Category — Recycling
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.
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 www.onearth.org/theroytestuff
August 1, 2012 2 Comments
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 OnEarth.org/theroytestuff.)
April 26, 2012 No Comments
The question has dogged social movements that go by names like The Compact, Buy Nothing, and Small Is Beautiful: will reducing consumption cripple the economy? Bill McKibben, in his 2007 book Deep Economy, argues that less growth has its virtues, and that there are plenty of cleaner, greener jobs out there (such as restoring local watersheds, fixing our infrastructure, designing goods that are made to last and cycle back, at their end of life, into new products or the earth).
But a recent story in the New York Times spurred another consideration: will less consumption hurt the vast world of informal waste workers, the millions who pick through urban dumps in developing nations recovering metal, textiles, plastics, paper, and other materials for repair, reuse, or recycling? It’s not a well-paid or safe living, but it’s useful work, and for the most part, human hands do a better job at recovering valuable materials from the waste stream than do machines.
Around the developing world, though, multinational waste haulers are starting to horn in on the informal sector (see Mai Iskader’s Garbage Dreams to learn about this struggle in Cairo or the website of Chintan Environmental Action and Research Group to read about the issues in India.) Mexico City claims to have cut its waste stream from 12,600 tons per day to 4,000, in part by instituting a composting program and ramping up curbside recycling (awesome, if it’s true). But that means there’s less stuff for the city’s quarter million pepenadors to claim.
Interestingly, a candidate for the presidency of Mexico told the Timesthat Mexico’s recycling market cannot absorb more than 20 percent of the country’s waste. “There isn’t the infrastructure, nor the markets, nor the prices, nor the regulations for this to work,” he said. Surely it makes more sense to develop those markets and regulations today than to bury these materials for a few decades and then mine them when we can no longer afford to extract virgin materials.
Throughout history, garbage has exerted an evolutionary force as communities respond to its social, economic, and environmental challenges. In the developing world, the management of garbage — an underappreciated but crucial service — has started to empower trash pickers to organize politically and to educate their children so they can rise above their parents’ constraints. When and if large garbage haulers enter these markets, they should turn first to the experienced waste workers, who have intimate knowledge of local conditions and know best how to wring value from discards.
Even in a less consumer-driven world, there will still be plenty to recover.
Image: World Bank/Flickr
(This post originally appeared at OnEarth.org)
March 9, 2012 3 Comments
Just before the holidays, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson went on the Dr. Oz show to talk about drinking-water safety. She concluded with her one wish for a cleaner, greener earth. To my surprise, she wished for more recycling.
Not that again, I groaned. Does anyone really listen to pro-recycling arguments these days? The subject is so 20th century, so fraught with disappointment and misunderstanding.
But what Jackson said was actually quite bold, and it certainly needed saying:
If we could increase our recycling rate from about 39 percent to 80 or 90 percent, Jackson said, “we would do a bunch of things. Certainly, we would have a cleaner environment. We would save a tremendous amount of water and energy. We would create millions of jobs, because recycling, in and of itself, would become a supply chain in our country—a very domestic one. . . . Think of [recycling] as a homegrown jobs program and an environmental program and an energy program and a water program all in one.”
It sounds like magical thinking, but groups like the Institute for Local Self Reliance have been talking about the jobs angle for decades, and groups such as NRDC have harped on the energy and water benefits for even longer. (See “More Jobs, Less Pollution” — a report released last November by NRDC along with the BlueGreen Alliance, the Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, Recycling Works! and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives — for data that support Jackson’s claims.)
All we need to do is expand access to recycling programs for residents and businesses, to increase the number of recycling bins in public places, to broaden the range of materials accepted by processors (think textiles, electronics, construction and demolition debris, and agricultural and industrial waste), to limit the use of packaging and other materials that can’t be recycled or composted, to shorten the supply lines between generators of scrap materials and their end users, to develop composting programs that handle food as well as yard and garden waste, and to educate everyone about all these changes. (Oh yeah, and end subsidies that encourage burying and burning waste.)
