Archive | February, 2012


This past weekend I went to dinner my friend’s apartment. I brought her raisins in a glass jar (for the meal she was cooking) and handmade soap from the farmer’s market, tied with a piece hemp.

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Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation

Yesterday I visited the Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation in Johnston, RI. I met with Recycling Program Manger Krystal Noiseux, who showed me around the landfill/Materials Recycling Facility and spoke with me about the daily operations at the complex, the renovation of the MRF, and the waste-management issues Rhode Island faces looking ahead. The following posts will detail my visit and everything I learned about what happens to the trash we make in this small state.

We began the tour at the deposit stations for materials that can be repurposed or recycled but are not meant to go into your blue and green bins. There is a station set up for books, clothes and shoes, cooking oil, scrap metal, scrap lumber (unfinished), televisions and computers, hazardous waste and more. Residents can come during normal hours of operation to deposit these materials (hazardous waste deposits can only be done on certain Saturdays by appointment: About one quarter of the tires pictured above can be repurposed. The rest will be shipped to a tire-to-energy plant in Connecticut where they will be incinerated, generating electricity. The ashes are then shipped back to RIRRC where they will go into the landfill. I was surprised to such a variety of materials are accepted. Each is sent to a different company in another location for a wide range of “next life” purposes.

Next we headed over to the commercial composting site. Currently, RIRRC only accepts leaf and yard debris. They process nearly 40,000 tons every year. Rhode Island residents can come and purchase this “class A” compost for $30 per cubic yard. So all you locals who are dreaming up garden plans for this spring, take note! There is a half yard minimum requirement and you have to be able to carry it away in your own vehicle, but RIRRC will help you load it. Some of the compost is used at the central landfill for operational purposes. The rest goes to New England Organics, an industrial organics and minerals recycling company.

The photo above shows a new area being dug out to become landfill. This stop along the tour left a big impression on me. The ‘pit’ seemed much shallower than what I would have imagined. Krystal explained that it can’t be dug too deep because it must be above ground water levels. The next phase of preparation in this area will include laying down layers of plastic (to seal in the garbage) and pipes that will divert any water that sinks through the trash carrying harmful substances (leachate), from seeping into the ground. When the landfill is full, a synthetic cap and a soil layer will close it off.

As Krystal described this to me, it seemed logical that measures must be taken to keep garbage in all its hazardous forms separate from the environment. But I never knew that these kind of protective layers were placed between the trash and the earth. I always imagined a landfill as a simple hole in the ground filled with garbage. This new image I have of a landfill is more bizarre. Our garbage is being entombed in the ground. This is the best kind of “away” that we have come up with—an effort to keep our waste away from our water, our soil, our air, and our wildlife.

Krystal said that she begins her tours by asking visitors whether they think a landfill is good for the environment or bad for the environment. The visitors always answer that it’s bad. As the tour progresses, visitors begin to see that it is not the landfill that is harming the environment, it’s the trash—our trash.

This waste-to-energy plant was the next stop on the tour. It converts the gas produced by decomposing garbage into electricity. The facility (operated by Broadrock Renewable Energy) has been in operation since 1996. I have heard of facilities that convert landfill gas into electricity but I had no idea there was one in operation here in Rhode Island! 65% of the gas that is siphoned off from the landfill is converted. The rest is flared. The current facility generates enough electricity to power approximately 21,000 homes.

While RIRRC works to expand the central landfill, a new plant is being built that will more than double generating capacity from 20 megawatts to 47.6 megawatts. The new facility will be the second-largest landfill-gas-to-electric power plant in the country. It will generate enough electricity to power about 38,000 homes.

We then made our way up the landfill. As Krystal said we were “driving on trash”. Landfill gas collection pipes stick up out of the landfill. Krystal explained that landfill gas is typically comprised of methane (50-55%), carbon dioxide (45-50%), and trace amounts of other gases such as oxygen, nitrogen, and hydrogen sulfide. Methane is considered the most potent of the greenhouse gasses produced in a landfill.

As we ascended the landfill, I began to see the seagulls. We came upon the area where trash was being spread. Thousands of gulls swarmed the trash and the workers. A recent surge in the number of gulls has led RIRRC to approve new measures to fend off the birds, including pyrotechnics, propane cannons, shooting, and using fake seagull carcasses to scare them away.

composting conference and tradeshow happening this Monday will address the importance of getting food scraps out of the landfill. Less rotting organic material in at the landfill will mean less landfill gas and fewer gulls.

