor of environmental efficiency, but he and Clinton avoided specific policy statements at the summit.

A sixteen-hundred and thirty-six year-old yellow cedar has been identified as Canada's oldest tree, after it was felled during a clear cut and left behind as wastewood. The tree, which grew on British Columbia's Vancouver Island, took root as Christianity was first being adopted by the Roman Empire.

That's this week's environmental news. I'm Jan Nunley.

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Whither Recycled Plastic Toys

CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

Ah, yes. The holidays. Friends, relatives, wonderful gatherings, and for children's gifts, toys, toys, and more toys. Now there are some folks who have the time to make toys, or buy them from artisans who craft them from wood and cotton and other materials that can be recycled or renewed. But the bulk of us buy toys which our kids see advertised on television. And these are made with brand new plastic, from Nintendo control decks to Barbie dolls. And when they break they're tossed out, never to be used again.

Well, some toymakers have become concerned about using all that virgin plastic, and are seeking ways to use recycled resins in their goods. Henry Sessions of Oregon Public Broadcasting has our story.

VOICE OF CHILD: And we have a little sink here, and it says "cold" or "hot", and...

SESSIONS: Any six year old can tell you there's a lot of plastic in a kid's playroom. Six-year old Megan Barnes of Portland says her favorite toy is a play oven she got for her fourth birthday.

SESSIONS: What's this thing made out of?
BARNES: It's made out of plastic, and sort of it looks like glass, but it's really plastic, white plastic.

SESSIONS: Megan's rollerskates, her doll houses, her dolls and toy cars are all made of plastic. American toy manufacturers use up 800 million pounds of plastic a year - one and a half percent of all the plastic used in the country.

A trip to a few Portland toy stores suggests that recycled plastic doesn't seem to be making it into the toy mix.

SESSIONS: Do you carry recycled plastic toys?
VOICE OF TOY STORE CLERK: I honestly don't know ... (laughs)
SESSIONS: Have you ever heard of any recycled plastic toys?
CLERK: No. I'm just an employee here.
SESSIONS: Do you have any recycled plastic toys?
CLERK: I don't know, but I could get the manager, and he could answer that for you.

SESSIONS: The manager didn't know either. Karen Lettenman, the buyer at Finnegans, a bustling toy store in downtown Portland, says she'd love to carry recycled plastic toys - if she could find any.

LETTENMAN: Lately I've seen one or two mentions of toys, but I haven't found any yet. No salesman has brought any to me yet, and I haven't been able to find them yet.

SESSIONS: That's because there's little to find. Toy companies have long used recycled plastic for interior parts of toys, the undercarriage of a toy car for example. But toy companies have been reluctant to use recycled plastic where consumers can see it. With good reason. Linda Howe is vice president of a Portland company called Molded Container Corporation, a small plastics manufacturer whose main products are yogurt cups and margarine tubs. The company has recently begun stamping out yoyos, flying discs, and sand pails made of 100 percent recycled plastic. The problem is, the company receives a multi-colored mixture of recycled milk jugs and discarded plastic from other manufacturers. Howe says the technology for recycling this plastic is still primitive. So all the company's toys come out black.

HOWE: As long as we have to make the recycled black, there's gonna be the resistance to that product replacing the virgin material. To take something that's a neon pink and try to sell it on the idea making it out of recycled material, it's probably going to be a pretty hard sell at this point, until there's better sorting and different sorting, and more recycled material available.

SESSIONS: You won't find the company's yoyos in any toy store. Molded Container sells the toys to garbage and recycling companies and municipalities, who in turn distribute them to their customers to promote recycling. Aesthetically, the black beach buckets and yoyos can't measure up to the slick neon products made out of virgin plastic, but as Howe's colleague at Molded Container, John Normandon, demonstrates, they work just as well.

NORMANDON: Yeah, it goes up and down, just like it's supposed to. I did hurt myself once with a yoyo, so I have to watch out for that.

SESSIONS: Howe says the company is working on ways to make its recycled products more attractive to consumers. What could make recycled plastic more attractive to big toy companies is that it's cheap, often costing less than virgin plastic. And as consumers get better and better at cleaning, separating, and recycling their plastic items, and as more consumers get into the act, it'll just get cheaper. Jerry Powell is editor of Resource Recycling Magazine, a trade magazine for the recycling industry.

