Plastics: Eco-Comedy / Eco-Tragedy

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On the power of humor, one farmer’s stand, birds, bottle caps, better bottles, trash-tracking and why corporations need  to push politicians toward smarter recycling policy

Here at TrackerNews, where our unofficial tagline is “One Damn Thing After Another,” the focus tends to be on the grim. Floods, droughts, plagues, blights, quakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, climate change, pandemics, drug-resistance, fake drugs,  oil spills, nuclear accidents, dead bees, dead trees, melting ice, rising seas, acidic oceans, aging populations, e-waste… Lather, rinse, repeat.

That doesn’t mean we don’t have a sense of humor. Indeed, sometimes humor is the only thing that keeps us going. So when a music video on the evils of single-use plastic bags came flying in through the email transom, we perked right up (thanks Chris Palmer!). “A Plastic State of Mind,” co-winner of  this year’s Eco-Comedy Video Competition (who knew “eco-comedy” was a genre?), blew us away while hitting a bull’s eye on mission: We promise—we really do—to bring our canvas bags into the store, rather than forget them with a means-well shrug in the car. Or this could happen:

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Talk about “ads worth spreading”…

FARM(STAND) POLICY

Taking a more direct approach, farmer Henry Brockman, whose bounty is the stuff delectable legend at the summer market in Evanston, IL, just north of Chicago, charges for recyclable plastic bags, encouraging customers to bring their own re-usable bags instead. Within a single season, he managed to reduce demand 90%, taking 27,000 bags out of the plastic pollution equation. One little farm-stand. One small weekly market. A start.

Still, as his writer sister Terra notes, “recyclable plastic” isn’t exactly a get-out-eco-jail-card–free, so that’s still 3,000 bags too many:

First, we learned there is considerable doubt that biodegradable bags really do degrade under the conditions they are supposed to—including water, sun, and underground (e.g. landfill). Second, the renewable resource used to make most biodegradable plastics is corn, the chemical-intensive production of which has its own set of negative environmental impacts. To add insult to injury, we learned that the corn used to make the bags we purchased was grown in China. Thus, our “green” bags were contributing to soil loss, polluted wells, damaged ecosystems, and food insecurity in China—not to mention all the fossil-fuel use and concomitant pollution that started in a field in China, continued in a bag factory there, and then went on with emissions from trucks, ships, planes, and trucks again to finally get into our hands.

The Seasons On  Henry’s Farm: A Year of Food and Life on a Sustainable Farm

FOR THE BIRDS

If that isn’t enough for you to give up your errant plastic ways, do it for the birds. Photographers Chris Jordan and Kris Krug are currently on Midway Island,  filming a documentary follow-up to Jordan’s disturbing 2009 photo-essay on albatross killed from feeding in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirl of plastic rubbish in the middle of the ocean. The birds have a fatal fondness for plastic bottle caps, which accumulate in their stomachs, leading to agonizing deaths. Smaller bits of near invisible plastic—some no doubt that started out as single-use bags—threaten the food web itself.

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A BETTER BOTTLE?

Back in the grocery store, cola giants Pepsi and Coke are battling it out for “green” bottle bragging rights. Coke made the first move last year, introducing a 30% bioplastic bottle. Pepsi matched that and then some, announcing a new 100% bioplastic container to be rolled out in pilot trials next year.

With the cost of oil ever-rising, it’s a smart move financially. By some estimates, 200,000 barrels of oil per day are used to create plastic packaging, just in the US. Finding a cheaper, abundant, locally sourced feedstock is double eco-smart: ecological and economic.

Yet unless the recycle rate is vastly improved, there is a limit to the good it will do. Less than a third of all the plastic bottles that could be recycled actually are. The rest? Near-eternal entombment in landfills or swirling for decades in a toxic “ocean patch” vortex of death (every ocean has one…). The task isn’t made any easier when budget-slashing politicians, such as Wisconsin’s Governor Walker, cut municipal recycling funds.

An handful of companies and grocery chains, such as Aveda and Whole Foods, have plastic recycling programs, but it is a drop in the garbage bucket. And, though good-hearted, they take work. Who really wants to collect and schlep bags of plastic bottle caps to the store?

This is an issue that goes well beyond an “Earth Hour” or even a whole “Earth Day,” which, for all the hype and raised awareness, haven’t managed to move the dial nearly far enough. Policy, political will and corporate support must match the technical advances that have been made in materials science. Closed loop design only works if the loop can, in fact, be closed.

