The Problem with Polystyrene

If I’m going to buy something, I love to get it online. You can always find it cheaper, and you don’t even need to leave your house. For most items, brick and mortar stores are a thing of the past as ebay, amazon, and online warehouses with no physical inventory continue to gobble up the market share.

However, one particular aspect of the online shopping experience can often be skewed and overlooked: Packaging! Have you ever bought an item, and it came packaged in a box three times its size and full of styrofoam peanuts? Of course you have. I’ll give them their five star rating on ebay for being prompt with the shipping, but I’ll write a little note saying that I hope they were reusing those peanuts.

I’ll admit, I have a bit of a problem. I have a hobby of collecting packaging I inherit when buying stuff. Heck, if I’m walking down the street and I see one of those padded mailer envelopes in the trash, I’ll take it. Anyway, my collection box consists of varying sizes of styrofoam, peanuts, bags of air, and bubble wrap. Everyone has a bag of plastic bags in their house (right?), but this is definitely the next level of being a pack rat.

Polystyrene foam (Dow trademark: Styrofoam) is such a bummer. From a recycling standpoint, there is virtually no market. It’s composed almost entirely of air, costs next to nothing to produce, but it costs plenty for a business entity to conduct a specific recycling pickup for it. You would need several hundred pounds to make it even remotely worthwhile to any recycling service, and they’ll laugh at you while charging hefty pickup fees and fuel charges while their truck isn’t being strained in the slightest.

I’m currently on the hunt for a small shredder or wood chipper to turn large polystyrene foam pieces into confetti and give it to the post office or copy centers for reuse. It seems like an unstoppable cycle unless we can find other uses for this stuff. I wish it would just go away. Although it only takes up a tiny fraction of landfill space, I still don’t want it getting trashed. Is this crazy?

Ugh, I have a serious headache now. Next week, I’m going to write about what I originally intended to before getting sidetracked…stay tuned!

Bombarded by the Big Belly

The BigBelly Solar: Do you have one of these in your hometown? Or 500 of them like the city of Philadelphia? If you haven’t seen them before, this is the solar powered trash compactor that gobbles 5 times its size in trash. I love these things: sleek, crisp, more or less indestructible. Although I’m not much of a sports fan, I’m pretty sure they all survived when the Phillies won the World Series, and I guess when they lost, too. I think the tops are made of a bulletproof glass of sorts…but why would I hit one of these things?

The container on the inside is made of LDPE, or #4 plastic, known to most people as being responsible for plastic bags, the nation’s tumbleweed. It’s nice to see LDPE used in this application. Those funny city government people like these cans because they are designed to save on labor costs and gas, since they’re hooked up to a grid so we know exactly when they’re full. Pretty brilliant. The claim is that Philly will save $13M over ten years by implementing these, representing a 70% decrease in collection cost, and I believe it. Yes people, it costs several million dollars a year to collect your waste.

I’ve been taking a lot of photos of BigBelly cans in action around the city, just to watch how they degrade over time. They were absolutely immaculate for longer than I ever imagined (a month?), then out of nowhere the taggers started writing on them. As much as I love graffiti, I was pretty bummed to see these cans scribbled on. Then the obnoxious band name/company name bumper stickers started making their way onto them. Nonetheless, I think it’s hard to make them look bad.

My all-time favorite Big Belly I’ve ever seen (which of course I don’t have a picture of, damn it) was completely covered in vomit. Not just a sprinkling on the side of the thing, either…but all over the handle! Hilarious. Which leads to my only critique of them: How many people like to touch a public surface connected to waste disposal? Touching a filthy handle doesn’t bother me, but most people don’t want to grab that nasty thing. Come on Big Belly designers, the solution is right in front of you, think just a little bit harder here…or pay me to design it. On top of that, having to use physical effort to pull open the chute doesn’t fly. People are used to taking basketball shots with their trash, so this is serious culture shock. So where does a lot of trash end up? You guessed it, in the open recycling container next to it.

A friend called me up recently and mentioned he saw one of these being emptied, and said that both the recycling and the compacted trash went in the same garbage truck. Oh, the phone calls I get sometimes. I’m pretty certain that all of this waste goes to our city’s single stream facility. Plus, the compacted trash isn’t an unmovable solid brick, either…it’s still perfectly sortable by a bunch of lasers, gusts of air and magnets. Or some dudes standing at a conveyor belt. I guess it’s time to take a bike ride and follow one of these trucks to see where it ends up.

So why make the end user separate the waste if it’s going to be unsorted and resorted again? Clearly it’s to please the public, and rightfully so. For everyone that doesn’t care to think about what happens to their waste, there’s a pile of people that are concerned about their recycling efforts. Maybe it’s because they really care, or it’s because the city tickets people that don’t sort their recyclables properly. I think sorting is a good thing, unnecessary or not, to get people in the mindset of identifying what’s in their hand and what needs to happen to it.

