Creating a Circular Economy with TerraCycle’s Loop: Modern Day Milkman

Wouldn’t it be great if all our products came in reusable packages so that once we were finished with them they could be returned and refilled? It would stop all our packaging waste from ending up in landfills or incinerators. Well this is exactly what TerraCycle has dreamed up with their reusable packaging program called Loop.

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Incase you are not familiar with Terracycle, they were founded in 2001 by Tom Szaky. The company was founded upon a simple concept, “eliminating the idea of waste.” Szaky still runs the company today as the CEO and has found great success with diverting millions of lbs. of waste from ending up in landfills, all while earning millions of dollars in revenue annually.

The company has evolved greatly over the years. They started with composting organic waste from the Princeton University cafeteria, where Szaky attended school at the time, and turning that compost into fertilizer. This fertilizer was sold in reused plastic bottles, mainly because they did not have money for new bottles. Talk about challenges breeding creative and resourceful solutions.

Today they are mostly know for their recycling and upcycling efforts. They typically collect packaging and other household items that would otherwise end up being waste due to challenges with traditional recycling systems. Taking a look at some of the items they recycle on their website will show they are recycling unimaginable things ranging from paper/plastic laminations to simply collecting all the items from a specific room such as a bedroom or bathroom. They collect these items and upcycle what they can into things like bags and totes and plastic items are recycled into items like plastic lumber, pavers, benches, and bike racks.

Despite all of these recycling efforts, TerraCycle believes that recycling can solve all our problems, which is why they have launched the Loop program. The concept is pretty simple. You purchase the same products you love in a durable reusable container, which ships right to you in an insulated mailer tote. Each purchase requires a deposit on the robust package that is returned once you are finished, and that same loop tote is picked up at your door with all your empty packages. They collect your packages and take care of washing them so they can be reused and shipped out all over again.

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While I love the idea of reusable packaging that deters waste from ending up in the landfill, I think it’s important to understand the Life Cycle analysis of this process. I will say that they have been creative in the design of their packages. They specifically choose materials and designs that are easy to clean, will last for at least 10 cycles and have a recycling waste stream once they’ve finished their use. However, this doesn’t tell us if this is really more green when you look at the entire life cycle.

For example, does shipping heavier packaging back and forth cause greater green house gas emissions than our tried and true lightweight plastic packages that can be recycled? It’s hard to say. Would this comparison be between the Loop and typical recycling performance of standard plastic packaging or the potential recycling rates if consumers recycled correctly?

Despite all of this, I must give credit where it’s due. TerraCycle’s Loop program has found a way to address a lot of the shortcomings of our existing recycling system on many fronts. For starters, consumers love convenience (this is exactly what got us in this waste predicament in the first place) and this love for convenience means they often can’t be bothered to dispose of things correctly. This means plastic bags end up clogging up curbside recycling or in the landfill rather than being dropped off at the store. Or our recycling isn’t actually clean and dry before placing it in the bin leading to food waste contaminating large quantities of recyclables and turning them into trash.

The Loop program addressed this in a few critical ways. For starters, people are financially motivated so by including a deposit, consumers are more likely to make sure the packages get returned. Then by having the option to both have the items delivered and picked up right at your front door it is likely to speak to all our lazy sides. Speaking of being lazy, by allowing TerraCycle to do the cleaning, it’s one less responsibility to put on consumers. This removes the risk of food contamination from other consumers ruining your hard work separating and cleaning recyclables in your house.

What do you think? Has TerraCycle’s Loop program found a better solution to our problems or is this just another rabbit hole that won’t make our waste any more environmentally friendly? Let me know in the Comments!

A World Without Plastic: Heaven or Hell

I feel like I can’t escape the topic of plastic. I’m sure you also feel that way too with how often we see and use plastic products. It unsurprisingly makes up a substantial amount of our waste at 12.2%, about the same amount of our waste by weight of yard waste. However, despite how much plastic we see, it makes up far less than things like food and paper products, which amount to 21.6% and 23% respectively.

This hasn’t stopped plastic from being a main target of environmentalists, many of which would like to see a plastic free world. This might sound like a novel idea. I’d say we would all like to see no floating trash in the ocean or litter buildup in our communities. Yet, is removing all plastic the solution to this dilemma? I certainly have a lot of concerns in regards to the repercussions of removing all plastic from our lives. I thought it would be a good exercise to explore what our world would look like if we removed plastic.

Many of the same people advocating for the removal of plastic altogether will say things like, “humans lived a life without plastic, and we can do it again.” This is a major oversimplification. It wasn’t until the late 1940’s that plastic packaging similar to what we are used to seeing started to become prevalent today. This was when products like Tupperware were brought to market. Despite the short history that plastic has, a lot has changed since then.

