Category Archives: Planet

The place we share

Prices plummeting – even for recyclables

Prices: n. amount charged to purchase or sell something.

Plummet: v. to drop sharply and abruptly

The stock market plummets. Real estate values plummet. Employment plummets. And now the price of recycled materials.

Visions of Wall-E: a planet buried in waste.

One of my small pleasures these days, since I can’t afford to acquire stuff, is getting rid of stuff. Much of that stuff is paper, which gets picked up once a week, hauled off someplace, then converted into something new and useful.  I’ve also become such a skillful recycler of plastics, cans, glass (and composter of plant materials) that I need only one garbage pickup a month.

However, according to today’s paper, the recycling pipeline has hit a major snag:

The economic downturn has decimated the market for recycled materials like cardboard, plastic, newspaper and metals. Across the country, this junk is accumulating by the ton in the yards and warehouses of recycling contractors, which are unable to find buyers or are unwilling to sell at rock-bottom prices.

Ordinarily the material would be turned into products like car parts, book covers and boxes for electronics. But with the slump in the scrap market, a trickle is starting to head for landfills instead of a second life.

Mixed paper (my specialty!) which sold for $105 a ton on the West Coast in October now goes for about $25. Prices are much much lower in other parts of the country, which leaves the collection facilities with heaps that look like this:

08recyclelarge2

There are no signs yet of a nationwide abandonment of recycling programs. But industry executives say that after years of growth, the whole system is facing an abrupt slowdown.

Many large recyclers now say they are accumulating tons of material, either because they have contracts with big cities to continue to take the scrap or because they are banking on a price rebound in the next six months to a year.

China, once a big buyer of our crap, is also in an economic slump so they don’t want it any more. For quite awhile recycling was profitable for cities and businesses – a little extra income on the side.  No more – all that recycling infrastructure is expensive to maintain if the profit disappears.

We’ve got two possible paths:

  • Dramatically reduce packaging, as well as production of stuff that will need to be disposed of
  • Come up with some brilliant new uses for, and processes to convert efficiently, all the crap we’ve accumulated and no longer wish to keep

If you’ve ever been to a third world country where they lack the infrastructure to process waste, you know what a dismal mess our world could become if we don’t figure this one out. Scary shit.

Prolonging the pain at the pump: keeping a gas guzzler

I have a 1998 Toyota Sienna Minivan.

It’s not a hip car, but it’s a great car. 120,000 miles and nothing has ever broken on it.  It’s comfy, quiet, and useful. It’s the best car I’ve ever owned.  My poodle Molly and I traveled 10,000 miles across the US, up and down the eastern seaboard and back in it in 2001, right after 9/11 (“Travels with Charley” redux).

Poodle and Packed Minivan

Poodle and Packed Minivan

It also gets a sucky average of 19 mpg.  The price of gas is bad enough, but the fact that my carbon output is twice as high as it could be bothers me even more.

So like many others, I checked into down-sizing my ride. hahaha.

What I suspected is true.  The NY Times has an article today about whether this is a cost-effective plan. In the article is a link to a website where you can calculate how soon you’ll break even if you trade in your gas-guzzler for a more fuel-efficient model. I did the math:

My car’s trade-in value is $4,100.  A used 2005 Honda Civic hybrid is $19,200. Not counting sales tax, license fees, etc – and if gas stays at $4/25 a gallon – I will break even in a mere ten years!

The Sienna stays. I have to figure out how to rely on it less.

Patches, poverty and pesticides

Every time my son comes home for a visit he brings his jeans with him. Or what’s left of his jeans. At this point they’re literally threadbare.  Except for the places they’ve been patched; those are holding up nicely. Pretty soon he’ll have more patch than original denim.

These were jeans that cost $100+ when new, a figure I find appalling.  When you’re a 24 year old who lives in L.A. it’s all about the brand – I doubt they’re as sturdy as Levis at half the price. The holes are air-conditioning?

If he had more money he’d toss the lot of them and start fresh, but he’s broke and I have a sewing machine, so he’s adding one more layer of patches.

America has been living on borrowed clothing for a long time.From a 5/29/08  article in the NY Times:

As consumers adjust to soaring prices for gasoline, food, education and medical care, just about the only thing that seems a bargain today is clothes — mainstream clothes, anyway.

