The Hollowing, and an Information Democracy

“Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow…”
— The Hollow Men, T.S. Eliot

“A world of made is not a world of born…”
pity this busy monster, manunkind, e.e. cummings

“All there is to thinking is seeing something noticeable which makes you see something you weren’t noticing which makes you see something that isn’t even visible.”
— A River Runs Through It, Norman Maclean

Sometimes trivial events are telling. I went looking for Lincoln Logs for Maya a little while ago, only to find that they are now not logs at all, but instead sad, cardboard-and-plastic affairs, with only the flimsiest relationship to the simple wooden toys of my childhood.

But the truth of what’s happened to the building blocks of our lives is far sadder than that. We make our consumption choices inside the bubble of a globalized, mass culture, on a steroid dose of marketing, with much of the information about how things are made and what they really cost us surgically removed. We can watch a video about “gangnam style” from the other side of the planet, and be exhilarated by vast quantities of information on the Interwebs and our fast life on an information highway, yet, curiously, we have no idea where most of the stuff around us comes from.

In fact, we have been carefully taught to screen out the material of our immediate world, to focus on whatever problem is assigned to us and nothing else. When we go to work, do we ask why the coffee is not organic or fair trade, or where the desks and carpets and chairs came from and what’s in them? Of course we don’t. If we go to some affair by a well-meaning charity, and the hors d’oeuvres are being passed, do we stop someone to inquire where the salmon is from, or whether the waitstaff is unionized? No, of course not. We look past the moment and write a check for social change.

This is no accident, of course. We are afraid of bringing on a confrontation, of making a fuss or asking too much. And the very purpose of the system is to keep us distracted and in the dark. Of course, there are notable and note-worthy exceptions. Students who noticed that they no longer wanted sweatshops making their university garb organized and made real progress in building a fair trade alternative. Organic foods were scarce only a decade ago and now can be found in nearly any real store. There are burgeoning movements about a new ruralism and biodynamic farming, about minimalism in consumption, and a new attention to DIY and upcycling, to slowness and conscientious choice.

These healthier signs notwithstanding, I don’t think it’s mere nostalgia about a more authentic past to suggest that we are living, today, inside an ersatz construction. Inside this simulacrum, we eat food, only to find out that it is mostly from a laboratory, rife with chemicals, gums and cheap substitutions, or from an industrial farm, and loaded with antibiotics, growth hormones, and cruelty to both farmworkers and animals. Even healthy food can now evidently be defined, as in a hotly contested government report, as containing only 50 percent of something recognizable as food (the agribusiness complex argued 50 percent was too high! In food for children!).

We buy furniture made mostly of pressboard and glue from someplace like Office Depot or Ikea, built for obsolescence and destined for a landfill rather than re-use. In fact, as you may have noticed, should some part arrive damaged, the company will ship you a whole new version of the item and won’t even bother to pick the faulty piece up — because while these items are costly, they are without any real value.

Our ‘tweens make “haul” videos of their most newly acquired pile of “fast fashion” clothes, constructed to last one season, and made somewhere else by people working (and sometimes dying) in deplorable, dangerous conditions, by suppliers that pollute the local waterways with toxic dyes and other chemicals. All of our plastics, as well as many of the chemicals and even some food additives, are actually byproducts of the petrochemical industry, thus making us pay them for the privilege of treating our bodies (and oceans) like oil company disposal facilities.

In sum, there has been an unmistakeable and steady hollowing of our lives. While the things around us look, more or less, the same as they did for our parents, with updated styling, there is far less to them in many ways — less wood, less actual food, less intention and care — and far more miles and sleight-of-hand.

The new equation combines the sped-up pace of global capital and the push to find a penny — or a fraction of a penny — from some new process, waste material or lab invention with ready markets ripe for exploitation in parts of the world that lack environmental and labor standards. We are then offered its glittering products, free of worldly taint or complex information. This is what the market wants, we are told. It’s convenient, modern, helpful — even necessary.

But is it really what we want? To be rather numb to the world immediately around us? To have the suffering of strangers quietly but insistently on the edge of our consciousness? To live inside the choices corporations have already made for us without questioning what other world there could have been?

