Notes on waste, water, whatever
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Category — Waste

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 www.wastedfood.com, and to Tristram Stuart, at www.feedingthe5k.org, Dana Gunders, at www.nrdc.org, and all the excellent number crunchers at the USDA’s Economic Research Service.)

October 20, 2014   No 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 OnEarth.org

December 8, 2013   No 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 www.popuprepair.com.

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.

Photo:jfeuchter/Flickr

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

November 26, 2013   No Comments

The Forgotten Rs: Repair and Refurbish and Reuse

Kristin Murphy spent two years listening to a portable radio that, thanks to a broken antenna, delivered only AM broadcasts. A Columbia University PhD student and a self-professed news junky, she refused to buy a new one, but she lacked the tools to fix the old. So when she learned this past spring that a pop-up repair shop would be opening in her northern Manhattan neighborhood, she was thrilled. “I thought the idea was brilliant,” she says. “I began collecting broken things in my head.”

When the store opened in June, sandwiched between a hair salon and a pizza joint in a former pharmacy, a line of customers stretched out the door. Soon the storefront, which started with the clean and organized look of an Apple Genius Bar, resembled a theater workshop on opening night. Spools of thread and wire, boxes of nuts and screws, glue guns, paint brushes, screwdrivers, vice grips, and clamps littered the counters. Customers milled around work benches and the sewing machine, eagerly sharing stories about their broken stuff, all under the gaze of a patron saint of handiness: MacGyver.

The first item Murphy dropped off was that radio: within days she was enjoying FM stations again. Next, she delivered a backpack with a torn seam, a broken window blind, an iPod that wouldn’t turn on, a broken headlamp, and a second radio. Each was handily fixed, for a total cost of less than $75, by Sandra Goldmark and Michael Banta, veteran professionals who teach and produce theater at Barnard College and between them can handle carpentry, electrical work, rigging, welding, drafting, painting, sewing, and model making.

For Goldmark and Banta, the Pop-Up Repair Shop was equal parts performance art, sustainability initiative, research project, and social activism.  “We were fed up with buying things and throwing them away, both in the theater and at home, and we wanted to see if others felt the same way,” Goldmark told me. Would people bring in their broken household goods? If so, why, and how much did they value such repairs? With a grant from Barnard, they conducted detailed surveys of their customers, tracking both the level of demand for, and the response to, a community repair shop.

Nationwide, repair businesses—except for those that handle computers—have been in decline for decades. Before World War II, for example, the country had more than 100,000 shoe repair shops; now there are roughly 7,000. The Bureau of Labor Statistics includes small-appliance repair on its list of disappearing jobs. “And I see no trend in them coming back,” says Neil Seldman, president of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, a nonprofit that advocates for environmentally sound and equitable community development. “Manufacturers make products unrepairable. They don’t sell parts because they don’t want people to repair their products.” They want them to buy new stuff.

Although it’s not part of the well-known triad, “repair” partners with “reuse” in the reduce, reuse, recycle hierarchy—and it’s a better option than recycle when it comes to the environment. Why? Because when we repair, we don’t buy new stuff. No matter how “green” it claims to be, manufacturing new stuff almost always requires more energy and materials, and has a greater impact on the environment, than continuing to use something that already exists. Repair also generates less air and water pollution than recycling, leaves behind less hazardous waste, and creates an affordable supply of high-quality goods for those unable to afford new things.

Still, communities trying to shrink the amount of garbage they pile up in landfills routinely give reuse and repair short shrift. They do far less public education on reuse and repair, a retail message, than on recycling, which addresses discards in a wholesale manner.

Consciously or not, Goldmark and Banta were joining thousands of others in urban pockets around the world who, empowered by repair cafes and collectives and downloadable fixer manuals, were reclaiming their stuff, jumping off the break-it-and-buy-it treadmill, and taking a quiet stand for the environment. “The number one thing we’re up against is the cheap price of new goods,” Goldmark told me. “They’re artificially cheap because they don’t include the environmental costs—air and water pollution, for example—of extracting raw materials, manufacturing, or distribution.”

Low wages in developing nations also keep prices low, as do government subsidies for extracting resources like wood, oil, and gas. People would be far less likely to buy new products if the price tags of those goods reflected their true cost. Consumers would also demand more from manufacturers whose products prematurely fail, and they might be more willing to pay repair people a living wage.

Over the course of four weeks, Goldmark and her colleagues were pleasantly surprised to serve roughly 200 people and repair more than 450 objects. The largest category was lamps, but the staff also worked its magic on vacuum cleaners, coffee makers, fans, jewelry, textiles, telephones, trophies, furniture, stuffed animals, and a cracked two-and-a-half-foot-long plastic ladle—a tchotchke nonpareil that Goldmark handily repaired with a small metal plate and a bolt. The couple’s only failures? A mini-fridge and some remote-controlled cars.