Homer: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Lisa, honey, are you saying you’re never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?
Homer: Pork chops?
Lisa: Dad! Those all come from the same animal!
Homer: [Chuckles] Yeah, right Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.
Could recycling be that wonderful, magical animal (and pay for itself, too)? One can always dream.
Image: Simpsons Wiki
January 27, 2012 3 Comments
After finishing my coffee at a New York City Pret a Manger restaurant recently, I lingered near the trash bin, which was divided into separate sections with uniquely shaped openings — not unlike a toddler’s shape-sorting block toy. In my hands: a napkin, a paperboard coffee cup, a cardboard sleeve, a plastic lid. It took me, something of a garbage geek, nearly a minute to figure out what I was supposed to do with each discard.
Did the napkin go with the paper, or did the napkin go with the food waste, which was bound for a composting operation beyond the city limits? (After all, paper is compostable, though experts say ‘tis a far better thing to make new paper from old, in places where recovery systems can handle potentially soiled paper, rather than to make compost from paper.)
Did the plastic lid go with the plastic recycling or into the compartment labeled “trash?” At home, the lid would have gone into the trash, as New York City’s Department of Sanitation, like many others, accepts only narrow-necked plastic bottles for curbside recycling. But businesses in New York hire private carters and so march to a different drummer. Pret a Manger uses Action Carting, a progressive company that collects food waste for composting and, I happened to know, a wider range of plastics for recycling.
I did, eventually, study the educational illustrations above the waste bins, which should have set me straight. But still I had trouble identifying the cup lid among so many different shapes. Maybe I need to go back to kindergarten and the block sorter. Or maybe the illustrations could be a little clearer. (Or perhaps the bins could have a built-in object recognition device: I hold before an electric eye my lid, empty fruit cup, or sandwich box, and a quiet, friendly voice tells me where to put it. I’d prefer a more parsimonious — that is, less technological and less expensive — fix, but what can I say? People do love their apps.)
I can’t offer enough props to Pret for lightening its environnmental impact and nudging customers in the same direction. But my interlude at the waste bins tells me that we’ve got a ways to go down the path toward sustainable packaging (an ideal that ought to include no packaging). According to the EPA, packaging makes up nearly one third of municipal solid waste; between 1990 and 2007, containers and packaging have increased by nearly 14 million tons.
Pret a Manger, which works with environmental groups (like Global Green), packaging designers, waste haulers, paper mills, and composters to blunt the impact of its single-use packaging, and is still experimenting with the perfect receptacle, is leading the way. But peering inside the bins, where cups were mixed willy-nilly with “trash” and bottles were mixed with napkins, I wondered if the public really had the stomach to follow.
Photograph by Scott Dodd
December 22, 2011 No Comments
Last month we learned that, in an attempt to cut down on litter, the supervisor of Grand Canyon National Park was set to ban sales of bottled water within the park, starting in January of 2011. (Dasani is the brand sold by concessionaires.) But two weeks before the ban was due to go into effect, the head of the national park system balked. Dasani water would stay, out of “concern for public safety in a desert park.” (Never mind that Utah’s Zion National Park had enacted a similar ban, to great acclaim, in 2008.) Soon the relationship between Coca-Cola, which produces Dasani from tap water, and our national parks was revealed: over a period of years, the corporation has given $13 million to the National Park Foundation, a nonprofit that generates private donations for the park system.
Environmentalists are up in arms — about the continued (and continuously promoted) use of disposable plastic water bottles, of course, but more importantly about the heavy influence of corporations in public spaces and debate. There are some angry comments on blogs about the issue, and many people erroneously seem to believe that park visitors would be stripped of any water bottles they carried into the park. Not true. Nor was it likely that the death toll from dehydration would rise. The parks and concessionaries had spent $300,000 developing “filling stations” in preparation for the ban; it’s hard to escape pro-hydration messages in the park (they’re everywhere), and it’s easy to buy reusable bottles on park grounds if you don’t already have them.
