Tag Archives: consumption

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.

 

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?

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/

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

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

Embed from Getty Images

There was plenty of news on other environmental fronts, as I wrote in that post. Most notably, climate change took a beating under our rogue president, but that beating, as I’ve been noting in several posts (here and here), has engendered a backlash in which other institutions (local governments, NGOs, businesses and even the military) have been taking up the mantle.

Similarly, the rapidly increasing awareness of the scale of our plastics problem has resulted in a correspondingly rapid escalation of attempts to address the problem. Hence my continuing tabulation of the bans and taxes worldwide on single-use plastics – and my desire to acknowledge EcoWatch for their reporting.

On the flip side, George Monbiot writes in The Guardian: “We won’t save the Earth with a better kind of disposable coffee cup.” In it, he touches on two points. The first is one that I try to make in all my classes and involves taking a step back to see if you are asking the right question. Regarding disposable coffee cups, he writes:

[S]ome people asked me, “So what should we use instead?” The right question is, “How should we live?” But systemic thinking is an endangered species.

The version of this I usually pose in my classes asks: if you were tasked with challenging the plastic waste generated by toothbrushes, what would you do? The usual answers are to make it of recycled plastic or biodegradable plastic or design it with replaceable heads, etc. But the “right” question to ask, instead, is: is there a better way to clean our teeth? This opens up a different realm of possibilities in which, maybe, we don’t need toothbrushes at all.

The second point Monbiot makes is a “structural” one. In the case of plastics and many other materials, the solution to waste, we’re told, is to recycle. But as I and others have written, this puts the responsibility in the wrong hands, purposely shifting it from corporations to consumers, i.e. us.

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

Following the failure of legislation loose alliance of oil and chemical companies, along with drinks and packaging manufacturers, pursued a two-part strategy that would successfully defuse anti-plastic sentiment for a generation. The first part of the strategy was to shift responsibility for litter and waste from companies to consumers. Rather than blaming the companies that had promoted disposable packaging and made millions along the way, these same companies argued that irresponsible individuals were the real problem. This argument was epitomised by a 1965 editorial in a US packaging trade journal headlined “Guns Don’t Kill People”, which blamed “the litterbugs who abuse our countryside” rather than the manufacturers themselves.

This was memorialized in the famous “Crying Indian” television commercial in which the supposed Indian (he was actually Italian) sheds a tear about littering, saying “People start pollution; people can stop it.”  Corporations may be considered people, but that’s obviously not whom the makers of the commercial were referring to.

Monbiot continues his point:

This represents the mistaken belief that a better form of consumerism will save the planet. The problems we face are structural: a political system captured by commercial interests, and an economic system that seeks endless growth. Of course we should try to minimise our own impacts, but we cannot confront these forces merely by “taking responsibility” for what we consume.

He casts a much wider, more foundational outlook:

One-planet living means not only seeking to reduce our own consumption, but also mobilising against the system that promotes the great tide of junk. This means fighting corporate power, changing political outcomes and challenging the growth-based, world-consuming system we call capitalism.

Disposable coffee cups made from new materials are not just a non-solution: they are a perpetuation of the problem. Defending the planet means changing the world.

While this would appear to negate much of what we are doing, the more profound questioning leads to EcoOptimistic responses that look at how to not simply address a problem in short-term, limited ways, but instead to change things – concepts, systems, thinking (i.e. systems thinking) – to get to the core and truly address causes.

Putting the cost of recycling onto manufacturers is a response to this. In England, there’s a proposal to force retailers to pay the cost of collecting and recycling packaging materials. Germany has had a version of this since 1991, and it’s getting expanded. (The EPA had a webpage about packaging regulations employed by other countries but – no surprise – it’s been removed. You can find some of it preserved by the Internet archive Wayback Machine.)

You could look at this as a New Year’s resolution for us: challenge ourselves to challenge the others who create problems by selfishly shifting responsibility. Many of us make resolutions to go the gym more often. The problem is that, aside from rapidly letting the well-intended resolution fall by the wayside, it doesn’t really address the causes of the problem such as fast food (which is largely a creation of big business) and sedentary lifestyles, which are in part of product of suburban sprawl (sitting in cars) and in-home entertainment. You could make an argument that cars, television and single-use plastics are a result of consumer demand, but what created and then encouraged that demand?

We Need to Dispose of the Word Disposable

I’ve often written here [1, 2, 3, 4] about how word choices can affect how we see things. Problematic connotations can sometimes arise by stigma and sometimes by subtle associations. A classic environmental example is how we refer to global warming. In the 90s, the Republican strategist Frank Luntz encouraged rebranding it as climate change because it seemed less frightening and would therefore make it less of an issue. (The irony is that it’s actually a more accurate term. But because it minimizes perception of the problem, as Luntz desired, many of us prefer to call it something more emphatic like climate disruption.)

