Can we be hopeful?

It’s a two-part question: can we and should we?

Embed from Getty Images

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

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.

Washington Post lost decade headline screenshot

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.

Two of them, though, were about the positive (treacle-free) aspects of an otherwise dreadful year for environmental news. EcoWatch, one of my favorite blogs, posted “20 Reasons Why 2019 Gave Us Climate Hope” and, while not exactly an end of the year review, the Huffington Post chimed in with “We Spoke To 5 Climate Experts About What Gives Them Hope.

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 Fire Drill Fridays

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."

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.

For New Years Day, giving credit where credit – the good and the bad – is due

I source and update the information for my Status of Plastic Bans Worldwide from many places. (Just last week I added an entry about UK schools being strongly “encouraged” to stop using single-use plastics.) But one of the most useful sites for my updates is EcoWatch and, for their end of the year wrap up, they posted “2018: A Year of Fighting Plastic Waste.” In my own end of the year post last week, “EcoOptimistic News for the End of an Environmentally Crappy Year,” I included single-use plastics as one of the leading topics, so obviously I agree with them.

Embed from Getty Images

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.

Writing this weekend in The Guardian “The plastic backlash: what’s behind our sudden rage – and will it make a difference?,” Stephen Buryani goes into some depth about the origins of this:

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?

EcoOptimistic News for the End of an Environmentally Crappy Year

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.

FIRST, A SUMMARY…

From Earther
Dec 4, 2018

“The Rare Environmental Victories of 2018”

EcoOptimism’s take: The headline, I think, is self-explanatory.

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.

From Yale Environment 360:
April 18, 2018

“Americans Who Accept Climate Change Outnumber Those Who Don’t 5 to 1”

EcoOptimism’s take: Chew on that, Fox News. 

From the Washington Post:
Dec 13, 2018

“The Energy 202: Why 2020 candidates will be talking a lot more about climate change”

And then there’s this:

From the Guardian:
Dec 19, 2018

“Environment, Jaffa Cakes and Kylie Jenner star in statistics of the year”

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.

From Business Insider:
May 8, 2018

“One simple chart shows why an energy revolution is coming — and who is likely to come out on top”

From Earther:
June 14, 2018

“Solar Just Hit a Record Low Price In the U.S.”

A Same-Day Twofer from Forbes:
Dec 3, 2018

“Plunging Prices Mean Building New Renewable Energy Is Cheaper Than Running Existing Coal”

“Coal Power Plants Lose Their Cost Advantage Over Clean Energy”

EcoOptimism’s take: So much for “The sun don’t always shine and wind don’t always blow.”

We’re seeing some of the results

From EcoWatch:
Nov 6, 2018

“Britain Achieves the ‘Unthinkable’ as Renewables Leapfrog Fossil Fuel Capacity”

From Yale Environment 360:
Oct 15, 2018

“10 States Now Get At Least 20 Percent of Their Electricity from Solar and Wind”

From Think Progress:
Apr 24, 2018

“Wind, solar deliver stunning 98 percent of new U.S. power capacity in January, February”

AND RENEWABLE ENERGY GOALS ARE BEING MET AHEAD OF SCHEDULE… 

From Gizmodo:
July 12, 2018

“California Is Way Ahead of Schedule for Cutting Greenhouse Gas Emissions”

From Treehugger:
Aug 24, 2018

“Sweden to reach its 2030 renewables target 12 years early!”

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.

From EcoWatch:
Dec 4, 2018

“Corona Becomes First Big Beer Brand to Trial Plastic-Free Rings”

And from The Guardian:
Sept 6, 2018

“Carlsberg to replace plastic ring can holders with recyclable glue”

Images: Beverage Daily

EcoOptimism’s take: We know Brett Kavanaugh “likes beer,” though probably not for this reason.

AND FINALLY…

The subtitle of this blog is “Finding the Future We Want.” A great example of that is “turning lemons into lemonade.” 

