Category Archives: Technology

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.

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.

 

Take My Computer. Please. (The Case Against Ownership)

I was looking at a photo of an old telephone the other day – one from before cellphones and even before cordless phones. It was a classic Henry Dreyfuss table top phone from the days when Ma Bell – the original AT&T – was the only game in town and, for that matter, the only game in the entire country. The phone model choices back then were only slightly better than Henry Ford’s policy of allowing customers to “have a car painted any color so long as it’s black.” Slightly better because you could, in fact, get this phone in an assortment of colors and in three styles. (Remember the “Princess Phone?”)

Henry Dreyfuss designed telephone, Model 500, 1953. source: Cooper Hewitt https://www.cooperhewitt.org/2014/11/07/model-500-telephone-henry-dreyfuss/

But that’s not my point.

Back then you didn’t buy a phone. When you got a phone number and account for your home, it came with a phone, or maybe a few. They were sturdy things, well-made and designed. They almost never broke and, when they did, all you needed to do was tell the phone company and they would come over and either repair or replace it. At no charge, if I recall correctly.

Our kitchen table phone once stopped working. The repair guy came out to the house, pulled the top off and water came pouring out. One of my little sisters, you see, had decided it was dirty and needed cleaning – by pouring water over it.

That memory may have become slightly embellished over time, but the point is that the telephone guy replaced it. No questions asked. Imagine Apple or Samsung doing that. He just unplugged it. (Actually, I don’t think they were attached by plugs back then. The wires were screwed into the wall jack.) And then just attached a new phone. More likely it was one that had been repaired, but just looked new. It didn’t matter; it worked.

Here’s the real point. Could this old-fashioned system make more sense than ownership? There’s a good case for this from both the consumer and manufacturer points of view, and environmentally as well.

I don’t really want a computer. I want what a computer can do. I don’t really want to own and be responsible for the maintenance of a washer and dryer. I want clean and dry clothes. (Yeah, I know I should use a clothesline instead of a dryer, but that’s a whole ‘nother topic.)

I don’t even want a car. I want mobility. And ideally I want to be able to get around with different types of cars for different tasks. Some days a bigger car to carry a lot of stuff and maybe some friends, but on other days it’s just me going a short distance.

I realize my needs are undoubtedly different from someone not living in a city. But as a city dweller, I was overjoyed when Zipcar came to town and I could get rid of the clunker city car I kept for occasional errands and excursions, and whose insurance and maintenance were ridiculously expensive for the little bit of driving I did each month.

This is all part of the “sharing economy.” An old example of this might be a laundromat. A newer example is Zipcar. Newer still is the concept of “tool libraries.” A few years ago, a study found that a cordless drill purchased by a consumer had an average usage time of under 10 minutes. Typically, someone went to a hardware store to buy one, maybe to hang some shelves, and then the drill spent the rest of its life in a closet. Hardly a good use of either money or materials. An answer to this gross inefficiency is being able to go to a tool library and check out a drill (or a circular saw or a tall ladder) for a few days.

Berkeley Tool Lending Library. source: Berkeley Public Library https://www.berkeleypubliclibrary.org/locations/tool-lending-library

You might complain that it’s inconvenient to have to go that library for a ladder. But it’s also inconvenient to go to Lowes or online to Amazon, select which one you want, spend a hunk of money and then store it as dead weight for most of the rest of the time.

On an entirely different level, this is beginning to happen on a commercial scale. There’s even precedent. Back when copiers were big, expensive and prone to breaking down, offices usually didn’t buy them. They rented or leased them from Xerox or a competitor, who frequently charged them by the copy. Maintaining it was Xerox’s problem, not the office’s. (Which was a good thing because they broke down a lot.)

Philips Lighting recently signed with Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport to provide “lighting as a service” rather than the more typical method of selling light fixtures and bulbs. For the airport, this means that not only do they not have worry about maintenance, they also will always have state-of-the-art lighting. What’s more they won’t have to worry about how to dispose of it later on.

