Plastic, Disposable UT Tower?

Even one of Austin’s best and brightest institutions is capable of a very bad idea:

More from Austin Business Journal:

“A group of University of Texas alum and environmental activists aren’t happy about plans to market H2Orange, purified water in plastic bottles shaped like UT’s iconic tower. The group is gathering July 23 at UT’s West Campus Mall on Guadalupe Street to protest the plan, saying it undermines Austin’s Zero Waste goal and the campus’ sustainability policy. Instead of using disposable containers, the group is hoping the venture will market ‘a refillable bottle with a UT logo’ as a potential alternative to raising scholarship funds, the group said.”

There are so many ecological and economic problems with bottled water, one hardly knows where to start. Plastic pollution is a serious threat to our ecosystem and although the bottles may be recyclable, there is no guarantee they won’t end up in landfills, incinerators and waterways. In fact, the “great Pacific garbage patch” is larger than Texas and growing every day. And in case you haven’t forgotten about the BP spill: 10% of domestic oil production is used to make plastic products. A great primer is the Story of Bottled Water — check it out!

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Beware Sham “E-Cyclers”


This former farmer in China is picking chips off circuit boards by bathing them in acid. Photo: Basel Action Network

Several recent reports have put the spotlight on an issue TCE Fund has been working on since 2002: real, responsible recycling for electronic waste. Unfortunately, the majority of obsolete electronics said to be recycled in America is actually exported and dumped in developing nations across the globe! Discovery News has more:

“Recycling your electronic waste is a noble idea, but here’s the dirty little secret: even if you drop off your old electronics for recycling, it may never get recycled. As OSNews’ Howard Fosdick describes, some people fall victim to a scam called ‘fake recycling,’ and just describing it leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.

Fake recyclers are organizations that approach well-meaning community groups like the Boy Scouts or the Make-a-Wish Foundation to help run a local ‘Recycling Day.’ The idea is that people from the community will bring in their old electronics to the legitimate organization’s Recycling Day event. The fake recycler will then haul that e-waste away, and export it to another country with lax environmental regulations.

The crazy thing is that none of this is illegal, but it’s definitely destroying the environment.”

We couldn’t agree more. If an American company claims to be recycling our old electronics, they shouldn’t be allowed to simply ship the toxic waste to poor, developing nations for a quick buck — they should actually be recycling it. Even people who don’t typically consider themselves environmental advocates should agree we need truth in advertising.

For a fool-proof list of certified, responsible electronics recyclers near you, visit the e-Stewards website.

Local, state officials look to curtail plastic bags

Here’s a great TV story from KVUE News Austin:

“Plastic bags are bad for the environment. Most are produced using oil, and, by some estimates, 90 percent end up dumped in a landfill or clogging up streams. But those free bags can also cost you money, even if you don’t use them. There are more and more proposals being drawn up at the local and state level to eliminate or place a tax on the bags.”

If you’re in Austin, this isn’t a new subject. In 2007 the Austin City Council asked its staff to evaluate options to reduce the use of plastic bags. Then in 2008 the Council passed a resolution and set the goal of reducing the flow of plastic bags into the waste stream by 50% by June 2009. At the request of retailers, the resolution relied mostly on a voluntary program. This was passed as an alternative to a plastic bag ban that was proposed by supporters of the Ban the Bags campaign. However, the voluntary program fell short of the 50% reduction goal, and retailers only recycled about 26% of the amount of plastic they purchased in 2008.

This year, the City of Brownsville became the first in Texas to pass an ordinance banning plastic bags. Wal-Mart and HEB stores in the Brownsville area supported the ban. Austin-based Whole Foods announced a complete ban on plastic bags in their stores. Last year, Natural Grocers, a small business with a branch in Austin, publicly announced that it ceased purchasing plastic bags for the sake of the environment and has saved around 13 million bags.

Texas Campaign for the Environment is helping Austinites urge City Council to take action and pass a ban on plastic bag this year. Involving the retailers to have input on the details is appropriate, but the time for voluntary efforts is over. But you should still recycle your plastic bags at grocery stores, and better yet, simply take reusable bags on your shopping trips. Here are more press reports on a potential plastic bag ban:

Group: Efforts to reduce plastic bag use failed
Environmentalists want a ban on the use of plastic bags
Austin should nix plastic bags, group says

Spotlight: pharmacuetical waste

Don’t flush or trash your old pills, unless you want them to end up in our drinking water! In 2008, an AP investigation found that “A vast array of pharmaceuticals – including antibiotics, anti-convulsants, mood stabilizers and sex hormones – have been found in the drinking water supplies of at least 41 million Americans.” Not good!

We’d like to see Producer TakeBack programs in place that would make it easy for anyone to return their unused pharmaceuticals. And we’re not the only ones. From the Product Policy Institute:

“The National Association of Counties (NACo), the country’s largest local government organization, has unanimously adopted a policy supporting producer responsibility for unwanted medicines. The expense of taking back unused prescription and over-the-counter drugs would be handled by the pharmaceutical industry, without relying on state or local government funding.”

This won’t be a simple solution; drug enforcement laws can be quite complicated when it comes to recovering old pills. But the principal that the manufacturers should be responsible for their waste should still apply.

In some states and cities, manufacturers are teaming up with local pharmacies and law enforcement agencies to provide free, convenient recycling locations — usually at the nearest drugstore. We’re already seeing the beginnings of such a system in Texas. Here’s a current map of local participating drugstores. Recycle away!

“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.

ALTERNATIVE ENDING
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