Author Archives: David Bergman

Plastic Bags: It’s an “It Depends” Situation

Or, rather, should we just skip the question?plastic bag in tree

The eco-blog Treehugger this week has a grouping of posts on plastic bags that’s intended to leave you wondering.

Perhaps you’d thought that, amidst the many complicated environmental issues, plastic bags was a no-brainer. Plastic bad, paper OK, cloth best. Not so quick, though.

There was a study a few years ago, a very dense Life Cycle Assessment, that concluded reusable cloth bags were not a better choice than plastic bags. Their conclusion, with lots of background calculations, was that, given the resources required to make and maintain cloth bags, you had to reuse an organic cotton cloth bag up to 20,000 times in order for it to be environmentally preferable. It left us do-good well-intentioned folks scratching our heads.

Now along comes a study (you can’t access it easily, but the Treehugger post gives you the summary) that says another factor in favor of not banning plastic bags is, surprisingly, their reuse. The study said that, in many places where plastic bags were banned, sales of other types of plastic bags went up.

And I’ve heard this from many folks. “If plastic bags are banned,” which they are now in New York State, “what will I put my garbage in?” (In NYC, our kitchens are often too small for regular size garbage pails that use those larger garbage bags.) Or “what will I use to pick up my dog’s poop with?” The thinking goes that, when people don’t have plastic bags from groceries, they’ll have to buy kitchen garbage bags or dog poop bags.

The pat answers are to not make as much garbage (composting cuts down a third of household garbage in my experience) or to use (supposedly) biodegradable poop bags.

So perhaps considering plastic bags to be in the single-use plastics category is misplaced. We can, instead, put them in the double-use category. (I think I just invented that.) Never mind that, in my experience, those bags can barely last one use and, more often than not, have holes in them that tend to leak nasty stuff out when filled with garbage. And dog poop? Not goin’ there.

(Check out, btw, “Plastic Bag,” narrated tongue in cheek by Werner Herzog. Then again, I think it’s tongue in cheek, it’s sometimes a bit hard to tell with him.)

Screen shot from "Plastic Bag"

Screen shot from “Plastic Bag”

Then there’s the question of whether the environmental issues have been fully taken into account. That plastic bag vs canvas bag equation, I’m pretty sure, didn’t look at the related issues of ocean life – two of the parallel Treehugger posts (here and here) bring up that part – or even litter. Sometimes they focus almost entirely on carbon emissions. Quantifying for objectivity is fine, and often, useful. But what about issues that are hard to quantify, perhaps because they’re subjective? What’s the value of a dead turtle, suffocated in a plastic bag, or a whale whose stomach is filled with bags and toothbrushes and Bic lighters? Or the esthetic cost of bags snagged in tree branches.

And now we can add the health impacts of microplastics in humans as well as in other creatures.

microplastics on finger

The carbon part of the picture is hardly irrelevant and, of course, has an additional story. As the fossil fuel industry realizes its future as a fuel is narrowing, its focus has shifted to promoting plastics as another way to boost petroleum sales. This movement was further fueled (sorry) by the pandemic which, initially at least, cut down fuel consumption by significant amounts as people commuted and traveled much less.

And lest you want to factor in recycling, in the case of plastic bags, that’s a myth. Even when you can find recycling programs that accept them, they rarely get recycled. And recycling facilities hate them because they get caught in their machines.

So, are bans a good idea? They certainly have taken off. My database of bans and regulations has grown greatly since I began it a few years ago, though it’s perhaps telling that the growth slowed considerably during the pandemic.

plastic bags in ocean

My environmental roots say ‘hell yes,’ get rid of those nasty things. But the part of me that studies Life Cycle Assessment says hang on a moment, maybe, counterintuitively, we’ve got this wrong. And then my ever-split thinking counters the counter thoughts by asking if those studies really have got it right.

It gets sooo complicated. My conclusion rests on a non-objective thought: we can’t let this message get so complicated. People are confused enough about environmental issues and, along with that, overwhelmed by both the complexity and the gravity of things. We get bogged down in it, not sure what to do or even if what we can do matters. We need simple – perhaps simplistic – approaches and advice, even if perhaps plastic bags aren’t as bad as many of us say; even if perhaps they’re better than some of the alternatives. But the message and the public support erode when it gets unclear. Even if we’re a bit wrong on this specific question – and I’m not convinced we are – we need to have make things simple and easy so we can get to the bigger picture.

 

The Hills are Alive (Again. Maybe.)

image of mountaintop removal mining

Image: mountainroadshow.com via WMKY.org

I’ve always been highly skeptical of the coal industry’s claims that the ecosystems of the mountains they blow up – because it’s a cheaper way to get to the coal veins – will be restored when they’re finished. But I’d be happy to be proved wrong.

This would seem to be at least partially the case in the example of this former mountaintop removal mining site in Kentucky, as profiled in The New York Times. In the images, it doesn’t exactly look like the verdant rolling forested hills that the mines decimated, but it is green and planted.

Back in 2010, a study by the NRDC supported my skepticism. But a 2017 post by the Yale School of the Environment’s blog profiled a more optimistic outlook in a program by Green Forest Work, who have planted nearly 4 million trees across more than 6,000 acres. That, though, is a non-profit project made necessary by the inaction of the coal mining industry in fulfilling their reclamation promises.

screengrab: Appalachian Mountain Advocates

What’s perhaps more significant at the Kentucky project is the plan to build a solar farm on top of it. In true EcoOptimistic win-win-win fashion, this somewhat restores and gives a purpose back to this landscape, creates new jobs in an area with a declining industrial base – thus helping to show that eliminating coal-generated electricity is not an economy killer – and continues the path to convince remaining skeptics that renewable energy is a realistic alternative to fossil fuels.

