Recycling Isn’t Enough.

I was walking around town in a bad mood, and decided to root around in a dumpster belonging to one of those giant tech companies.

Going through dumpsters is quite therapeutic- the feeling of indifference towards other people spotting you, whether they’re employees, security guards, or even cops.

All of the above traveled down the alley while I was digging around, but I just didn’t care.  Surprisingly, none of them seemed to either.

When you’re in the zone, everyone around you must think you’re either super confident or just crazy…both of which result in you being left alone.

The usual self-defeating thoughts began clogging my mind- Why bother?  Who cares?  What’s the point?  Why would anyone listen to me anyway?

That’s why this website has slowed down so much- is it illegal to publicize my findings?  If I posted videos of my trash picking adventures, am I incriminating myself?  I feel like I’ve posed this question to so many people, and it’s hard to decide what the answer really is.

I’ve concluded that if the trash is on the street, it’s fair game, but if it’s in a dumpster on private property it’s a problem.

Whatever the case may be, this particular scenario wasn’t that exciting anyway.  What I found was that they had a recycling dumpster in place, and they paid their city medallion fees… so essentially they were following the rules.  Good job.

I was surprised.  The city probably hires someone to walk around checking dumpsters to see if they paid their annual fees…or it sure looks that way.  Businesses in Center City seem to have gotten their act together and have been coughing up the fees.

As I rooted through the trash dumpster, I stuffed a bunch of bubble mailers and shiny little metal boxes into my coat.  Hooray for free shipping supplies and… shiny little metal boxes that I don’t have a use for but they looked cool at the time.   Of course there were plenty of recyclable materials to be found there as well.

At first I got mad, and then I reminded myself that a shocking percentage of “recyclable” materials we put to the curb aren’t recycled anyway.  I don’t call it a recycling bin anymore- it’s simply a blue bin.

Further, even if their compliance was somehow perfect, it’s not going to solve the greater issues on its own.  Recycling will not save us all by itself- we need to do more.

If it’s cheaper to extract raw materials instead of recycling them, extraction will occur.  Simple as that.

Although painfully utopian, wouldn’t it be great if our recycling end markets were always reliable and abundant?

With recycling, we’re putting our destiny into other people’s hands, which we all know is a fool’s game.

Plastics are unquestionably the biggest part of the issue.

How much information is out there now about our plastic problem?  Here’s a few examples:

Charles Moore: Seas of Plastic
Plastic Ocean by Charles Moore
5gyres.org
Toxic: Garbage Island

Then you have losers like the American Chemistry Council coming up with misdirection campaigns like “Don’t Be Trashy- Recycle” , or promoting “energy recovery” as a solution for waste diversion.  Anything to divert attention from the real problem.

If all of you filthy misguided cretins placed everything in the right containers, we’d have no issues whatsoever… seriously?

When people ask me what I do and I mention anything about sustainability, a common response is “I recycle at home- I can’t believe how much of our stuff is recyclable”.  It’s definitely time to get to the next level.

It’s going to have to be a combination of composting, buying smarter, buying less and driving less, knowing more.  Although it seems complicated, policies incorporating Extended Producer Responsibility need to gain a lot more traction (i.e. responsibility of expired products is reverted back to the producers).

The answer isn’t simple by any means… but the next step is to realize that everyone needs to make more of an effort.  We’re made to feel good for simple actions such as recycling, which is fine… but now it’s time for everyone to advance to the next stage of feel-good responsibility.

Start composting at home.  Study the companies that produce the stuff you buy.  Donate more stuff- there’s someone looking for practically everything you may have.

Learn more about the horrific effects of climate change and see how you can chip away at it.  Don’t be duped by “waste-to-energy” facilities, which are simply incinerators in a pathetic costume.  Be curious.

We can be patiently impatient about social and environmental issues, or better yet impatiently patient towards what we can do to improve our surroundings starting today.

Getting Pickier with Plastics

After reading a fair bit of material regarding microplastics in compost, I’ve decided to become more strict on what I contribute to my compost piles.

Up to this point, I’ve been experimenting with how much of an item will compost, even when I’m aware it contains some plastic.

For example, I’ve added quite a few ice cream cartons, chinese food containers, paper cups, and fast food waste that I dumpstered from several establishments.

The plan has been to pick out the plastic skeletons that remain when I screen my finished product…I’ve been doing that for a long time, with the most common example being the occasional produce sticker that I missed.

