When we drop our old computers off to be recycled we assume this will be done in an appropriate and environmentally safe manner, but e-waste is expensive to recycle and a shadow trade has developed around it. Computers, monitors, and cell phones are dumped by the millions of tons and shipped around the globe by numerous middlemen. The Guardian published a photo essay on e-waste dumping in Ghana.

“Photographer Kevin McElvaney documents Agbogbloshie, a former wetland in Accra, Ghana, which is home to the world’s largest e-waste dumping site. Boys and young men smash devices to get to the metals, especially copper. Injuries, such as burns, untreated wounds, eye damage, lung and back problems, go hand in hand with chronic nausea, anorexia, debilitating headaches and respiratory problems. Most workers die from cancer in their 20s”


Guardian Pic 1

Guardian Pic 2 Cows

Guardian Pic 3

Why Me?

Today I went in search of a new mouse. I lost the little wireless usb thingy that connected it to my laptop. My first thought was to just replace it. This alarmed me a bit, my complete apathy towards waste. So I called the manufacturer to order a new usb thing, but they didn’t make that mouse anymore. I was annoyed that I couldn’t replace the part, but honestly I didn’t have time to wait for a new one anyway. So now I have the old mouse staring me in the face. Just as I was beginning to resent having to cart this thing 5 miles to dispose of it responsibly it occurred to me to ask why the responsibility for disposal falls to me in the first place? I don’t mean where do I give it away or how do I find an organization that will dispose of it for me. I mean like unmaking it, removing it from the planet as if it had never been.

I’m not a manufacturer. I didn’t have the vaguest idea what went into the production of this thing in the first place. I mean shouldn’t companies that manufacture huge quantities of plastic/metal/glass/wire gizmos know how to safely dispose of them? And, having created them in the first place, shouldn’t they take responsibility for disposing of them at the end of their useful life? If this responsibility fell to them I’m guessing that the lifespans of their products would begin to double, triple, quadruple. I’m not trying to shirk all responsibility for the waste I produce, but maybe we should be rethinking things that are only useful for a few years, but will remain on the planet forever.

Greenpeace Photo Ghana

To see where your old computer is likely to end up watch this amazing video from Frontline: http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/stories/ghana804/video/video_index.html

On the outskirts of Ghana’s biggest city sits a smoldering wasteland, a slum carved into the banks of the Korle Lagoon, one of the most polluted bodies of water on earth. The locals call it Sodom and Gomorrah.

Planned Obsolescence

Our cultural obsession with consumer products seems like an inevitable by product of capitalism, which means we’ve always been like this, right? Actually, this unquenchable need for stuff is relatively new. During World War II production was pushed to its limits to supply both the war effort and domestic life. The US government responded to this increased need by implementing food rationing in 1942. Families saved their sugar rations for months so they could bake a birthday cake in July.

Rationing Rationing Coupon

After the war, manufacturing was threatening to outpace consumption. All of those newly repatriated young men were back on the production line, but the public had been trained to equate frugality with patriotism. This had to be reversed. Victor Lebow, a mid-century marketing consultant explained, “Our enormously productive economy demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfactions, our ego satisfactions, in consumption…”

Victor Lebow, “Price Competition in 1955,” Journal of Retailing 31, no. 1 (Spring 1955), p. 7.

Manufacturers realized that more stuff wasn’t the only solution. New stuff becomes necessary when existing stuff lasts for less and less time and is rigged so that repair is more expensive than replacement. Planned or built-in obsolescence is the policy of designing products with an artificially limited life span to encourage rapid replacement.

Then there’s social stigma. General Motors opened its first styling studio in the late 1920s. Every year cars were redesigned to encourage consumers to buy the latest model. New =good, old=bad.

Unlike the old days however, when increased consumer spending meant more jobs and more jobs meant more spending and it was all a happy self-sustaining cycle, now manufacturing is farmed out to the country with the cheapest labor and increasingly to robots. The benefits of consumer spending are in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Sam Walton and his brother Bud opened their first Walmart discount store in 1962. Today their heirs have more wealth than 42% of the American population combined. Is this a worthwhile reason to continue to trash our planet?