I learned that daily operations at the landfill include compacting (crushing) and covering waste with several inches of soil or other cover material to reduce odor and litter (that can get picked up by the wind) as well as control pests. A cross section of the landfill would show layer upon layer of trash and cover. Krystal explained that many people think the central landfill is a dump, but there is a big difference between a dump (an open pit of trash) and a sanitary landfill, which is really an engineering marvel designed to protect the environment from our garbage. Though the trash is covered quickly, while it is being laid down it can blow around in the wind. Litter crews collect the sailing Styrofoam cups and plastic bags off the face of the landfill and surrounding areas.

Since 2010, areas of the RIRRC grounds have been planted with native shrub species (steeplebush, bayberry, and meadow-sweet), trees (eastern white pine and eastern red cedar), and seeded with native grasses and wildflowers to attract native wildlife species. RIRRC employees volunteer their time to monitor wildlife activity. Deer, coyote, mink, bald eagles, turkey, hawk and various other song and water bird species have been observed. The central landfill has been Wildlife at Work certified since 2011.

The last stop on my tour was the Materials Recycling Facility. As I have mentioned before, the facility is undergoing a major renovation. A new single stream recycling system will be up and running on Earth Day (April, 22). RIRRC will then launch a public education campaign shortly there after. Rhode Islanders will no longer need to separate their paper from their metals and plastics. Specific information about newly accepted recyclable will be sent out in the mail and posted online.  Currently, the majority of Rhode Island communities are only recycling an average of 24% of their waste through curbside collection. When you factor in compost, textiles, and metals, the average municipal recycling rate is only 31.8%. The goal of the single stream system is to bring that average up by 20-40%.

When the new system goes live, several more kinds of plastics will be recycled (currently RI only accepts plastic bottles and jugs). The new state of the art facility includes optical scanners that will target and redirect specified materials with a blast of air. Watch this video produced by Waste Management to see how single stream works.

RIRRC charges per ton for trash dumped at the landfill, but it is free to bring recyclables to their recycling facility. There is no washing, melting, or pulping happening at RIRRC. The facility is set up only to sort and bale metals, plastics and paper to be sold as commodities to be made into new products. 50% of the profits from those sales are shared with the municipalities.

Krystal Noiseux said that a common misconception about waste management in Rhode Island is that we are ‘behind the curve’. I admit that was definitely my impression before visiting the complex. To my surprise, Rhode Island was the first state in the nation to pass mandatory recycling legislation in 1986. RIRRC has only ever collected the recyclables that they can market to companies that will process them.

I was impressed by the many measures in place to divert waste from the landfill at RIRRC, the gas-to-electricity plant, and the effort to support wildlife habitats on site. I think it’s important to have an understanding of how our personal waste is handled. Unfortunately I think there is a general lack of appreciation for the technology and people at work in the sanitation industry in this country. I think everyone should visit his or her local landfill and recycling center to see first hand what engineering marvels they have become. However, I want to stress that these last several posts aren’t meant to make us feel better about producing trash. The ‘out of sight, out of mind’ system enables our growing consumption of disposables. The monetary cost of waste management is hidden to most consumers. What would it be like if we had to pay by the pound or by the piece of trash we produce? What if waste management services didn’t exist? Since visiting RIRRC I’ve been thinking about the fact that it’s impossible ‘get rid of’ our trash—we can only relocate it. I’ve been trying to imagine what it would be like if we were all responsible for storing our own waste.

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Recently, I have been in touch with Krystal Noiseux, Recycling Program Manager at RIRRC. I’m going to be meeting with her tomorrow morning for a tour of the facilities and to discuss all the questions I have about recycling in RI. I’m really looking forward to getting information straight from the source.

Krystal has already offered corrections to some misinformation that I’ve posted here on this blog about recycling and the landfill in this state. I have said that RI currently accepts only numbers 1 and 2 plastics and that once the recycling center renovation is complete, they will accept numbers 1-7. The truth—as Krystal explained it—is that currently, they only accept plastic bottles and jugs. Plastic jars, cups, and takeout clamshells that are marked with a 1 or 2 have never been accepted. Once the single-stream collection system goes live, they will accept all small plastic household containers. But they will not accept items such as PVC pipes and shelving, Styrofoam, or plastic bags.

I used the phrase “nearly full landfill” in an earlier post, which is problematic because it is unspecific. Krystal informed me that the projected life left of the Rhode Island landfill is about 23 years.

It will be great to get some more accurate information about what happens to the Rhode Islanders’ waste. I will report back what I learn!

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Waste crate, week 6

This week’s trash.

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No trash fridge

The market bounty in my refrigerator.

