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What happens to all those food scraps collected on city curbsides?

Find out in my feature for The New York Times Magazine, “The Compost King,” which follows a brash former trash hauler who reinvented himself as a compost tycoon and then — he fervently hopes — into a producer of sustainable energy.

Photograph by Grant Cornett for The New York Times

March 1, 2017   No Comments

NPR on my coattails: More commodity farmers growing non-GMO crops

NPR’s Dan Charles did a piece yesterday for The Salt on farmers growing non-GMO corn and soy. This piece builds on my story, in Modern Farmer, about commodity growers planting conventional seed. Why? They can save money on the seeds (genetically modified corn seed can cost up to $150 a bag more than non-GM seed) and earn more on the back end by selling to buyers willing to pay a little extra ($1 a bushel for corn, more for soy) for grain uncontaminated with GMOs. Like the farmers in my story, The Salt’s farmers plant conventional seeds for non-ideological reasons: it’s what their customers want and will pay extra for. Note that most of them live near the river systems — Illinois, Missouri, Ohio –that send barges of grain out into the non-GMO consuming world.

Lynn Clarkson, founder of Clarkson Grain, which sells conventional and organic corn and soybeans, sees the market for conventionals expanding, thanks in large part to demand from animal feed companies. That’s what my reporting turned up as well: small farmers who sell at greenmarkets and to natural grocers don’t want GMO feeds, nor do producers who sell meat or dairy products to institutions like colleges and to Whole Foods (which plans to label all its foods containing genetically engineered ingredients by 2018).

But what will happen to the premium – which incentivizes farmers to keep their conventional grain separate from GM grain all the way from planting through harvest, storage and transportation — if more farmers get on board? Chris Huegerich, the farmer I profiled, used to receive a 50-cent premium on every bushel he sold to Cargill, in Blair, Nebraska. But this past year, the premium disappeared, thanks to a plethora of farmers planting conventional corn in that area. That’s good for Cargill: for Huegerich, not so much. But he’s not giving up on non-GMOs. In fact, he’s planting even more of them this spring.

February 5, 2014   No Comments

Don’t believe the headline: Gary Paulsen is a pussycat

I set sail with Gary Paulsen off the coast of California last year, and my profile of the young-adult author now appears in Outside magazine with the headline “Grumpy Old Man and the Sea: Life lessons fromthe toughest, hardest, foulest-mouthed children’s author on earth. *Parental guidance suggested.” (Here’s the link.)

For those unfamiliar with the name, Paulsen excels at loner-in-nature suffer-fests, among them the brilliant Hatchet. (Remember Hatchet? Kid crash lands a plane in the remote Canadian woods and survives, with only a hatchet, for nearly three months.) Paulsen is a gruff and mercurial character with an almost-unbelievable biography. But he’s also terrifically sweet and thoughtful. Give it a read!

May 23, 2013   No Comments

Don’t ask, don’t give: a policy for single-use plastics

plastic utensils
I recently ordered a grilled cheese in an airport restaurant, but along with the sandwich came a napkin, wrapped and taped around a plastic fork and knife that I didn’t want or need. The sandwich was deliciously greasy, so I ended up using the napkin, but I felt bad about the accompanying utensils that are now headed for a landfill. (Sure, I could have kept them for later use, but that would merely delay their trip to the dump.)

It was a tiny moment of garbage guilt, out of many, but I remembered it when I read about the efforts of ten-year-old Milo Cress of Burlington, Vermont, who last year persuaded a local restaurant to hand out straws only upon request. Milo’s Be Straw Free campaign has since spread the practice to scores of other restaurants nationwide, including some chains. Establishments that quit giving straws as the default have found their straw use (and straw spending) cut by up to 90 percent. (Americans go through more than 500 million plastic straws a day, according to Simply Straws, which makes — you guessed it — narrow glass cylinders designed for sucking liquids from containers.)

Thanks to Milo’s efforts, the National Restaurant Association now recognizes “offer-first” as a best practice. Just goes to show: if you don’t ask, you don’t receive. And if you don’t offer single-use disposable plastics in the first place, some people might not even miss them.

*Bonus pedantry!
Q: What did we use for straws before the days of cheap plastic, paper, or glass?
A: Actual straw: a single stalk of grain.

