Tag Archives: composting

Hierarchy to Reduce Waste & Grow Community

The following comes from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (www.ilsr.org), a national nonprofit organization working to strengthen local economies, and redirect waste into local recycling, composting, and reuse industries. It is reprinted here with permission.

ILSR comes through with yet another killer infographic demonstrating the clear need for source reduction and composting over trashing and burning.

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.

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.

Waste of the Week #17: Panama Problems

It’s been over a month now since I returned from Panama/Bocas Del Toro, and I still don’t know what to say about it.

It was such a beautiful place, and it was hard not to focus on the trash aspect since it was in your face most places.

It sucked taking a boat to uninhabited islands and seeing all kinds of plastics washed up on the shores.  It clearly wasn’t taken there and left behind, it was dropped off by the ocean.

Broken plastic chairs, pieces of styrofoam products, plastic bottles.  It seems like no matter where you go, these items will follow you.  What would a world look like without plastics?

I had learned that Bocas del Toro had just recently started a recycling program, and up to that point had nothing in place.  On top of that, going to the local restaurants and convenience stores indicated that they were living the single use life.

It really put a different perspective on things, since the string of islands had such a small population and you could essentially pinpoint exactly what establishments the litter was coming from: red plastic bags were everywhere, and one store on the island was using them.  I got really pissed when I saw a 2 liter bottle purchase get placed in a bag…I thought this was just Amurrican behavior, but I was wrong.

I started to think that the locals haven’t really thought much about litter, but maybe I’m just imagining that.  The travel hostels that I stayed at all seemed to have composting efforts in place (keep in mind I was trying to support “eco friendly” hostels), but none of them were as comprehensive as they could be.  That being said, The Firefly did a damn good job.

Many common uncertainties were brought up, such as: “Doesn’t the bleach in the paper mean I can’t compost it?” or “The pile is full of bugs and smells really bad, I don’t know what to do.”  Really simple stuff to overcome, but for some reason the world’s oldest natural process isn’t quite at the forefront like it should be.

The paper thing kills me, because napkins, paper towels, tissue and receipts are all perfect for composting and make up quite a bit of waste.  Especially in a place where it’s hard to find sufficient “brown materials” necessary for composting, the answer was right there in their own purchases.

It was reassuring to be able to help assess compost piles and try to teach some tips and tricks to get them psyched on composting…even on my vacation, I’m at work. 🙂

It was a fine line to tread, though.  I can’t always tell when I’m overstepping my boundaries by trying to honestly help someone out and improve their situation, and not come off like a pompous wanker.

Minimize your plastic consumption.  Non-plastic products existed for most everything at one point, so bring them back.  Straws, cups, packaging, you name it.  Paper and cardboard aren’t perfect by any means, but at least they break down and give the gift of compost when re-purposed correctly…this is especially important if recycling isn’t available for such materials.

I’ve lost my confidence in plastics being dealt with reliably…check out the book Plastic Free and see how you can be inspired by it.

Hidden Costs Series: Starbucks (video)

Hidden Costs Series: Starbucks

This is one part of a video series called “Hidden Costs”, which focuses on one particular thing and gives it a grade based on categories like Environment, Health and Economy.

While I really like this video (and a few others in the series), I disagree with a few things.  First, Starbucks does not deserve a B in the Environment category.  According to this video, their products are 10% recyclable.  All they need to do is implement composting programs at their stores, both for the employees and the customers.  The majority of waste at a coffee shop is compostable.

Time for a quick local blasting:  Philadelphia has several composting services available that are very affordable, yet the majority of our coffee shops don’t utilize them.  Hell, there’s even services provided on bicycle.  Coffee shops are among the easiest candidates for zero waste (with very little effort, mind you) all while reaping huge P.R./marketing benefits…but here they sit, just sucking.

I’ve read that some of their sites offer their coffee grind waste to anyone that wants it for their home composting efforts.  If this is really true (in my experience with calling stores it hasn’t been thus far), they should promote it more.  They save money on their waste hauling bill, connect with their customers, and avoid the landfill.  This is no-brainer stuff here.

Now for my other gripe, which many of you may disagree with: the Economy category.  Who cares about Economy?  All this says to me is that Starbucks is a corporate monster that makes $11.7 billion dollars a year.  They also employ nearly 200,000 people.  Why does this matter?  Maybe I shouldn’t talk because I have a job, but all this says to me is that they’re a giant company that has that has even more of a responsibility to do right.

Keeping the focus on economy and jobs instead of environment and social issues is a great way to keep everyone hating each other and the war effort alive and well.  While I know I sound like an angry teenager for writing that, I don’t care.  Watch the documentary Black Gold for a better idea on how the coffee industry works.  Starbucks is a major player in keeping things exactly how they are, and they are not worthy of a grade that equates to “Good”.

Scavenging At School

Scavenging at School

I was taking a stroll and I happened to pass by a school’s dumpsters.  I couldn’t help but take a look at all the opportunity that was being passed on.  Don’t you think schools should be recycling, composting and donating as opposed to trashing?  I mean, the students are the future and all… setting an example and being a steward in the community shouldn’t be an option.

Who knows, maybe I’m really ahead of myself… maybe not a single person at the school has ever thought about waste segregation.  Maybe no one at this Philadelphia school lives in Philadelphia and recognizes that they participate in single stream recycling at home already.

Are the schools near you recycling? Composting? Donating excess supplies and lost and found never found? Are they getting the students involved?

I wonder what the waste hauler thought…maybe they never proposed providing the service anyway.  Either way, this isn’t about blame as much as it’s about looking through trash and asking questions…so take my lead and go do it.