Waste of the Week #17: PDX Recycling Efforts

Oregon Convention Center Waste Station

The above waste station was at the Oregon Convention Center.

It seems like they’re a bit more stringent (realistic) with their designations.

“Food Only” is a good one… this is where it’s at these days- composting facilities taking other than just food and yard waste are running into trouble left and right due to hidden plastic contamination (amongst other things).

I think the picture is funny for the “All Other Items” (much more polite than LANDFILL)… take that cardboard coffee sleeve off of that cup first!  That’s valuable carbon right there… as is most of that cup… there’s gotta be a way to get plastics phased out of paper products.

Why?  Because there’s certified 100% compostable paper products for all single use items, and every freaking one of them lasts as long as needed for the individual to use them effectively.

PDX Airport Recycling CanThe can pictured above is from the PDX Airport… I can’t help but sneak photos in airports.

This is the first time I’m seeing “NO CUPS” on a recycling can, but I get it.

Notice the other thing missing?  No mention of glass.

Glass, the only inert material, is being phased out of view these days.

Now is more important than ever to start picking items one at a time and finding plastic-free alternatives.

Not sure where to start?

Check out Plastic Free by Beth Terry… can’t recommend it highly enough for this.

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.