Image: Duane Romanell

This post originally appeared at

August 1, 2012   2 Comments

Fast food, slow change: rethinking packaging

Rumblings of progress on the single-use packaging front: Time magazine recently ran an article about a Danish burger chain called Max Burgers that — poof! — eliminated cardboard packaging from its kids’ meals at the request of a customer who “only wanted the fries and toys … and was annoyed at having to throw the boxes straight into the recycling bin.” Who among us hasn’t felt exactly the same way?

In the U.S., we’re barely at the stage of recycling that packaging, let alone handing burgers to customers without disposable hygienic wrap. Did customers balk at the Danish chain’s primitivism? Hardly: sales of kids’ meals actually increased. (Studies show green initiatives can boost customer loyalty.)

But there is some good news stateside. In a pilot project, McDonald’s is replacing polystyrene cups with double-walled paper cups at about 2,000 West Coast restaurants. Why get rid of the polystyrene? The National Institutes of Health’s National Toxicology Program calls it a possible carcinogen, and studies have shown that styrene can leach from containers into their heated contents (think instant noodles). On the post-consumer end, polystyrene isn’t frequently recycled, partly because the recycled products are lightweight and sold by weight, thus generating little revenue relative to hauling costs; and partly because food often contaminates the end product. Polystyrene also breaks into tiny pieces that contaminate beaches and water bodies.

Dunkin’ Donuts is also considering a switch from polystyrene, and Starbucks is developing a coated paper cup that can be readily recycled. (That is, if it makes it into a recycling bin in a community that recycles paper cups.) Some of these changes have come about through shareholder initiatives, and some through the work of groups like the Sustainable Packaging Coalition and Global Green. Alas, top-down change comes excruciatingly slow: maybe U.S. chains need to hear more often, and more loudly, from customers who — like that parent in Denmark — really, really didn’t want the packaging along with the food.

Image: Dan Century/Flickr

(This post originally appeared at

April 26, 2012   No Comments

Oysters on the half-shell, toxins on the side

Even if I wasn’t a proud “outreach advisor” to the Plastic Pollution Coalition, I would have been charmed by, and urged you to check out, this new video by the group  about you-know-what in our oceans. It’s short, sweet, and intoxicating.

I like the film’s simple message, which is aimed at individuals concerned with a massive, seemingly intractable problem: “refuse disposable plastic.” I think it’s doable.


(A version of this post originally appeared at

April 22, 2012   No Comments

Can a tool of war be a tool of conservation?

We all know that overpopulation is a major driver of habitat loss, greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, and loss of biodiversity. And Lockheed Martin’s missile guidance systems, fighter jets, and other tools of war surely act to lower the population in war zones around the world. But curiously (perhaps tastefully), this isn’t an argument pursued in this undercover video by two reporters posing as LM representatives in a meeting with the giant green NGO Conservation International.

Produced by the London magazine Don’t Panic to see how far the environmental group would go to help industry, the video depicts a CI rep offering to help green LM’s image by offering it–for $37,500 a year– a seat on its Business and Sustainability Council and a chance to sponsor an endangered species, perhaps a bird of prey (not a vulture, the fake LM rep blurts, when the creature was offered).  CI, which makes no bones about partnering with industry (“We believe that corporations are a major ally in our conservation efforts,” it says), has offered no response to the film. Too bad: it would be a great chance for the group, which has supported the work of many great biologists, to explain how they do, or don’t, pressure corporations to improve their environmental records. As for viewers, Don’t Panic asks us to consider the good that could be done for the environment with the tens of millions of dollars annually committed to what many consider pure greenwash.

May 14, 2011   No Comments

Not a rabbit

The New York Times reports today on the National Institutes of Health Chemical Genomics Center’s Tox21, a robot that can assess the toxicity of thousands of different chemicals multiple times in a week.  This is a great leap forward for those who deplore testing on animals and for the government, since the EPA currently tests only one chemical at a time and gets through just a couple dozen assessments a year. There are currently about 80,000 chemicals used in foods and consumer products in the U.S., and the vast majority of them have never been tested for human or environmental health impacts.

