Monthly Archives: August 2007

Eco-Running: leaving the route better than you found it.

26-year old Samuel Huber started what he calls “eco-running” as a way to help the world while out doing his favorite thing, running. On his eco-runs, he carries a few small garbage bags and picks up litter all along the route. Recently, he has made the switch to biodegradable, compostable BioBags. Check out his web site and mention of BioBags and this blog, Fake Plastic Fish, at http://eco-runner.blogspot.com. I want to not only commend him for his efforts but join in the eco-running movement he’s trying to start.

So, this morning, BioBag in hand and latex gloved, I did a 30-minute eco-run towards Berkeley and back. My bag was full within the first 12 minutes, and I found I needed to stop picking up big things and concentrate on the items that, if washed down a storm drain, could end up inside the bellies of marine animals: bottle caps, small toys, a comb, a pacifier, plastic bags, even a rubber glove.

Stopping to pick up garbage slowed me down a bit (my average pace was 11:20/mile) and actually got me out of competition mode, the mode I tend to be in while recording my stats with the Nike+ iPod. You know, I’ll bet running would be a lot more fun if I gave up the Nike+. But I don’t know. The accountant in me wants all numbers all the time! (What, you couldn’t tell that from my weekly plastic tally?) Chi Running’s Danny Dreyer recommends leaving the watch at home. Maybe I’ll try it once a week on my eco-runs.

And yes, if you’re wondering, it was a little weird passing people as I ran carrying a garbage bag and wearing a latex glove. But at this point in life, I’m pretty much over caring about how I seem to other people. (Actually, I think I stopped caring by the end of high school, but that’s a story for another day and another blog.)

Speaking of latex gloves, does anyone know whether modern latex gloves are made from natural rubber or some kind of petroleum-based synthetic? According to this web site, they are made from rubber. But are all of them? (Here’s a cool video about how latex is made.)

So, what to do with all the trash I collected? My plan is to retrieve the hard plastic bottle caps and other pieces of plastic, wash them off, and add them to my collection. I have this idea that I’ll use them in some kind of weird art creature thing some day. Then, any recyclable items will go in their proper recycling bins, and I’ll tie up the bag around the rest and put it in the garbage can. I may be saving 100% of my own plastic waste, but I’m not about to start hording other people’s.

Compost Tumbler: a solution to the potting soil problem?

Good lord, what is that Death Star looking thing on your roof, Beth?

No Worries. It’s my new Urban compost tumbler and tea catcher, ready to devour food, garden, and some paper waste and deliver rich, fragrant compost… in 2-6 months, depending on how diligent I am in feeding it.

But it’s made of (gasp) plastic!

That’s right. 100% post-consumer recycled plastic. The only part that is not recycled is the tea catcher, and I’m having a few regrets about ordering that part. Seems like I maybe could have figured out another way to catch the compost leachate without buying a brand new piece of plastic. Well, live and learn.

So, how does it work?

Glad you asked! Simply add your “green” (fresh leaves, grass, food scraps, coffee grounds, tea bags, anything wet and pungent) and “brown” (dry leaves, grass, shredded paper & cardboard) waste, close the lid, spin the compost tumbler a few times to mix it all up, and leave it alone until you have more to add. That’s it. Over time, the materials will decompose into fresh dirt that no longer resembles (or smells) like the original ingredients. I know this because we had a different composter a few years ago, and after neglecting it all winter, we opened it up in the spring to find gorgeous, sweet-smelling soil.

So why aren’t you using that one?

Well, the thing is, we don’t actually have a yard, only a roof deck. The composter we had was meant to sit on the ground. Instead, I had it on a wooden palette on top of a black plastic sheet. Still, the deck underneath got pretty gross. I didn’t think it was the best idea, especially since as renters, we didn’t actually own the deck we were grossifying. So I traded the composter for a worm bin, but I never found time to purchase the worms to go in it and worried that if I did purchase the worms, they’d die from neglect. Composters, on the other hand, love neglect. Hence, my decision to re-Freecycle the worm bin and spring for the compost tumbler, which will never touch the deck.

Why did you buy that one?

Boy, I stayed up several nights in a row researching which compost tumbler to buy. I’ll list for you the ones I considered, the pros and cons, and the reason I chose the Urban Compost Tumbler.

