It’s been over a year since China decided to no longer take a lot of recycling from the U.S. (They did this primarily by insisted on uncontaminated recycling.) I looked into this issue a few months ago. It turns out the trash and recycling system in this country is not in good shape. China has not changed its mind. And yet very few people are still talking about it. It appears to be a systemic problem, but nothing will change if enough people aren’t aware of the problem.
There are many items for which we have the technology to recycle, but are not accepted for recycling curbside. This includes many types of plastic. An example is polypropylene, which is the number 5 inside the recycling triangle and is usually not accepted curbside.
Basically everything that is not accepted in the recycling ends up in a landfill. That includes e-waste (if not given to a company that will recycle it), tires, diapers, plastics, paper (colored, treated etc.). Unfortunately, right now more things are ended up in landfills because China is not accepting it anymore. A story originally in the Guardian explains how many things are being incinerated or going to landfills. What it takes to deal with all of our waste simply doesn’t exist in the U.S. Perhaps just another reminder to reduce first, then reuse and then recycle.
Last August I moved to the Philadelphia area in order to go to grad school. I am going to get a Masters in Environmental Science. But this blog post isn’t going to be about that. This post is about what I learned about living sustainably as I moved into my own apartment.
My apartment, like most places in the U.S., has single stream recycling. My goal was going to be to limit the amount of things I put in the trash, as well as the amount of things that go into recycling. I have handkerchiefs around the house to use and wash, and tissues only when I really need to blow my nose. But the truth is a lot of goes into the trash and recycling is food packaging. And I haven’t solved that.
However, there are certain items in the kitchen that generally go into the trash and then into a landfill I can reduce my use of. Paper towels is one of them, so I went out and bought small cloths and use them instead. In August I came with two rolls of paper towels (bathroom cleaning, cleaning up after my cat) and I’m proud to say I’ve used less than half of one roll.
Finally, I’ve worked hard to reduce my use of food storage that goes into the trash. I have yet to buy ziploc bags and I do have plastic tupperware and I also keep jars and other containers that I can reuse from items I purchase. I have also bought beeswax food wraps which do a good job of keeping produce fresh and covering bowls in the fridge. (Not a complete substitute for aluminum foil which can go in the oven, but close.) I also use reusable ties and clips. Maybe it’s time to look at your kitchen and see what you can replace with reusable items?
I belong to a group called Women Working for Oceans. The mission is education and advocacy in partnership with the New England Aquarium. I went to a members only event this week. It was a Seagrass Restoration event in Essex, Massachusetts. We were led by two guest experts, Dr. Alyssa Novak from Boston University, and Peter Phippen from MassBays Natural Estuaries Program.
The first thing that happened when we arrived was that we were taken by boat out into Essex Bay and deposited on what was essentially a sand bar. Once there we met Alyssa who first explained to us how we were going to be replanting eel grass in the bay. This involved standing in knee high water, leaning over to dig a small hole, burying a small amount of root and then adding an iron staple on top. We asked her about the metal staple; apparently in calm water bamboo is used which decomposes relatively easily, but in this bay the water is too strong. The staple will rust and give iron to the plant. And since they work there a lot they do find them and reuse them as much as possible. Eelgrass provides food and shelter for many organisms in the bay, as described by Save the Bay.
While we were doing that Peter went out and brought back the crab traps that they had set out. So as the tide made our little sand bar smaller and smaller we moved on to the crabs. We had mostly caught rock crabs and green crabs. We counted the rock crabs, and then let them go. But the green crabs are an invasive species. We counted them, measured them, checked their sex and then put them in a big bag. They were going to be given to someone who uses them in cooking. All in all, not a bad day’s work.
It’s springtime! Despite New England’s weather it’s the beginning of June and it’s the season to spend time outdoors. Unfortunately, mosquitos love me and I’m very allergic. I hate dousing myself in chemicals, but I always figured it was way better than having multiple itchy spots for a week. This year, I thought there must be a better way. I was inspired by Clinton Kelly’s segment on The Chew (min.11). (And I tend to do what Clinton says when it comes to entertaining.) His suggestion was citrus juice on yourself, mosquito repelling plants, homemade citronella candles. I plan on trying it all, but I wanted to grow some plants this year anyway. It turns out a lot of herbs repel insects. (Here’s an example of a list of plants: Naturalliving.) An herb garden on the deck seemed like the perfect solution. Here’s a picture of half of my herb garden:
I bought an extra pot of lavender because it smells so good to me but not apparently to insects, is a great addition to tea and has beautiful flowers. I’m thinking I might get some lemongrass pots as well. I love to garden and I haven’t often been in a position with the room to do it. I’m going to try to grow some vegetables from kitchen scraps. In theory, I’ll never have to buy lettuce, ginger, garlic or onions again. And I will know exactly what was in the soil and what was sprayed on them as they were grown.
