June 5, 2020 § Leave a comment
I know the world is ending, but first I’d like to talk about something that happened at our house this week: one of our baby chickens was attacked by a raccoon and lost a good part of her face.
We’ve been raising baby chicks for the first time this year. We bought nine of them when they were a day and a half old, at which point they resemble little balls of fluff with legs; for the first several weeks, before it got warm enough for them to be outside, they lived in a metal tub in our dining room. There they ate and drank and were somewhat smelly and argued over who got to play with the loose feather someone found. So, you know, pretty much what we do in our dining room.
Although we’ve never raised from chicks before, we’ve kept chickens for the last ten years, so we know the deal: chickens live short, unpredictable lives, and it’s best not to get overly attached. Like, you stop letting the kids name them. We’ve had chickens carried off by fox, raccoon, hawk, and even a bobcat once. We’ve had three brand new pullets decimated in the night by a predator who left only a few gristly feathers and a foot behind. We’ve had them die of strange diseases that make their heads list mysteriously to one side, or stand in one spot all day without moving or eating.
The chicken-keepers mantra: Chickens don’t recover. They die.
So when we discovered our little half-grown chick bloody and missing key body parts (a large swath of feathers and her beak), we knew the odds of her surviving were Definitely. Not. Good. I felt woefully under skilled as we tried to clean her up and ascertain the damage. Looking at the place where her beak was supposed to be, I couldn’t make any sense of it. Splintered shards were sticking out everywhere- was that beak? Was there any beak left? What about her tongue? Or was that a piece of hay? I felt a strange mixture of anxiousness and defeat at the same time. How can I help if I don’t even know what I’m looking at?
I feel this way a lot lately, and not just about chickens. This morning I asked my husband, as he scrolled the news on his phone, “So, what’s happening in the world? Or, should not I even ask?”
I mean, here we are in the throes of the first major pandemic in a hundred years.
We’re destroying the planet.
And there’s rioting and looting in the streets of our major cities.
Have I left anything out?
When the state of the world is this chaotic and unpredictable, it’s hard to know how to feel. Is the pandemic ending now? Or is the worst yet to come? Is it too late for the planet, the polar bears and the rainforests? Or can something still be done? Why are innocent people being killed in the streets by the very folks sworn to protect us all?
How can I help if I don’t even know what I’m looking at?
Just in case I wasn’t feeling bad enough, a friend forwarded me an Op-Ed from the New York Post, making the argument that New York City should stop recycling. Yes. With all that’s wrong in the world why not just throw some gasoline on the fire?
The worst part is that the author of the article, a senior fellow from a conservative think-tank, makes a decent argument. Remember how in 2017 China stopped accepting recyclables from the United States? Have you ever wondered what happens to all that recycling now? Well New York City has been paying a small fortune for private companies to take it. According to the editorial’s figures, the city spends around $390 million to get paper, metal, glass and plastic into the hands of recyclers and consequently could save about 87% of that amount, or $340 million, if all of it just went straight to landfill.
That sounds like a lot of money. But is it? The annual budget of the city of New York is about $86 billion. Which would mean that landfilling recyclables would save New York City less than one-half of one percent of its budget. A fraction of a fraction, but still… $340 million is $340 million. Fortunately, when Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his proposed upcoming budget on April 16th, which included many slashed programs, eliminating recycling was not one of them.
But the fact remains, one of the biggest obstacles to recycling is cost. If people have to choose between, say, food and shelter and recycling? Obviously it’s no contest. Likewise New York City or any other municipality.
Tom Szaky, the founder of the innovative recycling business Terracycle, has an interesting take on this subject of recycling and cost. Recently I watched a keynote address he gave at Planet Forward, an annual student journalism conference, which is available for viewing on YouTube. In it he introduces a novel concept: there is no such thing as not recyclable.
Rather, Szaky says, it’s a matter of simple economics: if you can find someone to pay for it, then you can recycle it. No exceptions. Terracycle has proven this with a team of in-house scientists who have found ways to recycle everything from cigarette butts to dirty diapers.
But who wants to pay for this recycling when the end product is more expensive than buying new? In his presentation he offers an interesting solution: change the story.
“People want purpose,” he tells the roomful of communications majors. He gives an example: a shampoo bottle Terracycle developed with Proctor and Gamble that uses 25% recycled “beach plastic” in the packaging. He relates an anecdote in which one P&G associate is jokingly mad at Terracycle for having greater success with a 25% recycled plastic bottle than they had had previously with a 100% recycled bottle.
Why are people more interested in a 25% recycled bottle than a 100% recycled bottle? Szaky’s point here, I think, is that the story of beach plastic recycling, which conjures up powerful images of turtles with plastic straws lodged in their nostrils, is compelling to the consumer, in a way that the generalized idea of “recycling” cannot be.
“That’s one of the biggest challenges in sustainability communication I think.” Szaky elaborates. “It’s 99% ‘the world is ending’ and at the end it’s like ‘well, turn your light-bulb off when you leave your home.’ And it’s like well, those aren’t balanced concepts. And then I might as well (say) fuck it and just party because the world is gonna end and I can’t do anything about it right? We need to empower this positivity, the inspiration that there is a way to solve it. ‘Cause there is.”
How do you get people to change their behavior? To clean and sort their recyclables? To spend more money for recycled packaging? To demand their government officials continue to invest in curbside recycling? You need a powerful story they can relate to. Cleaning up ocean plastic so that sea turtles don’t have to have straws in their nostrils is one such story.
Speaking of nostrils, or lack thereof, we ended up taking our chicken to the vet. And believe me, finding a vet who sees chickens is not an easy thing to do. (See the chicken-keepers mantra, above.) We were about 85% sure he would tell us to put her down.
