Could post-pandemic distancing bring back the paternoster? No, I’m not talking about the Lord’s Prayer.
One of the (many) daily parts of our lives that may be upended is the elevator because, unless we’re talking about museum freight elevators – or the one in the Starrett Lehigh building that allowed trucks to directly deliver to each floor – it’s pretty much impossible to maintain social distancing in a typical closet-sized elevator. So, we may have to be riding solo.
The paternoster elevator solves this problem by only being large enough to hold one person. Paternosters are a type of elevator that, unlike the Otis elevator system that we are all familiar with, involves a continuous belt with side-by-side shelf-like platforms running up on one side and down on the adjacent side. Sort of a vertical conveyor belt for people. Passengers step onto a small moving platform going up or down, depending on the side, and then step off again as the platform approaches the desired floor. The really interesting, or scary depending on your point of view, part is that there are no doors, you just step on and off, timing it to the continuous movement of the platform. If you were especially brave – I say especially because you had to be a bit brave to use them in the first place – you could ride the platform as it reached the top, ran sideways for a few feet and then started downward.
Of course, there are some safety issues to be considered. Specifically, the fact that they’re unsafe. They were fairly common throughout Europe but are now banned. Everywhere, that is, beside Germany where for some reason they are revered. I rode one once and, yeah, they’re pretty cool. (And I survived.)
Why, you may well ask, is this called a paternoster? The Latin origin means “our father.” One definition of the term, in addition to the Lord’s Prayer, refers to “a muttered prayer or incantation.” One can only assume that riding one requires a crossed-fingers type of tempered fearlessness.
Here’s a working paternoster in Alvar Aalto’s National Pensions Building in Finland
The platforms are just large enough for one or maybe two people: just what we could use for social distancing. Could they be redesigned to be safe from both viruses and gravity? Perhaps, though it’s hard to imagine a redesign that also satisfies ADA requirements and even harder to think of installing one in a litigious society. But tough times demand inventive, maybe even risky, solutions. Just maybe not this one.
Are Single-Use Plastics a Global Scourge or Necessity?
The answer, on this 50th anniversary of Earth Day occurring during a pandemic, is both. Single-use plastics have always had pros and cons, but the scale has temporarily shifted. Yes, SUPs are a serious problem. It’s tempting to say they should just be eliminated. (And I have, here and here, as well as keeping track of places where they have been.) The evidence of the problem is overwhelming, from heart-wrenching images of animals killed or maimed (turtles and albatrosses especially) to beaches covered in detritus. And then there is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Moreover, there are ways we can eliminate virtually all of our use of SUPs. After all, we did pretty well without them until a few decades ago.
The major exception has been medical applications. Yes, hospitals and doctors’ offices functioned without them in times past, but medical care has changed and SUPs in the form of things such as biohazard containers and IV bags would be difficult if not impossible to replace. And in many cases, finding ways to sterilize used items is simply not cost-effective, which makes their existence even more crucial in this pandemic. No one has seriously suggested eliminating those applications of SUPs.
In fighting COVID-19, those who have reduced or removed SUPs from their lives face a distasteful choice in order to preserve those lives. Plastic bags and disposable gloves surround us, and it’s difficult in this moment to eliminate them from our daily lives, let alone admonish others.
When I received a grocery delivery (yes, we got a delivery slot after a week), it came in a trunk load of plastic bagged items. Compounding this evil was the fact that those bags had – finally – just been banned in New York State, where I live. But it was hard to argue with the appropriateness of the packaging, much of it double-bagged. And we were, if not overjoyed, at least relieved to see our tomatoes and carrots bagged in plastic within the plastic. In fact, thinking of the at-risk elderly parents we are isolating with, we selected produce that was pre-packaged in those clamshell plastic containers or sealed plastic bags in the theory that they had been handled less than loose items.
You could see this as putting ourselves selfishly ahead of the planet, an equation that had been written much differently until now. We could rationalize that it wasn’t actually selfish, that we were contributing to the health of others who, despite carefulness and social distancing, we might put at risk.