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For starters, the world’s population has changed a lot. At that point, the world’s population was estimated to be about 2.4 billion people. Since then the population has exploded to approximately 7.9 billion people. That’s a lot more mouths to feed! The milkman might have been able to get the job done back then, but I am not so sure about today.

Speaking of the number of mouths we need to feed and the milkman, one alternative to our current packaging structure that is often discussed is switching back to a returnable system like we had with the milkman. I’m honestly open to this idea. I think there could be value in reusing our packaging materials and it could be a great way of reducing the total waste footprint.

Nonetheless, the data on removing plastic from the equation tells us that reusable would likely be more effective if plastic was the material choice rather than glass. Plastic weighs a fraction of glass alternatives and it is considerably more durable, meaning reusing plastic would allow for fewer emissions from breakage and transportation weight. Plus with all the people in the world, the extra transportation emissions would be compounded.

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Even if we didn’t switch to a reusable system, there would be major challenges with our food packaging if we removed plastic. Plastic offers an effective way to protect and transport food products. Since food often requires more resources such as water and energy, it’s better to waste items like packaging rather than than the food itself.

I’m specifically focused on the food-packaging component as a packaging engineer but plastic is spread out in a wide range of places in our lives. Plastic is used everywhere from the pipes in our homes that deliver us water to the parts of our vehicles that make us safer in car accidents. Were things really better before plastic? When we had lead pipes like we see in Flint, MI? Or when we had cars made entirely out of metal that were more deadly in car accidents?

The reality is that removing all plastic isn’t a real solution. I am not going to claim that plastic is the go-to material choice in all instances or that our plastic waste isn’t an issue. I simply believe that plastic is part of the equation for a waste solution. It has too much value and too many advantages to shelf just because of our plastic waste. What do you think? Would we really benefit from creating a world without plastic? What challenges do you think we would run into removing plastic from our lives? Let me know in the comments.

The Rise in Waste Legislation: Part 2

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When we are looking at any issue, it is incredibly important that we look at both sides of the issue. My last blog covered the background of major legislation being considered such as the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (BFFPPA) and the Recycle Act. It also covered many of the positives of these legislative actions, but I want to cover the negatives that I see these legislative actions bringing forth as well. Finally, I will go over my suggestions on what I think would be the appropriate actions.

Cons of Current Waste Legislation

While these efforts might be well intentioned, that doesn’t mean they are the best changes we can make. For starters, these changes would be very expensive. One of the beautiful things about capitalism is that it drives companies to reduce waste as much as possible. Plastic manufacturers are motivated to reduce any waste throughout their process, as well as reduce the amount of material required to make their products, because it saves them money. This is part of the reason you have likely seen an increase in ultra thin water bottles and a shift to more flexible packaging. These products require less material than the alternatives and perfectly align with reduce, reuse, and recycle.

As I have said in the past, the concept of reduce, reuse, recycle is an order of operations. Reducing your material usage and consumption is the most effective way to have a positive environmental impact. This is something that happens as a direct result of our free market model. When we interfere to try and make packaging that is more “recyclable” it will lead to more robust and thicker materials, which likely means more plastic. On top of this, as an industry, we would be putting the bulk of recycling responsibility still on consumers. Consumers will still need to be the ones that make sure the products they use end up in the recycling bin.

Another direct response of thicker and more robust packaging is higher costs. Packaging makes up a varied amount of the total cost of products. This number can range anywhere from 1 to 40% of the cost, but the average is about 9% of the total cost. That means for every $11 you spend on products, $1 goes directly to packaging.

If we require more compostable and recyclable packaging, there would almost certainly be an increase in packaging costs across the board. In my experience, I would estimate this would lead to about 2X the packaging costs. Producers of packaging materials won’t be able to absorb these costs and they will be passed directly onto consumers. This means that everything you have been buying would increase by close to 9% in cost.

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Since the household income of two-thirds of America is less than 100k annually, this would be hugely detrimental to medium and low income families. They won’t be able to afford nearly as much as they can based on the current structure. This will drive more families deeper into poverty by making essential goods more expensive.

On top of all of this, the issues with using thicker materials continue. Switching to either thicker plastic or potentially glass means we will be working with additional weight. Thus, we will be expending additional energy not only to produce these products, but also to transport these goods. Trucks will require additional fuel to carry the extra weight, leading to even higher emissions. What’s more important, the efficiency of how the waste is managed, or all the energy required to produce and transport a good?

Speaking of using alternatives to plastic, would creating a bag tax on plastic really help anything? As I said in the last post, I do believe it is an effective way to drive consumers to use less. If they have to pay for every bag, then it will drive them to use and consume less. However I want to make sure that these bag bills apply to EVERY bag and not just plastic bags. The data tells us that paper bags required 4X the energy to produce as plastic bags so switching from plastic to paper isn’t a genuine solution. If we really want to drive change, these bag bills should apply to all bags in an effort to drive consumers to reuse bags and consume less. Plus this tax could be used for other important issues such as recycling education.