POWELL: No one who makes recycled plastic toys would step forward if they didn't think that the recycling supply is there. Americans have proven that they will set out the materials. Now American industry has to prove that it will use the materials.

SESSIONS: Some big toy companies have begun using more recycled materials in their packaging. But spokesmen at two of the biggest companies, Hasbro and Lego, say until the recycled plastics become more attractive, they probably won't start using them on a widespread basis. Jerry Powell says the technology to turn recyclables into a quality raw material that can be colored is being developed and should be available on a large scale in a few years. Until then he says it'll be up to small companies like Molded Container to prove there's profit in recycled plastics.

For Living on Earth, this is Henry Sessions in Portland.

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Low-Impact Gifts

CURWOOD: Last year at Christmas I got a wonderful gift, most of it recyclable. Part of it was my friend's smile and hug as he came by my home late Christmas morning to see my children and me. And part of it came in a glass jar, which he left behind filled with delicious homemade applesauce. My friend worries about the environment, and he likes to give gifts that are eco-friendly, though he's careful not to moralize. For years I helped make fruit cakes to give away until it got kinda boring and I got too busy, so I found myself wondering, what do other folks do?

DADD: I'm Debra Lynn Dadd, and I'm the author of The Non-Toxic Home and Office. I have given family members in the past things like tickets to events, like tickets to the opera, or a special dinner out, so that they can have a special experience instead of having just another thing. One gift that I like a lot was, a friend of mine's mother baked bread for a friend of hers once a week for a year, and she was baking the bread anyway for herself, and she baked an extra loaf to give.

AUSTIN: I'm Dick Austin, an environmental theologian with the Appalachian Ministries Educational Resource Center. I've got a couple of granddaughters, and a couple of years ago for Christmas I made a tape of Charlotte's Web, and read the book on tape and sent it to my granddaughter, because I'm not with her enough to read it to her in person. I got a lot of fun out of doing that, and I think she got a lot of fun out of listening to it.

PEERMAINE: My name is Elisa Peermaine. I am a professional storyteller, and I'm a new mother. I do pressed flowers, I go out in the summer and collect things and then in the winter I make things out of them to give to people. I love going out into the wild and collecting, and then the pressing is fun, and seeing them when they come out of the press - it's a very peaceful, unstressful activity, which is a total opposite of most of my life.

EDWARD: My name is David Edward, and I am president of the Body Shop, Inc. To be honest with you, more recently I have been making donations in people's names to various charities: Gay Men's Health Crisis is the recipient this year of some contributions in other people's names.

DUMANOSKI: I'm Diane Dumanoski, and I write about environmental issues for the Boston Globe. In many cases, we're giving services instead of material presents. One year we decided we were going to get my father a load of goat manure for his garden. So we not only got the goat manure, but we actually delivered it and helped spread it.

MOODY: My name's Rick Moody, and I'm a writer, and I decided this year that for my nephew I would try to write him a children's book. Even though it's like a cheap gift and it only comes in black and white. It's called The Legendary Chompers, and it's about a gigantic whale that can't stop consuming things. It's about the desire to not eat everything you see on Christmas.

SMALL: This is Fred Small in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I'm a singer-songwriter and environmental activist. There's an urban legend, of course, that there are only a certain number of fruitcakes in circulation, and that these have been passed back and forth from family to family, because nobody actually eats the fruitcake. They just give it to somebody else the next year. So that, I think, is entirely in line with an environmentalist approach of reduce, reuse, and recycle.

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(Music up and under)

New Life for Old Christmas Trees

CURWOOD: Let's face it. One of the touchiest holiday issues for eco-purists can be Christmas trees. It's all well and good to buy a live tree, complete with a ball of earth, if you have both the open land and the strong back needed to plant it afterward. But barely 5 percent of folks in the US buy live Christmas trees, and that leaves more than 30 million baby spruces, firs and pines that go straight from the ax into our living rooms, and then out with the trash, often wrapped in a plastic bag.

But wait, says Deborah Gangloff, vice president of American Forests in Washington, don't throw that tree into the trash, instead find out if your community has a chipping service that will turn it into mulch.

GANGLOFF: There are probably hundreds of communities across the country that do have recycling programs. The absolute worst thing you can do with a beautiful organic Christmas tree, even though it's dead, is to put into a plastic bag and send it to a landfill. That does absolutely no good. It takes up landfill space and you've missed out on the opportunity of creating organic mulch from that tree.

