Junkyard Planet

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The phrase “out of sight, out of mind” could have been coined with me in mind.  Once I drop my trash and recycling into the bin and haul it to the curb, I rarely think about it again.   Only as my son, 3.5, began to beg me to talk about garbage and recycling trucks most nights as a bedtime story did I have to literally answer the question “Where do garbage trucks go?”

Initially, I told him the trash went to the “junkyard.”  Which is true to a certain extent. However, I knew it wasn’t the full answer, so I checked out a book from the library that I had heard about last year.

I first heard about “Junkyard Planet,” by Adam Minter, after NPR had an interview with the author. No less than 3 of my friends sent me a link, knowing I’m green-info junkie and love reading.  However, I hadn’t listened to the segment, so I didn’t come to the book with much knowledge beyond the dust jacket blurb.

Minter’s book reads like a detective novel, criss-crossing the country and globe searching for the resting place of a variety of suspects: plastic, paper, various metals, e-waste.  The author grew up around the scrap business has a decade long career reporting on junk. The resulting detail, characters, and in-depth knowledge, not to mention his great prose, makes this mystery story a delight to read

As we all know, Americans produce a lot of waste.  Minter puts it like this “The richer you are, and the more educated you are, the more stuff you will throw away.”  Not only trash, but also recycling, needs to leave your house.  The stuff you throw away still has some value, but extracting that value from the “harvest” of your recyclables takes effort.

Furthermore, the value still left in that harvest depends on an ever-shifting confluence of factors. How costly is it to process the material?  How far do you need to ship the materials? How pure is the feedstock? (Feedstock refers to the type or raw material material used to supply a demand: such as paper, metal, types of plastics).  In answering these questions Minter starts to get to the heart of the recycling worries that often linger on the fringes of green-minded do-gooders everywhere.

Is everything I recycle ultimately going to China?

This is one of the main questions I had when I picked up Junkyard Planet, and although Minter doesn’t mention Salem, MA specifically, the ways he tracks recycling leads me to conclude that even if my paper and metal stays local, it’s likely some portion of my plastics, e-waste, and any old car I’ve had has definitely taken a slow boat to China.

Certainly, one of the best reasons for reading this book would be to get a description of what recycling looks like in China.  Minter paints a picture of the industry that has grown up around U.S. discards.  He details a vivid picture of the people and places involved, both workers and owners, countryside and cities.

This part of the book was gritty and uncomfortable to read, and not just because of my role in the process.  No, the most uncomfortable part is that there are no definitive answers for what to do about the current exports, from an environmental or human rights standpoint.

Would legislation help the situation? Certainly, but as Minter points out, the issue isn’t even the most important problem for China right now.  And, if not China, then it’s likely another developing nation would quickly leap forward to make money off American excess, or worse, virgin materials would be mined leading to further environmental degradation and higher energy expenditure. There are more factors at play than I wanted to know, but being more informed helped me to understand how my choices contribute to this problem.

In the final chapter of Junkyard Planet, after leading us through long, grimy journey Minter closes with an extremely important takeaway for those of us who love to recycle, and want to get more people to recycle.

“Nothing – nothing – is 100 percent recyclable, and many things, including things that we think are recyclable, like iPhone touch screens, are unrecyclable… Everyone would be doing the planet a very big favor if they… conveyed a more realistic picture of what recycling can and can’t do.”

When it comes to the the three R’s, the most important one of them is the first – Reduce. Endeavor to buy only what you need, and to share what you can.  By all means, of course, continue to recycle in every way that you can. Use the resources that are out there on the web, including our own at GreenSalem, as well as others such as those at Earth911, one of the most comprehensive websites for how to recycle anything, but make it a priority to reduce first.

As for what I’ll say to my son when he asks “Where do garbage trucks go?”

I’m planning to start telling him we need to think of more ways to make less garbage and recycling, even if it means fewer trucks.