In 2009, a team from MIT’s Senseable City lab tagged 3,000 pieces of garbage in Seattle with tracking chips. Then they charted the journeys of each item over a two-month span, creating a mesmerizing data visualization video set to Hayden’s “Farewell Symphony.” An impressive 75% + found its way to a recycling facility and 95% was processed near the metro area. Those encouraging  numbers, however, may reflect skews specific to Seattle’s garbage / recycling pick-up services, the 500 garbage-providing volunteers, or the types of garbage collected. E-waste, for example, traveled an an average of nearly a 1,000 miles, adding a sizable carbon footprint to the process.

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Imagine if every major metro area developed a “garbage profile” to help pinpoint areas for improvement? The “feel-good” of recycling coupled with hard data to drive innovation: “Farewell Symphony”? Meet “Hello Dolly”!

It’s either that or a more “Plastic State of Mind”:

LYRICS
Shoulda brought your own bag
Yeah but you forgot it though
You were busy dreamin of ice cream and
all that cookie dough

Your life is wrapped in plastic
Convenience is your motto
But plastic addiction’s worse
than they want you to know

BP’s oil spill
Almost like we did it –
We use one million grocery-bags
every single minute

Recycling them’s a joke yo
That baggie don’t go anywhere
It turns to little pieces
and then it spreads over everywhere

Into your food supply
Into your blood supply
Not to mention birds and fish and
Cuties you don’t wanna die

Just look at baby Sammy
Dioxins in its milky way,
cuz even her breast milk it’s got
PCB and BPA

OK now you get it
How you gonna stop it though
Banning Single Use Plastic Bags
is the way to go!

Join other states and cities
Kick the nasty habit
Tell your representatives
Ban single-use bags made from plastic…

RELATED ARTICLES / RESOURCES:

Green Circle: Redefining the Extractive Economy—TrackerNews.net Link Suite Overview

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Recycling isn’t just sorting the trash for garbage pick-up any more. A new generation of designers, entrepreneurs and activists is coming up with all kind of clever ways to connect seemingly disparate supply chains, turn expense into profit and redefine the “extractive economy” through a mix of biomimicry and circular thinking.

“Green Circle” – New suite of links on TrackerNews.net

The ancient alchemists aimed low, merely attempting to turn lead into gold for personal gain. The real magic, according to the chemists at start-up Micromidas , may be both muckier and microbial: turning sludge into bio-degradable plastic. If they are right, and their scheme scales commercially, it will be a win for everyone. What was once a problem will be transformed into an asset as a (literal) waste stream becomes a valuable feedstock. What was a  municipal cost will become a source of municipal income. And throw-away products made from eco-friendly plastic will, actually, go away, decomposing into environmentally compatible parts, instead of swirling into eternity in middle-of-the-ocean gyres.

It is a radical re-think of the “extractive economy,” notes Ryan Smith, Micromidas’ CTO. After a few centuries of hauling finite resources—from fossil fuels to rare earth minerals—out of the ground, we have enough on the surface to keep us going, and in fairly good style, but only if we refocus our collective tech smarts and investment dollars on mining garbage.

Drilling for oil and refining it into a form that can be used to make a plastic bottle, for example,  is a long, complicated giant-carbon-footprint process. When the bottle is tossed, the energy embedded in its manufacture is lost as well.

Architect William McDonough’s paradigm of “cradle to cradle” (C2C) design, which calls for products to be developed with recycling in mind, is subtly shifting towards what’s being called the “circular economy.” This is biomimicry nested into systems thinking and goes beyond the C2C mantra of “waste = food.” It is about  transformation, creative re-use and discovering unintended possibilities (or, to put it in evolutionary biology terms, “exaptations”**– traits evolved for one set of needs that come in handy for something completely different).

From Terracycle, an “upcycling” company that turns juice pouches into pop culture-stylish backpacks and sells worm poop fertilizer in re-used plastic bottles, to Recycle Match, whose founder refers to the company as the “eBay of garbage,” the focus is on keeping as much as possible from needlessly ending up in landfills.

Likewise, Oregon-based clothing manufacturer Looptworks, creates limited edition fashion lines from high-quality “pre-consumer” waste, a.k.a. surplus fabric that mills and manufactures otherwise simply discard. Nearly 12 billion pounds of textile waste is produced annually just in the U.S.—much of it destined for landfills. They have rejiggered the traditional fashion business model by creating smaller runs that require less lead time (a couple of months versus a year, or more), sourcing great fabrics at bargain prices and streamlining the distribution network, using the internet both for direct sales and developing a national retail network. Lower labor, material and distribution costs drop straight to the bottom line.

