Notes on waste, water, whatever
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Category — Waste

“The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn,” in Harper’s for March

This is a map, by Eymund Diegel, of the former Denton’s Mill Pond, which was the defining geographical feature of Brooklyn’s Gowanus watershed in the 18th century. Today, the pond and its feeder streams lurk beneath Whole Foods, the American Can Factory, and a few other large buildings. My story about Brooklyn’s buried – but hardly forgotten – streams appears in Harper’s for March. It’s behind a paywall for now, but soon I’ll be able to share a link. The story starts like this:


1766 Gowanus Marshes Power House and Whole Foods site on top of Dentons Pond map with Buildings


“From behind a parapet on the tower of Litchfield Villa, the Italianate mansion that marks the western edge of Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, I was barely able to make out — over treetops and tall buildings — a glint of Gowanus Bay, roughly two miles away. Edwin Litchfield, the railroad and real-estate tycoon who built this house in 1857, would have had no trouble seeing the bay and much of his landholdings out of a second-floor window, from the hilly and largely treeless farmland outside his front door all the way down to the grassy banks of Gowanus Creek, which by the late 1860s had been dredged and straightened, at his behest, into a shipping canal.

Situated at the bottom of a topographic bowl, the Gowanus marshlands were once nourished by more than a dozen sparkling streams. Most of these rills and freshets haven’t been seen for 150 years; following modern convention, engineers either buried them or corralled them into pipes as they extended the city’s streets. But one of these waterways, I learned after climbing down from Litchfield’s roof and placing my ear atop a manhole cover, still seemed to be flowing, right under my feet.”

February 28, 2016   1 Comment

Harper’s Instagram post teasing my story, “The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn.”

Some folks living in the Gowanus watershed, at Brooklyn's western edge, dream of restoring a bit of the polluted canal’s natural function and softening its edges with vegetation. But those visions give Carl Alderson, who is coordinating the canal’s ecological restoration, bouts of agita. "What we think of as a creek system is gone,” he said. “For a softer edge to be meaningful, folks in the neighborhood will have to do one thing: stop being hip. Land values are too high for anyone to seriously consider relinquishing parcels so that they can be transformed into natural infrastructure. We have just enough room here for a few potted plants." // A kayak excursion on the canal in fall 2013 shaped Alderson’s first impressions of the Gowanus. On that day, the milky green water was stippled with skinless rats, feces, and Coney Island whitefish. When the disgusted scientist clambered out of his boat at trip’s end, he abraded his forearm on a slimy bulkhead. Within a day, the area grew itchy. Then it hardened and turned red. The infection immobilized his arm for nearly four weeks. “What an abomination is the Gowanus," Alderson later wrote me. "This restoration will be the ultimate challenge." —By Elizabeth Royte. // Read Royte's story, "The Hidden Rivers of Brooklyn," in the March issue of Harper's: (link in bio). #journalism #gowanuscanal #brooklyn #elizabethroyte Photo courtesy of Flickr/Listen Missy!

A photo posted by Harper’s Magazine (@harpersmagazine) on


February 26, 2016   1 Comment

What does an effective food-waste campaigner actually do?

Find out by reading my profile, about the efforts and antics of Tristram Stuart, founder of Feedback, in this month’s National Geographic. It’s the magazine’s cover story, and it looks like this:


Photo by Brian Finke.

February 23, 2016   No Comments

Recyclers (African vultures, that is) on the brink

vulture-kill-blood-droplet-2-1536Poachers and pastoralists are poisoning African vultures at an alarming rate, with several species in danger of disappearing. What’s the big deal? Before their numbers were decimated, vultures residing in or commuting into the Serengeti ecosystem during the annual migration—when 1.3 million white-bearded wildebeests shuffle between Kenya and Tanzania—consumed more meat than all mammalian carnivores in the Serengeti combined. Lose the vultures and there’d be some ugly knock-on effects. Read all about it in my feature for National Geographic.

Photo by Charlie Hamilton James.