For readers who can’t remember what personal hydrological conditions were like 30 years ago, suffice it to say that single-serve plastic bottles of water were not ubiquitous. And yet millions still hiked and camped, carried water, filtered water where they found it, and sometimes waited until they reached their destination (!) to slake their thirst from a fountain or sink.
I hiked and camped in the Grand Canyon in the Pre-Perrier Period. I learned, on a day that I hauled my heavy backpack more than twenty miles across the Tonto Platform and up the South Canyon rim, that thirst can be a great motivator. Our multiple water bottles had long run dry, and we were reduced to eating dry oatmeal in our desperation for calories, with five miles yet to go. All I could focus on was the ice-cold elixir that flowed at trail’s end from a fountain in the dimly lit lobby of the Bright Angel Hotel. (Reader: I survived. I hope this water fountain has, too.)
The Coca-Cola-National Parks fracas seems to be taking on a life of its own, to both groups’ detriment. Dozens of media outlets have picked up on the story, and already more than 94,000 people have signed a pro-ban petition at Change.org. Here’s hoping that the will of the environmentally minded, rather than a corporation representing the interests of its shareholders, will prevail.
December 7, 2011 No Comments
Rose George, author of 2008’s shockingly forthright and shockingly entertaining The Big Necessity: The Unmentionable World of Human Waste and Why It Matters, has a bone to pick with hydro-philanthropists, whether species Hollywood (Matt Damon excepted) or species Rotary Club. They’ll raise money to dig wells for thirsty Africans, but they’re loath to address the dire need for adequate toilets (or their culturally appropriate equivalent).
And yet: two thirds of the world’s population has no toilet or latrine, and diarrhea kills more children annually than AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined. (If that’s too abstract a number, picture a jumbo jet full of children crashing every two hours, every day.) Feces are indeed, as George notes, “a weapon of mass destruction.”
In “Shit: A Survival Guide,” the monothematic fall issue of Colors magazine, George introduces readers to sanitation evangelists and to the brave folks who clean our sewer pipes and alleyways. She also considers the roles of fear and shame in toilet use and looks at the wide world of alternatives to a porcelain throne (meet the flying toilet).
More than a cultural tour of toileting and its discontents, the magazine explores a smorgasbord of dichotomies: shit kills and it saves lives; it pollutes water and promotes plant growth; it stinks and it can be used to cook food. A graphically hip précis of Big Necessity, the Survival Guide goes well beyond the usual lamentations for decent toileting facilities to question some basic assumptions about where, when, and how we go. It’s become common in urban green circles to question the wisdom of using expensively treated drinking water — especially in water-short places — to flush away human excrement, but George forces us to question the morality of flushing away such a valuable fertilizer. There’s phosphorous and nitrogen in them thar feces.
To buy a copy or preview parts of the quarterly, go to the Colors Magazine website.
(November 19 was World Toilet Day, which is meant to draw attention to the importance of sanitation around the world. Check out Matt Damon “talking sh*t” [or typing, via twitter and facebook] for an entire week at http://toiletday.org/md-
November 20, 2011 2 Comments
I recently watched an online documentary that filled me with solid-waste envy. Unwasted: The Future of Business on Earth details how companies, institutions, political leaders, and activists are reducing waste in and around Seattle. It’s a pretty good, if somewhat staid, primer on how landfills work (or don’t), how many recycling programs fail to capture all they can, and how a zero-waste framework can guide cities to a more sustainable future. (Zero Waste is a rhetorical term: advocates believe we can reasonably divert 90 percent of our waste from landfills and incinerators — including high-tech gasifiers — within the next ten years. To learn more about how, read this uplifting article from the Sustainable Cities Network.)
Why did the doc make me green? Because of the tremendous enthusiasm for, and political will directed toward, reducing consumption, reusing, and recovering resources in the Pacific Northwest. Where I live, in New York City, it’s difficult to even find out where our waste is going, let alone why businesses are rarely penalized for failing to recycle. (New York City households recycle a miserable 15 percent of their waste, compared with Seattle’s 51 and San Francisco’s 77 — see this Green City Index from Siemens for other metropolitan averages.) One talking head in the film urges viewers to “visit your landfill and see what it looks like.” Ha, I said to myself. My waste is exported far, far away, and landfill managers in the East would rather dump a dead body than let me in the front gate. (Read Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash for my personal work-around.)