Therein lies one of the not-so-obvious environmental benefits. Because Philips retains ownership of the lighting, when it comes time to replace it for remodeling or demolition, they will have to deal with its end of life. That means they will need to design that in – how the lighting can be dismantled for least cost recycling or reuse. Previously, when they sold the lighting, they didn’t have to be concerned with the end-of-life. It was someone else’s problem.

Imagine now that this was true for all your electronics – that Dell or Apple or Samsung had to take it back when you were done, and then had to deal with disposal. Suddenly, they’d be concerned with how to design so that products could be easily taken apart. And, by the way, that would also pave the way for easier repairs, which the company would be interested in since repairs and maintenance would be their responsibility.

But how does such a company make money in this arrangement? Yes, they lose the sale, but they gain a stream of income as their customers effectively rent instead of buying. And that stream of income is steadier, more predictable, less susceptible to the ups and downs of the economy.

True to the ideals of EcoOptimism, it’s a win-win-win deal.

Here are some things I’d rather not own, but still want to use:
Cellphones
Computers
Anything else that quickly becomes outdated technology
Anything that requires a lot maintenance.
Cars
Home Appliances
Homes
Formal Attire (I’m lucky to have a hand-me-down tux, but if I didn’t…)

Spied at Parsons School of Design:

Flyer at Parsons School of Design. photo: David Bergman

The Distillery: October 12, 2017

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 our September 18th post, we “distilled” a series of articles all regarding, as we put it, “the oncoming and inevitable demise of cars powered by the internal (or, some would say, infernal) combustion engine.” Yesterday, the Washington Post, made the same observation in both an article and an opinion column.

From The Washington Post:
October 11, 2017
Why 2017 will go down as the beginning of the end of the internal combustion engine

October 11, 2017
Do automakers dream of electric cars?

And from a bit earlier in the month:
October 2, 2017
Death of gas and diesel begins as GM announces plans for ‘all-electric future’Do automakers dream of electric cars?

Image via CleanTechnica

EcoOptimism’s take: While we don’t like to boast, can say here that we scooped the Washington Post?

And gotta love the title of the op-ed.

 

 

The Distillery: September 28, 2017

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 the aftermath of 9/11, at a gathering I attended here in New York City, a participant said she didn’t want to hear about the opportunities in the face of the disaster, that it was emotionally just wrong and, though she didn’t use those words, “too soon.”

Of course, she was right in that moment. But in the longer run, disasters can indeed represent opportunities, especially in avoiding or mitigating future ones. While it may still be considered too early to look at Harvey, Irma and Maria in this regard (as EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, in dismissing climate change as a factor, has made a point of saying), Japan’s 2011 earthquake and NYC’s Superstorm Sandy are far enough behind us that we can look more objectively. One of the things we can specifically address is making the electrical grid more resilient.

From Yale Environment 360:
September 12, 2017
Rebuilding from 2011 Earthquake, Japanese Towns Choose to Go Off the Grid

The destroyed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Creative Commons via David Suzuki Foundation

EcoOptimism’s take: In the NYC blackout caused by Superstorm Sandy, virtually everything below 34th Street, including our Lower East Side neighborhood, went dark for days. NYU’s campus at Washington Square Park was the exception. A recently installed co-generation plant kicked in, allowing the campus to separate from the ConEd grid so that power there remained on. NYU opened its doors so that not just students, but also the nearby community could at least charge their cellphones…

From The New York Times:
How N.Y.U. Stayed (Partly) Warm and Lighted
November 12, 2012

Source: http://slideplayer.com/slide/9360514/

EcoOptimism’s take: “Microgrids” are becoming a mainstay of resilience, so that when a disaster occurs or something goes wrong in the power grid, that one event doesn’t take down entire regions. Hoboken, NJ is putting this into application…

From CityLab:
To Stormproof Hoboken, a Microgrid
August 24, 2016

Image source: Huffington Post

EcoOptimism’s take: Microgrids, by definition, are subsets within the national or regional grid. They can be defined by an area as small as a few blocks or larger – perhaps a mid-size city like Hoboken.

And they can serve multiple purposes:

From Columbia University’s University’s Earth Institute:
Microgrids: Taking Steps Toward the 21st Century Smart Grid
April 18, 2017

Source: www.microgridinstitute.org

EcoOptimism’s take: Microgrids also enable locally generated power such as solar or wind to better co-exist with the larger grid. In doing this, they not only enhance resilience, but overcome the dubious objection quoted by some that these renewable energy sources endanger the nation’s aging power grid.