But he didn’t. He said “I’ve seen chickens worse off than this, that recovered.” That was all we needed to hear. Yes, it’s financially bonkers- how many farmers do you know who would pay vet bills for $4 chick, who may very well die in the end anyway? But we’re not farmers. Keeping chickens for us is about enjoying them and their eggs, not about making financial sense. Don’t get me wrong, we’re not going for the six-million dollar chicken here, but if we can manage to save her— the vet has described gluing on a new prosthetic beak— we’d really, really like to.
A lot of it comes down to just paying her some extra attention, keeping her separate (she’s back in the tub in the dining room), and feeding her a couple of times a day with a dropper. She’s been through a lot, as have we all lately, and she looks a little bit like Sylvester Stallone at the end of the film Rocky. For one thing, in a world where so much is going wrong, it’s one tiny good we can do.
For another, well, we’re invested in her now. You see, she’s got a story.
May 29, 2020 § 4 Comments
You know what makes me crazy? List articles. You know the ones: Top Ten Things You Could Be Recycling NOW! Or: Recycling! Ten Ways You’re Doing it ALL WRONG!!
The reason I don’t like these articles is because they often purport to give you good advice about important issues, like recycling, but actually end up just skimming the surface in a way that isn’t at all helpful. We feel good about reading the article, but don’t end up with enough information to effectively change anything.
Exhibit A: in the article 10 Household Products You Never Knew You Could Recycle on Food 52, the author breezes past the thorny issue of what to do with used toothbrushes and toothpaste tubes with the advice to “mail toothbrushes to alternate recycling systems like Terracycle” adding, “Terracycle’s got you covered”!
Great! I’ll use Terracycle! we think.
But… what does that actually mean? Like… can I just write Terracycle’s address on an envelope and mail them my old toothpaste tube?
- FACT #1: No, you can’t just mail them your old toothpaste tube. The actual deal, as you will see, is far more complicated.
To begin with:
- FACT #2: You have to pay for Terracycle’s services. Unless you have a school group or business that is locally collecting for Terracycle as a fundraiser or promotion, it is a fee-based program.
On top of this:
- FACT #3: It is not all that easy to figure their system out. I myself have visited Terracycle’s website about a dozen times since the Year of No Garbage project began. Every time I visit I am determined to figure out how I, as a reasonably intelligent ordinary person, can use it. And every time I’ve been utterly defeated.
This much is clear: for the pay programs, you order a “Zero Waste” box for a fee, which includes the postage for mailing it back when it is full; they recycle the contents. So the next logical question is how much does it cost?
- FACT #4: The fee varies a LOT depending on what goes in the box, and this is where it starts to get complicated.
- FACT #5: There are 79 different types of Zero Waste Box, at least by my count. This includes boxes devoted entirely to subcategories like 3D Printing materials, toy action figures, and (my personal favorite) used chewing gum. I know. I’m not sure I want to know what they do with that.
On top of this:
- FACT #6: The Zero Waste boxes come in three sizes, the middle one of which is about the size of a kitchen garbage can… which is pretty big for someone who is just looking to recycle some empty toothpaste tubes.
Between the categories and the sizes, so far you have at least 237 boxes to choose from. Stymied yet? Well, they do have a “one size fits all” option.
- FACT #7: The “All in One” box is the easiest solution, but it is also the most expensive: the medium box in this category costs $287.
Hmm. Still trying to recycle my empty Tom’s toothpaste container here, and $287 feels a little steep. How about the “Personal Care Accessories” Box? The smallest box measures 11″ x 11″ x 20″ and costs $115. To recycle a few toothpaste tubes?
But wait! In the list of acceptable items for the Personal Care box, nowhere does it mention toothpaste tubes or toothbrushes! Back to the drawing board.
In the search bar I type “toothpaste.”
Sorry, we could not find a program matching your request.
I flip over to “Free Recycling Programs.” Maybe I could start one of those in our community, like at the local school or library? Then everyone could recycle their toothpaste tubes! For free!
- FACT #8: All the “free” recycling programs sound like advertising: “Febreze Aerosol Recycling” “Gillette Razor Recycling,” and so on. So does that mean you can only recycle those brands in these boxes? It’s not entirely clear, but it turns out it doesn’t matter, because:
- FACT #9: The free boxes seem impossible to get. When I go through the effort to register and make separate requests for three different kinds of free recycling boxes, I get a message for each one saying I’ve been placed on a “waitlist for this program.” That was several months ago.
Back to the drawing board. A search for “dental” brings up boxes for Disposable Gloves, Garage Waste and Pet Products.
I’m swimming in a sea of random objects. Vitamin bottles! Cassette tapes! Shoes! It’s all so frustrating and tantalizing at the same time. I’m so very glad Terracycle is recycling these things, but so very frustrated I can’t figure out how to use their system in a way that makes any sense. It’s like I am looking through a glass door at a wonderful world of recyclability, but the door is locked and I can’t get in.
From sheer number of categories, to the huge boxes, to the bureaucratic layout, the Terracycle website feels designed for industry, not ordinary people. Which it may be, but I’m awfully glad that it is open to ordinary people. Despite the fact that I’m giving Terracycle some crap here, I’d nevertheless like to point out that:
- FACT #10: What they’re trying to do is groundbreaking and kind of heroic. Yes, I wish it was much, much more user friendly. But as far as I can tell they seem to be the only game in town trying to recycle everything, and I think that counts for a whole heck of a lot.
The last time I checked out the Terracycle website was last week. I was seeking a solution to the burgeoning containers of plastic building up ominously in my kitchen-recycling corner. My husband Steve has started to say things like “Soooo, after the project’s all over, if this stuff is still here? We can throw it away then, right?”
Well, yeah, but that wasn’t the idea, of course. The idea was to find actual solutions. It was time at last to bite the bullet and just try ordering something from Terracycle and see how it all turned out. I selected a Zero Waste box called “Plastic Packaging.” I had both phone and email exchanges with Terracycle customer service, to be reassured this particular box was appropriate for what is building up in my recycling corner the most: crinkly cellophane plastics and co-extruded multi-layer plastics (such as packaging for meat and frozen vegetables). Then I checked on the one last thing that had been bothering me.
