Category Archives: Trash and Recycling

No Perfect System—Yet

Mason jars---good for some things.

Jars—good for some things.

Ack! Two of my post ideas have come into conflict, which has resulted in some cognitive dissonance here in my quest for a better path forward. To wit—post idea #1, from a year ago, the posts “Plastic Trash and Whack-a-mole“, and then “Two Sides of the Very Same Coin“, where I was rather horrified at the damage that plastics are causing , and decided to look into not using plastics in the kitchen, and to also reduce the amounts of trash and recycling that we generate. The short version of a zero-plastic, zero-trash lifestyle—practice some Minimalism, store food in mason jars, shop with reusable bags, and buy things from the bulk and produce sections that aren’t packaged. This sounded like a thoughtful, more sustainable path forward.

But, much of this doesn’t mesh well with ideas from my recent explorations of self-sufficiency, packaging, and transportation, in the posts “Packaging, Transportation, and Doing it Yourself“, and “The Packaging and Transportation Part“. In those posts, I argue that we’re far more efficient, and therefore less wasteful, if we let specialization, productivity, and economies of scale work their magic. To do otherwise, as in trying to do everything yourself, for example, is inefficient, and therefore wasteful, and thus a faulty path forward.

And therein lies the rub. Continue reading

Even RE Isn’t Free, and Other Thoughts

Beautiful berries---to ship or not to ship?

Beautiful berries—to ship or not to ship?

First, I just wanted to let everyone know that I accidentally hit “publish” instead of “save” on a partially-completed post yesterday, and then had to quickly delete it, but not before the program sent out the “new post” notices. So, if you got a “new post” notice with a bad link in it, that’s why. Sorry,..

Second, some thoughts on the packaging post. Mr. X had a really important observation that deserves mention. He agreed with the underlying ideas about efficient production, and to paraphrase his comments, “It would be better to grow strawberries in California and ship them to Arizona in self-driving vehicles powered by renewable power, and to put solar generation in Arizona and ship the power to California via high-voltage-DC lines…” But he took issue with my statement that the $2 price on the vinegar in the store reflects its entire cost, and he is indeed correct. That $2 price does not take into account all the costs that companies push off onto third-parties, the “negative externalities”. Whether it’s global warming from fossil fuel use, or downstream effects from plastic pollution, or abuses of workers through unfair labor practices, the jug of vinegar has costs that might not be reflected in its price on the shelf. Though, even if those hidden costs doubled the store price of the vinegar, my underlying point would still hold (and he agreed)—efficient production would be the least wasteful and therefore the most sustainable, within reason.

Again, this is another case where we need to focus on actual problems, and in this case the problem would be negative externalities, and the best solution for those is… good government. But, I digress…

A few other thoughts here. With regard to trade, packaging, and shipping—common sense still applies. The only way to get fresh blackberries in January in the US is to buy ones that have been flown up from South America. Despite the richness created in our lives when we can have fresh berries in January, it probably isn’t worth the cost. Even if the plane was somehow powered by renewable power, we need to realize that even renewable power has a cost—dammed rivers, land given over to solar farms, etc. So although using renewable energy is a goal, we need to balance it with the goal of reduced consumption.

The high-carbon way to get the berries...

The high-carbon way to get the berries… A 747 cargo flight in Anchorage, Alaska.

Related, while I think it’s better to choose packaged items over trying to make everything at home, it’s still a perfectly valid goal to strive for reduced packaging. And some home production can indeed make sense. An example in my life— Continue reading

Rob Greenfield on Recklessness

"Pounding each other's faces for the sake of entertainment" = reckless?

“Pounding each other’s faces for the sake of entertainment”—a form of recklessness?

You might not be familiar with Rob Greenfield, but he’s a young guy who lives with no money, travels the world on his bike, does as much good as he can for all the people he meets, eats free food from grocery store dumpsters, and writes about it on the internet. I admire the guy, even though I don’t think that we can all live quite like he does. I like his perspective on many things, and this bit that he wrote on “recklessness” really caught my eye. This was in a piece about why he doesn’t have health insurance, and I can’t say that I agree with him, necessarily, on that part. BUT—this part for sure is worth reading. I’ll paste a big chunk of it here; I don’t think he’d mind one bit. (Link to his whole article here).