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Wintertime farmer’s market

The Saturday farmer’s market at the Hope Artiste Village in Pawtucket, RI.

Lots of stands, lots of customers!

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Good morning

A trash-free breakfast of hot amaranth, nuts, seeds, and fruit—with a drizzle of olive oil.

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A dilemma…

I’ve been talking a lot about my cat’s diet lately. I am meeting with my vet next week to discuss switching Magpie from canned wet food to a home-prepared diet that meets her specific nutritional needs. The grain-free canned food seems to agree with her­—she is a healthy weight and her coat is soft and shiny. But I’d like to move her into a diet that is organic and of course one that makes less waste. Last weekend I was so excited to find the brand I feed her (Wellness) in her in a larger 12.5 oz can. I bought a few and brought them home. I had intended to post about how switching from the 5.5 oz cans will reduce the amount of metal I buy and recycle every week until I’m able to wean her off the wet food. Tonight while reading about the different metals used for pet food cans I came across some information that throws a kink into the plan.

The small 5.5 oz cans are made of aluminum and the 12.5 oz cans are made of coated steel. The coating that lines the inside many steel food cans contain bisphenol A (BPA), while the coating on most aluminum cans does not. The lining is used to prevent the food from eroding the metal. I suppose I should have thought about this sooner because there have been a lot of reports in recent years about BPA in canned human food. As I make a great effort to reduce my own contact with harmful leaching chemicals, it’s difficult to imaging not making the same considerations for my pet. I came across this newsletter with a pretty thorough post about the kinds of cans used by different pet food brands. It looks like there are some brands that do sell food in large 12.5 or 14 oz cans that do not contain BPA.

I am going to call Wellness tomorrow to ask if they are still using steel cans that contain BPA. If so, I will do some research to see if there is a brand with a formula similar to what I’m feeding my cat now, in a large BPA-free can, available at a local store. Meanwhile I remain very hopeful that my vet and I will come up with a manageable alternative solution.

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To-go tea

After years of wrestling with flimsy ball strainers, I’ve finally found a system that works really well for me. My stainless steel mesh basket strainer hangs on the lip of most of my mugs and my 16 oz glass jars (The jar lid doesn’t close completely tight around it, but it’s fine if I carry it in my hand). The strainer is durable and extremely easy to clean. I brought this soothing herbal drink to work with me today.

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Waste crate, week 5

This week my trash crate contents raise a sensitive issue. After receiving a box of chocolates from a loved one in the mail for Valentine’s Day, I’d like to discuss the difficult task of refusing gifts. I will start by saying that the gift-giver in this case sent the most decadent, delicious chocolates I have ever tasted—dried figs infused with chocolate ganache, then dipped in dark chocolate. It was a thoughtful and loving gesture, especially because figs and chocolate are two of my all-time favorite foods. But it’s difficult for me to fully enjoy them as I look at all the paper and plastic they arrived in. I brought the plastic packing to my work where I know it will be reused at least once, but the plastic business card (what?) that came in the box will go straight to the landfill.

I have made a real effort to explain my No Trash Project to everyone who knows me. Especially around the holidays, I try to express that I do not want to receive any material gifts. Of course it’s natural to want to give to those you love, and package-free gifts are particularly difficult when separated by long distances. Our lives are busy. It’s not realistic to imagine that we can all have a “shared experience gift” with everyone on every special occasion. When I can’t get together with my friends and family, it feels good to send and receive signs that they are in my thoughts and I am in theirs.

Though digital communication may seem in some ways impersonal and too easy to hold real meaning, I have been enjoying the creative possibilities that come with connecting through email, text message, and social media—sending personalized articles, images, and videos to loved ones near and far. I think being able to share information, images, and ideas on a regular basis brings me closer to the people I miss. If I’m lucky enough to see them in person, conversation, good food, and adventures are the best gifts I can imagine giving or receiving.

Meanwhile, I continue to explain that “just this once” or “but it’s such a small amount of garbage” doesn’t work with my project, which every day feels more and more like an identity.

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I finally finished my bench. It feels good to complete a project of this scale. I can’t wait to start using it (once the tung oil has dried completely). Now back to the small table I’ve been working on…

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The perfect thing

I love the way bulk foods look stored in glass jars. Simple ingredients boasting great potential. I love the sound food makes when poured from cotton bulk bags as it ‘pings’ against the glass.