In order to partially justify those grocery bags, we sequestered them for a few days so that we could reuse them. They’ve become handy for uses like safely handling the mail.
sequestering plastics bags so we can reuse them
The question is what our attitude toward plastic bags and take-out utensils will be when this is all over. Will, for instance, that NYS plastic bag ban that took years to achieve be revoked? Will the recent resistance to plastic straws – even though they have little to do with contagion – be lost? Or, will the need to return to normalcy also mean moving ahead with environmental movements that had been becoming mainstream? And another possibility: that we will see climate change for what it is, a slow-moving pandemic. (The bad news: we have a president who has called both of them a hoax.)
Is it “too soon” to start talking about this? Perhaps. But whether the answers are ones that we want to hear or not, it’s important for our own and everyone’s wellbeing, emotionally as well as environmentally, that we think beyond our temporary crisis.
Today marks the day that the New York State ban on plastic bags takes effect (as well as New York City’s $.05 fee for paper bags). I haven’t yet been to any stores to check on compliance. I hope someone who’s more intrepid on a cold Sunday morning than I am is taking up that task. But as of yesterday, shoppers I saw in a supermarket and a drug store were being offered and were taking plastic bags. I guess they were feeling they didn’t need any practice, despite the signs that have been there for the last couple of weeks. And cashiers were still surprised when I refused them.
And there is the predictable backlash. In the New York Post, one shopper was quoted: “Not good for old people, for disabled people. Where do you put your groceries if they’re not in a bag? So it sucks.”
Seniors have been a factor. The city tried to impose a fee on plastic bags in 2017, but it was defeated by the state legislature. When I called my state senator’s office to complain about him voting against the small fee, his office told me that his vote had been based on extensive complaints by seniors that they couldn’t afford the $.05. I’m willing to bet that the plastic bag lobby sent staffers to senior facilities where they could persuade people en masse to call their legislators. (He was voted out of office at the next election. I’d like to think his opposition to the fee was the cause of his defeat, though I’m sure it wasn’t.)
Perhaps it was for the best as the state’s outright ban is better than a fee by the city.
So, New York is now added to my database of plastic bans and fees worldwide. In fact, just two months into 2020, I’ve added several entries. Some are just bans on plastic bags while others are more extensive bans on single-use plastics: China (plastic bags by the end of 2020 and other single-use plastics to follow), Thailand, Jamaica, Belize, Barbados, Dominican Republic, Grenada, Trinidad and Tobago, and the Bahamas.
A bill in the US Congress, sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Rep. Alan Lowenthal (D-Calif.), would address the issue of single-use plastics nationwide. One groundbreaking part of the bill, according to EcoWatch, “requires plastic producers to take responsibility for their waste. The bill would shift the burden of waste collection and management from local governments and taxpayers to the manufacturers of items like packaging, containers, food service products and paper, who would be charged with designing and funding recycling systems.”
That’s a good thing because bans are only as effective as the compliance with them. As long as recycling places the onus on the public, this will be a problem. And it’s not always because of our laziness. It’s often just plain difficult. Even after researching it (and how many people do that?), I’m still uncertain what types of plastic can be recycled here in NYC. (Cardboard milk cartons, according to the posters, get recycled with plastics, not paper. Go figure.) The city says all hard plastics – not the flimsy stuff – can go in the recycling bin. But Beyond Plastics and Greenpeace say that much of that can’t actually be recycled, even if a company’s label sometimes says it can be. The city is just trying to make it simpler for us. Sort of.
That Greenpeace report found that:
Only some PET #1 and HDPE #2 plastic bottles and jugs can be legitimately labeled as recyclable in the U.S. today.
Common plastic pollution items, including single use plastic food service and convenience products, cannot be legitimately claimed as recyclable in the U.S.
Plastics #3-7 have negligible-to-negative value and are effectively a category of products that municipal recycling programs may collect, but do not actually recycle. Plastic #3-7 waste collected in municipal systems across the country is being sent to landfills or incinerated.
Many full body shrink sleeves on PET #1 and HDPE #2 bottles and jugs make them non-recyclable.
Remedying this would require something called “extended producer responsibility,” the concept that a manufacturer’s responsibility doesn’t end when the product goes out their door. That’s what that US congressional bill would address.
EPR could go beyond simple plastic recycling. Imagine if Dell or Apple had to take their laptops back at the end of their useful lives. Or if Whirlpool had to pick up your dead refrigerator or washing machine. Not only would it simplify recycling, it would also mean companies would want to design their products keeping in mind that they were going to have to deal with them later on. That’d be incentive to incorporate something call “design for disassembly” in order to make recycling easier.