Some would say I’m being reckless by not having health insurance, but I urge those who think this to assess the blatant recklessness of our society and question whether you are being reckless as well. To me being reckless is eating fast food, even on a weekly basis. To me being reckless is smoking cigarettes. To me being reckless is eating too much meat and too little veggies and fruits. To me being reckless is choosing to spend my days dormant and getting no exercise. To me being reckless is slaving away at a job that results in vast amounts of stress and relationship strains. To me the American culture is beyond reckless in so many of our simple daily actions. Recklessness is purely a matter of perspective.

We are reckless with our lands that we poison with herbicides and pesticides and strip of all the nutrients through industrial farming. Continue reading

A Nice Easy Change

water bottles cropped

The new Styrofoam…

A very quick post here; I’m still travelling, and I’ve been too busy to research or ponder the myriad sustainability topics that are accruing on my mental list, among them soil erosion in Spain, new attitudes about sustainability in Texas, scientific reports on global warming trends, analyses that shows that half of the earth’s biomass is gone, and the problem of mesquite trees, just to name a few. I’ll be back home in a week, and can resume a more normal reading and writing pace. Until then, here’s a quick post about a nice easy change everyone could make—buy and use a stainless-steel water bottle. My wife and I and the kids all picked one up on this trip, because we were tired of creating trash every time we wanted to stop while driving in order to get something to drink. And… it works like a charm. Both of the bottles in the picture are a double-walled insulated type, and they really keep liquids cool or hot. Plus, cold liquids don’t make them sweat on the outside, even on a hot muggy day.

So, I drive along when travelling, pull off at a McDonalds, go in and ask for a large unsweetened tea, but I hold up the water bottle and tell the person at the register that I don’t need a cup, because “I’ll just put it in here”. It works like a charm. A bit of ice, a whole bottle of tea, and off I go, no Styrofoam cup or trash. You could do the same thing with soda at most fast-food restaurants, or with water at water fountains anywhere. Anyway, bottom line—it isn’t always convenient or possible to bring drinks with you from home, and this is a nice easy way to avoid all kinds of single-use plastics and trash.

Small changes, but they all add up…


Two Sides of the Very Same Coin

zero_waste_home_jacket_500You have to admit, that of all the staggering statistics about plastic in my last post, that the one that probably stayed with you was that small statistic at the end, when I discussed how Bea Johnson was able to reduce the trash output for her family of four to one quart for a whole year. In our modern world, that seems nearly impossible. So I read her book, just to see how she did it. AND, lo and behold, guess what’s behind the one-quart achievement? Minimalism, though she doesn’t really call it that. It turns out that trash reduction and Minimalism are just two sides of the very same coin. In fact, other “sides of the coin” could also include plastics reduction, energy conservation, healthier living, money savings, and perhaps even time savings; all very-related aspects of the same general impetus of living more intentionally.

So, Johnson and her husband first devoted themselves to shrinking, in a thoughtful way, their material possessions and footprint. They moved to a much smaller house that was within walking distance of nearby amenities, dropped down to one vehicle, and decluttered all the rooms in their house. They cut down to a bare minimum of clothes, to only the necessary items in the kitchen, and they reduced their electronic distractions, in return for more time spent as a family and less time tending to their material possessions. When they were done paring down, THEN she turned her attention to minimizing waste. And once you realize how she did this part it seems rather obvious. You can’t “disappear” trash once it’s in your home, so you have to NOT BRING IT HOME. Johnson spent a large amount of time figuring out her methods (she initially was striving for zero trash AND zero recycling, but found that to be too high of a hurdle in terms of her sanity, so they have settled for striving for zero trash and very-low recycling), but, once she perfected her system, it doesn’t seem that difficult. Now, this post is only a very short summary of the family’s endeavors, but the Johnsons bring reusable containers and bags of various sorts with them when they go shopping for food, and shop mostly in the bulk, produce, and deli sections of their local natural-food stores. She then cooks meals from these wholesome ingredients, using a list of recipes that she has selected that can be made with the bulk foods that she has available. The family buys used clothing and other used goods when they can, and for many household items, such as basic cosmetics and toothpaste, she makes her own.