I have photographed and mentioned these before, but I want to talk about how much I love the design of Weck jars.  I think they are in many ways an improvement on the traditional glass wire bail jar. The seal is the same with a rubber gasket and a fitted glass lid, but the clamping system on the Weck jars employs two loose stainless steel clips that snap onto the lid and lip of the jar, forming an airtight seal. Because the lid can be removed completely, they’re easy to clean and dry. The stainless steel clamps won’t rust the way the wire can on a bail jar.

They’re great for canning and food storage. For the dry bulk grains on my counter that I use nearly every day—like quinoa, I simply cover the jar with the glass lid. Other dry bulk goods—like nuts, seeds, tea, spices, and chocolate, I seal with the gasket.

Weck seems to be growing in popularity in the States, which means increased availability. Recently I’ve been able to find them in boutique home goods stores and even at Crate and Barrel. Last year I ordered a set directly from the company website and it arrived in big cardboard box filled with packing peanuts—woops. I took the peanuts to a UPS store where they reuse them. Many shipping companies will accept used packing materials as long as they are clean. Of course it’s always better shop at local business when possible. I carry my large canvas tote when I go shopping for new or used jars and bottles. I’ve learned to throw in a sweater or some t-shirts to wrap fragile items in.

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Stainless steel sponge

Along with the wood clothespins below, I also ordered some vintage stainless steel sponges from the same etsy seller. She included them without plastic in the same shipping box. I decided to purchase these because they are packaged in a simple paper box (these days it’s difficult to find steel sponges without some kind of plastic packaging). I plan to store them until my current steel sponge is spent. Hopefully that won’t be for a while––the one I’m using now is really durable. I use it on my cast iron skillet every day.

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I just bought some new (old) clothespins to use on the clothesline I’ve been planning to install in my living room. I couldn’t find any quality wood pins in my area so I finally ended up ordering this vintage set on etsy. I contacted the seller and asked her to ship them without any plastic packaging and she was very accommodating. They arrived yesterday loose in a cardboard box with some newspaper filler. I wanted to find an older set because I figured they might be sturdier than some of the flimsy new spring pins I’ve seen for sale. These are great, and I look forward to putting them to use. With a line and pins, not only will I be able to hang my clothes, but also larger items like my sheets.

I happened to have a burlap bag that’s a perfect size for the pins.

This primitive springless pin came with the set. I think it’s such a beautiful object. I might try to make some like it with the scraps from my woodworking projects.

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Bulk pepitas!

A personal favorite.

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Waste crate, week 4

My waste from this past week looks pretty much the same as prior weeks. I bought some produce from the grocery store again this week so I’m left with the plastic stickers for the landfill. I made an appointment toward the end of the month to talk with my vet about feeding my cat a home prepared diet so that we may make another attempt to wean her off the canned food. I received less junk mail this week than usual. My bank has told me that even though I’m signed up for online banking, they are still legally required to send paper statements. I file them and toss the envelopes in the waste crate. Paper statements from several years ago are shredded and recycled or burned.

I have always wondered why windowed envelopes must have plastic? Why can’t they all be made with just an open cutout? Does it have to do with privacy regulations? According to Rhode Island Resource Recovery recycling guidelines, residents can put windowed envelopes into their green (paper) bins. But how do they separate the plastic from the paper? Does it go straight to the landfill? Do the glues from the windows, stamps, paper tapes and stickers contaminate the paper? These are all questions I will be asking when I tour the RIRRC facilities.

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Bench project

The bench I’m building is nearly complete. I’ve been applying the finish in my living room. I’m using 100% Tung oil to seal the walnut legs and seat. Tung oil is a natural drying oil derived from the nut of a tung tree. I wanted to use something completely nontoxic and easy to apply. I also like the idea of using a finish containing only one ingredient. Fortunately I don’t have any nut allergies and the oil doesn’t irritate my hands or my lungs. I’m not worried about hazardous fumes (the tung oil smells good) in my living room. The drying time between coats is long but it’s worth the wait. Once the final coat hardens it will be nearly impervious to water. I feel good knowing that this functional object soon to be put to use in my home is made almost completely from organic materials (not including the wood glue). Over time the bench may have to be re-oiled but I don’t mind.

I have really enjoyed working with wood. The material seems alive as every cell expands and contracts depending on the moisture in the air. I prefer finishes that showcase the material rather than cover it up. Because this bench is one of my first woodworking projects, I went with my class to a hardwood supplier for my material. However, I’m very interested in learning about more sustainable woodworking practices like building from reclaimed and salvaged wood or from naturally fallen timber.

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From today’s farmers’ market for tonight’s salad!

