Finalist at RIF 2013


I’m excited to be in Louisville, KY today to present my multifamily recycling solution as a finalist in the 2013 Recycling Innovators Forum (which is part of the larger Resource Recycling Conference – More details soon!

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Lebanon landfill gas project

The infamous open air dump in the southern Lebanese city of Sidon has been a significant source of sea pollution. Let’s hope the Beirut landfill gas-to-energy project provides a viable alternative.

Lebanon has not always been the most organized country when it comes to waste. It’s infamous trash dump in Sidon borders the Mediterranean Sea, and it is responsible for a massive amount of local sea pollution. In the southern-most city of Tyre, your humble narrator was able to see the first trash sorting and organics-composting facility in the country.

Now in Beirut, someone has finally seen the potential of all that landfill methane seeping into the atmosphere. Averda and GE have teamed up to create the country’s first landfill gas-to-energy project. Let’s hope this is the start of more ambitious (and more sustainable) waste strategies!

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3 Cities in Oregon ban Plastic Bags

Eugene has become the third city in Oregon to ban plastic bags, following Portland and Corvallis. Good work guys!

Full story here.

NYC increases scope of plastics recycling

SIMS new Materials Recovery Facility (MRF), slated to open in Sunset Park, Brooklyn later in 2013

It appears Mayor Bloomberg has decided to use his last year in office to ramp up the city’s recycling and composing operations. This has included hiring high profile recycling leaders like Ron Gonen from Reyclebank at the Department of Sanitation, and it has also meant new pilot projects in organic waste composting on Staten Island and with large restaurant chains across the city.

One of the biggest programs to contribute to increased recycling, which has been in the works for several years, in the creation of a new Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. This facility will be operated by SIMS and will include a number of sustainable features, including 500 kW of solar power and a pier for barge-based waste transportation (eliminating a lot of truck traffic from Brooklyn streets). The city will now be able to recycle all rigid plastics, including #5 food containers. That’s good news for the city’s recycling rate, which have been languishing around 15% for the last decade (compared to 80% in San Francisco).

Let’s hope New York City can continue in this positive direction and become a leader for mega cities (cities with over 20 million people) worldwide.

A Reason to Care about Waste

I had to share this heartbreaking clip as it really hit home why we should care about waste, recycling, and humanity’s larger impact on the planet. Poisoning birds thousands of miles from any human settlement is just one consequence.

Banning Polystyrene


The dream of the ’90s is alive in Portland… and Manhattan. Bloomberg goes eco-rogue and proposes banning expanded polystyrene containers (AKA “Styrofoam”)

This week we look at New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s call for a ban on expanded polystyrene (PS) containers. While this might seem like a frightening new dictate from an all-powerful ruler who has already gone after oversized soft drinks and smoking in parks, the fact is that many cities on the west coast did this years ago. The east coast is finally catching up. One blogger researched all large municipalities that have banned PS containers and found that Portland got the job done in 1990. Seattle did the same in 2010. Currently, Chicago, New York, Boston, and Philadelphia are all considering bans.

What about the rest of the world? How does America sit vis-a-vis the Europeans and the Chinese? The EU has not blocked the use of polystyrene, though it does require countries to recycle 50% of all packaging. This article describes China’s official ban on packaging and food utensils made of PS. While this bold action should be recognized, it seems there is a challenge with enforcement. Due to the material’s low cost, a number of “cowboy processors” continue to illegally produce it.

Let us not lose sight of why a ban is essential, not only for improving New York City’s waste diversion rates, but for the whole country. The EPA states: “Each year American throw away 25,000,000,000 Styrofoam cups. Even 500 years from now, the foam coffee cup you used this morning will be sitting in a landfill.” The time for banning this cheap, destructive material has come. Let’s support Bloomberg and get this done before he leaves office later this year.

Plastics Part Deux

City Slickers 2 was instantly forgettable, much like the fact that many plastics cannot be recycled, despite the cute recycling logos

City Slickers 2 was instantly forgettable, much like the fact that all plastics cannot be recycled, despite the cute recycling logos

Welcome back to our little exposé on plastics recycling. In Part one we discussed “Le Problème” and now we move onto “Le Problème: Part Deux”. Is this a bad Jean Claude Van Damme beat ’em up? Will the Muscles from Brussels be kicking some plastic butts?