1) Back Porch ComposTumbler:

  • Materials: Drum made from new polyethylene; frame made of polyester powder coated steel tubing.
  • Tumbling method: Drum spins on metal frame, turned by a metal crank.
  • Mobility: wheels attached to frame so tumbler can easily be moved.
  • Tea catcher: No.
  • Appearance: attractive green drum with black frame. Blends in with garden or deck.
  • Reported Problems: Several reviewers reported that the door doesn’t stay closed properly when the unit is fairly full, and therefore turning the tumbler becomes a problem. I also read one report of the metal crank breaking off, and a few reports of rusting of the metal frame.
  • Bottom Line: I didn’t want new plastic, especially with a door that might not shut, a crank that might break, and a frame that could rust. Also, I wanted a way to catch the leachate, which is good fertilizer for plants.

2) Other larger ComposTumblers:

  • Materials: Galvanized metal drum and tubular steel frame.
  • Tumbling method: Drum spins on metal frame, turned by a metal crank.
  • Mobility: None.
  • Tea catcher: No.
  • Appearance: attractive green drum with black frame. Blends in with garden or deck.
  • Reported Problems: Rust seemed to be the biggest problem with these all-metal units. Many people reported rust.
  • Bottom Line: Didn’t want to deal with possible rust problems. Preferred not to purchase all new materials. Also, I wanted a way to catch the leachate.

3) Envirocycle Composter/ Composteamaker:

  • Materials: This is interesting. The company’s web site does not specify what materials it is made of. Online merchants vary in their descriptions. OutdoorDecor.com says it is 50% recycled plastic. PlanetNatural.com says it is made from recycled plastic, but doesn’t say what percentage.
  • Tumbling method: Push the drum itself over the wheels in the base to roll it.
  • Mobility: Drum rolls off the base and onto the ground, where it can be rolled anywhere you want.
  • Tea catcher: Included in the base. Leachate drains through holes in the drum into the base where it is collected.
  • Appearance: Green plastic drum and base. Could blend in with garden or deck.
  • Reported Problems: I’ve read reports that if the compost gets too wet, it leaks through the vents in the drum so that rolling it becomes a messy, stinky process. Also, when the drum gets too heavy, it becomes difficult to roll.
  • Bottom Line: Afraid of stinky, messy drum that I wouldn’t want to touch. Also, this unit is only partially recycled, if that.

4) Tumbling Compost Mixer with steel frame or Compost Mixer with plastic base:

  • Materials: 100% recycled plastic with optional steel frame.
  • Tumbling method: Either turn it end over end on its steel frame or roll it on its plastic base with your feet.
  • Mobility: With the steel frame, it is stationary. With the plastic base, it can be rolled off the base onto the ground and rolled around the yard.
  • Tea catcher: No.
  • Appearance: Black Death Star look, one that only its mother could love.
  • Reported Problems: Haven’t read of any problems.
  • Bottom Line: A good one except that I really wanted a way to catch the leachate to feed my plants.

So how does my Urban Compost Tumblercompare to the four mentioned above?

  • Materials: 100% post-consumer recycled plastic drum and frame. Optional tea catcher, as far as I know, is not made from recycled plastic. It could be, but the company’s web site does not state that it is.
  • Tumbling method: Turn it end over end on its frame.
  • Mobility: Stationary.
  • Tea catcher: Optional.
  • Appearance: Black Death Star look. Not beautiful, but functional.
  • Reported Problems: Some reviews have said that getting the compost out is not as easy as shown in the photos. We’ll see if that’s true. Also, one review said that when the composter gets full, it can be mishapen and harder to get the lid on. However, the unit came with instructions for how to get the lid on in that case.
  • Bottom Line: I bought it because it’s 100% recycled, there’s a way to catch the leachate, and there are no metal parts that can rust. Since it will be on my deck, I don’t need it to be mobile. And I would rather have a narrow frame than a flat base sitting on the deck. It seems like the right choice for us, given the options available. (Note: there are a few others, but the features are pretty similar to the ones I listed above.)