Want to see how it’s done? A great little video about Lauren Singer, a resident of New York City, who also lives a zero-waste lifestyle—

In short, Bea Johnson summarizes her method as the “Five R’s”– Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Rot (compost). And, she stresses that these efforts need to occur in that particular order. I won’t try to recap all of her material here, but I did want to include a couple of her points–

— We should avoid advertising and marketing. I was surprised to see a discussion of advertising in this book about trash, but it made sense when I though about it. In fact, a quote from the book is in order here—

“Media exposure (television, magazines) and leisure shopping can provide a great deal of inspiration; however, the targeted marketing that funds the former and the clever merchandising that promotes the latter tend to make us feel unfit, uncool, and inadequate. These feelings make it easy to succumb to temptations in order to satisfy perceived needs. Controlling our exposure can have a tremendous effect not just on our consumption but also on our happiness. Find satisfaction with what you already have.”

–Once you realize that your actions and consumption are having negative consequences, then you really only have a few choices—you can deny that it is happening, you can lapse into “eco-depression”, or you can begin to change and take action. And if you don’t think that you can go as far as Bea Johnson did, I would posit that any action is better than no action, and some of them are really quite easy. For instance, it’s not all that hard to quit using single-use plastic shopping bags, or to quit putting your compostable material in the trash. And once you’re comfortable with that, then you could take further steps. Every little bit matters.

Minimalism = less to deal with.

Minimalism = less to deal with.

So, if there’s one thing I’ve noticed in the last week, after reading three consecutive books about trash and recycling, is that average Americans create trash in incredible volumes, and nearly thoughtlessly. Disposability has become ingrained in our culture, even though it’s a recent addition. A concerted effort to reserve that trend may be long overdue.

Note, May 2016: After a year of paying attention to packaging and zero-trash, I’ve arrived at a more nuanced view of the subject, see this post, “No Perfect System—Yet“.

Minimalism image credit: Tommerton2010, Flickr Creative Commons.

Plastic Trash and Whack-a-Mole

“A year’s worth of [the world’s production of] plastic would outweigh a navy of more than five-hundred Nimitz-class aircraft carriers, the largest ships ever built…” —Edward Humes, author of “Garbology”

plastic trash

No place is too remote for plastic trash. Plastic items on the beaches of Laysan Island, in the Hawaiian Islands National Wildlife Refuge. As unsightly as this is, the biggest problems may stem from the plastic in the ocean that we don’t see, that which has been broken into innumerable floating bits.

l’m reading a book I just came across, “Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash”, by Edward Humes. I’m not quite finished yet, but it has definitely made me think. Here’s a some of these trash-thoughts, and a few others that I’ve had lately—

— Well, this first one is a no-brainer, but we could all create less waste. We are emerging from a profligate era of abundance, where consumption was glorified, and where trash could be set by the curb and made to just disappear (but not really). We are rapidly reaching the end of that era, and are entering a time where we will need to husband every resource, and live very intentionally, lest we irreversibly damage our planet and the life on it. Humes proposes one way to think about this “waste”—that we need to quit thinking about that word as a noun, but rather to think of it as a verb, because what we put into the trash is often the result of wasteful activity or processes; it is “waste” in several senses of the word. It takes energy and resources to mine or grow or otherwise produce and ship all those items that go into the trash, and more energy and resources and effort and money and nature destruction to get them to the landfill and make them “disappear”. Just the fact that this pattern is not circular, but is a one-way trip, makes this activity inherently wasteful. Humes calculates that every American will produce 102 tons of trash in his or her lifetime (other countries do better, on the whole), much of it caused by excess or wasteful consumption patterns. Much of this “trash” isn’t really trash, but rather material that could be separated from the waste stream. Which leads me to my next point…

garbology book— Large percentages of what we do dispose of could be recycled or composted. According to Humes, the average American’s trash, by weight, consists of 28% paper, 14% food, 14% yard waste, 12% plastics, 9% metals, 8% rubber or textiles, 7% wood, 5% glass, and 4% “other”. Again, no rocket-science is required here—the paper, plastics, metals, and glass can all be more-or-less readily recycled, and the food waste, yard waste, and wood can all be composted. Even conservatively, this appears to be more than 80% of the waste stream. Imagine every trash truck or train having its volume reduced by 80 percent! Now, recycling is great, but recycling alone doesn’t really absolve us from environmental impact (and there was a very similar message in the book “Junkyard Planet”, my post here); even recycling has its limits and costs. So, back to point number one—the best trash is the trash that never got created in the first place. But if it has to be disposed of, then recycling is far better than the landfill.