Well no, not really, we’re actually just going to be talking about those little numbers on your plastics and how upset we get at the global plastics industry, and how everyone cares more about saving a few cents than filling our finite planetary land mass (and waterways) with single use non-degradable crap. On that note, let us call this post “The Empire Strikes Back” or maybe “The Matrix Reloaded but not Recycled” or how about “City Slickers 2: The Legend of Curly’s Plastics”. Hmmm not such a well known sequel. It makes me squirm. Squirming curly. Even worse. Moving on…

Resin Identification Codes. These are the numbers on the bottom of your plastic containers and bottles, conveniently framed in little recycling-esque triangles of arrows. Don’t they just make you feel good? Like all your hastily discarded packaging will be magically returned to that great chemical plant in the sky? Well here’s the reality check: most of these cannot be recycled!

  • #1 and #2 are the easiest to collect, clean and convert
  • #5 (carryout containers, yogurt containers, etc.) is now collected nationwide through the Preserve Gimme5 Program
  • #3 (PVC and vinyl) can be recycled at the producer’s side (no post-consumer recycling) to make decking, floor tiles, etc.
  • #4 consists mainly of films, which are impossible to collect and clean
  • #6 is polystyrene or “Styrafoam” which is lightweight, bulky, and brittle – three very unhelpful things from a recycling perspective)
  • And what about #7? this is a catchall term to describe tons of new and uncommon plastics, it’s the “none of the above” category. Among other concerns, one blogger has identified category #7 as being “more likely to contain phthalates and bisphenol-a (another known endocrine disruptor)”

Thus the question looms, how are these codes supposed to help us as recycling consumers? According to the guys who came up with it at SPI (The Plastic Industry Trade Association):

The code system was developed to meet recyclers’ needs while providing manufacturers a consistent, uniform system that could apply nationwide. Because municipal recycling programs traditionally have targeted packaging—primarily bottles and containers—the resin coding system offered a means of identifying the resin content of bottles and containers commonly found in the residential waste stream.

The website then lists a set of “guidelines” to inform the use of RICs, and among them are one: “Make the code inconspicuous at the point of purchase so it does not influence the consumer’s buying decision” and two: “Do not use the term ‘recyclable’ in proximity to the code”. Regarding the first point, wouldn’t it be to the consumer’s advantage to know his/her product can or cannot be recycled? And regarding the second point, if you cannot reference “recycling”, why is the damn thing inside a triangle of arrows symbolizing the act of recycling? Is this symbol totally unrelated to recycling, perhaps some abstract expressionist statement on the fall of humanity? Seems unlikely.

Now, the point of going into all this Resin Code malarkey is to underscore that the world of plastics production does not easily lend itself to recycling. The goal of these producers is to create materials that are lighter and cheaper, but with no regard for what happens to them after we use them, one single time. Why do they work in this way? Because the inputs are cheap and the outputs are highly profitable.

But as is always the case with environmental damage, the real costs are externalized. We the people must pay for the collection and disposal of all these materials, and our muncipalities are responsible for selling what they can, while burning or burying the rest.

What is the conclusion? Consumers of plastic crap must unite! We must demand a closed loop system that ensures the plastics filling our shelves and filling our lives are designed to be easily recycled! In the words of that now famous ending in City Slickers II, gold cannot be accumulated at our expense! Let’s demand Curly change his plastic producing ways!

(Rough paraphrasing of the film, which I did in fact see though I have next to no memory of it).

Recycling Plastic is Not Easy (Part 1)

DSNY Recycling Label

A typical recycling problem: the New York Department of Sanitation can only collect plastic bottles and jugs, as accepting a wider range of plastics creates logistical challenges and leads to contamination that reduces the value of the materials collected. If they can’t sell it, they must throw it away.

WhitherWaste has been busy for the past two weeks, investigating the world of plastics and why it’s so hard to recycle most of the stuff. Because we found so many wonderfully amazing facts and figures, we decided to break the analysis up into multiple posts. Today your esteemed author presents Part 1: The challenges of recycling plastics. Part 2 will focus on the opportunities for closing the production loop. And if we get carried away, there might even be a Part 3, 4, and 5. Why so much excitement for this cheap flimsy stuff? Because humanity has had bronze ages, iron ages, stone ages, middle ages, and dark ages. We now live in the plastic ages. So if you don’t know, you better find out!