From The Washington Post:
Oct 24, 2018

“Where does your recycled plastic go? Perhaps into future highways.”

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.

From Yale Environment 360:
Nov 23, 2018

“A Former UK Coal Plant is Being Redeveloped Into an Eco-Village”

EcoOptimism’s take: Re-use of decommissioned power plants may be emblematic of the possibilities, making this a good story to end on.

Plastic Bans Update

Along with some Good News Disguised as Bad News

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.

Some Positive Responses to that Depressing IPCC Report

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).

We Need to Dispose of the Word Disposable

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.

Maybe I should ask Colbert.

Wrongest Product Awards nominee

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.

Plastics: A Combined Distillery and EcoOptimism Post, Part 2

Beyond the Ban:
Plastics Alternatives and Mitigation

We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered evil, denial is an alternative fact and the EPA is now what I’m calling the Environmental Destruction Agency. 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.


In just the short span since our recent post on the scourge of plastics, there have been more announcements of new or proposed bans on plastic straws and other types of plastics. (This week, Starbucks announced it will stop using plastic straws.) Rather than keep enumerating these individually, I’ve created a page, “Keeping Tabs on Plastics Bans,” with a list organized by type of entity – country, locality, company –  and type of plastics – bags, straws, packaging, microbeads. The list provides an easily graspable view of the extent of the movement, and will be updated as additional bans are set.

 

As promised in that previous post, we’re going to focus here a bit on some alternative proposals and materials. Dealing with plastics – as with most environmental issues – can be broken down into two approaches: what to do once the problem is happening versus how to prevent the problem in the first place. These are commonly referred to respectively as adaptation versus mitigation. Years ago, I also heard this described as “front of tailpipe” and “back of tailpipe,” the metaphor being pollution from cars, which can be dealt with either by filtering it in the exhaust pipe (that would be the “end of tailpipe”) by, for example, a catalytic converter, or by modifying the engine so that the pollution is prevented or at least diminished before it occurs. As you can imagine, heading off the problem is preferable to fixing it afterward.

In the case of plastics, we have a combination of damage already done along with a continuing stream of new plastics adding to the damage. Where plastic refuse has accumulated, such as in ocean gyres, the only remedy is to somehow, laboriously, retrieve it. Another adaptive after-the-fact approach is recycling. That at least keeps it out of the waste stream. (In theory, anyway. Less than 10% of plastic in the US is actually recycled. And, as others have noted, recycling shifts the responsibility – environmental and economic – from the actual producers of the plastic onto us, the consumers)

Image: Ocean Cleanup Project via EcoWatch

EcoOptimism’s take: Whether this type of ocean plastic reclamation would actually have a significant impact, given the scale of the problem and size of the oceans, is a topic of debate. But in any case, upstream prevention would be a much better solution, at least in terms of addressing a continuing problem.

The better solution would have been to not produce the plastic in the first place. We’re well beyond that option, obviously. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to avoid further exacerbating the problem through mitigation, meaning let’s not make more plastic if we can avoid it.

Plastic is so ubiquitous at this point that it’s hard to imagine a world without it. But there are indeed alternatives, both mitigative and adaptative.

Some of those solutions exist right in front of us, or at least in other places we can adapt from. A well-known one in some environmental circles is the Indian tiffin box. The tiffin involves a system in which lunches for workers and school children are packed at home in the morning and then distributed through a remarkable system by dabbawalas. The relevant idea here is that the home prepared meals arrive in tiffin boxes made of stacked metal dishes rather than disposable take out containers and, after the meal, are picked up and returned to each family’s kitchen for reuse.

Two dabbawalas in Mumbai delivering meals packed in tiffin carriers. Image credit: Wikipedia

This system has found a modern interpretation in Brussels where the city has introduced the Tiffin Project. People sign up for the project, purchase tiffin containers and bring them when they purchase take out foods. They even get a 5% discount on their orders.