What’s the big deal anyway?  I’m not going to use my compost to grow anything at this point… I’d rather just use it for horticultural purposes.

If I throw “away” the chinese food carton, it gets landfilled and does nothing forever.

While it’s not as visibly obvious as pieces of styrofoam floating in a puddle or plastic bags dancing with the wind, microplastics in the environment are contaminating everything.

 A 2011 study by Woods End Laboratory states that all plastic-coated paper products (single or double coated) leave a trail of microplastics, whether the lining is made from LDPE, PET or clay with binders.

I screen plastic bits from my compost with a 1/4″ sieve, but there’s no way I will be able to remove strands of polyethylene that are 100 microns in size.

I never thought about it like that, but it makes perfect sense and I wish I would have realized this sooner.

Keep plastic coated paper products out of your compost.

The only exceptions are products certified as compostable.

Composting facilties need to ban all plastic coated paper products from entering their faciltiies, which can’t be easy.

Between the plastic garbage gyres, the plastic bag dilemma and now this huge contributor to plastics working their way up the food chain, we have a very serious problem to solve.

Is Composting Indoors a Good Idea?

Can you compost indoors?  If you’re using a worm system, of course the answer is yes.  Otherwise, the answer is NO.  Let me explain the 5 reasons why it’s not a good idea:

1) Mice
2) Ants, flies and other critters
3) Odor
4) Leachate management
5) Finished compost

The question remains: what can I do to compost through the winter months?  The answer is to collect as much cover material (leaves, straw) as you can.  Since composting slows to a crawl in the colder months, having extra cover material is important to ensure your deposits are covered.

Otherwise, try your hand at vermicomposting!

Be sure to sign up along the right hand side of this page for my free email course on how to create killer compost in just 7 simple steps, no matter what your situation is.

Get in touch with any questions and be on the lookout for more videos and an e-book coming soon.

Give composting your best shot through the winter season- have some fun and get creative!

A Quick Statement to the City of Philadelphia on the Importance of Composting

Recently I was asked to provide a statement to the City of Philadelphia on why composting needs to be made more widely available for its residents.

While there will be some difficult logistical challenges to evaluate, there is absolutely no reason why this can’t make positive progress.

I was in quite a rush, but at the last minute I was able to type something out.  Luckily, I think about this very issue quite often so I was able to write a cranky blurb just in time.  Here it is:

I’ve lived in Philadelphia for nine years, and while the city has plenty of green initiatives going on for it, there’s also plenty of room for improvement.

The most obvious is the lack of curbside compost collection.

Composting is my hobby- it’s what I do. On a weekly basis, my curbside blue bin is overflowing, while my trash can rarely makes the trip to the curb at all. Everyone’s blue bin is overflowing, so why do we still have the waste issues we have?

There’s two important things to consider here- first of all, is that “recycling” is not enough. Most plastics that are put to the curb never see another life. They don’t have the value to be resold unless they are in pristine condition and someone actually wants to buy the material.  Some plastics are cheaper to extract and produce again than they are to recycle.

The recycling rates for plastic are abysmal. #1 and #2 plastics are 25% or less, with #3 through #7 at 6% or less (I found this statistic in the Bag It! documentary.  Watch it, it’s awesome). Even glass is running out of options these days, which is criminal because it doesn’t leach undisclosed toxins into your food and water like plastic does.

It’s unfortunate because people think they’re actually recycling everything from their house when in reality they’re being deceived of their efforts. Just because something is recycle–able, doesn’t mean it’s actually recycled.

Worst of all, this material is often burned to create a trivial amount of energy that would never cover the energy wasted on even starting up an incinerator.  Waste-to (of)-Energy is a massive lie and needs to be uncovered more thoroughly for what it is.

Anyway…organic material is organic material. There’s no room for failure here. I compost all my food scraps at home, my soiled paper products, and essentially any item that is organic. I also have a compost toilet to avoid fouling up our water supply.

The point is that this massive amount of organic material that we all generate, which comprises over 50% of landfills (food, paper products and yard waste combined, according to EPA in 2012) is now creating methane. Think of it this way- Our landfills could be 50% smaller than they are currently!

Landfills are devoid of oxygen. Worse yet, landfills often flare off these gases which are mixed with other toxic, cancerous compounds. Methane is 21 times more harmful than carbon dioxide. There’s nothing good about a landfill, especially when most materials we dispose can be handled in another manner.

If all this organic material hits the compost pile instead, it utilizes oxygen to break down naturally, with carbon dioxide as the natural byproduct. After a few months, you’re also rewarded with fertile soil to be used again. It’s the world’s oldest process.