December 14, 2015   2 Comments

A reeking sacrifice zone morphs into a magnet for field biologists

Audubon Magazine has just published, with stupendous photographs by Len Jenshel and Diane Cook, my feature on the transformation of the humongous Fresh Kills landfill, on Staten Island, into a 2,000+ acre nature preserve. I loved reporting this story because I got to spend time outdoors with field biologists — men and women studying birds, bats, and turtles in the former dump, which was formerly a wetland and formerly replete with wild mushrooms, edible plants, freshwater springs, all manner of birds, and fin- and shellfish galore. The new park isn’t exactly restoration — we’re not getting that glorious wetland back — but I think it’s gonna be pretty awesome.

June 29, 2015   No Comments

Do you really understand the high cost of food waste…

… to your pocketbook, to the environment, to the world’s hungry bellies? Read my latest story for National Geographic — entitled “One Third of Food Is Lost or Wasted: What Can Be Done” —  by clicking on this word.

If I could legally reproduce on this page the opening photograph, by Robert Clark, I would. It’s spectacular, though a little confounding. Perusing a USDA list of foods wasted in a year by the average American family, the photo team bought all this food shiny and new, in accurate quantities, and arranged it artfully around the Waldt family of New Jersey. The Waldts, by the way, probably waste less than the typical family (that is, less than 1,600 pounds of food a year). They cook most of their meals from scratch, plan meals carefully, dine out infrequently, and re-purpose and eat all their leftovers. (Naturally, they compost their remains.)

Most of the food in the photo was donated to a halfway house after the shoot. But the Waldts grilled most of the big beautiful salmon, cured the rest as ceviche, and used the bones for stock. Their dog, who’s also in the photo, ate the skin.

As some kind soul tweeted about my story: “Come for the photo, stay for the words.”

(Big tip of my hat to food-waste gurus Jonathan Bloom, at, and to Tristram Stuart, at, Dana Gunders, at, and all the excellent number crunchers at the USDA’s Economic Research Service.)

October 20, 2014   2 Comments

The Remains of the Night: Sex, trash and nature in the city

Back before my knees began to ache, I ran in my neighborhood park, a 585-acre swath of meadows streaked through and bounded by mostly deciduous forest. Unlike most urban runners, I avoided the paved ring road and stuck to the interior, seeking out sketchy paths and abandoned viaducts, crumbling stone staircases and piney glades. I was looking for soft footing, and I was looking for that experience of exploration, of seeing-for-the-first-time, that every devoted woodland visitor wants. I chose my routes by impulse, never deciding which way to turn until a decision, like a fallen branch, rose up to smack me in the face. In this manner, I became familiar with parts of the park that most visitors never see.

Now that my running days are over, I shuffle through a tract of the park’s interior, called the Midwood, with eyes cast down, mostly oblivious to the solitary men who stroll past with backpacks slung casually over one shoulder. This is a special area, dimly lit and damp. It contains the park’s oldest trees—mostly tulips and oaks—and its highest canopy. In the summer, white flowering goutweed, a showy invasive, brightens the forest floor. In the fall, it’s blue wood asters. Birders come through during the migratory season in search of flycatchers and other transients, but my quarry is more prosaic.

In my right hand is a yellow-shafted grabbing tool and in my left a large plastic bag, which I slowly but steadily fill with things that aren’t supposed to be in the woods: malt liquor bottles, crack baggies, chip wrappers. But those items are ancillary to my main target, the specialized detritus of sexual congress: lube tubes, soiled tissues, amyl nitrate poppers, and, of course, used condoms. I had often seen men—young and middle-aged, white, brown, and black—loitering on these forest paths, some of which are paved in mulch and some of which are informal, like deer trails. In my running days, I assumed that the men, who held cell phones and carried small bags, were selling drugs. Only later did I realize their business was almost exclusively sexual; the drug sellers stuck closer to the ring road. …

Read the rest of my rumination on plucking condoms from the woods–illustrated with super-glossy photographs by litter mob founder Marie Viljoen – at Medium.

January 16, 2014   No Comments

Why do rain barrels matter if water isn’t scarce?