The Conclusion

I’m not going to lie, some of these laws scare me. My entire professional life has been built around plastic packaging and these laws are guaranteed to disrupt that industry. I’m not alone in this either. The plastic industry is the 8th largest industry in the US, estimated to include over a million jobs, and 432 million dollars in shipments. That’s a lot of people directly impacted by these changes. And that’s not even including all of the people that would be indirectly effected such as those in the food and transportation industry.

However as I’ve said before, I don’t think it makes sense to support industries just because people work in them. We instead need to try and be as objective as possible when looking at these issues and take a utilitarian approach of whatever makes the greatest good for the most people. That being said, even if we are going to leverage the power of legislative actions, I think it’s important to have a plan for both the industries themselves to pivot, as well as having plans for alternatives. Removing options (plastic) without viable replacements isn’t a genuine solution.

So what genuine solutions can we actually consider? I believe the Recycle Act hits a lot of the pros without as many of the cons. For starters, based on our current structure, regardless of if we attempt to implement EPR, we will still be putting the responsibility of recycling products correctly on consumers. They will be the ones who need to put the right items into recycling bins in the correct way (clean and dry) . This is even more important if they want their goods to be cheap, otherwise EPR will mean bad recycling habits, which equates to higher cost of goods.

If we want to get at the root of our recycling issue, we need to address education surrounding our waste and recycling. That is the only way we will be able to begin to address the challenges of recycling. One of the simplest ways to achieve this would be a standardized labeling system. This is something I deeply believe the industry is missing. While I believe that capitalism is able to drive change, this is one example where I find it lacking. The plastic and packaging industry is simply too big to get aligned in a timely manner to create a standardized labeling system across the board. If a regulating agency such as the EPA produced a standard it would not only align the industry around a standard, but it would educate consumers. It would also likely drive alignment between producers and waste processors since the labels would need to be in agreement on how they are handled at end of life.

A standardized labeling system coupled with grants to increase education across the country would almost certainly lead to greater education for all consumers. Since this would require additional funding, I believe a bag bill for ALL bags (both plastic and paper) would be an effective way to recover some additional funds from consumers that aren’t willing to change their behavior, with the alternative simply being consumers using reusable bags.

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However these recycling pushes need to be coupled with removing ineffective recycling efforts. I am specifically referring to the export of our “recyclables” to foreign countries, since those are rarely fully recycled. Removing the option to ship recyclables to other countries has to be combined with a domestic recycling infrastructure plan because recent studies have found that removing sale of waste to foreign nations leads to our recyclables simply ending up in the trash.

Lastly, I think there is value in understanding the risk factors associated with materials like plastic. Recent studies have shown that certain chemicals and plastics have risks to our reproductive system and general health. These studies need to be expanded so we can get a more precise idea of exactly which materials pose a threat to our health. Once we have that knowledge solidified, we should drive them out of our economy. I don’t however think it is worth shutting down the entire plastic industry overnight in an effort to stop materials that “might” be harmful. That would simply be too harmful to our economy.

So in summary, we should do the following: 1) Develop a standardized label system 2) Offer grants to increase consumer education 3) Implement a bag bill on ALL materials (possibly for any single use item outside of packaging) 4) Stop the shipment of waste and recyclables to foreign nations 5) Create a domestic recycling infrastructure plan (assuming there is a net benefit to this plan) and lastly 6) Fund scientific studies to understand which materials pose health risks and remove those from the market.

Yeahhh, it’s a lot. I love simple solutions as much as the next guy, but sometimes complex issues require thorough and complex solutions. But what do you think? Did I get it all wrong? How do you think we should address these issues? Let me know in the comments.

The Rise in Waste Legislation: Part 1

It seems like I am constantly hearing of new legislation regarding plastic and single use packaging. A lot of the ideas coming out are made with the best of intentions, but I believe we still have some kinks to work out before these are put into law across the country. However, I think it’s important to try to be as objective as possible and look at the pros and cons of both these laws and their potential impact.

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To start let’s look at some of the major laws being proposed right now and breakdown exactly what they would include. The first that I am seeing a lot of coverage from is the Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (BFFPPA). This is one of the most extensive bills I have seen and it has come with both strong support and opposition.

One of the fundamental pillars is Extended Producer Responsibility, also called EPR. This is basically the idea that producers of the materials should be responsible for their disposal. In the case of BFFPPA, this specifically applies to plastic producers. This responsibility extends to being fiscally responsible for the collection and recycling or composting. Personally, I don’t think it’s exactly clear how that would work, but thats the foundation of this entire act.