There is, in fact, an alternative, and we already have many of the tools to make it so. We should imagine — and work to bring about — a future of radically unfettered information, and of a particular kind of augmented reality. Think a UPC code on every product, scannable with a smart phone, that brings up the full contents of what a purchase actually means for you and in the world: all of the components, environmental impacts, human health and safety issues, worker safety, life-cycle cradle-to-grave impacts, corporate policies, and even video images of the factory in which something is made, as well as maps of where it came from and how it traveled through space and time to the shelf. Nutritional or other helpful information in context with comparable items (hello, Fooducate), and even the full scoop on what the packaging is made of and its life-cycle.

This would help to foster responsibility all the way down the supply chain, and change the fundamentals of our economy to be both healthier and more sustainable. While many consumers may not care about such details, of course, enough would be impacted by the information to make better choices, and perhaps even to agitate for more accountable corporate and government policies. The agribusiness industry has fought labeling for genetically modified foods and country-of-origin labels tooth and nail for years out of just such a fear: the fear that consumers will care.

And corporations would have to compete in a world of information equality. With supply chains exposed, the quality of their goods and the ways in which they were made would be the distinguishing factors. Governments, which seem so sadly behind the pace of change and the risks, and too often end up being the keepers of corporations’ secrets thanks to outmoded policies on confidential information, could enforce existing rules far easier and dream of responding to new threats in real time.

Despite the fact that we humans have made many of the things now in our lives — we built the buildings, made the appliances, constructed the electronic gizmos and gadgetry — we have no record of what’s in our world. Instead, epidemiologists and allergists and others who study disease go on measuring things like our body burden for toxic chemicals, or the quality and contents of our water or air, and oncologists and other medical specialists go on treating the cancers we get from who-knows-what. To make connections will require rapid advances in both how the body works and what is impacting our health. This is not a medical problem or an environmental problem — it is an information problem.

Neither the government’s systems of protections nor the marketplace can function well when the signals about the differences in choices or products are so muddled. Consumers today — even ones trying to do the right thing — have to effectively get a PhD in multiple sciences, read past labels, ignore misleading greenwashing, and keep up with the latest findings from watchdog groups just to figure out which household cleaner won’t hurt their child. Better companies suffer in this environment, as their sacrifices are lost in the noise, and the engine of consumer choice cannot be harnessed as it could be to drive meaningful change.

In short, the information revolution must make transparent our lives and choices. People working on access to information and the quality of public information should be working together strategically to dismantle the barriers — including current rules about intellectual property and confidential business information, gag orders and secret settlements in court, and labeling omissions that shield hidden or vague ingredients in products and product packaging.

There is a massive agenda here for change, of course. But people working on these issues should knit them powerfully together, in the way that advocates addressing the climate crisis know that they are working on the same issue whether they are combating drilling in the Arctic or local zoning laws.

The changes wrought by open information in the political economy — both within companies and in Washington — could be profound. I humbly submit, as one who’s labored in those trenches, that these types of solutions may prove more potent than some classic “good government” proposals. Publishing more details of the appalling record on corporate lobbying, powerful as it is, often triggers cynicism and resignation among voters. It highlights a government that is remote, making decisions on high and impacted by power in ways that ordinary people cannot compete with. And the best campaign finance reforms have, sadly, been taken off-line by recent Supreme Court decisions that crippled critical aspects of their design.

If corporations are people for political purposes, as the high Court, in its limited wisdom, has prescribed, well, it seems to me a pity that they now know so much about us while we really know so little of them. Equipping consumers with actionable information on corporate accountability speaks to the choices they make every day. If accompanied by thorough reporting to government bodies, enabling them to form a more complete picture, the impact could be substantial, perhaps even transformative.

In the end, what else do we have except for what we do in the world? Making it mean something to us, all the way down, and seeing what it does mean, is a task most worthy of us, our markets, and our public institutions.

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I’ll be writing more on this subject in the coming months. Please send your ideas for posts on corporate secrecy and public access to information and the nexus to public and environmental health.