The greenest commercial building in the world sits on a slope near Seattle’s Capitol Hill district, topped by what looks like a high-tech wimple—the Flying Nun meets an attractive cube of glass and concrete. The ecclesiastical headgear is, in fact, a canted array of 575 high-efficiency photovoltaic solar panels. Combined with 26 geothermal wells, the panels will make the six-story Bullitt Center a net-zero energy user—that is, it will produce as much energy as it uses over the course of a year. And by harvesting and purifying the drizzle that falls from the Pacific Northwestern sky, the Center is also a net-zero user of water.

Photo: Bullitt Center

Many residential and commercial buildings collect and store rainwater in barrels, to be used for landscaping and gardening. In an era of diminished freshwater supply, that’s smart, but nothing new. The Bullitt Center’s commitment to net-zero water, however, is the equivalent of rain barrels on steroids. The roof shunts rain to a 56,000-gallon cistern in the basement. From there, the screened and filtered water will be used for irrigation and cleaning and to “flush” composting toilets. These appliances use about a tablespoon of water to create a foamy transport medium, which sends human waste to the basement, where it’s mixed with sawdust and breaks down in enclosed (no smell!) vessels. Another portion of the rain water will be made potable by running it through a series of filters, then disinfecting it with ultraviolet light. Activated charcoal filters will strip chlorine, added to keep water bacteria-free while it’s in the pipes, at the spigot. At last, this water will be ready for use in sinks, showers, and water fountains. Presumably it will make excellent espresso.

But that’s not all. Gray water, collected from the building’s sinks and showers, will be pumped to the third floor, where it will trickle slowly through a constructed wetland before it sinks, through street-level plantings, into Seattle’s aquifer. “We’ll be infiltrating about 65 percent of what we collect,” Brad Kahn, the Bullitt Center’s communications director, says. “That’s the amount of rain water that used to be returned to the earth before Europeans settled here, back when this was a Douglas fir forest.”

Owned by the environmentally oriented Bullitt Foundation, the Bullitt Center is undeniably modern. But it’s also delightfully retrograde, eschewing both the electrical and water grids and relying, instead, on its own powers of creation, transformation, and degradation—much as small pre-industrial villages did. Of course, those villages were far smaller, and less demanding of resources, than today’s communities, and therein lies the challenge. If the Bullitt Center can rigorously document its hyper-local sufficiency over a one-year period, it will become the first commercial building to earn certification from the Living Building Challenge, a performance-based standard for sustainability that goes well beyond the demands of the better known Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) standard.

* * *

Saving rainwater for residential or commercial use makes sense in arid regions: it shrinks the demand on municipal water supplies and saves property owners money. Without further treatment, rainwater can be used for flushing toilets, washing clothes and cars, and watering lawns and gardens. Rain barrels and their historical antecedent, cisterns (big underground vaults), can also reduce energy use and the carbon emissions associated with pumping, treating, and distributing water in a centralized system. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, reducing the demand for treated tap water by 10 percent could save the nation enough energy to meet its entire residential, commercial, and industrial demand for 30 days.

But wetter cities are also encouraging rainwater collection these days—mostly to protect their waterways from the ravages of something known as “combined sewer overflows.” CSO events occur during rainstorms, when wastewater treatment plants reach capacity and dump raw sewage directly into nearby creeks, lakes, and harbors. Joining the sewage is rainwater that sluices off parking lots and roads polluted with heavy metals, oil, and street litter. The combined insult jeopardizes human health, degrades ecosystems, and repulses waterfront visitors.

To address these issues, cities are loosening their building codes and offering rebates and technical assistance for so-called green infrastructure that retains storm water and releases it slowly to the earth. Rain barrels—like their hydrophilic cousins bioswales, rain gardens, and green roofs—not only  protect rivers, lakes, and harbors from polluted deluges, they also restore local aquifers, mitigate floods, and reduce the amount of water headed to centralized wastewater plants.

* * *

With its closed-loop water system, the Bullitt Center sends nothing to Seattle’s wastewater treatment plant or into its harbor. That’s helpful, because in 2012, Seattle discharged 154 million gallons of raw sewage and polluted runoff into local waterways. But the building is also reducing its pull on city reservoirs by rendering its rainwater potable.