In a similar vein, years ago, before the advent of LED lights, when improved fluorescent lights were the most energy-efficient technology, I wrote in a guest column in a lighting industry magazine that the word “fluorescent” had too many negative associations with its older, uglier versions. So, to get people to come around to the newer, more pleasing fluorescent bulbs, I wrote that they needed to be renamed.

The impetus for this current thought about words that can have misleading connotations occurred as I was sitting in a waiting room that had a coffee station. In need of caffeine – I had forgotten my coffee travel mug – I grabbed a cup. As I finished making my fix, I looked at the counter and saw the disposable Styrofoam cup, the disposable “K-cup” coffee pod and the tiny – you guessed it, disposable – milk container. My “garbage guilt” set in.

Those little ketchup squeeze tubes are another pet peeve. My order of fries inevitable needs a half dozen or more of them. They make a messy pile of garbage that can be neither recycled or composted. Plus they get all over your hands. They’re a rare example of something both disposable and inconvenient.

The litter atop that coffee station caused me to ponder the word “disposable.” For many people, disposability connotes convenience (finger-coating Ketchup pouches aside). You don’t have to bring stuff – containers, utensils, plastic bags – with you and you don’t have to worry about cleaning or taking care of them. Just toss it. No problem. Disposability is seen as a positive thing, reinforced by the “able” suffix.

The word makes the use of disposable things and the resulting garbage seem OK. They’re meant to be guiltlessly thrown away because that’s how they’re designed and perceived.

When I advocated for renaming fluorescent bulbs, I couldn’t come up with a replacement term. I’d like to do better here, especially as single-use plastics are being increasingly recognized as a major problem. (The issue is being addressed in part by bans and fees – see my “Status of Plastic Bans” list – but even then, there’s pushback by both users and producers.)

So, how can we retitle disposability? My first thought was an obvious one. Just call it what it is: “landfill.” But that doesn’t work as an adjective in front of “cups” or “bags” (or with the current fixation on straws).

Next, I attempted to channel Stephen Colbert’s coining of “truthiness” with “disposiness.” But I’m not as clever as Colbert and it didn’t feel like it solved the problem.  There was, though, some, er, truth to it as the garbage never really gets disposed of. It’s still here, just relocated. When we throw things away, there is, as Bill McDonough is fond of saying, no “away.”

I’ve concluded that our new term needs to have that suffix “able” in it, but with a prefix that drives the point home. Garbagable? Trashable? Wastable? They still imply, though, that because something has the ability to be thrown out – e.g. it’s trashable – it’s OK. The word needs to communicate that single-use stuff that doesn’t decompose or effectively recycle is NOT okay. It’s wasteful and it’s a problem so it needs to be discouraged. But I don’t usually advocate for guilting people into environmental action. That’s been repeatedly shown to not work. Better to play upon self-interest and desire. “Wasteful” (I rejected “wastable” even though I like creating new words) heads in the right direction – who wants to be wasteful? – but still doesn’t quite get us there.

We need to somehow say you really don’t want to do this. Not an admonishment that you shouldn’t do it.  And it needs to be “sticky,” meaning the word will attach itself to the item the way disposable does.

I’m reluctantly left for the moment with “garbagy.” But it still doesn’t fully meet my criteria. Plus, the English language being what it is, you wouldn’t be sure how to spell or pronounce it.

Maybe I should ask Colbert.

Wrongest Product Awards nominee

It’s been quite a while since we posted a Wrongest Product Award nomination. Our self-appointed mission to publish positive environmental news has, since you-know-when, become both more important and more difficult, and has pushed the nomination of award recipients to the back burner. But, still, or perhaps even more so, we all need some diversions.

And so a recent – not tongue-in-cheek, I should note – post in Gizmodo (a blog that serves up a surprising amount of environmental news) prompted this new nomination.

In our hyper-partisan world, many of us have felt the need to sharpen our knives. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course. But sharp knives – the real kind, not merely for verbal jousting – can, obviously,  be dangerous to users. That must be the impetus for this product: the JosephJoseph 8515 Blade Brush Knife and Cutlery Cleaner Brush. (Yes, it has “Joseph” and “brush” twice in its name. Just to make sure, I guess.)

As I see it, this falls in the same category as egg slicers and bagel slicers. You can do the same job perfectly well without accessory gadgets. (Is an accessory gadget akin to an accessory to a crime?) I slide a sponge – or a rag if you’re being more eco – along the knife with the edge pointed away and my fingers safely away from the edge. No problem.

On the flip side, I have to mention that, for reasons I still haven’t quite figured out, we were recently given a hand-me-down hamburger patty maker and, yes, it actually does do a better job than my two cupped hands can. Maybe it’s significant that the people who gave it to us also have a bagel slicer.


The
Wrongest Product Awards will go to those products (and their designers) that embody the least amount of redeeming value while incurring the use of unnecessary, often gratuitous, materials or energy.

