Monday, December 21, 2009

Wonders and Ponderables (Your opinion is requested!)

Natasha is in her 15th week:
The Bubble Project is in its 5th Week: Bernal Hill 2!

Went back to Bernal in hopes of another perfect weather day, but was greeted with rain and too much wind for biggies. The video is even a bit more meditative than the last...but I like it a lot. I made an 11-loop garland with 1 foot/side equilateral triangles which I was pleased to find functions nicely.

Full Screen HD highly recommended for video!!!

As of this moment I am on bubble hiatus, pending your thoughts, hopefully posted here as comments so we can have a group discussion. I want to thank a local Bernal resident for coming up to me to express concerns about the environmental impact of what I'm doing. I truly believed I had given this matter enough thought, but further reflection calls that into question, so I'd like to get folks' thoughts. First, I'm hoping he reads this; I owe him an apology because I was misinformed about my own materials. I insisted that "dish soap" was not "detergent" because at some point I had gotten the impression that detergent doesn't actually make bubbles--that only soap can do that--and for a detergent to foam, they have to actually add more ingredients to consumer detergent products so people will get the foam they like that makes them think "clean" even though it may actually hinder the cleaning process. Be that as it may, I use "Dawn Manual Pot and Pan Dishwashing Detergent," a product made with "biodegradable surfactants" according to the label. So it is, in fact, dishwashing detergent. Anyhow, I told the gent, quite truthfully and sincerely, that I have done this for quite a while and made a point of going back to check places where I have bubbled. Each and every time, I have found literally no visible trace of my having been there. Grass thrives; rain-washed soil does not bubble.

Reflecting on the way home I realized, however, that this is not the point. Negative environmental impacts are often imperceptible to perpetrators, as they result from the cumulative actions of multiple offenders. What the resident said that struck me was, "it's like you're pouring gallons of detergent into the hillside." Again, no, this is not the case, but I am pouring 2-4 cups of dishwashing liquid, mixed 14-1 with water over an area I'd assume is about 1/4 mile in diameter. In each 15 cups (almost a gallon) is a little less than a teaspoon of baking powder and a little less than that of a water-based lubricant powder that is 1/4 polyethylene oxide and 3/4 sucrose. I have (for the moment) abandoned using propylene glycol, but I do use about an ounce (that's 0.83%) of glycerine. Again, I think it's a poor argument for me to make that simply because the amounts are tiny I am doing nothing wrong--seems to me that I see smokers throwing butts into the street each day, making a similar rationalization about a tiny piece of litter in a giant place. So, what I need is perspective from my enviro-conscious and scientific peers. Is it reasonable to spill these things, in these amounts, once or twice on a public hillside in very thin, dispersed layer that leaves no discernible trace? I know of no one else doing this exact thing in these places, and it clearly makes a lot of people happy... but is it wrong? Am I documenting my own bad behavior with a picture of my child at the top of each entry? At the moment I am unsure... Please lend me your thoughts.


  1. First two comments sent me by others:
    From E.P.:
    I think that glycerine is low toxicity, and biodegradable. Glycerine and many of its brethren such as propylene glycol are injected into and fed to us every day; again, relatively benign. another question. A concentration of 1% detergent generally will not burn plants on a cool day. Over that temperature damage may occur. So, dilution...or "rinsing" the foliage after bubbles would help to prevent any damage. You are not seeing bubbles after rain because these things are breaking down soon after use. Baking soda is very non-hazardous. It will change the pH of the soil slightly, and it is a salt. Another question to ask: is this native grassland you are soaping, or yet another ecosystem degraded by human intervention?? Unless this is a critical habitat site listed by FSWS, you might not need to worry too much. You are not likely killing much in what you do. You are probably hitting non-native grass species in a park managed with much worse chemicals. If you are concerned, carry a backpack sprayer and lightly rinse off foliage after bubbling. You might also want to explore other detergents that don't have perfumes/colors/etc. to get a more biodegradable version. Make your own! Go organic! Wouldn't that be funny? Organic bubbles.

    From B.L.:
    My sense is that you're probably causing more environmental impact in driving from Oakland to SF, than any bubbling you're doing, which is less than most folks daily commute..

    If you're worried about your bubble juice killing plants, switch back to Propylene Glycol. Glycerin kills grass. PG doesn't.

  2. Nonsense! Don't give this another thought. The packaging of the materials is more problematic than the contents. Free the bubbles!!

  3. I'm actually creating an art project that raises questions about the value of art vs it's impact on the environment. Educating yourself and local denizens about the actual impact of your materials seems to be important. The value of making bubbles vs some negligible impact on the environment is a question. Someone who values your art may be concerned about the impact, but someone who does not value it may be more concerned or need educating more. Having pamplets or cards to pass out to people will help mitigate concern.

  4. D.S. said:
    I agree we need to ask the environmental question. Every action we take, including driving, flying, heating, eating, breathing, and bubbling has an impact. Zero impact is impossible, however we can offset impacts that are unavoidable or for some reason (like making a living) are desirable. Further, we can choose to way more than offset our impacts, so that the sum total of our activities is a plus for the planet. I'd like to suggest that anyone who would like to offset their bubbling/travel/ etc. will find a cost-effective no-hassle way to do it online at

  5. From K. K.:

    It good of you to consider these things but I doubt that you are causing any damage. In small amounts the Dawn seems to be good for the soil, it allows it to absorb water quickly and not run off as it will in heavy rains.
    I have been using the Dip Stix in the same small area for 22 years now and at time of testing different solution have used many gallons in a weeks time. Not only has it not harmed the grass but it is the greenest area on the farm. There have been times when kids will accidentally kick over the bucket of solution and spill a gallon in one small spot. The first time this happened it did brown the grass in that spot but after the first rain it came back stronger and greener then ever. Here in Kentucky we do get a lot of rain and I am sure that helps. I am not familiar with the rain fall in SF but I feel if you keep moving around and don't get to much dripping in one spot it will not cause a problem.