Clothing is one of the few categories in the federal Consumer Price Index in which overall prices have declined — about 10 percent — since 1998 (the cost of communication is another). That news may be of solace to anyone whose budget has been stretched just to drive to work or to stop at the supermarket; in fashion, at least, there are still deals to be had…

Over all, apparel prices have gone down primarily because of two factors: the overwhelming movement of manufacturing to countries with cheaper labor, where the clothes are made, and increased competition between traditional retailers and discounters, where the clothes are sold.

But how low can we go?…

The divergence of price extremes has become so striking that some fashion executives are openly asking whether prices have reached both their nadir and apex at the same moment. “As far as bottom costs go, we’re there,” Mr. Konheim said. “I think we’ve exploited all the countries on earth for people who really want to work for nothing.”

All denim is produced in the US then sent abroad to be sewn. But cotton growing is problematic itself. From an Alternet article “Dress for Excess”:

The United States produces 8.5 billion pounds of cotton fiber each year, but that fills less than a third of the nation’s always expanding demand for textiles. Fully 25 percent of the world’s cotton crop, in the form of lint, thread, fabric or finished products, ends up in the United States or Canada. Cotton is grown on less than 2 percent of farmland but accounts for one of every four pounds of pesticides sprayed. Currently in the global south, estimates suggest that half of total pesticide use is on cotton.

Plastics pandemic

From “The Graduate” 1967.  Mr. McGuire’s career advice to the young Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman):

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.
Benjamin: Just how do you mean that, sir?
Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?
Ben: Yes I will.
Mr. McGuire: Shh! Enough said. That’s a deal.

Oh how right Mr. McGuire was.  From various websites I’ve culled a few of the dozens of terrifying facts about our love affair with plastic.

When I was in Vietnam and Cambodia this spring I saw what happens when everybody uses plastic and plastic waste management is virtually non-existent.  This photo is from the Phillippines, but I saw the same thing in Cambodia:

Plastic Bags

Each year, an estimated 500 billion to 1 trillion plastic bags are consumed worldwide. That comes out to over one million per minute. Billions end up as litter each year.

Plastic bags don’t biodegrade, they photodegrade—breaking down into smaller and smaller toxic bits contaminating soil and waterways and entering the food web when animals accidentally ingest.

Windblown plastic bags are so prevalent in Africa that a cottage industry has sprung up harvesting bags and using them to weave hats, and even bags. According to the BBC, one group harvests 30,000 per month.

Plastic water bottles

Americans bought 8.3 billion gallons of bottled water in 2006.

Producing PET bottles uses more than 17 million barrels of oil and produces over 2.5 million tons of carbon dioxide each year.  For each gallon of water that goes into a PET bottle, two gallons of water are used to make the plastic bottles and purify the water . 462 million gallons of oil are needed each year to transport water bottles from the factory to the point of sale.

Plastic residues

In the North Pacific, an enormous gyre (slowly circulating spiral of water) is now known as the “Eastern Garbage Patch. The currents here tend to force any floating material into the low energy central area of the gyre where it stays in the gyre, in astounding quantities estimated at six kilos of plastic for every kilo of naturally occurring plankton.  This tower of trash covers an area the size of Texas. This is only one of several gigantic gyres in the world’s oceans.

Larger plastic items are consumed by seabirds and other animals which mistake them for prey. Many seabirds and their chicks have been found dead, their stomachs filled with medium sized plastic items such as bottle tops, lighters and balloons. It has been estimated that over a million sea-birds and one hundred thousand marine mammals and sea turtles are killed each year by ingestion of plastics or entanglement.

This poor albatross must have had a horrible stomach ache before he died.

Dutch scientists have counted around 110 pieces of litter for every square kilometre of the seabed, a staggering 600,000 tons in the North Sea alone. These plastics can smother the sea bottom and kill the marine life which is found there.

For more information see Green Sangha – Lots and lots of good stuff, including a Powerpoint presentation  you can use to spread the word.

Also see Reusable Bags

Best of Life magazine on the ocean gyres.

And this video on the Garbage Patch:

I’ve been using cloth bags when I shop for a long time. Now I’m washing and re-using the plastic baggies that I seem to accumulate regardless.  Your ideas welcome.

Public Health: a parable and two pickles

Two women are washing their laundry by the river. One looks up and sees a basket floating by, and in the basket is a baby! She wades in and pulls the basket to shore.

