Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Maine Granolas OK With Recycling Plastic

In a post last week, I'd written about the Berkeley, California Ecology Center's critiques of recycling plastic. Those criticisms led the Ecology Center to recommend not recycling plastic at all, rather than give people false assurances that might prompt people to consume more plastic than they need to.

That post prompted some more investigation from reader and local city councilor John Anton, who also happens to be on the board of ecomaine, the uncapitalized regional waste management company here in southern Maine. He sent my post to Kevin Roche, ecomaine's general manager, to ask about where our own plastics end up. Here was Roche's response, in its entirety (emphasis and links are my own):
Hi John -

I've been selling plastic scrap since 1989 and have visited many plastic processing facilities during my time in the industry. Back in the late 80's and early 90's, it was tough to find markets for plastic and often times you wouldn't get any revenue for it. But it was still better than sending it to a landfill so we continued to market it to a variety of processors who chip it, wash it, and palletize for the use in new products and packaging. I witnessed this being done first hand so I'm confident that when you put this much effort into processing scrap, that it goes to good use.

Today, the markets have matured substantially...

The non-colored (natural) HDPE milk jugs (marked with a number 2 on the bottom) are now commanding over $800 per ton ($18,000 per trailer load). We sell a lot of this material to a Company in York PA called Graham Packaging which makes new plastic containers for detergents and cleaners (non-food).

The Colored HDPE #2 containers are sold to various markets (including Graham Packaging) at $600 per ton. Again, they make new bottles out of scrap bottles.

The PET #1 containers are sorted automatically by our scanner and sold at $400 per ton to various markets that make carpet or stuffing for sleeping bags and jackets, etc.

The 3-7 plastic we mix and sell together because we don't get enough of any one of them to substantiate accumulating them in separate loads. These markets are in their infancy (just like the #1 & #2 markets were 18 years ago). However they're the smallest percentage of what we process... See below.

Make up of the Plastics we process:

Colored HDPE #2: 28%
Natural HDPE #2: 25%
PET #1: 25%
Plastics #3-#7: 22%

We just started selling 3-7 plastic last year and we've averaged $45 per ton. Not nearly what the other plastics bring in but at least we're getting paid for it. Because there are limited markets for this material right now, we sell it to various brokers. Because they pay us for it, they can't simply afford to landfill it. It's sold to lower end markets but our hope is the markets will improve for this material over time as it has for the other plastics.

I hope this helps. Kevin.

So in Maine, at least, plastic recycling is pretty beneficial. Still, recycling does consume a lot of energy and resources, and note that even here, plastics are "downcycled" - that is, transformed from food-grade to non-food containers, or from water bottles to jacket insulation. And recycling plastics other than HDPE #2 and PET #1 is obviously more problematic, for now. Note that Roche does not know where those plastics end up - it's entirely possible that purchasers may be scouring that 22% portion of our plastic recycling to cherry-pick what they can and landfill the rest.

It's also important to note that ecomaine is a nonprofit owned by its 21 member communities, which helps to make its management considerably more open, progressive, and innovative than most waste management companies. I mean, would Tony Soprano have bothered to write the response above? Unfortunately, most American communities shouldn't expect this level of service from their own local recycling haulers. But as Roche has proven here, it's worth asking them about it.

So using less plastic is still far better than recycling plastic, but here in southern Maine, anyhow, recycling is better than burying or incinerating it with the rest of our garbage. Just make sure your plastic doesn't blow away into the nearest river or coastline when you set it out on the curb every week.

China just might surprise the U.S. on climate change

With new conservation initiatives and advances in low-cost green technology, the new global superpower is taking a leading role in addressing climate change - and rendering the old global superpower "irrelevant."

read more in the San Francisco Chronicle

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Grapes of Global Wrath

Four years ago, I finished a season of huts work just as a good friend of mine was finishing a year of teaching english at a Thai university. I flew out to southeast Asia to meet up with him, with the goal of taking a long hike near Siguniang Shan (pictured), at the edge of the Tibetan plateau in western Sichuan province.

We spent a week in the mountains and saw blue sky once, when the clouds cleared for about an hour one morning (but that one hour was absolutely spectacular). Another morning, a yak trampled and ripped our tent while we were out on a short walk from out campsite. After coming from Thailand, we were cold and damp and we weren't enjoying our Chinese camp food nearly as much as Thai cuisine. So we cut the hike short and spent most of our time instead in the nearby town of Rilong, a Tibetan ranching village that was transitioning its economy to serve more and more Chinese tourists, plus a few days in the city of Chengdu.