Did I really have to remove all paper labels?
A customer service representative wrote back: With regards to paper labels, we do ask that they are removed before you place them in your Zero Waste Box. I know these can be a bit tricky at times so please know that we sincerely appreciate your efforts in removing them!
Ugh. Well… What choice did I have? Buying the “All in One” box for at more than twice the price? No… I’d worry about the labels later.
I was finally ready.
I ordered a medium size box for $134. At some point during the ordering process I stumbled across an envelope marked “Oral Care Waste”!! At last a solution for my toothpaste tubes!!! It was $42, for a size slightly smaller than a manila envelope but I was so grateful to at last find it, I added it to my cart without hesitation.
I’m not quite sure how to feel about this pay-to-play recycling. Of course, there’s always the problem of what-is-the-carbon-footprint-of-all-this-package-mailing? There’s the wondering what really happens to the stuff once it gets to the good people of Terracycle? There’s the hope that this really doing good things, but the lurking fear that I may just be paying Terracycle to assuage my first-world-problem guilt.
But cost is clearly the most obvious deal breaker. What! PAY to throw things away?? Although, many, if not most of us do that all the time. Currently we pay $57 per month for combined garbage removal and single-stream recycling. So, if I manage to get six months otherwise-unrecyclable plastic stuffed into that Terracycle box and recycled by paying $134, and a year requires two boxes, that would work out to just over $22 per month. Now, whether or not one thinks that price is: A. possible and B. worth it is another question entirely.
In cases like this, Steve likes to quote the movie National Treasure: Harvey Keitel’s FBI agent is confronting main character Nicholas Cage who asks if he really has to go to prison, even though he’s the good guy. Keitel says, “Someone’s got to go to prison.” What he means is someone, somewhere always has to take responsibility, to pay the bill. If the companies who make these almost-impossible-to-recycle products aren’t going to do it, we have to. Or the government does. Or the environment does. Someone does.
A lot of Zero Wasters advocate for eliminating the plastics and other unrecyclables by not buying the products that use them, and they have an excellent point. But it’s a point that only goes so far. During this period of quarantine, like most people, I’ve not had as many choices in food packaging or shopping as I’d like. Plus, I’m well aware that there are an awful lot of people out there who just aren’t going to willingly give up their shrink-wrapped cheese and their vacuum-sealed hamburger meat. Not for the polar bears, even.
If we’re realistic, we need more than just the committed Zero-Wasters. We need people like my mom and my dad, who are seventy five and definitely not about to start making toothpaste out of baking soda and tree bark or whatever in order to avoid using plastic toothpaste tubes. But they might do a Terracycle envelope. Maybe. We need a whole roster of solutions at our disposal, reaching larger groups of people, in order to get on the side of the environment and eliminate the concept of “garbage.”
Would it be preferable to make non-recyclables illegal? Or force companies to provide reasonable recycling opportunities for their product packaging? Yes.
But until we get there, there is something appealing to me about being able to do something besides shrug my shoulders and keep adding to the landfill. Whether or not Terracycle really makes sense in the grand scheme of things is a question to which I’m still trying to find the answer.
Meanwhile. Anyone know a ridiculously easy way to remove paper labels?
Okay, I’m pretty blown away by how much has fit into my Terracycle box so far. My ENTIRE five-month supply of cellophane/crinkly plastic went in, about half of the multi-layer plastic went in (the other half has the dreaded paper labels I have yet to figure out) and literally two-thirds of my large I Don’t Know box. This feels like the first major breakthrough since I discovered all the things that can go into the supermarket plastic bag recycling. So far I’m pretty impressed, and the box isn’t even full yet.
Things I discovered can ALSO go into the Plastic Packaging box, that before now were giving me agita in the non-recyclable pile:
-plastic blister packaging
-hard plastic with no recycling numbers
-mailing tape containers
-those little plastic tags they sneak onto the rubber bands around vegetables
-heat activated shrink-wrap seals (those bands around the cap or lid of products)
EXCITING, right? Stay tuned for more adventures in Extreme Recycling, and let me know your thoughts in the comments!
May 21, 2020 § 12 Comments
Note from Eve: This week features a post written by my daughter Greta. If you read Year of No Sugar you met her at age 11; now at age 20 she is an aspiring young actress studying at the Stella Adler Studio of Acting in New York City. Since school closed for the pandemic in March she and her boyfriend Steven, also an actor, have been staying with us here at our home in Vermont, but even before that she had been living Year of No Garbage along with us, navigating the project in an urban setting.
Greta has been fascinated with the 1940s since early high school. Online, she has discovered an entire vintage community who shares her passion for the styles and culture of this period (but, Greta is quick to point out, not the prejudices or politics). For her 17th birthday we celebrated with a “VE- Day” Party that featured Big Band music, a Victory Garden and signs pointing to the nearest Anderson air raid shelter. The other day Greta was waxing poetic about how neatly her interest in this time period fits with Year of No Garbage and I said Why don’t you write about it? So here she is.
Wilkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome! Okay, to be fair, as a musical theater actress that was a really exciting way for me to open this piece.
But now you are wondering why I am here on my very, very exquisitely talented mum’s platform and I must reveal all: I love vintage! (And by vintage, I mean old stuff from a particular time period.) I particularly love 1940s vintage but I do dabble in 1930s as well. And for the Year of No Garbage this has turned into a strange asset.
Today when I go to the store to buy items for my apartment, everything seems meant to last about five minutes before you go buy yourself a new one. In ye-old days of the 1930-40s, as you probably know, plastic was yet to be widely used, excepting of course such early forms as Bakelite and Lucite. (And from those have come some truly lovely purses and bracelets that are getting very pricey to acquire. But I digress.)