It also reinforces my daydream of being able to somehow sit down with DINO and dinosaur Joe Manchin to show him the error of his ways, his misplaced view that he is protecting his coal miner constituents, or more likely his coal mining industry backers. As many others have questioned, is it really a misinformed altruism on behalf of hard-working voters or is it a result of his financial backing? In other words, is it people or fossil fuel interests that he thinks he is defending?

If it’s the latter – which is probable since, according to The Times again, “Manchin has received more campaign donations from the oil, coal and gas industries than any other senator in the current election cycle” –  well, that daydream of mine is rather more of a pipe dream. No logical argument will sway him away from the money. That’s despite the fact that those industries are a dying economic sector that no amount of climate denial and legal maneuvering will protect in the long run, and that he’d be doing those industries a favor by helping them redirect into renewable energy.

Then there’s Manchin’s recent statement that “the climate thing” is something “we probably can come to agreement much easier than anything else.” Whatever that means.

The question here is whether the replanting of destroyed mountaintops, accompanied by solar farms, legitimizes mountaintop removal mining. Does it pave the way to allowing more decimating of Appalachian ecosystems? It’s great to find locations for solar farms without displacing other uses or existing ecosystems. But it shouldn’t be used as the justification for more mining.

solar panels on rolling hills

Solar panels on French hillside. Image credit

It’s more than a bit of a stretch, but if we imagine pitched roofs as a kind of artificial rolling geography, we can find another piece of win-win-win news in the continuing development of solar roof shingles. Tesla has been at this for a while, but there are horror stories of complications and unexpected costs. A roofing company (which Tesla isn’t) just announced its new product (also here), which it claims will obviate these issues.

GAF Energy solar roof

Image: GAF Energy

The idea of solar roof shingles is great. Why create a second layer on top of a roof when the solar panels can BE the roof? Adding conventional panels means paying for both the roof and the panels as well as adding weight and creating potential maintenance headaches. So combining them reduces costs and makes for an easier installation either when building a new roof or replacing an existing one. It also gets rid of those ugly panels. (That’s the third part, in this case, of the EcoOptimist win-win-win scenario.)

As with the solar panels on former coal mines, roofs are a logical choice for harvesting solar energy. (Airports and big box stores are, too.) The difference is that, with solar roof shingles, ecosystems aren’t being destroyed first.

Can We Be Optimistic? (2021 installment)

I’ve written posts like this at the end of the last few years. I’ve even copied the title from the previous versions. (What? You expect originality from a professor who’s bleary eyed from grading papers at the end of the semester?) It’s difficult to be the EcoOptimist these days when there is so much news on the negative side. I won’t – and you probably don’t need me to – start enumerating it. And I’d be violating my self-anointed title and role.

So, instead I’m focusing here on some of the more positive news – news that perhaps will help motivate us for the coming year. Here’s a selection.

I have a post in the works, btw, on how unexpected types of legal actions, here and elsewhere, are having an impact. I’ll try to make use of the holiday downtime to finish that one. Meanwhile…

from Gizmodo
December 15, 2021
Microbes May Be Evolving to Eat Plastic:
The latest research findings from our dystopian present

plastic waste

Image: Chalmers University of Technology

EcoOptimism’s Take: From my favorite environmental-blog-that-isn’t-an-environmental-blog, comes this news about the tiny organisms that may eat our way out of our century of plastics. There have been other reports of forms of life with a diet of plastics, but this sounds like a hopeful step.

There’s a bit of SciFi dystopianism here in that the study says these microbes didn’t just naturally have this appetite – they’re evolving that way.

“We found multiple lines of evidence supporting the fact that the global microbiome’s plastic-degrading potential correlates strongly with measurements of environmental plastic pollution — a significant demonstration of how the environment is responding to the pressures we are placing on it,” according to Prof Aleksej Zelezniak at Chalmers University of Technology 

In other words, our environmental failings have altered the DNA of bacteria.  Dunno about you, but I find that a bit scary.

Putting my Jurassic Park paranoia aside, the downside here, and it shouldn’t outweigh the positive, is that, as the article mentions, this does not mitigate the issue; it doesn’t help stop the problem from occurring. It merely deals with what we already have and what will still be produced. This is an unfortunate byproduct of well-intentioned ’solutions.’ It’s the problem with, for example, geoengineering. While it’s arguable that we have reached the point (pardon my non-ecooptimism) where we will need to do this to address the climate emergency, it doesn’t stop carbon emissions and, in fact, can worsen the problem by leading us to think that we don’t have to.

Still, I welcome the idea of providing sustenance to these – hopefully friendly – critters. Bear in mind that, given the amount of plastics out there for feasting upon, we might be welcoming our new microscopic neighbors everywhere.

And then there’s this different approach to remediating plastics using nature:

from Microfiber Innovation Challenge
Squitex
Seaming, Coating and fibers from self-healing materials

image of squid

image: WSTale.com

EcoOptimism’s Take: Biomimicry, design inspired by nature, gets us to some of the coolest ideas – things we mere humans, who have just a tidbit of the knowledge gained by nature over 3.8 billion years, could never come up with on our own. In this case, it’s a self-healing fiber that can reduce microfibers in the ocean, made from squid’s tentacles combined with genetic resequencing (arguably something nature has been doing all along in the form of evolution, or so it seems to this non-scientist). So addressing the problem of microfibers in the waters might come from creatures who live in that water.