I have been carefully trained by the manufacturers of consumer products to want more, newer, shinier, better; to continue doing this dance of buying, unpackaging, using, tiring of, discarding. Recognizing the problem is the first step to solving it, right?

If we started by simply distinguishing between products that genuinely make our lives easier and products whose appeal is strictly psychological – the newest shiny thing, I think we could make better choices. It ultimately comes down to consumers retraining manufacturers to only produce what we’ve decided we really want and need.

My Relationship With Stuff

When I was three, my family moved to an affluent suburb on the north shore of Lake Michigan. It was not an indication of affluence attained or even a quickening inevitability, it was just an accident. My earliest memories are good ones, climbing trees with the boy next door. Then I started kindergarten and found out that something was deeply wrong. The other kids had things I didn’t. Their socks matched and their clothes were new. I couldn’t figure out how Diane Delaney’s hair could be in two such perfect pig tails day after day or how her hair ribbons happened to match her bell bottoms. I thought she was from another planet. Mornings at my house were a chaotic race to get out of the house with any clothes on at all. I knew that I wasn’t like those other kids, but I didn’t know what was missing at my house. If I had the clothes they had I would have that thing they had that I didn’t. I never bothered to examine the shortcomings of my logic. I knew that money can’t buy happiness, but I didn’t believe it.

I don’t think my story is all that different from anyone else’s. At some point most of us feel that other people have something we don’t and it is much easier to attribute that feeling to some tangible material thing than to something more elusive and upsetting. This is how advertising works.

I still get a little buzz from buying something new. I like it when someone compliments me on my clothing or the way my apartment looks. I like walking into expensive boutiques and having the sales people smile at me like I belong. I’m not saying it’s not messed up, I’m just saying it’s true. Why do I think that a pair of hand-stitched German shoes will change my life? Because the advertisers, who have massive budgets and access to every form of media known to man, want me to think that.

It’s all about control. I can’t control my relationships or what happens at work tomorrow or the stock market, but I have the power to snap that little slab of plastic on to the counter of any store and acquire new stuff. It’s sad, I know.


More Bad News

In addition to the inherent shortcomings of recycling as a solution to our trash problem, I came across the following sobering statistic: municipal solid waste, (household waste) represents about 2% of national waste, (what the country throws away in a year). So it seems that what you and I do with our garbage really makes very little difference. That sounds overly cynical. Recycling is better than discarding, but we’ve got a much bigger problem.

While numbers vary, the most conservative estimate is that the average consumer product generates 18 times its own weight in waste during the manufacturing process. So, that’s what has entered the waste stream before you’ve even gotten out of the store.

The unavoidable conclusion is that we have to consume less and who wants to do that? I like my stuff. I like my stuff a lot. I like my stuff perhaps too much. This is where I hit a wall.

Unpleasant Truths

In the course of blogging I came upon several unpleasant truths. Research into the specifics of recycling led to the realization that it is a deeply flawed solution to our garbage problem. Besides the fact that we throw things in the bin that cannot ultimately be recycled and must be sorted out, plastic and paper are routinely down cycled. Virgin material must be added to the mix during recycling in order to strengthen the integrity of the fibers. As fibers are repeatedly recycled they continue to weaken and this determines what uses they are still able to serve. So the water bottle you drop in the recycling bin today will not be reborn as another water bottle, but rather to create the filling in synthetic sleeping bags and winter coats and these items cannot be recycled. The fact that sleeping bags probably take a lot longer to get dumped in the trash than say, plastic water bottles, might make it seem like more is being diverted from landfill than actually is. It also means that each plastic water bottle has exactly one more life cycle before it reaches landfill. The other thing about recycling is where it takes place. Stuff that’s reasonably easy to recycle often goes overseas once it’s shredded…and it tends to go to the poorest places on Earth for further processing, places where environmental regulations are less stringent. There workers are exposed to all of the toxic fumes produced in the recycling process in addition to living, eating, and raising children on soil that is covered in plastic effluent. There are towns in China that are literally covered in plastic, where cancer rates have soared in the last two decades.