You know what I like? Pyrex. Take a moment and think about Pyrex: it’s one of the most time-tested kitchen items we have today, but it hasn’t changed much since it was introduced in the early 1900s: you can buy it old, you can buy it new. It’s still the same Pyrex. (No, Pyrex is not sponsoring me, however if anyone out there has any they don’t want? Please call me.) Made of borosilicate glass, it is so sturdy it is often used in the sciences because heat won’t warp it or cause a “laundry effect” (shrinking or expanding). Once upon a time if you forgot a bowl at a potluck— without the masking tape with your surname firmly stuck to the bottom— it was possibly a life-altering event. I mean, Mrs. Maisel went back for her Pyrex, and look what happened to her! (Spoiler alert: it changed her life.) Today, however, we’re conditioned not to expect things to last.
But Pyrex lasts.
Because of this, to vintage-fans in the know, kitchen items made 80 years ago are still being used and coveted. Not only vintage casserole dishes and mixing bowls, but other things too: cast iron pans, food mills, potato mashers, and baking molds are among the practical vintage items still in use in kitchens today. Could you say that most of the things we produce today will still be around in 80 years? In good working order?
And this brings me to clothing. I do so love being a girl! So many dresses, so little time. I love them, I care for them, I worry about them, and no matter how many I have, I always need more. If you’re gentle you could say I’m a collector, but if not you might say I’m obsessed.
If you ever have the breathtakingly lovely experience of wearing vintage clothing you will immediately notice the different fit and shape it gives you. But what I find equally fascinating are the hems and seams and buttons- the way they’ve held up for all this time. They, too, were “made to last.” I’m not referring only to select designer brands, mind you- the presence of ready-to-wear clothes in all the vintage stores I visit attests to the attention and care that was paid to the making of these everyday garments. So again we must ask ourselves: if you were to go to a store today that sells ready-to-wear clothes, do you think those clothes would withstand 80 years of good care and regular use?
Buying vintage is the most rewarding kind of recycling. Rather than buying something new, you’re taking something that has already had a life, and giving it another one.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying I like to get all dolled up like it’s the 1940s in the name of sustainability; in my case the chicken came before the egg. I am drawn to the clothes and the style, but what I find compelling is the promise to stand the test of time, something I think we lack quite often in our fascination with “fast fashion.”
I’m also not saying anyone but me should conflate environmental responsibility with wearing their hair in a snood, nor must everyone enjoy the thrill of realizing your new dress still has its Bakelite buttons or the original matching belt. But I think it’s important to see what value an older piece can have. I often see matching vintage nesting bowls sell online for over $250. Even I think that’s pricey, but the fact that patrons are willing to purchase such things shows how much many of us crave things that are made well and last a lifetime.
There’s a lot of wonderful stuff out there, in the antique and vintage shops, at the rummage sale and the local charity shop, on eBay and Etsy, stuff that has a life and a history and it isn’t done yet. Why settle for the second best, throwaway production we are given by so many contemporary manufacturers and by doing so accept the responsibility of hurting our planet? Making our objects well and treating them as resilient rather than expendable gives us hope as consumers as well as residents of the planet.
Now if you’re still here after all that? Brava! Brava! Bravissima! (See what I did there? Phantom of the Opera? Anyone?) Just to wrap this up: I’m not saying everything must be perfect and that I have no garbage vices of my own. I like to wear disposable, false lashes when I dress up. I like to order vintage dresses and hats online which, of course, has a carbon footprint. But what is important is that we don’t settle to pay for something that won’t last.
Why should we when there are such lovely things already out there?
May 14, 2020 § 2 Comments
Have you ever received a product in “compostable” packaging and felt good about it? Me too! But recently I realized, maybe I shouldn’t.
I got to thinking about compostables while on a food run the other day with my daughter Ilsa: we were picking up a dozen bagels from a local shop and she asked for a smoothie to go. When we checked to be sure the cup was recyclable it appeared to be even better than recyclable. It was something called “Greenware,” and a cheerful message across the bottom of the cup read: “yay! i’m compostable so don’t trash me already”!
Nice! Compostable Plastic! It was a cup that looked like plastic, felt like plastic, but, as I discovered after we got home and I looked it up, was actually made from “Ingeo,” the trademark name for a “PLA resin derived from plants.” “PLA” stands for polylactic acid which comes from corn, sugarcane or beets.
Ilsa was impressed, but then said: Waitaminit. If it is possible to make compostable disposables, why don’t all take away places use them? I explained that eco-friendly products made with natural, renewable materials like bamboo are usually more expensive, so using them is something the company has to believe provides “added value” to their brand for customers. Which is to say, it’s a reason to patronize their shop as opposed to somewhere else.
And for sure, we are those customers if anyone is: Ilsa and I are precisely that demographic who are willing and able to go out of our way, and pay a few cents more, to “do the right thing.” I feel very fortunate to have that option of choice.
But how often do we make an assumption that something labeled “GREEN!” is automatically the “right thing”?
After the smoothie had been drunk and I had washed the transparent cup, I wondered: does this very, VERY sturdy looking thing really go in our compost bin? It just didn’t feel right throwing something so… so plastic-resembling in with all our squishy banana peels and grainy coffee grounds.
Searching for reassurance I looked it up, and that’s when I was surprised. Greenware “compostable cups” are not compostable… in a backyard compost. Their website explains: “These products are compostable in actively managed municipal or industrial facilities, which may not be available in your area. Not suitable for backyard composting. (emphasis mine)”
There are other brands out there of similar products: Ecotainer is another one I’ve encountered; in the UK there’s Vegware. All the websites contain the same message: Compostable? Yes! But hold on! Don’t try this at home.
(It reminded me a lot of the recent existential debate I had over plastic wrap: Recyclable? Yes! Will anyone recycle it? No! So if in reality no one will recycle it… can one really call it “recyclable”?)
