Week of 11/16/2003

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Can those ubiquitous paper and foil juice boxes be recycled?
—C.W. Gluck, Queens, NY

Juice box packaging, which is called "aseptic," was originally invented to safely ship foods without the need for refrigeration, and to recipients who lacked refrigeration. In fact, the invention has helped feed many needy people in the developing world. In America, the boxes are mostly a convenience, and their environmental impact is a mixed bag.

On the upside, the light, durable aseptic boxes have a higher product-to-packaging ratio than glass or aluminum cans, according to the Aseptic Packaging Council (APC), and the square shape allows for more efficient transport. Aseptic containers have no sharp edges and can be readily collapsed after use. Also, the opaque container protects the contents from the potentially harmful effects of light, which has been particularly valuable for sensitive soy products.

On the down side, most aseptic packages are made up of a mix of material: 70 percent paper, 24 percent polyethylene and six percent aluminum. As a result, the boxes are "relatively hard to recycle," says John Davis, president of California Resource Recovery Association. Davis says only those few recycling facilities that process polyethylene-coated paper—as found in milk cartons and frozen food paperboard—can handle aseptic containers. While the APC claims that more than 12 million U.S. households have the ability to recycle the material (there are 276 drop sites in 26 states), actual recycling rates are quite low. Since this type of packaging is such a small part of the waste stream (between .03 and .1 percent of the total), most recycling programs simply ignore it, says Davis. The recycleability of the technology has been so contentious that aseptic packages were even banned in Maine for a few years, although seven Maine communities now recycle them.

CONTACT: Aseptic Packaging Council, (800) 277-8088, www.aseptic.org; California Resource Recovery Association, www.crra.com

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Are silver dental fillings, which contain mercury, toxic?
—Erin Stills, Miami, FL

Despite their name, "silver" fillings are actually composed of about 50 percent mercury and 30 percent silver, with the remaining components divided among copper, tin, zinc and sometimes cadmium. Dozens of Americans have complained that the fillings have damaged their health through mercury poisoning, from causing shortness of breath, loss of energy, memory damage and even partial paralysis.

Silver fillings, which are also called amalgam, are cheap and easy to install, and the American Dental Association (ADA) reports that 76 percent of dentists use them. Although the ADA concedes that "a very small number of people" are allergic to the fillings, the group staunchly maintains, "Studies have failed to find any link between amalgam restorations and any medical disorder."

The ADA has long claimed that mercury remains chemically locked within the "extremely stable" fillings, but according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, "Very small amounts are slowly released from the surface of the filling due to corrosion or chewing or grinding motions." Although the agency agrees with the ADA that there is not yet scientific agreement on whether this exposure actually does cause health problems, it suggests that fillings may be risky for pregnant women, children and those with impaired kidney or immune function.

The citizen group, Consumers for Dental Choice, argues that mercury fillings do pose a significant threat to public health, and they are campaigning to end the practice. And despite strong industry opposition, Congresswoman Diane Watson (D-CA) introduced still-pending legislation in April 2002 that would ban all mercury-based dental amalgam within five years.

CONTACT: American Dental Association, www.ada.org; Consumers for Dental Choice, (202) 462-8800, www.swankin-turner.com/projects.html