Some related posts:

The Safest Sippy Cups, Ever…

To sip, to sup, to drink from a cup…

One of our issues with transitioning from a bottle has been our extended search for a sippy cup that doesn’t raise environmental health concerns. As you can see, we’ve collected a shocking number of options, a few of which were inherited.

Yet none, really, are perfect. The ideal sippy cup would be: 1) totally safe to drink liquids from after being washed repeatedly in the dishwasher; 2) durable; 3) comfortable for a young toddler to use; 4) an aid in teaching a child how to drink from a cup. This is harder to find than you might think, given that we, as a society, evidently saw the need to make this other ridiculous thing first.

So ok, generally, it may be that we are not supposed to use sippy cups for our kids. Whatev. I don’t know a family that skips ’em entirely, given the propensity of small children to spill anything even remotely liquid-like (all over their brand-new jumper from Grandma, just before leaving the house). But if you’re one of those rare, and admittedly far superior, families, then you can just hang out calmly in your unnatural Zen-like environment while you await my upcoming post on greener ways to store food at home.

In the meantime, while I’ve hardly found the best sippy cups, “ever,” I think I’ve spotted some of the good, the bad and the dubious. I scored the sippy cups I’m reviewing below on three major areas, worth a total of 5 points each: 1) environmental health; 2) transparency; and 3) durability and use. (I’ll put the scoring system at the bottom of the post, for those who regularly indulge their inner nerd and are just dying to see how I made the call on points.)

The winning types (based on my not-at-all-scientific and freshly invented scoring system) are basically the ones mostly made of stainless steel. From the top —

First Tier

  • Pura Infant and Toddler Kiki stainless steel bottles: Pura bottles come with a silicone nipple and all stainless steel components, and come in two sizes (5 and 11 ounces) and in colors as well as plain stainless steel. (There are also adult bottles with a stainless steel cap in the interior of the bottle.) While stainless steel can leach as explained below, the company claims this product has no leaching of heavy metals in tests. There are also new silicone covers that slip onto the outside, to address parents’ complaints that the bottles got too cold in the fridge, presumably. The nipple that comes with it is very much like a bottle nipple with a slightly adjusted shape, but has basically no flow control and is fast and open to spills (see the picture at the top for the shape). The ring and size do also accommodate a wide range of other nipples on the market for baby bottles. There were consumer complaints on Amazon due to sharp edges on the ring, but ours has no such issue, so I wonder if this has been addressed by a company re-design. In addition, there were stories of paint chipping off the colored ones (which seems to be consistent problem with enameled stainless products), so we got the plain silver. I also liked the completeness of the company’s information on its Website on the environmental health issues. We hand-wash the nipple, but put the ring and bottle in the dishwasher. Overall, while it has some use and convenience issues, this product is as close as it gets to good in this marketplace. Score: Environmental health: 5; Transparency: 5; Durability/use: 1 = 11 out of 15.
  • Klean Kanteen toddler bottles: This product does have some plastic on the sippy part. But the company is highly transparent, putting the type of plastic on its Web site, and identifying it as polypropylene (number 5), which is generally considered a safer and non-leaching plastic. And KK is waging a “I love boobies” campaign, which you just gotta like. (For adult bottles, I’ll note that they also have an entirely stainless steel option for caps.) The flow rate here is fast, and some of the bottles are a bit too big around for younger toddlers to hold properly. Consumers on Amazon raised two main issues: that the plastic ring can crack if dropped, and that the bottle leaks and is too cold from the fridge. There are replacement rings for sale, but that is understandably a pain, and the other issues could be a problem if you are inclined to let the child nurse a sippy cup over the day or store it in the fridge. Since we give Maya a drink and monitor the situation to remove it from her mischievous grasp the minute she seems ready to paint the floor with liquid, the leaking is not as much an issue for us, though I do wish there was a cover of some kind for putting it in the diaper bag. We handwash the plastic parts, but put the bottle in the dishwasher. The company notes that it recommends plain silver for families with toddlers who chew on things, although the acrylic paint is, they claim, safe (consumers also note a chipping problem here). Score: Environmental Health: 3; Transparency: 5; Durability/use: 3 = 11 out of 15.