Would you like to read more by Adam Minter?  He blogs at ShanhaiScrap, and his work can be found in TheAtlantic, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Business and more.

Another excellent review of this book can be found by Erica Grieder at the Wall Street Journal.


This post originally appeared on GreenSalem.com

Talking Trash – One Year Later

Last year I started taking a look at improving some of my sustainability practices – The first thing I looked at was trash – Here’s the original post – But I’m going to summarize last January’s conclusions below:

The Original Data –

In January (2012) I took a good look at what goes out of my house during the course of the month.  That’s right, the Trash.  I don’t want to turn this project into a legalistic minute measure of everything, merely gain some broad understanding.  So, I did the simplest thing I could think of with the trash.  I took thirty seconds every three or four days to photograph my trash can and recycling bin to see how much effluvia gets cast from the house.

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It turns out we throw away about three 13 gallon bags of kitchen trash a month (with the fourth being almost full now, in part because of the party I hosted over the weekend), and recycle 4 bins full of bottles, cans, and papers.  In addition to this, we also throw away 2 bags a month of disposable diapers. Lets say then we probably throw away about 100 gallons of trash each month, and about 150 gallons of recycling.

The Conclusions –

By and large what’s getting recycled is bean cans, cereal boxes, and seltzer bottles.  But mostly, lots and lots of Goya bean cans.  If I was going to reduce the amount of recycling (thereby starting with “reduce,” , this would be the biggest thing to tackle.  A solution to this would be to buy beans in bags and in bulk (and less seltzer. 😦 )

The two (or three depending on how you count) biggest questions that came of this were –  (1) does Salem have a composting program, or a place to bring compost, and how can I find out? (2) Should I finally switch to using cloth diapers?

The Follow-Up One Year Later:

I can confidently say we’ve reduced our Trash by half, and increased our recycling.  (Unfortunately we’re by no means down to one bag per year)

Here’s the top 4 Ways we did it:

1. Switched to Cloth Diapers 6.5 out of 7 days – I stopped thinking about the cloth thing as an “all or nothing” proposition and made a resolution to use cloth diapers every day – except for Sunday mornings, and the one nighttime diaper.  I stopped researching cloth diapers and just BOUGHT some. (There are an overwhelming number of options.) We change diapers about 5-6 times a day – which means we’ve gone from 38 disposable diapers a week to 9 or fewer.

2. Learned more about which types of plastic you can recycle (especially plastic bags.) AND bought Reusable fruit/vegetable bags for the times when we’re not part of a CSA.  You can recycle a lot more plastic bags than you think you can – like bread bags, bags that contain toilet paper/papertowels, and newspaper bags.

3.  Switched to cloth cleaning rags, and handkerchiefs – After our son no longer spit up a couple times a day we had a quite a few of these “burp cloths” hanging around.  They became our cleaning rags, and my handkerchiefs. (The husband thinks that’s gross.  But he doesn’t have allergies – so whatever.)  I think we bought 3 (possible 4) rolls of papertowels in 2012 – and they were made from recycled paper.

4. Partnered with friends to compost more.  This was the hardest project – but, like the diapers had a really big payoff, in drastically reducing trash.  We started composting in May.  When we joined the CSA in June we were able to bring the compost back to the Beverly Farmer’s Market, where a nice fellow took it away, and provided us with a huge bucket to keep it in in our entryway.  (We weathered a huge fruit fly invasion in August too.  What a pain!) When we were part of the winter CSA at Green Meadows Farm in Hamilton – they let us bring our compost there.  But, once that ended – we asked other couples at our church to see who else composted – and now we bring our compost to a friend’s house.  (Next Project – Church compost pile?!)  I also learned that you can compost tea bags and kleenex anyway.

As for the rest of our “hard to get rid of trash”  – We saved all our textiles to donate during Salem Recycles Textile Drive in November (they take usable and non-usable textiles like sheets, clothes, rags).  Textiles drives happen twice a year.