Now finally, what I wanted to write this article about in the first place: I used this Big Belly picture because the pizza box is in the wrong spot, but obviously the person didn’t feel like ripping the box into pieces to fit in the recycling slot. I decided to call the single stream facility here with some questions and I received some pretty sweet answers. “Several people have asked me if pizza boxes are recyclable…” “They are.” “I was curious how badly weather affects the quality of the recycled material. Between rain, snow, humidity or whatever, our waste is pretty beat up, right?” The answer: “It’s good.”

So there you have it. You heard it here first.

UPDATE: Then just after I wrote this, the City of Philadelphia gets exposed on their BigBelly procurement practices… Come on, people!

Fun with Hotel Trash

So i was staying at a nice hotel for a conference recently, and as I stepped through the revolving door I started scanning for waste cans. Hotels always seem to take the next step with their waste handling, but never quite get it right.

The lobby was laid out quite well, with a commingled container placed next to each trash can, with the exception of the elevator lobby, on both the ground floor and the second floor. I’m not sure why this is. The cans looked like this:

Not too excited about these. They’re crisp, and easy to clean I’m sure. What would I change about them? Well, they’re both the same color and size, and have the same opening on the top! Fail fail fail! If you don’t take the time to read the sign on the can or if you don’t speak English, there’s no distinguishing between either can. The sign is well-detailed for those that care, and for the average person too wordy and may easily defeat the purpose. On top of that, both containers have the same color bag. Depending on the person, this may raise an eyebrow. Some like to see a blue (or green, or sometimes clear) bag for recycling. General waste seems best in a clear bag, as you can see the contents and distinguish it from your colorful recycling bag. Most importantly: whatever you do, avoid using a black bag. What are you hiding in there?

Anyway, I took the elevator to my floor, and noticed there was no recycling container anywhere to be found. Opening the door to my room, the first thing I looked at was how many cans were in the room… as you can guess, there were two: one for the bathroom, and one placed seemingly at random near the window. Before I closed the door, I heard one of my favorite sounds: the crinkling of a heavy trash bag hitting the ground. I looked down the hall and saw a cleaning lady placing a bag outside what looked to be a waste closet, then walking away. So I creeped down the hall and took it, of course. What did I find?

The bag had 8 clear small trash bags in it, most with just one piece of waste in them…I think this bag was comprised of the waste from the entire wing on the left side of the elevator. Unfortunately, I didn’t find anything too exciting to play with. The load was two thirds paper, followed by food scraps (including two yummy bananas) plus a few bottles (all water bottles, ugh) and a handful of coffee cups and styrofoam plates with plastic forks. This bag was as average as waste distributions get. Gotta quit trashing that paper. And basically everything in the bag, for that matter.

The only fun part was that I found a particular person’s prescription drug packaging, who I later saw that night at the conference. I pondered for so long about whether or not I should introduce myself and creep them out by asking how their shopping spree was at Brooks Brothers and Ann Taylor earlier that day. I surprised myself by not going that route. I can hear the booing already. Sorry, people!

E-waste, what a pain in the ass. I would say that I get asked questions about proper disposal of old electronics more frequently than anything else. It seems like everyone always wants to give me their old junk (I love getting floppy disks though). Philly’s collection program is sparse and involves having to wake up early on a Saturday…not many will want to do that, or want to take their junk anywhere. The only way to make it work here would be to have a curbside pickup for old electronics paired up with one of the more reputable recyclers here, such as E-Force Compliance or Elemental. I can see the mess left behind on the street from that one. But it would still work better than having households slowly sneak their stuff out through the trash and into the landfills.

I was reading about Moore’s Law recently, which states that the newest stuff is destined to be obsolete right away…especially with computers. The ugly reality. It goes hand in hand with the ugly reality that the majority of our electronics are being shipped overseas to be smashed apart by little kids dancing with carcinogens. How much money can you get for burning the insulation off of a mountain of wires for strands of copper? A dollar? How much are those tiny lead solder blobs worth? It must be fun to torch huge piles of circuit boards, though. Can you really blame them for hustling? Of course not, It’s not their fault.

I am the last person that wants to point blame, as I think it goes nowhere. However, a rather apparent solution seems to exist here. Hey manufacturers, take on the disposal/recycling costs. Create a no-brainer program to ensure that your electronics can be recycled properly at any of the thousands of legit e-waste recyclers. If you complain it’s not cost effective, greenwash your new product as being made from all recycled components and mark it up a bunch more.