Second tier

  • Lifefactory 4-ounce and 9-ounce glass bottles: These glass bottles of borosilicate glass (which is less breakable) with silicone sleeves are now made in Poland, France and the U.S., depending on the components. We use ours with a bottle nipple, but parents evidently love these smaller ones for babies. For some reason, Amazon’s listing for the sippy caps as a stand-alone product drew complaints that they break, that the valves are difficult to use, and that they leak. In terms of what plastic is used for the sippy caps, strangely, the Lifefactory Web site doesn’t say, although it provides a lot of other good information, and does indicate that the baby products are “bisphenol-A (BPA), phthalate, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) free.” In response to my email, the company let me know the sippy caps are polypropylene, a safer form of plastic. Obviously, glass is a safe container for liquids, so long as it does not break, and in our experience, the silicone sleeve would be protective against all but the most ticked-off child who deliberately throws the bottle into a brick wall. We put our bottle in the dishwasher, but have removed the sleeve even though the company indicates that you don’t need to do so. If we had a lot of these, we’d have to rethink this step, because getting the sleeve back on is a chore. Score: Environmental Health: 3; Transparency: 3; Durability/use: 3 = 9 out of 15.
  • Crocodile Creek Drinking Bottles: These are really for older kids (rated 3 plus years), so a friend, not us, owns this type. They are a 10-ounce stainless steel bottle with cute exterior painted designs, a plastic lid and a pull-up spout. The company’s Web site indicates that: “our drinking bottles are made of high-quality stainless steel #304. The lid is HDPE#2 and the cap is PP#5. All materials are completely recyclable and are lead-free, phthalate-free, BPA-free and PVC-free.” According to consumer reviews, they cannot go into the dishwasher, have been know to dent and leak, and to have badly chipping paint after limited use. In addition, one reviewer talked about a metallic taste with acidic juices after some hours in the bottle. Still, at least the interior (unlike the Sigg bottles I’ll discuss below) is stainless steel and not aluminum with a interior plastic overlay. So while they look similar to Sigg bottles, they are the better type of this product. Score: Environmental Health: 3; Transparency: 4; Durability/use: 2 = 9 out of 15.

  • Thermos Foogo Phases Leak Proof Stainless Steel Sippy Cup: This 7-ounce cup (the blue and yellow one in the picture) has an acceptable flow, fits nicely in a toddler’s hands, and has a stainless steel body with a plastic top. It is insulated, and allegedly is safe for hot and cold beverages and will maintain temperature for house. About the plastics, the company’s materials say: “these containers are made from FDA-approved materials, and all of their plastic components are BPA-free.” Upon my email request, they told me that the plastics are “polypropylene which is BPA and PVC free,” and this listing of the product by MightyNest says that they are  pthalate-free (though made in China). Maya likes this cup, though she also likes to push the spout through all the way, spilling its contents everywhere. On Amazon, a few consumers reported leaks, many said the insulation didn’t really work, and one reported that the spout had become black, moldy, “sticky and brittle.” We handwash this cup generally, but occasionally have put the bottle base only through the dishwasher. Score: Environmental Health: 3; Transparency: 3; Durability/use: 3 = 9 out of 15.
  • Kid Basix Safe Sippy 2: (This is the green and orange one above.) This sippy comes with a conversion to a straw set-up and is a nice shape and size, with an acceptable flow rate for toddlers and a cap for travel. There are a set of complicated valves that come with it that I’ve never bothered to use. While the Website has some information on the plastics used, which are pthalate- and BPA-free, I had to write them a note to get more information on the plastics, and here’s what they said: “There is no PVC in the cup or any of its parts. The Cap, Lid, Spout and Handles are made of #5 Polypropylene. The Straw is made of LDPE #4.” (These are generally considered safer plastics; more info about these plastics by number and their safety is below.) We handwash this cup and have had no issues, really, outside of that small inconvenience. However, consumer complaints on Amazon indicate frustration about missing all the small pieces and parts, and a number of them raise an issue about a persistent, gross milk smell that seems related to bacteria trapped between the plastic cover and bottle, and that is not resolved by repeated trips through the dishwasher. Score: Environmental Health: 3; Transparency: 3; Durability/Use: 2 = 8 out of 15.
  • Green Sprouts Stainless Steel Bottle: This is a basic stainless steel water bottle (the exclusively green one, above) with a plastic rubbery-spout. The spout is hard for Maya to use, as it requires considerable suction. The Green Sprouts company claims the product has “no BPA, PVC, Lead, or Phthalates,” which is nice, but does not identify the plastic (after an email, the customer service identified the plastic as PVC-free polypropylene and the spout as silicone). There is no information about the grade of stainless steel used in the cup, which feels thinner than the other cups. It can go in the dishwasher once the plastic top is removed, though a plastic ring remains. Most critically, when we first got this cup, Maya immediately plucked the inner part of the spout out of the middle with two fingers, and put it in her mouth. It’s a terrible shape and choking hazard, and easy to remove for a child, so it raises a serious safety concern, as reflected by other parent reviews on Amazon as well. Score: Environmental Health: 3 (unknown); Transparency: 3; Durability/use: 0 = 6 out of 15 but with a serious safety issue for young children.

