November Total: There is no away

-7 Chip Bags
-5 Mesh Bags
-1 Organic Cane Sugar Bag
-12 oz Coffee Bag
-1 Padded Envelope
-1 Decrepit, Reusable Grocery Bag
-3 Almond Milks
-1 Orange Juice Container
-12 oz Sparkling Water
-2 Thin Plastic Packaging (bread, TP)
-3 Dog Biscuit Bags
-2 Noodle Bags
-Frozen Pea Bag
-5 Bread Bags
-2 Gallon Ziplocks
-Miscellaneous Film
-1 Pretzel Stick Bag
-1 Computer Mouse Packaging
-2 Cranberry Bags
-6 Cheese Bags
-1 Organic Condensed Milk Container
-1 Shredded Cheese Container
-1 Basil Container
-18 Lids
-2 Single Use Coffee Lids
-1 4oz. Saline Solution Bottle
-2 Styrofoam Plates
-1 Polypropylene Food Bowl
-1 Pill Container
-1 Toothpaste
-2 Condiment Cups
-1 Pen
-1 Fork
-4 Vegetable Ties
-1 Vitamin Package
-1 Bread Tab
-2 Bar Straws
…and a smorgasborg of other bits and pieces

This month I investigated where “away” is when I throw items in a local trash bin.  It turns out that they get trucked to the Southeastern Massachusetts Resource Recovery Facility SEMASS waste-to-energy facility in West Wareham run by Covanta Energy.

SEMASS Waste to Energy Facility

SEMASS Waste to Energy Facility

On November 22, 2013 I met Patti Howard to get a private tour of the SEMASS facility. Patti greeted me with a firm handshake and a big smile. She has been working at SEMASS for 20 years, first as an accountant and now, because she is a “people person”, as a MSP program coordinator giving tours and presentations about the benefits of incineration. As she gave me an introduction to the facility it was obvious that we were getting into controversial territory. A woman clearly accustomed to conflict, Patti started by admitting that waste to energy facilities are not popular with everyone, but she stressed that people need to “have all the facts” before making judgments about it. She consistently tended towards defensiveness and chose her words deliberately throughout the tour.  She spoke with a firm conviction that we need to reduce our waste coupled with a harsh realism about the amount of trash we currently produce. She said that they Covanta sees trash as a resource and that it is much better to incinerate it than put it in a landfill. When my trash arrives at SEMASS it is dumped onto the “tipping floor”, an expansive room that holds mountains of trash that are inspected for hazardous materials (like propane tanks) and where most ferrous metals are removed with magnets to be recycled. At this point Patti noted with pride that SEMASS is the “largest recycler of metal in Massachusetts”, recovering nearly 40,000 tons of ferrous and non ferrous metals every year

The Tipping Floor

The Tipping Floor

SEMASS currently combusts over a million tons of waste a year, providing 25% of the “renewable energy” in Massachusetts. The facility qualifies as a Class II renewable energy source, giving 50% of its renewable energy credit value to boost local recycling programs. They are able to produce just under 600,000 megawats a year, or enough to power 75,000 homes. But is this the “clean, renewable energy” that Covanta claims it to be?
One of the challenges of incineration is pollution. Even the fanciest modern incinerators send CO2 and supertoxins like dioxins and furans into the air. They liberate toxins bound up in our industrial and municipal waste and release them into the air and water. This inevitably includes chemicals that have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and developmental, endocrinological, neurological, circularoty and reproductive problems. Combustion can even create new toxins that were not in the original waste, like dioxins that are created when items containing chlorine are burned. Globally, incinerators are the leading source of dioxins.
Incinerating does not make waste disappear, it produces ash. “In general, for every 3 tons of waste one shoves into an incinerator we get one ton of ash that requires landfilling” (Annie Leonard The Story of Stuff, 2010, p. 424). The ash is more toxic than the original waste, containing concentrated heavy metals and pollutants. About 1/3 of the SEAMASS facility is devoted to processing the ash, and their emissions of heavy metals and other pollutants consistently measure 60-90% below EPA limits. To avoid groundwater contamination SEMASS collects rainwater in three onsite ponds and has a water treatment plant on site. They also utilize local landfill leachate to meet almost 30% of its water needs and conserve roughly 40 million gallons per year of groundwater resources.

