by Donella Meadows
— July 15, 1999 —
My trusty Electrolux dealer dropped off a box of vacuum cleaner bags the other day. What stopped me from ripping it right open was not the label, I’m sorry to say, but the price.
Thirty bucks for 24 bags. A dollar and a quarter each. Electrolux bags have always been pricey, but even with handy home delivery, this was out of sight. I called Joe to ask why the steep rise. They’re new improved bags, he pointed out. That’s when I got around to reading the label.
“GermGrabber,” says the green box. There’s a logo of a green-and-purple sphere, which maybe is meant to be the earth, or maybe a germ. “Be Pure. Be Sure.” On the back it says, “Our exclusive bag contains a uniquely treated strip that protects it from acting as a breeding ground for odor causing bacteria.”
Odor causing bacteria in my vacuum cleaner bag had not been a matter of concern to me, but strange chemicals in my vacuum cleaner bag was beginning to be. I looked all over the box for the ingredient in the “uniquely treated strip,” but I could only discover that its patent was pending.
I called Joe back and asked for the old-fashioned kind of bag. They only make GermGrabbers now, he said. What is in that “uniquely treated strip”? I asked. He said he’d find out. A few days later he stuck a blurry fax in my door. I couldn’t make it out entirely, but it indicated that the “anti-microbial chemical product” is 4,5 dichloro-2-n-octyl-4-isothiazolin-3,4,5-something.
Even with a partial formula, that’s two strikes down.
Strike one. Chlorine. That 4,5 dichloro business means the active ingredient is an organic chemical containing chlorine. Not all organochlorines are harmful, but they all cause a problem when they are incinerated, which is, unfortunately, what ultimately happens to my vacuum cleaner bags.
Land-poor, garbage-rich Japan is the incinerator hub of the world. Three-fourths of its garbage is burned, seventy percent of the world’s trash incinerators are located there, and Japan’s air contains nearly ten times as much dioxin as that of other industrialized countries. Dioxin is a single name for a set of chemicals that are formed when organochlorines are burned. The World Health Organization has just declared dioxin to be a carcinogen. It is also an endocrine-disrupter, altering hormone balances and disrupting the development of the fetuses of many kinds of animals, including humans.
The Japanese are in a tizzy about their dioxin-laced air. The government has just ordered a shut-down of thousands of industrial incinerators and is planning to rebuild its municipal ones so they burn hotter and produce, it is hoped, less dioxin.
Japanese environmental groups are not impressed by this plan. They are pushing to shut down all incinerators, to shift into massive recycling, or at least to keep chlorine out of the waste stream. That means no chlorine-bleached paper, no pesticides, no polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics, and now, I guess, no Electrolux vacuum cleaner bags.
Strike two. Antibiotics. We swab our world with them. We feed them to cattle and pigs and chickens. We load them into our cleaning agents. We’re so obsessed with germ-fighting that we’re creating the ultimate nightmare — antibiotic resistant germs.
Any antibiotic dose short of a total knockout is likely to breed resistance. If a few bacteria survive, they’re likely to have done so because they have some genetic mechanism that helps them fend off the antibiotic. They breed the next generation, which is even more resistant. Another sublethal dose again allows the strongest to survive and breed. Given the rate at which bacteria multiply, the low-level presence of an antibiotic can produce invulnerable superbacteria in no time.
That’s why your doctor cautions you to take the full treatment of antibiotics, even after you start feeling better.
Hospitals, probably the most antibiotic-swabbed places on the planet, are also prime sources of resistant bacteria. Some of the nastiest infective agents have now developed widespread resistance to three, four, five different antibiotics. It is becoming a major public health problem. The obvious solution is: stop sloshing antibiotics around heedlessly. Don’t use them for trivial purposes.
Such as vacuum cleaner bags.
Electrolux is a Swedish company that prides itself on its quality products and its environmental consciousness. However marketing departments are rarely the centers of corporate ecological awareness. I can just picture the folks there dreaming up the next gimmick to bring their product to the attention of potential customers. “Hey, how about bags that kill bacteria?” says someone (in Swedish). “Vacuum cleaners bags must be full of bacteria. Odor causing bacteria.” “Yeah,” says another with excitement. “Who wants stinky vacuum cleaner bags?” “Have our customers been complaining about stinky bags?” asks a sober guy in the corner. “Well, no,” someone else answers. “But it will only cost pennies and we can jack up the price to $1.25 a bag. And we can use this cool earth-germ logo.”
If those clowns don’t start making plain bags again, I’ll have to get a different kind of vacuum cleaner.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1999