And now you may ask: why, in a city that gets a decent 35 inches of rain a year, does this even matter? Because Seattle’s population, currently about 635,000, is expected to rise by one to two million people in the next 20 years, and because the climate is changing. The city is likely to see more frequent and longer periods of drought, while warmer winter temperatures mean precipitation will more likely fall as rain, instead of snow. Rain will immediately increase the flow of rivers: that water will run to the sea if not captured.

And so Seattle is considering its options. The city could hang onto that influx by building a new reservoir—considered unlikely, as all the good spots for water storage are already inhabited. Or, according to some visionary planners, it could build a distributed system of catchment cisterns, on a neighborhood or district scale, to capture water, treat it to the appropriate level for use, then reuse and recycle it on site.

If harvesting and purifying rainwater is such a great idea, why aren’t other urban buildings, or even neighborhoods and cities, doing it? A few, in fact, are: a development in the Netherlands, with 250 housing units and commercial space, is net-zero water, as are buildings on numerous campuses in the United States (at U.C. Davis, at Pittsburgh’s Phipps Conservancy, and at Google’s new Bayview complex, for example). Approximately 140 projects in eight countries are currently working to meet the Living Building Challenge.

But obstacles, as one may guess, abound. Existing buildings tend to be on the grid already—hooked up to community water systems that provide good, cheap water (the United States has among the cheapest water rates in the world). There are also federal, state, and local regulatory hurdles to leap, permits or variances to obtain, and employees to train. (If you form your own “water district,” no matter how small, you’ve got to meet Safe Drinking Water Act standards, which means someone needs to be certified to run the system.) And then there’s the price tag: the Bullitt Center’s construction costs were 20 percent higher than those for a comparably sized conventional building. (On the upside: it will have no electric or water bills, and it was designed to last 250 years.)

Kahn admits that distributed water systems that rely on rain aren’t for everyone. It would be tough to do net-zero water in the desert. Nor would net-zero water work in places where downstream cities depend on the flow that upstream cities return to rivers from their centralized wastewater treatment plants. But such systems could work, in many locations, at the scale of a city block or district.

* * *

I have to admit, I have a hard time imagining cisterns working in a place like New York City, my home town, which gets 48 inches of rain a year, houses 8 million people, and runs through more than a billion gallons of water a day. Ninety percent of our water comes to us from the upstate Catskill Mountains region, via shared pipes, tunnels, and aqueducts, and most of the system is gravity fed. Why mess with a good thing?

Because—wait for it—the population is growing, and the climate is changing. It doesn’t take a catastrophist to recognize that a densely populated city that relies on water imported from 100 miles away is neither self-sufficient nor resilient. The system, parts of which are more than a century old, has many potential failure points and already leaks up to 35 million gallons a day, enough to slake half of Pittsburgh’s daily thirst. As the world warms, New York City, which is already leading on climate adaptation, needs to look at backup systems. “Rainwater is a great untapped resource,” says Cecil Scheib, director of advocacy for the New York chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council, “and fostering resiliency is a huge issue post Sandy.”

New York isn’t likely to meet all its needs with rooftop water: the ratio of roof to people doesn’t pencil out (costs and current regulations aside). But a distributed network of rainwater catchment, in conjunction with the existing grid, is worth considering, especially in the case of new construction. It doesn’t have to be an either-or scenario. Such systems can help extend existing infrastructure without drawing down aquifers or streams, and simply collecting rain in barrels or cisterns—even if one has no intention of drinking it—can help reduce flooding.

The Bullitt Center, which opened on Earth Day of 2013, is a demonstration of what’s possible and an inspiration for overcoming the substantial financial, regulatory, and cultural barriers to sustainable design. Planners and lenders, architects and builders, regulators and code enforcement officers are watching closely to see how things shake out. Can these systems be emulated elsewhere? Will the building eventually earn out its additional costs? The answers might not all be yes, but at least the Bullitt Center has dared to stick its neck out and to very publicly investigate. Anyone concerned with the future of design—with the future, period—should be grateful.


