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‘Tis the season of Waste and Want

Waste2Want4

While spending Christmas day with loved ones, I have been reflecting on my fall semester in the Transdisciplinary Design program at Parsons. I can hardly believe how quickly it passed. The design methodologies, technical skills, and new modes of thinking I learned are clearer from the retrospective “balcony” than they were on the mid-semester “dance floor.” I want to share a project I made for my portfolio. This post has a lot of photos because I geeked about how beautiful the process is.

In one of my classes, I was given the assignment of producing a physical portfolio, business card, or brochure that reflects my professional practice. I knew that I couldn’t simply make a digitally printed book on industrial paper manufactured from wood pulp and claim it’s an object that represents my No Trash principles. So, I consulted my enormously talented friend Pam DeLuco, who I’ve written about here on this blog in the past. I told her I was thinking about making the paper by hand and she advised me on different materials that I could scavenge from the trash and natural fibers I could forage to make the pulp. She then invited me out to California to make it in her beautiful studio, Shotwell Paper Mill, the only handmade paper mill in San Francisco. Because the cost of the flight was affordable and I knew I would also get to see my sister who lives in the Bay Area (we grew up out there) I decided to make the trip. Having access to Pam’s know-how, resources, and facilities was an incredible gift. We worked for five days around the clock to create a little book (a chapbook folded from a single sheet of paper) that both describes and embodies the ideas I have been tumbling around over the course of my semester.

JuteSacks

After meeting Pam at SFO, we headed straight to an evening workshop at Dandelion Chocolate where we indulged in holiday samples and collected jute burlap cacao bean sacks. The burlap sacks are used to transport dry food goods around the world but they are only used once. Pam has been collecting these from vendors around San Francisco who would otherwise throw them away. Processed, the jute fibers make a crisp, smooth, beige paper, which I felt would meet the aesthetic and utilitarian requirements of my project. The following morning we hit up Four Barrel Coffee for a few more coffee bean sacks before heading to the Mission district studio.

cuttingJute

To start, I cut the bags into one-inch squares with a pizza cutter-style blade and scissors. By the time I was finished with this first step, my right hand was numb. Pam is 5 feet tall and not much more than 90 pounds, but she must have strong hands from this work. During this process, I created trash—a dulled pizza-cutter blade.

Cacaobeans

As I dismembered the bags, I collected stowaway cacao beans, which fueled our work over the next several days.

CookingJute

Next, we submerged the cut pieces in a 10-gallon pot of water and cooked the fibers over a propane stove for several hours, occasionally stirring them with a long stick. It was a very special brew. The smell of the fermented cacao beans clings to the jute sacks and it filled the studio as the water bubbled and boiled.

BeatingJute

Once the fibers cooked down, I rinsed them until the water ran clear. Pam’s business partner Drew Cameron taught me how to operate the Hollander Beater and we added the fibers to the trough. Drew explained that the beater does not cut the fibers but rather it compacts them, which in a sense makes the fibers “grabbier,” so that they can form the hydrogen bond necessary to make a sheet of paper.

Pulpcheck

To check the beaten pulp for inconsistencies, we drew a sample from the beater and held it up to the light. No clumps. Time to make the sheets.

SeedPaper

I decided to make seed paper. I felt that this element made the piece conceptually stronger. I wanted to create a prompt for users to lovingly move the object I produced into the “disposal” phase of its life. By making the paper plantable, I hope that those who interact with it will one day bury the jute paper in soil and in turn feel rewarded for their stewardship by the food reaped from the sown seeds. I rode Pam’s bike to the Scarlet Sage Herb Co. to pick up their very last packet of heirloom lettuce, which I chose because this seed is hard enough that it doesn’t germinate in the sheet before the paper can dry.

PullingPaper

“Pulling” the paper was one of my favorite parts of the process. We added the pulp to a bath of water, sprinkled in the seeds, and pulled a papermaking mould and deckle through the mixture. The fibers catch on the screen as the water drains through. The paper is then “couched” or pressed onto pieces of felt that are pressed between wood boards and dried.

OldNewType

While the paper was drying, I got to work setting type to letterpress print the text of my book. After making the paper by hand, it wouldn’t have seemed right to run it through a laser printer. I chose sans serif, no frills, News Gothic 12 point font. I did print a digital copy of my text onto a white sheet of paper to use as a reference while I worked. As I sat there lifting each letter out of the tray, I was struck by the strangeness of using a modern technology to assist the antiquated process.

TypeSetClose

This part took many hours. In order to justify the text on the pages of my tiny book, I was editing on the fly, searching for synonyms, unessential words, and rephrases in order to make each line fit. The letterpress printed version is essentially a translation of the Microsoft Word document I had been tweaking before arriving in SF. The contents of this book are ideas that I have been working with very closely for many months. But setting these thoughts in led type has deepened my relationship to them.

FinishedPaper

After the paper was dried and the type was set, it was time to print a test sheet.

PressSpins

So we took the press for a spin.

ProofingType

And discovered some (ironic) typos.

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Finally, we got all the kinks out and ran the edition through the press. The seeds broke the type in some places but I think it was worth it to have them in there. I can’t wait to plant one of the books. 

