Monday, August 27, 2012

Consequences of the Drought

During this summer’s extended drought many communities have imposed water use regulations on their residents. Water levels everywhere are down many feet and there are some power plants that have to build a deeper water intake to cool the plants because theirs is now above the current water level. The corn crop has withered to the lowest yield expectations in decades and you could lose a foot in the cracks in the ground.

 Yet, a report just came out that we are using more water than other years when there wasn’t a drought. Why?  Are we that concerned about our flowers, gardens, lawns, and trees? Or are we taking more showers because of the hot temperatures and we need to feel cleaner?

Whatever the reason, we have a serious situation on our hands. I am not a biologist or a climate scientist but it doesn’t take an expert to look around and see what is going on. I have to wonder what happens to the CO2 in the atmosphere if more plants die because of lack of water. And with higher costs for food and fuel on the way, what happens to the economic recovery?

Do all of these things put together force farmers to try to plant more acres next year? What about the clean energy development in the country? What we have seen so far is a slowing of wind farm development. But, power demand is still growing. Solar energy plants out west have extremely small profit margins as it is, and what if what little tax credit incentives there are, dry up? Their development will follow suit.  These clean forms of energy don’t pose the huge environmental impacts that coal, nuclear, and oil do. Yet, fossil fuel industries receive more subsidies than all renewables combined, times 5!

So what can we do about it? We can’t do anything big at the moment, unfortunately. That isn’t how things work; though I wish they would.

A few things must come first.

1.       Use less water and power. – That will decrease the demand on the waterways and the power plants. Make a conscious effort to do this.

2.       Recycle! Making new products out of recycled items saves energy, water, and resources thereby putting less of a burden on power plants and ecosystems. Close the loop and buy recycled products to keep the demand going.

3.       Write, email, and /or call your legislators and let them know what is important to you. They can’t vote and represent you in the ways you would like if they are only hearing from voices that are not consistent with your views.

4.       Influence your friends, family, and neighbors. Get the discussions going. You may know about the balance and dependence on nature but maybe they don’t. Maybe all they see is their grocery and gas bills going up and don’t understand why.

These are not big actions. They won’t take you a lot of time either. In fact, the only thing that takes time is getting your voice heard by your representatives. What about your family, neighbors and friends? You see them all the time anyway, whether you like it or not in some cases, so you can bring it up with them at those times.
Baby steps, everyone. We have to crawl before we walk, and I see these few small steps as good ways to get us there. 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

What do we have to lose?

It seems the fashionable thing to do these days is to repurpose things and create trendy crafts using some old materials. Why? What happened to our throw-away society and single use everything? Are we really changing our ways and recycling and reusing more now than we had been for the last 20 years?

No, I don’t think this is the case. Consider this: A recent study on the composition of the U.S. landfills conducted by the nonprofit organization, As You Sow, estimates that more than $11.4 billion worth of recyclable packaging is thrown out annually.

$11.4 billion.

I wonder how many jobs could be created by diverting those materials for recycling. Considering that the recycling industry as it is (with only a 34% national recycling rate) employs more people than the U.S. auto industry, I would think this would be significant. 

With the push for the green movement and many cities across the country revamping their recycling programs you would think we have made more of a dent than this number suggests. And maybe we have, but population continues to go up as well. So right along with it there is more consumption and more things being bought and thrown out. 

But it’s popular to recycle, right? Yes, and studies show that people are more likely to recycle if their neighbors are doing it. Or they at least say they are. How many of us know or have known someone who says they will recycle your can for you but you later see it in the garbage can? If people are so ashamed of not recycling why don’t they just recycle? I suppose there are many reasons. We could go into all of those arguments against recycling that have been debunked over and over again but I think the reasons are much simpler.

Time, hassle, cost (in some cases), space for bins, and ultimately I think the biggest hurdle is changing habits. I have heard it said that it takes 3 months of continuously performing a new task before it becomes habit.

These are the reasons why the target audience for recycling and other sustainable lifestyle messages is children. If they grow up hearing it over and over and practicing it in school, they are bound to bring home what they learn and influence their parents and siblings. Hopefully, these efforts will make a difference. I wonder if this generation will be the generation that ends up mining material out of landfills and taking advantage of the trillions of dollars that are sealed up in these man-made mountains.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Pre-cycling - Waste less and save!

