recycling isn’t everything

I thought I should post this, after my enthusiasm for recycling in my last post: sometimes turning a waste stream into a marketable resource is a bad idea.  In fact, sometimes it’s a disaster.  Turns out, chemical companies thought about this a lot over the years, especially in the pre-regulation days.  In the 1940s and 1950s, Dow Chemical and Shell produced plastics from allyl chloride, and one of the by-products was a chemical called 1,2,3-trichloropropane (TCP).  Side research suggested that this compound could be added to a popular fumigant (Shell’s was called D-D, Dow’s was called Telone) without ill effects.  A Shell memo from 1981 suggests that the company made $6.3 million in fumigant sales, and saved $3.2 million in disposal costs for TCP.  In effect, the companies were able to use this waste as “filler” in a marketable good — perfect!

Originally the companies claimed that TCP was effective at killing nematodes, but subsequent research was unable to prove these claims.  In the meantime, the fumigants were used extensively in California’s Central Valley, where the compounds most resistant to degradation entered the groundwater, and the EPA, Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, and Superfund law all came into effect.  Furthermore, we know today that TCP is a carcinogen, and more than 200 water wells across the Central Valley have elevated levels of TCP.  Although Shell stopped selling D-D in the 1980s and Dow changed its Telone formula in the 1990s, TCP will persist in affected groundwater for years.  This means that there are quite a few lawsuits out there to force these two companies to pay for additional treatment for existing water supplies and for external water supplies where treatment is unavailable.   The companies already settled with one small municipality for $13 million, which suggests that there are a few more settlements headed their way…

So to be clear, recycling works when you’re not dealing with hazardous material that may become a human health risk in the future.  It does not work when you try to hide toxic materials in useful products.

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