Wast2Want1

I hand illustrated and signed each edition copy, because I’m particularly interested in the tension between the preciousness of the object and its true disposability. When I posted an image of the finished piece on instagram, a friend commented, “But why would you want to plant such a beautiful little book?!” My answer is: Because it can be as beautiful in its death as it is in its life. I’m pleased with the end result and so grateful to Pam and Drew for their guidance and unfettered support throughout the project. It’s a glimpse at what I’ve been up to and what I’ve been thinking about.

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Pallet project

palletprojectprogress

This past weekend I got into a project I’d been scheming on since the start of spring. My landlady generously offered me a bit of space to grow some food in by the cement wall/iron fence that surrounds her backyard garden. The sunny spot is located in the small driveway off the alley by which I access my apartment. Two cars fit snuggly in the lot so building anything with substantial depth would have blocked vehicles from pulling in and out. Inspired by readings and projects from the Urban Agriculture class I took at Brown this semester, I decided to try my hand at some vertical gardening. I had seen DIY pallet garden projects in books and online and thought that might be a good place to start. I figured it would be economical too. A couple weeks ago I picked through some discarded samples behind a paper supplier in Pawtucket and found a few good specimens that I could pull apart and rebuild into a Franken-pallet. Gorgeous weather, a visit from my enormously talented woodworker/furniture maker friend, and the day off from work on Monday gave way to a perfect opportunity to finally get busy.

We started with a sturdy 3′ x 4′ pallet that boasted tightly fitted boards on one side. This would serve as the retaining wall on the back of the planter. Then we framed the sides and bottom of the planter with wood from the other dismantled pallets and some leftover scraps that were available from an ongoing home repair project (a new floor being laid in the laundry room/entrance to my apartment). Next, we mapped out the spacing of the boards that would enclose the front of the box. I decided to leave 2.5″ gaps between the boards to plant in. It seemed like a good amount of room for my herbs to grow but not so much space that the soil would forever be spilling out.

palletprojectdetail

After lifting the basic frame into the right location/position and wiring it to the iron fence posts, we built the garden layers from the bottom up. We filled the pallet with soil, laid and watered each plant, then one by one we nailed each board to the frame. We collected sticks from the property (last summer’s cuttings from my landlady’s hedges) and pressed them in between the plants to try to create a webbing to help retain the soil until the vegetation fills in. To give the plants a good  start, we mixed in worm castings as we worked our way up.

palletprojectdone

Above is the finished garden. Eight rows (including the row planted in the open top) currently hold twelve different edible plants. I’m growing rosemary, oregano, sage, two different kinds of marigolds, dill, cilantro (coriander), three different kinds of basil, tarragon and nasturtium. Marigolds, rosemary, cilantro, and basil are all pest repellent crops. The plants were grown from seed in my windowsill and purchased at the Southside Community Land Trust plant sale. I’m pleased with the look of the garden and I think its’s a great use of the very narrow space. I’m not sure how well everything will grow in this planter. I wonder if there will be enough soil for all the root systems that will be vying for water and nutrients. And properly saturating each layer with water may prove to be a bit tricky. There’s already been talk of a piped in irrigation system for the next pallet project. For now, I’m very happy about what we were able to create with the resources around us. The garden is an experiment and I’m excited to see how well it works over the course of the growing season.

memorialdaypicnic

To reward ourselves for a day of work in the sun, we bought some take-away and headed to the coast for a sunset feast on the beach. With a bunch of stainless steel containers in tow, we hit-up East Side Pockets and the grocery store salad bar for some good eats. We also packed some water, fruit, and trail mix to snack on.  My trusty 17-year-old Block Island beach blanket served as both a nearly sand-free surface to sit ourselves and our delicious meal upon, and later as a much appreciated wrap to keep warm with after sundown.

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Pam

pam

I know some pretty incredible people. A dear family friend recently gave this yarn to me. I think of her often on my journey toward Zero Waste, as her values and work have influenced me greatly. Pam is a renaissance woman who for as long as I’ve known her (about 14 years) has been interested in sustainability, health, and handmade processes. She spun these wool yarns herself. The gray yarn on the bottom is a worsted Shetland yarn she made with wool fibers from her friend’s sheep in Idaho. The warmer colored yarn on top is a woolen yarn she made from Polwarth sheep fibers she collected while living in Australia. I can’t wait to knit something from these beautifully crafted, oh-so-soft materials. She described the processing of both to me in an email.

“The Shetland wool was prepped and spun worsted–that means all of the fibers were combed out first so they are parallel and then the spinning is also controlled in a way that preserves the alignment of the fibers. If you look closely, you’ll see it’s a relatively smooth yarn. I spun it on a drop spindle. The Polwarth is from Australia and I got it when I lived there. That one I prepped and spun woolen. I washed it first and then carded it with hand cards. This makes the fibers go in all different directions. I spun it on my spinning wheel using a long draw (a technique where you draw your hand back and let the twist enter the yarn). I also fulled this yarn. That’s a finishing technique where you basically shock the fibers. Fibers either felt or full–trial and error will let you know which one your fiber will do. So for fulling I put the yarn in a bucket of really hot water with soap. Using a small plunger I plunged it up and down a bunch of times. Then I took that hot, soapy, skein and put it into a bucket of ice water. The process is repeated a bunch of times until it looks finished. Woolen yarns tend to be fuzzy and this helps give it a cleaner look.”