Boiler Aggregate Ash

Boiler Aggregate Ash

Covanta boasts that this ash can be used as landfill cover and does not emit methane like decomposing landfill waste. It has potential to be used as a building material but has not been approved by the state of Massachusetts. It sounded like regulations on incinerators in Massachusetts are stringent and that Covanta was making a sizable effort to “green” their business, but as my nostrils protested the nauseating decomposition and chemical smells throughout the facility I thought it was a stretch to call this energy “clean”. When I asked Patti if the workers at SEAMASS showed physical effects from working at SEAMASS she assured me that HEPA masks were used when appropriate and that high risk workers were tested multiple times a year for negative health effects. If our communities were to shift our focus away from toxin releasing incinerators and towards zero waste programs we could create more jobs. “For every dollar invested in recycling ad zero waste programs, we get ten times as many jobs as in incineration” (Annie Leonard, The Story of Stuff, 2010, p. 429). Not only are there more jobs, these jobs are also cleaner and safer jobs that help conserve resources and create a more long-term solution.
I also think that it is a stretch to call this energy renewable. Ultimately, they depend on fossil fuels and trees for much of their fuel. Recoverable energy could be a more appropriate term. At least 15% of what they combust is food waste that could instead be composted and reused as fertilizer. They burn valuable resources and I can’t help but think that we could produce more energy by conserving rather than combusting. It is like choosing between pulling the plug or turning off the faucet to lower the water level in a bath tub. Turning off the faucet has a less immediate effect, but the tub will never really be empty if you leave it on.  I would much rather see comprehensive composting and reduction initiatives in my town than an incinerator. Until we change our minds over to a reusable mindset, this incinerator will keep on burning. Visiting this incinerator made me more proud than ever of the efforts we have taken this year to reduce our waste!

Sources:
Annie Leonard: The Story of Stuff
Susan Freinkel: Plastic a Toxic Love Story
Charles Moore: Plastic Ocean
SEMASS website and personal communication with P. Howard

Week 14: Food Truck Fail

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-2 HUGE Polystyrene to-go food containers (plastic FAIL of the week)
-1 Coffee Bag
-1 Pasta Bag
-3 Bread Bags
-1 Tempeh Package
-1 Frozen Fruit Package
-1 Garbanzo Bean Flour Bag
-2 Cheese Wrap
-1 Empty Tape Dispenser
-1 Nyquil Bottle
-1 Produce Bag
-5 Lids
-4 Stir Straws
-4 Misc. Films
-3 Kale Ties
-2 Safety Seals
-3 To-Go Condiment Cups
-1 Fork
-1 Small Chip Bag
-Misc. Bits and Pieces

Look in the top right corner and you will see this week’s epic plastic FAIL: 2 GIGANTIC polystyrene take-out food containers…

We do not go out to eat much.  First of all, we love to cook, especially together.  As I type Brandon is seasoning some kale chips, chopping asparagus, and pre-heating the oven for some sustainably farmed tilapia filets… I am one lucky girl :O) But who doesn’t love a meal out? Unfortunately, it can be hard for us to find a spot we like.  We often leave restaurants feeling like we could have made a better meal at home, and we don’t like to support big corporate chains that oust local businesses out of our communities.  Often, plastic sneaks its way into our lives as straws and side containers for salsa.  Our thoughtful ingredient choices are not supported by the average, meat laden menu.  And eating at home is so much cheaper, especially if you are fond of enjoying a crisp micro-brewski with your meal like we are.  Alas, eating out is a rare event for us.

Sometimes it can’t be helped.  That’s what happened to me the other day.  I found myself at BU before Tap into Boston’s Sustainability Network (where I was a guest speaker) hungry and unfamiliar with the area.  Dunkin donuts.  Starbucks.  Some scetchy pizza place… no no no, this wont do… but what’s that??! A food truck! Oh I do love the food truck movement.  I say bring on the food trucks.  It gives small businesses a way to compete for business without the pressure of renting property in Boston.  It allows startups to compete with established corporate chains.  Now local businesses can appeal to our obsession with convenience, food on the go, and variety.  I get seriously excited when I see a new food truck in the area, most that I’ve tried have been great!

