Category Archives: Waste

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.

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.

Plastics: A Combined Distillery and EcoOptimism post

I’ve been meaning to do a Distillery post on plastics for a while but, like plastics, the news has been accumulating faster than I can keep up with….

They barely existed until Leo Baekeland invented Bakelite in 1907. In the 60s, they were the future, at least according to the advice Dustin Hoffman was given in The Graduate. Now, of course they’re everywhere. Literally. This thoroughly unnatural human-made detritus has been found in the deepest trench in the ocean.

Plastics are no longer the future. But they’re definitely the past in the sense that all the petroleum-based plastic ever made is still here. And will be for a very long time since they break down excruciatingly slowly.

What’s so insidious about plastic is that it’s in virtually everything. So much so that we don’t even notice it anymore. And it’s perhaps the egregious example of take, make and waste, especially since we tend to use plastic – which essentially lasts forever – for things have only a fleeting life of usage. Consider take out containers. The food goes in and gets consumed, often in a matter of minutes, but then the plastic container may end up in a landfill for hundreds of years or more. Or it may end up in ocean garbage patches of unfathomable size, killing fish and animals that mistake it for food.

The newest topic in plastics is straws. They weren’t on anyone’s radar until now. Among all the other things around us made of plastic, they seem insignificant. But it turns out they aren’t and it just takes some simple visualization to get it.

We could say something like “if you put every straw end on end it would circle the Earth a million times.”  Never mind the actual number; it’s too abstract. Like the national debt, it’s so big that we can’t grasp it. It’s unrelatable. But make it something we can see, and everything changes.

But the Distillery and this blog are about positive “EcoOptimistic” news and topics. And on the topic of plastics, amidst all the bad news – indeed because of it, which qualifies it as “good news disguised as bad news” – there’s been a strong, almost startling, movement by governments and companies to address this scourge. In Facebook terms, it’s trending. So let’s look at the extent of this overdue but amazing trend.

As evidenced by these posts, the UK seems to be a leader in the movement to eliminate plastics. The “Together We Can” pact involves governments, businesses, local authorities, NGOs and citizens and is described as “is the only way to truly transform the UK’s plastics system.”

From EcoWatch
April 26, 2018

“More Than 40 Companies Sign Onto Historic UK Plastics Pact”

From Treehugger.com
April 19, 2018

“UK could ban single-use plastics as early as next year”

From EcoWatch
February 12, 2018

“The Queen Declares War on Plastic”

That last one also touches on one of the topics “du jour” in plastics, straws, as do the following posts. The first is, again, from England, but the second is from Taiwan and the third lists a number of American cities.

From Treehugger.com
February 27, 2018

“Is the UK about to ban plastic straws?”

From EcoWatch
February 15, 2018

“Taiwan Sets Aggressive Timeline to Ban Straws and Other Single-Use Plastics”

From The New York Times
March 3, 2018

“Bans on Plastic Straws in Restaurants Expand to More Cities”

Grocery store packaging is also one of the biggest culprits:

Source: EcoWatch

From EcoWatch
February 28, 2018

“World’s First Plastic-Free Supermarket Aisle Debuts in the Netherlands”

From CNN
February 28, 2018

“World’s first plastic-free supermarket aisle debuts as momentum builds to reduce waste”

From The Guardian
January 11, 2018

“Theresa May proposes plastic-free supermarket aisles in green strategy”

Amidst this, companies other than supermarkets are getting the message, too. McDonalds is trialing eliminating plastic straws in the UK. There have been many reports about this, but as perhaps a sign of its wide support, here’s one from – get this – Fox News.

From Fox News
March 29, 2018

“McDonald’s working to remove plastic straws from UK restaurants”

McDonalds in the UK, however, is more enlightened than the mother ship here in the US, where the board of directors is fighting a stockholder initiative to get rid of plastic straws.

And then there’s the issue of plastic bags. They, too, have a fleeting useful life, usually less than an hour (unless you reuse them – and the dog-poop excuse doesn’t count). One stat says “Worldwide, a trillion single-use plastic bags are used each year, nearly 2 million each minute.”

Source: Wikimedia

Plastic bag bans have been instituted in various locations around the world, but of course the US is lagging behind. And also, of course, California led the charge last year by becoming the first state to ban them. An effort to curtail usage in NYC by charging five-cents per bag failed last year, but almost exactly a year later, Governor Cuomo is proposing an outright ban rather than a fee. Washington, DC’s five-cent charge imposed in 2010, it should be noted, is credited with reducing usage by 87%.

From The New York Times
April 23, 2018

“Cuomo Announces Bill to Ban Plastic Bags in New York State”

And the most comprehensive approach yet is from a tiny island it the South Pacific, known for its beaches and coral reefs – now being marred by plastic debris.

From EcoWatch
May 14, 2018

“Vanuatu Soon to Outlaw Plastic Bags, Drinking Straws, Foam Containers”

Upcoming soon in the Distillery: some EcoOptimistic solutions