B.Y.O.B. (Bring your own bag, of course)

The other day, it was super windy out and I was just watching the plastic bags (what I like to call “tumbleweed” here in Philly) blow around all over the place. First you have the black corner store bags, then there’s the white doubled-up “have a nice day” bags strewn about. Over in Chinatown, I often see red plastic bags blowing around, which reminds me of having to pull empty infectious waste bags out of healthcare waste streams. All because of that cute little biohazard symbol, that empty red bag is considered infectious… but that’s another fun issue I’ll rant about some other time.

I’ve been sinning lately, I admit. Instead of collecting plastic bags off the street and reusing them later (way later…seriously, how often do you reach for a plastic bag in your house?), I’ve been trimming and melting them into durable 8-ply squares. If you’ve always wanted to know how to do so, this is a good video to watch. I’m not sure what I’m going to do with them all yet, but I was thinking of making some really ugly shower curtains. I already made a really ugly wallet out of one, and a half decent birthday card.  (UPDATE: I have made a pillow out of 6 months’ worth of these things.)

Of course, in the colder months I jam these things into every crack and crevice I can to keep drafts out of my ancient house. I escaped the mood-altering Philly winter for a minute, and went to L.A. for a change of scenery, some nice weather and an extra dose of car exhaust. I was crashing at a friend’s place that lived right behind a supermarket, and out front of the store they had a plastic bag recycling container:

Pretty nice. What’s their line of thinking? “Well, we’ll get people in the habit of putting plastic bags in one location, so that maybe one day they will be feasible to recycle and it’ll be easy to transition into this wonderful program.” What’s wrong with that, right? In the meantime, we will truthfully “collect” them, but what happens to them after that is just whatever. This article claims that bags cost $4,000/ton to process, and are more often than not sent overseas to be incinerated, or really who cares what happens to them, as long as they’re off our hands? Pretty frustrating. Here’s the inside of the can:

Not so easy to tell, but it’s all bags of trash, not even bags full of plastic bags like most people have in their house somewhere. So what’s going on? Do people know that the program is rubbish, and their bags aren’t economically feasible for recycling? Are they angry that they don’t have a plastic bag tax since 2002 like the Republic of Ireland, resulting in 90% less plastic bags being used? Or they just thought it was a trash can and don’t think about their disposal habits at all? As the customer reports to their car after trashing the plastic bag can, they get to see this:

Maybe this sign should be at the entrance, not in the parking lot at the exit. Any ideas why there’s not more of an incentive to use your own bag? Get a discount on your overall purchase if you have your own bags. Okay, sounds good. So which supermarket will be first to lose a little money in exchange for doing the right thing?

My Top Suggestion for Socially Responsible Shopping…

Have you heard of the book The Better World Shopping Guide? I strongly recommend getting into it.

This book has inspired me so much to look closely at how I use my money and what I “vote” for with each and every dollar. This site is a great first step for people that may be skeptical about changing personal habits but are still curious to make change and/or feel rather powerless.

I was always fascinated with trying to find out what companies are reliable and do what they say they do (digging in their trash is a good first step!). This book makes great bathroom reading and you’ll start to memorize the lists pretty quickly. Otherwise, just take it with you to the grocery store and put it to use!

It took me a little under a month to really transition from decent to excellent companies across the board (the most time-consuming being the bank and credit card), but after doing so, realized that if everyone did this we’d make some serious change!

So check it out:
http://www.betterworldshopper.com

Now if we could only get large companies to start following this guide…

Which leads nicely into another story that’s gaining momentum: The Wal-Mart Sustainability Index.

Why would Wal-Mart suddenly advertise that all of their products suck? They wouldn’t. So they’re actually letting the companies evaluate themselves based on energy & climate, materials, natural resources and people/community. I can’t wait to hear what some generic clothing and shoe manufacturers are going to boast about with regards to people/community.

What I hope they’re thinking is more along the lines of, “Well, we’re worth hundreds of billions of dollars, and if we stop treating our employees like shit and stock sustainable products on our shelves, we’ll still have a few hundred billion.” I understand that “sustainable” is not the Wal-Mart business model in the slightest, and it’s nice of them to try…but it’s extremely difficult to imagine anything coming out of this other than reminding ourselves that you can polish a turd but it’s still a turd.

Waste of the Week #14: Stuttgart Airport Waste Station

Oh, I get it!  Infectious waste goes in the red bag, chemotherapeutic waste in the yellow, and recycling in the blue. 🙂

It’s interesting how each country has their own system… I had a lot of downtime in this airport, and I didn’t observe anyone thinking about where they were throwing stuff, nor did I see much consistency with the contents in each.

Their waste must be sorted via material recovery facilities and that would be why no one seems to care where they throw stuff, right?  Bonus points to Stuttgart Airport if they have their own Airport MRF…as of right now I know of only one but there must be more out there.