Everything Pam does she does all the way. Her past projects include a hand-knit mohair sweater made from yarn spun with angora fur she collected over time from her pet rabbit, Jambo. And another sweater she knit using silk yarn spun from the silk fibers she collected from her own silk worms. I don’t remember where she got the silk worms, but I do remember that they escaped their designated habitat and made their cocoons all over the bathroom of her San Francisco apartment. Not wanting to disturb their pupa phase, she coexisted with her metamorphosing roommates for weeks until they emerged as moths.

Once while I was in high school and Pam was staying with us, I arrived home after class and entered the kitchen through the sliding glass door. I was met with a strange and terrible odor that filled the house. “Pam!” I shouted. “What’s that smell?!” She appeared laughing and said, “I’m rendering cow kidney fat.” Sure enough there was large pot of white suet chunks and water simmering on the stove. “What? Why?” I exclaimed. “I’m making soap,” she giggled. “The old fashioned way!” Oh, duh. Of course she was. And she did. Lavender and orange scented bars, which she later gave to my family. The soap smelled lovely.

It was Pam who first hipped me to the questionable and hazardous ingredients in common beauty and hygiene products. She taught me the importance of knowing the source of the goods we consume and the conditions under which they were produced. And most importantly, she taught me there’s almost always an alternative way of getting what we need, if we are dissatisfied with the products that are marketed toward us.

These days Pam’s newest loves are paper, print, and book making. She runs a studio called Shotwell Paper Mill in SF’s Mission district. All their papers are made from recycled fibers. Check out this beautiful video of Pam making paper from an old pair of jeans. She also rides her bike around San Francisco collecting used jute coffee and cacao bean sacks from local coffee roasters and turns them into beautiful cocoa colored sheets. She explained that since great amounts of work, energy, and resources are required to grow and harvest the jute and manufacture the bean sacks, it seems right to extend the life of the jute fibers by turning them into paper. Yep. I like the way this lady thinks. Oh and she also keeps a beehive and grows food in her local community garden. I hope to visit her and see all these fantastic projects in person someday soon.

Thank you, Pam for this beautiful gift and the endless inspiration.

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Ship shape

heath

I recently received a gift of some Heath ceramic plates for my birthday. I’ve always admired this Sausalito, California-based company’s designs and environmentally conscious practices. Founded in 1948 by ceramicist Edith Heath, the company has upheld the values of timeless design, fair work conditions, and sustainability. Their lower heat, once-fired pieces are made to be durable enough to last for generations. Each piece contains some recycled clay. I will cherish my dishes.

Every time I receive a shipment, whether it’s something I’ve ordered myself because I can’t find a local source or something that’s been sent by someone else, I cringe at the sight of any plastic or foam packing materials. If I receive a cardboard box, I find myself holding my breath before opening it, dreading the possible discovery of packing peanuts, Styrofoam molds, bubble wrap, or inflated plastic air bags inside. The box from Heath arrived sealed with paper tape. Fantastic. As I cut into it I was thrilled to find that the protective filling was 100% paper! I reached into the paper “peanuts” and pulled out a plate. There was no bag, no wrapper, no tape. It still had some dry clay dust on it, and I instantly imagined the factory it was produced in. But there wasn’t a single chip, crack, scuff, or ding. The plates were stacked on top of each other, separated simply by squares of corrugated cardboard. I composted all the materials. My bin is always in need of the carbon.

I contacted the company via email to express my satisfaction with both their product and their shipping materials. I asked who the manufacturer of the “peanuts” was and how long they had been using them. A woman named Stephany got back to me and this is what she wrote,

“We are one of just a few companies who proudly ship all of our products with ExpandOS, a great packing system made from 100% post-industrial waste and that is 100% reusable and recyclable. Heath has been using ExpandOS for at least six years. Our philosophy on packaging is that it’s wasteful, but we want our products to be safe. In addition to ExpandOS for shipping, we wrap our products purchased in our stores in good old-fashioned newsprint. We give it a second use and it’s recyclable. We encourage reusable Heath totes in lieu of gift boxes and encourage customers to use a Heath tote or their own bag. We do use brown bags when customers need it.”
The ExpandOS packing system carried beautiful ceramics safely across a great distance to my door. I hope to see more companies with mail order services electing similar packaging systems.
Read more about Heath’s environmental integrity here.
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New kicks

newrunningshoes

I had a lovely day. It started with an unseasonably warm run. I checked the temperature before I got dressed and it was nearly 60˚F in Providence so I threw on my running shorts and a t-shirt. While working up a good sweat in the warm sun it dawned on me, it’s the middle of January! Crazy. I wore the new running shoes I finally bought to replace the spent ones I’d been sporting for years. Most running and athletic shoes on the market are made from 100% synthetic materials. I really struggled with the idea of buying a new product off a store shelf that costs so much energy to produce and that will not biodegrade once the wearable life has been pounded out of them. I am completely onboard with the minimal running shoe movement for physiological health reasons and the fact that they require less resource material (for instance, there’s no foam in my new pair) to produce than the high stability, bulkier shoes I was rocking before this. So I settled on these of 6oz water-resistant minmal shoes that will get me through all seasons. I felt that they were the best choice of everything I considered at my local running shoe retailers. So far, I really love them. They fit me perfectly, I like the feeling of being in closer contact with the ground as I move over it, and they’ve kept my feet dry and warm even in the slush and snow we had just a couple weeks ago. I believe my old shoes are too damaged in the heel to donate to be worn so I plan give them to Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe program.

