The story of food waste: how, how much, what problems it causes, and what we can do about it.
Tom Sienstra, a blogger for the San Francisco Chronicle, posted some images today from a backpacking trip near Lake Tahoe. You might be familiar with images of trailside food wrappers and plastic bottles, but these images all show something more insidious, something people assume is biodegradable: toilet paper.
Sienstra says that they refrained from showing images of the poop they also found. If you’re backpacking, there are not toilets everywhere you need to “go.” But if you’re backpacking, you should realize you need to take a trowel with you and dig “cat holes” to bury what you leave behind.
Peeing in the woods is what we do when we camp, but if you brought toilet paper with you, then you can just as easily bring small ziploc bags to pack out that toilet paper. It’s not just unsightly, it’s a biohazard, and although it might degrade inside a sewer system, it degrades into ribbons of itself on mountainsides, particularly in a state like California where we have a rainy season for only a brief part of the year.
Seriously, this is disturbing because these hiking trails are otherwise pristine and trafficked only on weekends. If you think ahead enough to pack for a backpacking trip, then bring tools not just to “survive” but to pick up after yourself.
Part of the wilderness use ethos is “Leave No Trace.” That doesn’t just mean “don’t burn down the woods.”
Ecologist and writer Carl Safina spent some time in Alaska recently, visiting beaches, cataloguing garbage, and speaking to local residents about what they find on the beaches that are the most clotted with plastics.
Safina’s point is not just that there’s so much trash, and his central question is not what we do with it once we find it. Instead, he asks, why aren’t we putting more effort into figuring out where it comes from? How can we encourage sea captains to not discard plastic nets and buoys that have outlived their usefulness but will never biodegrade? Why don’t we track lost shipping containers that spill their guts into the Pacific Ocean on their way to the U.S. from China?
Safina describes the people he meets, scientists and clean-up volunteers, as “outraged, but not defeated.” This is a posture we should all adopt in our quest to reduce the amount of garbage we discard, not just into the ocean, but from our daily lives.
The city of Oslo, in Norway, produces about half its electricity from burning waste that would otherwise be diverted to landfills. Because its citizens are so diligent about sorting their trash into compostables, recyclables, and so forth, they actually produce relatively little burnable trash.
This means that Oslo has resorted to purchasing garbage from other countries and cities that would otherwise put this trash into landfill.
Controversy is brewing about the garbage-import method versus finding another that’s more sustainable. And all of this is taking place in a country, Norway, that’s a major oil exporter.
Not covered in the article is how much carbon is emitted by transporting and burning the trash.
It might be possible to make a biodegradable plastic made from genetically engineered algae. The plastic would be plant-based and thus accomplish a few goals: compostable waste toward a goal of waste zero; less mineral extraction; less pollution; and use of non-tree renewable resources for packaging.
Can plastic be made from algae?
Algae are an interesting natural resource because they proliferate quickly. They are not impinging on food production. And they need nothing but sunlight and a bit of waste water to grow on. Scientists working for theSPLASH research project, funded by the EU, are now addressing the challenge of making high-quality, affordable plastics from algae. They need to demonstrate that this new type of bioplastic —namely used to produce polyesters and polyolefins— can be of the same quality as traditional plastic. And they need to show whether it can be produced in an economically viable way.
“We need a new species of algae which not only produces the right kind of hydrocarbons and sugars, but also does it fast,” explains says Maria Barbosa, SPLASH’s scientific coordinator and a researcher at Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research unit, in the Netherlands. She believes that genetic engineering can provide the solution to this problem. “Believe it or not, that’s the easy part,” she adds. But then “we need a way to ‘milk’ the new algae, to take the desired components from the broth without killing it,” she points out. However, this is the challenge that remains to be addressed.
San Francisco has a goal of zero waste, and some folks who move here find the whole trash-sorting thing a bit wonky.
One recent San Francisco settler recounts her three-year evolution from a hardheaded “rebel” who refused to use the compost bin (and pretended to “forget”) to someone who will carry home a banana peel rather than drop it in the plain old trash.
You may have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — an-acres wide collection of tiny bits of plastic debris that are impossible to simply scoop out of the water due to their small size (caused by degradation by the sun).
One young man has a plan to clean up this man-made mess by funneling the water through a filter on a floating boom that then separates the plastic from biomass and stores it onboard for later collection and recycling.
A recording of Your Call Radio, a live call-in show on KALW in San Francisco, about the implications of plastic pollution and who should be responsible for its cleanup.
Used to be that cathode tubes were recyclable, to put into newer TVs and monitors. Now, with screens having gone flat, these lead-filled glass monstrosities are piling up, literally, in vast warehouses. Companies take tax credits or government payments to dispose of CRTs, and then do nothing with them, because perhaps there’s nothing to be done.