Houston Beyond Fossil Fuels

Every now and then, someone else blogs about something you wanted to talk about.  And sometimes, the blogger has MUCH more subject matter expertise about it than you do.  This is one of those times.  Renewables are a great topic.  I will talk about them sometime.  But Randall Morton has some extremely relevant experience that I don’t have and offers a great discussion in the very important context of right here in Houston, Texas.  We are in a process of change right now whether we like it or not, and most people are resistant to change as it reduces their comfort zone.  Please take the time to uptake this informative piece of writing, you won’t regret it.

For more information, click on the below link:

https://www.progressiveforumhouston.org/blog/houston-beyond-fossil-fuels

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Zero Waste Blog

 

What is zero waste?  An impossibility for the living human.  The short definition: it is the diversion of 90% of waste.  That’s as good as it gets unless you are a fanatic.  Zero is a goal, otherwise it’s 10% waste.

You might think, ‘oh please, surely you jest’.  Fine, try it.  Google it and you’ll see the major success stories with their mason jar of trash for the year.  Oops, not zero.  And these people are fanatics.  In a good way.

"Zero Waste Image"

Indicative of the system is an illustration of the players in the residential consumer circle of life.  It’s only a system in theory, as the different players don’t really care about the other players

Keep in mind that Manufacturers have wasted so much material by the time the product gets sold that we could almost stop the discussion at this point.  The current estimate by EPA, which is potentially flawed, is that post-consumer waste is only 3% of industrial waste produced by manufacturers and industry.  Still, it is highly likely that industrial waste greatly exceeds post-consumer waste by a gigantic margin.

Anyway, back to the system – manufacturers REALLY LIKE being ‘done’ with their product after you buy it from them or through the marketing/retail world.  If you break it or wear it out, you own it and you aren’t giving it back to them.  If their product even hints at being recyclable, they want to assuage consumer guilt to retain market share and will try to convince you people who care about waste that their product is recyclable.

The plastics industry has done a spectacular job of convincing Americans that all plastic is recyclable.  My absolute favorite quote on this is from Brian Dougherty’s 2008 book Green Graphic Design –

SYMBOLS OF CONFUSION

In a master stroke of deceptive communications, the Society of the Plastics Industry in 1988 appropriated the chasing arrow triangle, a universal symbol for recycling, as part of their system for labeling types of plastic resins.  Consumers have been confused ever since.  The symbol used on plastics suggests recycled content and real-world recyclability, yet it means something different.  The symbol simply indicates which family of plastic resins a product or component is made of.  The suggestion of recycled content is completely false.  After two decades of miscommunication, plastics are by far the most likely material to be labeled with a “recycled” symbol, yet they are among the least likely materials to actually be recycled.

Meanwhile, around 40% of the post-consumer waste stream is packaging.  Clearly, we need some packaging to protect products during transport because broken products don’t sell or work well.  Some packaging is quite recyclable, such as paper and cardboard.  Interestingly, paper and cardboard can also be composted back to natural materials, not that they are or should be.  Styrofoam (which is a brand name) and correctly labeled polystyrene foam for packaging is technically recyclable but extremely rarely recycled.  It is 95% air and ingenious, but no one wants it.  Sadly, it often contaminates recyclable cardboard and shows up in the single-stream recycling bins.  Then - we have the “Frankenstein” packaging products that are combinations of paper and plastic or foil, or whatever, and they are totally non-recyclable.

Municipalities are often mandated to dispose of trash.  Texas mandates this of its jurisdictions.  Few states mandate recycling, like California.  Houston offers single stream recycling, and unfortunately must take care of the excessive contamination of non-recyclables that comes with it.  It seems to be a daunting task to “educate” people to “recycle right”.  Municipalities can juggle trucking trash to the landfill, trucking recyclables to the MRF (Materials Recycling Facility), trucking yard waste to the mulch contractor, or trucking food waste to the compost facility.  Houston is doing three of them now, hopefully on a path to promoting food waste composting (nature’s way of recycling).  And municipalities must juggle between their consumer citizens and the processors who can only do what they have contracted to do, and it’s not a glorious business, is it?

Haulers want to haul and get paid.  That’s it.  Don’t ask them to weed through the waste unless you want to pay them extra for it.  Speaking of a not-glorious business.  Any aspiring waste haulers out there?