This evening I hung out at Fertile Underground Grocery on the westside of Providence with in-store foodie and event host Jillian McGrath and the rest of the wonderful FUG team. We spoke with interested customers about bulk food shopping and reducing food packaging waste. I had a wonderful time meeting folks from Providence and neighboring cities and discussing my project and ways to take advantage of such wonderful resources as Fertile Underground Grocery. Thanks so much to everyone who stopped to chat!

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Kicks

Last December I wrote a post about running. In it I talked about my desire to replace my worn shoes. Unable to find a pair that I could get excited about, I postponed purchasing new ones and since then have managed to squeeze nearly another year’s worth of running out of the old pair. These have carried me over my weekly 25-30 miles of blacktop, concrete, gravel, and packed dirt trails for almost four years now. They’ve held up remarkably well under the pounding.

Everyone wears their shoes differently. I seem to always destroy the “heel counter” of mine from the inside out. I think this could be due to the fact that I have a narrow heel that seems to slip around a bit in most footwear. I’ve finally worn these down to the plastic cupped part of the heel under the padding, which is now putting holes in my socks and blisters on my skin. So, to save my feet and keep my running habit, I will indeed need to get a new pair. My search for a shoe that uses minimal materials and will hold up to New England winter running resumes.

Since starting this project, I’ve been more than happy to purchase most of my clothing used from consignment and thrift stores. I make an exception for socks and skivvies. I will also make an exception for the running shoes. Fit is of utmost importance and having an unused instep and sole that will form to the shape of my foot is key. But great amounts energy go into the production of the synthetic materials used to construct athletic shoes, more energy and chemical adhesives are used to produce the shoes, and even more energy is required to ship them to a store near me. So choosing a new pair has so far been difficult for me in the context of this project. When I do find the new pair I won’t throw my old ones away, but rather donate them to one of these organizations. They will probably have to be recycled given their structural damage.

Running is my favorite way to exercise. I can do it any place, any season, in nearly any terrain. It’s one of my best defenses against stress and it’s a time I use to process all of the matters of my life. Since last year’s running post I have taken up yoga (a conveniently barefoot form exercise), which has been wonderful, but so far hasn’t replaced my beloved daily run.

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Single stream

The informational video I shot and produced for Rhode Resource Recovery Corporation is complete. Thank you to everyone at RIRRC, Animal Studio, and Machines With Magnets for all your great work!

The purpose of this short piece is to provide Rhode Island residents and anyone else interested in recycling in RI with an up-close look at the way recyclables are sorted through the new single stream system at the Materials Recycling Facility in Johnston. For safety reasons, visitors of the facility may only view the operations through the windows of an observation room. As well as being available on the Recycle Together RI website, this video will play on monitors in the observation room to reveal what can’t be seen through the glass. It is also meant to stress the importance of placing proper materials in our collection bins each week so that the facility operations can run efficiently, workers remain safe, and a better quality baled “product” is produced.

The MRF is just the first stop that our papers, cans, and bottles make on their long road to becoming resource materials. Great amounts of energy and resources are required to simply sort our waste so it may be sold as commodities to companies that will process the materials.

Filming at the facility was intense. During each shoot, I was required to wear a reflective vest, a hard hat, safety glasses, and ear protection (the sounds of the machinery and material in motion are deafening). Seeing truck loads of materials dumped on the tip floor one after another was overwhelming. On the one hand, it is gratifying to know the waste has been diverted from the landfill, but the volume of materials and the speed and consistency at which they arrive to the facility is disheartening. The experience has served to underscore the importance of No Trash Project and similar efforts.

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Nostalgia

Along with books from my childhood, I also brought back a diary, which I will keep. It was given to me when I was 5 years old, so as you might imagine, there aren’t a lot of lengthy recordings of my day-to-day activities. Instead, several brief entries like the one above are scattered throughout the book of mostly blank pages. In case you can’t make out the entry, it reads:

“Dear Diary let me tel you about Dolphin. Did you know that there were more than fifdy kind”

Sifting through the belongings I saved growing up, it appears there are some fundamental similarities between the child I was and the adult I’ve become. And I’m filled with the sense that perhaps we’re more than a product of our experiences.

I plan to use the rest of the pages. The paper is good and even in this age of personal electronic devices, I still hand draw and write notes, lists, and ideas on a daily basis. So I figure I might as well fill every inch of this precious little book. Plus I kind of dig the floral fabric cover.