She’s cuddling the infant when another basket floats by with a baby in it. She wades in and grabs that one too. Then there’s another and another.

She calls to her companion to help, but instead of jumping into the water, the other woman is running upstream along the riverbank.  “Where are you going??? the wading woman yells. “We’ve got to save these babies.”

“I know,” yells back the second woman. “I’m going upstream to find out who’s putting the babies in the water. And I’m going to stop them.”

This story illustrates two very different approaches to solving a serious problem: the bandaid model (symptom relief for individuals), and the public health model (community-wide prevention strategies).

Our current medical system is still primarily based on the bandaid model. Folks get sick or hurt and the doctor fixes them. Take diabetes (please). Diabetes until recently was something that happened to you and then the doctor patched you up with insulin. And while it’s true that some folks have a genetic predisposition to diabetes, it turns out that today’s epidemic is a result of our eating too much (crap) and exercising too little – on a grand scale.

I came around to a public health perspective many years ago through my own personal experience of trying to lose weight. I tried about as many diets as there were weeks in the year, and failed at every one of them. It gradually dawned on me that specific diet programs (eat this, don’t eat that) were bandaids that covered up deeper issues – that only more awareness, an attitude shift and behavioral changes could fix, once and for all. Once I resolved those issues and changed my behavior the need for a special diet disappeared, as did the excess weight.

This got me thinking about how much trouble you could avoid if you could prevent the overeating in the first place. For example, working with kids before they developed bad eating habits, educating their parents about nutrition, improving school lunches and PE programs, and then going back even further in the chain to the suppliers of our food. (I was a few decades ahead of the curve here!).

Instead of trying to help individuals lose weight after they’d gained it, giving them insulin after they got diabetes or statins when their cholesterol was too high (bandaids), where could you shove a stick into the cogs of the machine to effect the greatest preventive benefit to a whole bunch of people?

These questions led me back to school for a masters in Public Health. Ever since, I’ve been the woman running upstream to find out where the babies are coming from.

The public health perspective asks foundational questions: Where does the problem begin? How could we prevent it from occurring in the first place? Here are a small sample of profoundly important measures that have come out of those questions: safe drinking water; sewage treatment systems; vaccinations (small pox, polio, measles, pertussis, hepatitis, etc etc), mosquito abatement projects (malaria), occupational safety regulations, food inspection programs, pre-natal care for women, family planning education programs….

Of course many of our public health problems are not caused by pathogens like polio or cholera. They are caused by money-making enterprises whose products turn out to be toxic. Tobacco. Asbestos. Certain medications like estrogen-replacement therapy. Foods made with trans fats. Leaded gas and paint.

Or they’re a result of toxic by-products of the manufacturing process:  nuclear waste, coal-fouled air, water fouled by all manner of manufacturing processes as well as grazing animals, and so on.

Business hates being told how to conduct itself and rarely ceases a practice unless under threat of penalties and lawsuits. This means the public’s safety is often at the mercy of our elected officials, many of whom (Republicans esp. under this disastrous Bush administration) do not have a public health perspective. For them it’s about the bottom line AND about getting re-elected.

Even Democrats, who are more sympathetic to prevention and regulation, need money to get re-elected. Unfortunately the very toxic industries that need regulating are often the biggest campaign contributors.

That’s the first pickle.

The second pickle is that public health campaigns are long-term investments. What we must pay out today to prevent a future epidemic or catastrophe seems like a huge chunk of change when the payoff could be decades in the future. Often we can’t begin to grasp what the catastrophe might be like that we’re paying to prevent.

When Al Gore suggests an investment of $5 trillion for us to make a switch to 100% renewable energy sources in ten years we balk. But when inaction may cost us the very survival of humans on earth: well, that’s a profoundly ponderous public health pickle.

Prius Envy

I love Toyotas. I had a 1988 Camry station wagon for ten years till I bought my current Toyota, a 1998 Sienna MINIvan. Except it’s not so mini. In terms of gazzling (my new word for gas-guzzling), it’s MAXI – 19 mpg. A tankful will probably cost me $80 this week. Last tank was $70. (I’m trying to use it as little as possible…).

My friends who have Priuses love them. They got theirs when they weren’t quite so scarce and when trading in their SUVs for them was a viable option. One of these years I hope to be able to afford one. Meanwhile, I need to learn to drive differently.