CURWOOD: So there it is, from the American Forests group: mulch that tree. Christmas trees make a heavenly scented mulch that is used by municipalities for trees and shrubs on public lands. Some places even give you the mulch back for your own garden. If you want to know if your town has a mulching program, or if you'd like to start one, call your local public works department.

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(Music up and under)

The Roots of Christmas in Natures Rythms

CURWOOD: The holiday season can also be a reminder of the view that human beings were designed for nature, and not vice versa. Just as the human circadian rhythm closely matches the length of the day, and the menstrual cycle parallels the cycle of the moon around the earth, the shortest day of the year at the northern latitudes comes within a few days of Christmas and Hanukkah. Indeed, the second day of Hanukkah this year is the winter solstice. Now, is the human propensity to celebrate at the solstice a part of our biology?

Marian Weinstein of New York City is a student of ancient pagan rites. She says almost everything about Christmas is based on the ancient pagan and instinctual responses to the northern winter solstice.

WEINSTEIN: All the Christmas celebrations, except of course masses and images of the cross, everything else comes from the pagan, Anglo-Saxon celebration of the solstice. Everything from the Christmas tree to the yule log to candles to mistletoe to holly to Santa Claus to reindeer - all of it, every single little bit of it is from the ancient, mid-winter solstice celebration in Europe.

CURWOOD: So, what is the solstice then say about us as human beings designed for nature, do you think?

WEINSTEIN: Wintertime really has all the images around us of death. Plants die, crops are finished, leaves die, trees are bare, many animals die, others seem to die because they hibernate. The life cycle of many creatures is over. Many migrate, so they seem to be gone. So it's really about death. But it's also about rebirth. You see, in the modern vision of death, death is really seen sort of as an end. But in the ancient pagan tradition death and rebirth are seen as one thing, one turn of the wheel. And that's what the solstice celebrates, in one moment the death and rebirth of the sun and the planet. So we're not only part of a dying planet, we're part of a rebirthing planet.

CURWOOD: Why this frenzy for gifts in our culture?

WEINSTEIN: That comes from ancient Rome, from a New Year's celebration that was around that time, and it's an expression of love, and an expression of a new beginning, because the word for "solstice" and the world for "wheel" in ancient Anglo-Saxon language is "Yule" - y-u-l-e - and all ancient calendars from all peoples are round. They're wheels. They're circles. And the ancient calendar that I'm talking about, the Yule, is a round wheel which turns, and it has eight spokes on it, and those are the eight holidays, the eight great holidays, and those are the eight turning points from one season into another. The way to celebrate the turning of the Yule would be to give gifts to the people you love.

CURWOOD: One thing that I wonder about the solstice is that Christmas seems very intense in Europe and the United States, and places where there's a dramatic difference in the length of day. And I'm wondering if that's in fact the reason that it is so intense, because of the length of day. Do you think?

WEINSTEIN: I think so. I think it's very important. I think that, you know, all the depression, and the hollowness and the down side of the Christmas season could be fixed in one minute if people stopped and acknowledged the meaning of the solstice. To just acknowledge that the earth is being reborn and the sun is returning. And just that idea on its deepest level is enough to really cheer you up. The whole idea, when people get freaked out and upset in this culture, is when they forget that they're part of the earth.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you very much. Marian Weinstein is author of Positive Magic.

WEINSTEIN: Well, it's been wonderful talking with you. And Happy Solstice, everybody.

CURWOOD: Oh, thank you.

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(Music up)

Claus Enters Low-Emission Vehicle Market

CURWOOD: California may be getting a special gift this season. The state's known for its tough stands against air pollution, and has challenged manufacturers to come up with non-polluting vehicles. From Los Angeles, Living on Earth contributor John Reiger reports engineers are now ringing the bells for a traditional propulsion system that could become the wave of the clean air future.

VOICE OF GERMAN INDUSTRIALIST: I am pleased to announce that we have received approval to operate a new vehicle in the state of California...

REIGER: This was the scene at the Airport Holiday Inn in Los Angeles earlier this month, as Wilhelm Klaus, 46-year old head of the Polaris Group, announced that the family-owned toy and transportation giant would enter the zero-emissions vehicle market with a prototype vehicle that uses neither gasoline nor electricity.