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Book seller

My parents are getting ready to move and one of the reasons for my visit with them last week was to collect some belongings that they’ve generously stored for me over the years. I’ve talked about paring back the items in my apartment to make my No Trash Project run more efficiently, but I left out the fact that I still had a closet full of things in another location. Getting my immediate space down to a carefully curated collection of objects—both essential and beautiful, has felt wonderful. But knowing that there was another out of sight pile that needed to be sorted and unloaded was always a bit daunting, especially since I knew these keepsakes from my childhood would be difficult for me to make decisions about. Nostalgia is a mechanism that operates strongly within me.

Before the electricity went out in the storm, I got through the first of what will probably be several passes. My mom and I sifted through the boxes together, which was not always productive, but very enjoyable. There was a great deal of giggling over construction paper elementary school projects, earnest diary entries by my six-year-old self (brimming with spelling errors), loved and battered stuffed animals and dolls, letters from first boyfriends, and sketchbooks full of drawings and poems. Though everything in those boxes was at one time precious, I was able to fill my car trunk with items to let go of.

The stack pictured above is a sample from two boxes of books I brought back to Providence to sell and donate. These books were at one time well adored (I was really into Roald Dahl), but they have been sitting unread and unopened for years. I decided it’s time to put them back into circulation so that they may have a chance to be enjoyed once again. Today I took the boxes to Cellar Stories—a used bookstore downtown. I like the idea of supporting small local booksellers… and of course it’s always nice to get a little cash in exchange. While the shopkeepers looked through my books I perused the aisles of treasures. Just over half of my collection was accepted and I received about $60. I wasn’t able to leave the shop without purchasing a beautiful vintage botanical book that I will share with a friend. But my load is much lighter. I will try to sell the rest at Paper Nautilus (formerly Myopic Books) in Wayland Square, and whatever they wont take I will donate The Salvation Army.

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Milk & Honey Bazaar

I also visited the Milk & Honey Bazaar in Tiverton. I’d driven by it many times before but had never stopped. Inside they have a beautiful display of artisanal cheeses and jars of local honey and preserves. I did something I very rarely do these days—I bought something in packaging. I was tempted by the golden glow from a jar of Lemon & Ginger Marmalade made at a farm in Middletown, and I couldn’t resist.

I justified the purchase because I know I will reuse the jar and because it’s from a local source. Still, it felt strange because I could make my own preserves at home that would scratch the itch for a sweet spreadable snack. But such projects take some doing and though I’ve gotten pretty good at rearranging my sense of time and responsibility to allow room for the homemade, there are still days when the energy required to make something nonessential but wonderful—like marmalade, just simply isn’t there. So I treated myself and smiled as I ate it.

 

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Curbside

curbside

It’s trash night on the east side. I’m always amazed by what people put out on the curb, especially with a Salvation Army within a mile of so many homes on the hill. Considering the white piece for studio shelving…

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Repurposing

My friend and assistant teacher built a dining chair this week. A conversation about seat upholstery options led to a decision to search local thrift stores for used leather garments that could be repurposed for the piece. After a few misses, we hit an indoor merchants co-operative that showcases the goods of about 20 different dealers. One dealer’s section boasts a sign that reads, “Home on the Range”. Bingo. Leather cowboy boots, suede fringe jackets, vests, and skirts adorn the display walls. After careful consideration (and a bit of dress-up time), two suede skirts were chosen.

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Dump run

Made a dump run with a friend from wood school yesterday. A couple times a week, the fellows collect barrels full of wood waste (offcuts, shavings, and dust) from the studio buildings and truck them out to the Mid-coast Solid Waste Corporation in Rockport for processing. Solid pieces are dumped separately from the dust and shavings, which get deposited at the wood chip pile.

Woodchip pile.

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Bed frame

Built a planting box today for my tomatoes. My landlady suggested the project and I took her up on it. I will put it in a corner in the driveway that gets a lot of sun and hopefully they’ll grow well there. The wood is salvaged from outside the Ajay Land Company building where I share a studio. There was some slight warping to the found boards, so the box turned out a bit wonky, but it will serve it’s purpose well. Now I need some dirt!

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Bales

Spent another day shooting inside the Materials Recycling Facility. Videos of materials in motion still to come…

Meanwhile check out these aluminum can bales, bundled together with wire, ready to be shipped.

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Materials Recycling Facility shoot

Today I returned to the Materials Recycling Facility at Rhode Island Resource Recovery to shoot video of materials being sorted through the new single stream system. The facility is currently running tests with materials collected from a few select towns. All of Rhode Island can expect to receive information on transitioning to the new system by mid June. This pile of materials had just been unloaded from a truck. As you can see, the recyclables are all mixed together. After traveling across belts, past sorting employees, through tumblers, sifters, and scanners, the materials are baled to be sent off to separate processing facilities.

Guided by Recycling Program Manager Krystal Noiseux and Operations Supervisor Brian Dubis, I carried a camera and tripod to the many sorting stations throughout the facility. We wore hard hats, reflective vests, safety glasses, and headsets (the sounds of the machinery and the materials in motion were incredibly loud). For safety reasons, visitors will not be allowed inside the sorting facility, so monitors inside the observation rooms will display the videos we collect of the stations and actions that are not visible from the viewing windows. I feel very lucky to be able to see firsthand all of the planning, labor, technology, and energy that goes into sorting Rhode Island’s recyclable materials. What happens inside the MRF is just one of so many steps involved in recycling our waste.