That would be a breakthrough. It would reverse that shift of responsibility. A more direct approach in the meantime is a good old-fashioned lawsuit. Gizmodo’s environmental arm, Earther, reports that the Earth Island Institute is suing “ten companies—including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle, and Procter and Gamble—on Wednesday, alleging that the companies pollute waterways, coasts, and oceans with the millions of tons of plastic packaging they produce. A 2018 report found that globally, Coke, Pepsi, and Nestle account for 14 percent of plastic pollution.”
Ideally, we stop the scourge of single-use plastics. But that’s going to take a while and, meanwhile, we already have an unfathomable amount of plastics ending up in landfills or the oceans. While it’s better, I always tell my sustainable design students, to prevent a problem from occurring in the first place rather than have to deal with it afterward, we have to do both in the case of plastics. There are companies like Terracycle and Smile Plastics that are making things from that stream of detritus. An Israeli startup is working on taking all sorts of garbage – plastics, dirty paper and food waste – and making into a kind of plastic pellet that can then be made into other products. It would solve a multitude of problems including diminishing the amount of methane, a greenhouse gas, produced by landfills.
As great as that could be, it still addresses the problem after the fact. Single-use plastics are a perverse use of an otherwise wondrous material. Because plastics last such a long time, let’s use them for products that last a long time. Not flimsy bags and soda bottles and packaging.
Being the self-anointed EcoOptimist, these days (can I say “in the current environment” or “in the current climate” without being tongue in cheek?) can sometimes be quite difficult when, with each passing day, we hear about another legislative rollback, another record high temperature or another iceberg calving off Antarctica. Indeed, it raises the question of whether being – or attempting to be – optimistic is a good approach. In one sense, the answer is no if it encourages reducing the pressure to act by saying that we can ‘do this.’ On the other hand, as I’ve stated elsewhere, becoming an ‘Eco Pessimist’ can be akin to giving up. Since we’re doomed, a pessimist might say, let’s just enjoy things – drive, fly, be carnivores, live in McMansions – like there’s no tomorrow. Because maybe there isn’t a tomorrow?
OK, that’s taking the pessimism a bit too far, but you get the idea. The question is which is more effective: optimism or fear? The carrot or the stick?
As with much else around us, this isn’t a binary choice. We need both: fear of what can happen and the hope of solutions. One without the other is not likely to get us to the necessary results.
Greta Thunberg, whose powerful fearlessness is perhaps the most positive thing that 2019 brought us, is great at combining the two, while also shaming us into action. Speaking to British MPs, she said “The climate crisis is both the easiest and the hardest issue we have ever faced. The easiest because we know what we must do. We must stop the emissions of greenhouse gases.” I’ll skip the hardest in favor of trying to be optimistic here. (And the linked article about the speech in the Guardian was headlined “’You did not act in time: Great Thunberg’s full speech to MPs.” So, I’m being selective in my quotes.)
Project Drawdown also says we know what to do but gets specific about it. In Chad Frischmann’s TED talk he says “we have mapped, measured and detailed 100 solutions to reversing global warming. Eighty already exist today.”
Project Drawdown’s top 10 solutions. https://www.drawdown.org/solutions
In the midst of an otherwise thoroughly depressing Washington Post article titled “The 2010s were a lost decade for climate. We can’t afford a repeat, scientists warn,” a cherry-picked paragraph reads:
[Surabi Menon, vice president for global intelligence at the ClimateWorks Foundation and a steering committee member for the U.N.’s emissions gap,] draws hope from progress that has been made on the ground in the past decade, even as global leaders fell short. Global renewable energy capacity has quadrupled since 2010, largely because of improved technology and falling costs, she noted. People increasingly see climate change as a threat; a Washington Post poll this year found that 76 percent of American adults view the issue as a “major problem”or a “crisis.”
Hope and fear.
At the end of every year, we get inundated with all those year-end summary articles. You know, the ones that appear in every newspaper or TV channel and attempt to provide some insight into the events of the year but usually end up feeling like treacle-y filler: “The ten best [fill in the blank] of the year.” I mostly ignore them because, well, treacle is way too sweet.