Some of the other items included in the BFFPPA are requiring nationwide bottle refunds, a tax on carryout bags, and a required amount of recycled content in beverage containers. I would imagine the bottle refunds would be paid by bottle manufacturers utilizing EPR. The BFFPPA also includes having the EPA create a standardized labeling system for recycling and composting that producers are required to use. In addition the act would place a temporary moratorium on plastic production facilities until additional legislature is written to control pollution. Lastly, this act would create limitations on the export of waste. So clearly this would be a far reaching piece of legislature.

A less extensive but valuable piece of legislature that is also being considered is the Recycle Act. The intention behind this act seems to be focused on building upon our existing recycling system. It would require the EPA to issue grants to help recycling efforts through education and outreach to the community. The EPA would also be required to develop a recycling model for states and communities. Lastly, the EPA would be required to review the recycled materials being purchased every 5 years.

Pros of Waste Legislation

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There is no doubt that these legislative moves would drive change. EPR and BFFPPA would force manufacturers to change the products they produce to both be more recyclable and also include more recycled content. Both of these acts would undoubtedly lead to more recyclable and compostable materials as well. This would create a more circular economy by driving the phase out of less recyclable materials that we could go without.

As someone that consistently advocates the value of education, the Recycle Act and BFFPPA could be huge step in the right direction. There is a major lack in knowledge and information among the vast majority of consumers leading to products being incorrectly recycled and composted. Establishing a standard labeling system for both composting and recycling is a critical next step in making things easier for everyone to understand and dispose of their waste appropriately. The required education level for effective disposal likely won’t happen from labeling alone and incorporating education and outreach would be hugely beneficial to these efforts.

Another major benefit would be the drive to change consumer behaviors. By creating both disposable carryout bag fees and bottle refunds, it will drive consumers to change. Specifically it would drive consumers to reduce their consumption wherever possible due to the increased cost of using more bags (however this doesn’t necessarily address the environmental cost of the alternatives, but more on that later). It would also encourage participation in the recycling process with the introduction of nationwide bottle refunds.

I also believe that restricting the waste we are sending overseas labeled as recycling would be hugely important. Until 2017, Americans were sending loads of waste to places like China. We labeled it as recyclables and were able to make money off of it. This was also an efficient way of keeping shipping containers full as they returned to China to bring us more goods. The problem was a lot of this waste was unsorted and not actually recyclable. Since China has historically been the largest contributor of plastic waste being mismanaged and ending up in the ocean, I would speculate that a major contributor was the amount of plastic waste we were sending them.

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By stopping the export of plastic, I think we will drive two main changes. First off, we will assure that our waste doesn’t simply get sent to China and then ultimately end up in the ocean. By keeping our waste internally, we will be able to handle it responsibly. Speaking of handling our waste responsibly, by keeping it here in the US, we will be forced to become more creative and pragmatic with managing our waste. This is far better in my opinion than simply sending it across the ocean and hoping someone else will deal with the issue.

The last thing I believe could have benefits would be the halt of additional plastic producing facilities until they are reviewed for their risk. This would give regulating bodies such as the EPA more time assess the risk factors of certain plastic materials from production to use. Ideally this would stop the use of additional facilities that work with materials deemed too hazardous to outweigh the value they bring. One question I still have is how will existing plastic facilities deemed “too hazardous” by the new research be addressed? This will likely have to evolve over time and through additional legislative pressure.

In the next blog I will explore the other-side of this coin with the cons of these legislation actions. I will also cover my personal opinion on how we should move forward in regard to this legislation and possible future legislative actions.

Do you think I missed some of the pros of these legislative actions? Let me know what you think in the comments!

One Way to Handle Trash: Burn It.

Everybody is familiar with the idea of recycling and landfills. Most of us just assume that whatever we put in our garbage can ends up in a landfill. However, you might be surprised to learn that over 10% of our waste is incinerated for energy production.  Often referred to as Waste-To-Energy (WTE) it can be a major source of energy production. There are other countries like Sweden that are burning closer to 49% of their waste and are able to produce large amounts of their energy requirements.

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You might be wondering how exactly waste incineration works. The process starts with preparing the waste. Large items and recyclables such as metal are removed and the remaining waste is typically shredded before being sent into the incinerator. The waste is then combusted in an oxygen rich chamber. Temperatures from 1,800-2,200 degrees Fahrenheit are used to assure that nothing but gas and ash is left behind.

The gas created in this process is cooled using water, which creates steam. That steam is used to power electrical generators. The gas is then processed with various filtration methods. Any solids made from this process, along with the ash from incineration, are sent to landfills.

People often wonder if this process is bad for the environment. However, from everything I have read, the filter systems incinerator facilities use keep toxic gases below any standards set by the EPA. There are even some studies that claim that Incinerators are a better environmental option than landfills. Despite this, incineration isn’t a viable option to replace all landfill waste. We still need a way to dispose of the by-products of the incineration process.