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Rubber bands

Finding completely naked produce isn’t easy. Plastic bags, mesh sacks, cellophane, twist ties, tags, stickers, baskets, boxes, and even Styrofoam trays fill the display stands and shelves of nearly every grocery store in the country. Even at my local farmer’s markets, some venders use plastic bags to parcel out salad mix and berry boxes to hold berries and cherry tomatoes.

I’ve learned to avoid all of these offenders and still eat a huge variety of fruits and vegetables, but I decided a while ago to make an exception for the rubber bands that tie together bunches of herbs, dark leafy greens, beets, radishes, and stalky vegetables. A rubber band is a useful thing, but I’ve found that I seldom have a reason to use them and I’m having trouble finding anyone else who does. The grocery store won’t take them back, and I have stocked my office supply closet at work with at least a year’s supply for the entire staff. I’ve also been trying to pass them off to other artists in the building where my studio is located, but no one seems to be chomping at the bit for rubber bands.

I plan to ask venders at the farmer’s market this Saturday (the first outdoor market of the season!) if anyone can reuse them. The best case scenario would be to return them to the source. I’ll post an update when I find a solution.

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Bed frame

I finally found a bed frame. After much deliberation about whether to borrow one, find one used, or make one, I decided to buy this platform frame made from sustainably harvested hardwood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, sealed with a simple, straight linseed oil finish. I love the minimal design. Because my bed sticks out into the pathway through the room, I wanted something as small and unobtrusive as possible. Having the mattress raised up off the floor feels great because I can clean under it. And I feel more grown up. Next on my wish list is a mattress made from organic materials. When I met with Krystal Noiseux at RIRRC, she told me about a company in Massachusetts called Conigliaro Industries, a recycling service company that accepts mattresses. When I visited their website I found that they market the mattresses to Nationwide Mattress Recycling. A statistic on the NMR website states that 9,000,000 mattresses and box springs end up in a landfill or incinerator each year in the U.S. When I do find something to replace the mattress I’m using now, I will probably take it to Conigliaro. I’d like to donate it but that might be difficult to do given that it has grown so old and uncomfortable.

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Junk mail

I’ve talked about eliminating junk mail before. I’ve been meaning to share these tips to reduce the catalogues and credit card offers, which I came across on the RIRRC website. I was pleased to find the Direct Marketing Association website and I quickly registered. A statistic on the RIRRC page states that the average American receives an estimated 41 pounds of junk mail a year. That’s a lot of paper. I’m still receiving coupon papers and service offers like the ones in the photo above. They are all addressed to “our neighbor” or “current resident” and there are often duplicate copies delivered on the same day. For offers from businesses like Geico and Verizon, I will call them again and try to get on a do not mail list—though it makes me a little uneasy to have to provide my name and address to a company just so that they’ll stop sending mail! As for the coupon papers… I’m still working on that.

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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: www.rirrc.org/ecodepot). 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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Curbside

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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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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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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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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Bed

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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Waste crate, week two

Week two of waste crate contents looks pretty similar to week one. I received more junk mail this week than last, so I need to make another round of phone calls to get myself removed from more mailing lists. I received a few ‘pre-approved’ credit card offers this week. The ‘opt out’ phone number leads me to an automated phone service that asks for my social security number, which I will not provide. This kind of mailing is harassment. I’m going to go to my post office to see if they can offer me any advise on how to be removed from ‘current resident’ mailing lists… I wonder if you can register your address with a ‘do not mail’ service?

The non-recyclables this week are from organic grocery store produce. Two plastic tags, twist ties, and stickers. Still trying to switch over completely to the farmers’ markets and co-ops.

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Waste crate

Pictured above is my trash and recycling bin after one week. I’ve been using this wood crate to hold all the recyclable paper, recyclable bottles & cans, and the landfill waste I produce each week. Before taking it out to the curb, I photographed it as a part of a new plan to document its contents. Today it held the paper mail that can’t be burned in the wood stove as starter, the cardboard box that the stainless steel container I purchased from Life Without Plastic was packaged in (I reused the larger shipping box), the plastic bag that was inside the cardboard box, a plastic produce tag that came off of some organic Kale (bought from the grocery store between farmers’ markets), a plastic magnetic strip removed from the paper tag on a pair of cashmere gloves given to me as birthday gift, and seven empty cat food cans. The cat food has been a real issue, and I will soon address the problems I’ve come up against trying to reduce pet care waste.

The plastic bag (not stretchy), the kale tag, and magnetic strip are not recyclable so they will go into the large city garbage collection can that we share with our landlady. The cat food cans and all the paper go into two separate recycling bins. The Rhode Island Resource Recovery Corporation recently announced the planned switch to single-stream recycling in 2012.