I saved the best for last in this series on up, down, and pre-cycling. Have you been grocery shopping lately? Do you pay attention to the packaging that items come in? In the last 20 years, many of the products you find at the grocery store, and elsewhere, have seen a growing amount of packaging added.

Why? Who knows for sure but I have a few guesses.

1.       They want the product displayed differently and more appealing to the eye.

2.       They can put less of the product in the packaging and you still feel like you get more due to the sheer size.

3.       There is an assumption that consumers want more packaging to feel like the product is safer and protected from exterior bacteria etc.

The problem with excess packaging is that often times the packaging materials are not recyclable in your typical curbside recycling programs. Then, you add in the issue of changing packaging to containers that are not recyclable or worse, changing the packaging to Styrofoam.

Here is where pre-cycling comes in. pre-cycling means to assess an item for its reusability or recyclability before you purchase it.  Now, you have preemptively battled the amount of trash you would be creating. Pretty cool, huh? Some stores are taking this on for you. For example, Wal-Mart has a packaging scorecard for all products that are sole in their stores. Packaging is graded on many different components (recycled content, recyclability, emissions produced in its manufacture, etc.) If a product has too low of a score, the company is asking that they change their packaging.  

So, how do you do this? Let’s start with meat as it is always a difficult one. Ground beef and ground turkey are big sellers at the grocery store and luckily there is a very low waste option. Most of the meat is placed on a soaker pad and the on top or a foam piece and wrapped with clear stretch wrap. This is extremely wasteful.  But, the savvy pre-cycler sees another option in the meat aisle. There are some brands of ground beef and ground turkey that come in a hard plastic container, usually a number 2 or 5 plastic, and it has a small amount of clear stretch wrap over the top of the container. The plastic container is recyclable and you end up with a small amount of plastic for the trash. No soaker pad included! See bottom left of picture below for proof.

This same thought process can be applied to other items you buy as well. Pasta in a box rather that in a plastic bag, bringing your own bag for loose fruits and veggies rather than using plastic bags, buying coffee beans in bulk and using your own glass jar rather than a plastic bag (or buy them in a paper bag rather than a plastic or foil lined one), and so on and so forth.  The intricacies of bulk buying and the huge impact it can have are another topic for another day.

Some things you can’t get away from and that is understandable, but there are a lot of baby steps you can take while shopping to make a great impact on your household waste. What kinds of things have you done to be a better pre-cycler? Have you already done some of these things without realizing that you did it?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

What is "Down-cycle" ?

Last week I was talking about what it means to up-cycle, and this week I wanted to explore down-cycling. As it turns out, I probably should have started with down-cycling because it isn’t as cool and glamorous as up-cycling.

So, now that we all have discovered the awesome projects and cool things we can do with materials to up-cycle them; let’s see what down-cycle means.  Many of us have been down-cycling for a while and just didn’t know the new-fangled term for it. Down-cycling means to take a product or material and turn it into something of lesser value, and in some cases, compromise the integrity of the material so that it can’t be turned back into the original product.

Taking this, we look at what our recycled materials are made back into and we realize that many of those materials are being down-cycled. I guess this is why recycling is the last of the 3 R’s; still important but not the best first choice. Take plastic bottles for an example. When plastic bottles make their recycling journey, they are made into small plastic pellets. Due to many rules and regulations, not many are made back into a food-grade plastic. (There is an up and coming market to tackle that and make rPET just as an FYI.) The destination for many plastic bottles is carpet and clothing. Though these products have a much longer usable lifespan than a bottle, they are not easily recycled again. As the textile recycling industry gains more speed and becomes more widespread, I think this will change. For now, though, this is a down-cycle for plastic bottles. Other examples for down-cycling are when paper is made into tissues and paper towels, and when glass is made into insulation or part of the components for asphalt. 
Now that we know what this term means and the ways in which products are down-cycled, maybe we can begin a more in-depth discussion about buyer choice and the types of products and packaging in the market.