So let me make sure I understand this. I’m supposed to get my one-use, takeaway cup, and as the name indicates, I take it away. And then when I’m done I… bring it to the nearest industrial composting facility? Oh sure, I think there’s one of those at the mall in between the Hallmark Store and the movie theater.
To be fair, yes, in-store they have a bin for compostables, which presumably goes to the mythical industrial composting facility. If you consumed the drink in-store (presumably during a non-COVID-19 time when people did such wild and crazy things) then this all might make sense. But in this scenario surely it’s even better to have the vendor provide a real glass cup that gets washed and reused.
Alas, the point of the take away cup is to Take. It. Away. Am I really supposed to drive the thirty minutes back to town to return my compostable cup? And if I did wouldn’t I get pulled over by the Irony Police?
It gets worse. Although the cup is labeled with a recycling code number (#7), the Greenware website also explains it is not really a normal #7 plastic made of things such as acrylic, polycarbonate or nylon, so it should not be put with single stream recycling, lest it contaminate actual plastic recyclables. What do they recommend instead?
If a commercial composting facility is not available, please dispose responsibly in a trash receptacle.
So it goes to… the landfill. Where, despite the fact that it is made from plants, means it never degrades. And Greenware knows this. Again from Greenware’s website:
The sealed anaerobic environment of a common landfill severely limits the ability for compostable materials to break down. Oxygen and microbial activity are necessary for the breakdown of all compostable items and unfortunately is not present in most landfills.
To recap: You’ve come home with this awesome good feeling about being kind to the planet with your better choices. Yet, when you discard your feel-good cup, you end up either contaminating recycling or adding to the landfill.
It’s enough to make a regular recyclable plastic cup look downright sustainable by comparison.
If you think all this is confusing or misleading to customers, it turns out we aren’t the only ones. I called up the shop where the cup had come from and asked the employee who answered if I could put the Greenware smoothie cup into my home compost pile. She said, “I don’t know… I think you can.”
Now, just to be clear, I love my bagel shop. And right now, in particular, I applaud them for being open, heroically feeding hungry, pandemic-panicked patrons, not to mention answering weird, random questions from some crazy lady on the phone. But if the very people who work at the shop can’t tell you about the cup, I ask you: what good is it?
Then another development: yesterday a package arrived at our house in a flexible mailer that had a familiarly cheerful message emblazoned upon it: Hey! I’m a 100% Compostable Mailer.
As you can imagine, I was suspicious. First of all: why are all these inanimate objects talking to me? Second: why are they all so friendly? Third: Compostable?! Yeah, right.
But as it turns out these mailers— made by a company called Noissue— really, truly are what they say they are. Again- they look like plastic, feel like plastic, but when you are done with them you can throw them right into the backyard compost bin. In six months there will be no trace of them- I learned from the Noissue website that there is a technical term for this capability: home compostable.
Green-washing is a very real thing. Just because something presents itself as an earth-friendly alternative, doesn’t mean it actually is one. Sometimes I wonder if we aren’t all just so busy feeling good about trying to be better to the planet, we don’t stop to realize we might actually be being worse to the planet instead?
At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it shouldn’t require a host of Google searches to get to the heart of whether a product is what it claims to be, but until we get better regulation and public awareness around such issues, the onus will still be on the consumer to ferret this stuff out on their own. We could all benefit from clearer, legally defined terminology that recognizes that between “industrial compostable” and “home compostable” there is a BIG difference.
So, are compostable products a fraud? Noissue is clearly the real deal and kudos to them for walking the walk. As for products like Greenware, Ecotainer and Vegware, I’d like to think that they are well intentioned. But the problem is that using these products alone isn’t enough, because using them improperly can be worse than not using them at all. Informing the consumer and the vendor about what a product can and can’t do is key, and obviously that isn’t happening enough. In cities that offer curbside compost pick-up, these products probably make more sense than they do elsewhere. But there are an awful lot of places that don’t fit that description. Maybe you live in one. I do.
Until the pandemic recedes and we get back to being able to bring in our own reusable containers for take-out, I’d rather choose a recyclable plastic container over products that are only compostable in an industrial setting. At least then I know it’s part of a circular economy, and not destined for a landfill.
Then I’d know I’m doing something real, with intention, and not just accepting the veneer of sustainability as fact. Sometimes, when you peek beneath the surface, that shiny green veneer? Turns out to have been just a mirage after all.
The Garbage Blob That Ate My Kitchen *or* How to Set Up Your Home Recycle Absolutely Everything Center
May 6, 2020 § 4 Comments
Periodic freak-outs seem to be a part of my process. Since the beginning of our Year of No Garbage, the corner of my kitchen has served as the hub of all things not single-stream recyclable or compostable. Call it my “wishful recycling” pile. In the early days back in January it was downright adorable: little glass jars holding tiny piles of colorful bits and pieces. A piece of twine! Some yarn! A handful of wine corks!
Fast forward to May. And not just May, but May after seven weeks of quarantine. The corner of my kitchen had morphed from Martha-Stewart-photo-shoot-ready into an pile of indeterminate proportions, possibly escaped from a low-budget horror film entitled THE GARBAGE BLOB THAT ATE MY KITCHEN.
Here’s my strategy when things like this develop: Ignore. Ignore. Ignore. Ignore. Ignore. Igno-SUDDENLY FREAK OUT. I am very good at this. So when my husband walks in and sees me sitting hip-deep in a pile of what most people would call garbage, carefully separating tangled thread from a wad of I VOTED! stickers and the disembodied wire from a long-lost spiral notebook, he knows not to assume I’ve lost my marbles any more than usual.
This is what happened the other day when the wishful recycling blob suddenly destabilized and started cascading onto my kitchen floor. Once I had to wade through plastic bags and random pieces of cellophane to get to the stove, something was bound to give.