Which brings us full circle to the role of renewable energy in resilience…

From Grist.org:
Hurricanes keep bringing blackouts. Clean energy could keep the lights on.
September 22, 2017

And:
From RMI (Rocky Mountain Institute):
Rebuilding the Caribbean for a Resilient and Renewable Future
September 22, 2017

Image source: RMI.org

EcoOptimism’s take: In the face of disasters, this makes the combination of microgrids and renewable energy one of those win-win-win solutions that EcoOptimism is so fond of.

Are Geoengineering Proposals EcoOptimistic?

 

Image source: climatecentral.org

Image source: climatecentral.org

They’re very seductive – proposed solutions to climate disruption that don’t involve carbon fees or changing our modern comforts and habits. Geoengineering – altering the planet instead of altering people’s lives – includes ideas such as creating giant algae blooms in the oceans to remove carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas) and seeding the atmosphere with sulfur to reflect sunlight. Some proposals even suggest putting mirrors in space. The New York Times just wrote about a more earthbound proposal to use a mineral called olivine to absorb CO2.

At first blush, these might seem like EcoOptimistic approaches: they would supposedly solve the issue of global warming while not harming the economy. (Note that EcoOptimism holds that we can improve the economy while improving the environment.) However, there are some faults with this line of thinking.

Geoengineering comes in two forms: carbon absorption and solar radiation management. Sulfur seeding and mirrors are the latter while olivine and algae blooms are the former. But so is tree planting, so the line between geoengineering and mitigation can be fuzzy.

Tree planting aside, geoengineering is, at its core, incredibly hubristic. It says that we can take the environment that we’ve defiled and fix it by altering the delicate balance of natural systems. The risks are obvious; we don’t know how much sulfur or algae or mirrors or whatever would be needed and miscalculations could be disastrous. The idea goes completely against the precautionary principle, which says “an action should not be taken if the consequences are uncertain and potentially dangerous.” Even if we did know amounts, we couldn’t accurately predict either the side effects or local climate impacts. Which leads, of course, to geopolitical questions.

Large scale geoengineering also builds upon the idea that technology will always come to our rescue. This, too, is problematic as it gives us cover to simply continue business as usual and not deal with the core problems.

From what is perhaps an EcoPessimistic point of view, the best rationalization for geoengineering research is that we’d have a worst case, last resort plan. If we pass that notorious 2o centigrade rise, if we hit runaway global warming, we would have emergency actions available.

But does the pursuit of geoengineering distract from or negate the need for mitigation and adaptation? The Times article tackles this question and makes some interesting points. First, it seems unlikely that the U.S., given the number of politicians who don’t even believe climate change is happening, will support geoengineering. Second — and a more subtle point – as the riskiness of geoengineering becomes more apparent, that may actually increase interest in less drastic paths. “If people realize that the dangers of climate change are such that geoengineering is being considered, they may work harder to avoid the need for it.”

That would be a happy, if indirect, result: geoengineering research as a means to a different end. It just seems unfortunate that we’d need to waste money and attention on geoengineering in order to get where we should be going in the first place.

A Tale of Two Trade Shows

A few years back, I attended the GreenBuild expo when it was in Boston. I try not to incur the footprint and cost of travelling to conferences (not to mention the discomfort that only begins to describe air travel these days), but this was a relaxing train ride from NYC. While there, I walked a few frigid (and empty) blocks to a meeting that was being held at the coincidentally scheduled Build Boston expo. As I entered that show’s exhibit floor, I noticed an immediate and distinct difference. There was a strong smell of new materials – akin to that new car smell – that was totally absent from GreenBuild. The eco-materials and products at the green show were devoid, according to my discerning nose at least, of the telltale scents that probably indicated the presence of volatile organic compounds and assorted endocrine disruptors.