Will squid become our next octopuses: creatures far smarter than we thought?

from Reuters
September 29, 2021
Democrats weigh first nationwide fee on plastic in U.S. budget negotiations

Snapple sign boasting about switching to plastic

photo: David Bergman

EcoOptimism’s Take: Does this have a chance in an intractably partisan Congress that can’t even accept the urgency of the climate crisis? And where any fee, even one that seems to be a capitalist laissez faire approach that internalizes those pesky externalities inherent in single-use plastics, is dead on arrival? Prove me wrong. Please. Don’t make me become an EcoRealist.

from Gizmodo
December 14, 2021
Dell’s Concept Luna Could Be the Future of Laptop Design

image of modular laptop

Image: Framework

image of modular mobile phone

image: Fairphone

EcoOptimism’s Take: Right to repair laws have been all the rage (well, perhaps that’s an overstatement) this year. But to really make those work, products have to be repairable – and not have things like batteries and RAM soldered in as many Apple and other manufacturers do. That goes hand in hand with making electronics modular so that items like those as well as screens, keyboards and motherboards are removable and replaceable.

I recently had to buy a new laptop because one of the keys became stuck. The repair shop told me it would be too expensive to be worthwhile. (The laptop was just out of warranty, of course.) Similarly, on the previous laptop that caused me to purchase the one that then developed a hatred for the letter A, a cracked screen was not worth replacing. (It valiantly, if expensively, gave its life by breaking my fall when I fell backwards onto the backpack it was in.)

Modular electronics offer the hope of being both repairable and upgradeable, which help keep electronics from becoming ‘e-waste.’ Efforts to accomplish this date back to a student project at Stanford ‘s School of Design Thinking (as if other school’s design programs don’t include thinking!) quite a few years ago. And Motorola’s original modular phone, Project Ara, was a great idea, but never caught on. Its less adventurous successor, the Moto Z is still finding its feet.

But its concept has been replaced by Fairphone, which, unfortunately is not available in the US. Nor is their more recently released Framework modular laptop. (Crossing my fingers it will be more available when my current laptop decides to develop a small but insidious problem that defies economical repair.) But now, signaling the mass market potential, Dell is taking a shot at the idea. It’s a shame that my Dell with the malfunctioning keyboard came out a couple of years too early.

from NPR
December 14, 2021
The largest city in the U.S. bans natural gas in new buildings

image of cooktop with both gas and induction burners

Image: ABT

EcoOptimism’s Take: Banning gas appliances is a concept that took root, of course, in California. Those appliances, ranging from stoves to boilers and heat pumps, have both environmental and health issues. Their use emits carbon dioxide, which contributes to the fact that 40% of the country’s carbon emissions comes from buildings. (It’s even higher – 50% – in NYC because using public transportation instead of cars emits less carbon, and that means buildings are a higher percentage of the total.)

And from a health point of view, combustion gases in enclosed spaces like kitchens are also deadly for us humans, not merely bad for the atmosphere. They’re the reason we have carbon monoxide detectors in our homes.

Banning gas appliances in new buildings is a big deal. Many people still prefer gas stoves, though. Fortunately, induction cookers and electric ovens are darn good alternatives. They still require energy, but local emissions are reduced because the electricity needed comes from power plants which are usually located outside cities and are more efficient. 

Here’s yet another way to look at it: energy efficiency. With a gas stove, you’re heating not just the food, but the area around the stove as well. Not so with an induction cooktop. It heats only the pot or pan. It’s also what makes it safer.

Now I just have to convince my chef client to forget the “now we’re cooking with gas” slogan, which originated as a natural gas industry campaign in the 1930s and that, unfortunately, implies doing a good job.

“Can we be optimistic?” has an implied negative tone to it. Wouldn’t it be great if I can change that title for my 2022 end of the year EcoOptimism post?

Plastic Free July, with some updates to my list of bans

This having been Plastic Free July (it’s not too late to make your Plastic Free commitments!), I’ve updated the EcoOptimism list of Plastic Bans Worldwide.

screen shot of Plastics Bans webpage from EcoOptimism

screen shot from EcoOptimism’s Plastic Bans Worldwide

Australia has a fragmented policy that, for instance, stresses reducing plastics at beaches. On a more advanced level, they are attempting to ban microbeads. However, the phaseout is voluntary. But the most interesting part is that they are including bioplastics in the plastic phase out plans, acknowledging that bioplastics are not the great solution most people think they are. While it’s nice that they aren’t petroleum-based, their compostability is misleading. Despite being (mostly) plant based, they don’t break down in standard compost facilities, instead requiring higher heat and sunlight. Furthermore, they muck up recycling streams when they get included with other plastics and it may be impossible to tell them from other plastics because they are included in the catchall number 7 “other” plastics category.

New York State is banning (by Jan 1, 2024) those little bottles of toiletries used in hotel rooms. (But they were so cute!)

There are many bans in effect or going into effect in European countries, but the EU as a whole is taking on some measures including a target for recycling of 90% of plastic bottles by 2029 and 50% of plastic packaging by 2025.