Essentially, we spent all our time in China within 50 miles of the recent earthquake's epicenter. And the four-hour bus ride between Rilong and Chengdu took us through some of the hardest-hit cities, including Dujiangyan and the town of Yingxiu.

From what I can tell, both Rilong and Chengdu - and presumably, the incredibly warm, funny, and hospitable Ma family that hosted us there - fared relatively well in this disaster. Still, it's not difficult to imagine how terrifying it might be over there.

Much has been made of how open China's press has been in this disaster, and how the country is now accessible to global media, and a greater degree of global empathy. But the mountain towns west of the epicenter are only connected to the outside world by a tenuous two-lane highway and power line that threads its way through huge mountains, and both are now buried under landslides in several places. For a while, these places will have to survive as they did for centuries - cut off from any communication or commerce save for that provided by two days of walking. For a while, all the promise of easier living with indoor plumbing and washing machines has been swept away by the old basic struggle for survival.

Maybe this, and the context of China's position and its ambitions, is why I was instantly reminded of Rose of Sharon in The Grapes of Wrath when I heard about this story: a young Chinese police officer who is also a recent mother has been breastfeeding numerous babies in the earthquake's shelters for children who have been orphaned or whose mothers are too exhausted to feed them.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Berkeley Granolas Just Say "No" to Recycling Plastic

Tomorrow is the neighborhood trash pick-up day. And like most Wednesday mornings, I will go outside and find the streets littered with milk jugs, plastic wrap, and take-out containers that have fallen out or blown away from household recycling bins. I'd venture to guess that the majority of my neighborhood's litter comes from recycling - it's not as though many people would intentionally throw their organic salad greens containers and cute-little-butter-girl boxes into the gutter. Of course, you know where all that trash is headed next.

We could do a better job of piling heavy stuff on top of our recycling bins so the lighter stuff doesn't blow away. Or better yet, if it's windy out, keeping the recycling inside until the next week.

Or better still - don't recycle plastic. That's the line of action endorsed by Berkeley, California's Ecology Center. Read their Seven Misconceptions About Recycling Plastic on their web site.

Did you know that the triangular chasing-arrows symbol is an invention of the plastics industry? The Ecology Center asserts, "The arrows are meaningless." This isn't entirely true - the numbers do differentiate different types of plastic, from #1 polyester to #5 polypropylene - but the Ecology Center is correct in the sense that the numbers are basically meaningless to recycling centers. No one actually looks at the symbols and sorts the plastics by number. In fact, plastic with a #7 symbol is categorized as "Other," meaning that it's essentially unrecyclable.

Since the plastic all gets mixed together, it can't be re-used as food containers or bottles. Instead, it's typically melted together and re-formed to produce a limited number of products that don't require high-quality materials. You may have seen parking lot bumpers or picnic tables made from a grainy plastic - these are generally made from recycled materials, but they themselves can not be recycled again.

Plus, there just isn't enough demand for cheap picnic tables to use all of the plastic that Americans put out in their recycling bins. In most West Coast cities, then, a lot of plastic recycling gets shipped to China on barges. Once it gets there, Chinese factories use some of it to produce low-grade plastic containers. But much of it just ends up going into Chinese rivers or landfills.

It's less clear what East Coast cities do with their excess plastic (we have a sort of social agreement with the waste industry where we don't want to know what happens to our garbage, and they don't tell us), but it's a safe bet that a lot of it goes to landfills. Even if that's the case, at least we're not shipping it to China first.

Please read Elizabeth Royte's Garbageland, linked at right, for a much more in-depth look at where plastic goes after we "recycle" it.

But long story short, plastics can generally be recycled only once, and a lot of it doesn't get recycled at all. The Ecology Center has actually campaigned for years to prevent recycling trucks from collecting plastic: "There is a likelihood that establishing plastics collection might increase consumption by making plastic appear more ecologically friendly both to consumers and retailers. Collecting plastics at curbside could legitimize the production and marketing of packaging made from virgin plastic." They also point out that legitimizing plastics contributes to the declining viability of glass containers - and glass, unlike plastic, is an unambiguously recyclable material.

This is essentially the source of my unease about most "green" consumption, from carbon offsets to glitzy suburban land trusts. On one hand, it's great that people want to recycle, or generate less carbon per mile, or save a forest. But if that warm and fuzzy feeling they get induces them to use more plastic, or drive more, or build a bigger McMansion, then what good does it do any of us?

So reduce the amount of plastic you acquire. Reuse the stuff you can't avoid picking up. But when you think of throwing any of it away, remember that there are good reasons to send it straight to the landfill, instead of sending it on a temporary detour through the recycling center.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

The desert will bloom.

