“Going Green” spotlights Texas Campaign for the Environment

Texas Campaign for the Environment was featured in this week’s segment of Going Green with Yolanda Green. Watch and share, please!

This is a terrific portrayal of TCE, the work we do and just a few of our allies. Major kudos to Yolanda and the Going Green team for creating such a comprehensive report. Also, thanks are due to Green Bank for sponsoring several Going Green segments and Citizens’ Environmental Coalition for suggesting TCE for this week’s show. And thanks to TCE volunteer Chris Patterson who helped collect the pictures and video!


Getting to Zero Waste…or Darn Close

Graphic: GrassRoots Recycling Network

Many believe that trash is an inevitable byproduct of modernity, as if humankind is forever doomed to bury or burn our waste because, with apologies to 90s pop sensation The Rembrandts, “That’s just the way it is, baby.” Fortunately, the way it is doesn’t necessarily equal the way it must be. In fact, you can participate in a number of exciting initiatives that currently work to bring us to Zero Waste…or darn close.

As a concept, Zero Waste embraces a “cradle-to-cradle” system, in which the products we make, sell and purchase are used to make new products rather than dumped in a landfill or burned in an incinerator. Pragmatically, Zero Waste is a set of concrete practices that mirrors nature in an effort to conserve resources, reduce trash, increase reuse and recycling, promote durability and preserve wealth. Sounds ambitious, right? Well, yes and no, especially in light of the ramifications associated with maintaining the status quo.

First, consider our current waste(ful) scheme: we extract natural resources from the earth, manufacture those resources into consumer products, ship those products all over the world in planes and boats and trucks, then buy and use them until they become obsolete and finally toss them in the garbage. This is a linear, “cradle-to-grave” approach: extract-manufacture-distribute-consume-dispose…repeat. Our present waste management regime promotes the continuous extraction of limited resources to perpetuate an unsustainable cycle. For a terrific, illustrative video on unsustainable production, see the Story of Stuff.

Second, consider the economic value of the resources that we constantly bury in the ground after short-term use: the precious metals in our trashed electronics, the easily remanufactured textiles in our clothes and furniture, the wood in our millions of tons of discarded paper—all of these have value as potential raw materials—simply disappearing into a monetary sinkhole. Garbage dump becomes money pit. Every ton of reusable materials that end up in a landfill leads to ever-more costly (both economically and environmentally) mining, logging and drilling.

Now consider a sustainable alternative, one in which products and the value (again, economically and environmentally) residing in the resources consumed to create them are not buried or burned, but instead become an entirely new, higher quality product. This is the core of Zero Waste: every material used in the production cycle functions as feedstock, a “nutrient” used to make new products. In their seminal work, Cradle to Cradle, William McDonough and Michael Braungart describe “technical nutrients” that can be utilized over and over in manufacturing processes without suffering any deterioration in quality and “biological nutrients,” organic matter which breaks down in the environment to feed living organisms and perpetuate life. Nature functions this way: the byproducts of an oak tree or a tree frog re-enter the environment to help new trees or frogs or something entirely different grow until their byproducts re-enter the system. A cycle of living, a closed loop. Zero Waste takes this bio- and ecological reality and applies it to contemporary culture.

Several fundamental principles guide Zero Waste practices; in turn, the integration of several such practices constitute a Zero Waste Plan. Companies or government entities that implement a Zero Waste Plan commit to: 1) “cradle-to-cradle” design and materials use; 2) “producer takeback” policies, in which manufacturers assume responsibility for the end-of-life care of their products; and 3) “triple bottom-line” accounting, which considers not only the economic impacts of an action but also the environmental and ethical costs of a particular manufacturing process or product design.

Right now, many individuals, cities, companies and governments are beginning to formulate and implement comprehensive Zero Waste Plans into their local and regional solid waste management systems. In fact, the entire nation of New Zealand implemented precisely this type of plan in July of this year. Diverse companies ranging from Fetzer Wine to Subaru to Xerox already divert more than 90% of their waste.

On a local level, several communities already ramped up efforts reduce waste. Austin became the first city in Texas to adopt a formal Zero Waste Plan. Dallas has expanded its single-stream recycling program citywide, resulting in huge gains in recovered material. Houston has launched an yard/tree waste mulching program that is expected to save he city $2 million each year. On the corporate front, one Toyota and GM joint manufacturing plant convinced its parts suppliers to switch from cardboard to reusable shipping containers—this step alone saves the companies an estimated $20 million a year.