To begin our investigation, we must ask a seemingly simple question: what is plastic? The term refer to a number of molded solid materials derived from crude oil and/or natural gas. Fossil fuels are steam cracked to produce the three basic building blocks of plastics: ethylene, propylene, and benzene. The first produces polyethylene (PET, HDPE) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which include everything from soda bottles to microwaveable food trays to cereal box liners to sewer pipes. Propylene is used to make acrylics, epoxys (glues), and polypropylene (PP), which has a high melting point and is useful for takeaway containers at restaurants. Finally benzene is the input for polystyrenes (styrafoam packaging, yogurt container), nylons, and polyurethanes (foam).

Each year, millions of tons of these plastic polymers are created, and the world’s appetite is growing. One researcher has identified a historical growth rate of 9% per year, and new production facilities are springing up in China and the Middle East. Another important fact is that “50% of plastics are used for single-use disposable applications, such as packaging, agricultural films and disposable consumer items” (source here).  Furthermore, humanity has only been mass producing plastics for the last few decades, and we lack a solid understanding of how long the stuff will stick around after we bury it: decades, centuries, or possibly millennia. Sustainability gurus love to talk about giving a better world to their grandchildren. Well what about our grandkids grandkids grandkids? They will be taking their first steps on our slowly rotting food containers, and they will be interred next to our gum wrappers and toilet drains. What a legacy.

The best thing we can to for the planet is to reduce our use of plastics. Unfortunately, while my esteemed WhitherWaste readers might be willing to take such noble steps, it seems that most of the world is still in the business of increasing their dependency. Thus the second best thing we can do is recycle the materials we have created. This directly slows the need for virgin plastics. However to accomplish this goal, we must address three challenges:

  1. Different types of plastics cannot be recycled together, because their different chemical properties and production methods make them incompatible, like oil and water, and thus they must be separated by people or machines; this leads to public confusion about what is in fact recyclable
  2. Certain plastics are difficult to recycle, including flexible films and wrappings, electronics, and those used in vehicles
  3. Recycling markets are contingent upon a number of external factors, including the price of new plastics (price of fossil fuels), the cost of other disposal technologies (waste-to-energy, landfilling, etc), the changing dynamics of the plastics industry (with new products emerging for which no recycling markets exist), and the emergence of biodegradable alternatives which appear more sustainable (though these products create sorting challenges for existing recycling programs, and more importantly, it is dubious whether enough biomass will be found to replace the millions of tons of plastics created each year)
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Banana leaves and AC trains – notes on India

Whitherwaste in India pic

Threepenny philosopher for hire: Whitherwaste gains a few insights into the conundrum of development on a recent trip to southern India

This week, whitherwaste seeks to pontificate on the path of development, as revealed through a few meager experiences in southern India last month. Your noble author would not usually be so bold as to espouse grand theory on the basis of trivial encounters, but well, this is a blog, and he can do as he pleases. Furthermore, anyone who takes issue with the brevity of his observations, may at once remedy the situation with the commitment of significant and long-term financial support. Cash or checks accepted.

To allay the concerns of his readers, the author wishes to make known that his anthropological guilt (a type of Catholic guilt directed towards the theorist’s always/already imperfect ethnocentric perception) should keep his wildest assertions in check.

Now, development – that big unstoppable steam engine-cum-nuclear reactor, that amassing heap of newness and urban sprawl, that backward-gazing Angelus Novus Walter Benjamin once told us was blown from paradise – has been a topic of discussion since before the industrial revolution. While I cannot offer any new insight into its internal mechanism, or what it means to different peoples in different times and places, I can reflect on ephemeral objects, which reveal the deeper complexities of our shared human journey.

Angelus Novum by Paul Klee

Angelus Novum by Paul Klee. Walter Benjamin once wrote “This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.”