EcoWatch’s twenty reasons basically boil down to four: increased public interest (reasons 1, 2, 3, 4 and part of 5), the pending slow demise of fossil fuel companies (#’s 5 and 6), increased media coverage (#’s 8 and 9), and celebrity and political candidate positions (#’s 7 and 10). Nothing that new. Celebrities, for example, have been doing this for years, usually to no avail or, worse, causing a backlash. And the downturn of the fossil fuel industry has been predicted for as long as I can remember. But perhaps the twenty reasons are significant in their totality.
Jane Fonda at one her Fire Drill Fridays protests in Washington, DC. Image from @janefonda Facebook page
While none of the Huffington Post interviewees got down to the specifics of Project Drawdown, they still – to state the obvious – give us hope. More or less.
Gina McCarthy, the EPA Secretary under Obama back when the EPA actually protected the environment, said “my hopeful energy comes from young people.” But that can be read as doing exactly what young activists are complaining about: kicking the can down the road. You can almost hear the “OK boomer” exasperated response.
Marine biologist Ayana Elizabeth Johnson sounds much like Frischmann or Thunberg. “I am certainly bolstered by the fact that we already have all the solutions we need.” Her caveat: she predicates her hopes on having a new president.
Weather and climate expert Marshall Shepherd sounds like a true EcoOptimist when he says “we are seeing a genuine ship-turning moment…. Fortune 500 companies, faith-based communities and the military recognize the ‘here and now’ threat and are acting. There are genuine bipartisan efforts now in our Congress and within states.” Forgive me if I ditch my optimism and find his faith in Congress to be unrealistic in even an EcoOptimistic mindset.
Leah Stokes, an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara, pins her hopes in multiple fronts: fossil fuel companies “starting to be held accountable,” youth pressure, and presidential candidates trying to one up each other supporting the New Green Deal. But she ends on a less than optimistic note about people losing money and the disproportionate impact on the poor.
Michael Mann, climatologist, geophysicist and co-creator of the famous “hockey stick graph” depicting rapid global warming, takes a measured tack, “The good news is that the impacts of climate change are no longer deniable. The bad news is that the impacts of climate change are no longer deniable.” He, too, however, finds hope in the youth climate movement. It’s hard, though, to accuse him of abdicating leadership and passing on the responsibility since he’s been one of our most vocal environmental advocates.
Michael Mann’s “hockey stick graph.” Mann says we can be hopeful in spite of what the graph depicts.
Gizmodo Earther reporter Brian Kahn along with writer/activist Mary Annaïse Heglar tackle ‘the hope question’ head on. Hope, they say, is not sufficient and perhaps, given the state of climate inaction, we’re beyond the point where hope is useful. Kahn writes “I get that hope is a thing we’re all looking for amidst the worsening climate carnage, but I firmly believe hope isn’t the most useful thing to steer us away from a worst-case scenario.” EcoOptimism, however, is not ready to give up on hope as part of the path to solutions.
Heglar, in what became a lengthy Twitter thread, says the question of hope is “stale AF” and writes “my wish for 2020 is for people to stop asking climate activists what gives us hope and start asking ‘how can I help?’” This is closer to the EcoOptimist position of combining hope and fear, adding action into the mix.
Kahn’s concise version is: “Fuck hope. Long Live Action.” As with EcoWatch, he reaches out to climate activists to ask, “how can I help?” Among his respondents, 350.org founder Bill McKibben replies he’s concentrating on taking on the financial industry that bankrolls fossil fuels. Margaret Kleinman, founder of Climate Mobilization, directs us to “Break the silence: Start talking about the climate emergency and the need for WWII scale climate mobilization — in a realistic, blunt, emergency-focused way.” Anthony Karefa Rogers-Wright, policy coordinator at the Climate Justice Alliance echoes Kahn, albeit in a slightly more family-friendly way: “Hope without action is like expecting a rock to float on water because you meditate.
Still, I think there is a place for hope – and that it’s actually necessary – so long as it’s in tandem with both fear and action. The realistic EcoOptimist will say that we can really only hope that the seemingly hopeless events of 2019 will result in governmental change. Will the massive heat waves and fires in Australia cause voters to depose their anti-climate change prime minister? Will China’s tepid attention to climate change expand? And the big one, will this country be able to vote out (I’m not placing any hope in impeachment – I’m not that optimistic) a president (there are too many derogatory adjectives I could have put in front of that word) who has single-handedly put us decades back in time?