Fortunately my daughter Ilsa was there to help. The two of us pulled everything out, and began sorting up a storm. Because I’ve decided I don’t believe in such a thing as non-recyclables, and yet there are still so many items that are awaiting official answers as to where and how they can be recycled, I knew I needed to abandon the dainty little system I had begun with in favor of something a bit more rugged. Out with the adorable mason jars, in with the large, practical bins.
Next, we had to figure out what, precisely, the categories would be- I had five big bins and one small one. What warranted its own bin? What could do with something smaller? This is, of course, something I would have ideally set in place at the beginning of our project, but back then I had no idea what the categories would be, or how much of each one we were likely to collect; now on our fifth month, this pile was now the big, ugly answer to that question. In the end, Ilsa and I came up with a system that I am unreasonably proud of and here are the six major categories:
- Polyethylene #2 and 4: This is what I wrote about in my blog in January, this is the flexible, stretchy plastic also known as “plastic film.”
plastic supermarket bags
produce bags (both the kind that come in rolls at the store and the kind apples and oranges come in)
plastic overwrap from things like paper towels, toilet paper and water bottle cases
dry cleaning bags
bubble wrap and bubble mailers
deflated air pillows and plastic mailing envelopes
cereal box liners (unless they tear like paper)
SOLUTION: Recyclable at the supermarket bag recycling bin, once that opens up again.
Difficulty level: Easy
- Multilayer/ Multi-film Plastic: This is what I wrote about in my blog in April, plastics that are co-extruded (read: scientifically smooshed together) and therefore use several different kinds of plastic. This makes storing food wonderfully easy and recycling impossible very hard.
pouches used for vacuum sealing, such as for meat
plastic bags used for frozen vegetables
SOLUTION: Working on it.
Difficulty level: Tough.
- Packages Using Foil: These are also multi-layer packages, but in this case they sandwich foil with paper and/or plastic.
candy and granola/breakfast bar wrappers
SOLUTION: Working on it.
Difficulty level: Tough.
- Crinkly Plastics and Cellophane: Any flexible plastic that is shiny, and makes crinkly noises. Unlike polyethylene, it does not stretch when you pull it.
Includes: Those heat seal shrink wrappers that come banded on the top of so many products. Also, packaging for practically every product you can think of. If it doesn’t fit in any other above categories it is probably this.
SOLUTION: Working on it.
Difficulty Level: You’re killing me here.
- Wine Corks: Because apparently I’m a wino. I blame the pandemic. Also I blame wine.
Um. Wine corks.
SOLUTION: Start a business making wine cork keychains? Check Pinterest? Note to self: buy a glue gun. Also, I read you can soak them in alcohol and use them as fire-starters, so my inner pyromaniac finds that promising.
Difficulty Level: Easy to Moderate
- I Don’t Know!!: This is where I put the fun stuff.
deflated birthday balloons
two pieces of styrofoam
a burned out lightbulb
plastic produce netting
hard plastic with no identifying numbers
used up ball point pens
old mascara containers
empty mailing tape dispenser
irredeemably bent coat hanger
a plastic pickle holder that looks like a parasol for a leprechaun
SOLUTION: I swear to God I’m working on it.
Difficulty Level: Ninja.
On smaller shelves underneath the large bin area, I also have eight smaller containers for things that don’t come up as much/ don’t require much room. They are labeled: Tin Foil, Wax, Silica Gel Packs, Batteries, Stickers, Plastic Doohickies, Caps, Plastic Wrap.
I know what you’re thinking. “Eve? Haven’t you just, you know, washed and dried and KEPT all your garbage instead of sending it to the landfill? I mean, what is the point of all this sorting if there is no solution for these things?”
I know you’re probably thinking that, because I think it myself about once a day. But then I realize that all of this stuff, ALL of it could fit into one 96 gallon trash container. That’s the same trash container that until only recently we used to put out, full to bursting, every single week. If I make my calculations right, at 18 weeks in, to date we’ve avoided sending 1728 gallons of garbage to the landfill.
A whole year of filling up our trash container, by the way, amounts to 4992 gallons. So even if, at the end of the year, we end up with say, two containers of I couldn’t solve this– 192 gallons- I can still feel pretty good about the other 4800 gallons we saved from the landfill, primarily because we decided to start paying attention.
Just to be super geeky, I tried to figure out what weight is represented by those 4800 gallons of trash. Would it equal a small elephant? A grand piano? Unfortunately, because gallon is a measurement of volume, not weight, that’s a very tricky thing to figure out. Online I found wildly different estimates as to how much an average gallon of household trash is supposed to weigh. Is it a half a pound? Or four pounds? Depends who you ask.
But what we do know is that the average American throws out 4 pounds of trash per day, or 1460 pounds per year, which is to say 3/4 of a ton. In a household of four people that would equate to about 3 tons per year.
That’s like throwing away a full-grown rhinoceros. Crazy, right? It’s enough to make a person freak out.
But I promise not to freak out again. I’m done. For now.
April 28, 2020 § 3 Comments
Plastic wrap is a tough one. Also known as “cling wrap” or “plastic film,” it presents maybe the toughest of all zero-waste conundrums.
Only those who are trying to avoid it can fully appreciate how everywhere it is. Whole aisles of meats, entire walls of cheeses, all sealed off from the world in tidy little packets! Even organic produce is safely- if ironically- secured with it to little biodegradable trays! It’s hard to imagine how magical this stuff must have seemed to consumers way back in the 1940s when it was first marketed, back when glass, metal and paper were the primary materials for storing food, and flies laying eggs on the buffet table was a subject of much debate.
Fresh! Easy! Lightweight! Cheap! I suppose it makes sense that the supermarket has a longstanding love affair with clean, clear, oh-so-sanitary plastic wrap. Even before the current pandemic severely limited my shopping/food packaging choices, the stuff just kept popping up in my house like a deranged Whack-a-Mole. Surprise!