The first of these is the banana leaf. Over the centuries it has served many uses, from shading device to roofing material to plate. Today in India, the banana leaf is still used as a surface upon which curries and chutneys can be consumed with much delight and no cutlery (hand’s only). Following the local custom, it is best to place a few drops of water on the leaf and cleanse before depositing any food. Once the meal is finished the leaf can be easily discarded in a compost heap, where it forms the humus for future banana plants and future plates of curry. This everyday object reminds us of an ancient past, and in today’s world of sustainable development, it also represents the future. It is a zero waste resource!

At a roadside cafe on the way to Kerala, we observed the humble banana leaf, a provider of sustainable dinnerware for thousands of years.

At a roadside cafe on the way to Kerala we observed the humble banana leaf, a provider of sustainable dinnerware for thousands of years.

In a similar way the coconut provides a sustainable, compost-able beverage container. However one thing I noticed in the heaps of empty coconut shells were plastic bendy straws, which revealed a deeper mindset. For thousands of years we humans had the luxury of only using biodegradable objects, and thus waste management was a simple task of throwing trash over one’s shoulder to the hungry soil below. The story changed as we began introducing a dizzying quantity of plastics and industrial chemicals into our environment. We can no longer throw our waste into the garden; we now send it to sorting facilities where it must be recycled, burned, or buried. The banana leaf rides like a bottle on the waves of human history, reminding us how things were once done. Let us take inspiration from this subtle message!

The second object that captured my attention is larger and more new: the Air Conditioned Chair Car of the Indian rail company. Upon entering the car, one has the distinct impression of breathing 50-year old air. Like walking into the tomb of a pharaoh, or perhaps opening a time capsule, one is overcome by an aged atmosphere.  Every single seat is wrapped in light blue vinyl padding, and the windows are sealed shut with thick rubber seals. The car resembles a submarine or possibly a space ship. There is something dystopian about it, or more succinctly, it is road-to-hell-paved-with-good-utopian-ambitions-esque. One smells the odor of a million AC-enjoying souls. He traces a line in the dust of a million shedding skins. And he perceives two strongly contrasting feelings: the profound limitations of human ingenuity and the certain possibility of improvement.

AC Chair Car of Indian Railways – one has the impression of slowly suffocating in a time capsule from the 1960s.

The banana leaf and the train car could not be more dissimilar and yet both provide vantage points into the commotion from which humanity has emerged. Without wishing to romanticize one over the other, one must simply be aware of the human imprint on both. While it is this author’s ambition to move closer to all that the banana leaf represents, he is not so naive as to believe it will be radically different from the AC Chair Car he took to Bangalore.

Despite this one thing is certain. The drive to remove ourselves from the outside world – as embodied in the train car – has been exposed as incredibly dangerous to all other life, which has no perception of being outside or inside and continues on despite human manipulation. Now we wish to move towards the banana leaf, a plant that serves human life and disappears without any lingering destruction. Let’s hope that lesson informs a future generation of innovators, consumers, and possibly even Indian rail passengers.

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Visit to Masdar City – Abu Dhabi, UAE

Masdar City Photo

A view down one of the main “streets” or pedestrian corridors in Masdar. Notice the shading from the buildings, which along with the layout provides for a constant breeze and cool temperature.

First and foremost, a Happy New Year to all you faithful readers out there!

Whither Waste slipped into a state of hibernation around the time of Hurricane Sandy (and the modestly disruptive blackout of lower Manhattan). In recent weeks, it has come out of its cave to enjoy egg nog and a few slices of fruit cake and is now revved up for an eventful 2013. Climate change is back in the news, and thus by association, the question of “whither waste?” is also back on the top of the docket. Here’s hoping!

So, without further ado, your faithful author took a recent trip to the United Arab Emirates, to experience life (i.e. visit relatives) in this new and fast-changing country. The fact that 40 years ago, most of the population was nomadic and the desert was the main attraction only adds to the sense of metamorphosis. Thanks to billions of dollars in oil revenues, the country has emerged as a global center for investment and trade with hundreds of thousands of expatriates working to ensure the Emirates emulates the best of other developed nations, while also emanating its own regional eminence (tongue twister anyone?).

Prior to the slowdown of the global financial crisis in 2008, the UAE sought to boost its green credentials and become a leader in the growing clean tech sector. Perhaps out of economic self-interest, or possibly to atone for years of high-energy fossil fuel-led growth, the country started investing some serious money in renewables. Abu Dhabi, the capital, also became home to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), “the first intergovernmental organization to be established in decades.”

