Category — Waste
January 16, 2013 1 Comment
That’s the question I explore in the current issue of The Nation, which can be read online here. (And here’s a clip of me talking about the article on the Heritage Radio Network.) Thanks to support from the Food and Environment Reporting Network, I was able to spend a fair amount of time looking into the illnesses and deaths of livestock that live (and eat and breathe) in close proximity to shale-gas wells, which rely on secret combinations of hundreds of different chemicals, many of which are considered toxic, carcinogenic, teratogenic, or mutagenic. I spoke with ranchers whose animals died suddenly of asphyxiation or pulmonary edema, gave birth to deformed or stillborn offspring, lost between 60 and 80 pounds a week, quit producing milk for calves, lost half their tails, developed lesions and infections, and died of massive organ failure. The story raises many questions: are drilling and fracking operations sickening livestock? Can people who eat those animals get sick? Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the answers because:
a) these studies haven’t been funded
b) industry doesn’t reveal all the chemicals it uses to drill and frack
c) complete pre-drilling information on water, air and soil quality is rarely available
d) livestock owners are often reticent, or outright forbidden by nondisclosure agreements, to speak to investigators
My hope for the story is that government will respond to the concerns of ranchers, veterinarians, and scientists; require full disclosure of chemicals and compounds used in oil-and-gas operations; and allocate funds to conduct these much-needed studies.
Photo of cow that lost part of its tail — one of many ailments found in cattle following hydrofracturing of the Bakken Shale in North Dakota — courtesy of Jacki Schilke.
December 6, 2012 4 Comments
My story, “Fresh Food for All: Local farmers could revolutionize how millions of New Yorkers eat,” appears in the fall issue of OnEarth magazine. Emphasis: could — there are a lot of good reasons city folk don’t eat more regionally grown fruits, vegetables, dairy products, and meat. Locally brewed beer, on the other hand, is plentiful, and I count myself lucky to live in the Sixpoint Brewery beershed.
Reporting the story brought me to several farms in the Catskills, as well as to the Hunts Point market in the South Bronx. You can read all about it, and see Rob Howard’s wonderful photos, here.
August 27, 2012 No Comments
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
Environmentalists in the United States have long pushed to keep compostable organics — yard waste, food scraps, paper and the like — out of landfills. Diverting this material conserves landfill space; it avoids the generation of methane, which occurs when organic material breaks down in the absence of oxygen; and it allows these compostables to be put to beneficial use. (Learn more about these efforts at www.cool2012.com, a project of the Grassroots Recycling Network.)
Out in front of the U.S. on this particular issue is the European Union, which has issued a directive obliging its member states to reduce the organic content of waste in their landfills — although it doesn’t specify just how these organics should be composted: in the traditional manner, through anaerobic digestion (a process by which microorganisms break down waste in an enclosed vessel), or in some other way. Earlier this month, the British think tank CentreForum recommended banning food waste from U.K. landfills by the end of the decade, ahead of the EU directive, in order to boost the stream of organics that can be converted through anaerobic digestion into heat and energy. (The study, it should be noted, was funded by the anaerobic digestion industry.)
Anaerobic digestion is popular in Europe, and several large A.D. plants are in the planning stages or already in construction in North America. But these systems are expensive to build and have had problems with feedstock purity, maintaining proper pH, odors, and the quality of the digestate — the material that comes out on the back end, which can be used as a soil amendment but lacks the nutrients of traditional compost.
Composting aerobically (outdoors, in windrows) is cheaper and technically simpler: it doesn’t generate methane, and it produces higher-quality material that can boost soil health and increase drought resistance. But composting this way has run into its own problems with quality control and odors. (Not to mention the fact that it doesn’t produce energy.)
The quality issues aren’t just limited to the occasional twisty tie, fruit sticker, or bread-bag clip that ends up in your potting soil. A few weeks back, the Chittendon (Vermont) Solid Waste District discovered that its bagged and bulk compost contained traces of banned pesticides, most likely “carry-over” from illegal lawn applications. The levels weren’t harmful to human health, but the chemicals did burn many gardeners’ vegetables and flowers. In another case, in Maine, Picloram, an herbicide used by horse farms to control thistles and milkweed in their pastures, poisoned tomato seedlings fertilized with manure from horses who grazed those fields. (Happily, the seedlings recovered in less than three weeks after being transplanted into clean garden soil by an astute gardener who happens to run a compost test lab.)