Mayor Nutter stated that he aspired to make Philadelphia the greenest city in the country. This will absolutely never happen without composting being provided. This can be done by not only teaching people how to do it at home, but also creating smaller centralized sites throughout the city plus curbside pickup. While this will be a tricky process, it’s one we need to evaluate in order to get the City to where it needs to be.

We’re long overdue with making composting a common activity, both at home and the workplace. If more people composted at home, it would reduce the burden on our landfills.

If more people composted at home, they’d start asking why they can’t do it where they work.

They might realize that if they skipped one TV show to build their compost pile, they could cut their landfill burden in half. Upkeep is one commercial per week. Seriously!

If you haven’t started composting yet, give it a shot. Significantly less trash to the landfill, reduced greenhouse emissions, and fertile soil. Although most people aren’t losing sleep about becoming attentive to one of humanity’s biggest problems, it must become standard behavior in order to sustain our future.

Nearly Half the World’s Trash Is Burned, and That’s Worsening Climate Change (repost)

 Reposted from: http://www.takepart.com/article/2014/09/01/burning-trash-is-new-climate-change-threat

September 01, 2014 By 

Nearly half the world’s trash is burned in the open, spewing pollutants into the atmosphere that contribute to climate change and affect human health, according to a new study.

Since such burning is largely unregulated and unreported, emissions of some pollutants have been underestimated by as much as 40 percent, said the researchers, who published their findings in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

“I was shocked at the numbers,” said Christine Wiedinmyer, an atmospheric scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and the study’s lead author. “They were much larger than I expected, particularly the air pollutants.”

The researchers estimated the amount of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, mercury,  tiny particulate matter, and other pollutants released by burning trash.

Every year 970 million metric tons of food, paper, plastics, and metals are set aflame at homes, businesses, and dumps—roughly 41 percent of the world’s garbage, according to the study.

The garbage problem is likely to get worse. Researchers predict the world will triple its production of garbage to more than 11 million tons daily by 2100.

Fires can spring up at dumps with little warning. A fire in Iqaluit, the capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut, broke out in May and burned for almost 100 days before fire crews began dousing the flames of the “dumpcano.” In March, a dump fire outside Bangkok blanketed neighborhoods with so much thick smoke that it could be seen by satellites.

Heavily populated countries, including China, the United States, India, Japan, Brazil, and Germany, produce the most waste, according to the study. China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Pakistan, and Turkey generate the most emissions from trash burning.

Trash burning produces mercury, chemicals known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and fine particulate matter. These pollutants have been linked to heart and lung disease, neurological disorders, and cancer. Annual emissions of mercury and PAHs may have been underestimated by 10 to 40 percent, the researchers said.

Trash burning may also be clogging the air with far more particulate matter than was previously thought. A global tally of reported pollutants indicated that 34 million kilograms of tiny airborne particles called PM 2.5 are released into the air annually.

Wiedinmyer and her colleagues calculate that open burning shoots another 10 million kilograms into the atmosphere—an increase of 29 percent. In Sri Lanka, garbage burning produced five times more emissions of PM 10 (a larger particle) than was included in the official national tally.

 These particles can penetrate deep into the lungs and have been associated with heart disease, asthma, and premature death. About 3.7 million people die prematurely from outdoor air pollution, according to the World Health Organization.

Open burning of garbage is closely related to poverty. Unregulated dump fires may be adjacent to settlements, putting the families that live there, especially women and children, at risk of health complications from the pollution. Some of these families derive income from the dump, removing valuable materials for resale.

The contribution of garbage burning to global carbon dioxide emissions is relatively small—only 5 percent of the 2010 global annual emissions. But on a country-by-country basis, it can be quite large. The study found that trash burning in Lesotho, Burundi, Mali, Somalia, and Sri Lanka produced more carbon dioxide than was recorded by the official registers.

Emissions from open burning of trash are rarely reported by environmental agencies, meaning the pollution goes uncounted and is left out of policy decisions.

Air Pollution Isn’t Just Bad for Your Health—It’s Taking Food off Your Plate

Brian Gullett, an environmental engineer at the United States Environmental Protection Agency and a coauthor of the paper, pointed out how difficult it is to calculate the emissions that come from open burning. Unlike with coal-burning power plants, no one knows the exact number of garbage-burning fires, and it can be difficult to trap and analyze the emissions.