So Tox21, the brainchild of four government agencies, is progress, and I’m especially eager for it to tackle the EPA’s Safe Drinking Water “contaminant candidate list” (since we’re all drinking so much tap water, right?). But the Times story says that the compounds will be tested only for toxicity. What about these chemicals’ impact on the immune and reproductive systems, or their neurological, cognitive, and behavioral effects? The chemicals being tested might not cause cancer or birth defects, but they could have a slew of other negative effects – at very low doses or in combination with other compounds.  Unfortunately, testing for these effects is an extremely complicated proposition.  

You can read more about our continuous exposure to low doses of scores of chemicals in McKay Jenkins’ just published “What’s Gotten Into Us?” which I reviewed in this Sunday’s NewYork Times Book Review. Or check out John Wargo’s Green Intelligence, or Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie’s Slow Death by Rubber Duck, or Susan Freinkel’s delightful and literary Plastic: A Toxic Love Story. But steal yourself for the inevitable: it’s depressing stuff.

May 13, 2011   No Comments

Beyond Plastic

Last night I went to Fort Greene (Brooklyn) to hear Donovan Hohn read from Moby-Duck.  I reviewed it here but worried, a little, that people uninterested in, or sick of, environmental issues wouldn’t pick it up. I needn’t have worried: Moby-Duck is a best seller, likely because it transcends by miles its proximate subject – the 28,800 bath toys that went overboard in the North Atlantic nineteen years ago, where they came from and where they went. I read a fair number of books about plastics, environmental toxins, consumption, and waste, so it wasn’t the facts that kept me turning pages. The book gripped me for the simple reason that it’s so well written (he’s “cower under the bed” good, my editor said to me, speaking half in jealousy and half in admiration). The book is exciting and funny, literary but unpretentious. Hohn digests and beautifully synthesizes an awful lot of scientific information, and he’s skeptical and careful with facts, something often missing in writing about the environment.

Hohn signed my galley of the book, then he managed to lay on me a complete Floatee set: the yellow duck, a red beaver, a green frog, and a blue turtle. I was so flustered by meeting the author that I didn’t process the exchange till I was on the subway home. Wait a minute! I said to myself. Haven’t I spent a decade trying to avoid receivership of nonrecyclable goods made of nonrewable resources??

Good one, Donovan. It was great to meet you.

p.s. Yes, there are better pictures of the Floatees out there, but these are now my Floatees, sitting on my stained counter.


March 17, 2011   No Comments

“The public is notified, and on we go”

A dreadful bill is pending in Montana’s legislature. It says that if a water system fails to meet safe-drinking-water standards for nitrate, water providers –including cafes and restaurants–would be allowed to substitute bottled water for tap. The bill seems to let utilities off the hook for remediation, hand bottlers a giant gift, and set a dangerous precedent for municipal water suppliers across the country. Instead of looking at a systemic failure–asking why nitrate levels are high and working to lower them–this bill lets private providers step into the breach.  (Nitrate interferes with the delivery of oxygen to the brain, which is especially harmful for babies, and is linked with cancer.  Excessive levels of nitrate get into drinking water from leaky septic tanks and fields spread with excessive manure. It’s possible to remove nitrate in water-treatment plants, and with home filters, though preventing contamination is a better idea. You can learn more about nitrate at the EPA’s website, here.)

Should the bill pass, a prophecy will come true: that love of the bottle will lead to the deterioration of community water supplies. Bottled water isn’t the solution here, not in the long run. It’s too expensive, and its environmental toll is too high. Moreover, it will do nothing to prevent nitrate contamination via agriculture (nitrate can be absorbed by irrigated crops) or an accumulation of exposures from cooking, bathing, dish washing, and those melting ice cubes in your glass of Perrier. And then there’s the vast world of nonhuman creatures that also rely  on clean water. I’ll say no more.

Except this: who’s to say that the bottled water served by your Missoulian cafe is any safer than the stuff coming from the tap? Bottlers aren’t required to share the results of their tests. A utility is. Ellen Leahy, the director of the Missoula City-County Health Department told the Missoulian that when problems are found with municipal water, “what you see is it’s fixed. … The public is notified, and on we go. ”

March 2, 2011   1 Comment