— Composting is more important than I previously thought. I had come to this realization before I read this particular book, and have actually been meaning to write a post about it. Here’s why—a few years ago I considered composting to be a relatively minor part of living sustainably, something that was great to do and could create a few pots of good soil for the garden, but wasn’t going to play some huge role in saving the planet. I might be wrong about that, for several reasons. First, composting creates fertile planting material, but it also helps close the nutrient loop; an important permaculture principle. Second, it appears that over a third of typical trash could be composted, which could prevent it from having to be landfilled, and thereby save all of those costs. But perhaps the most important reason is that if organic material does get buried in a landfill it decomposes anaerobically, which produces methane, a gas that is more than twenty times more potent than CO2, in terms of global warming. So, positives on one side, big negatives on the other—this makes composting pretty important (…and some cities are making it mandatory).

— Plastics are forever. And they’re wonderful. And they’re horrible. They’re wonderful because they’re incredibly useful. Plastic products are inexpensive and nearly infinitely versatile, which is why over 50 million tons of plastics are produced every year, according to Humes. We use plastics for food wrap and dashboards and buttons and kayaks and literally millions of other products. BUT, virtually every piece of plastic that has ever been made is still around, and when those plastics get into the ocean, as they invariably do, they cause really big problems, and will perhaps cause even more problems in the future that we can’t yet foresee. Ingested (because plastics are often mistaken for food by wildlife), they kill birds and turtles and fish. The animals die and decompose, releasing the plastics to be ingested yet again. Plastics wash up on beaches, absorb organic pollutants, and break down into tiny pieces that turn huge expanses of ocean into what Hume calls “plastic chowder”. It’s an absolutely huge, and growing, problem, with some researchers calculating that over 150 million tons of plastics are now in the ocean, with more washing in every year. (One organization working on this problem is; there is a lot of material on their website.)

Divers attempt to free a seal from ocean debris.

Divers attempt to free a seal from ocean debris.

So, to recap—we could probably “waste” dramatically less, more of what we do have to dispose of could be recycled or composted, and plastics are causing some big problems. And I would guess that most of this isn’t particularly surprising to most people. But here’s the bigger question—what does this mean to me, as someone who is trying to morph their lifestyle and habits into something approaching “sustainable”? A bit of inspiration might come from Beth Terry’s book, “Plastic-Free: How I Kicked the Habit and You Can Too”.

Plastic-free---possible but difficult?

Plastic-free—possible but difficult?

I glanced through it the other day, and might read it soon. Another book, “Zero Waste Home”, by Bea Johnson, details her family’s methods that enable them to only make one quart (!) of garbage in a year. But here’s what I suspect—that reducing one’s trash burden, whether or not one is making a specific effort to reduce plastics, requires a bit of effort and attention. It might come down to being a matter of time and convenience, because in many cases, doing things in ways that create trash is just easier. If this is true, then it might be a problem, because in my life trying to do things in a sustainable way is starting to feel like playing “Whack-a-Mole”. For the last six months I’ve felt like I can to this thing the right way, or that thing the right way, but not everything, because they all take time, and I run out of time. For instance, cooking more is a good pattern for all kinds of reasons, but as I got busy last fall with the solar project, I found myself cooking less and eating out more, or eating foods that were pre-prepared in some way. Likewise with gardening, and the bees, and cutting firewood, and minimizing my belongings, and myriad other aspects of my life—I’m not sure I have time to do them all. Now, in the Amazon write-up for Bea Johnson’s book, it says that after reducing their trash to near zero that “…their overall quality of life has changed for the better: they now have more time together, they’ve cut their annual spending by a zero_waste_home_jacket_500remarkable forty percent, and they are healthier than they’ve ever been…” I might have to read this book next, instead of the one about plastic reduction, because it doesn’t do us all any good to know what we should be doing, but not have the time to do it. Much to contemplate, and I suspect I’ll be revisiting this topic…





Opening quote—emphasis mine.
Beach image credit: Susan White, USFWS, Flickr Creative Commons.
Seal: NOAA, National Ocean Service Image Gallery.


Third-Best Option

“Recycling is better—I won’t write “good”—for the environment…Placing a box or can in a recycling bin doesn’t mean you’ve recycled anything, and it doesn’t make you a better, greener person: it just means you’ve outsourced your problem….if that realization leaves you feeling bad, there’s always the alternative: stop buying so much crap in the first place.” — Adam Minter, in “Junkyard Planet”.