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Medication

Today I tackled a project that I’d been avoiding for many months–the disposal of old and expired pharmaceuticals. After cleaning out my cabinets at the onset of this project, I had stockpiled the bottles and blister packs full of unused and expired pills that had accumulated in my home over the past several years. Everything from unfinished antibiotics and steroids that were prescribed for the flu and sinus infections, to over-the-counter allergy medications used during some landscaping forays, to painkillers that were prescribed for one of my several broken digit incidents–had all been tucked away in my sock drawer until I could figure out what to do with them.

For medical and environmental reasons it is usually recommended to finish the course of a prescription, but I’ve never been good at taking a pill for a symptom that no longer exists. I’ve had serious anxiety about throwing the drugs away because I know that no matter what approach I take, this hazardous waste will end up in the ground and water. Though it was once common practice, many people know by now that it is not a good idea to flush medication down the toilet. And I’ve read that great caution needs to be exercised when throwing drugs out for trash collection as animals or even people could potentially ingest them after you put them out.

I sat down this morning and separated all the pills from their bottles and packs and put them into a used paper bag. By the time I was done, I had emptied hundreds of pills. The sight of them all mixed up was pretty shocking, as was that of the pile of bottles and packs. I noticed my cat was immediately drawn to the smells in the bag (more on how she fits into this project soon). I filled the bag with ashes from the wood stove and cayenne pepper to make the stash less desirable to scavengers, as recommended by several online sources. I placed the bag inside another thicker paper bag and deposited it in a lidded dumpster at my work that will be emptied in the next couple of days. It felt strange and terrible to throw a bag into the garbage after months of not doing so. I took bottles to Whole Foods where I separated the plastics according to their number and placed them in the appropriate bins.

Since starting this project, my thinking about medicine and healing has been shifting to a more natural approach, and my experience today will have a great and lasting impression on me.

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Giving

So far this holiday season, gift-giving hasn’t been the completely trash-free picture I envisioned several months ago. But this year my family and I managed to make less waste than we’ve made in years past.

The tradition of giving gifts on Christmas, birthdays, mother’s and father’s day runs deep in my family. When we were kids, my parents gave me and my siblings toys in big boxes that spilled out from under the Christmas tree. My mom refers to those years as our pink plastic Christmases, as my sister and I would often receive dolls and doll accessories packaged in pink cardboard boxes with cellophane windows. As we grew older the spectacular gift display under the tree diminished and my siblings and I assumed the duty of giving back to our parents and to each other. Now that we’ve become adults with our own many financial responsibilities, the pressure to give several things has dissipated. This year we all pooled our money to get each person one thing that they wanted. I was in charge of coordinating my mom’s gift–a pair of English leather boots that she can wear hiking in the woods near my parents’ house. I felt good giving this particular gift because I know that if she takes care of them, she’ll have the boots for the rest of her life.

For many years now I’ve been wrapping gifts in unbleached craft paper from rolls I’ve bought at art supply stores. This was in part an effort to save money on gift-wrapping, but also to use a material that was less taxing on the environment than glossy wrapping paper. I also prefer the look to most patterned papers. This year I had grand plans to wrap all my gifts in fabric with different furoshiki techniques. But I ran out of time and decided to use a large piece of craft paper that my friend Kara had used to wrap the beautiful gift (two ceramic hanging planters) she made for me this year. The piece was just large enough to wrap my mom’s boots in, but because it had been used to wrap the planters, it was creased in many places. So I decided to give the paper a more deliberate, even texture and I crinkled it all over. I used paper tape in a few select places instead of plastic scotch tape. I finished it with a white ribbon from my ribbon stash–a jar full of fabric ribbons I’ve collected and re-used over the years.

Stockings are also a part of our tradition, but this year I didn’t give any stuffers. Mindful of my No Trash Project, my mom didn’t fill my stocking with packaged goods. Instead she gave me the wool running socks I had asked for and an olivewood spoon for my kitchen.

I’ve been making hemp cloths for friends, which I will give without any wrapping when I see them. I have many loved ones with birthdays coming up in January. I plan to give homemade and home cooked gifts. Homemade granola in glass jars wrapped in furoshiki cloth is what I’m imagining. I also love the idea of giving an experience as a gift–particularly surprise experiences, which I’ve been doing lately, even though some of my squirmy kidnapped friends find the trip to an unknown destination torturous. The looks on their faces when we arrive at a special place or event is totally worth it.

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Plastic

I have been avoiding the topic of manufacturing and recycling plastic goods and packaging. There is a part of me that would rather focus on the wonderful things we can do to take ourselves out of the plastic consumption equation. But of course the problems with plastic are a driving force behind this project, so I think it’s important to address this complicated and messy issue.

There are those who will argue that processing plastic food packaging is better for the environment than processing metals or glass. As a lightweight material, less fuel is needed in the shipment of plastic goods than those made out of metal and glass. Because it can so easily be molded and manipulated, while still possessing great strength and durability characteristics, plastic holds extraordinary potential from a design and engineering perspective. But while there may be many conveniences in manufacturing and using plastic, the environmental and heath impacts of our reliance on plastics can’t be ignored. Though the technology exists to recycle most plastics, many recycling challenges remain. Plastic recycling requires a greater amount of processing than glass and metal recycling. Plastic products cannot be returned to their original state, so they are downcycled. Bottles are turned into plastic lumber, carpeting, synthetic clothing, and furniture stuffing. Eventually those products end up in a landfill where they may take decades or even centuries to biodegrade.