For starters, I need to leave for my destination BEFORE I’m due there… Well before. Novel idea.

An article in today’s NY Times describes other options: how to “Be a Prius:

In Europe, where gas prices are often more than twice what they are here, eco-driving has become mandatory in the driving curriculums in Germany, Sweden and, most recently, Britain. Beginning drivers are taught to avoid idling, unnecessary braking and jackrabbit starts at traffic lights, among other lessons that can bring fuel savings to as high as 25 percent.

Other fuel-saving tips include carefully timing one’s approach to slowing traffic or red signals and not accelerating toward a “stale green,” that is, a signal that’s about to change…..

Consider also driving less aggressively. An Australian study found that an “aggressively” driven vehicle saved a mere five minutes over a 94-minute course compared with a “smoothly” driven vehicle — but the smooth car used 30 percent less fuel.

He also suggests policy changes, like replacing stops with roundabouts, requiring drivers take a driving efficiency course, and encouraging less driving thru tax credits for miles not driven or miles on public transit.

Plant more trees

In honor of the 38th annual Earth Day.

In the glorious Northwest, Trees R Us. But with the insane rate of home-building and logging, trees are going fast.

Developers raze the land, build a bunch of over-big houses, and then consider it landscaped it when they put in three rhododendrons, a Japanese maple, and some grass.

I have two big deciduous trees, one that keeps the house cool in the morning and one that keeps it cool in the afternoon. No air conditioner.

The New York Times Sunday magazine was all about living green this past weekend. Here’s what they said about planting trees:

Every schoolchild knows there is no poem so lovely as a tree. But does everyone know just how green they can be? According to Deborah Gangloff, the executive director of American Forests, a nonprofit conservation group, “Three trees will sequester one ton of CO2 over a lifetime of 55 years.”

She notes that a carbon calculator on her group’s Web site tells you how many trees you can have American Forests plant (for a $1 donation each) to make up for the miles you drive or the fuel you use to heat your home. “This is a feel-good thing,” Gangloff admits, “but we are really planting those trees.”

American Forests programs have planted 25 million trees since 1990. Some trees do more good than others. When it comes to helping the environment, urban trees “can be 15 times more effective than a tree merely standing in the forest,” Gangloff says.

Dan Burden, who founded Walkable Communities in 1996 in part to promote planting and maintaining trees in urban settings, claims in his booklet, “Urban Street Trees,” that “a single street tree returns over $90,000 of direct benefits (not including aesthetic, social and natural) in the lifetime of the tree.”

Shade trees near residential and commercial buildings can reduce demand for air-conditioning; deciduous trees lose their leaves in winter, allowing the sun’s heat through. Researchers have developed models to guide property owners on how to preserve and plant trees strategically to realize the greatest energy savings.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, for example, determined the impact of planting shade trees and found that costs of cooling dropped 8 to 18 percent and the costs of heating declined 2 to 8 percent when a residential building was provided with a tree canopy roughly equal to two strategically placed trees.

Paul Hawken in Portland

Paul Hawken spoke here a couple of nights ago about the ideas in his book Blessed Unrest – which is about the hundreds of thousands of social and environmental justice groups he found around the world who are each in their own way trying to make the world a better place. His latest project/organization, Wiser Earth, catalogs them with aim of helping groups find each other.

He was joined at this event by the writers Barry Lopez and Rebecca Solnit.

Solnit made the point that perhaps we should thank George Bush for totally breaking the system – he’s wrecked the economy, the military, our reputation, our environmental controls, our constitution…. For starters.

“It’s time for the grownups to take over,” she said. People who care about each other and the world are waking up and starting to do positive things to fill the void. Unfortunately we (in the little groups) suffer from low self-esteem and don’t recognize our power and potential.

She has a broad definition of what constitutes an activist. A kindergarten teacher, a person who brings soup to a sick neighbor. The most interesting politics is not happening at the federal level, she says, but in the cities and towns and states who are taking issues into their own hands. The more functional a government (like Sweden) the less people are inclined to pay attention to the outside world.

Lopez said we’re in deep water (I’d have called it deep shit), living in a world of bandaids, a world where we’ve sacrificed community for avaricious gain. How can we rebuild community when we live in 4000 sq ft homes with fitness and entertainment centers built in? How can you create relationships if you never leave home?