I just finished my first course on the way to my new career. I took Biology 101 at Northeastern and I think I chose a good university for me. They offer courses that are part on-line and part in the classroom over 6 weeks. And they are very environmentally aware. On my very first day I noticed this:
It is an incredibly sanitary, almost waste-less way to encourage people to use refillable water bottles. They also have dual-flush toilets, up for liquid waste, down for solid waste, another way of reducing water waste.
A little more research and it turns out I was even more right than I knew. Northeastern was a founding member of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. It has really committed to sustainability, as shown in their website, and I see the proof in the buildings. I found one more thing on their website that I’m really excited about. It’s called INSHORE and it sounds like exactly the work I want to be doing. I don’t know if I will stay at Northeastern for a long time, but it’s working for me now and it’s good to know that I what I want is out there.
I think everyone finds it challenging to be truly environmental during the holiday season. We light fires, cut down trees, wrap presents in paper and go shopping. I have started making gifts for my friends – this year, flavored olive oil in a reusable bottle. My family still gets whatever they want – although I’m always more inclined to buy useful things. But the season is over, the trees and boxes have been put on the curb and taken away. I wanted to make new year’s resolutions this year, but the ones I could think of were the classics – save money, exercise more, keep a journal. And they’re all unlikely to stick for more than a couple of months. So I heard several people suggest that resolutions aren’t the way to go. One person suggested trying to think of a word that you want to describe your life for this year and use that word as inspiration whenever you need it. One person suggested thinking of small things that you can do often that added up could make a difference – for instance, take the stairs instead of the elevator. I think that’s how I feel about working to become more environmental. Maybe this year is the year to bring bags or recycle paper bags when grocery shopping. Since I think it’s important, periodically I’m going to keep suggesting small ways to make a difference. I’m going to keep reading (mangroves is the next topic) and trying to keep up with everything that’s going on.
I was so surprised to find out that even food and other compostable items don’t decompose when put in a landfill (see my post on Garbology by Edward Humes). Since then I’ve been thinking that there must be an easy way to compost. This was brought home to me in my visit to New York City this past weekend. I went to see the tennis at the U.S. Open but found myself thinking about compost. At the U.S. Open itself, there were compost bins next to the recycling and trash bins. In the ladies’ room, the only bin by the sinks was composting because the paper towels were compostable. That made me think that the napkin I threw in the trash was probably also compostable. The U.S. Open also had signs on the beds of flowers saying that they used the compost from last year to make this year’s Open pretty.
The other place I went while in NYC was the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. They had a composting exhibit that made it seem really easy. It also showed that you can grow things in a compost pile before it is done composting.
I then looked into what someone would need to do in order to compost their food waste. Obviously, if you have a yard and/or a garden, you can make compost piles outside. But if you don’t have a place to do it outside, there are still things you can do. Here are two sites I found about composting in a yard: Planet Natural and EarthEasy. Basically, it works better if you have a bin and make sure you have a balance of different materials. Moisture and the occasional stir helps too. If you don’t have a yard, there are buckets you can buy (like this one at the Container Store) that can stand by your sink. Having charcoal filters in it is an expense but helps with the odor. A lot of towns, at this point, have places you can drop off your scraps, and so do some grocery stores like Whole Foods. This is the site for Cambridge, MA. They point out several things – you can freeze the scraps to avoid odor, you can buy compostable bags so you don’t have to dump it when you drop it off. It turns out there is a lot of information out there and a lot of relatively simple ways to create useful compost and keep food scraps out of landfills. I hope this inspires you to find the easiest way for you to compost.
In my continuing love affair with my library, I recently took out a book entitled Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson. I did not read the entire book because it goes into technical details about urban design and planning. It did make me think and made me want to share what I’ve been thinking about.