The shop—which charged between $20 and $40 for most jobs—lost money because Goldmark and Banta kept prices artificially low to lure in customers. They wanted to get across an idea, not make a profit. In fact, they were experimenting with pricing, asking the first 25 customers to pay what they thought was right. If Kristin Murphy had come in toward the end of the shop’s tenure, she likely would have paid $40 to have her blinds repaired and more than $15 for the radio.

“If we did this again,” Goldmark said, “we’d trim our staff and charge more, but not too much. We still want to keep it affordable.” She would also ask customers to take another crucial step: “I’d give them a piece of paper so they can write to the manufacturer of the broken coffee pot” to express their dissatisfaction. After all, if we don’t let companies know we’re unhappy—and unlikely to buy their products in the future—we can’t blame them for continuing to turn out crap.

Perhaps the most valuable—if subversive—lesson of the pop-up shop is that we, as consumers, have options: when something breaks, we don’t have to throw it away. By this measure alone, the shop was hugely successful. It kept more than a ton of stuff out of the landfill, and it encouraged customers to get involved not only with repair, but with other like-minded people.

Some of those folks hung around for hours—Goldmark told me with admiration in her voice—learning new skills and gaining the confidence to try them out. Then, under the spell of MacGyver, they went home and tackled their own repairs.

 

Photos: Alyssa Vine/Barnard College

October 21, 2013   No Comments

You buy it, you break it, you fix it

Last week I wrote a piece in OnEarth about a pop-up repair shop in Manhattan, a quasi-environmental, quasi-social month-long experiment intended to not only fix household goods (a lot of lamps, as it turns out) but to suss how folks felt about the value of repair. I mentioned the website ifixit.com, which offers free repair manuals for cars, trucks, appliances and small electronics, including things made by Apple.

Kyle Wiens, an ifixit co-founder, had a great turn on CBS This Morning, this morning, in which he talks about empowerment and the rights of consumers to get at the innards of their goods (but not replace the battery in their iphone).  Check it out, and my apologies for the ad that precedes it:

 

 

 

September 20, 2013   No Comments

Caffeine and consequences

 

Vanessa Rancano writes in the East Bay Express a fascinating mini-history of the single-serve coffee pod and its unintended environmental consequences. The piece, titled “Waste: The Dark Side of the New Coffee Craze,” hits many important themes: the fundamental un-recyclability of these objects (whether they’re made of plastic or aluminum or both); what actually happens to these pods or capsules in a recycling facility (short story: they don’t actually get recycled); how a few grams of waste from individual households adds up to massive amounts of trash in our landfills (Rancano conservatively estimates that Americans annually trash 966 million pounds of coffee-pod rejectamenta –the weight of about 150,000 Hummer H2s). She briefly looks upstream at the health effects of producing plastic coffee capsules and then downstream, again, at why incineration isn’t a great way to handle this waste. In between is a brief history of modern packaging, including the shift from glass to plastic, the globalization of consumer goods, and producer’s economic incentive to sell small portions at relatively high cost to both the affluent (who can afford the luxury of convenience) and the poor (who can’t afford larger serving sizes). Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist with the Natural Resources Defense Council, summarizes the essential problem with single-cup pods: “they’re an unsustainable way of delivering coffee to people.”

Photo by Guido Krzikowski / Bloomberg / Getty Images

 

August 22, 2013   No Comments

Seeking closure in a bottle

When my phone rang two months ago, a nice-sounding stranger invited me to visit a Portuguese cork-oak forest. I’d never seen one, so I was intrigued. My caller, Patrick Spencer, executive director of an Oregon-based nonprofit called the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance, explained why seeing and understanding this landscape was so important: the forests are fragile, among the most biodiverse in Europe, and threatened by people who buy wine closed with screw caps and plastic. That’s me, I thought, beginning to feel a little defensive.

Spencer went on: choose wine with a cork, and you help preserve a unique ecosystem, habitat for endangered endemics like Iberian lynx—of which only 150 remain—and imperial Iberian eagles. And don’t forget the adorable and threatened Barbary deer, wild boar, skinks, spade-foot toads, genets, and more than 160 bird species that reside or annually alight in these woodlands.

I heard Spencer out, told him I’d consider his proposition, then walked down the street to my wine store.

 
To read what I learned about wine closures — aluminum screw caps, plastic stoppers and wooden corks — read my post at OnEarth.org

July 26, 2013   No Comments

Colbert kicks Nestle’s butt

The media had a lot of fun with the roll-out for Nestle’s new hydration product, Resource water, aimed at “stylish, higher income” women. But no one hit all the marks the way Steven Colbert did in this segment, covering the demonization of tap water (“commie water”), the cravenness of marketers targeting a specific demographic (in this case,”carbon-based life forms from age zero to anything”), the privatization of public water sources, and the oceans of plastic waste left behind by bottled-water drinkers. Enjoy.

June 21, 2013   No Comments