Recycling is clearly preferable to dumping. It makes us think about what we’re discarding. It reorients us to the fact that garbage doesn’t just go away, but it isn’t ultimately a solution. The more plastic we produce, the more plastic is on the planet. We’re not just reusing the same stuff. This makes garbage a bigger problem. This implies a needed change in the way we live. That’s not the conclusion I was hoping for. Sorry.

Plastic recycling





Small Changes

I was having coffee with a friend who took me to an olive oil boutique. I know, really? Why not devote a store to designer ketchup? It turned out they weren’t quite as specialized as they seemed, they also carried vinegar. The woman who worked there convinced me to taste some of their wares and OMG the stuff was amazing! Before I knew what I was doing I had purchased a four bottle “gift box” of two oils and two vinegars. Last night I mixed a Persian Lime olive oil with Blackberry Ginger balsamic vinegar to dress a spinach salad. This is like another galaxy of salad dressing. I could eat this every day of my life, but I don’t have to because they make other fabulous flavors that I cannot wait to try. I will not be returning to premade bottled salad dressing packaged in PLASTIC.

I didn’t switch back to white processed sugar because I can’t. I just can’t. I did discover that the store three blocks away sells raw sugar in a paper 2lb bag and I am committed to buying that from here on out. I also made the switch to Farina, which comes in cardboard. I realize that these are tiny adjustments which are unlikely to make a big dent in my output, but I am convinced that change begets change and over the course of many months I can begin to reduce discards without any accompanying resentment.

Rags to Riches

In the interest of solving the most immediate problems first, I found an urban farm willing to take food scraps. This is very exciting. I’ve been storing my scraps in the freezer until I’m able to drop them off, mainly fruit and coffee grounds. This little experiment is going to serve another important purpose: I’m going to see what I eat each week including how much meat, fat…because the farm doesn’t take animal products or oils into their composting.

Today we went to the Altgeld Sawyer Corner Farm in Logan Square.


The ASCF 2011

They accept food scraps for composting Wednesdays from 6:00-7:30P.M. No meat, oil…   Too much citrus not good. All produce from the farm goes to Christopher House, a school for low-income children.

Wednesday Nights

Altgeld Sawyer Corner Farm takes this:

Pre Compost

And turns it into this:

Post Compost

(The dark loamy stuff on the far right. We apologize. There’s really no excuse for careless photography. )

Here’s some info from their website:

Basic Composting requires Four Ingredients: Browns, Greens, Air and Water.

Browns are Carbon-rich matter like dry leaves and straw. Greens are typically Nitrogen-rich, “wet” matter like fruit and vegetable scraps. When layered or mixed in proper proportion with adequate moisture and ventilation, these materials efficiently decompose, producing fertilizer for the garden.

We run four composters at a time – created compost/soil is used to improve beds at our community farm, increasing our yields and the amount of food we can give to Christopher House’s food pantry.

Pro-tip: Collect your fruit and veggie scraps in a bag in the freezer. Prevents slimy veggies and gross smells – plus freezing helps the food begin its breakdown process!



Symbiosis is a Beautiful Thing

I think it’s time to address the icky garbagy garbage – food scraps, the most unwelcome of guests. Composting sounds wonderful, doesn’t it, giving back to the earth and all that? When I owned a house I fell madly in love with gardening. I started to redesign my outdoor space like gangbusters and was soon producing copious amounts of leaves, twigs, branches…So I began to look for a backyard composter.

At the time I had sufficient energy, space and money to consider a wide array of models. I didn’t end up getting one because life intruded and in a remarkably short span of time I didn’t have a house or a garden or a marriage for that matter. It’s all okay, but I’m living in a much more urban environment now without a garden and there are many more things to consider. I think it’s actually a convenient turn of events because I don’t want to suggest composting if it can’t be accomplished in an apartment.