However the positives of the incineration process shouldn’t be overlooked. Electricity production still amounts to the largest contributor of greenhouse gas production at 25% of the total production according to the EPA. With alternative sources of energy production such as incineration, we have less damaging ways to produce our energy needs. It is also a great way to reduce the total mass sent to landfills. It’s estimated that only 15-25% of the weight after incineration is left and sent to the landfill.

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Incineration and the waste-to-energy process aren’t a perfect long-term solution. Many people have claimed that incinerators detract from recycling and waste reduction efforts, since the business model of an incinerator is based on the need to be consistently fed waste. The facility themselves are expensive to establish and need to be consistently running in order to be financially viable. This has led to countries like Sweden importing trash for them to burn. This can deter waste from being sent to recycling and reduces the pressure to reduce waste production.

Waste-To-Energy is clearly a complicated issue, but has a lot of potential value to offer when it comes to our waste. But what do you think? Does Waste-To-Energy sound like a better alternative than simply using landfills? Let me know in the comment section below.

I Found the Solution to Reducing All of Our Waste!

Taking one look in your trashcan it’s easy to see that we need to be responsible with the disposal of our waste. That’s precisely why I’ve been so hyper focused on this aspect of our waste. But there is an important step that comes before any of this: the purchase.

There is a very simple solution for all of us to reduce our waste dramatically, which is to just buy less stuff. Our consistent need to buy new things, particularly of the cheap throwaway variety, is horrible financially and environmentally. Don’t get me wrong; I can be guilty of it too, but I am consistently trying to be conscientious with the purchases I make.

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One of the easiest places to start is: If you don’t need it, don’t buy it. This requires separating our wants from our needs. Do you really NEED that new pair of shoes or do you just WANT them? Do you really NEED all those gadgets and knickknacks or did you just WANT them?

Sometimes in an effort to make our life convenient and simpler, we actually make things more complicated. I have a friend that has every kitchen gadget imaginable. They have things like avocado scoops and egg cutters. We really don’t NEED these things. In fact, I would imagine that they actually only make our lives more complicated. We could just as easily get by using a knife and spoon to remove the avocado peel. Oftentimes they don’t even remember these specialty devices, so it just creates extra clutter in the house. By keeping it simple it results in less things to keep organized and it forces us to think about what we really use.

I would argue that clothes and fashion are the exact same way (that might just be because I’m uncultured). A lot of people feel the need to have the next season’s most up to date fashion trends. The question is what happens to most of this in a few months when it is no longer “trendy?” I would guess that it either ends up in the trash, donated, or resold.

Some estimates of the fashion industry believe it makes up 10% of carbon emissions and nearly 20% of wastewater. So this is an easy place for us to direct our attention when we are making purchase decisions.

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I feel like companies like Patagonia have done an excellent job taking this into consideration from a holistic perspective. Not only do they advertise in educational formats, but they also seem to back up what they say. One of the things that I appreciate that they do is making robust clothing that lasts, a lot of which is covered by a lifetime warranty. So once you buy one of their products you know you will get a lot of life out of it. This is good for both the environment and your wallet in the long run.

If you don’t have a big enough budget to afford premium clothing, you can always take a play out of Macklemore’s playbook and go to a thrift shop. This is another way to take an environmental approach by utilizing clothing that will otherwise be thrown away. Plus you can get it for much cheaper. Once again I’m probably not the one you want to turn to for fashion advice but I love several of my thrift shop finds.

Regardless of what you are buying, remember to ask yourself: Do I NEED this? We all buy things sometimes that we might not need, but simply try to keep that to a minimum. If you decide to buy something be sure that you get the most life out of it. If that means patching a hole or replacing a button, it’s worth it. Is there anything in your life that you’ve realized you can live without? Let me know in the comments. We can all learn from each other.

The Majority of Your Trash isn’t Disposed of by You

While working on this project of a blog, I’ve spent a lot of time focusing just on the waste that we ourselves put into the trash or recycling bin. We see it every day, how could we not notice it. On top of what we see getting tossed, we’ve all probably seen the accumulation of our waste collecting in oceans and rivers around the world. But what if I told you that is only the tip of the iceberg? Pun intended.

If you are like me and millions of others, you have a Netflix account. And if you have spent any amount of time on Netflix over the last few weeks, you’ve likely seen promotion for a new documentary: Seaspiracy. To give you the cliff notes of what the film claimed, industrial fishing is destroying our oceans and the environment in general.

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Between the amount of fishing gear tossed into the sea, the amount of unintended animals caught (bycatch) such as dolphins, turtles, whales, and sharks, and the destructive use of certain fishing styles such as trawling, we are causing irreparable harm. I know, it’s a lot. And the film goes into depth about a lot more of these issues, but you get the gist.