I don’t know if it’s coincidence (I doubt it) that Mattel announced earlier this month the “Barbie Loves the Ocean” line. In their writeup, Inhabitat says it’s made from 90% recycled ocean-bound plastic parts sourced within 50 kilometers of waterways in areas that are lacking formal waste collection systems. But like Lego’s announcement a couple of years ago that it would make parts from recycled plastic, this is somewhat misleading in that it is only a small part of their production. (To be fair, according to Mattel, “The launch is in line with Mattel’s goal to achieve 100% recycled, recyclable or bio-based plastic materials across all its products and packaging by 2030.”)

image of Barbie Loves the Ocean

Image from Mattel website

Perhaps more significantly, they also announced a takeback program called PlayBack. Though less press-worthy at first glance (which, after all, is what gets press – and therefore notice), it’s their start of what’s called Extended Producer Responsibility, a concept that’s becoming less conceptual in which manufacturers take responsibility for their products throughout the product’s lifetime, including the end of life, so that fewer things end up in landfills.

While Plastic-free July is well and good, the idea of a plastic-free month strikes me as similar to meatless Mondays. Why only one month of no single-use plastics or only one day a week of no meat?

This UN banner from back in May gets it right: “No More Single-use Plastic.” Period.

photo of UN single-use plastic banner

Photo credit: David Bergman

“Can We Be Hopeful?” Revisited

0Biden environmental appointees

(I had originally planned to post this near the beginning of the year, but it hardly seemed appropriate amidst the events of January 6. With the Biden administration now in office, it feels more timely.)

Slightly over a year ago, for my end of 2019 post, I wrote “Can we be hopeful?” In it, I said that, as bad as that year was environmentally, under a president who single-handedly set us back to whatever year ExxonMobil wanted him to, there was room – and need – for seeing the potential for a positive turn in the climate emergency.  But that was before massive wildfires, a record-breaking hurricane season, arctic waters that didn’t freeze when they’re supposed to, and numerous floods and heat waves beyond what used to be the norm.

Much of the optimistic viewpoint then was dependent on electing a new president. Any new president.

Perhaps the environmentally horrific events, though they may be overwhelmed in newsworthiness by the COVID-19 pandemic, have served to sway some of the deniers. It’s way too much to hope that they will all be convinced, but we already had a majority of the public onboard; it’s the politicians who have been the most obstructive. Perhaps the further swing in their constituents’ beliefs (I hate when people refer to ‘believing’ in climate change), will overwhelm their fealty to oil industry financial support. But, then again, maybe that’s the EcoOptimist in me.

The gist of that year-old post was that we needed both hope and fear. Fear of what can happen (or is happening) and hope that we can still prevent the worst. It’s a combined carrot and stick, I wrote.

Teaching my first class after Trump’s election in 2016, I barely held back tears, saying that the window on preventing the worst scenario of the climate emergency was closing. (I was also fearful for the immigration status and safety of the many international students in my classes.)

In an earlier draft of this post, pre-inauguration, I had written: while President-elect Biden is not as strong an environmentalist as many of us would have wanted, there’s no comparison to the windmills-cause-cancer malignancy of the outgoing administration. (Trump also said wind turbines are bad because they kill birds, but then authorized oil companies to “inadvertently” kill birds. Hypocrisy and politics seem to go together when they are convenient.)

Editing this delayed post now, just after Biden’s “Climate Day,” his executive orders are wonderfully exceeding our reserved hopes. (As a policy and economics geek when I’m not in my ecodesign role, I especially love that he is eliminating subsidies for fossil fuel companies.)

But is it too late, as I semi-tearfully feared after the 2016 election? Dunno. Some studies say the path past a 1.5° rise is set, that that train has left the station. (The metaphor is appropriate because, like trains, climate change ‘s momentum is hard to slow down.)  But I think the mindset it generates is unhelpful because it leaves us with only fatalism and no reason for action. Even if it’s true, we still can affect, if not that perhaps pre-ordained path, the further degree of impact. This isn’t merely EcoOptimism; it’s really the only way to move forward.

So, all in all, we have more reasons to affirmatively answer the question “Can We Be Hopeful?” than we did four years. And far more than we did a year ago.

Raising a glass of organic champagne.

Pandemics and US deregulation be damned. Plastic bans are not getting derailed.

NYS's plastic bag ban now enforced

It’s back, baby

As I wrote about several months ago, single-use plastic bans and fees have taken a back seat to the urgency of the COVID pandemic. First, there was the mistaken idea that plastic bags were necessary for sanitary reasons. Bag manufacturers did their best to take advantage of this. (As they have for decades as shown in the appropriately if cutely titled report, “Talking Trash: The Corporate Playbook of False Solutions,” from the Changing Markets Foundation.) And then there was just the fact that there have been more pressing things for governments to deal with.

The glut of oil resulting from less travel and manufacturing has created a need for the fossil fuel industry to find other ways to utilize those “stranded assets,” and the primary direction is to increase plastic production, whose raw material is oil. But in Earther, Gizmodo’s sub-blog, Bruce Kahn documents the potential for “peak plastic” and a counterreaction in which governments are creating more bans and fees. (The US has, unsurprisingly, given our current regime, been an exception, but one hopes that will begin to change on January 20th.)

As evidence – maybe – of this, the U.S. Plastics Pact has brought together some of the major users of plastics, Coca Cola, Nestle and Unilever, with notable environmental organizations such as the Ocean Conservancy and the World Wildlife Fund to phase out unnecessary plastic packaging and make sure other single-use plastics are recyclable, compostable or reusable by 2025. Forgive my cynicism, but I’m both dubious of this actually happening and suspicious of the terms recyclable, compostable and reusable.

But this blog is about optimism.

The big news this week, here at least, is that New York State’s ban, delayed from earlier in the year, is finally going to get enforced. Celebrating this belated event, I’ve added a few more entries in my Plastics Bans Worldwide database.