Friend: I brought you some lovely cheese, Eve!
Also Me: I mean, thank you it’s lovely!
Me to myself: CRAP. Guess I’ll put this next to the plastic wrap I found in the freezer and the plastic wrap a friend brought me leftovers in, and the plastic wrap that fell out of the freaking sky on my head.
Note to self: Gotta find out what is the DEAL with plastic wrap.
Since our Year of No Garbage began, whenever plastic food wrap has reared its ugly head in my kitchen, I have carefully washed it in the sink, the same way I do tin foil: flattening it against the sink bottom and wiping with my dish sponge in one-directional strokes. I have draped it delicately over the dishes in the drainer to dry. At some point, though, I began thinking to myself: how is this thin, flexible plastic any different than, say, the thin flexible plastic of supermarket bags? It felt the same. It has the same industry terminology: “plastic film.” If food wrap is the same plastic as supermarket bags, wouldn’t it stand to reason that you could- after cleaning and drying it- recycle it in the plastic bag recycling bin at the supermarket?
So I googled it. When one googles “is plastic wrap recyclable?” the resounding answer one invariably gets is: NO NO NO DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT IT NO.
But why? Most online sources give no reason at all, but a few say it’s because plastic food wraps are made of #3 plastic: PVC or PVdC (polyvinyl chloride or polyvinylidene chloride).
The thing is, this is not entirely true. When you dig a little deeper you find that, due to a growing awareness of the toxicity of chlorine in PVC and PVdC many plastic wrap films are no longer made with these materials, notably including Saran Premium Wrap, which changed its formula in 2004.
So what are they made of? Well, when you get an actual person on the phone at these companies, you find out that two of the leading food wraps, Glad Clingwrap and Saran Premium Wrap, are currently both made with… polyethylene.
And because I am now a certified Recycling Nerd Extraordinaire, this is when I start to get excited. Because polyethylene, you may recall, is exactly what makes up all those plastic film products that are suitable for recycling into outdoor decking by the good people at Trex. Dry cleaning bags, bread bags, plastic overwrap from toilet paper and paper towel, produce bags, Ziploc bags, bubble wrap… as I wrote about back in January, all of these things are made with polyethylene (plastics #2 and #4) and can all go into the plastic film recycling bin at the supermarket.
Could it be that Saran Wrap and Glad Wrap could go in that recycling bin too?
I sent an email to my friend Stephanie Hicks at Trex to confirm my hypothesis. I was disappointed to get her response: “Hi Eve… Glad Wrap and Saran Wrap are not plastic films that Trex accepts. It’s my understanding that they (sic) chemical do not behave the same as typical PE film. Please do not include.” This struck me as odd, because both of the company representatives I spoke with confirmed that their plastic wraps were 100% polyethylene- I mean, there are no other chemicals hiding in there. So what made this polyethylene film different than any than other polyethylene films?
When I pressed for more info from Stephanie at Trex this is what I got: “Saran wrap is PE (polyethylene) but it’s a modified form of PE and performs different that (sic) traditional PE. It does not melt like traditional PE.”
Wait- was that true? More phone calls.
This time I spoke to Public Affairs representative at SC Johnson, the makers of Saran Wrap. That’s when I got a response that blew my recycling mind. Here’s a quote from the official statement they sent me:
We can confirm that clean and dry Saran Wrap® is recyclable at most major US retailers similar to Ziploc® bags by dropping off in the bins located in stores that collect plastic bags and films.
On the phone, Megan, a customer service representative at Glad Products told me the same thing about their Glad Wrap: “It’s 100 % recyclable.”
Wow! Great news! But hold on. One thing I’ve been learning this year is to be more skeptical about things companies say. What does “recyclable” really mean, anyway? The term “recyclable” is meaningless if no facilities actually exist to accept it, right?
“Dear Loyal Consumer: We are delighted to inform you that our product is 100 %, guaranteed, fully recyclable. On Pluto. Thanks for your inquiry!”
Was I just back to square one? After all, even though the manufacturers say their product fits the parameters like those used at Trex, remember Trex said: Glad Wrap and Saran Wrap are not plastic films that Trex accepts.
But why? I was starting to sound like an annoying four year old, yet I still couldn’t help but wonder. Is it just because recyclers are afraid customers won’t wash and dry the stuff properly? Or are they afraid customers will put in non-polyethylene films that look identical, but are chemically very different? (Stretch-Tite, for example, is still made with PVC.) And if so, would this contaminate the recycling process? And how?
At this point I’d just like to pause and say: it should not be this hard. It should not be hard to know what chemicals are being used in the packaging of our foods, and it should not be hard to recycle our food packaging. I can’t say it enough: Trex and other polyethylene recyclers are doing a wonderful, fantastic thing by turning plastics that were heretofore unrecyclable into new products. They are to be deeply commended and I mean that.
But. Why did I feel like I was getting the runaround?
Were they just hoping I’d give up and go away? Because if so, they were truly not understanding the level of Lady Macbeth obsessiveness I’m operating on.
So I gave Trex one last try, emailing Stephanie again, asking: What is the modification that makes 100% polyethylene plastic food wraps unrecyclable with other 100% polyethylene plastic films? And at last I was able to get a more specific answer:
It is true that saran wrap plastic films are 100% PE, but are XPE – cross linked polyethylene. Trex process does not handle well XPE as it doesn’t move through the process of melting and material flow the way that non XPE does. Our whole business, machinery, and technology are designed to use a consistent or homogenized material source and XPE causes major chemical shifts.
Apparently, XPE can gunk up the whole recycling process, creating clogs in the line and irregularities in the new product.
After all this rigamarole with dueling representatives I kind of felt like it was time to get an outside viewpoint on the recyclability of plastic wrap. So I had a phone call with a lovely woman named Emily Tipaldo, at MORE Recycling, a consulting company that specializes in facilitating recycling and sustainability.