We can still be optimistic while holding our breath. Better yet, let’s mix optimism with action. Anyone want to go to DC with me and get arrested with Jane Fonda? I’m in, so long as we don’t fly there.
There was plenty of news on other environmental fronts, as I wrote in that post. Most notably, climate change took a beating under our rogue president, but that beating, as I’ve been noting in several posts (here and here), has engendered a backlash in which other institutions (local governments, NGOs, businesses and even the military) have been taking up the mantle.
Similarly, the rapidly increasing awareness of the scale of our plastics problem has resulted in a correspondingly rapid escalation of attempts to address the problem. Hence my continuing tabulation of the bans and taxes worldwide on single-use plastics – and my desire to acknowledge EcoWatch for their reporting.
On the flip side, George Monbiot writes in The Guardian: “We won’t save the Earth with a better kind of disposable coffee cup.” In it, he touches on two points. The first is one that I try to make in all my classes and involves taking a step back to see if you are asking the right question. Regarding disposable coffee cups, he writes:
[S]ome people asked me, “So what should we use instead?” The right question is, “How should we live?” But systemic thinking is an endangered species.
The version of this I usually pose in my classes asks: if you were tasked with challenging the plastic waste generated by toothbrushes, what would you do? The usual answers are to make it of recycled plastic or biodegradable plastic or design it with replaceable heads, etc. But the “right” question to ask, instead, is: is there a better way to clean our teeth? This opens up a different realm of possibilities in which, maybe, we don’t need toothbrushes at all.
The second point Monbiot makes is a “structural” one. In the case of plastics and many other materials, the solution to waste, we’re told, is to recycle. But as I and others have written, this puts the responsibility in the wrong hands, purposely shifting it from corporations to consumers, i.e. us.
Following the failure of legislation loose alliance of oil and chemical companies, along with drinks and packaging manufacturers, pursued a two-part strategy that would successfully defuse anti-plastic sentiment for a generation. The first part of the strategy was to shift responsibility for litter and waste from companies to consumers. Rather than blaming the companies that had promoted disposable packaging and made millions along the way, these same companies argued that irresponsible individuals were the real problem. This argument was epitomised by a 1965 editorial in a US packaging trade journal headlined “Guns Don’t Kill People”, which blamed “the litterbugs who abuse our countryside” rather than the manufacturers themselves.
This was memorialized in the famous “Crying Indian” television commercial in which the supposed Indian (he was actually Italian) sheds a tear about littering, saying “People start pollution; people can stop it.” Corporations may be considered people, but that’s obviously not whom the makers of the commercial were referring to.
Monbiot continues his point:
This represents the mistaken belief that a better form of consumerism will save the planet. The problems we face are structural: a political system captured by commercial interests, and an economic system that seeks endless growth. Of course we should try to minimise our own impacts, but we cannot confront these forces merely by “taking responsibility” for what we consume.
He casts a much wider, more foundational outlook:
One-planet living means not only seeking to reduce our own consumption, but also mobilising against the system that promotes the great tide of junk. This means fighting corporate power, changing political outcomes and challenging the growth-based, world-consuming system we call capitalism.
Disposable coffee cups made from new materials are not just a non-solution: they are a perpetuation of the problem. Defending the planet means changing the world.
While this would appear to negate much of what we are doing, the more profound questioning leads to EcoOptimistic responses that look at how to not simply address a problem in short-term, limited ways, but instead to change things – concepts, systems, thinking (i.e. systems thinking) – to get to the core and truly address causes.
Putting the cost of recycling onto manufacturers is a response to this. In England, there’s a proposal to force retailers to pay the cost of collecting and recycling packaging materials. Germany has had a version of this since 1991, and it’s getting expanded. (The EPA had a webpage about packaging regulations employed by other countries but – no surprise – it’s been removed. You can find some of it preserved by the Internet archive Wayback Machine.)
You could look at this as a New Year’s resolution for us: challenge ourselves to challenge the others who create problems by selfishly shifting responsibility. Many of us make resolutions to go the gym more often. The problem is that, aside from rapidly letting the well-intended resolution fall by the wayside, it doesn’t really address the causes of the problem such as fast food (which is largely a creation of big business) and sedentary lifestyles, which are in part of product of suburban sprawl (sitting in cars) and in-home entertainment. You could make an argument that cars, television and single-use plastics are a result of consumer demand, but what created and then encouraged that demand?