Hawken said the planet is a giant organism with a life of its own, like our bodies. Just because there’s no big boss in charge of these groups doesn’t mean they’re not doing good work. “Do we have to tell our lungs to breathe? Our blood to flow? Our lymphocytes to attack a bacteria?”

Final Points: Commerce is not a bad thing; trading is a human enterprise since the dawn of time. Corporate immunity is the issue. There’s no such thing as “alternative” energy. All energy comes from the sun.

Piles of Poop

Until recently I thought little about what happens when my dog poops. We live outside the city so when she poops by a pasture I let it sit there. What’s one little pile o’ poop in the grand natural scheme?

Then I did the math. If my dog’s daily pile is multiplied by the daily piles generated by the 72 million other dogs in America (= 274 pounds per pooch annually) that’s 19.7 BILLION steaming pounds of poop a year.

If we don’t scoop, it gets into our streams, ponds and rivers, causing sickening levels of fecal coliform bacteria, feeding weeds and algae that choke the waterways and deprive the water of oxygen.

Dog poop carries a variety of other pathogens and parasites that can live on in our lawns for years and infect children who play there and adults who cultivate it. And these pathogens and parasites won’t die in your compost pile.

So now I’m a believer – I scoop.

For now I collect it in the plastic bag my newspaper comes in, then flush it down the toilet where it will be joined at a treatment plant with I hate to think how much people poop. (Cat poop and disposable diapers are a topic for another day…)

But whether or not you’ve got a pooping pet, there’s a much larger lesson here.

We think of ourselves as single players whose actions and inactions are just drops in the national, global or universal bucket. Until we do the multiplication we are unaware of how our individual acts add up.

Even then, we don’t want to conserve at our end if everyone else isn’t also doing their part… why should we suffer alone?

Garrett Hardin wrote a famous essay for the journal Science back in 1968 called the “Tragedy of the Commons” to describe this phenomenon.

The commons is a resource shared by a group or society – like rivers, oceans, the atmosphere, fish stocks, the national parks. In Britain, shepherds often shared local pastureland, which is the example Hardin used. Each shepherd wants to get the most out of this shared resource so he will add sheep if he has the means to do so. Each herder notes that the other herders are adding sheep, so why shouldn’t he? But with each sheep added, the quality of the pasture for all is reduced. No ONE takes responsibility. Ultimately, this leads to overgrazing and the degradation of the resource.

It’s time for each of us to do our part. Our children’s future depends on it.

Preservatives and Pesticides

On my birthday, which was March 21, a friend brought me a lovely bouquet of red roses. Because I was in the grip of the mid-winter grippe that flattened many around these parts, I mumbled a Puny thank you and thrust them into the closest vase I had at hand and fell back on my Pillow.

Today, eighteen (!) days later I decided it was probably time to chuck them. I don’t know WHAT kind of preservative these sucked up before I got them, but I have never ever had a rose that lasted more than a week. At one time I had a rose garden with 75 different varieties, so I’m very familiar with their tendency to wilt from the neck up or burst wide open and drop everything.

18-day-old rosesMy friend bought the flowers at a local Rotary Club fundraiser; they’d had a massive order flown in from Ecuador. The stems were super long and super thick. In two and a half weeks only one wilted and none exploded or dropped.

Since I did nothing to prolong their lives, I’ve got to think they ate or drank something powerful before they left Ecuador.

According to an article from the University of Florida, I’m right.

The problems and promises of Ecuador’s flower industry are as many-layered as a rose bloom. This tiny country has gained about 60,000 jobs since the industry began two decades ago, but workers endure dangerous pesticides and low wages to keep their steady jobs.

-snip-

Roses are one of the most susceptible types of flowers to pests and disease. Because they’re not an agricultural product that’s grown to eat, importing countries don’t place strict standards on the pesticide residue they contain. The result is that pickers and processors are exposed almost daily to toxic chemicals.

Yellow-suited and gas-masked workers spray a cocktail of pesticides on each bush three times a week. … Almost every worker, when asked about the pesticides, says the same thing: “Son muy fuertes.” They’re very strong.

If you’re interested, read the whole story. Maybe you’ll decide that a rose (in its proper season) which lasts only a week is quite wonderful enough.