Ecovative Design wants to keep styrofoam out of landfills, not by re-using it, but replacing it with a product whose production itself diverts would-be agricultural waste streams from landfills. Founder Eben Bayer and his team developed a process that infuses crop byproducts packed into special molds with mushroom mycelium. In less than a week, the mycelium consume the ag waste, creating a sturdy biodegradable polymer in whatever shape the mold happened to be. Instead of throwing away packing materials, consumers can compost them for their gardens. Even if the material ends up in a landfill, it will break down quickly, unlike styrene, which can last for millennia. Also, because the “mycobond” process requires comparatively little investment in machinery—the fungus does most of the heavy-lifting—and can be adapted for a broad range of ag waste material, it lends itself for a distributed production network. That means yet another level of carbon-footprint savings shipping product over shorter distances.

The wisdom of the (scrap metal) grasshopper / Edouard Martinet

Perhaps the most poetic example of “upcycling” in the TrackerNews link suite is Edouard Martinet’s stunningly intricate scrap metal sculputures. Cutlery, bicycle parts  and office machine components are turned into spot-on grasshoppers, fish, frogs and birds. The sleight-of-junk is even more impressive in that the parts aren’t soldered together,  but selected: pieces for extravagantly intricate puzzles. An exaptation mash-up at the art gallery. Calling Edward Scissorhands

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CALLING ALL DESIGNERS, DIY’ers & CLEVER FOLK IN GENERAL: TWO GREAT COMPETITIONS

  • Win two free tickets to Compostmodern! (Really, who can resist a conference with such a great name?) All you need to do is rescue something garbage-bound and design a genuinely useful reincarnation for it. Entries for the GOOD magazine-sponsored competition must be submitted by December 20, 2010. The San Francisco-based conference, organized by the local AIGA chapter, takes place on January 22-23.

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* Micromidas’ website is currently being upgraded. Contact information: rsmith (@) micromidas (dot) com.

** Can exaptations apply to ideas? Yes, yes, yes, according to Steven Johnson, who devotes an entire chapter to it in his terrific new book, “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation”

PopTech: Day 1 – Reimagining and Beyond Imagining

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Blame it on the birds. And the elephants, lions, biochar, Indonesian agroforestry, dirt batteries, mechanical caterpillar waves, global maps, messenger bag-cum-lighting systems, a cyber-dance experience and one very lovely essay about migration. But not too far into the first day of PopTech, the conference’s “Reimagining America” theme disappeared. Which was fine. It seemed too limited for a confab about Big Thoughts, even here in a small, charming  American town (that could use a little reimagining itself – connectivity way, way too spotty). In any case, you can’t really reimagine, or even imagine, America without including the rest the world in the equation.

And nobody brought that point home with more heart-wrenching eloquence than Chris Jordan with his slide show of photographs of dead albatross on Midway Island, killed by a diet of plastic from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Photograph after photographs of birds, heads twisted by pain, guts split by a bounty of all too familiar bottle caps – perky shades of reds and blues favored by marketers – had the audience in shock and *this* audience in tears. This wasn’t an isolated occasional bird tragedy, but the picture of a extinction-in-progress. And because it took so darn long for anyone to discover the Garbage Patch, a ghostly-insidious man-made chemically-enhanced primordial soup the size of at least a couple of Texas’s (Texi?), it is far too late to do much about it – at least for the albatross (“Midway Journey” project blog – notes & videos).

Which doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. Save the microbes! Save the plankton! Save the food chain!  Who knows? We might just save ourselves, too.

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The day was filled with jolts of Overwhelming Problems paired with Glimmers of Hope.

John Fetterman, the myth-come-to-life mayor of Braddock, PA, a bankrupt rust-belt town that had been all but written off. A strikingly tall bald figure, with dates tattooed on his massive arms to remember the victims of violent crimes (thankfully, no new tattoos in over a year), Fetterman’s unvarnished recitation of all that had gone wrong coupled with some very basic ideas of what can be done had the crowd on a can-do upswing. Renovate those $5,000 homes (average price – since the recession, they’ve lost value). Add artists. LOTS of artists. Plant urban gardens. Hold lots of family-friendly it-takes-a-village-to-make-a-village. Clear debris and make a park. Then came news of a major hospital closing, which will not only take jobs from the area, but leave the population – mostly poor and minority – in a health-care desert. It is hard to make money taking care of poor people. So much for the greater public good or, for that matter, public health.

I began to wonder whether some of the health solutions being tested in the developing world –  many driven by cell phone tech – wouldn’t be appropriate here, too? (e.g., PopTech Fellow Josh Nesbit’s FrontlineSMS: Medic & Hope Phones).