Finally, let’s talk packaging. The Urban Compost Tumbler was delivered in 3 boxes: 2 great big ones containing the drum and base and a smaller one containing the tea catcher. Except for a cardboard ring to hold the drum in place, the big boxes had no additional packaging and were sealed up with paper tape! The smaller box was stuffed with newspaper, as opposed to styrofoam or plastic. There was some plastic inside besides the tea catcher itself: a plastic bag containing the smaller hardware parts and a small plastic clamshell containing one of the parts. Oddly, this box was sealed with plastic tape.

Bottom Line: Investing in this composter will allow us to recycle our organic waste in a way that is responsible and will provide nutrients for the plants in my garden. Mixing the compost with dirt from the side of the house, I’m hoping to provide potting soil for the garden that doesn’t come in a plastic bag. And catching the leachate, I’m hoping to provide my own fertilizer that I don’t have to buy from the store.

And finally, for those who don’t want to compost, Terracycle makes organic fertilizers and even potting soil that is packaged in recycled soda bottles and milk jugs.

 

Week 7 Results: 4.9 oz of plastic

Okay, I know this photo is not as creative or fun as the previous ones. It’s a gray, drizzly day and the photo fits the mood I’m in. So let’s just cut to the tally:

Items used this week but purchased before the plastic project began:

  • 8 Refresh Endura single-use eyedrop containers (#4 plastic).
  • 1 Ak-Mak crackers inside wrapper.Finished the box this week. I’m now sticking with Wasa Crispbreads because they are the only crackers I’ve found without any plastic packaging.
  • 1 plastic label from a bottle of Fantastik spray cleaner. Now that the bottle is empty, I’m going to reuse it and make my own spray cleaner. Thinking of using No Impact Man’s recipe. Does anyone have a better one?
  • 1 plastic film from a pint of Haagen Dasz ice cream. I can’t believe this was still in the freezer and I didn’t know about it. Now that I do, for sure the rest will be gone this week. How could it not be!?
  • 2 So Delicious mini frozen sandwich wrappers. I think there are 2 or 3 left in the box.
  • 1 sandwich steak (like Steak-Ums) wrapper. Yeah, this one is truly embarrassing. This stuff is like pressboard made out of meat. Reporting my plastic packaging is making me aware just how much junk I had been eating!
  • 1 plastic wrap from around the neck of a glass olive oil bottle. This will be a nice bottle to refill.

Recyclable items purchased before the plastic project began:

  • 1 250-ct bottle of Spectrum Essentials Fish Oil gel caps & lid (#2 plastic). Recyclable at Michael’s office in SF. I haven’t found any decent replacement for this one. This particular fish oil is made from wild caught small fish and is certified to be free of mercury, PCBs, and lead. We take it for medical reasons and have found flax oil to be less effective. So, in fact as you’ll see below, I purchased another plastic bottle-full this week.
  • 1 Santa Cruz organic applesauce cup (#7 plastic). These are now recyclable through the curbside program in Daly City where I work. This was the last one. But:
  • 1 Safeway Organics applesauce cup (#7 plastic). I discovered I had a package of these hiding in the refrigerator at work. 3 more left.

Now for the new plastic waste:

  • 1 Haig’s spicy hummus container (#5 Plastic). I’ll either reuse it or Michael will recycle at work. Today, I made my own hummus with part chickpeas and part okara from the homemade soy milk. It’s not quite as good as Haig’s (how do they come up with that creamy texture?) but it’s not bad.
  • 1 wrapper from a block of Trader Joe’s English coastal cheddar. No real solution for plastic-free cheese. I had a conversation with a worker in the Rainbow Grocery cheese department this week. She said that if I come to the store at just the right time while they are cutting some cheese (go ahead and laugh), they will put some in my reusable container. And, in fact, she was in the process of cutting up some very pungent gruyere and did sell it to me in my repurposed Haig’s hummus container. But buying cheese this way means I can’t choose what I want. I’ll take or leave whatever they happen to be cutting that day. And since Rainbow Grocery is in San Francisco, it’s not a store I can stop by most days.

    Other than that, there’s no way to get plastic-free cheese because retailers can’t cut into a wheel or block without dividing up the whole thing and wrapping the individual blocks in plastic to keep them fresh. At least at Rainbow Grocery, the staff understand what you’re talking about and don’t look at you like you’re from outer space when you ask questions about buying products without plastic. And they don’t offer to take the plastic off and throw it away for you!