Canada’s ban moves forward: https://environmentaldefence.ca/2020/10/09/canada-ban-six-single-use-plastic-items-next-year/

England bans single-use plastic straws, stir-sticks and cotton swabs with plastic stems: https://www.treehugger.com/plastic-straws-banned-in-england-5080319

Scotland goes further and bans plastic straws, plates, knives and forks and polystyrene cups: https://www.independent.co.uk/environment/scotland-ban-plastic-single-use-straws-cutlery-cotton-buds-england-b990587.html

New Jersey’s comprehensive plastic ban, called “This is the single most comprehensive plastics and paper reduction bill in the nation,” by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Regional Administrator and Beyond Plastics President Judith Enck, is a step closer to becoming law: https://www.ecowatch.com/new-jersey-plastics-ban-2647824015.html?rebelltitem=2#rebelltitem2 New York State’s plastics ban also calls for a 5-cent fee on paper bags. NJ goes a step further with a ban on them.

Foam packaging and containers haven’t, until recently, been as scrutinized, but that’s changing. NYC banned Styrofoam takeout containers and packaging peanuts last year, but it has sizable loopholes and enforcement is spotty. The latest ban, the first one by a state, comes from Maryland: https://www.ecowatch.com/maryland-foam-container-ban-2647845717.html

California, ever the environmental leader, is adding a new approach. Not exactly a ban and a bit off the mark considering the problems of plastic recycling, is incrementally requiring recycled content in liquids containers: https://www.mercurynews.com/2020/09/25/california-passes-first-in-nation-plastics-recycling-law/

Falling down the WELL

No, the caps are not for emphasis. The WELL is a very early digital community, still extant, that sprung out of the keyboards of the founders of the Whole Earth Review, Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant, in 1985, a long time before people started talking about “the net.” The name WELL stands for Whole Earth ‘Lectronic Link. It’s self-described as being “widely known as the primordial ooze where the online community movement was born.”

It’s what the internet should have become. The fact that it still exists is somewhat startling.

I first stumbled onto (into?) the WELL via one of my virtual – and unbeknownst to him – mentors, the science fiction writer cum futurist Bruce Sterling. In those two overlapping roles, he manages to combine two of my life interests.

cover of Shaping Things by Bruce Sterling

Sterling’s unique take on design

Sterling was an early member of the WELL, which became a vehicle of sorts for his futurism. (That’s probably oversimplifying things.) In a 1998 talk, he launched the Viridian movement, where he defines a different hue of the green movement. Speaking in a tone that was a cross between self-deprecating humor and intentional hubris, he wrote:

People are going to demand from me to know what the future holds, and I am going to be fully briefed and in total command of my material. I will coolly and meticulously detail the future for them, in chapter and verse, with principles, subtexts, and policy recommendations. In the highest tradition of my futurist craft, I will be often wrong, but never in doubt. I feel a deep necessity to meet the need here, I consider this my moral duty.

And he anointed himself the “Pope-Emperor.”

Two days after the millennium began (yes, I know that was technically 2001, but who’s counting?), he published the Manifesto of the Viridian movement. He launched it on January 3rd because:

On January 1, everyone will be too hung over to read manifestos; on January 2, nobody’s computers will work. [Anyone remember Y2K?] So naturally the target date must be January 3.

Here’s a tidbit from the Manifesto that will make you either cry or cringe:

We have a worldwide environmental problem. This is a truism. But the unprecedentedly severe and peculiar weather of the late 1990s makes it clear that this problem is growing acute. Global warming has been a lively part of scientific discussion since at least the 1960s, but global warming is a quotidian reality now.

About a third of the way down, he gets to the core.

Society must become Green, and it must be a variety of Green that society will eagerly consume. What is required is not a natural Green, or a spiritual Green, or a primitivist Green, or a blood-and-soil romantic Green.

The world needs a new, unnatural, seductive, mediated, glamorous Green. A Viridian Green, if you will.

So, what does this history lesson (perhaps a “Fractured Fairy Tale”) have to with EcoOptimism? In other words, what does it have to do with me, the EcoOptimist “Pope-Emperor?”

Having met Bruce (I’m going to assume we’re on a first name basis) at a panel I attended at the International Contemporary Fair Furniture back when the fair was more cutting-edge and allowed small fry like my lighting company Fire & Water to exhibit, I exchanged a few emails with him and started following the movement.

At some point, in a Viridian thread someone inquired about eco furnishings for their home. Or at least that’s how I recall it; The emails are long gone. I posted in the thread that what we really needed was a list of green furnishings. I should have anticipated what happened next because Bruce wrote back to me, saying why don’t you do it? It became the Viridian Recommended Furniture list. I titled it “Eco-furniture: A broad and very subjective list.”

 

It was daunting to write for a movement begun – no, make that owned – by a revered writer. I did my best to be clever. In the intro to that updated version, I wrote:

I titled [the newest entries] in an obvious moment of kowtow to our Viridian Pope: “What if Green Design Were Just Good Design.” But that’s a good thing (the additions, not the brown nosing). It means that eco designed furniture is becoming less like what too many people think all eco furniture looks like. It’s breaking out of its crunchy niche and getting its sustainable teeth into everything.

The quoted phrase was from the title of a column he wrote in 2001 for Dwell magazine. It’s not online but I saved a PDF of it that I used to assign to my students. He started it with “Green design should have won 30 years ago. By now, we should have forgotten all about being green, Greenness should be par for the course….” Taking a cue from that, I put forward the term “Transparent Green,” which I defined as “the green that was there but not shouting it. Perhaps not displaying it at all.” I got some good mileage out of Transparent Green by teaching, writing and speaking about the topic for many years. I stopped referring to it when, happily, green products that didn’t look green became practically the norm.