GreenBuild 2008 in Boston

GreenBuild 2008 in Boston

I was reminded of that experience when I attended back to back trade shows this past week. On Wednesday, I spent the day at LEDucation 7, an industry show and conference revolving around the advances in LED lighting. (Disclosure: I’m on the board of the group that organizes LEDucation.) Then the next day I walked the Architectural Digest Home Design Show.

I looked at both through the lens of ecodesign and found both encouraging and discouraging points.

LEDucation, obviously, is about LEDs and, hence, concerned with energy efficiency. Having attended that show in each of its seven years, watching the growing number of exhibitors and attendees is itself an indicator of the level of interest. With the evolution of LED technology, some of the attention is shifting from displays of raw technology to more sophisticated characteristics like color rendition and control of glare – qualities that affect public acceptance of the mysterious new guy who’s trying to replace the familiar light bulbs we’ve grown up with and that have been the worldwide standard since the late nineteenth century. Not an easy task.

The evolution of LEDs has been exciting to see, and the emphasis is broadening from a singular goal of energy efficiency to embrace some of the wider goals of comfort: how does the lighting look and make you feel? How well does it do its job from both a technical and a perceptual gauge?

What was missing, with perhaps the sole exception of one of my favorite new companies, Little Footprint Lighting, was any attention to other ecodesign criteria such as sustainable materials and finishes, future upgradability or disposal/recycling.

Little Footprint’s LED desk lamp (at right) is made from recycled plastics from electronics (shown in bowls from left)

Little Footprint’s LED desk lamp (at right) is made from recycled plastics from discarded electronics (shown in bowls from left)

This is not entirely the industry’s fault. One rationale is that the biggest environmental impact of lighting – by far – is in energy consumption.  (I’ve personally confirmed this by creating LCAs or Life Cycle Analyses on some of my own lighting designs.) Another factor, at least until relatively recently, has been that LEED (the de facto eco-rating system for buildings) did not count eco-materials and finishes used in mechanical equipment including lighting.

So there is a narrow eco focus within the lighting industry. The cutting edge research and development at most companies is in new light sources, without involving the wider picture. On the other hand, there are inventive, usually smaller, companies producing light fixtures from recycled and renewable materials. Unfortunately, they tend to not incorporate light sources other than those incandescent “toasters,” as I call them, or problematic compact fluorescents. Until recently, I could lay claim with my Fire & Water designs to being the only company tackling both energy efficiency and ecodesign. Happily, with the presence of companies such as Little Footprint, that is no longer true.

But the separation between design and ecodesign remains; products, by and large, are either categorized as ecodesigned or “regular” design. I’ve posited the disappearance of this division in my “Green Design as (Un)usual” sequence. Prior to the 1960s or so, we had “Design as Usual,” in which environmentalism was not a concern.  To be more accurate, Design as Usual before the Industrial Revolution necessarily meant designing to accommodate nature because there was no other choice. The advent of modern building techniques and systems, like central heating and air conditioning, changed that dependency – for both better and worse – leading to the globalization of architecture; the same split-level or glass tower could be built anywhere, regardless of climate.

Image from the author’s book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide

Image from the author’s book, Sustainable Design: A Critical Guide

The sixties and seventies brought us “Green Design as Unusual” – experiments in ecodesign that, more often than not, were far from the mainstream. Earthships, adobe huts and the like. (That’s an unfair overgeneralization, of course.)

Our present period, with perhaps just a bit of rose-colored vision, could be called “Green Design as Usual” in that we’re beginning to see ecodesign included more frequently and in more (I hate to use the word) ordinary projects. On the near horizon, is a return to Design as Usual, redefined now to implicitly included ecological goals.

But we’re not there yet, as was made very apparent by my second trade show tour of the week, the AD Home Design Show. I went in expecting to find a growing emphasis on green design, with much of it falling into the category of greenwashing as businesses attempted to cash in on the movement. While I didn’t find as much greenwash, it wasn’t for the reasons I would have liked. Rather, there was appallingly little evidence of green design – not even the lip service green leaf signs that were sporadically displayed in previous years to flag the “earth friendly.” At one of the few booths that outwardly wore its green colors, Listone Giordano, I asked whether their product literature included information on their renewably sourced woods. When they answered no, I thought they were going to explain that their clients no longer needed it spelled out. Instead they said that their clients were not interested. Not a good indicator of our potential to achieve Green Design as Usual, let alone progressing beyond.