Processors are robotizing their operations as fast as they can.  Houston was mentioned in Adam Minter’s 2013 book Junkyard Planet when he interviewed Alan Bachrach (coincidentally one of my first speakers in 2009 at a Green Building Resource Center educational seminar) about Waste Management’s very sophisticated MRF at the time, as well as Alan’s rich history in the recycling business.  And here’s the rub – more is better.  The more recyclables they process, the more money they make.  The more contamination, the more they charge back to the hauler/municipality.  If REDUCE were to really take hold, that wouldn’t be so great for business for the MRF processors. 

Finally, we have bales of recycled material ready for industry to take and reuse to make recycled products.  This actually happens with paper and cardboard!  Did you know you can purchase 100% post-consumer content paper?  Yes, you can actually increase demand for paper recycling by not purchasing virgin wood-based paper (which has a long, long list of environmental problems associated with it, not the least of which is all the bleach used to make it whiter).  If we don’t have a market for recycled materials from the MRF’s, well, let’s think about it.  What do the MRF’s DO with the material they can’t sell or give away?  That’s not a pretty picture, because it costs serious money to sort all that material – more in Houston than landfilling it.  Meanwhile, contamination in single stream recycling is sorted out at this great expense and then trucked to the landfill at landfill expense, which is, as mentioned, charged back to the municipality.

Let’s imagine now what zero-waste looks like.  First, we have a hall pass to landfill 10% of our hard to recycle waste.  Oh, and in the 10% is the household-hazardous-waste that we aren’t allowed to landfill, which needs to be taken – by you – to an environmental service center for a much more regulated disposal.  And that is not recycling, by the way.  That leaves 90% of your waste to be reused, recycled, or composted.  And of course, you can just hold onto stuff in case some day we are able to recycle it (not a great option – think ‘hoarding’).

Food waste is a big slice of the waste stream pie chart (12 to 25%).  If you compost you know this.  If you can’t compost, then you know we need a separate food waste collection method.  Some jurisdictions pick it up from your curb (adding transportation).  Subscription pick up services are popping up (google Zero Waste Houston).  New York City offers drop off locations (my personal favorite after composting your own at home).  That way you divert your food waste at your schedule to your local drop off location.  Keep in mind, food waste can be contaminated with non-food items, like condiment packets and the pesky stickers on fruit and vegetables (why are they not bio-degradable yet?). 

Clothing, electronics, metal items, furniture, and a host of items that we don’t want after a certain point need to be disposed of and they are not recyclable at curbside.  You, dear reader to be zero-waste, must proactively search for a taker of these items.  Adam Minter wrote a subsequent and fascinating book called Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, in case you want to know what happens to your donated items.

Then we have curbside recycling.  It’s mostly packaging.  To get a good feel with where we are with that, read Terracycle’s Tom Szaky’s The Future of Packaging: From Linear to Circular for background intel from the product manufacturers.  They are trying to improve, but at a pace recyclers like me don’t resonate with.  And a huge problem with voluntary recycling programs is contamination.  People are not clear on what is recyclable and what isn’t, which is a sad situation.  Recyclability of materials is not self-evident, and it is local, causing inconsistencies and confusion even among folks with the best of intention.  A particularly unhappy trend is called ‘wish-cycling’ which identifies the mentality that ‘if I’m not sure it’s recyclable, it ought to be and I want it to be, so I will give it the benefit of the doubt and throw it in with the recycling’.  This unfortunately is a flawed thought process.  To be correct, the mantra should be ‘when in doubt, throw it out’. 

Happily, a zero-waster is a person who wants to excel at their disposal practice.  They tend to be inquisitive and learn about what is and what isn’t recyclable.  This helps them with their purchasing criteria, and they buy less of the items that are not recyclable.  More importantly, they tend to buy less items because they can predict the future of those items and don’t want to face disposing of them.  They tend to converse about disposability in general with friends and perhaps are pushing the manufacturing industry to “begin with the end in mind” as we learned from Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People.

Interestingly there is a green rating system regarding zero waste called TRUE, an acronym for Total Resource Use and Efficiency.  It’s quite involved and is used by organizations to reduce and effectively divert their waste down to below 10%.  Keep in mind that this saves these entities serious money.  It would be the subject of another blog post, but I mention it to let you know of yet another tendency of industry to recognize that waste is a sign of inefficiency that costs them and that they can actually manage it to their benefit after some self-examination and training.