From Treehugger
April 13, 2018

“Brussels has an ingenious solution to wasteful takeout containers”

EcoOptimism’s take: as optimistic as we like to be, it’s hard to imagine such a system succeeding here. As the Treehugger post notes, the system works best with small, local restaurants and “helps people discover new places to eat.” Takeout food in much of this country tends to come from large chains with familiar menus.

Tiffin boxes, if not the delivery system, have found their way west. You can even buy them on Amazon and elsewhere, with a Western interpretation:

A better-known example of a plastic substitute is, of course, the reusable cloth bag. They’ve become so ubiquitous that you’ll find them for sale (branded, of course) in all kinds of stores – not just the eco-oriented ones like Whole Foods, but conventional stores, too. And they’re an almost inevitable part of events. We have a (reusable) bag full of reusable bags that we’ve accumulated from fundraisers, trade shows and promotions. Too many, in fact.

Image credit: David Bergman

But there are times when a cloth bag just won’t cut it. For those, there are forms of plastic that are not made from oil and that can decompose after use.

The first plastics invented were made from plants. (The word cellophane refers to the fact that it was made of cellulose: plant fiber.) A famous photo shows Henry Ford swinging an axe against the bioplastic trunk of a Model T to show the material’s strength. (The axe was actually covered with fabric but made for an impressive display nonetheless.) As the story goes, he wanted to make his cars with bioplastic, but the steel industry had other ideas about that.

Image from HemmingsDaily

Bioplastics are getting renewed interest for applications such as plastic utensils made from potato starch. The main caveats here are how well they decompose or recycle and that the plant starches not be taken from foods. The solution to the latter is to use crop byproducts such as wheat chaff as opposed to the grain.

Image credit: www.ecoproducts.com

EcoOptimism’s take: In addition to the points above, bioplastics, for now, are not quite as versatile as synthetic plastics, but applications are broadening and have wide potential. 

But there’s now a renewed interest in bioplastics. A case in point:

From Engadget:
March 2, 2018

“Lego will soon make bricks out of sugarcane bioplastics”

EcoOptimism’s take: While it’s exciting to think that all those future Lego creations might not end up buried forever in landfills, this announcement is a bit misleading because, for now, it’s only Lego’s landscape elements, comprising about 1% – 2% of their production, not the iconic bricks.

But it’s not likely that all synthetic plastics can be substituted with bioplastics. And that leads us to a back-of-tailpipe types of mitigation. Among them are technologies that break down plastics.

From The Guardian:
April 16, 2018

“Scientists accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic bottles”

Credit: Still image from video in The Guardian

From Grist:
March 2, 2018

“Mealworms munch on Styrofoam without dying, shock scientists”

Image credit: Geek.com

EcoOptimism’s take: In our Parsons School of Design Sustainable Systems course, we have the students try this out. Though they tend to be grossed out by the mealworms (see photo above!), they get to see that it actually works.

Still, these last two are after-the-fact approaches and, not to belabor the point, we’d be much better off not incurring the problem of more plastics on the first place.

Keeping Tabs on Plastics Bans

EcoOptimism has addressed plastics issues a number of times, including here most recently. With the current news focus on plastic waste accumulating in the oceans, restrictions and bans on plastics are rapidly growing. And China’s decision to no longer accept plastic waste will serve to further force us to deal with the issue.

It’s a thoroughly EcoOptimistic topic, an example of what we’ve been labeling “good news disguised as bad news.”

To draw attention to the breadth of the movement, we’ve compiled an updatable spreadsheet of bans. To make it as useful as possible, the tabulation is organized by countries, municipalities and companies as well as by types of plastics: bags, straws, packaging, broader single-use and microbeads.

We’ll attempt to keep the page as up to date as possible, but if you know of new legislation or movements that we’ve missed, or corrections to what we’ve posted, please let us know! There’s a contact link on the page.

How green is my lawn

Or, what exactly is it we’re trying to do?