  • 1 plastic wrapper from around the lid of a new Spectrum Essentials fish oil bottle. See above.
  • 1 bag covering the new soy milk maker.
  • 1 bag covering the new soy milk maker drip pan.
  • 1 plastic bag from soy beans that came with the new soy milk maker.
  • 1 plastic bag from parts for new compost tumbler tea collector. More on this in a future post.
  • 1 small clam shell package from plastic hose shut-off valve for new compost tumbler tea collector.

New plastic purchased this week:

And like I said last week, I’m not buying anything new (except of course food) for a long time!
 

Is your water cooler messing with your hormones?

Check your plastic water cooler bottle. If you see a 7 inside the chasing arrows recycling symbol, your cooler could be leaching chemicals that disrupt hormones and possibly cause cancer. (This is the kind of cooler we have where I work. I think I’m going to start drinking tap water.) Read the following article published 3 days ago:

Scientists issue warning about chemical in plastic
By Marla Cone, Times Staff Writer
6:49 PM PDT, August 2, 2007

In an unusual effort targeting a single chemical, several dozen scientists on Thursday issued a strongly worded consensus statement warning that an estrogen-like compound in plastic is likely to be causing an array of serious reproductive disorders in people.

The compound, bisphenol A or BPA, is one of the highest-volume chemicals in the world and has found its way into the bodies of most human beings.

Used to make hard plastic, BPA can seep from beverage containers and other materials. It is used in all polycarbonate plastic baby bottles, as well as other rigid plastic items, including large water cooler containers, sports bottles and microwave oven dishes, along with canned food liners and some dental sealants for children. Read the rest of the article here.

And as if on cue, the No Impact Man has an EXCELLENT article on his web site summarizing the 3 different hormone disrupters found in plastics (including BPA) and the products that contain them, with links to outside resources. Check it out.

Be careful on the Reusable Bags Bandwagon

With the recent surge in anti-plastic bag sentiments, a lot of folks are jumping on the reusable bags bandwagon. I think it’s great that people are starting to give a thought to the bags that they use to carry their purchases home. But not all bags are created equal, and I wish more people would think about the type of reusable bag they choose, rather than rashly purchasing the cutest thing they see in another expression of thoughtless consumption.

I’ve been thinking about the issue of reusable bags for some time, but I am moved to sit down and actually write this out tonight after reading a review of Reisenthel’s nylon shopping bags on SustainLane.com. The reviewer says that she was glad to find the compact, foldable Reisenthel bags, made by a German company, because she sometimes forgets to take her large Trader Joe’s tote bag with her and ends up with a collection of new plastic bags from the store. With the Reisenthel nylon bags in her purse, she is never caught without a container for her groceries and doesn’t have to take home new plastic bags.

Sound good? Let me put this a different way. This person said she has a collection of plastic bags. Get it? SHE ALREADY HAS A COLLECTION OF PLASTIC BAGS. Why does she need to spend money on virgin petroleum-based bags shipped from Germany to carry her groceries? She has plastic bags! Plastic bags are easy to fold up and keep in your purse or backpack. They’re just not as cute as hip nylon bags and they don’t scream “Environmentalist” when you carry your groceries down the street. So you want people to know you reuse your bags? Turn them inside out and write “Reusable Bag” on the outside. You could even make a tally of the number of times the bag has been used just to prove it.

Okay, so plastic grocery bags are not trendy or elegant, and they may even scream “Bag Lady” as you pull them out of your purse. If that’s your hang up, there are other options for reusable bags that don’t require virgin petroleum to produce. First, as one reader commented, many people have a closet full of bags (promotional tote bags, etc.) that need a home. Try and find a bag on Freecycle or Craigslist or in a thrift store. You can even buy a synthetic bag this way with a clear conscience, knowing that you are both saving this one from a landfill and not causing any new synthetic bags to be born.

But if you’re really jonesing for a brand new bag, the site Reusablebags.com carries quite a few of these options, including bags made from recycled plastic as well as renewable natural fibers like hemp and cotton. However, I recommend this site with some reservations.

