Notes on waste, water, whatever
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Category — Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash

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

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

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 China it comes, and to China it’s likely to return

As you dutifully deliver your recyclable soda bottles and soup cans to the curb each week, you’re probably not thinking they’ll soon be embarking on an intercontinental voyage. But there’s a good chance that they are. The United States ships 50 to 75 percent of the material collected from curbside recycling programs to China each year, along with such scrapyard staples as junked cars, wire cables, broken motors, and other industrial and commercial castoffs. Add it all up, and that’s 46 million metric tons—enough to fill 4.6 million garbage trucks—of scrap metal, paper, rubber, and plastic, valued at roughly $11 billion.

In 2012, scrap was the nation’s No. 2 export to China, right after soybeans.

Without China as a market for our recycling and scrap, U.S. landfills would fill up a lot more quickly, and this country’s recycling industry would lose a key source of revenue as hauling companies instead routed our bottles, cans, and newspapers to dumps and incinerators. The U.S. actually got a taste of what that would be like earlier this year, when China began rejecting scrap material at its ports.

What’s wrong with our waste? America and other nations have been exporting scrap to China for more than a decade. After laborers sort and clean the material, processors sell it to manufacturers (most of which are located overseas) who use it to make new appliances, packaging, computer clamshells, stop signs, engine parts, and other durable goods. But in recent years, the amount of unrecyclable material—stuff like food, concrete blocks, poop, and medical debris—cocktailed in with legitimate scrap has been creeping ever upward.

For years, importers were lenient, tolerating as much as 40 percent contamination per bale.  But last February, the Chinese government—under increasing public pressure to clean up its air and water pollution—cracked down. All of that extraneous or poorly sorted material was proving costly to Chinese buyers. Anything they couldn’t use, they would burn or bury, fouling China’s environment.

Under the new directive, called Operation Green Fence, Chinese port inspectors allow no more than 1.5 percent contamination per bale of scrap. By September, China had suspended nearly 250 companies’ import licenses and rejected thousands of scrap containers. Some of them were delivered to more permissive ports in Vietnam and Malaysia, which also covet raw materials for manufacturing. Other ships headed for Hong Kong, where workers cleaned the loads of contaminants, re-baled them, and sent them back to China. Still other containers never left the U.S.: vast tonnages of plastics and paper went straight from materials recycling facilities (known as MRFs, pronounced “murf”)—which sort and bale metals, plastics, and paper collected through curbside recycling programs—to landfills and incinerators in this country.

But what sounds like a disaster for community recycling programs, and for landfills running out of space, may ultimately prove to have many benefits.

* * *

China first started importing scrap in large quantities after 2001, when it joined the World Trade Organization. Almost immediately, importers began to pay more for scrap than some U.S. industries were offering. It was also cheaper, much of the time, for American sellers to ship their material to Asian buyers than to send it overland to U.S. manufacturing or processing plants, thanks to discounted rates on ships that would otherwise be sailing for China empty. In 2012, for example, shipping a container from Los Angeles to China cost around $600, while sending the same container to Chicago via rail cost four times as much.

There are other reasons that U.S. scrap migrated overseas: Chinese labor is far cheaper than American, and Chinese handwork—unwinding copper wires from motors, for example, or extracting steel screws from aluminum chair frames—wrings more value from scrap material than our automated systems can. And then there’s supply and demand, the single most important driver of recycling. The United States, which manufactures comparatively little, generates far more recyclable material than it can incorporate into new products.

“Exports have been a relief valve for scores of years,” says Scott Horne, vice president of government affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries, a lobbying group. Without China, our junked cars and old motors would pile up, and our water bottles and soup cans would be landfilled.

Now, with Operation Green Fence reducing the demand for U.S. scrap and recycling, prices for those materials have dropped. Before the Green Fence went up, reports Adam Clark, of the Northeast Resource Recovery Association, a bale of mixed plastics in his region could fetch upwards of eight cents per pound; after, it brought 2 cents, or less, per pound. Paper, pre-fence, netted $80 to $90 per ton; post-fence, it dropped to between $40 and $50. That’s not so great for MRFs, but it’s good for domestic mills and processors eager to manufacture new goods from old. (Until now, with all of the scrap going to China, processors haven’t been operating at full capacity because they couldn’t get enough material.) Now it’s a buyer’s market.

Even better, tighter Chinese inspections and the threat of severely limited markets have forced some U.S. MRFs to clean up their acts, hiring extra labor, slowing down their sorting belts, or buying optical sorters, which use lights, lenses, and cameras to differentiate among different types of plastic, and then air guns to blast them into separate chutes. The result is cleaner bales of material that can make it through the Green Fence. Domestic processing facilities, which buy material from MRFs, also have more, and better, material to choose from, says Jerry Powell, publisher of Resource Recycling magazine.

* * *

To be sure, China still wants the world’s scrap. Clean scrap is the feedstock for many of those shiny new goods that China manufactures and exports to the rest of the world. It’s also the feedstock for China’s own rapid industrialization: you can’t build cities and the systems that run them without an abundance of metals and plastics.

Operation Green Fence has temporarily altered the scrap landscape in China, but it’s been a game changer for the U.S. recycling industry, which relies on exports for profit and had grown sloppy over the years. If its central lesson holds—“Don’t send us garbage”—everyone will be better off.

Yes, improving bales of recyclable material will cost more time and money, but there’s a great deal riding on the integrity of the process. Not only will the Chinese villages that break open and sort these bales be cleaner, but more metals will remain unmined; more oil will stay in the ground; and more Americans will believe that the system that keeps these materials cycling actually does some good.

Photo: Tony Hisgett

November 1, 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Image: Duane Romanell

This post originally appeared at www.onearth.org/theroytestuff

August 1, 2012   2 Comments

Fast food, slow change: rethinking packaging

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

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

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

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

Image: Dan Century/Flickr

(This post originally appeared at OnEarth.org/theroytestuff.)

April 26, 2012   No Comments

Oysters on the half-shell, toxins on the side

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

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

 

(A version of this post originally appeared at OnEarth.org/theroytestuff)

April 22, 2012   No Comments

Vended water or soda? How about neither?

In honor of World Water Day, let’s celebrate an action recently taken by a national park that should properly be interpreted as a boon to environmentally friendly water consumption.

Proponents of the right to buy whatever single-serve packaged beverage they damn well please have long argued that eliminating bottled water from vending machines will force the public to instead buy high-calorie drinks, which have a bigger environmental footprint than does bottled water. (This shift in buying behavior hasn’t yet been proven; but yes, for the record, bottled water does have a lower carbon footprint than bottled sodas, juices, or teas.)

But Saguaro National Park, just east of Tucson, has thrown the baby out with the bathwater: officials there have announced that the park will quit selling not only bottled water, but sodas as well – a decision that should eliminate up to 40 percent of the park’s recyclable waste stream. (Remember: recycling, good; reducing consumption, even better.)

Take that, Grand Canyon National Park (which recently banned the sale of bottled water — but not sodas — after a huge kerfuffle with Coca-Cola, maker of Dasani water and a $13-million donor to the National Park Foundation). Like that park and Zion National Park, in Utah, Saguaro will be installing hydration stations — those contraptions formerly known as “water fountains” — for filling reusable bottles.

If parks in some of the hottest, driest areas of the nation can take this step without fear of losing visitors to either disenchantment or dehydration, what’s stopping all the others?

 

Image via Wikimedia Commons.

March 26, 2012   3 Comments