The first thing I realized once I seriously began to research urban composting options is how little I really know about anything. And because I do not want to give this subject short shrift, I need to do something with my kitchen waste until I actually purchase or build some sort of apparatus. One option, and an excellent interim solution until I’m able to begin composting here, is to find someone who will take my kitchen scraps and fold them into an existing operation. You may have urban farms nearby who will take your scraps or perhaps you can find friendly, land-owning neighbors.

American Gothic

Some cities, like San Francisco, offer curbside composting. In Chicago Collective Resource will pick up compostable materials from your home or office for a small fee.

My scraps will go into the freezer until they get too big to keep there. This will prevent them from emitting fumes until I’m ready to drop them off. My freezer is some seriously over crowded real estate so I have to utilize vertical space.


A smallish food container that can be turned anywhichway works really well. If you’re up against the wall space-wise you could use a plastic baggy and reuse it and reuse it and reuse it.

Back to composting. From the very little bit I know so far I feel that I have to warn you: there are worms involved. Unless you plan to have your compost composting for months on end, you’ll need a little help. They may look gross, but these itty bitty critters find little more appetizing than what you would think of as rotting garbage. Symbiosis is a beautiful thing.

What We Don’t Know…

Plastic recycling
On Friday I published a list of what can theoretically be recycled, cleverly titled “What Can Be Recycled.” I must reiterate the fact that it’s all down to what your local Materials Recovery Facility, (MRF) can and cannot accept.

Almost everyone I know assumes that they know the rules of recycling and almost no one I know does. Plastic recycling can be especially tricky and we can’t just throw things into the blue bin willy nilly. I’ve noticed that many of my friends put things in the recycling bin based upon what they think should be recycled. Sample conversation:

Me – “This can’t be recycled.” Holding a number 6 plastic container.

Friend – “Sure it can. It’s plastic. Look, there’s the little arrowy thing.” Holding a number 6 plastic container.

Me – “It’s plastic, but it’s number 6 plastic, which they don’t take.”

Friend – “I put those in all the time. Obviously they take them.”

Me – “How is that obvious? If it’s something they don’t take they just send it to landfill.”

Friend – “Fine, if they want to send it to landfill, it’s on them.”

And there is the crux of it. We want to believe that it’s being recycled and if it’s not, we don’t really want to know. It’s like cheating on our taxes, here are my receipts do what you want with them. We’re willing to recycle maybe even compost, but please lay off the details just tell me where to wheel the bin on Tuesdays.

Look, I know it sounds hair-splity, but things that seem perfectly benign can cause recycling facilities endless headaches. The Boulder County Recycling Center in Colorado can’t take shredded paper because there is no way for their conveyor sorting system to recognize it. Once it’s wet, it actually jams their whatsis. Other MRFs have no problem with it. I used to flatten my tinfoil, but that actually makes it far less recognizable to the sorting machines. It’s better to ball it up. Don’t flatten plastic containers completely either. If they lose their third dimension, they are mistaken for paper by the machines. These are just examples. Find out if your MRF has rules about colors of plastic and/or glass, standards of cleanliness – should all yogurt be rinsed from the plastic container? How much shampoo residue is ok? Obviously, if it has to be too clean you may end up wasting more water than it’s worth.

Getting back to the imaginary conversation that opened this post:

This is the universal recycling symbolInternational Recyling Symbol
This is the resin identification code PETEwhich is used to indicate the predominant plastic material used in manufacture. The purpose of this symbol is to assist recyclers with sorting the collected materials, but it does not necessarily mean that the product/packaging can be recycled through domestic curbside collection.

What’s my point? The resin identification code doesn’t tell you that the material is recyclable, but it does provide the information you need to know if your local Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) will take it. MRFs usually provide detailed instructions on what they can and cannot recycle. It is then up to us to keep our recycling free of unsuitable materials.

Not enough education is provided to consumers about the specifics in their area and we consequently throw things in the recycling bin that not only don’t get recycled, they contaminate the sorting process and cause reusable materials to be land filled. Let’s not do that.