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Trash reduction in my daily routine is becoming more automatic. After many months of problem solving, I can finally say that there is very little waste entering my house with the food and hygiene goods I consume. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about waste reduction with regard to more permanent necessities, like furniture. One way to reduce the waste we make in our lifetime is to choose quality made items that last and then take great care of them. I find it’s easier to care for furniture that I really love.

For several years since I’ve been out of college, I’ve been toting around some family hand-me-downs and a few pieces I inherited from roommates who moved away to tiny New York apartments. I’ve always been interested in making whatever space I inhabit feel like home–something I learned from my mom as we moved around the country when I was growing up. But in the midst of art school and the struggle to steady myself afterwards, carefully curating my belongings was not a top priority. As I get older and less scattered, my desire to live more efficiently grows. For me this means clearing out the broken, uncomfortable, nonfunctional, and the extra. I’ve managed to sell a lot on craigslist and the rest I’ve donated. But it seems that getting rid of things was the easy part.

Since I moved into my current apartment five months ago, I have been sleeping on a mattress on the floor. The bed I used to have didn’t fit up the narrow stairwell of the 220-year-old building. Unfortunately I find this mattress to be very uncomfortable—the springs are very pronounced. I’ve wanted to get a different one along with a simple platform to get it up off the floor, but finding the right thing has been a challenge. In my free time I’ve been learning to build furniture through woodworking classes and so far I’ve been tackling a table and a bench. I’m told a bed is a much more advanced project. The classes have heightened my appreciation for the handcrafted and my curiosity in how things are made. Now more than ever, I’m determined to avoid buying from bargain furniture stores, but I do understand why so many people rely on such businesses for accessibility and affordability. While holding out, I’ve gone without.

Yesterday on my run, a Waste Management truck with a trailer full of discarded Christmas trees drove past me. I noticed the trailer was marked “Mattresses”. It prompted me to wonder how many mattresses (and Christmas trees) that truck picks up in Providence each year? Do they all go to the landfill? How long does it take a standard mattress to biodegrade? If I’m to replace it, can my current mattress be recycled? Later that evening while reading an article on ecoRI’s website, I noticed an advertisement for a company called The Clean Bedroom, with a store in North Kingstown. I clicked into their website and found a brief statement offering reasons to choose organic bedding over standard.

“…While we sleep, our immune system recovers and prepares for the day ahead. If your mattress is filled with airborne allergens and chemicals toxins, your immune system will battle these rather than repair itself…

Regular bedding – a standard mattress laden with polyurethane foam, toxic flame-retardants and water- or stain-resistant chemicals

Organic bedding– an organic mattress where materials are all-natural, clean and free of chemicals — the cotton is grown without pesticides; the latex is free of synthetics; for fire protection, pure wool is used.”

Well, that seems to make a lot of sense. But of course organic bedding can be very expensive. Today as I continued to research, I’ve been asking myself: When did a good, clean night’s sleep become so complicated and elusive?

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Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation

Today I called Rhode Island Resource Recovery to sign up for a tour of the Materials Recycling Facility and the landfill. The nearly full landfill has been in the local news lately because of an odor control problem. The ventilation system designed to filter out hydrogen sulfide had reached capacity. Residents in towns 15 miles away were complaining of the stench. New wells and flares had to be installed to collect and burn up the gas. In the Action Speaks conference I spoke about in my first post, Sarah Kite (Director of Recycling Services) speaks about how we generally don’t think about garbage until there is a garbage crisis. In this country, we do not have to look at the consequences of consumption becoming waste.

RIRRC has announced that come Earth Day (April 22), single stream recycling (numbers 1-7) will go live to encourage residents and businesses to move more items from their trash cans to their recycling bins. The MRF is currently undergoing major renovation to accomodate this change (previously Rhode Island was only excepting 1 and 2 plastics) and I’m going to check it out to see what happens to the stuff that gets thrown ‘away’.

On the RIRRC website I found a link to University of Rhode Island’s Master Composter Training outreach program. It starts up again in the fall of 2012. It looks wonderful!

Above photo from Providence Journal Files.

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Waste crate, week 3

This week the trash crate looks a little better than the last couple. I made an effort to reduce the landfill trash pieces by focusing on buying produce without plastic tags or ties. I decided to break the habit of buying organic kale from the grocery store, which usually comes bundled with a plastic twist tie and a plastic brand tag. This week I bought organic bok choy and red leaf lettuce from the grocery store without making any trash. Then I picked up some trash-free organic kale and mustard greens at the farmers’ market. Sometimes solving a trash problem leads me to unexpected benefits––like experiencing a greater variety of leafy greens.

I still came home with some produce stickers… and canned cat food.

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