Recycling was only a band-aid; Americans need to consume less

Now that the recycled products of Americans are no longer desirable, perhaps it will start a new broader conversation: when will Americans consume less?

This end of recycling comes at a time when the United States is creating more waste than ever. In 2015, the most recent year for which national data are available, America generated 262.4 million tons of waste, up 4.5 percent from 2010 and 60 percent from 1985. That amounts to nearly five pounds per person a day. New York City collected 934 tons of metal, plastic, and glass a day from residents last year, a 33 percent increase from 2013.

For a long time, Americans have had little incentive to consume less. It’s inexpensive to buy products, and it’s even cheaper to throw them away at the end of their short lives. But the costs of all this garbage are growing, especially now that bottles and papers that were once recycled are now ending up in the trash…

The best way to fix recycling is probably persuading people to buy less stuff, which would also have the benefit of reducing some of the upstream waste created when products are made. But that’s a hard sell in the United States, where consumer spending accounts for 68 percent of the GDP. The strong economy means more people have more spending money, too, and often the things they buy, such as new phones, and the places they shop, such as Amazon, are designed to sell them even more things. The average American spent 7 percent more on food and 8 percent more on personal-care products and services in 2017 than in 2016, according to government data

But even in San Francisco, the most careful consumers still generate a lot of waste. Plastic clamshell containers are difficult to recycle because the material they’re made of is so flimsy—but it’s hard to find berries not sold in those containers, even at most farmers’ markets. Go into a Best Buy or Target in San Francisco to buy headphones or a charger, and you’ll still end up with plastic packaging to throw away. Amazon has tried to reduce waste by sending products in white and blue plastic envelopes, but when I visited the Recology plant, they littered the floor because they’re very hard to recycle. Even at Recology, an employee-owned company that benefits when people recycle well, the hurdles to getting rid of plastics were evident. Reed chided me for eating my daily Chobani yogurt out of small, five-ounce containers rather than out of big, 32-ounce tubs, but I saw a five-ounce Yoplait container in a trash can of the control room of the Recology plant. While there, Reed handed me a pair of small orange earplugs meant to protect my ears from the noise of the plant. They were wrapped in a type of flimsy plastic that is nearly impossible to recycle. When I left the plant, I kept the earplugs and the plastic in my bag, not sure what to do with them. Eventually, I threw them in the trash.

The whole American lifestyle revolves around consumption and includes innumerable objects that are difficult to reuse or refuse. Much of it seems to come under the ideologies of efficiency, cheapness, and convenience. Envision Walmart. It is not just about small items or particular companies; it even makes its way to some of the largest purchases Americans make including buying larger homes to store more stuff.

What would it take to start the ball rolling away from consumption of goods? A small set of Americans have voluntarily done this – I recall reading about downshifters in sociologist Juliet Schor’s twenty year old book The Overspent American. A major company like Amazon or Walmart could make a big dent. Or, perhaps some government regulations might help nudge the free market in the right direction. There is a slight chance a movement of conscious consumers could help lead to change.

And if consumption levels do end up dropping, this could effect all sorts of areas in American social life. What would happen to fast food? The smartphone industry? Housing? Carmakers? Food producers and distributors? Watching it all play out could be fascinating.

“A Century of American Garbage” mapped

A map visualization of American landfills shows their spread and growth:

Widely considered to be the first sanitary landfill in the U.S., the Fresno garbage dump, which opened in 1937, has the dubious distinction of being named to both the U.S. National Register of Historic Places and the nation’s list of Superfund sites. That’s a funny pair of categories to straddle, but it illustrates an important point: Trash is a starring character in the American story, even as we continue to wrestle with its consequences…

The map really starts to blaze toward the middle of the century. That’s when landfills started to proliferate around the U.S., thanks in part to the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965, which created a federal office tasked with managing trash. By the mid-1970s, states were mandated to put some regulations in place. Landfills became more numerous, and they got larger, too. On the map, the larger circles denote more sprawling landfills. The largest dumps approach 1,620 acres.

At the end of the visualization, the landfill map looks similar to a population map. Most of the landfills are located near major cities. This makes sense: you don’t want big landfills in population centers but you don’t want to pay too much to send it far away.