We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered political opinion, denial is an alternative fact and the word “protection” in the Environmental Protection Agency’s name is a cynical leftover from its original mission. And while I don’t want to gloss over the issues – there isn’t enough paint in the world to do that – I offer here The Distillery, a weekly (or thereabouts) selection of posts to help offset the PTSD of our current nightmare.
The posts I pick will be “real” in the sense that they aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as fun as those can be, but are evidence of EcoOptimism.
Yeah, we’ve all heard about the UN IPCC report that gives us 12 years to get our shit together. And then we got that surprisingly frank White House “National Climate Assessment” that, despite the Trump regime’s best efforts to bury it, made headlines. Plus, of course, there was devastating evidence of climate change already rearing its head in the form of a sometimes record-breaking series of hurricanes and typhoons.
But fortunately for the holidays – and perhaps for our sanity and our therapy sessions – we can snag some happier news. So I started compiling EcoOptimistic articles a few months ago, though some of it is from earlier in the year, when I realized that, now more than ever, we need to counterbalance the daily litany of the-end-is-nigh headlines.
It’s not that I don’t believe those headlines. Rather, it’s that I won’t give in to the fatalism of them. Many of us, sometimes – OK, often – including me, feel the despair coupled with the frustration and anger at those who avert their eyes, who won’t listen to fact or reason, who pursue blind self-interest, or who rationalize it in desperate ways. (No, it won’t cost jobs.) But letting them rule the news is infuriating and letting them determine our future is unacceptable.
Perhaps one of the most (eco)optimistic events of the year was the surprise election of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to the House of Representatives. Her “Green New Deal,” which combines environmental issues with job issues, is creating a politically appealing scenario that’s garnering more and more support with both local officials and voters.
And combined with this poll, perhaps the political “climate” may have turned a corner.
EcoOptimism’s take: Um, OK. No entirely sure what to make of this, but nevermind.
While it’s a bit cliché to refer to the younger generation taking the reins, there has been some notable news on that front, too. The suit by a group of teenagers against the federal government is continues to move forward despite the administration’s efforts to get it thrown out of court. A Swedish 15-year-old made headlines at the recent UN climate change conference, lecturing the officials, “You are not mature enough to tell it like it is.”
I’ve mentioned before that Teen Vogue has been consistently taking up environmental topics, most recently taking up the issue of ocean plastics here and here. (See more on that topic below.)
RENEWABLE ENERGY IS COMPETITIVE WITH – AND SOMETIMES CHEAPER THAN – FOSSIL FUELS…
One of the first items in that Earther post above notes the falling prices of renewable energy. “Beautiful, clean coal” is not cutting it financially despite the administration’s best efforts. And there are some significant milestones accompanying it. It’s been happening all year, not just in the last few months.
EcoOptimism’s take: Yes, we may need our rose-colored glasses here, but it’s evidence of – don’t get too choked up here – “yes, we can.”
SINGLE-USE PLASTICS ARE IN THE CROSSHAIRS…
In some previous years, I’ve nominated a word of the year. (2012, 2013, 2014) This year, Collins Dictionary did it for me, choosing “single-use.”
Spurred by a graphic and very disturbing video of a turtle having a plastic straw removed from its nose, the nascent movement to regulate or ban SUPs got a jump start. EcoOptimism has been charting the international movement.
Along with bans have come alternatives. We’re not talking about bioplastics, which while interesting have their own issues, but about reducing or replacing demand.
EcoOptimism’s take: There isn’t a much bigger lemon than all that plastic waste and, while we may have mixed feelings about roads (unless they’re for non-fossil-fueled vehicles and don’t encourage more sprawl), here’s some lemonade.
People take part in a demonstration in front of the European Parliament on October 23. Credit: Frederick Florin/AFP via The Telegraph
It may not be as evocative and disturbing as that image of the turtle with a straw stuck in its nose, or the even more disturbing video (warning: it’s very graphic and hard to watch), but recent stories about not just the environmental impacts of plastics, but the human health impacts as well, are serving to further the worldwide restrictions and bans on single-use plastics.