The ultimate conclusion of the film is that we can reduce the amount of damage being done by the fishing industry by reducing or completely stopping our consumption of fish. This is similar to other ideas i’ve discussed. If fishing is really as damaging as the film portrays, by large amounts of people changing their behavior, they can force the entire fishing industry to respond due to financial pressure.

I wanted to give it some time before making my first knee jerk reaction. Right after watching the film, I was feeling a bit defeated because this issue that I was completely unaware of seemed insurmountable. Plus, as someone that has been trying to be conscience of my red meat consumption and reduce it where possible, I couldn’t help but feel like no matter what choice I make, I’m causing damage somewhere.

While its true there are tradeoffs in everything we do, we can still make changes in the right direction. The motto is progress over perfection. Everything we do might not be perfect, but as long as we keep taking steps in the right direction, we will make things better.

After the first week of the movie release, I wasn’t surprised to start seeing counter arguments. One of the biggest complaints was that the film was simply vegan propaganda and misrepresenting data for their advantage. While I found some of these counterarguments to hold some validity and make solid points, they seemed to be just as guilty of approaching with a bias as the film.

One of the issues I was most concerned with was the amount of fishing gear that is simply disposed of into the ocean. I never realized that a large portion of plastic found in the ocean is caused by fishing nets and gear (duh, makes sense). The statistics vary quite a bit depending on how you measure. Some sources claim that 86% of large plastic (greater than 8″) in the great pacific garbage patch is fishing gear. Other sources claim that 46% of the mass in the garbage patch (greater than 2″) is from fishing nets. Regardless of how you are measuring and the exact percentage, it’s a lot!

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The biggest problem with this large amount of fishing nets in the ocean is that they continue to do what they are designed for even after being discarded: kill marine life. Your plastic straw or water bottle are of littler concern by comparison. However, every time you purchase fish and products derived from them, you are supporting this industry and more nets being tossed overboard. Each dollar spent is a vote for the behavior to continue.

While the film may not have been perfect, I would say the sentiment that if we reduced our fish consumption, we accumulatively would reduce these issues (even if the data are skewed) is true. There are definitely people that need fish to survive, but for those of us that can go without, shouldn’t we? I live in the desert and going to all-you-can-eat sushi just seems excessive. I know this is an industry that holds peoples livelihoods, but just like I wouldn’t advocate to keep the coal industry going over green energy just because it’s peoples livelihoods, I wouldn’t advocate for keeping the fishing industry going for that reason alone.

If you want to see more information about that film you can visit the website where they have a dedicated fact page listing sources of all the data they represent in the film. Did you watch the film? I’d love to hear your feedback about what you thought about the film and what would be the best approach to solve these issues.

Being Objective in a Financially Driven World

 The reality is that we live in a capitalistic world. And by that, I mean money is the center of it all. Whether we like it or not, money ends up being the catalyst that gets things done and allows change to happen. It’s how businesses and individuals alike make decisions. It’s how people decide what products to buy and how businesses decide what products to market. After all, a customer isn’t going to buy a product they can’t afford, and a business isn’t going to try and market a product that doesn’t sell. It’s cost, price, and money that drive these things. I’m not saying this is good or bad, but simply an observation.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Things get a bit complicated when we turn our attention to conservation efforts. Fossil fuels and products derived from them, such as plastic, get a lot of hate. And understandably so. The fossil fuel industry can be taxing on our environment. However, this portrayal that the fossil fuel industry is the boogieman and everyone in the industry is in cahoots against you is false. I don’t think the industry is all aligned in some mischievous way.

The reality of why the industry has been so successful? It’s cheap. The fossil fuel industry for decades has figured out and continued to optimize the things you need in the cheapest way possible. Need an easy way to transport yourself? Heat your home? Protect the products that you use daily? They’ve got you covered and they usually do it for way less than the alternatives that have been created historically. Are there solutions without environmental cost or sacrifice? No. And we should keep striving as a society to be better than the day before. But that change is not going to happen overnight by shutting down all oil rigs or simply closing the door of any company that produces plastic products.

For me and many others, the fossil fuel industry has been our livelihood. Out of self-preservation, it’s not surprising that those same people work to defend the industry. Nonetheless, that’s not a reason to push to keep an industry afloat. Perhaps some of my opinions about these issues are rooted in self-preservation to some extent. I might even be guilty of confirmation bias when it comes to some of these issues, but I can assure you: I am doing my best to be objective.

Photo by Roman Khripkov on Unsplash

This seems to be where a lot of us are lacking, both in and out of the fossil fuel industry. Most environmentalists are fine demonizing plastic without truly adequate alternatives being offered. Consumers are comfortable buying products in brown natural looking packages regardless of if the products really are any more environmentally friendly.