Off my list entirely:

  • Sigg Aluminum bottles: Despite the really cute designs, these are aluminum bottles covered with a interior coating that Sigg refuses to identify, except to say as follows: “The new EcoCare liner by SIGG is comprised of many ingredients. The primary compounds utilized are a special combination of ultra-thin layer forming co-polyesters, many of which are commonly found in different variations across a variety of well-known food and beverage brand products. The materials used in producing the liner are BPA-Free and Phthalate-Free, as well as being free of any VOCs (volatile organic compounds).” Note PVC is not on this list of excluded plastics. Aluminum itself is not the safest ingredient, so you might also worry about scratches or erosion that uncover the metal. Moreover, Sigg basically deceived consumers a few years back about whether its bottles contained BPA in the lining, which they did prior to August 2008. Boo. (And Gaiam’s aluminum bottles were far worse on the BPA front, so they’re out too, in my mind.)
  • Think Baby and Green to Grow “better” plastic bottles: We’ve also now decided, down the road a bit, that the troubling 2011 study showing that endocrine disruptors (like BPA) leach from most plastic products (even ones labeled BPA-free) mean that we’re leaving plastic behind whenever we can. We handwashed and babied these, but now I wish I’d never gotten them in the first place. Still, if you want to go the plastic route, Think Baby in particular does seem like a better option than other plastic cups.

Does stainless steel leach?

Yes. A teensy amount of nickel and chromium (or at least cookware does when heated or scratched or both). While this is not likely a health issue so long as you do not have a nickel allergy, it’s not a great idea to store hot or warm items, or highly acidic items, in stainless steel. (This applies to cookware as well, obviously.)

What’s the problem with plastic?

After going to the grocery store tonight, I started thinking about how almost all our food is stored in plastic, so really, what’s the big deal? While it’s certainly not ideal that virtually all food is stored that way, the main issue with something like a sippy cup is that we repeatedly use it and will wash or put it in the dishwasher, exposing it to heat and wear that will cause it to leach chemicals if made of plastic.

Most of the plastic containers for food — i.e., yogurt, milk (yes, there’s polyethylene on the inside of cardboard milk containers, as a Horizon representative told me on the phone last week), etc, are marked 1, 2, or 5, as I’ve noticed through my odd habit of squinting at the bottom of random containers. These are generally considered safer plastics, but none are robust enough for repeated use.

Instead, the plastic that is sold for re-usable applications has generally been number 7, or polycarbonate, plastic, which can contain BPA. And even bottles and cups labeled “BPA-free” can leach endocrine disrupting chemicals. In addition, some manufacturers appear to have replaced BPA with something just as bad. Anyway, sippy cups are a durable item we can actually easily do something about, unlike almost everything else at the store. (Want to rid yourself of all that store-bought plastic too? Here’s a blogger who’s admirably trying.)

Resin identification code 2 ♴ for high density...