As with the turtle image, the realization that we are all affected by the proliferation of plastics carries a bit of what I’ve been calling “good news disguised as bad news.” Admittedly, in virtually all the instances I’ve cited previously – and now here – as examples of this, it’s hard to put a positive spin on such disturbing images and impacts, but the result is often a strong and visceral reaction that can kick us into action. A prime example of this is the infamous burning of Lake Cuyahoga in 1969 that resulted in the Clean Water Act and was responsible, in part, for the creation of the EPA.
In my “Good News Disguised as Bad News” post, I wrote about the countering, galvanizing response that is emerging from the rampant destruction of both environmental and health protections enacted by this administration (including the decimation of the EPA). A case in point: a pre-election post in ThinkProgress about a climate change-denying Congresswoman’s difficult re-election campaign asserted “Even climate and environmental issues, frequently relegated to the back-burner, have made it onto the radar in 2018 due to the administration’s rejection of climate science and assault on environmental protection.”
Still, conveying the urgency, or even the importance, of environmental issues can be difficult and explains, in part, why public support lags. Taking a cue from the women’s marches’ “pussy hat,” perhaps a hardhat made to look like a turtle shell or tee shirts emblazoned with the Chris Jordan photo of the albatross that died from consuming plastic waste may be the emblem we need to further awareness of the global problem of single-use plastics.
The health impacts of plastics are harder to convey. How do we conjure an image to depict microbeads in our food? Or plastics in salt and our poop? (Let’s skip the imagery of the last one. I don’t think it will help our cause.)
Nonetheless, even without a rallying image, regulations and bans of single-use plastic are spreading almost as fast as ocean plastics, and so my “Status of Plastics Bans Worldwide” continues to be updated. Just this month I added bans ranging from Jamaica to England to the entire EU. And 250 companies, governments and other organizations around the world signed “The New Plastics Economy Global Commitment,” pledging to eliminate by 2025 all plastic packaging that isn’t recyclable, reusable or compostable. The signatory companies alone, which include the likes of Coca-Cola and Unilever, represent 20% of all plastic packaging produced globally.
If you know of bans or fees that aren’t on the list, please let me know.
I’ve been going on lately about “Good News Disguised as Bad News.” And while it’s pretty difficult to see any silver lining in last week’s IPCC (The UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report that said, basically, we have 12 years to prevent runaway, devastating climate disruption, maybe this will provide the galvanization we need to both get our act together and get more people and organizations onboard.
A case in point is a post yesterday in The New School’s page in Medium. In it, a faculty member and friend, Raz Godelnick, asked nine other Parsons and New School faculty members – including me – to share responses to the report and make suggestions about what to do next, with an emphasis on what we, as profs, can do within our teaching.
Among the various insightful contributions, many discussed ways to interest and involve students. Mine described what has become a theme of my research and teaching: that artists and designers have the ability to craft messages that appeal to those who don’t respond to scientific data (or who don’t accept the data).
I’ve often written here [1, 2, 3, 4] about how word choices can affect how we see things. Problematic connotations can sometimes arise by stigma and sometimes by subtle associations. A classic environmental example is how we refer to global warming. In the 90s, the Republican strategist Frank Luntz encouraged rebranding it as climate change because it seemed less frightening and would therefore make it less of an issue. (The irony is that it’s actually a more accurate term. But because it minimizes perception of the problem, as Luntz desired, many of us prefer to call it something more emphatic like climate disruption.)
In a similar vein, years ago, before the advent of LED lights, when improved fluorescent lights were the most energy-efficient technology, I wrote in a guest column in a lighting industry magazine that the word “fluorescent” had too many negative associations with its older, uglier versions. So, to get people to come around to the newer, more pleasing fluorescent bulbs, I wrote that they needed to be renamed.
The impetus for this current thought about words that can have misleading connotations occurred as I was sitting in a waiting room that had a coffee station. In need of caffeine – I had forgotten my coffee travel mug – I grabbed a cup. As I finished making my fix, I looked at the counter and saw the disposable Styrofoam cup, the disposable “K-cup” coffee pod and the tiny – you guessed it, disposable – milk container. My “garbage guilt” set in.