Knowing where pollutants come from doesn’t change the burden they place on health, said Patrick Kinney, an expert on health and air pollution at Columbia University. But it does point to “which sources to go after in controlling the problem.”

Said Wiedinmyer, “If we’re looking at air pollution control strategies, we need to include all sources of air pollutants to get the most effective controls in place. If we’re missing a large source, it could lead to control strategies that aren’t going to work at all, or as well.”

Weekly Innovation: An App To Help Stop Food Waste

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This is simply brilliant!

I can see this really taking off.

The business saves on disposal costs, and people can save money on their food costs while getting perfectly fine stuff.

As for this beating dumpster diving, I’m not sure an app is more fun than jumping into a dumpster full of food in July.  However, more importantly it diverts resources from the dumpster to those that can use it.

Waste of the Week #15: Funky Compost Toter

I was out for a stroll recently and I scoped out this roughed up compost toter.  Looks like it gets a lot of use.  Of course, I had to open it up and take a look inside:

Yum!

It looks like they don’t use any sort of liner… I don’t blame them, they’re expensive!  I have mixed feelings about bioplastics.  However, having a raw container like this gets pretty nasty.

I could smell it pretty well before I opened the lid, that’s for sure.  The wonderful aromas of an unlined compost toter can’t do anything but hurt the “movement”.  Then again, I guess it’s not so much different than a can full of garbage (garbage being defined as “wet” waste, which includes food).

On the underside of the lid, there were plenty of critters hanging out:

These look like compost mites to me…nothing wrong with having them around, they’re just indicative of a moist environment.  This toter didn’t appear to have any air holes present, so when that lid is shut for a while, the contents just get anaerobic and extra funky.

While I would love to encourage not using liners wherever possible, this is what happens when you don’t.  It doesn’t really bother me, but obviously it won’t make the average person too excited about composting.

Waste of the Week #14: Front of House Composting at the Grocery Store?

I was in the grocery store the other day grabbing veggies when I noticed this screaming opportunity: a “trash” can in the produce section.

Could this be a great opportunity for composting?  At first glance, it sure seems like it.

Using a toter system here would work pretty great- they’re on wheels and your employees wouldn’t have to empty them…this could be done by a compost hauler.

Paying attention to cleanliness of the toters would be a little tedious, but if you’re participating in a composting program it’s just part of the game.  Besides, if your waste receptacles are all nasty in the bottom you should be ensuring they’re clean as it is.

In this can, everything was compostable besides the red onion netting and the plastic film.  Education and signage for this would be a pain and you’d have some consistent minimal contamination for a while, but eventually this could become standard at grocery stores.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this was happening somewhere already…would love to see it.

The main challenge with composting in public areas is simply the education.  Plastics are a major contaminant of composting efforts and it’s difficult to get everyone to comply.  However, it’s difficult to have a trash can that doesn’t have recyclables in it, so it’s more or less the same issue either way.  Pairing a recycling bin next to this compost can would help, but I wouldn’t expect it to get very full.

The more obvious opportunities are in the back of the house, but for this section out on the floor, it seems to be begging for a compost toter.  The same goes for those taste test sample tables.  It’s always a bunch of tiny single serve portions with paper cups or paper plates and a tiny napkin… done right the disposal could be monitored pretty well.  The trick is to control the materials being handed out to minimize contamination.

Anyway, I could sure use a nice load of green material like this to build a second hot compost pile…I might have to ask them for a bag or maybe I’ll conduct some new fast “food” studies instead.  Now’s the perfect time of year to get cracking on that, it’s not freezing out and it’s not super hot steamy garbage season either.

It seems like composting services have become more popular lately, but there’s still plenty of room for growth: pizza shops, hotels, coffee shops, all schools.  While I’ve seen examples in each of these areas, they’re definitely the minority.

One situation I keep thinking about: Most compost services require that compostable plastic bags are used, and this is definitely a barrier for participants.  What if vendors accepted regular plastic bags instead of just the pricey compostable ones?

You save money up front by using cheap plastic bags, but… you’re using plastic bags.  Yes, it’s the commonly used and accepted item but let’s face it- they really, really suck.  However, because of this cost avoidance, you are now composting.  You’re also landfilling (or worse yet, burning) plastic bags… which you’d be doing anyway if you weren’t composting.  Which is better?

The vendor has to take time to pick out and trash all the plastic bags (there are some great screening and vacuum systems available for removing contaminants), but they receive a lot more material because the cost of entry is lower for participants.