This column originally appeared at

December 8, 2013   2 Comments

Attention NYers with broken stuff: Pop Up Repair Shop is back!

This coming week (December 7 – 14), just in time for you know what, Sandra Goldmark and Michael Banta are reopening their Pop Up Repair shop. (See my post below on its first iteration.) This time the shop will materialize at the UpstART Gallery, at 93 Cooper Street, between Isham and 207th Street in waaaay upper Manhattan. Besides fixing your broken lamps and jewelry and tchotchkes, and replacing the batteries in phones branded with a bitten apple, Banta and Goldmark are offering one of the coolest I-will-not-participate-in-escalating-techno-fashion-madness services ever: stitching conductive material onto your perfectly good pre-existing gloves, thus converting them into touch-sensitive distal thermoregulators. No need to buy new gloves simply because you want to make a phone call in cold weather. (Yes, you can do this yourself with just a few stitches of conductive thread, but Sandra, Michael and the repair team are great folk to visit, and you probably have other stuff in need of repair, right?)

The shop will also be selling repair kits for jewelry and lamps, which were among the most common items brought in during the Pop Up Shop’s first incarnation. For more information about the shop, which plans to open in other locations soonish, go to

December 5, 2013   No Comments

From melons to megawatts?

Beginning next summer, landfill-bound garbage trucks in Massachusetts might smell a little less putrid than usual, thanks to a new regulation that would prohibit any generator of more than a ton of food scraps per week from hauling those scraps to the dump. As the state finally gets serious about diverting food waste, it expects to be sending much of it elsewhere: to hungry people, animal-feed producers, commercial composters, and the high-tech contraptions known as anaerobic digesters, which convert waste to energy and fertilizer.

With the passage of the new regulation, Massachusetts will join its neighbors Vermont and Connecticut in requiring that large amounts of organic waste go somewhere other than landfills. (New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has expressed his wish to enact a similar requirement before he leaves office at the beginning of next year.) Should these regulations have their intended effect, the Northeast will likely see a major surge in the technology of anaerobic digestion (AD)

The AD process starts when organic material is dumped into an enclosed tank and seeded with hungry bacteria. As microbes devour this nutrient-rich material, they produce sugars, fatty acids, and amino acids. Successive waves of bacteria then convert these products into carbon dioxide, hydrogen, ammonia, organic acids, and methane. The biogases generated by the process can be captured and used to produce fuel, electricity, and heat; left behind are crumbly dregs known as digestate, which has some value as fertilizer.

Across the United States, nearly 200 farms and a handful of industrial food-service operators already use small AD systems to turn slurries of animal waste or food scraps into power. Wastewater treatment plants, of course, have long enlisted microbes to digest the organic solids in human sewage, but increasingly they have been using AD technology to generate their own energy and offset electricity costs. To further boost power production, plants with excess digester capacity are starting to chase food scraps—which generate 10 to 35 times more gas than does animal or human waste.

“This is a great opportunity for economic growth,” says Patrick Serfass, executive director of the American Biogas Council. “We can recycle the organic waste that makes up 20 to 40 percent of our garbage and turn it into renewable energy.” Digesting 50 percent of the food Americans waste, says the Environmental Protection Agency, would generate enough electricity to power 2.5 million homes.

Some worry that government subsidies could create an oversize AD industry with an insatiable appetite for food. Already there is concern in the European Union, where subsidies are a powerful incentive, about the possibility that crops will be grown solely for AD purposes. Others caution that centralized industrial digestion could undermine community composting operations, which not only produce valuable fertilizer for local gardeners and landscapers but also “foster community engagement and commitment to sustainable practices,” according to David Buckel, a New York–based community composting consultant. “We need both scales. But we should do as much local composting as possible.”

However the options shake out, it’s clear that the days of long-hauling massive amounts of methane-generating organics to landfills are numbered. Let the food fight—over the energy and nutrients stored in peanut shells and potato peels—begin.


This post originally appeared in the winter 2013/2013 issue of OnEarth Magazine

November 26, 2013   No Comments