Those little ketchup squeeze tubes are another pet peeve. My order of fries inevitable needs a half dozen or more of them. They make a messy pile of garbage that can be neither recycled or composted. Plus they get all over your hands. They’re a rare example of something both disposable and inconvenient.
The litter atop that coffee station caused me to ponder the word “disposable.” For many people, disposability connotes convenience (finger-coating Ketchup pouches aside). You don’t have to bring stuff – containers, utensils, plastic bags – with you and you don’t have to worry about cleaning or taking care of them. Just toss it. No problem. Disposability is seen as a positive thing, reinforced by the “able” suffix.
The word makes the use of disposable things and the resulting garbage seem OK. They’re meant to be guiltlessly thrown away because that’s how they’re designed and perceived.
When I advocated for renaming fluorescent bulbs, I couldn’t come up with a replacement term. I’d like to do better here, especially as single-use plastics are being increasingly recognized as a major problem. (The issue is being addressed in part by bans and fees – see my “Status of Plastic Bans” list – but even then, there’s pushback by both users and producers.)
So, how can we retitle disposability? My first thought was an obvious one. Just call it what it is: “landfill.” But that doesn’t work as an adjective in front of “cups” or “bags” (or with the current fixation on straws).
Next, I attempted to channel Stephen Colbert’s coining of “truthiness” with “disposiness.” But I’m not as clever as Colbert and it didn’t feel like it solved the problem. There was, though, some, er, truth to it as the garbage never really gets disposed of. It’s still here, just relocated. When we throw things away, there is, as Bill McDonough is fond of saying, no “away.”
I’ve concluded that our new term needs to have that suffix “able” in it, but with a prefix that drives the point home. Garbagable? Trashable? Wastable? They still imply, though, that because something has the ability to be thrown out – e.g. it’s trashable – it’s OK. The word needs to communicate that single-use stuff that doesn’t decompose or effectively recycle is NOT okay. It’s wasteful and it’s a problem so it needs to be discouraged. But I don’t usually advocate for guilting people into environmental action. That’s been repeatedly shown to not work. Better to play upon self-interest and desire. “Wasteful” (I rejected “wastable” even though I like creating new words) heads in the right direction – who wants to be wasteful? – but still doesn’t quite get us there.
We need to somehow say you really don’t want to do this. Not an admonishment that you shouldn’t do it. And it needs to be “sticky,” meaning the word will attach itself to the item the way disposable does.
I’m reluctantly left for the moment with “garbagy.” But it still doesn’t fully meet my criteria. Plus, the English language being what it is, you wouldn’t be sure how to spell or pronounce it.
It’s been quite a while since we posted a Wrongest Product Award nomination. Our self-appointed mission to publish positive environmental news has, since you-know-when, become both more important and more difficult, and has pushed the nomination of award recipients to the back burner. But, still, or perhaps even more so, we all need some diversions.
And so a recent – not tongue-in-cheek, I should note – post in Gizmodo (a blog that serves up a surprising amount of environmental news) prompted this new nomination.
In our hyper-partisan world, many of us have felt the need to sharpen our knives. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. But sharp knives – the real kind, not merely for verbal jousting – can, obviously, be dangerous to users. That must be the impetus for this product: the JosephJoseph 8515 Blade Brush Knife and Cutlery Cleaner Brush. (Yes, it has “Joseph” and “brush” twice in its name. Just to make sure, I guess.)
As I see it, this falls in the same category as egg slicers and bagel slicers. You can do the same job perfectly well without accessory gadgets. (Is an accessory gadget akin to an accessory to a crime?) I slide a sponge – or a rag if you’re being more eco – along the knife with the edge pointed away and my fingers safely away from the edge. No problem.
On the flip side, I have to mention that, for reasons I still haven’t quite figured out, we were recently given a hand-me-down hamburger patty maker and, yes, it actually does do a better job than my two cupped hands can. Maybe it’s significant that the people who gave it to us also have a bagel slicer.
The Wrongest Product Awards will go to those products (and their designers) that embody the least amount of redeeming value while incurring the use of unnecessary, often gratuitous, materials or energy.
How is this relevant to EcoOptimism, you might ask? Easy – it shows how extraneous so many products are, often in a “what-were-they-thinking” sense.
Nominations are open. Send yours to ImNotBuyinIt (at) EcoOptimism.com.