As a demonstration of its commitment, the government created Masdar City in 2006. This flagship project, anchored by the newly created Masdar Institute, was to become a global hub of clean technology and innovation. Your esteemed author decided to head out to this “city” (new development zone) to see what was really going on.

The first thing that strikes you about Masdar is that it is next to the airport and you need a car to get there. Yikes! Wouldn’t such a major undertaking be more sustainable, both environmentally and in terms of collective interest, if it was closer to the center of town and accessible by different modes of public and private transportation? Putting my snap judgements aside, my companion (brother-in-law) Patrick and I park in the visitor lot and board the idling gasoline-fueled shuttle. I had previously seen videos of electric self-driving cars, but they were nowhere to be seen on the day of our visit.

Masdar Institute Knowledge Center Photo

The Knowledge Center did not provide much information on Masdar, but the security guard gave us a few pointers.

We disembarked at the Knowledge Center, which ironically provided very little information, though we did find a security guard who gave us a general overview. Masdar currently contains around 10-15 buildings so it’s not too hard to find one’s way. Moreover, because most buildings are not open to the general public, the best plan is to wander around and try to look sustainably minded.

In analyzing Masdar one should start with the successes. Firstly, the overall layout works well: careful attention had been paid to the arrangement of buildings to provide for ample shading from the sun. A constant breeze and lack of direct sunlight made for a very comfortable climate along the pedestrian corridors. This surely has an impact on keeping energy costs low in the summer months (remember, the temperature gets above 40 degrees Celsius or 104 degrees Fahrenheit!).

Another pleasant aspect of Masdar is the architecture, which blends classic Arabesque motifs with modern steel and glass forms (see the wavy terracotta walls in the first photo). On top of the buildings, a checkered pattern of solar panels capture free energy while also shading inhabitants below.

Solar Panels Top Masdar Buildings Photo

Solar panels on top of buildings generate electricity while shading public corridors below

Perhaps the coolest gadget at Masdar is the giant windtower or windcatcher, which takes its inspiration from the passive ventilation technologies of traditional Persian and Arab architecture. What makes it especially interesting is how modern systems have been incorporated to improve the basic utilization of wind and pressure gradients to circulate air. The tower has been fitted with computer-controlled water jets that release mist to cool incoming warm air through evaporative cooling. The merging of traditional and modern technology provides a valuable lesson for all. What traditional cooling techniques in other parts of the world have been discarded with the advent of modern, one-size-fits-all HVAC technologies?

Windtower at Masdar City Photo

The windtower blends traditional and new design principles to cool the air at street level in Masdar

To highlight a few of the shortcomings, I would first mention the waste management system (surprise!). I passed several sets of bins for recycling paper and plastic, but none for metal or organic waste. While the latter might be difficult to manage in such high temperatures, there are technologies available, and what’s to stop the Institute from say, innovating? Anaerobic digesters can reduce organic waste, create additional renewable energy, and provide valuable humus for the surrounding desert soils. As for metal, there’s just no good reason not to collect this valuable resource, and hopefully that will change in the future.

Waste bins at Masdar photo

Where is the metal and organic waste recycling?

A final point of concern, which I briefly mentioned at the beginning, is location. In order to make places like Masdar sustainable in a social sense, they must be desirable places to live. They must be at the heart of urban areas, not removed to empty zones near the airport. This is a key issue that Masdar cannot avoid, though it may become less problematic as the area grows. Currently, there is one grocery store, one bank, and three restaurants/cafes. If there’s one thing we can say about the diverse groups of people in Abu Dhabi, it’s that they like choice. With thousands of restaurants, malls, cinemas, and even indoor ski slopes, it is clear that Masdar needs more amenities.

In conclusion, the project represents a valuable contribution to sustainable living on a large scale. It possesses a high capacity for continued growth and innovation; and it has captured the imagination of many green enthusiasts and should continue to do so in the future. However it must hold dear a few basic principles such as zero waste and zero emissions in order to ensure it remains relevant. Finally, it must be a desirable place to live, with amenities and access to other parts of the city, otherwise it risks becoming cut off from its surroundings. As nature shows us, nothing survives for long in isolation.


End of the road in Masdar: a vast expanse of desert

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