The Google blog today announced a $10 million equity investment in BrightSource Energy, a solar-thermal power plant developer that's agreed to provide 900 megawatts of renewable electricity to Pacific Gas and Electric. That's about as much electricity as could be provided by a small nuclear power plant.

This investment is part of Google's effort to develop renewable energy technology that's cheaper than coal: to do so, BrightSource will build huge fields of mirrors (as in the picture above) that will concentrate extreme heat on a central water tower, which will then generate steam to spin huge turbines. Unlike wind turbines, which only deliver juice when the wind blows, these power plants can be relied on to deliver their full capability of electricity in the middle of hot summer days, when SoCal's air conditioning units are working their hardest.

Let's wait to see if any of it really comes to pass. The Mojave is a recalcitrant frontier and the graveyard of so many destinies that once seemed manifest. There are abandoned farms, ghost towns, and failed real estate schemes. Check out this ambitious subdivision near California City:

View Larger Map

If you zoom in on the map above, you'll notice that someone, at some point, actually went to the trouble of naming all of those abandoned cul-de-sacs in the middle of nowhere. Incredible.

But with Google's faith and another $115 million in venture capital in its pocket, it looks likely that these solar plants will be built in the next few years. And, since California generates most of its electricity with expensive natural gas, utilizing free sunlight for energy seems like a safe investment.

What if California decides to decommission its natural gas plants entirely and replace them with thousands of acres of mirrors covering the dry lakebeds of the Mojave? That could be a significant step towards saving the global climate.

But it's possible that these huge fields of mirrors would also begin to cool the local climate. If these mirrors begin reflecting the Mojave's sunlight back up into the sky, instead of letting it bake the hot desert soil, it seems likely that these arrays will also be oases of cool air. Maybe they'll begin attracting an understory of desert scrub plants to cool the local microclimate further.

As time goes on, the growing island of shaded ground and cooler air squeezes out any moisture that incoming desert breezes might contain, like a stationary cold front. The ground beneath the mirrors will grow increasingly verdant. The power plants won't work as well as they used to before the clouds arrived, but a new generation of frontiersmen will till the fertile soil in the shade of California's solar farms. The century-old promise will be fulfilled: the desert will bloom.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Left: a "trash boom" in the Los Angeles River collects floating waste that had washed away from city streets after a storm. This photo by Rick Loomis was part of a Pulitzer-winning report on plastics in the world's oceans from the Los Angeles Times.

There's a lot of plastic on the loose - and not just in treetops. As alluded to in the previous post, a lot of it ends up washing away: down the nearest storm drain, into a river, and out into the ocean, where plastics make a languorous journey along the ocean's currents until they arrive in a stagnant patch of dead water in the middle of the Pacific known as the North Pacific Gyre - or more recently known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Charles Moore, an oceanographer studying the Patch, estimates that this patch of ocean, twice the size of Texas, might contain about 100 million tons of floating plastic confetti (source).

But you probably already know about this, as it's been well-documented on the Internet and in excellent documentaries like this amazing series from Vice magazine.

I'm more interested in the recent Crusade against Plastic Bags. Have you noticed how this has become an environmental flash point? Across the nation, yuppie grocery stores and yuppie cities are banning plastic bags outright.

Even though it shouldn't be lost on anyone that floating plastic, in and of itself, is a relatively minor environmental problem in the grand scheme of things, and even though I suspect that the yuppies are using their plastic bag bans as a way to forgive themselves for the massive volumes of other petroleum products that they habitually use, burn, or throw away, I'm generally encouraged by this new cultural suspicion of plastic.

But it's also strange. I mean, we've been seeing plastic trash tangled in trees and washed up at the high tide line for decades now. We made that Indian cry 30 years ago. What's different now?

I think that the Garbage Patch story might be a big part of it. The Gyre is one of the most isolated patches of ocean on Earth - and yet, humans have managed to unwittingly send millions of tons of garbage there. A newly-discovered floating continent of plastic makes for a pretty compelling story. It might even be better than drowning polar bears.

But I think that the more critical force behind this phenomenon is the general surge in concern about environmental issues - especially global warming. Ostensibly, plastic garbage has very little to do with the climate crisis. But if you're worried about the climate, you're also extremely frustrated at the lack of political leadership on the issue, and at the lack of opportunities - beyond switching lightbulbs - that individuals have to do anything about it.

In this context of general frustration, though, we've found something we can seize on: plastic bags. Here's something that individuals can claim for themselves as a small but meaningful gesture.