This truck was the Baja Taco Truck.  I began to scope the place out, starting with the menu.  I instantly respect a place that offers more than 2 vegetarian options, and this truck did not disappoint.  Beans, guac, toatadas, count. me. in.  But not so fast, how is it served?  I stood back and watched the trendy BU students order.  The big plates came out in giant plastic packages, but everything else seemed to be handed out on a small paper boat.  I went for it, ordering 2 small tostadas, never dreaming they would put them in polystyrene!  My heart dropped as I received my meal.  The service was excellent and the food delicious, but I could not believe they put such a small amount of food, that was going to be eaten immediately, is such large packaging that is going to outlive me.  Just tragic.

To end this post on a positive note, allow me to give a shout out to my FAVORITE food truck: Clover!  If you have not tried Clover yet, your life is seriously lacking.  They have trucks all over the place, my most frequent stop being the one outside South Station.  Why is Clover awesome?

1. I can eat EVERYTHING on the menu.  Their food is locally sourced, organic, vegetarian, and made from scratch.  They have a whole section of their website dedicated to their food philosophy, how could you not love them?!?! They boast that 90% of their customers in Cambridge are non-vegetarian, they are THAT good.

2. The food is FREEKING DELICIOUS!  Fresh food is always tastier.  Clover makes everything fresh in the morning.  The corn fritters I ordered last week were literally fried to order (meaning you have to wait a couple minutes, but it is SO worth it.  They drizzle them with maple syrup and they taste like corn embellished french toasty bites!).  Every sandwich I have tried there has been delightful: chick pea fritters, soy BLT, egg and eggplant (sounds weird, but I seriously LOVED it).  Add on a delicious brewed-to-order coffee, or a chilled hibiscus tea, and your day will be MADE.

3. They are affordable.  Coffee is $2.  Sandiwiches are $6.  Everything is simple, in whole dollar amounts.  Portions are filling and nutritious.  Even a non-profit employee like me can afford this.

4. Everything they hand you is 100% compostable.  You will never get a gigantic polystyrene package from them.

5. The service is excellent.  Dylan, who takes my order, learned my name (and I don’t even go there often) He is ALWAYS smiling when I get there.  He was the one who originally told me to get a Cuppow, my wonderfully, locally-made lid that turns a mason jar into a travel mug! The people who work there make me as happy as the food!  Stopping by the Clover food truck will inevitably brighten your day in so many ways.

So next time you walk by a Clover food truck, stop by and try the french fries :O)

I must go, dinner awaits. Yum!

Another delicious homemade meal :O)

Another delicious homemade meal :O)

Buzzed for 1000 Years

Week 7:

-4 Bread Bags
-1 Produce Bag
-1 Vegan Marshmellow Bag
-1 Motzarella Cheese Container
-1 Earth Balance Container
-1 Feta Cheese Container
-2 Frozen Fruit Packages
-1 Vegan Sausage Package
-1 Chapstick
-1 Swiffer Mop Container (and this will be our last)
-1 Blueberry Package
-1 Razor Refill Package
-3 Plastic Films
-1 Nut Package
-1 Tempeh Package
-1 Toilet Paper Package
-2 Dog Treat Packages
-1 Mesh Garlic Bag
-4 Safety Seals
-1 Chocolate Wrapper
-1 Chip Bag
-1 Pair of Contacts
-1 Rosemary Package
-1 Salt Grinder Top
-1 Dog Medicine Package

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One piece of plastic you will never see in our pile is a coffee cup.  This week we wanted to explain why and how we avoid such waste:

Coffee is a delight unto which many people give themselves, each and every day. It has integrated into our culture with coffee shops around every corner and numberous varieties of beans and roasts. I personally enjoy waking up to a hot cup of freshly pressed coffee on cold mornings, enjoying one over a conversation and especially when relaxing and reading a book. Indeed, coffee is an aromatically fantastic beverage that I can see at my side as I move forward. So where does coffee go wrong, and how is it effecting our environment in a negative way?

Just like with meat production, over time a rising demand for coffee has caused some farmers to change their growing methods in order to boost production.  Traditional, shade grown coffee takes longer to ripen, but it offers great soil stability, habitat for wildlife, and maintains a cool, damp microclimate under the canopy that is perfect for water-loving coffee plants.  The newer sun-cultivation method causes the coffee plants to ripen faster and increases yields.  Yet it promotes deforestation and the destruction of wildlife habitat, destabilizes soil and increases erosion and requires more fertilizers, pesticides, and water. As consumers in America our product choices matter.  We import coffee from around the world, driving the market through demand.  If your coffee is not marked organic or shade grown you are probably buying coffee grown through sun-cultivation methods.  You have the power to demand change through what you choose to buy.  For some great options check out Equal Exchange.  (Their chocolate is also top notch!)