Yet, I imagine this view at the national level obscures where exactly these landfills are located. If I was guessing, I would say the majority of landfills are located in two locations:

(1) the former edges of metropolitan regions – a landfill that opened in the 1950s might have been outside the suburban radius then but now is well within the boundaries of the metropolitan area

(2) the current edges of metropolitan regions – somewhere in the exurbs or within  an hour drive of the boundaries

NIMBY means that landfills in recent decades could probably get nowhere close to residential developments.

Demolition for a teardown, clothes in the closet and all

Many neighbors don’t like teardowns and one residents highlight that the new property owners didn’t even empty the old home:

This house is two houses away from us. The lady who lived in this house passed away a few months ago. A builder bought the house for $660,000 and a mortgage was taken out for $1,178,000 on it. So what this means is it’s probably going to be sold for a minimum of $1.5 million dollars…

The builder didn’t even empty the closet.

On one hand, if the whole house is going, why not simply trash everything inside rather than spend the time sorting it all out? On the other hand, displaying such a picture highlights several features:

  1. It increases the tragedy factor many claim are inherent in teardowns. These aren’t just houses; these places where people have lived for decades and threatening the character (and social life) of the neighborhood is not a trivial matter.
  2. Americans have so much stuff through our consumption patterns that it simply doesn’t make sense to try to salvage any of these items. It often may not be worth it to even donate the items as it is too easy to throw it out and/or obtain more.

Now that I think about, there are numerous photographers and artists in recent decades who highlight ruins in big cities – like Detroit or New York City. Where is the major project that documents the sadness of teardowns? It may not quite have the noir allure of the city but there is long history of suburban critiques to draw upon: the mass produced raised ranch of the post-war era is even more desolate in the snow and shadow of the wrecking ball.

Bringing food waste recycling to the suburbs

The next step in recycling may be coming to a suburb near you:

So far, food scrap collection programs have been voluntary. But starting in May 2017, it will be mandatory in Highwood, a first in Illinois. Several towns in Lake County and other suburbs have or will have some option to recycle food scraps this year.

“We’re going to be trend setters, I like to think,” said Adrian Marquez, assistant to the Highwood city manager. “We know this is going to be big test.”…

U.S. residents throw away up to 40 percent of their food, which amounted to more than 35 million tons in 2013, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported…

With an overall recycling rate of 48 percent but a goal of diverting 60 percent of waste from landfills by 2020, Lake County has emerged as a regional leader in residential food scrap collection. That diversion rate is priming Lake County’s effort, but DuPage, Will, Cook, and Kane counties also are promoting food composting as municipal hauling contracts go to bid or are renegotiated, Allen said.

This article leaves me with a number of questions:

  1. When the program is mandatory as opposed to voluntary, what does that mean? Residents have to participate as opposed to not participate?
  2. I assume this is more effective in the long run in encouraging participation and disposing of more food waste but are there numbers to back this up? As noted, some people have composted for years; is that a viable alternative to promote in suburbs or are very few people willing to go to that trouble?
  3. Is being the first to this a marker of a particular quality of life in some suburbs? In other words, do communities want to participate partly because it signals something important about what their community values?

It will be interesting to see if this does become the new normal within a few years.

Don’t get a tiny house – settle for a 36 square foot dumpster

One academic tries living in a dumpster – and finds that it has possibilities.

Professor Wilson went to the dumpster not just because he wished to live deliberately, and not just to teach his students about the environmental impacts  of day-to-day life, and not just to gradually transform the dumpster into “the most thoughtfully-designed, tiniest home ever constructed.” Wilson’s reasons are a tapestry of these things.

Until this summer, the green dumpster was even less descript than it is now. There was no sliding roof; Wilson kept the rain out with a tarp. He slept on cardboard mats on the floor. It was essentially, as he called it, “dumpster camping.” The goal was to establish a baseline experience of the dumpster without any accoutrements, before adding them incrementally.

Not long ago, Wilson was nesting in a 2,500 square foot house. After going through a divorce (“nothing related to the dumpster,” he told me, unsolicited), he spun into the archetypal downsizing of a newly minted bachelor. He moved into a 500-square-foot apartment. Then he began selling clothes and furniture on Facebook for almost nothing. Now he says almost everything he owns is in his 36-square-foot dumpster, which is sanctioned and supported by the university as part of an ongoing sustainability-focused experiment called The Dumpster Project. “We could end up with a house under $10,000 that could be placed anywhere in the world,” Wilson said at the launch, “[fueled by] sunlight and surface water, and people could have a pretty good life.”…

“The big hypothesis we’re trying to test here is, can you have a pretty darn good life on much, much less?” He paused. “This is obviously an outlier experiment. But so far, I have, I’d say. A better life than I had before.”

