Heroes, Sneakers and Bug Dust

Your cover article “Talking Trash” in the March/April 1997 issue said there were only two curbside recycling programs in the country in the early 1970s. Where were they?

—Bonnie Emerick, Chicago, IL

According to Neil Seldman, co-director of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, the two programs were in Marblehead, Massachusetts and Madison, Wisconsin. Seldman says that many cities had source separation in the 1940s (partly because of the war effort) but that these efforts dwindled to practically nothing in the postwar years. In 1967, Madison was the first city to reestablish curbside collection of newspapers, by installing special metal racks on the bodies of existing packer trucks.

Madison Street Superintendent Roger Goodwin says the pioneering newspaper program got started because the city was running out of viable landfill space. Madison also built one of the first waste-to-energy plants in 1974 for the same reason. Today, the “three Rs” are engrained in Madison's consciousness: The city recycles an impressive 49 percent of its residential waste, with 95 percent of the population taking part in the curbside recycling program.
Marblehead Director of Public Health Wayne Attridge says its curbside program, which began in 1973 with the first Earth Day as inspiration, included bottles, cans and newspapers. “It was definitely innovative,” Attridge says. The local League of Women Voters launched the program, aided by the nation's first Environmental Protection Agency recycling grant. Today, 84 percent of Marblehead's 20,000 residents recycle, taking advantage of the town's curbside and dropoff options.


Institute for Local Self-Reliance
2425 18th Street NW
Washington, DC 20009
Tel: (202) 232-4108

What is in Nike air heels? I hear the gas is environmentally damaging.

—Margaret Southgate, Hamilton, New Zealand

The active ingredient in Nike shoe airbags is sulfur hexafluoride, known as SF6. It's a popular man-made gas with a uniquely buoyant chemical structure, making it ideal for providing cushioning support in athletic shoes. Unfortunately, SF6 is also an unusually persistent global warming gas that is more damaging to the atmosphere (molecule by molecule) than carbon dioxide. Nike uses 288 tons of SF6 a year, accounting for one percent of worldwide production. “In 1992, we found out that SF6 hangs around in the atmosphere for a very long time,” says Dawn Leonetti, a spokeswoman for the company's Nike Environmental Action Team, “so we immediately began searching for an alternative.” Leonetti says Nike's replacement, chosen after an environmental study, is nitrogen, which will be housed in a redesigned air system. The nitrogen-filled airbags are scheduled to be phased in, with one third of production replaced this year, one third in 1999, and the rest in 2000. “It's excellent that they're phasing it out,” says Tarjei Haaland, a spokesperson for Greenpeace International, “but why not 100 percent this year?”


Nike Environmental Action Team
9000 SW Nimbus Drive
Beaverton, OR 97007
Tel: (503) 671-8044

How are pesticides, particularly malathion, dangerous?

—Mary J. Russell, Fort Peck, MT

Organophosphate pesticides (OPs), which include the widely-used insecticide malathion, are chemically related to nerve gases used during World War II. For decades, scientists have been debating their potential to cause birth defects, cancers, nearsightedness and genetic mutations. Studies have concluded that exposure to such pesticides is linked to non-Hodgkins lymphoma, particularly in flour mill workers and farmers. Aerial sprayings have caused allergic reactions or flu-like symptoms.

Malathion was developed by the Swiss chemical giant Ciba-Geigy back in the 1950s to be used as an agriculture crop insecticide, and for pest control use in homes and gardens. More than 15 million pounds are applied annually in the U.S., according to the Pesticide Action Network. But while such organophosphate pesticides are used to control crop-damaging insects—especially the Mediterranean fruit fly—they're also indiscriminate, killing beneficial bugs as well.

Pesticides are especially dangerous to children, who are more vulnerable to neurotoxins than adults, notes Kert Davies, pesticide specialist for the Environmental Working Group. “We recommend avoiding the use of any organophosphates in the home or garden,” he says. OPs, of which malathion is the weakest, are available in hardware stores under names like Dursban, diazinon, Sevin dust and Baygon. They're also widely used by exterminators.


Environmental Working Group
1718 Connecticut Avenue NW, Suite 600
Washington, DC 20009
Tel: (202) 667-6982

Pesticide Action Network North America
116 New Montgomery, Suite 810
San Francisco, CA 94105
Tel: (415) 541-9140