Growing evidence has revealed that petroleum based products can be harmful to our health. Chemicals such as bisphenol A (BPA), styrene, and Diethylhexyl Phthalate(DEHP) can leach out of plastic containers into our food and beverages, and as we consume these contaminated foods we are taking the chemicals into our bodies. The health risks posed by exposure to these leached chemicals are all over the anatomical map. Most are carcinogenic and have been shown to adversely affect the endocrine system. Some may impact the behavior of cardiac cells.

I think it’s important to know how the things we use are made. This project has led me to spend a lot of time looking at the objects I encounter with new curiosity about their life from the earth to the factory and eventually back to the earth. I recently stumbled into an online video vortex that inspired me to search for videos on the processing of plastic bottles. Made from Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) #1 plastics are pushed as a safer food grade plastic. But recent studies show that PET may leach phthalate–a plasticizer shown to be an endocrine disruptor. Above are two well-made videos–each under five minutes. The Discovery Channel produced the first video–it illustrates the process of manufacturing new plastic bottles. The second is made by a plastics recycling company to demonstrate the process of recycling used bottles. After watching both clips together, I am left bewildered by the amount of energy and resources required to bring consumers single-serving beverages.

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Running rubbish

This morning I went for a run in the woods. The sun was shining but the ground was still saturated from all the rain we got over the past two days, so the smell of decomposing leaves was heavy in the air. I prefer trail running to road running because it calls for more focus and coordination, and because there isn’t much traffic out on a wooded path. My run is usually my favorite part of a day. I always say that if I could bottle the post-run feeling and sip it all day long, I’d never have a care in the world. I like that it’s a form of exercise that requires little gear. I can throw on my running clothes and be out the door. But the most important piece of equipment that a runner has (the one that takes the most pounding) also makes the most trash.

Carbon rubber, polyurethane, ethylene vinyl acetate, nylon, polyester, and thermoplastic urethane are some of the materials used to make modern running shoes. Most spent pairs go straight to a landfill.When I got home today and kicked mine off, I noticed they’re really starting to fall apart. I’ve worn through the foam on the heel of the insoles and the treads on the soles have flattened out since I bought them almost three years ago. I do own another pair that I love–a ‘minimal’ running shoe I picked up this past spring when I became intrigued by the argument that barefoot running is beneficial for joints, but couldn’t imagine sacrificing the soles of me feet. My minimal shoes are not completely sealed on the outsoles, so water creeps in when the ground is wet. I don’t mind damp feet in warmer weather, but it can be unbearable in the cold.

So the time has come to do some more research. I’d like to find a shoe that is made from minimal material, but can stand up to winter in New England. I realize this is a tall order. I’ve started looking into it and while I haven’t yet found a pair that meets my criteria, I have found some information about the recent efforts of some athletic shoe companies to reduce waste in a toxic industry.

Puma and Brooks seem to be taking the lead. Both have redesigned their shoe packaging so that customers walk out with less trash around their new footwear. In 2008, Brooks released a shoe with a midsole that supposedly biodegrades 50 times faster than conventional midsoles. In November, Puma announced that they are working to develop the first completely compostable running shoes. And I came across these leather and canvas biodegradable, blooming sneakers.

I will keep looking for shoes that are right for me. When it is finally time to get rid of my old ones I think I’m going to bring them to the Reuse-A-Shoe drop-off location about 10 miles away from where I live. Meanwhile I daydream about taking up yoga–a truly barefoot form of exercise, but I don’t think I could ever completely kick my running habit.

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Metal Mountain

The other day, while I was headed out of town I drove by the Sims Metal Management site on Eddy Street. Lit by the setting sun, the towering pile of metal scraps was quite a sight to behold. Apparently Sims is the world’s largest scrap metals and electronics recycling company. They just moved into the nine-acre Providence waterfront property in October, replacing Promet Marine Services Corporation. The export terminal includes a 600 ft pier with rail services and two deep-water berths. I am curious about the process. It seems that some sorting and compressing is being done here in Providence, but I wonder if they are also melting and molding metals on-site. Where is the recycled metal sent once it has been processed? I’m looking into getting a tour…

Tomorrow is America Recycles Day. I heard that my local Whole Foods Markets are teaming up with Green Penguin for an electronics waste recycling drive. I contacted Green Penguin for more information and they directed me to a poster on their Facebook page, which lists all the accepted e-waste materials. I will be dropping off some non-functioning electronics that I have been storing while I looked for a way to properly dispose of them. The e-waste blight is a rapidly growing problem.

I’ve been thinking about the ways in which my electronic devices impact my health and the environment as I continue my effort to “go paperless.” I try to limit the use of my cell phone and I’m determined to take excellent care of my laptop so that it will serve me for many years to come. I’ve learned to keep all my chargers, cables, and headphones out of the reach of my cat, as she loves to chew on them. I no longer own a TV or any decks. I watch movies and shows on my computer. When I want to see something projected large, I go to work or to the cinema. Pairing down my electronic devices to the few that are essential to my current lifestyle has made caring for those few items more manageable. 

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