The Green Devil's Dictionary

In “What if Green Design Were Just Good Design,” Sterling wrote “Being green is cranky, fringy and deservedly unpopular.” His “Green Devil’s Dictionary” captures the self-seriousness that  greenies sometimes fall prey to.

15 years later, some of my attempted cleverness still seems either moderately clever or painful. I wrote company descriptions such as:

“More artful twigs”
“Celtic and Viking inspired furniture from reclaimed timber. Imagine a Viking interpretation of a tv cabinet — now there’s timeless design”
“Cork furniture. Now you can really be pinned to your seat”
“’Art furniture’ from discarded pallets. Nicer than it sounds.”

Now, in 2020, a vast majority of the companies I listed are no longer there. I guess that signifies the Darwinian evolution of the industry. I tried to have the list taken down a few years ago and Bruce wrote back that no one seemed to have the password. That, combined with the fact that he ended the movement in 2008, must symbolize something. Apologies to my friend Chris Poehlmann who I chastised on the list for still using incandescent bulbs. He’s since seen the light. (Go ahead and groan. I’m only sometimes clever.) But, apparently, I can’t update it. I like it, though, as a page in the history of ecodesign.

I was pretty proud of the list at the time. Now, the great thing is there are so many eco-furniture companies that I couldn’t possibly make such a list because it would take a pile of underpaid interns to help me. And Google can do the work for me. (Just to be clear, I don’t use Google for searches. I use DuckDuckGo cause they don’t spy on you and make sure you don’t get unrelenting ads for something totally embarrassing that you merely looked up once.)

I started this post talking about the WELL and, sort of in keeping with the diversity of the WELL, I’ve no idea how I got started on the topic and how it ended up being almost entirely about Bruce Sterling and the Viridian movement. Or, for that matter, about me.

Bruce: if you’re reading this, go easy on me.

The Return of Bioplastics

What’s old is new again

Was there a time when plastics were not made from petroleum? You wouldn’t know it from the plastics we’ve used – and unsuccessfully discarded in mass quantities – since the 1950s. But the origins of plastics were from plants. Indeed, one of the first plastics, cellophane, invented in 1900 (or 1908), was named for the plant fibers, cellulose, that it was made from. Henry Ford famously wanted to make a bioplastic car (made from hemp or soybeans, depending on who you ask) and even prototyped one. It would have been lighter and, he said, safer than metal cars and would have addressed a metal shortage during World War II.

Scotch tape made from cellulose/cellophane

Scotch tape was – and is – made from cellulose fibers. “Made of Cellophane” image: Wikipedia CC BY-SA 3.0


This month is Plastic Free July. There are many posts out there about what you can do. Just a few: Greenpeace, EcoWatch, MSN, Treehugger,  


But then the success of petroleum-based or synthetic plastics pushed bioplastics aside. Synthetic plastics became ubiquitous due to their affordability and unique properties. One of those properties is its durability, and the durability is both a positive and negative characteristic. The problem lies in its contemporary, perverse use for things that we’d rather not be durable. Most specifically, for single-use plastics: take-out containers, plastic bags, bottled water, six-pack rings. You get the idea. Why use a material that lasts for hundreds of years for something that is used for five minutes?


EcoOptimism has discussed the issue of single-use plastics for a while (here, here, and here) and, in fact, maintains a list of all the bans and fees on them in a database.


Which brings us to the return of bioplastics because, in addition to being made from renewable resources, many of them can decompose quickly. The issue – and the reason for the success of synthetic plastics – is that they are relatively expensive.

Bioplastics, we have to note, are not without controversy and some may not be the savior they are thought to be (and also here). Their claims about biodegradability may be suspect, and they don’t play nicely with other plastics if they get into the recycling stream.

That problem, along with the problem of cost, though, may be on the way out because newer ways to make it, going beyond the corn and potato starch methods, are being rapidly developed. Soooo… here is an accumulated synopsis of the most recent efforts. The fact that it’s so lengthy is testament to the vast potential.

It should be noted that in this era of shrinking demand for petroleum-based fuels, due to diminished travel in the pandemic among other factors, fossil fuel companies are gearing up to expand their production of plastics. The need for inexpensive plant-based plastic is more crucial than ever.


The COVID-19 pandemic has, as I’ve written about,  exacerbated the single-use plastic problem. Latex gloves, for example, can be found trashed everywhere. And just as plastic bags were being banned in many places, they’ve come back because they are perceived as more hygienic. But a recent statement signed by 125 health experts in 18 countries says that reusable bags are safe. No surprise that the Plastics Industry Association says single-use plastics are the only way to go.


The good news is that there’s a lot going on out there. The bad news is that it makes for a long post. But it’s worth it.

From The Guardian:
May 16, 2020
“The end of plastic? New plant-based bottles will degrade in a year Alternatives to Plastics”

EcoOptimism’s take: I’m starting off with this one because, first, it addresses one of the biggest sources of plastics pollution: soda bottles. Second, the materials they are sourcing from are the “usual suspects”: wheat and corn and some other foods such as beets.  The problem, as I note several times below, is that in many cases, these are food, so using them to make bioplastics can impact food supplies.

From EcoWatch:
May 6, 2020
“5 Sustainable Alternatives to Plastics

EcoOptimism’s take: Olive pits, sunflower hulls, fish waste and algae, plant sugars, and mushrooms. It’s all good.