Compared to climate change, plastic garbage is a small problem. But this new prejudice against plastic bags shouldn't be looked at as a rearranging of deck chairs on the Titanic: it's a small but significant rejection of the American disposable culture. The oil and energy we save from producing a few less plastic bags isn't nearly as significant or meaningful as the idea that we should reuse things instead of throwing them away.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Spring foliage

Ah, spring! The buds are budding! The birds are singing! Everywhere, everything is enjoying the new freedom of wandering outdoors, free from snow and ice!

And few things are enjoying this newfound freedom more than the city's plastic shopping bags, which had spent a miserable winter buried in snowbanks, burdened with a cargo of slush. But no more! The plastic is taking to the skies! To the treetops! Beyond!

And even more are taking to the ocean, to float in long meandering migrations toward those lazy latitudes where winter never comes.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The city is organic.

According to the New Scientist News Service:
"French and US physicists have shown that the road networks in cities evolve driven by a simple universal mechanism despite significant cultural and historical differences. Marc Barthélemy of the French Atomic Energy Commission in Bruyères-le-Châtel and Alessandro Flammini of Indiana University, US, analysed street pattern data from roughly 300 cities, including Brasilia, Cairo, Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, and Venice."
Old world, new world, grid city or not, the researchers found that all of these cities have road networks that are mathematically similar. According to the article's abstract,
"We propose a simple model based on a local optimization process combined with ideas previously proposed in studies of leaf pattern formation. The statistical properties of this model are in good agreement with the observed empirical patterns."

The mathematical model assumed that road networks based on immediate needs to connect destinations - a downtown area to a new factory, for example, or a neighborhood to a train station. As more houses and businesses get built, they connect to existing roads. Which is exactly how capillary networks grow as new cells develop in living organisms.

This organic development of roads holds true even in cities, like Los Angeles, that ostensibly follow a north-south, east-west grid layout. LA's grid streets are only a small part of a larger, more chaotic network of big freeways (like major arteries) and tiny cul-de-sacs (like capillaries):

View Larger Map

And so, just as two genetic clones will develop different patterns of veins, capillaries, and arteries depending on chaotic environmental factors during cell growth, so a city's infrastructure develops randomly regardless of its social or governmental DNA. Whether it's a built-from-scratch city like Brasilia or an ancient city like Paris or a master-planned, for-profit city like Texas's The Woodlands, the city grows organically.

Monday, May 05, 2008

The Anthropocene Era

Millions of years from now, geologists of some different species may find a thin stratum of plastic in the sedimentary rock of ancient seabeds and speculate that maybe it was a strange sort of petrochemical asteroid that caused the giant mass extinction at the end of the holocene epoch.

A growing number of present-day geologists are now arguing that the holocene epoch is effectively over, and that it's time to call our times by a new name: the anthropocene epoch, named for the dominant geological force of the period. Let's look at our credentials: we've relocated billions of tons of carboniferous-era rocks out of the ground and into the atmosphere; we've accelerated erosion in rivers worldwide, we're melting away ice caps that are hundreds of thousands of years old, and we've precipitated one of the largest mass extinctions in the history of life on Earth.

The Holocene Epoch began about 10,000 years ago. It is, by two orders of magnitude, the shortest geological epoch, and we may have just ended it. Whatever - it's an arbitrary division of time, a scientific invention. But what impresses me most about this is the fact that the geological record is almost four billion years old - and in a few thousand years, humans have already managed to leave a permanent mark.

Some geologists even say that the entire quaternary period, a scant 1.8 million years young, may be extinct. The quaternary period is defined geologically by periodic ice ages, which seem increasingly unlikely, but it's still entirely within the realm of possibility that something like The Day After Tomorrow might happen someday. Or, as the geologists put it, "Given the large uncertainties in the future trajectory of climate and biodiversity, and the large and currently unpredictable action of feedbacks in the earth system, we prefer to remain conservative. Thus, while there is strong evidence to suggest that we are no longer living in the Holocene (as regards the processes affecting the production and character of contemporary strata), it is too early to state whether or not the Quaternary has come to an end" (source: GSA Today, February 2008).

On the one hand, I'm encouraged by the fact that geologists are heeding the fact that humans are a part and a force of nature. Kind of puts the environmental movement in perspective: Ted Turner and the Nature Conservancy can buy as many Montanan ranches as they want, but they won't be doing squat in the grand scheme of geological time.

Raise cain about greenhouse gases and move our society towards leaving carbon in the ground, though, and that's an accomplishment that will be scribed in the rocks for billions of years to come.