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Took advantage of Salem’s “Bulky Rigid Plastics” recycling to get rid of some broken baby toys, and old tent parts. We brought our broken dehumidifier to an electronics recycling event at Ebsco in Ipswich, donated old baby toys in usable condition to a local non-profit, and donated our car.  Electronics Recycling Events happen every couple months on the North Shore, usually listed in the Salem News.

At the end of January – our only lingering problem? What to do with our old half-broken microwave.  But I’m a sure a little research will solve this problem.

For more info on Recycling – Check out The Mass Recycling Coalition.

A Sustainability Bucket List

I was intrigued by this post from TerraBlueTeams to create my own Sustainable Bucket List.  Since one of my New Years Resolutions is to Improve my Sustainable Living, it makes sense to explore what kinds of little pieces I imagine come under this giant umbrella of possibility.

As of right now, this is my grand vision of sustainability (and environmentally friendly) living.  But actually, it probably seems naive and small, even downright homely.  Maybe this is because I’m a renter, and a renter for the foreseeable future?  Maybe because the big stuff seems to involve more money than we’ve got?  Who knows.  I suppose everyone starts small, right?

  1. Have a space readily accessible for all my compost and food scraps.  No food scraps in the trash.  Lobby my city for a composting program.
  2. Reduce the amount of plastic and cardboard that comes into my house from grocery shopping.  For example: making my own popsicles, chips, veggie burgers, pancake mix, and storing leftovers in reusable containers.
  3. Purchase 90% my fruits and veges from USA (don’t know if I have the courage to give up bananas or avocados yet…), and at least 75% from local farms.
  4. Remain a one car family. Try to get a hybrid, but go with used until then.
  5. Promote Bike Advocacy and lobby for Bike Safe Roads.  Whenever possible walk or bike to locations less than 5 miles away.
  6. Solar Panels.
  7. At least 50% (but I think we can do better) of purchases we make as a family to be previously used, including clothes, furniture, toys and books.
  8. Native Plants and Rain Barrels.
  9. Bee Farming.
  10. Share larger purchases with others such as lawnmowers and camping equipment.
  11. Promote Recycling Awareness
  12. Create Recycled Art
  13. Slow Vacations (ie: use the train, enjoy camping, explore local places)
  14. Explore Sustainability Consulting as a possible choice of occupation
  15. Choose sustainable power sources (ie: wind) if given a choice.
  16. Volunteer to protect green spaces – and always clean up what others leave behind.
  17. Create and Host Trash Pick-Ups.
The WWII slogan I’ve been chanting all year.

I want to live Sustainably – but hold’s me back from that? Read about it here in my post: Our Top 5 Roadblocks to Sustainability?

So You want to be a Radical?

I got to do two great things last week with the break between my classes.

I watched the HBO Documentary “Weight of the Nation.”

And I enjoyed Salem’s 3rd Annual Living Green & Renewable Energy Fair.

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These are two movements that I can’t get enough of and there’s actually a whole lot of links between the two of them.

Both of them present some counter-cultural choices.  There are two parts to this – the counter-cultural part and the choice part.  The status quo right now in America is to eat too much and move too little; to buy too much and reduce or reuse not enough. Unless you are making a conscious choice to identify the environmental triggers and habits that lead to both eating and buying – you’re going to do too much of them.  It’s that simple and that difficult all at the same time.

These are habits of excess, an much of them brought about by some of the lack of community up in this here US of A.  I didn’t say that, Wendell Berry did in his (1993) collection of essays Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community .  I’m inclined to agree with him.

Like a lot of revolutionary things in this world, the daily actions required for pulling off a countercultural maneuver are … pretty dull.  The second part of that documentary entitled “Choices” highlights this very well.  Losing weight is glamorous, especially on TV reality shows like the Biggest loser where someone can literally drop half their size.

But maintaining that weight?  Achingly repetitive.  There really are only so many ways to eat broccoli even if whole cookbooks are named after that.  Day in and day out for years attempting to maintain whatever weight loss has occurred, walking everywhere, taking the stairs, forgoing dessert most nights.