At home, you can do your part to move toward Zero (or darn close). Consume less wasteful packaging by purchasing products that contain post-consumer recycled content. Compost your food and yard waste in the back yard. When remodeling, use sustainably harvested materials such as bamboo flooring and recycled glass counter-tops or tile. If you’re in the market for a new home, you can get to Zero Waste by installing several amenities such as solar or tankless water heaters, rainwater-fed washing machines, LED lighting and metal roofing. In Dallas, one eco-friendly couple is blogging their trials and tribulations with green design as they build a new home—the Labron House—from the ground up. Check out their progress at http://blog.greenlabron.com.

Jeffrey Jacoby, Staff Director, Texas Campaign for the Environment
Article originally published in September 2009 issue of House & Home Magazine

The Tale of the Trail of Trash

Photo:  Swamplot

Use it, toss it, bag it, carry it to the curb and forget about it—this is the way most of us think about trash. Out of sight, out of mind. Get the garbage as far away as possible. Even the most adventurous children hold their noses and make excuses to avoid carrying those nasty trash bags to the curb (“But, Mom, I did it last week!”). Of course, nobody wants to live next to their refuse…nor should they, given the potential problems associated with exposure to harmful bacteria, heavy metals, and chemical contamination.

So, as we push discards out of our homes and into the waste stream, precisely what is the journey garbage takes from the curb to its final resting place? The only slightly dramatized tale that follows is more grubby than epic, more nauseating than whimsical, but a tale that nevertheless must be told: the tale of the trail of our trash.

CHAPTER 1: Truckin’ Through the ’Hood
Most homeowners have seen garbage trucks methodically making their way through the neighborhood, often with very sweaty men jumping on and off to hoist bulging bags or mechanical arms lifting overflowing bins into a chasm at the rear of the truck. Thus, the journey of trash begins with the solid waste collection vehicle—or in Britain, the quaint-sounding dustbin lorry—a rolling ferry transporting garbage away from the quiet solace of the shire to a land of, well, more garbage. Once secured by the collection vehicle, trash usually meets the wrath of a compactor to make room for its malodorous brethren. After collecting and compacting about six tons, the truck departs.

CHAPTER 2: A Stop on the Way
While many trucks simply make their way to a landfill, others stop at a trash transfer station. Transfer stations are a kind of trash purgatory, a transitional space between initial collection and final disposition. These garbage depots consist of a simple slab of concrete—a tipping floor with or without walls or covering—designed to allow large trucks to dump their load into a large pile, where it is once again compacted and then packed into larger trucks destined for the landfill. As you can imagine, the stench inside and surrounding such a site often proves unbearable. All this is before the vectors—rats, raccoons, roaches and the like—enter the scene.

CHAPTER 3: A Happier Place
However, our discards occasionally meet with a different fate. Some facilities provide an area separate from the tipping floor for common recyclables, an area for brush and yard waste (used for composting), an area for building materials or furniture or appliances, etc. When the essential function of a transfer station becomes waste diversion and retrieval rather than waste compaction and disposal, our rubbish has stumbled upon a materials recovery facility (MRF)—it still stinks, but the smell is tempered by the environmental and economic benefits of recovering rather than burying items of value. Here, recyclable metals, compostable organics, intact construction materials and reusable items ranging from paint to microwaves to bed frames to bicycles are separated from the refuse. Some MRFs even reach out to artists who can find aesthetic value in the unlikeliest junk, generating economic value in the process. (A footnote on the economy of waste recovery: a recent study conducted for the City of Austin found that the Capitol Region buries in landfills about $40 million annually worth of recoverable materials.)

CHAPTER 4: An Unpleasant Grave
Unfortunately, materials recovery facilities are a rare breed in Texas and throughout much of the country, which means that the journey taken by the vast majority of our trash ends with land disposal, buried in the ground. Trucks arrive from transfer stations or neighborhoods at the landfill gate, where they are weighed, sometimes inspected by a spotter perched above the scales (checking for illegal items such as freon-filled refrigerators) and then waved on to the working face. There, trash meets with more trash meets with menacing compactors—behemoth vehicles often equipped with massive spiked metal tires and a dozer blade—load after load, hour after hour until, finally, the waste is covered with six inches of dirt (or an alternative cover) at the end of the day. This process of burying and covering garbage to prevent contact with moisture is fittingly known as dry entombment. Within this trash mountain our refuse finds its final resting place. Or does it…

EPILOGUE: The Trail of Trash…To Be Continued
A number of studies show that even modern landfills with liners eventually leak, allowing household chemicals and heavy metals to leach into soil and nearby water sources. Garbage dumps are the largest source of human-caused methane emissions, a greenhouse gas twenty-three times more potent than carbon dioxide. Researchers have found high levels of mercury in some landfill gas intended for venting. The journey of our trash may not end with its entombment—it can come back to haunt us.