Bioplastics made from olive pits

Bioplastics made from olive pits. Source: Material Connexion

From Australian Geographic:
Nov 1, 2019
“Teen Invents Biodegradable “Plastic” That Decomposes In 33 Days Using Prawn Shells And Silk Cocoon Protein”

EcoOptimism’s take: A Sydney high school student invented this a science project after deciding to not use cornstarch because it would take away from food. “I was at the fish and chip shop getting prawns for dinner and noticed that the prawn shells looked like plastic. I went back to the lab and thought about what exactly made them look like that.”
Note: the original post that I saw this in, with the catchier headline above, seems to have disappeared, but this is the source.

High School student who made bioplastic from prawn shells

Image credit: Louise Kennerley via Australian Geographic

From Smithsonian Magazine:
Nov 14, 2019
“This Bioplastic Made From Fish Scales Just Won the James Dyson Award”

EcoOptimism’s take: More fish. Organic fish waste, to be exact. The inventor was, at the time, a 24-year old graduate student in England and won the prestigious James Dyson Award.

From CNN:
January 17, 2017
“Plastic you can drink: A solution for pollution?

EcoOptimism’s take: “The resulting “100% bio-based” material was biodegradable and compostable, breaking down over a period of months on land or at sea, or instantly in hot water. “I wanted to show this bioplastic would be so harmless to sea animals that a human could drink it,” he says. “I wasn’t nervous because it passed an oral toxicity test.”

“The entrepreneur launched a company in 2014 selling cassava-plastic ponchos. Today, Avani Eco produces four tons of material a day [with a capacity five times that] that is used for products including plastic bags, food packaging, and covers for hospital beds.”

From Labiotech:
Nov 20, 2019
“Spanish Researchers Produce Straws Made of Bacterial Bioplastic”

EcoOptimism’s take: Bacteria – the good kind

From Food Manufacture:
June 11, 2020
“EU-funded bioplastic developed”

EcoOptimism’s take: The cool part is that it’s “produced from industry by-products: cheese whey and micro-cellulose from almond shells,” and supposedly fully degrades within 90 days.

From FreshFruitPortal:
March 26, 2020
“New bioplastic developed from fruit residue in Chile”

EcoOptimism’s take: The important thing here is that it’s made from residue not the consumable food part of the plants, unlike this bioplastic made from rice.

From Bio Market Insights:
Feb 22, 2018
“Four years after launching, Tetra Pak’s bio-based packaging hits the half a billion unit mark”

EcoOptimism’s take: These Tetra Pak containers are made from 23% plastic, so on the one hand, converting that to a biopolymer made from sugar cane (which presumably is the edible part) makes sense. But on the other hand, they are still a multilayer composite that can’t be readily recycled – what McDonough and Braungart call a monstrous hybrid.

TetraPak container layers

image source: https://biomarketinsights.com/

Also from Bio Market Insights:
Dec 3, 2019
“Researchers develop banana waste-based bioplastic.”

EcoOptimism’s take: The fruit of the banana tree makes up just 12% of the plant and the rest is waste – or maybe now a byproduct to be made into a bioplastic. One has to cynically wonder, though, what happens if banana blight ruins the Cavendish banana crop.

From PlasticStar Material News:
Aug 22, 2019
“Bioplastic derived from cactus leaves

Photo: Sandra Pascoe Ortiz

And juice from the cactus as well:

From Fast Company:
June 20, 2019
“This new biodegradable plastic is made from cactus”

EcoOptimism’s take: While it’s fun to picture cactus farms, this plastic, unlike some others mentioned here, does use the edible (drinkable, that is) part of the cactus. That BBC video, by the way can be found here.

From New Atlas:
April 7, 2020
“Another possible use for coffee grounds: Biodegradable plastic’

EcoOptimism’s take: I know there’s a pun in there somewhere, but I’m not caffeinated enough to think of one.

The path from coffee grounds to plastic.

The path from coffee grounds to plastic. Image Credit: Yokohama National University.

From Vice:
July 30, 2019
“A Filipino Scientist Made Bioplastic Out Of Mango And Seaweed”

EcoOptimism’s take: Somehow, this article starts out by talking about tardigrades, which immediately caught my attention even though they seem to have nothing to do with the topic.

From Intelligent Living:
June 5, 2019
“Here’s A Truly Biodegradable Algae-based Bioplastic You Can Make At Home!no Scientist Made Bioplastic Out Of Mango And Seaweed”

EcoOptimism’s take: DO try this at home. And the hues come from fruits and vegetables.

Most plastics contain a polymer plasticizer (usually made from petroleum, often toxic) and a dye (usually synthetic). This one’s polymer is algae, the plasticizer is water and the dyes come from fruits and vegetables.

Cool translucent disks made from algae.

Cool translucent disks made from algae. Image source: Intelligent Living

From Fast Company:
Feb 10, 2020
“This biodegradable bioplastic sucks carbon from the air”

EcoOptimism’s take: This one takes us past the category of just avoiding petroleum-based plastics and into the topic of regenerative design: designs that not only “do less harm” but repair the damage the same time.

Plastic that detects spoilage

Plastic that detects food spoilage. Photo: Primitives

From Good News Network:
Feb 16, 2020
“Forget the ‘Best By’ Date; This Compostable Bioplastic Packaging Changes Color When the Food Goes Bad”

EcoOptimism’s take: Also in the category of bioplastics that go beyond just being more environmentally preferable than conventional plastics, this one can help with the major issue of food waste – alerting us when that stuff in the far reaches of the refrigerator needs to be consumed – or thrown out.