According to Unwasted (which was produced by Seattle’s Sage Environmental Services in partnership with PorterWorks), landfilling materials is more expensive than recycling (alas, this isn’t true in the vast middle of the country, where land values are lower), and maintaining and monitoring a landfill can cost a municipality $20 million over its mandatory 30-year post-closure period. The film stresses the significance of transparency in both manufacturing and disposal. “If more people knew what went into a product, they’d make an educated decision” about buying it in the first place, says another talking head. An excellent point, and a good reason for all elementary school teachers to ask their students, “Do you know how this pencil sharpener (backpack, T-shirt, etc.) was made?”
Of course, Seattle has a lot going for it: a density high enough to achieve economies of scale, an educated population, access to markets for recyclable materials (including food and yard waste), and volume-based disposal fees that reward household recycling over landfilling. Maybe it’s time for New York to reconsider a switch to pay-as-you-throw as well. (Here’s NRDC, in 1997, on the subject.)
Photo from Seattle Municipal Archives via Wikimedia Commons
November 2, 2011 No Comments
A new survey commissioned by SC Johnson on American attitudes and behaviors with respect to the environment reveals that individuals feel as if they know more about the environment today than they did 20 years ago (yay). But they also feel less powerful to do anything to improve the environment (boo). Still, influencing behavior is possible (yay). How? It turns out that financial incentives and penalties are the dominant motivators (deposits on beverage bottles are an example of this phenomenon). Coming in second is the influence of friends and family members. Sadly -- considering all the effort and expense --only 12 percent of respondents said they took action prompted by a nonprofit organization. The only weaker force, influencing 7 percent of respondents, was “A celebrity I respect encourages me to take action.” (Sorry, Ms. Diaz, Mr. Damon, Ms. Hannah.)
I don’t put a lot of stock in this survey -- it was small, and most people overestimate the depth of their greenness –- but it did help explain why Recyclebank continues to grow. Recyclebank is a program that rewards people who recycle with discounts on consumer goods. Your participating waste hauler weighs your household's recyclables at the curb, and Recyclebank mails you the coupons, up to $40 worth a month. When I checked its website, the “featured rewards” included energy bars and single-serve smoothies in nonrecyclable packaging and carbon-offset coupons that support landfill-gas-to-energy projects. (Note the synergy: the smoothie packaging ends up in a landfill, where it generates methane that the landfill vacuums up and sells. I almost forgot to mention: Waste Management, Inc. -- which makes money off hauling waste, tipping in landfills, selling landfill gas, and recycling -- recently made a strategic investment in Recyclebank.)
Recyclebank operates in more than 300 U.S. cities and in London, where, in collaboration with Transport for London, it plans to roll out a program, at year’s end, that encourages people to walk or bike instead of drive. Monitored by a smartphone app, the self-propelled will get offers and discounts from companies like Marks & Spencer. (How will the company know if a trip on foot or bike is replacing a car trip? Unclear.) My biggest gripe with this attempt to modify behavior, besides the fact that it will invite even more advertising into one's life, is that it rewards “green” actions with opportunities to buy more stuff, which no one visiting this website needs to be told generally has a negative impact on the environment.
Still, if the Johnson study is correct, and people act greener when it helps their bottom line (certainly most of my green actions save me money), how about rewarding the virtuous walkers and recyclers exclusively with experiences and services rather than consumptive pleasures? Tickets to concerts or museums, for example. Downloads of music or books, gym passes, coupons for testing tap water, home energy audits, vasectomies! Or how about an app, leading to nonconsumptive awards, that notes every time you seriously consider buying something but then decide ... not to.