And those within the industry blindly defend it too. I was recently on a call discussing recyclable VS. compostable products. I advocated for the importance of looking at the data and pivoting if needed. Even if we are working to improve recycling rates, if composting turns out to be more successful for consumers, we need to be willing to pivot as an industry to what is most successful. Others on the call didn’t feel the same and advocated for pushing recycling because they “believe in it.”

At the end of the day we need to be as objective as possible and let the data speak for itself. We need to be willing to be surprised and accept that sometimes our expectations are wrong. Most importantly, we need to think beyond dollars and cents. The decisions and actions we take have more than a financial cost associated with them. They also have external costs, for example, environmental damage beyond the small price tag on some fossil fuel resources. In an effort to circumvent some of these environmental externalities, we likely will require government intervention to motivate change to occur more rapidly.

From my understanding, I’m optimistic about things like the Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act and their ability to effectively solve some of our issues. These initiatives are data driven and don’t try to eliminate plastic all together, but allow us to leverage its value in the meantime by pushing the industry to be more creative in its design while also increasing true recycling rates.

However, governments and organizations will only take the appropriate environmental action if we make them. We should vote for politicians that listen to the data and science about the best choices we can make today. We can also leverage the number of people supporting certain products by voting with our dollars. Every dollar spent supporting businesses that make positive environmental change only gives them more money to keep making greater and greater change.

But what do you think? Should we be making sweeping change like eliminating plastic or do you have another idea? Let me know in the comments!

Food Waste: Don’t Spoil the Bunch

Photo by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash

One of the things as a society that seems incredibly wasteful to me is the amount of food we discard. I’m not the only one that feels this way; there are countless experts that will be able to go on and on about how severe our food waste issue is. This is glaringly obvious when you see that we waste 40% of all our food in the US. This food waste makes up the second largest portion of all our waste at 21.59% of all waste or over 63 million tons. That’s equivalent to disposing of 345 empire state buildings every year or almost one per day.

I’m sure you were told at some point how important it is to finish your plate because there are people starving in X, Y, or Z country. This seems especially silly when you look at the amount of food we waste before it even reaches our plate. An estimated 43% of food waste does still happen once it gets to the consumer. However, as I’ve talked about before, it’s important to go “upstream” with these issues by starting at the source and working your way back in order to understand the whole picture.

One of the first places we begin to lose food is exactly where it starts, on the farm. A lot of the food grown on farms doesn’t ever leave the farm. When pickers go through fields a lot of food has to be left behind because of the journey the food has to take to our dinner plates. The risk of the spoilage during transportation means that food that is ready to eat the day it is picked has to be left behind to spoil. Some of the food is also left behind because it has some amount of blemishes that will lead to it not selling at stores. On a positive note, much of this food is left in fields to degrade so the nutrients aren’t taken from one location to spoil elsewhere.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

The next stop on the food waste journey is at the super market. Once food arrives at the store, many of the items are labeled with best by and sell by dates that quickly approach. Stores are forced to toss or donate this food, but a large majority is simply thrown away. Other items are considered to have poor appearance by customers and those items are left on shelves until stores have no choice but to get rid of them.

After that the waste continues at food service locations such as cafeterias and restaurants. Due to excessive portion sizes meals often are unable to be finished. Sometimes those leftovers are brought home, but often they are left behind to be tossed in the trash.

The last place we accumulate food waste is in our homes. This happens for a wide array of reasons. One of the main culprits is simply forgetting about food in our fridge or pantry. Bringing it full circle, we often bite off more than we can chew when it comes to the food that we make. Portion control is essential here.

Photo by Jesse K. on Unsplash

You might be wondering what you can do to make an impact to reduce food waste and I am here to tell you there is plenty that you can do! For starters, don’t be afraid of blemished food. Most of that food is still just as tasty and will be overlooked by other patrons. Another great option is to support companies like Imperfect Foods, Misfits Market, or hungry harvest. Just make sure that you will actually eat the food you receive from those services otherwise the benefit is negated. You can also support local farmers markets to get the freshest food while also stopping food from spoiling on the farms.

Another great way you can help this food waste is through greater organization. When it comes to planning out our meals, when we are more thoughtful about our food we can plan appropriately so we don’t over buy and let food waste. Additionally addressing the clutter of our food in our fridge can make a huge difference. When things start to pile up, that’s a sign you need to go through and organize what you have so it doesn’t go bad.

This is something I have experienced first hand. My wife was incredibly frustrated when we were forced to downsize in fridge size so she took it upon herself to reorganize and even purchase additional shelving to make it easier to see everything in the fridge. This has stopped us from forgetting about items in the back and has helped us utilize everything in our fridge.