K-CUP PYRAMID

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These 31 Plastic K-Cups are the result of an afternoon at my workplace. Being conservative, I’d say my workplace goes through 50 of these each day. Like most plastics we have discussed over the past weeks, these things will not degrade, they will end up in a landfill and last for years and years. Just imagine! Someone casually has a cup of coffee that is made in 20 seconds, drinks it in 3-5 minutes and creates a piece of waste that lasts for centuries. People do it every day, multiple times a day. And, as you may know… there are a lot of people in the world.

Waste… waste… waste! Why so much waste!? Not only are K-Cups wasteful, they are low-quality and could only dream of actually possessing the richness of fresh ground, freshly steeped coffee beans. But unlike a true, delicious cup of coffee, K-Cups produce a slug of caffeine in under 30 seconds, all at the press of a button. It certainly fits the mindset – convenient, no effort, instant reward. How much do people enjoy the ease and convenience of K-Cups? 2.5 Million K-Cups are consumed in America each day, according to a report by Keurig. 😦 How many a year? You do the math… it’s alarming.

In Keurigs defense, they do support socially and environmentally responsible practices.  Yet, within this wordy webpage, they admit that their product is a challenge to recycle.  And they fail to address the fact that their product promotes the mindless production of plastic waste.  If they really care about the environment they would fully endorse their reusable K cup, and phase out the single use disposables.  No matter how much they write about supporting fair trade farmers on their website, their company is in no way environmentally responsible.  There are so many more responsible ways to brew a cup of joe!

EXCESS, SQUARED

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If you live in New England, you have inevitably seen this horrible image. What is it, you may ask, that makes this so horrible? See what sleeps within!

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You have seen correct – it is styrofoam (plastic) housing another piece of plastic, with a plastic straw. These beverages on average tend to last under 10 minutes, many even faster because it is iced, and people drink iced cause it goes down quick and easy.

Styrofoam is a great environmental enemy. It takes a long time to break down, takes up copious space in a landfill, is made from dangerous chemicals and is virtually un-recyclable. How un-recyclable? Roughly 25 Billion Styrofoam cups every year get thrown away into landfills. If you love your Dunkin Donuts iced coffee, and you also love the climate, shelter, and food this planet provides you, train yourself to bring your own reusable cup.

And for what! For an accessible, convenient beverage? I recommend to anyone who cannot take their thoughts off their Dunkin Donuts iced coffee to realize there is a better option, and it starts when you wake up in the morning. Not only is is tastier and more satisfying, it is waste free and could potentially support the people who need it most.

ITS YOU, BREWING AT HOME!

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Fair Trade Coffee Beans and a handy grinder!

Stainless Steel French Press!

Stainless Steel French Press!

It couldn’t be easier to make your own fantastic coffee at home. I have found that going through these motions is a great way to get my groggy brain moving in the morning.  And it feels good to know I am making smart choices for the environment.

1. Buy some beans! We refilled this container from the bulk isle at the Equal Exchange Cafe near North Station in Boston. Most grocery stores also have bulk coffee. So grab a mason jar and fill it up with your favorite!
2. Grind Beans on Coarse Setting. Our Black and Decker Grinder cost me less than $30, and you coffee tastes much more flavorful when freshly ground.
2. Bring Water to a near Boil
3. Place ground beans and water into the french press and stir.
4. Wait 4 minutes.
5. Stir once more, press and voila! You have delicious coffee!  Our Bodum french press makes the perfect amount for 2, but they also sell smaller presses if you are drinking solo.
6. Compost those coffee grounds :O) We dump ours right in our garden.  Turns out that mushrooms love them too. Back to the Roots sells mushroom kits at Whole Foods that lets you grow a pound and a half of gourmet mushrooms out of coffee grounds right in your kitchen!

And if your really feeling sustainable and supportive, get your own set of hand made local pottery to drink em up!  We bought these beauties in Portland, Me.IMG_5393

Trés belle, non? Now wake up and get brewing, waste free!