I grew up in a suburb of Boston on a street with no sidewalk but plenty of trees. Most of what they talk about directly relates to my home town. I rarely used public transportation except on the rare occasions I went into Boston – which required a drive to the closest subway station. There is a bus that goes from that subway station, passes not too far from the house and continues to the center of town. I knew no one who used it. It is a town build around people who have children, yards for them to play in, and drive everywhere. I am sure the carbon footprint of the average resident is high. My parents’ neighborhood used to be farmland and was built into a neighborhood after WWII, a time when many similar suburbs were being constructed. Not much has changed, except some additions to houses. Some new families have moved in, but many of the residents are ‘aging in place’ including my parents. I now live in Cambridge, but work at my old high school. Not much seems to have changed for the high schoolers growing up there now. They can’t wait to get their license and partly depend on each other to drive them around. This dependence on cars, or at least gasoline cars, is not sustainable if we want to drastically cut our use of fossil fuels.
There are other ways in which the culture of suburbs doesn’t make as much sense as it used to. For a long time, each generation was expected to be more educated, get a better job, earn a higher wage, live in a bigger house. This was the American dream. It doesn’t apply as well as it used to. More and more households don’t involve 2 parents, 2.5 children, a dog and a picket fence. Single parents, couples with no children and various alternative families are more and more common. Bigger houses surrounded by yards and swing sets may not be what they need. Wages are increasing, but the lower wage jobs aren’t increasing as fast as the higher wage jobs creating greater income disparity and leaving the poor behind. Living near where you work may be more important to these people, as well as having easy (and no car necessary) access to shopping centers. This would mean having housing options for janitors, secretaries, CEOs and managers with or without families all in the same area. That’s not really how suburbs were built, but maybe it’s time to change.
Changing suburbs could decrease our reliance on cars. Heating smaller houses could help cut our fossil fuel consumption. Consolidating workplaces, shopping centers, cutting down on the amount of acres per house could allow us to have bigger parks and wooded areas. It’s possible to imagine a greener, healthier, happy kind of town. Change, however, is inevitably slow, painful and difficult. People don’t like the idea of altering their way of life or the way of life they have dreamed of for their children. But it’s something to think about.
I haven’t written much since the new year started. However, I did have a birthday, a very important birthday. At least, 30 seems important to me. It makes me feel like I haven’t done enough with my life. But for right now I want to talk about a present I received for my birthday. My mother gave me a diamond ring that has been in her family for generations. I’m not engaged and it seems unlikely that I will get engaged any time soon. I knew about the ring and that it would become mine eventually, but now it lives in my apartment or sometimes on my finger.
The ring isn’t really my style – I tend to wear simple gold jewelry – but it is an heirloom. Regardless I was glad it was there because it meant I would never have to deal with buying a diamond. Most people are aware of the terrible conditions that exist where diamonds are being mined. You can buy ‘conflict-free’ diamonds, but it’s not clear to me what guarantees there are that those diamonds are truly free of all human rights abuses. As I was thinking about diamonds I remembered my sister’s experience when she got engaged and married. My mother, luckily, also had a diamond heirloom for her. But she and her husband had to find gold wedding bands (gold to match the ring). He had read this article: The Real Price of Gold in National Geographic and didn’t want to support the human rights abuses and environmental devastation that the gold industry is involved in. They looked at vintage jewelry, respected sites like Brilliant Earth, but in the end went with an artisan who dealt in recycled gold. The good thing about gold is that it is easily melted down and reused. Precious metals and gems are rare and people will therefore go to great lengths (and sometimes do terrible things) to get them and make money with them.
Have you ever found that once you start thinking about something, suddenly it appears everywhere? I was listening to NPR in the car (as usual) and heard a story about a wildlife summit that is occurring in London. One of the major issues is the demand for ivory that makes poaching so profitable. I own a scrimshaw pendant and I’m happy to say that it was made on recycled ivory (probably an old piano key).
It is the end of the year (my first as a blogger) and I decided it was time to be inspired. One of the problems of the environmental movement is it tends to spread a message of doom. No one wants to hear that the world as we know it is going to end, that our way of life is unsustainable. It is so often a negative campaign. Corporations are doing terrible things to the Earth. Animals and plants are dying. But the Earth is an amazing place and I think it’s important to remember that. I took a course online this fall on edX called The Energetic Earth. At the very end of the course the professor showed a series of photos that were beautiful and also illustrated some of the concepts we had talked about. I thought it was a great idea. So I have put together some photos I took over the past few years. The Earth is an amazing place. And if we treat it right it will continue to be an amazing place for a long time. I hope these inspire you. And maybe look through your own photos to find your own inspiration to keep working to live a green life.
sunlight streaming down on the mall in Washington, DC
sun shining through a castle ruin in Germany
a flooded Neckar river in Heidelberg, Germany
a storm coming from the Atlantic toward Emerald Isle, NC