The last idea to reduce food waste at home is to practice cooking more often. We have developed into a purchasing society so much that many of us are pretty lousy cooks. However, if we are comfortable in the kitchen, we will be better equipped to utilize our leftovers in more effective ways. How many times do you get an ingredient for one dish but don’t know what else to do with it? For me personally, this happens often with fresh herbs. Getting creative in the kitchen can ensure that we end up using all of what we buy rather than just some of it.

No matter how hard we try, we will be left with some amount of food waste (even if its just the scraps from cooking). One of the most important things we can do is compost that food. As I discussed in my previous post, food placed in landfills produces methane, which is significantly more harmful than CO2. The alternative is composting that food, which releases less harmful emissions like CO2 and also leaves us with nutrient rich soil. So stop tossing your food scraps in the trash and start composting! If you are still looking for things you can do to reduce your food waste, check out SaveTheFood. It’s a campaign dedicated to addressing all aspects of food waste. Let me know if you have any other tricks in the comments!

Dig Deep Into How Landfills Work

Here in America, you can’t understand our waste structure without a fundamental understanding of our landfill system. According to the EPA, almost exactly half of all our waste ends up in a landfill, or 146 million tons of the 292 million tons of municipal solid waste produced annually. So clearly this is not something to be overlooked.

Graph Courtesy of the EPA

While landfills can often get a bad rap, it makes sense that they are as prevalent as they are today. For starters, with the amount of land the US has, burying it seems like the most obvious solution to our excessive amounts of garbage. It’s also relatively cheap. While I’m a firm believer in the potential of things like recycling and industrial composting facilities, those options can be more costly to maintain and require extensive machinery investments. Although landfills also require initial investments and aren’t just as simple as putting our trash in a big pit, they historically have been more profitable.

Despite the challenges we have with our waste, when you look at the history, it really is impressive how far we have come. Prior to the 20th century, most people were simply burning their trash or burying it on the outskirts of town to avoid the risk of disease. It wasn’t until 1937 that anything close to a modern landfill was created. The first one was in California, but due to a lack of forethought these initial landfills were environmental disasters. These ‘dumps’ were essentially giant pits in the ground that we filled with garbage and covered with dirt. They were consistently leaching chemicals through rainwater into our soil and waterways, and they were outputting extensive amounts of greenhouse gases. 

By 1976 things started to change with the launch of the EPA’s Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Among many other things, this act put in greater restrictions for how landfills had to be made. Some of the biggest changes included liners to stop wastewater from escaping and gas vents for gas collection.

Image Courtesy of OC Waste & Recycling

The above image shows an amazing breakdown of how our landfills are made today (click on the image for a closer look). Despite often being considered dirty, they are an engineering-feat. To start off these operations, wells and probes are dug in the surrounding area. These probes confirm that there is no ground water contamination or gas escaping through the sides or bottom of the landfill. To stop anything from escaping in the first place the landfills are lined with both plastic liners and often clay soil to add an extra layer of protection.

One of the biggest challenges that happened with old school dumps is whenever it would rain the water would seep through a landfill and collect toxins and chemicals. This liquid, referred to as leachate, is precisely what was contaminating water. Instead of just allowing this leachate to collect and pool at the bottom of landfills, they have piping systems running around the landfill to collect it. After being collected, this leachate can be sent to water treatment centers.

One of the most common misconceptions that I run into is how things breakdown in landfills. There is in fact very little decomposition going on inside a landfill. When our trash is deposited into the landfill, it is very densely packed together and the vast majority of space that would be remaining is filled in with soil. The result is that only a small portion of all the material placed in a landfill is able to degrade using an aerobic (with oxygen) process. Shortly after all the oxygen is consumed by bacteria doing the work of degradation, the landfill is only left with bacteria capable of anaerobic degradation (without oxygen). Not only is this process of degradation slower, but the main output is methane gas.

Methane gas is somewhere between 28-36X more harmful than CO2 to our greenhouse gas effect on our planet according to the EPA. The worst part is that our landfills account for approximately 15% of all our methane creation in the US. On the plus side many facilities now harness that methane out of the landfill and burn it for energy. Lucky for us, burning methane converts it into a less harmful greenhouse gas (CO2) and creates energy.

So since their beginnings, landfills have come a long way. They produce less destruction than in the past (short of the landmass disturbance) and even provide opportunities for energy collection. However, like I previously said, our trash isn’t degrading in our landfills. It doesn’t matter if you buy a plastic or bamboo toothbrush. If the final destination is a landfill, their fate is the same; one of stagnation for countless years. This is where “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” becomes so important. If we really want to reduce the environmental impact of our waste, it starts with reducing our trash production. Separating your trash into compostables and recyclables is the best way to send as little waste to the landfill as possible. Think twice next time you reach to toss something in the garbage can: Do you really want it to be sitting in the ground for an eternity?