Further, I don’t know any composting company that likes to receive compostable bags because they take a long time to break down and they’re a frickin mess…not that regular plastic film being in the compost is any better, but still- bags are no fun.

What’s the next step?  I’m not really sure what it is, other than to start composting at home.  There’s no waste product, and you get soil as a result.

What else?  Eat all your food when you’re out?  Use handkerchiefs and your pants instead of napkins and tissues?  Don’t buy so much stuff?

This all seems to get redundant, doesn’t it?  I hate concluding my writing on this topic… it always feels the damn same.

All these things we either know or heard about that we should be doing.  Maybe instead of doing it because you know things can’t sustain themselves the way they are, try doing it just because it’s something to try.

As I’ve said a million times, once you set up a system it will do what it naturally does.  Participate in the earth’s oldest process and see what happens.

New Report: “Green” Biomass Electricity More Polluting Than Coal

Mary Booth wrote an excellent report on the realities involving Biomass electricity generation.  I’d like to read it a few more times before I reflect thoroughly on it, but I’d be doing everyone a disservice by not posting it right away.  Click the link at the bottom to access the report, and please share it.

Renewable energy biomass plants are avoiding regulation, burning contaminated fuels, and threatening air quality

Pelham, MA. –  Biomass electricity generation, a heavily subsidized form of “green” energy that relies primarily on the burning of wood, is more polluting and worse for the climate than coal, according to a new analysis of 88 pollution permits for biomass power plants in 25 states.

Trees, Trash, and Toxics: How Biomass Energy Has Become the New Coal, released today and delivered to the EPA by the Partnership for Policy Integrity (PFPI), concludes that biomass power plants across the country are permitted to emit more pollution than comparable coal plants or commercial waste incinerators, even as they are subsidized by state and federal renewable energy dollars.  It contains detailed emissions and fuel specifications for a number of facilities, including plants in California, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Virginia, and Washington.

“The biomass power industry portrays their facilities as ‘clean,’ said Mary Booth, Director of PFPI and author of the report.  “But we found that even the newest biomass plants are allowed to pollute more than modern coal- and gas-fired plants, and that pollution from bioenergy is increasingly unregulated.”

The report found that biomass power is given special treatment and held to lax pollution control standards, compared to fossil-fueled power plants.

Biomass plants are dirty because they are markedly inefficient.  The report found that per megawatt-hour, a biomass power plant employing “best available control technology” (BACT) emits more nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and carbon monoxide than a modern coal plant of the same size.

Almost half the facilities analyzed, however, avoided using BACT by claiming to be “minor” sources of pollution that skim under the triggering threshold for stricter pollution controls.  Minor source permits are issued by the states and contain none of the protective measures required under federal air pollution permitting.

“The American Lung Association has opposed granting renewable energy subsidies for biomass combustion precisely because it is so polluting,” said Jeff Seyler, President and CEO of the American Lung Association of the Northeast.  “Why we are using taxpayer dollars to subsidize power plants that are more polluting than coal?”

The analysis also found that although wood-burning power plants are often promoted as being good for the climate and carbon neutral, the low efficiency of plants means that they emit almost 50% more CO2 than coal per unit of energy produced.  Current science shows that while emissions of CO2 from biomass burning can theoretically be offset over time by forest regrowth and other means, such offsets typically take several decades to fully compensate for the CO2 emitted during plant operation.  None of the permits analyzed in the report required proof that carbon emissions would be offset.

EPA rules also allow biomass plants to emit more hazardous air pollutants (HAPs) than both coal plants and industrial waste incinerators, including heavy metals and dioxins.  Even with these weak rules, most biomass plants avoid restrictions on the amount of toxic air pollution they can emit by claiming to be minor sources, and permits usually require little testing for proof of actual emissions.  When regulated as a minor source, a facility is not required to meet any limitations on emissions of hazardous air pollutants.

The potential for biomass power plants to emit heavy metals and other air toxics is increasing, because new EPA rules allow burning more demolition debris and other contaminated wastes in biomass power plants, including, EPA says, materials that are as contaminated as coal.  A majority of the facilities reviewed in the report allowed burning demolition debris and other waste wood.

“Lax regulations that allow contaminated wastes to be burned as biomass mean that communities need to protect themselves,” said Mary Booth.  “They can’t count on the air permitting process to ensure that bioenergy pollution is minimized.”

The report is available at  http://www.pfpi.net/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/PFPI-Biomass-is-the-New-Coal-April-2-2014.pdf