In fact, if there was a discernible theme to the show, I would have to say it was “excess.” Not what I would have expected amidst just the barest hints of recovery from the Great Recession (in which the building and design industries were among the worst hit). Stashed incongruously within the over-the-top and out-of-the-budget appliance displays, there was a lone small booth showing pervious paving. My bet is that no one outside of a few fellow greenies noticed it.

Perhaps the best (or is it the worst?) example of this excess was a display of color glass, flower-shaped urinals. Yes it’s a desirable goal to better integrate nature into our buildings. As the study of biophilia tells us, it generally makes us feel, work, learn and heal better. And there’s also the science of biomimicry: studying how nature does things in order to improve our own methods. But making a urinal look like a flower could constitute only the shallowest definition of biomimicry. (As opposed to a urinal that maybe used natural enzymes to break down the waste into nutrients.) You might say that, rather than learning from nature, these designs piss on it.

glass urinals

The observation is not an inaccurate metaphor, unfortunately, for the state of far too much design – even these days, more than 40 years after the first Earth Day. We still regard nature as a resource that we can endlessly take things from and dump things into. My complaint about lighting had to do with seeing light fixtures only in terms of their energy consumption and not as part of a larger system of flows of materials and energy, constrained by the finite limits of a planet. There’s only so much aluminum or oil or neodymium (a rare earth metal used in electronics) to be had. But if the LEDucation displays are any indicator, the lighting industry is at least addressing a part of the problem. Purveyors of brass encrusted commercial-style ranges for homes can’t even make that claim.

stoves

I know this isn’t exactly an optimistic observation for a blog called EcoOptimism, but it does no good to be blind to reality. The positive take-away is that there are still many eyes to help open, many businesses (and their customers) who do not yet realize that green business is (or can be) good business. What we’re seeing is not so much a direction that’s failed as one that is still finding its footing.

 

 

 

iRobot (No, not that one)

A new Wrongest Product Award nominee

I’m a fan of robots – miniature or otherwise – as much as the next eco geek raised on science fiction (interspersed with a suitable amount of actual science). Though I haven’t bought a Roomba (our dog does a pretty good imitation of one, at least as far as edible dirt is concerned), I do show photos of a robotic lawnmower, solar powered of course, in some of my ecodesign classes. And I can sort of see the value in a silicon-based life form that cleans the crud off barbeque grills.

But this one, a small robotic cleaner for smartphones and tablets, nominated by EcoOptimist reader Wouter Ulburghs, defies any attempt at justification. While I’m intrigued by the idea of robot window cleaners for tall buildings and nanobots that eat dust (so long as they can differentiate dead skin from live and don’t lead to “gray goo” apocalypse), it’s not exactly a burden, as Ulburghs notes, to wipe the schmutz off your iPhone screen.

robot tablet cleaner

And while we’re at this, let’s take a moment to note how many of the Wrongest Product Award nominees originate from Japan, land of the Unuseless inventions.

 

Previous Wrongest Product Award nominations

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.

Answering the Wrong Question

On the Colbert Report Monday night – if you’re keeping count as I am, that’s two weeks in a row that Colbert’s “forced” me write a post – environmental policy expert Michael Shellenberger advocated for nuclear power as a necessary energy source. His rationale is that energy demand is going to double by 2050, efficiency and conservation notwithstanding, so we really have no choice.

The new e-book he and co-author Ted Nordhaus have edited is called Love Your Monsters and in the Colbert interview, he explains we need to love our problematic children, our monsters, rather than abandoning them.

As I’ve mentioned before, I hate metaphors because it seems you can always find one to make any position sound right. One of our monsters, he says, is nuclear power and we simply haven’t been good parents. Were they my children, I’d give nuclear reactors a really really long time out.

SimpsonNuclearSafety

I could go on about the major issues of nuclear energy, from the fact that it isn’t economically feasible without massive government subsidies and insurance, to the not-so-small question of what to do with the leftover radioactive waste for the next few thousand years or so. But there’s a bigger point at work here. Shellenberger and other pro-nuclear environmentalists like Stewart Brand are committing the ecological sin of not thinking in systems. They’re looking at the energy issue as if it’s independent from our other environmental and social dilemmas. In fact, there are at least two larger pictures that they are ignoring.