In an era in which more people are growing their own food, and in which more people — with the best of intentions — are composting organic material, these episodes are an important reminder of two tenets of ecology: everything has to go somewhere and everything is connected. Fertilize your lawn, and your community-composted lawn clippings can nuke your neighbor’s Napa cabbage. The same stuff happens in a landfill, of course, but there the input (persistent organic pollutants) and the output (contaminated soil and water) can be separated by decades and many miles. It’s yet another argument for both localism and transparency. When inputs and outputs are local, what goes around — whether it’s good or bad — is bound to come around more quickly.
Image: Phil Shaw/flickr
This post originally appeared at OnEarth.org/theroytestuff
July 25, 2012 No Comments
Did you know?
The Prospect Park Alliance is now responsible for two-thirds of the cost of caring for the Park. And with 585 acres, that’s a big job. But you can help!
“I pledge to put my trash in its proper place.”
- Dispose of trash and cold barbecue coals in appropriate garbage cans and dumpsters.
- Dispose of hot barbecue coals in designated hot coal bins.
- If receptacles are full, leave closed trash bags next to garbage cans and dumpsters.
(Consider bringing an extra bag to your picnic or barbecue.)
- Place used condoms, wrappers, and other associated detritus in trash cans.
Leave your name and comment below to let everyone know that you care about Prospect Park and that you are willing to do your part to help keep the Park clean.
Okay, I’ve doctored the preceding announcement (you can see the original – -and sign the pledge– here). I’m posting it because Marie Viljoen, who started the Prospect Park Litter Mob just a bit over a year ago (and about whom I’ve previously blogged), has thrown in the towel, and the latex glove and the grabber. Why? She was feeling hopeless, an emotion familiar to anyone who goes around picking up after people who don’t get it. (Or maybe the people who leave their condoms and used tissues in the Midwood think the litter mob doesn’t get it: “these woodlands are mine, to be used for my pleasure: now scram!” ) Condoms as text: I leave it to the anthropologists and semioticians to decode their meaning.
I too was weary of plucking condoms, though the side projects the litter mob worked on (fencing, transplanting, cribbing) were a lot of fun. Marie was angry that the Parks Department and the Prospect Park Alliance, a private entity, didn’t–or couldn’t–devote more resources to patrolling and cleaning this area. You can read her explanation for her actions, and her delightful botanical notes, at her Litter Mob blog.
In other recent news, Prospect Park hosted an enormous foodie festival this past weekend, and the entire Nethermead, plus ancillary routes to this greensward, were fenced off and restricted for nearly a week. How much money did the park make on this venture? (I can’t bring myself to type its name, but you can read about the bacchanal–and film critic Tony Scott’s amusing comments about it–here).
I was vexed to see public space restricted for private gain (entering the festival was free, but the scores of high-end vendors paid the promoter to participate). I suppose it was a great advertisement for the park, luring tens of thousands of folks who’d never visited this jewel of Brooklyn. I don’t know whether the festival will descend upon us once again, but a condition of return could be money directed toward Midwood patrolling and restoration. We could, in other words, make a silk purse from a sow’s ear, whether dipped in house made, gluten-free batter or pickled.
May 24 update: Gothamist reports that the Prospect Park Alliance will likely receive about $100,000 from the promotion company behind the food festival. Enough to protect the Midwood for a couple years?
May 21, 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
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 OnEarth.org/theroytestuff)
April 22, 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
Do-gooders can always be counted on for beach clean-ups, but Oregon’s Seaside Visitors Bureau has taken this impulse to a new level, trying to lure visitors to its shore to scavenge for Japanese debris linked with last year’s tsunami. (Don’t worry: it’s unlikely to be radioactive, say researchers, as the household goods and other materials were miles away from Fukushima by the time nuclear reactors malfunctioned.) Worried about navigational hazards, NOAA is tracking the debris. Its first wave — some 1 million to 2 million tons of trash– is due to hit U.S. territory (northwestern Hawaii, to be specific) within days. What doesn’t wash ashore there will continue to slowly drift and float, joining up with the “dismal abundance of discarded plastic” already congregating and circling in the North Pacific garbage patch, which now sprawls over at least 270,000 square miles. Sorry, Oregon, your disaster tourists may have to wait until 2013 to start their scavenging engines. But Hawaiians will get another whack at it when the debris field circles back around in years to come.
Photo: Getty Images
February 29, 2012 No Comments