I can imagine the marketing campaign now: “Tiny houses may look tiny but they are a waste of money and resources. All you need is a 36 square foot dumpster to find happiness.” Or perhaps: “Tiny houses are indulgent. Purge yourself of consumerism with this newly designed dumpster.”

On a more serious note, it is interesting to see the number of these “experiments” where a middle- to upper-class Americans find it is not that difficult to downsize. Not all of them are going to these extremes – and they might have some advantages due to their education, wealth, and social networks – but getting away from the consumeristic clutter may not be that hard and could be quite rewarding.

Chicago Lucas museum to have to deal with garbage underneath

Chicago may have a beautiful waterfront but plans for the Lucas museum provide a reminder of how that land was acquired: garbage.

“Any design will account for existing environmental issues and be built accordingly,” an Emanuel spokesman said. “The mayor has been clear. No public dollars will be spent on construction of the Lucas museum.”With Emanuel’s backing, Lucas is proposing a five-acre museum nestled on 17 acres of Chicago parkland just south of Soldier Field. But what’s buried below the surface of the site is nasty stuff. An analysis for the renovation of Soldier Field and the land around it more than a decade ago found potentially cancer-causing chemicals in the soil near the stadium, according to a site inspection report filed with the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency…

The contamination discovered around Soldier Field is believed to be the byproduct of burning wood, coal and other materials. Embankments, parking lots and other paved surfaces around the stadium serve as barriers eliminating human exposure to the buried pollutants. Plans call for some of that area to be dug up as Lucas proposes moving 3,000 parking spaces underground. The project’s proximity to Lake Michigan also is a factor for environmental planning.

I remember seeing a small exhibit of some of this garbage at the Field Museum about 10 years ago. On a small plot just outside their building they had found a wide range of items including utensils and tea cups and saucers from hotels.

Since there are environmental concerns at this particular site, I wonder how close residents and visitors are to these dangerous materials at other points along the lakefront. Just how deep would one have to dig to find the garbage? How much work does it take to contain the problems when constructing new buildings?

New York City interested in large-scale food scrap recycling

National Geographic discusses plans for food scrap recycling in New York City:

In his State of the City address in February, Bloomberg had called food waste “New York City’s final recycling frontier.” The mayor said, “We bury 1.2 million tons of food waste in landfills every year at a cost of nearly $80 per ton. That waste can be used as fertilizer or converted to energy at a much lower price. That’s good for the environment and for taxpayers.”

The administration says it will soon be looking to pay a local composting plant to process 100,000 tons of food scraps a year, or about 10 percent of the city’s residential food waste. In the Big Apple, only residential refuse is handled directly by the city, since businesses must hire private disposal service providers…

The city says it also intends to hire a company to build a plant that will turn food waste into biogas—methane that can be burned to generate electricity just like natural gas. The food waste program is expected to ramp up over the next few years, starting with volunteers, until it reaches full deployment around 2015 or 2016…

Under the mayor’s new program, participants will get picnic-basket-size containers, which they can fill with everything from used coffee filters to broccoli stalks. Those bins will then be emptied into bigger brown containers at the curb for pickup. Those who live in apartment buildings, as many Manhattanites do, will drop the waste off at centralized bins.

Administration officials told reporters that the city can save $100 million a year composting food waste instead of sending it to landfills, most of which are in other states. Bloomberg has said he expects the program may become mandatory in the coming years, although that will be up to his predecessors, since his term is winding down.

Curbside composting! Read on to see how this has played out in San Francisco which has had mandatory food waste composting for several years.

The green efforts plus the potential cost-savings will interest a lot of people. But, this is also a large infrastructure effort involving getting containers to residents, coordinating pickups and centralized locations, and then finally disposing of the material. I hope we see more about how such a program is implemented and effectively run. And, if the program has such good benefits, why haven’t more cities jumped into this? Perhaps it is just a matter of time. Also, could suburban composting work like this or are there more costs due to lower densities?

Side note: it will be interesting to see the visuals of compost boxes out on New York streets. The contrast between garbage day in New York City versus Chicago and its system of alleys where the garbage is away from the street is striking.