I recently moved from a semi-tiny apartment to a house (don’t ask). Included in the package is a relatively small lawn. Despite its smallness, it bothers me for at least two reasons. The first is personal; I grew up in a pretty large and definitely suburban house with a typically large lawn. It was before the days of lawn services, so it fell to my teenage self to mow the acre of really hilly and only sometimes green expanse. That, by the way, is one of the (many) reasons I vowed to never become a dweller in the supposedly idyllic ‘burbs.

I know many will disagree with this aversion, but let me have my rant.

My second distaste for lawns came about as I became increasingly (and I hope not obnoxiously) a proselytizing environmentalist.

In my classes, as I describe the goals of sustainability, starting from the 3Rs through the triple bottom line and beyond, I use lawn mowing and lawns as an example. I first show a picture of a lawn mower and ask the class how, if they were tasked with making it greener, they would go about it. I get the obvious answers regarding fuel efficiency and recycled materials.

But then I push them further and, usually with some prodding, get them to think about lawns themselves rather than lawn mowers. I do this by asking them to take a step back and question what it is we’re really trying to do. A pedagogical goal of  mine is getting my students to question assumptions and thereby arrive at more sustainable solutions. So, the answer, in this case, is that we are trying to create landscapes around our buildings. But, I ask them, are lawns the only or best way to go about this?

Because we take lawns for granted, they often seem to be the only approach. That means it takes a conceptual leap to get past traditional lawns.

So the question becomes not how to make a more environmental lawnmower, but how to landscape more environmentally. Lawns are nice for picnics, Frisbees and dogs (or dogs catching Frisbees while devouring our picnics). But that doesn’t justify surrounding our houses or, even more egregiously, suburban office buildings with innumerable acres of non-indigenous (virtually all lawn grasses are not native to North America), unnecessary and – here’s the big point – resource intensive artificial carpets.

This whole topic came to mind the other day when the blog Earther posted “Lawns Are an Ecological Disaster.” The article provided supporting data for what I’d been saying for years:

  • There are 40 million acres of lawn in the US, nearly half the total acreage of our major crops
  • We collectively spend more money on landscaping – primarily on lawns – than on foreign aid (roughly $50 billion dollars)
  • We use 580 million gallons of gas each year for lawn mowers.
  • We apply 67 million pounds of pesticides – many carcinogenic or untested – to lawns each year.
  • 30% – 60% of municipal drinking water is used for lawn watering

Image credit: David Bergman

Nor is this new news. Elizabeth Kolbert, among others, wrote about it in depth in the New Yorker back in 2008.

There are yet more issues with lawns, but, hey, this blog is about EcoOptimism. In the class discussion, we eventually get around to the alternative of indigenous planting, though it usually takes, as mentioned above, some prodding. I show them landscapes of wildflowers, xeriscaping and edible lawns.

An edible lawn. Image credit.

An office surrounded by wildflowers and indigenous grasses. Image credit: David Bergman

I also startle them a bit with images of goats, rather than lawnmowers, keeping grass to acceptable height.

Nature’s lawn mower. Available, of course, from Amazon. Image credit

This alternative to lawns can take some getting used to. When I recently tried to convince some clients to plant wildflowers in their small urban front yard, they said the pictures I showed them looked like weeds in the Southwest. (They also wanted paving instead of a lawn because it was easier to maintain.)

Many of us think of lawns as being part of nature and therefore something desirable. But unlike forests, lawns are carbon positive. (This is an unfortunate term and unintuitively means that something – grass in this case – emits more carbon into the atmosphere than is removed.) They are also “monocultures.” Forests and other ecosystems are diverse, with their many plants and animals creating self-sufficient, resilient regions. Lawns, on the other hand, can’t exist without being created and maintained – at great natural and financial expense – by humans.

Looked at this way, getting rid of lawns is, as we like to point out here, win-win-win: ecologically, economically and, harking back to my childhood lawn mowing nemesis, a time-saver.