Believe it or not, there are bioplastics that didn’t make the cut here. But did you really want me to make this post even longer?

An Elevator Built for One

Embed from Getty Images

Could post-pandemic distancing bring back the paternoster? No, I’m not talking about the Lord’s Prayer.

One of the (many) daily parts of our lives that may be upended is the elevator because, unless we’re talking about museum freight elevators – or the one in the Starrett Lehigh building that allowed trucks to directly deliver to each floor – it’s pretty much impossible to maintain social distancing in a typical closet-sized elevator. So, we may have to be riding solo.

The paternoster elevator solves this problem by only being large enough to hold one person. Paternosters are a type of elevator that, unlike the Otis elevator system that we are all familiar with, involves a continuous belt with side-by-side shelf-like platforms running up on one side and down on the adjacent side. Sort of a vertical conveyor belt for people. Passengers step onto a small moving platform going up or down, depending on the side, and then step off again as the platform approaches the desired floor. The really interesting, or scary depending on your point of view, part is that there are no doors, you just step on and off, timing it to the continuous movement of the platform. If you were especially brave – I say especially because you had to be a bit brave to use them in the first place – you could ride the platform as it reached the top, ran sideways for a few feet and then started downward.

Pater noster images

Two paternosters. Left image: Ludek – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Of course, there are some safety issues to be considered. Specifically, the fact that they’re unsafe. They were fairly common throughout Europe but are now banned. Everywhere, that is, beside Germany where for some reason they are revered. I rode one once and, yeah, they’re pretty cool. (And I survived.)

Why, you may well ask, is this called a paternoster? The Latin origin means “our father.” One definition of the term, in addition to the Lord’s Prayer, refers to “a muttered prayer or incantation.” One can only assume that riding one requires a crossed-fingers type of tempered fearlessness.


Here’s a working paternoster in Alvar Aalto’s National Pensions Building in Finland

The platforms are just large enough for one or maybe two people: just what we could use for social distancing. Could they be redesigned to be safe from both viruses and gravity? Perhaps, though it’s hard to imagine a redesign that also satisfies ADA requirements and even harder to think of installing one in a litigious society. But tough times demand inventive, maybe even risky, solutions. Just maybe not this one.

Plastics in the Time of COVID:

Are Single-Use Plastics a Global Scourge or Necessity?

The answer, on this 50th anniversary of Earth Day occurring during a pandemic, is both. Single-use plastics have always had pros and cons, but the scale has temporarily shifted. Yes, SUPs are a serious problem. It’s tempting to say they should just be eliminated. (And I have, here and here, as well as keeping track of places where they have been.) The evidence of the problem is overwhelming, from heart-wrenching images of animals killed or maimed (turtles and albatrosses especially) to beaches covered in detritus. And then there is the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Moreover, there are ways we can eliminate virtually all of our use of SUPs. After all, we did pretty well without them until a few decades ago.

The major exception has been medical applications. Yes, hospitals and doctors’ offices functioned without them in times past, but medical care has changed and SUPs in the form of things such as biohazard containers and IV bags would be difficult if not impossible to replace. And in many cases, finding ways to sterilize used items is simply not cost-effective, which makes their existence even more crucial in this pandemic. No one has seriously suggested eliminating those applications of SUPs.

In fighting COVID-19, those who have reduced or removed SUPs from their lives face a distasteful choice in order to preserve those lives. Plastic bags and disposable gloves surround us, and it’s difficult in this moment to eliminate them from our daily lives, let alone admonish others.

[Update: since writing this post, the necessity of bagging food in plastic bags has been disproven. It’s disappointing that most people and delivery services are still using plastic. I was happy to see the other day that our chain drugstore offered only paper bags and charged 5c for them, per NYS law. But that seems, so far, to be an exception.]

When I received a grocery delivery (yes, we got a delivery slot after a week), it came in a trunk load of plastic bagged items. Compounding this evil was the fact that those bags had – finally – just been banned in New York State, where I live. But it was hard to argue with the appropriateness of the packaging, much of it double-bagged. And we were, if not overjoyed, at least relieved to see our tomatoes and carrots bagged in plastic within the plastic. In fact, thinking of the at-risk elderly parents we are isolating with, we selected produce that was pre-packaged in those clamshell plastic containers or sealed plastic bags in the theory that they had been handled less than loose items.

You could see this as putting ourselves selfishly ahead of the planet, an equation that had been written much differently until now. We could rationalize that it wasn’t actually selfish, that we were contributing to the health of others who, despite carefulness and social distancing, we might put at risk.

In order to partially justify those grocery bags, we sequestered them for a few days so that we could reuse them. They’ve become handy for uses like safely handling the mail.

plastic bags decontaminatimg

sequestering plastics bags so we can reuse them

The question is what our attitude toward plastic bags and take-out utensils will be when this is all over. Will, for instance, that NYS plastic bag ban that took years to achieve be revoked? Will the recent resistance to plastic straws – even though they have little to do with contagion – be lost? Or, will the need to return to normalcy also mean moving ahead with environmental movements that had been becoming mainstream? And another possibility: that we will see climate change for what it is, a slow-moving pandemic. (The bad news: we have a president who has called both of them a hoax.)

Is it “too soon” to start talking about this? Perhaps. But whether the answers are ones that we want to hear or not, it’s important for our own and everyone’s wellbeing, emotionally as well as environmentally, that we think beyond our temporary crisis.