In many ways, the tale of trash is choose-your-own-adventure rather than scripted drama. Opportunities to divert our detritus from the trash trail exist at every turn in the story: we can purchase recycled and recyclable goods and separate them prior to putting them out on the curb, extend life-span by repairing and reusing old items, donate unwanted things like clothes and furniture to Goodwill or sign up with a group like Freecycle.org. Food and yard waste can go to a compost operation. Best Buy will recycle old TVs and computers. Even styrofoam has a more suitable resting place than the landfill: some local companies collect and sort a range of materials for foam recycling. This is the happier ending of the tale of the trail of trash…the ending that leaves no trail at all.

Jeffrey Jacoby, Staff Director, Texas Campaign for the Environment
Article originally published in August 2009 issue of House & Home Magazine

Recycling, energy and the BP spill

This photo depicts 2 million plastic beverage bottles, the number consumed in the U.S. every 5 minutes. Credit: Chris Jordan

The still-growing BP spill is a stark reminder of the many dangers and problems created by our society’s insatiable demand for oil. But as this disaster forces us to confront these problems and put serious thought into their solutions, it’s important to understand the connections that tie them together. Our addiction to oil is fueled by more than automobiles: it persists because of an attitude that we can consume and waste our resources as if they have no limits. Trash and recycling are connected to more than just landfills and green bins. The fact is, our current produce it-use it once-throw it away society wastes more than just paper or plastic – it wastes oil, and lots of it. If we can reform this unsustainable, wasteful system, we can help reduce the need for drilling anywhere.

Plastic products are a perfect example because they’re made primarily from oil. Imagine a typical plastic water bottle filled 1/3rd with oil: that’s how much oil was used to make it. Nearly 10% of U.S. oil consumption, which equates to approximately 2 million barrels a day, is used to make plastics. On the other hand, recycling plastic uses only roughly 10% of the energy that it takes to make it from virgin materials.

There are similar energy savings for other products. Each ton of recycled paper can save 380 gallons of oil, representing a 64% energy savings. Recycling aluminum saves 95% of the energy needed to make it from ore – while throwing away a single aluminum can wastes the amount of energy equivalent to filling it half-full with gasoline and dumping it on the ground.

Yet despite the clear benefits of recycling and reuse, many places in Texas have very low diversion rates. Recycling isn’t always as easy and accessible as is should be while many consumer products such as electronics and foam packaging simply aren’t designed to be recycled. This is due in part to the fact that the original manufacturers of such products currently bear little or no responsibility for recycling their own creations. Local governments—using your tax dollars—are left holding the proverbial plastic bag, and they can only afford to do so much in this time of serious budget shortfalls. Texas also has very weak environmental standards for landfills. Combine these factors with heavy tax subsidies for landfill space and we’re left with a system in which dumping our consumer goods is far more profitable than recycling – up to ten times more profitable, according to industry insiders. This is a huge reason why recycling programs aren’t available in every community, home and business.

Clearly, we can do better. Trash and landfills aren’t any more inevitable or necessary than oil spills. Waste is simply a design flaw, one that can and must be solved if we are to create a sustainable future. Recycling isn’t a silver bullet, but rather a tool that’s proven effective…and in need of sharpening.

The BP spill may very well be the worst environmental disaster this country has ever seen. Collectively, Gulf fisheries and coastal industries make up the 6th largest economy in the world. The planet’s most productive gulf fishing grounds may be destroyed not just this season, but for years to come. No matter how you feel about drilling, coal or nuclear, stopping waste means reducing the need for energy along with all the present and potential problems that come with it. Recycling and reducing waste at its source is more than a “feel-good” way to “go green;” in many ways, it’s also part of a long-term strategy to help prevent the next oil spill.

Let’s hope that if nothing else, this latest human disaster leads us to comprehend the underlying currents connecting a sea of problems and how our individual and collective actions control the tides.

Zac Trahan, Program Director, Texas Campaign for the Environment

How do I recycle…

Have you, like many Texans, wondered where to take your old washing machine or used water filters? How about cell phone batteries or, ugh, Styrofoam®? Consuming these and other common household items typically proves far easier than recycling them. (We don’t have curbside roll carts or bins for packing peanuts, after all.) However, all of these materials serve as resources—feedstock, if you will—that can be re-used or re-manufactured to extend their life span, save raw materials and keep toxic materials out of our air, water and soil. Recycle away…

Electronic Waste, or E-Waste

As laptops get skinnier and flat screens get flatter, cell phones become smarter and game consoles become multipurpose entertainment-networking-exercise machines (if you’ve used a Wii, you understand), millions upon millions of old electronic gadgets end up buried in desk drawers, gathering dust in the garage or, worse, buried in landfills or burned in incinerators. With toxic materials such as lead, mercury, hexavalent chromium and the like, where should our e-waste go? Fortunately, forward-thinking environmental advocates, corporations and policy-makers have worked to implement producer takeback recycling programs for obsolete e-waste. In essence, takeback recycling means that manufacturers offer convenient recycling options for their old products—you can learn more than you ever wanted to know at www.TexasTakeBack.org.