Resin identification code 2 ♴ for high density polyethylene (HDPE) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Here’s a quick summary of the safety and recycling of plastics-by-number (found in a small triangle on the bottom of bottles and other containers):

1) PETE, aka PET (polyethylene terephthalate): Used for most transparent bottles, such as water, soda, cooking oil, and medicine bottles. Generally safe to use (not reuse); generally recycled.

2) HDPE (high density polyethylene): Sturdy, rigid plastic found in reusable food storage containers, milk and detergent bottles. Generally safe; generally recycled.

3) PVC (polyvinyl chloride): Used for plastic wrap, and detergent and cooking oil bottles. Also used for water systems in households. Additives in PVC can increase the risk of birth defects and hormone- related cancers. Its production is hazardous to workers and the environment. Generally not safe; not recycled.

4) LDPE (low density polyethylene): Flexible plastic used for bags or wraps, such as produce bags and baby bottle liners. Most number 4 plastics are not designed for reuse. Generally safe; generally not recycled.

5) PPE, aka PP (polypropolene): Pliable plastic found in squeeze bottles, reusable food containers, and yogurt and margarine tubs. Generally safe; generally recycled.

6) PS (polystyrene): Used in rigid take out containers and foam meat trays. Can leach styrene when heated, a possible endocrine disrupter and human carcinogen. Not safe when heated; generally not recycled.

7) Other most often refers to PC (polycarbonate): This plastic is most commonly used for baby bottles, five gallon water jugs, and reusable sports water bottles. It can leach out the hormone disrupter bisphenol A, especially when heated. Because this group can include various other plastics, it has limited recycling potential.

Other Issues with Sippy Cups

Some dentists and speech pathologists do raise issues with sippy cups and speech development. Teaching children to drink from a straw is supposed to help, particularly if you are grappling with speech delays.

In addition, it’s best to stay on top of where the cups land if you don’t want your toddler rediscovering it a few days later and drinking its well-mellowed contents! And monitoring may pay off: a new study shows there are a substantial number of injuries from toddlers tripping while walking around with sippy cups and bottles and taking it in the teeth.

The other major issue I feel obliged to flag, given my recent post on bottle feeding and obesity, is what goes in the cup. We stay away almost entirely from refined or extra sugar in Maya’s diet, including juice. Instead, she drinks water and milk and has never yet been made aware that beverages can be full of what she always calls (with an almost mystical look of bliss on her face) “suuugar.”

Sippy cups, to the extent that they are highly convenient sugar-delivery devices, are likely problematic mostly for this reason, so (if it’s not too late), you may want to attempt the cruel but effective total denial strategy we’ve used, which has worked fairly well.

My rating system for a score of 0 to 15:

Environmental Health:

  • 5 = no chemicals of concern and no plastic
  • 4 = no chemicals of concern / plastics considered safer & outside areas of use
  • 3 = no chemicals of concern / some safer plastics in areas for use
  • 2 = some chemicals of concern near areas of accessibility and use
  • 1 = serious chemicals of concern in accessible area
  • 0 = outright hazard to health

Transparency:

  • 5 = information about components and plastics fully presented on company Web site
  • 4 = information about components and plastics partially presented on company Web site
  • 3 = information not on Web site, but fully answered upon email inquiry
  • 2 = information not on Web site, and only partially answered by email inquiry
  • 1 = response to email, limited or no information provided
  • 0 = no email response

Durability and Use:

  • 5 = No consumer complaints on durability, safety or ease of use
  • 4 = Few or insignificant consumer complaints on durability or ease of use
  • 3 = Some consumer complaints; durability or ease of use only
  • 2 = Significant consumer complaints; durability or ease of use only
  • 1 = Consumer complaints raising safety risks
  • 0 = Alarming information showing lack of safety of product

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I hope this is helpful to you!

Anyone looking for information on baby bottles and feeding issues should check out this useful summary of tips from the Environmental Working Group. And here’s another sippy cup review from MightyNest, which sells many of these options.

I’d love feedback on this new rating system, which I hope to use with other products as well, and if you had a different experience with these cups, do tell.

Also, please do feel free to add your own ratings of sippy cups you’ve used with a brief explanation in the comments. I’m sure I’ve missed some of the options out there, and folks will be very interested in your experience and views, as this question comes up a lot!

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