In addition to bags made from recycled plastic and renewable materials, Reusablebags.com also carries quite a few bags made from new petroleum-based synthetics, including the Reisenthel nylon bags mentioned above. The goal of Reusablebags.com is to reduce the amount of disposable plastic entering the waste stream each day from single-use bags. And all of the bags that they sell will help meet this goal. But I don’t think the folks at Reusablebags.com are looking at the bigger picture. All of the bags that they sell have a life-span, whether that life-span is 1 day or a few years. Eventually, they will all wear out. And when that happens, what will happen to the materials of which they are made?

The fabric from cotton and hemp bags will certainly biodegrade. But it could take many human lifetimes for the synthetic bags to break down, if they ever do. There is currently no organism that can break them down. When I wrote to Reusablebags.com questioning their inclusion of certain products on their site, the response was, “When choosing products for our website, there is always a balance between the positives and negatives of a product in our choice to showcase them.” It’s my opinion that they allow too many of the negatives to slip past the judges. Still, as I said, the site is very useful for finding reusable shopping bags that are made from sustainable materials. You just have to read the descriptions carefully before deciding what to purchase.

Another option besides buying bags is to make your own. For those with the time, skills, and desire, Heather T. at Make-A-Bag-Along is collecting patterns and instructions for sewing, knitting, and crocheting your own reusable shopping bags. There’re even instructions for knitting one big new tote out of many used plastic grocery bags that will last much longer than each small one. And no virgin plastic is consumed in the process. Make-A-Bag-Along is a new site, and Heather needs ideas. If you are crafty, I encourage you to visit the site and share any ideas you might have for making your own bags.

Finally, whether we decide to carry our groceries in reused plastic bags, new bags from renewable sources, or homemade bags, the main point of this article is that we all need to stay awake and aware. It’s easy to be swayed by “green” marketing language that is really just a masked come-on for mindless consumption. It’s not so easy to see past the advertising to the reality that the best way to step lightly on the earth is to stick to the 3 R’s: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, in that order. Nowhere in that list is Buy More Crap.
 

SoyaPower to the People

My SoyaPower soy milk maker arrived today, and I made my first batch of homemade soy milk tonight. (The dried soy beans have to soak for 8-10 hours, so I put them in water this morning and made the soy milk when I came home.) This is a magical piece of kitchen equipment. You put in water and the soaked beans, press a button, and 15-20 minutes later, you have soy milk. And it tastes good. And the texture is smooth. After it cools, you can add sweetener or any other flavors you want. But actually, I tasted the unsweetened soy milk tonight, and I have to say it’s quite refreshing without anything else added.

Okay, so you want to know about the plastic and the packaging? That, after all, is what we’re here for, right? First the good news. Sanlinx, Inc ships the soy milk maker in its own box, so there is no extra packaging. Inside the box holding the machine in place are molded paper pulp forms rather than styrofoam.

Now, the plastic news. Plastic inside the box includes: a plastic bag covering the machine, plastic coating on the outside of the machine itself (more on that below), a plastic zip-lock bag containing a nylon scrubber and plastic brush for cleaning the machine, a starter supply of soy beans in a plastic bag, a plastic measuring cup, and a plastic drip pan inside a plastic bag. Some of the accessories are nice but unnecessary for me. I wish instead of automatically including these things, Sanlinx would list them as options. I don’t need a plastic measuring cup or scrubber or even the beans. I already bought beans in anticipation of the new machine.

And okay, I did have a choice between the machine with plastic coating on the outside and the one with bare stainless steel. The plastic coating keeps the machine cool to the touch, unlike the regular SoyaJoy machine whose bare stainless steel gets very hot. I chose safety and convenience over plastic-conservation this time. I’m rationalizing by weighing this amount of plastic against all the packaging I’ll be saving: at least 52 plastic-coated cardboard cartons and plastic caps per year!

Another nice thing about using the soy milk maker is that in addition to soy milk, you also get okara, which is the leftover soy bean fiber. The okara can be used in all kinds of recipes, from veggie burgers to breads or cakes. I’m actually wondering if I could use it to make a hummus-like spread for us, if I could only figure out how to make it taste like Haig’s, the best hummus in the world.