When it comes to “Going Green”, sure there are those radical moments like initiating Earth Day, or getting more Bike Trails funded, or striving for better sources of fuel.  And the world needs plenty of alternative thinkers, lobbyists, consultants, and innovators.  On a ground level as I’m doing my sustainability projects this year it mostly means remembering that I should buy all my sons clothes secondhand and set my beans in the pot to soak the night before I want them for a spicy bean chili.

They actually involve the same actions:  Biking to work (it’s National Bike Month, in case you didn’t know) is good for the environment and your health.  Hey, the average person loses 13 pounds their first year of bike commuting.  Crazy!

 

What the point here?  Being a radical is a chance to change the world, – but it’s lucky we have the internet, such as WordPress, so we can talk up all our mundane change and find others doing the same thing.  It’s important to do these things in community, so that we won’t get weary of doing good.

Taking out the Trash

Getting down and dirty with the trash in our house.

As a part of trying to use resources (the earth’s, and my own) more sustainably I decided I would do an inventory each month of a certain aspect of life to see what our impact was when it came to consumption.

In January I took a good look at what goes out of my house during the course of the month.  That’s right, the Trash.  I don’t want to turn this project into a legalistic minute measure of everything, merely gain some broad understanding.  So, I did the simplest thing I could think of with the trash.  I took thirty seconds every three or four days to photograph my trash can and recycling bin to see how much effluvia gets cast from the house.

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It turns out we throw away about 3 bags of kitchen trash a month (with the fourth being almost full now, in part because of the party I hosted over the weekend), and recycle 4 bins full of bottles, cans, and papers.  In addition to this, we also throw away 2 bags a month of disposable diapers. Lets say then we probably throw away about 150 gallons of trash each month, and about 150 gallons of recycling.

Internet Research turns up numbers all over the place on how much Americans may or may not generate tons of trash.  Some say, we can’t know, it’s too hard to track.  Plenty of other websites toss out a number around 4-5 pounds a day.  These numbers probably come from these EPA studies conducted on municipal waste charts.  If this is true, our family of three is around 35% of what the average American throws away (about 5 pounds per day or 1.6 pounds per person, compared to what would be 13.5 pounds for a 3 person family.  And seriously, an 8 month old is a full person in the trash generation world with all their special foods and wastes.).  What’s getting thrown away is mostly food scraps, and bags from food, such as bagel bags, cereal bags, and French fry bags.

By and large what’s getting recycled is bean cans, cereal boxes, and seltzer bottles.  But mostly, lots and lots of Goya bean cans.  If I was going to reduce the amount of recycling I make, this would be the biggest thing to tackle.  A solution to this would be to buy beans in bags and in bulk.   In order to accomplish this type of transformation I would need to learn how to soak beans in a way so that I enjoy them.  So far, I really do prefer canned beans.  So, I’ll need to experiment with a couple methods before I can permanently reduce my can use.  This Grist article is really useful if you’re looking for ways to reduce purchasing packaged foods.  The first two are about soup, perfect tie in with my other January activities.

The two (or three depending on how you count) biggest questions that came of this were –  (1) does Salem have a composting program, or a place to bring compost, and how can I find out? (2) Should I finally switch to using cloth diapers?  I always thought I would when I had a kid, but it’s harder (mentally) than I thought it would be.  Hopefully I can get these questions answered in the next few weeks to my own satisfaction.

In the future I’m planning to inventory some of the following things in my life, maybe you want to join me?

February – Water. March – Trips.  April – Money/Purchasing.  May – Time.  June – Entertainment.  July – Food.  August – Clothing.  September – Friends.  October – Health.  November – “What’s New?”  December – Energy.

On Textile Recycling

Pit Stains on your T-shirt? Don’t throw it away, Recycle it!