(Note: Buy Nothing Day for 2011 is November 25)
October 24, 2011 No Comments
Patagonia has long been near the Alpine pinnacle of green-leaning businesses. The outdoor clothing company leads the way with eco-friendly offices, conscientious sourcing of materials, environmental campaigns, and its 1% for the Planet program. Patagonia has also exhaustively researched the environmental footprint of its gear — both where its material comes from and how products are made, as well as the impact once they’re sold, which includes laundering and ironing clothes, as as well as their eventual disposal to landfills and incinerators.
After all that research, the company last week launched its Common Threads Initiative, which asks potential customers to pledge to cut consumption of the stuff they don’t really need — a message both radical and conservative. Then, after pondering your heart’s desire, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard seems to be saying, go ahead and buy our stuff, because it will last a long time and does less environmental (and social) harm in its manufacture than similar products made by other companies.
The initiative also asks customers to fix their Patagonia products before buying new ones (Patagonia repairs goods under warranty and offers free advice for fixing things such as waders, in the field, on the cheap), then reuse or resell unwanted Patagucci through the company’s new partnership with E-Bay. Surely this is the first time a major retailer has actively encouraged its customers to seek used products instead of slapping down cash for new ones. (Apple goes in the opposite direction, actively thwarting repair and upgrade of some items with nonstandard screws.)
Recycling, of course, is at the bottom of the three-R hierarchy, and Patagonia years ago began accepting old and presumably unmarketable Capilene undies (through the mail or hand delivered to their stores, preferably by bike), then shipping them to Japan, where they’re washed, deconstructed, and remanufactured into fluffy new Capilene baselayers. (It doesn’t seem like this has been a crashing success: in five years, the company says it has taken back 45 tons of clothing for recycling and made 34 tons of that into new clothes. No word on how many tons of Capilene it stories annually sell.)
I’m a firm believer that one of the most important things an individual can do to cut his or her environmental footprint is to buy less stuff, because mining, milling, manufacturing, packaging, and transporting new consumer goods generates far more pollution and waste than the tiny fraction we actually see on the curb come garbage day. We all need to rethink what we actually need; buy used; repair the old; borrow; rent. E-bay is a big help here (three cheers for its reusable packaging program); so are Craigslist and Freecycle.
But I’m not sure I’d buy used fleece anywhere. One of the textile’s most visceral attractions is its primordial purity and softness. I wouldn’t wish my old Pattagonia fleeces on anyone: they’re stained, stiff, their cushy loft worn away by more than a decade of hard and happy use. I can see how the Common Threads model might work if garments are in great shape, but otherwise it seems like a bit of a fig leaf — not quite greenwashing (because of its solid educational component) but still managing to evoke in me a longing for something shiny and new. (Don’t get me started on the wanderlust inspired by Patagonia’s catalogs, website, and even its E-Bay site, the quest for peak adventures in pristine locales, and their attendant carbon footprint …)
I applaud Patagonia for focusing on these issues. I think Chouinard, who has grappled for years with the meaning of “sustainable” business, has his heart in the right place. But I can’t get over the duality of a clothing company banging its eco drum and also continuously changing its styles. Sure, technologies and designs improve, but change for change’s sake is the fundamental driver of the fashion industry. If colors and shapes, hyped by the fashion media, didn’t go in and out of style, surely we’d desire considerably fewer clothes. Style obsolescence, invented with mass production technologies in the ‘20s and ‘30s, was a key driver of consumption and its attendant waste.
I’ve always had a soft spot for Patagonia, as their clothing holds up exceptionally well: that’s why we’re willing to pay more for their products. (One of the most important ways the fashion industry could help the planet — and garment workers — is to do away with cheap, disposable fashion.) But the company persists — damn them! — in enticing me with fresh colors and intriguing shapes.
So far, I resist: I’m still wearing my Patagonia Stand Up shorts twenty years down the road. The Velcro on the back pockets is shot, but otherwise they’re doing fine. And yet: I may have aged out of their mid-thigh length. Does anyone want to make an offer?
September 17, 2011 No Comments