According to Emily the other concerns I had suspected are, all by themselves, enough to put the kibosh on the whole endeavor, even before you get to the issue of the polyethylene being cross-linked. “(Many recyclers are) probably worried about contamination,” she explained. “Most people probably won’t take the time to wash and dry the film properly.” Which can not only contaminate the recycling, but also invite pests.
Add to that the fact that, while Saran Wrap and Glad are polyethylene, others are not.
“It’s confusing enough for people trying to recycle right,” she said, without people trying to keep track of whether the plastic came from Saran, Glad or Stretch-Tite. And once the plastic is out of the box, they’re indistinguishable: there’s no way to determine whether a food wrap is PVC or HDPE just by look or feel.
And, most importantly, she confirmed once and for all: “XPE is not currently compatible with the PE recycling stream.”
So just like in The Mysterious Case of the Meat Plastic Vacuum Pouches, I had at last gotten to the bottom of a difficult recycling question, only to find a not very satisfying answer: yes… but really no. Yes, some manufacturers are saying plastic food wraps are “recyclable,” but are they really? In reality, pretty much no one wants to recycle them, because it just too hard: too complicated, too arduous for consumers, too messy, too confusing. The industry is simply not set up to do this.
So what’s the takeaway? I’d say more pressure needs to be put on corporations to take responsibility for what happens to their packaging after it is purchased by the consumer. I was delighted to find a company like MORE Recycling whose mission is in part to help companies make that transition from a linear to a circular economy. We need much, much more of this.
Here’s a crazy idea: how about all companies adopt a common set of packaging options that is guaranteed to be recyclable or compostable in all fifty states. Anything falling outside these parameters shouldn’t be allowed to be made or sold. We need a standardized system that is clear, consistent and easy to use— by everyone.
Let’s work on that.
In the meantime, the easiest, most sensible thing we can do as consumers is to avoid food-wrapping plastic films. Don’t buy them for your kitchen— instead use beeswax wrap or glass Tupperware such as Pyrex— and as much as possible try not to buy products that come wrapped in them. Until we can go back to bringing our own containers to the store for cheese and meat, that’s the best we can do.
Even though it’s not a very satisfying answer, I’m glad now to have the real story about plastic wrap… cross-linking warts, and all. Because as long as we are willing to take the word of industry who tries to brush us off with: you wouldn’t understand it, lady, because: science, we can’t effectively argue for change.
And change is clearly what needs to come next.
April 22, 2020 § 2 Comments
Well, hell. This is not the Earth Day I was expecting.
Not that I’ve ever been exactly sure how I was supposed to celebrate Earth Day… but surely this can’t be it.
Last week they brought BACK the plastic bags at my supermarket whose ban I was so delighted to witness only a few short weeks ago. There’s talk there of prohibiting reusable bags altogether. And bottle and can or plastic film recycling are out of the question: the doors are locked. No more bringing my own containers anywhere. No more buying anything in bulk.
Suddenly I find myself much more worried about getting in and out of the store with the efficiency of a Navy Seal than about whether a product has a non-recyclable plastic ring around the lid. (Get in! Get out! Go home! Stay there!)
Although these changes are deeply dismaying, they’re for the most part hard to argue with. Do we need to be as careful as we can possibly manage to avoid the spread of disease? Of course. Saving lives trumps bringing my plastic bags back to the supermarket.
However, while we’re busy being distracted or panicked, sometimes it’s hard to know when the measures stop making sense anymore. Unfortunately the pandemic presents a golden opportunity to justify anti-environmental behavior under the guise of necessity. Exhibit A: The Environmental Protection Agency has suspended enforcement of environmental laws. That’s right! No more pesky monitoring, lab analysis or reporting. In the United States there are now effectively no penalties for breaking pollution rules. And Coronavirus necessitates this because… if we can’t pollute our own country the germs win?
But don’t worry. “The EPA expects all regulated entities to continue to manage and operate their facilities in a manner that is safe and that protects the public and the environment.” Translation: big corporations are now operating under the honor system. I’m sure everything will be fine.
It’s complicated on the local level too. Sure, everyone agrees waste removal is an essential service, but whether or not recycling is also essential has been left up to the local governments to decide. Cue the chaos. Here in Vermont— Vermont mind you— there’s a proposal to landfill recycling and postpone a ban on landfilling food scraps. Even if these steps are truly necessary, once the crisis has passed, how long will it be before those hard-won environmental gains are re-established? There’s just no telling.
Saving the earth seems to be discontinued until further notice.
It’s a weird time. There’s so much depression, boredom, isolation and fear but at the same time there are moments of unexpected beauty. Polluted skylines the world over are clearing because the world is standing still. The polluted canals of Venice are crystal clear. Wild boar are wandering the streets of Barcelona and a herd of wild deer cavort on Indian streets. We watch from our windows, take videos with our phones. We are a captive audience, literally and figuratively. In our absence, what will nature do to surprise us next?
What can we find to celebrate in such a Through-the-Looking-Glass Earth Day, the 50th anniversary of the first Earth day, no less? I read an article on the World Economic Forum that had a good answer. It argued that what the pandemic offers us is the chance to see the huge difference humans can make when they make individual change.
“Our collective ability to address the damage we’ve done to nature has seemed impossible. Until now… The virus is raging, but we all can help stop it. When’s the last time you felt you could freeze a glacier, or actually help extinguish a forest fire? What we do here – and what we learn – could save lives and help us all endure and thrive as individuals, as communities, as a species.”
Meanwhile, our family is limping our way along in our Year of No Garbage turned Year of Keeping All Our Nice, Clean, Washed Garbage In A Pile In The Kitchen. Today, while cooking, I held up a piece of plastic food packaging and shook my head, and sighed. Was I disappointed at it, or me?
Today, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, I’m asking myself a simple but deeply important question: on the other side of The Great Pause, what will we do with what we’ve learned?