Fluorescent Light Bulbs and Tubes

Although the instructions for responsible disposal of non-working compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) tell you to simply wrap the bulb in a plastic bag and throw it in the trash, don’t. Instead, take your spent CFLs to any Home Depot location, where the toxic bulbs will meet a safer end. In the Metroplex, Universal Recycling Technologies will recycle your old fluorescent bulbs and tubes and currently partners with some municipal household hazardous waste programs. Check with your city for details. Note: the amount of mercury pollution prevented by saving energy—often produced by coal-fired power plants, which emit mercury into the atmosphere—is greater than the amount of mercury in CFLs. Thus, you should undoubtedly continue to utilize energy efficient lighting…just make sure you don’t follow the instructions and recycle responsibly instead.

Cell Phone and Laptop Batteries

How old is your cell phone? How long until you get a new one? Precisely. Outside of the toxic materials you find in most e-waste, your cell phone or laptop batteries also contain potentially harmful metals such as nickel, cadmium, lithium or zinc, among others. Luckily, these are also valuable metals, so recycling markets are strong. With 150 million cell phones alone becoming obsolete annually, all those rechargeable batteries could produce a mountain of trash—or a mountain of treasure. Choose. You can go to www.call2recycle.org to view the free recycling options offered by the non-profit Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation.

Mercury-Added Thermostats

As many households switch to sleek new programmable thermostats (a good move for energy efficiency mavens), it’s important to make sure that you—or your contractor—know that recycling the old bulky thermostat will help prevent mercury from entering our landfills. The Thermostat Recycling Corporation, started by leaders in the thermostat industry, facilitates programs across Texas and the U.S. Since old thermostats contain among the highest mercury content of household items, recycling is a must. Find details at www.thermostat-recycle.org.

Plastic Bags

Every year, Americans dispose of over 100 billion single-use plastic checkout bags, each of which takes as many as a thousand years to biodegrade. The amount of petroleum used to manufacture these disposable bags could fuel an average car for over 680,000 miles. Worse yet, they cost us money: some reports estimate that each plastic bag costs taxpayers 17 cents for pick up and disposal. Grocery stores such as Whole Foods have banned plastic bags altogether and Wal-Mart has pledged to reduce bag use by one-third by 2013. Other large grocery chains have also implemented plastic bag recycling programs. Although many of the programs you’ll see at www.plasticbagrecycling.org don’t go far enough, U.S. retailers are beginning to change their wasteful ways.

Large Appliances, a.k.a. “White Goods”

The list of large household appliances, also known as “white goods” (because they’re often white…creative, no?) consists of washers and dryers, stoves, air conditioners, dishwashers, refrigerators, freezers and water heaters. Because large appliances are usually made of steel, recyclers want to get their hands on your white goods. Click on the “Steel Recycling Locator” at www.recycle-steel.org to find a recycler near you. A word of caution: refrigerants such as freon must be removed by a certified technician prior to recycling, so make sure you read the directions provided by the recycler before you lug your fridge halfway across town. Additionally, many cities now offer this service at no charge.

Brita® Water Filters

Turn your used water filters into toothbrushes. Really. A company called Preserve, will take your old Brita® filters—made mostly of number 5 plastic—and remanufacture them into razors, cutting boards, bowls, cups and, yes, toothbrushes. At www.preserveproducts.com/recycling, you can find drop-off locations for Brita® brand water filters. Note: unfortunately, Preserve doesn’t accept other branded filters at this time.

Polystyrene, a.k.a. Styrofoam®

Oh, Styrofoam…thou art a dunghill villain and a petrol-fed knave…or words to that effect. Elizabethan insults aside, polystyrene is petroleum-based, contains potentially carcinogenic components and takes eons to biodegrade. Currently, recycling markets for polystyrene are extremely limited, so using less—or none at all!—is the best policy, with one exception: if you get a package with polystyrene peanuts, take them to a packing store such as FedEx or UPS. These folks love free product…and you’ll love keeping those plastic non-legumes out of the landfill.