It is very important for industry to catch on here that ‘designing for the dump,’ as Annie Leonard so eloquently put in “The Story of Stuff” in 2007 (19 minutes on YouTube), is a practice that needs to end.  She addressed the disjointed, dysfunctional system discussed in this blog, as well as pointing out the massive amount of waste generated in a product before the consumers even buy it.  The manufacturers and marketers do what’s best for them, as do the consumers, municipalities, haulers, and MRF’s.  We don’t have any integration to speak of.  Blaming others is rampant as is snail’s pace progress.

And this blog does not have any magic answers!  People really want answers!  Well, this is a problem with a label called a “wicked problem” I first heard about in George Marshall’s Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change.  We have six parties in this problem, and until we have a coherent game plan, we won’t progress much. 

Here is what EPA shows us:

NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that The United States Conference of Mayors adopts a definition of Zero Waste, and set of Zero Waste principles, that recognizes a Hierarchy of Material Management as follows:

  • Extended Producer Responsibility and Product Redesign
  • Reduce Waste, Toxicity, Consumption, and Packaging
  • Repair, Reuse and Donate
  • Recycle
  • Compost
  • Down Cycle and Beneficial Reuse
  • Waste-Based Energy as disposal
  • Landfill Waste as disposal

Illustration by Energy Justice Network – www.energyjustice.net/zerowaste

I do see some improvement over the past decade, especially the US Conference of Mayors getting involved, but clearly, we need more effort from everyone’s part.  Feel free to google Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).  The short version of EPR is Maine’s attempt to mandate cigarette manufacturers to contribute to a fund for municipalities to use to educate the public about cigarette butt litter and to fund cleaning up initiatives and processes to both divert and clean them from the landscape.  Of course cigarette manufacturers will raise their prices, and the cost will be borne by the smokers.  Is that fair?  Think about how long non-smokers have subsidized all problems caused by smoking.

Recycling is regulated better in other countries, and of course, worse in others.  We could use better regulation as a good first step.  Maybe a better first step is to communicate with the manufacturers to up their game.  We could vote with our wallet and not buy egregious products that waste too much (gee, that’s easy to say – what products waste too much?).  The bottom line is: “If you see something, say something”.  Get active, criticize bad actors, tell them what you would like to see.  The plastics industry is paying attention right now.  When this meme hit Facebook, things started to bubble up: “In 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans”.  As usual, Einstein’s definition of insanity keeps staring us in the face: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results”.  Let’s make something different happen.  Zero wasters already are.

 

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What to Look for in a Consumer Recycling News Story

Recycling stories are present everywhere in the world of the internet, and I am starting to notice that some are better than others.  And some are worse.  I’ve developed a set of typologies, just for the heck of it, to give myself some structure, based on the Seven Sins of Greenwashing that was an internet thing a few years ago.

First: Read this environmental news story: https://inhabitat.com/why-are-toothbrushes-so-hard-to-recycle/.

You’ll notice the classic Set Up:  In a remote wilderness location a HUGE number of small every-day waste items appears due to insidious disposal habits.  Toothbrushes are a perfect topic!  In the Set Up there might be a: To Make It Worse item like this one: For good health one must use A LOT of these disposable items.  I have noticed that dentists and especially their dental assistants push toothbrush replacement and give them away like candy.

Next is the list of Factoids about the item: It’s a mixture of materials that are impossible to separate and recycle effectively.  This is typically a hook for ‘true recyclers’ to get us thinking.  But often we run into a Related Distraction like this one: a Terracycle.com option for you to pay to mail some otherwise un-recyclable items on an individual basis because you are smart and care and were simply not aware of this opportunity!  This is a burn for me, as it clarifies that single stream recycling is just for the basics, and that anything like toothbrushes is contamination for single stream and must be dealt with on your own and at your expense!

No self-respecting author would miss explaining the obligatory ReUse OptionReuse toothbrushes for cleaning things.  I guess there are people who don’t try to reuse things, but I doubt they are taking the time to read this article!  Reusers like me reuse toothbrushes for cleaning stuff all the time.  Still, it just delays sending them to the landfill.

Then we’ll see the inevitable list of Better ChoicesProducts are described listing their attributes and drawbacks (like bamboo toothbrushes), and there’s always a drawback, not the least of which is higher price or some additional effort required.  I guess one could trim off the nylon bristles in a bamboo toothbrushes into the trash, and then compost the handle and it would only have a tiny bit of plastic just hanging around in the soil for years, which is good but not great. I compost at home, but my city does not pick up food waste nor offer a food waste drop off location. So, hooray for me, but other readers are left in the lurch. 