That doubling of energy demand prediction is predicated on an assumption of the status quo: that the population will continue to grow until we reach 10 billion of us sometime mid-century and, perhaps more significantly, that our patterns of consumption will continue along the paths we’ve been following for the last century.

It’s somewhat understandable that they follow the population growth predictions. Slowing population growth, to put it mildly, is a difficult issue. (Though, as I mentioned in “Less is More, More or Less,” it’s been pointed out that annual population growth is roughly the same as the number of unwanted pregnancies.) Altering our rates of consumption, however, is a much more achievable – and desirable – goal.

There’s a fundamental mathematical formula that calculates our environmental impact. It goes like this: I=PxCxT. Environmental Impact is determined by the Population, how much we Consume and the resource or Technological intensity of those things we consume. So the ways to reduce impact are by reducing population, reducing consumption and decreasing material and energy intensity. That predicting doubling of energy demand assumes we can’t do much or anything about the first two and we can perhaps eke out some mildly increased efficiencies in the last one.

It also assumes, as most conventional economic theory does, that those increases in C and T are a good thing because growth is assumed to be good. Sort of a tautology. But as has been mentioned here in EcoOptimism and elsewhere, more consumption and more technology do not automatically lead to improved quality of life. In fact, once basic needs have been fulfilled, the opposite is true. Many studies have found that people in developed countries are no happier now – and may be less happy – than they were a generation or two ago. Of course, indoor plumbing and antibiotics made life infinitely better and many of us would find it hard to live without Starbucks drip coffee makers. However, the digital revolution, for all its amazing abilities and benefits, doesn’t seem to have improved quality of life or happiness. Some would say it’s done the opposite.

So that’s the first missing element in the pro-nuclear argument. The path it assumes is not actually the path we want. And the paths that would really make our lives better happen to also require less energy.

The other part of the big picture that they are missing is due to a narrow concept of environmentalism that focuses almost exclusively on energy. One of the first slides I often show my classes shouts out “It’s not just about climate change.” Yes, climate change chaos has the potential to do to us what that asteroid did to the dinosaurs. At the very least, adapting to it is going to be very expensive and will in all probability involve a lot of human suffering. Superstorm Sandy brought that point home. A seemingly relentless series of other atypical storms, heat waves and droughts are making the point elsewhere.

But simply solving the energy issue with low-carbon sources, whether it be through “too cheap to meter” nuclear power or a more likely blend of renewable sources, won’t make everything hunky-dory. It won’t solve resource depletion, water shortages, loss of biodiversity or numerous other ecological impacts. Moving away from fossil fuels doesn’t diminish the amounts of materials needed for all the stuff demanded by 10 billion people desiring to live as Americans do. It doesn’t reduce the staggering amounts of material we throw out daily. It doesn’t eliminate the toxic runoff from the industrial farming that barely feeds 7 billion people today. It doesn’t change either P or C or T.

Here’s the thing: we can’t approach this (nor should we) with only the goal of weaning ourselves off fossil fuel. We need to dramatically reduce the demand for energy and – happily — that can go hand in hand with some very positive changes in our patterns of consumption and in our lifestyles. And then we wouldn’t have to deal with creating more misbehaving monsters in our nuclear family.

Is 3D Printing Part of the Path to Sustainability?

Virtually in the shadow of the Unisphere and directly adjacent to a display of actual NASA rockets, the NY Maker Faire set up tents, tables, robots and fire-breathing dragons this past weekend. While the task of grading 50 student essays kept me tied to my desk, I did attend last year’s Faire and marveled at the diversity and inventiveness of the creations.

The whole maker movement – and the NY Faire represents only a tiny fraction of the group which could be said to include DIYers as well – presents, I think, an interesting dilemma in the context of environmentalism.