How is this relevant to EcoOptimism, you might ask? Easy – it shows how extraneous so many products are, often in a “what-were-they-thinking” sense.

Nominations are open. Send yours to ImNotBuyinIt (at) EcoOptimism.com.

Plastics: A Combined Distillery and EcoOptimism Post, Part 2

Beyond the Ban:
Plastics Alternatives and Mitigation

We can all use some positive news these days, especially on the environmental front in which science is considered evil, denial is an alternative fact and the EPA is now what I’m calling the Environmental Destruction Agency. And while I don’t want to gloss over the issues – there isn’t enough paint in the world to do that – I offer here The Distillery, a weekly (or thereabouts) selection of posts to help offset the PTSD of our current nightmare.

The posts I pick will be “real” in the sense that they aren’t pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking, as fun as those can be, but are evidence of EcoOptimism.


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

 

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

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

Image: Ocean Cleanup Project via EcoWatch

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Treehugger
April 13, 2018

“Brussels has an ingenious solution to wasteful takeout containers”

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

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

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

Image credit: David Bergman

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

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

Image from HemmingsDaily

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

Image credit: www.ecoproducts.com

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

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

From Engadget:
March 2, 2018

“Lego will soon make bricks out of sugarcane bioplastics”

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

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

From The Guardian:
April 16, 2018

“Scientists accidentally create mutant enzyme that eats plastic bottles”

Credit: Still image from video in The Guardian

From Grist:
March 2, 2018

“Mealworms munch on Styrofoam without dying, shock scientists”

Image credit: Geek.com

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

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

Plastics: A Combined Distillery and EcoOptimism post

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From EcoWatch
April 26, 2018

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

From Treehugger.com
April 19, 2018

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

From EcoWatch
February 12, 2018

“The Queen Declares War on Plastic”

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

From Treehugger.com
February 27, 2018

“Is the UK about to ban plastic straws?”

From EcoWatch
February 15, 2018

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

From The New York Times
March 3, 2018

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

Grocery store packaging is also one of the biggest culprits:

Source: EcoWatch

From EcoWatch
February 28, 2018

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

From CNN
February 28, 2018

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

From The Guardian
January 11, 2018

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

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

From Fox News
March 29, 2018

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

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

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

Source: Wikimedia

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

From The New York Times
April 23, 2018

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

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

From EcoWatch
May 14, 2018

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

Upcoming soon in the Distillery: some EcoOptimistic solutions

Fake Growth

(or, The Gross Domestic Product is Gross)

The last time I wrote about the problem with making economic growth a national goal, it was February 2013 and Obama was president. It seems sooo long ago.

EcoOptimism is a bit obsessed with the concept of growth (here and here, as well as the link above) and its misplaced and misleading focus on Gross Domestic Product. It‘s a contender for the most frequent topic here, up there with “win-win-win,” which is the essence of EcoOptimism.

In one of the other posts on this topic, I wrote that a major problem with economists’ and, especially, politicians’ attachment to the supposed necessity of growth – and particularly growth as measured by GDP – is the attractiveness of the word itself. Who can argue with growth? Who can oppose it and survive attack?

So I looked at ways to get around this by using a different word – a word or phrase that sounded as positive and appealing as growth. I mentioned “post-growth” as a phrase that many growth critics favor. I suggested “regrowth.” I brought up a less familiar term, “plenitude,” employed by Juliet Schor in her book by the same title.

But I wasn’t overwhelmed by any of them. I’d written in one of those previous posts: “how [can we] make a counterintuitive idea appealing? Facts and figures we have aplenty. It’s the sound bite we’re missing.”

While reading yet another book that criticizes focusing on conventional economic growth, I started getting worked up about a new way of putting it: “real growth.” Aside from its simplicity, its strength is that it makes conventional growth sound the opposite of real.

But from there, I jumped to thinking about things unreal and, in our current political climate, the word “fake” seemed an obvious synonym. I’ve been, shall we say, annoyed about the co-opting of the phrase “fake news.” It was originally used, back in the beginning of the campaign we wish we could forget, to refer to social media posts that we now know were planted by Russia and had a major influence on the election. But somehow, in an example of brilliant PR, the phrase got adopted by the right wing and by the man I’ve referred to as SCROTUS (so-called ruler of the United States) to malign any news they didn’t like. So, much as I hate that, I have to admire its success.

Which brings me back to growth and, specifically, the potential of “real growth” as its counterpoint. By implication then, conventional growth is not real. It’s FAKE. (Putting it in ungrammatical caps as SCROTUS does somehow makes it more effective.)

So I hereby propose, using all the powers vested in me, this combination of terms: real growth vs fake growth. Can “fake growth” make the point? Can it provide the sound bite in a social media world, where other terms haven’t?

Let the tweets begin.

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