Which brings up the Not Mentioned Drawback:  Compostable alternatives are not helpful when composting is not an option.  Worse than the bamboo toothbrush is the compostable clamshell for takeout food. I compost mine, but what about the vast majority of folks who don’t compost?  Has everyone heard that the landfill doesn’t exactly decompose biodegradable material very well?  As in the landfill researchers from National Geographic who dug up 50 year old newspapers and read them?  Bananas that are still bananas?  Obviously, something biodegrades because we are all blest with methane venting from landfills, which are a big mess and very few people know the full backstory because it would cause a lot of discomfort if everyone knew.

Now we need to be on guard for Worse Choices disguised as better choices: Something more complicated with a ‘reusable side’ (electric toothbrushes), with undisclosed inevitable disposal issues.  Please!  What a terrible idea to suggest a more complicated, harder to recycle item than an electronic version of the very plastic thing we are trying to avoid!  Not to mention that the toothbrush attachment is disposable plastic and needs to be replaced just as frequently as the low-tech version.  And we might also find an Off Topic Problem: Consumer rechargeable batteries!  These are recyclable in VERY FEW MARKETS. Or you can pay to ship them to be recycled (which CAN happen), currently at about a dollar per pound.  This should be its own article, because battery materials are very recyclable, the industry just doesn’t want to do it.

Keep your eyes open for a Subsequent Related DistractionAs if making your own toothpaste solves the toothbrush problem. BTW, my dentist says baking soda is terrible for teeth.

More often than not, at the end of the article we end up with No Real Conclusions: Yep, that was the end of the story.  Nothing about Extended Producer Responsibility (where manufacturers contribute financially to a better disposal option).  No summary review of the suggestions for the “optimal choice”.  No observation of other countries solutions, which are very often more advanced than ours.  Many articles like this are unfulfilling for the folks who understand the gravity of the situation.  And they don’t educate the ‘newbie’ all that well.

Another issue often not addressed is the issue of ScaleToothbrushes are like straws, or plastic cutlery, or clamshells, and on and on.  What ubiquitous item do you want to take on today?  These articles serve a purpose to zoom in on one item, but when you zoom back out and see the scale of the problem, then what difference does a couple of hundred thousand toothbrushes really make?  By 2050 the oceans will have more plastic than fish.  If that isn’t chilling, I don’t know what is. Please make sure your toothbrush goes in the ground ladies and gentlemen!

You might be wondering if you should believe any article about things like this.  Of course you should take it with a grain of salt.  Be skeptical.  Add it to your mental portfolio and compare to others you read.  Articles like this are legion!  Use the tags above to analyze the article.  And clearly, most of these conundrums do NOT have solutions!  There are lots of perceived solutions, some solutions that work for some people, and some that would work if people would just think like you do!  Some would work if the manufacturers would change their product design (Anyone heard of the book Cradle to Cradle?)  So the writer hedged!  Situation normal.  It’s beyond your control.  Go back to whatever you were doing.

You might have to read enough of these articles to begin to see the typology I addressed.  At first these stories pique your awareness and you derive insight.  Then time passes and you test hypotheses, and nothing really improved.  You read another article and you start seeing that these authors are doing the best they can, given the information they uncovered.  Still, the answers remain unfulfilling.  Then you might read a few books on the subject and hear from other authorities, and you might know more about the topic than the writer appears to know.  Two suggestions to up your game:  Go to YouTube and watch the 19 minute “Story of Stuff.”  Annie Leonard is a genius. In addition, a recent and thoughtful book is Inconspicuous Consumption: the Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have, by Tatiana Schlossberg (a granddaughter of JFK).  Oh, and there are more books.  I have a long booklist…

Meanwhile, what is the best solution at the moment that yours truly, Mr. Critic, has to offer?  Surprise!  It’s one of the Related Distractions!  Unfortunately, it’s the best option until we evolve: get a box from Terracycle.com and start a community effort to collect the toothbrushes and send them off to be recycled.  Terracycle.com will do it right.  I’ll be doing that since I opened my big mouth.  I have a Terracycle.com “Razors & Blades” box here at the GBRC, and you are welcome to drop by with your disposable razors and drop them in it.  Soon I’ll have a toothbrush box next to it.

By 2050 the oceans will have more plastic than fish.  If that isn’t chilling, I don’t know what is.  So make sure your toothbrush goes in the ground ladies and gentlemen!