On the one hand, there are those greenies who promote what has lately come to be called “resilience” – the idea that we need to be able to adapt to and survive in a future that may include major climate changes, resource shortages and food scarcity. One way to do this, they maintain, is by becoming more self-sufficient. This would engender being able to, as individuals or communities, grow more of our own food and make more of the things we need. Those trained in resilience would make good candidates for a remake of Lost or for the current TV series Revolution, set in a near future in which nothing electric works.

Implicit in self-sufficiency is the notion that we should (or must) own fewer things, that we have to become less materialistic. I have no argument with that even though it connotes the unpopular concept of sacrifice and equates environmentalism with giving things up, which might at first be seen as not in keeping with the concepts of EcoOptimism. But as has been observed by many, materialism – once one is past the point of having necessities – does not add to happiness.

Much of Maker Faire, as well as a rapidly growing new industry, now revolves around 3D printing. As you might surmise, 3D printing is the capability of “printing” 3-dimensional objects. The technology is evolving incredibly fast and what, only a few years ago, required a commercial stove-size piece of equipment and a sizeable investment, can now be accomplished, in some cases, by something not much larger than a home microwave and around the same cost as a decent refrigerator. (I’ve no idea why this became a comparison to kitchen appliances.)

(Image source: MakerBot.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In fact, the technology is bringing us that much closer to Star Trek “replicators.” One can now input a 3D model computer file instructing the machine (the popular available one is called a MakerBot) to print a piece of intricate jewelry made of stainless steel, a replacement part for your car – or a recipe. It’s not quite that advanced yet – don’t expect a soufflé – but just a few years ago, the only things you could output were objects made of plaster-like materials. The media – the “ink” – available now includes metals and even organic matter to make meat.

Clothing aside, I could see this shot from Star Trek as an ad in a mid-century (20th, that is) magazine. (Image source: 3dprinterreviews.blogspot.com/2011/04/star-trek-replicator-roots.html)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There is great EcoOptimism potential in this disruptive, as it’s termed, technology. It will enable us to make virtually anything anywhere on demand. That funny shape screwdriver you need to open your iPhone? Well, you’ll no longer have to special order it from somewhere halfway around the world. (Predictably, one of the major markets for 3D printed objects is iPhone accessories.) You will download the 3D file (or if you’re really handy, create it yourself) and then print it out perhaps in your garage or your home office, or if it’s a larger piece than your printer can handle, have it sent to a Kinkos-like service in town. Resources will be saved (stores wouldn’t have to stock – or overstock — things), less transport energy will be incurred, more things may be repaired rather than thrown out. And the whole process of design and fabrication should become more accessible and egalitarian.

But there’s a potential conflict here between the environmentalist goal of being less materialistic and the increased ease with which we’ll be able to make things. That conflict is analogous to the non-appearance of the predicted paperless office. The reality turned out to be that it was so easy to print things, in multiple drafts and widespread copies, that people ended up going through vast reams of paper even more than before.

Suppose, in our 3D printer world, you feel like you want a new salad server set for your dinner party tonight? Just print one out. Want a different color earring to match your (newly printed?) hat? You might have it printed and on your ear in an hour or so.

In fact, MakerBot is opening a store near me in few weeks. Will it be full of things I didn’t know I wanted? Will it enable me to make things that I couldn’t previously afford because it would have been too expensive as a one-off? Is that a good thing or bad? (Hint: it’s both.)

An architect friend of mine, with whom I often have, ahem, political differences, says the most important people around are “Makers of Things.” The service economy? Not for him. Unsurprisingly, I’m not convinced he’s right. For one thing, I’m not sure that self-sufficiency is that great a goal. We’re far past the point, barring apocalyptic events, of returning to rural agrarian living. It’s more likely that we will see major increases in the costs of energy and transportation, to the point where we will choose or be forced to make changes in how and where we make things. 3D printing raises the possibility of removing much of the transportation costs and perhaps even encouraging making things differently in different parts of world (as we used to before globalization).

But is it a problem that it will also make it easier to satisfy immediate desires, to make or buy things as we, perhaps impulsively decide we “need” them? We already shop and acquire too impulsively. Perhaps 3D printers need to come with an admonishing voice that says, in a HAL-9000 tone: “Just what do you think you’re making, Dave?”