KLAUS: We are extremely optimistic about the success of our design, which we have been developing for many years. The vehicle, as you know, is pulled by reindeer, eight or in some cases nine, and is capable of traveling enormous distances in comparison to the electric car. By eliminating both the fuel tank and the battery array, we have allowed for really huge cargo space. And of course, there's no problem with parking, since even homes here in California have a roof.

REIGER: The dapper and sophisticated Klaus makes a striking contrast to his affable and white-bearded father, from whom he took over the reins just ten years ago. But it has proven to be a decade of remarkable change for the Polaris Group, in many ways.

KLAUS: Of course, there have been changes since my father's day. He was a jolly, fat man, a beloved man. I am perhaps more of a business man. Maybe I am not so beloved. Of course we also now run fleets of these vehicles. It is no longer a one-man operation as it was in my father's day. However, I feel that the Polaris Group is continuing on in the tradition of my father's good work.

REIGER: Nowhere is the spirit of change more apparent than here, the state-of-the-art vehicle manufacturing and animal husbandry facility in Anaheim, California, where Polaris will build the new vehicle. I toured the plant with American manager Bill Rudolph.

RUDOLPH: We chose Anaheim primarily for its workforce, which we felt would be able to adapt to what we're trying to do. We're striving for a flatter organization with more room for worker input, and more than that, an environment in which worker creativity is nurtured and can grow and contribute to the process.

REIGER: Amid the optimism, a number of questions remain to be resolved, and Polaris' future in the vehicle industry is far from assured. Skeptics have questioned whether the vehicle, developed and tested in extremely cold conditions, will work in California, where there is little snow. The eight reindeer that power the vehicle could require as much as a hundred pounds of hay and grain each day. At present, neither fueling stations nor the vast delivery infrastructure to support a substantial number of vehicles exists. But California Department of Transportation spokesperson Lester Frank says that finding answers to questions like these is the purpose of a prototype program.

FRANK: It's true that a number of important questions about fuel and maintenance and so on do need to be answered, but the same is true of the electric car. We feel that as regulators, our job is to encourage the market to find solutions to California's need for a practical zero-emissions vehicle.

REIGER: But others are not so sanguine. Thea Hansen is a transportation specialist with the Washington-based consumer group, Citizens Alarm.

HANSEN: The market can only decide once all the costs are counted. And in this case, that can't happen. Because this is being sold as a zero-emissions vehicle, when in fact, it is not. Reindeer emissions include substantial amounts of methane, which is a significant factor in global warming, as well as large volumes of solid waste, which will be aerially discharged by these flying vehicles over a wide area - a prospect which we believe the public will view with genuine and justified alarm. Ultimately, we think a zero-emissions vehicle, powered by flying reindeer, is a fantasy. About as likely to materialize as cold fusion or the Easter Bunny.

KLAUS: Well, of course, every child can tell you that this will work. In answer to the second question, we are aware of a vocal minority that has been saying "not in my back yard." We think that the majority of Californians, however, are tired of this so-called NIMBYism standing in the way of meaningful progress. So we will go ahead. We are prepared to go to court if necessary to make this revolutionary vehicle available to the maximum number of people both here in California and eventually in the United States as a whole.

REIGER: The Polaris Group has announced that the first California-built vehicles are expected to fly off the line in 1995. Meanwhile, the company says several imported prototypes will be flying this December.

For Living on Earth, I'm John Reiger in Los Angeles.

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(Music up)

CURWOOD: Well, happy holidays from all of us here at Living on Earth. Let us know what you think about our program. Write to us, at Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 02238. That's Living on Earth, Box 639, Cambridge, Massachusetts. 02238. Or give us a call on our listener line, at 617-868-7454. That's 617-868-7454. Transcripts and tapes are available for ten dollars.

Living on Earth is edited and produced by Peter Thomson. Our director is Debra Stavro. The coordinating producer is George Homsy, and our production team includes Kim Motylewski, Lucia Small, Colleen Singer Cox and engineers Laurie Azaria, Gary Waleik and Chris Barry. A special thanks to Barbara Vierrow. Our theme music was composed by Michael Aharon. Living on Earth is a project of the World Media Foundation, in co-operation with the Public Media Foundation and WBUR, Boston. I'm Steve Curwood, executive producer.

(Theme music up and under funding credits)


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