Indeed, one of the conference’s most intriguing themes to emerge so far is this concept of two-way innovation: developed to developing world and vice-versa. (Note to makers of One Laptop Per Child: I really really REALLY want one of those computer screens designed for use in full sun…)

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On the Glimmers of Hope front, the PopTech Fellows were batting it out of the park. From Jason Aramburu‘s efforts to commercialize biochar, a carbon negative solution that also improves soil fertility, to Eben Bayer’s nifty mushroom-mediated compostable alternative to landfill-choaking styrofoam, Aviva Presser Aiden and Hugo van Vurveen’s “dirt batteries” and Emily Pilloton’s no-nonsense determination to enlist an army of young designers to come up with Better Answers, there was a sense that it’s still not too late. We can, just maybe, turn this thing around and not go down the climate change tubes.

FLAP – Flexible Light and Power – a prototype of a portable lighting system stitched into a Timbuktu messenger bag – also caught the crowd’s imagination. Designed by MIT’s Sheila Kennedy, it’s a simple idea that could radically change the way we think about solar deployment, opening up the space to all kinds of new ideas. No longer would solar be consigned to rooftop panels or a strip on a pocket calculator. It can almost literally be woven into the fabric of our lives, turning us into portable “plants,” photosynthesizing as we go about our daily business. (More from Erik Hersman on field-testing the design in Africa.)

Indonesia-based Willie Smits also has big plans for photosynthesis, with a scheme that would not only reforest the world’s rain forests, but generate jobs and an array of crops, supply power to poor villages, restore biodiversity and wildlife habitat and dramatically reduce demand for foreign oil. Smits “Tapergy” plans is an integrated system that works with Nature to increase the productivity of land while capping CO2 “volcanos” that result when millions of acres of land, particularly peat-lands, are cleared from monoculture oil palm plantations. (read more about Smits work in “Trees for Trees” post – page down to section on “You Had Me at Organgutan” – includes videos)

There was much more to Day 1. But Day 2 is about to begin. So, connectivity willing, follow on twitter: #poptech / @trackernews.

Phone Riff: Hope Phones, Healthy Texting, Conflict Minerals, Ecological Intelligence, Blue Sweaters and Doing the Right Thing

hopephoneblogHope Phones is one of those “Gosh, yes!” ideas:

  • Get people to donate old cell phones to a recycling company
  • Get recycling company to assign each phone a value
  • Use value to trade for refurbished phones
  • Donate refurbished phones to clinics in developing countries to use for sending health-related text messages
  • Good begets good

Stanford student Josh Nesbit, who came up with the scheme, spent last summer at a tiny hospital in rural Malawi armed with 100 refurbished phones ($10 per), a used laptop and some free software called FrontlineSMS for managing text messages. Could he set up a phone network to deliver more and better health care to the 250,000 people living in the region served by the hospital?

Phones were given to a group of volunteer community health workers who support the hospital’s two (count’em two) staff doctors, traveling dozens of miles by motorbike and on foot each day to meet patients. It was the first time some of them they had ever used a phone. $500 was allocated as the annual budget for messages (10 cents per = 5,000).

The wins were immediate and sizable. In the first six months, the hospital saved $3,000 in motorbike fuel, shaved off 3,500 hours in staff travel time, while doubling the number of TB patients served. Nesbit, pumped by such a simple triumph of tech-for-the-greater good, now wants to scale up the project and duplicate it Bangladesh, Burundi, Honduras, Uganda, Lesotho and additional clinics in Malawi. Which means phones. Lots of phones.

But Hope Phones may prove to be an even better idea than he realizes.

MOBILE PILE-UP

As amazing and essential as cell phones have become, their disposal is a logistical and hazmat nightmare. Even in a down economy, well over a billion cell phones and smartphones are sold each year. According to the EPA, between 100 million and 130 million discarded phones are sitting in drawers in the U.S., mostly because people don’t know what to do with them. (Some estimates peg the annual number “retired” handsets at 155 million, which translates 426,000 per day. Taking current recycling numbers into account, then rolling over the surplus from year to year, the number of stashed phones can probably be measured in the hundreds of millions.)

If nothing else, it is a giant waste of energy. According ot the EPA:

If Americans recycled 100 million phones, we could save enough upstream energy to power more than 194,000 U.S. households for a year. If consumers were able to reuse those 100 million cell phones, the environmental savings would be even greater, saving enough energy to power more than 370,000 U.S. homes each year.

Most Americans, of course, want the upgrade, not last year’s model. The average life expectancy of a phone in the U.S. is a fleeting 18 months. Still, they are more than good enough for sending basic SMS messages, so it’s a matter of getting them to where they’re needed and wanted.

Photographer Chris Jordan's presentation at the 2008 Greener Gadgets Conference

Photographer Chris Jordan's presentation at the 2008 Greener Gadgets Conference

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