JunkyardPlanet cover

If Adam Minter has a main point in his fascinating new book, it might be this—recycling isn’t a free lunch. While better than putting material in landfills, there are costs associated with recycling that can’t be ignored. And if he has a second major point, it is probably that the huge, billion-dollar global scrap trade is driven nearly entirely by market forces. You can put your newspapers or plastic bottles into a recycling bin, but if market conditions aren’t such that profits can be made, then that material will often wind up in a landfill. And, in a tremendous number of cases, it is conditions in China, and other developing countries, that allow those profits to be made.

Along the way, he has some truly amazing stories. As the son of a scrapyard operator, and a journalist for trade magazines in this field, he seems highly-qualified to tell these tales, and his stories about what happens to our trash and recycling are fascinating. A very-short version of some salient and interesting points—In 1970, there were 40 million abandoned cars in the U.S., so many that President Nixon referred to the problem in one of his speeches. Despite all the recoverable metal in old cars, they just can’t be melted whole. For one reason of many, even 1% copper melted with steel will ruin the properties of the steel. So, they had to be disassembled and sorted prior to being melted, and in the U.S. it just didn’t pay to do so. Then, about 1970 machines were invented that shredded cars, which turned them into fist-sized or smaller chunks, whereupon magnets could pull out the steel. Suddenly it became profitable to recycle old cars, but it took until 2008 to clear the backlog. Likewise with electric motors—for decades in the U.S. it wasn’t economical to repair them, and it also didn’t pay to take them apart for recycling, so they piled up in scrapyards by the millions (or were landfilled).

According to Minter, in 1970 there were 40 million abandoned cars in America. An economical way to recycle all of those metals had yet to be invented.

According to Minter, in 1970 there were 40 million abandoned cars in America. An economical way to recycle all of those metals had yet to be invented.

Then, everything began to change with the advent of the truly global economy of the 1990s, and the rise of China as a manufacturing power. All of the shipping containers that brought goods from China to the U.S., and the ships that brought them, had to return to Asia for their next loads. Since they had to make the trip anyway, shipping rates from the U.S. to China were (and are) extremely cheap, in many cases much cheaper than moving material between cities in the U.S. Suddenly, scrap began to flow to China, to be recycled with low-cost labor and used as raw materials for goods that would end up back in the U.S. Labor rates were low enough in China that it also paid to sort all of the material from shredded cars that wasn’t steel (SNF in the parlance, for “Shredded Non-Ferrous”), in addition to repairing or disassembling old electric motors. The same economics held true for other recyclable materials as well, and according to Minter, 46 million tons of scrap metal, paper, rubber, and plastics are exported to China and other developing countries every year.

Huge container ship off of Santa Barbara, CA., likely headed back to Asia.

Huge container ship off of Santa Barbara, CA., likely headed back to Asia.

Other points that I found extremely interesting—whereas materials are sorted by hand in China, some U.S. companies have invented automated lines to sort materials such as SNF. One way they do it—by making water heavy enough (with the addition of salts) that aluminum floats. That’s pretty amazing. And who knew that used Christmas tree lights are exported to China by the 2,000-lb. bale, or that industries exist in China to remove insulation from scrap wire of all sizes, whereupon both the metals and the plastics are reused? Who knew that recycled electronics are disassembled by hand and their computer chips reused across Asia, in everything from scrolling signs to toys, or that just one city in China recovers 6.5 tons of gold, per year, from e-waste? I’ll stop here, but the book is chock full of such material and insights.

Neighborhood recyclers in Shanghai, of the type Minter discusses.

Neighborhood recyclers in Shanghai, of the type Minter discusses.

But, back to the bent of this particular blog, I see two big takeaways from this fascinating book. One– as Minter writes repeatedly, recycling is the third-best option. Reducing consumption is best, and reusing (and repairing) is second-best. Only then comes recycling. Minter describes the pollution caused by recycling in places like China, where acids, solvents, and caustic solutions are dumped on the ground or in rivers, and where electronics of all types are sometimes burned to recover metals. Because of this, Minter writes, recycling is a “morally complicated act”, and an act that isn’t a “get-out-of-jail-free” card that offsets the consumption of wealthier societies. In some instances material can be recycled in a more environmentally friendly manner in the U.S. and other wealthy countries, but, paradoxically, the hand-sorting methods used in poorer nations actually recover more usable material per ton of scrap. Continue reading