I come from a frugal family.  My youngest sister is 19, but there are still cloth diapers in the rag box in my parent’s basement.  I’m sure I need a new pair of running shoes now that the plastic heel of the shoe has been cutting into my skin.  For the last 5 months.  So, when I say I need to find somewhere to get rid of used clothes, I’m not talking about the Salvation Army.

But, this is always the first answer on the web, if you have used clothes, donate them.

The second layer of response is usually crafting or upcycling.  For example, you can turn wool sweaters into felt ornaments for your tree.  There are a bajillion tutorials for making a t-shirt quilt.  Then, there is this fabulous (but time consuming) t-shirt rug.

A very beautiful t-shirt rug by Xoelle

And one last link for the jean bottom purse I used to see in teen magazines everywhere.

Denim Purse from http://www.aokcorral.com

I have to ask – Did anyone actually use this after making it?

Digging a little deeper on the internet brings up more mundane possible reuses – rags, spit up cloths for babies, and donations to the local animal shelter for bedding for animals.

That first possibility of reuse is predicated on the fact that the item is only mildly worn, and still fashionable, the second believes that it’s out of date, but contains usable parts.  A textile junk yard in a way.  That third solution begins to get to the heart of the matter.  This is an item which is not reusable in any wearable or creative way by even the best DIY maven.

But this year, I finally stumbled on a real answer I’d been hoping for all along.  The best part, the solution is in my own town of Salem, MA.

The Salem Textile Recycling Drive, which got 232 people together who donated over 9000 pounds of clothing.  Crazy!  In fact, the event was so successful that the organizers are looking forward to this being a biannual event.  Congratulations Salem Recycles!

They partnered with the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association (SMART) and Morgan Memorial Goodwill Industries in order to pull this event off.

SMART is headquartered in Maryland and their facebook page is chock block full of textile recycling ideas.  SMART claims to divert 2.5 billion pounds of waste from landfills annually, but this is only about 15 percent of the actual textile waste out there.

After watching the videos on SMART’s website, I was most surprised that you can recycle stuffed animals!  Who knew.

North Shore Residents, Don’t throw away your items! Save up them up for biannual events by Salem Recycles, then Recycle Them!

Keeping Warm with the Arts

Holiday Craft Fairs, the Beverly Art walk, and Felted Sweaters Galore.

As the weather is finally getting nippier, it’s also getting fantastic-er.  With what you may ask?  The Beverly Art Walk!

I remember having a conversation in 2009 as I returned from the Salem Film Fest with a friend that while Salem has tons of history and tourist attractions, Beverly had an art college.  It was just that… the city was wasting it’s jewels by keeping them locked up all the time.

Apparently not anymore.  This weekend brought a slew of Art related events in Beverly.

The Beverly Art Walk with 15 possible stops showcasing tons of Montserrat student art, as well as plenty of other artists in restaurants, cafe’s, and galleries.

In addition to that, the Porter Mill Studio had it’s first, and they dare to say, annual Holiday Open House.  Here’s hoping this is very true, especially since I was working, and could not make it.  Alas. Their pictures from blogspot made me so curious, but I will have to stow my curiously until a later date.

Porter Mill Studios in Beverly

Finally, my stop at the Montserrat Holiday Sale brought me to the brink of buying a concrete cupcake which looked delicious enough to devour… only to turn out my pockets and realize I was cashless.  Sad Sad Day.  I would have enjoyed having that confectionary in the middle of my table.  Even worse,I have no pictures of it.  You’ll have to imagine a very heavy, stiff pink frosting-ed cupcake like something your punk rock best friend would have made you.

I’m loving late November and early December for it’s strong focus on local arts and crafts.  Every weekend there’s a craft fair in sight, and it’s beautiful to be able to see the inside of others’ brains laid out on a table.   Don’t miss out this season on what others have to offer, especially as you might be inspired to make something yourself.

I certainly have been, happily turning wornout, no-elbowed sweaters I have into an approximation of these bird ornaments.

Felted Birds via http://artplatter.com