  6. I am really enjoying the posts with all of the suggestions and ideas from a scientific/environmentally conscience point of view. Looking into organic soap-based bubble making sound like an endeavor that could be fun, time-consuming and possibly costly. And I know how much you enjoy getting more information about things that you're passionate about.
    As I've been reading your post and other people’s posts, I've been wondering about the conceptual implications of what it is that you're doing. You show up with your bubble mix and your bubble making sticks to make your bubbles. However, you need the wind and the space of the landscape and the hills for your artwork to truly come into existence. The fun of this is the juxtaposition of a cityscape and all of its facets seen through a 6 foot bubble. The childlike wonder is the experience ..the joy. So you want to respect and preserve the earth as you're doing your art? Ok, here comes the part about being an artist who is socially aware and responsible. We humans are in one way or another detrimental on any environment that we come into or inhabit. Land has been out first frontier and we are slowly moving into the oceans, seas as well as Outer space. For me the social responsibility manifests in the awareness of the limited information/knowledge that you and I have as humans about our impact. I believe our planet is far more complex than any human has begun to realize.
    Unfortunately the amount of research, testing and time that would go into learning about the detrimental side effects; if any; that your bubble soap is having on the landscape would take away of the experience of being there when the bubbles are made, the Joy. Humans as a species live in the moment, we consume in the moment, love in the moment we are much more present than we give ourselves credit for. However; if we as artists limit ourselves to only expressing our thoughts and emotions in ways that would not be detrimental to our fellow species or our planet there would be no art. I believe this is possibly the most detrimental side effect of any of this. I implore you to make decision about your artwork based on information that is available be as environmentally conscious as you feel is appropriate. When the information changes readjust like every other specie has, isn’t that called evolution? I say free the bubbles and keep a curious and open mind.

  7. According to the P&G website Material Safety Data Sheet Ultra Dawn's surfactants are all "readily biodegradable". The other ingredients are a mystery but according to what they're legally required to say, that's good news. Readily biodegradable definition according to who I don't know anything about: 'A material can be defined as “readily biodegradable” if tests prove it can be broken down by living organisms and thus completely removed from the environment in its original form. As defined by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), readily biodegradable substances must degrade at least 60 to 70 percent within 10 days. Because of the stringent nature of these tests, some substances that don’t meet the standards for being “readily biodegradable” can actually be biodegradable in practice.'

  8. At the risk of overindulging your worries... I'm guessing the safest stuff doesn't make big bubbles. In the big picture, most of us are doing things with far more impact environmentally (eating meat, consumption as an average american, etc). I would put your energy into changing your lifestyle or helping your community in bigger ways. Find sustainability education resources here: Bringing joy into the world is also necessary and there's far too little of it.

  9. From K.M.:
    While I am not qualified to analyze the chemistry of the bubble potion you use, I look at environmental issues as follows.
    The overall effect on the environment of any pollutant is proportional the the product of its toxicity and its amount, i.e., the more toxic and the more of it, the worse. In your case the toxicity cannot be very great considering it doesn't seem to have any effect on plants even in its concentrated form. And considering that only a tiny (infinitesimal, really) fraction of people make these bubbles, the amount of solution made by all bubblers now or in the forseeable future is simply negligible. A butterfly fluttering in the amazon is about as likely to produce such an environmental impact.

    From S.J.:
    Mike: I was under the impression that Dawn was banned in Canada because of something in it that is environmentally unfriendly (based on something B. G. had told me). But I just looked at the P&G site and Dawn is sold in Canada. I was hoping that the reason for the "ban" would tell us something more about detergent risks. I wonder if there is a group that opposes detergents based on enviromental damage? They may not be objective but would likely be the best source of arguments against detergents.

    From T.I.G.:
    hey mike - this bubble stuff sounds so cool! wish i could see it in person.

    i'm surprised no one mentioned the fragrances in Dawn and other similar dish liquids. that would be the first thing I'd think of - and is something that dish soap manufacturers aren't required to reveal, i think. the surfactants may be biodegradable but that doesn't mean anything about the other additives. the scents in products like this tend to be petroleum byproducts and can cause really bad asthma and allergic reactions (rashes, breathing problems, postnasal drip, migraines) in humans. i get so sick from them that i cannot use anything but naturally (true essential oils) or unscented detergent in my house. i would look into this. the cheapest non-scented detergent i know of is clorox's "green works" line - they have a scented and a non-scented detergent. a little cheaper than the natural detergent but a little less toxic. i don't know how natural the product really is (i can't help but be skeptical about "natural" products from clorox!)

    fyi, one of the carriers of synthetic fragrance in household products and detergents is pthalates -t he very material people have been fighting to be removed from baby toys and other products because it's an endocrine disruptor and causes hormonal and reproductive problems and birth defects. they don't have to declare it as an ingredient, either.;;;

    The Environmental Working Group is a good site to get info from on different ingredients, too.