Archive for the 'plastic' Category

Way to Go, Scientific Inquiry

A teenage kid discovered how to decompose plastic with bacteria, and presented it at a science fair last month!  Bacteria eat almost everything else, so he set out to look for the ones that find plastic tasty. Here I was stuck in my two-months-ago mindset that all the plastic we make and use now is going to be sitting around long after we’re gone, piled up in landfills as vast cockroach playgrounds.  But this guy can make it all go away, like actually go away, not just get broken into tiny pieces, and leave behind just some CO2 and water.  This is also cool, because the kid is from Canada (won their national science fair with this thing), so now we have something else to associate our northern neighbors with, besides *insert your favorite Canada stereotype here*.  Through Wired, an article with details of the experiment.  No word on when this is going to be scaled up, though he’s using some of his prize money to look into patenting it and developing it further.  In the last article, his teacher makes a good point that, even though this research literally clears up all our problems with plastic disposal, it’s not a carte blanche to keep using the stuff, willy-nilly.  After all, it’s not just the disposal that’s a problem, it’s the oil and hazardous chemicals used in the production of it, too.

Next up, a group from the University of Leeds has invented a way to wash a load of laundry with a) a cup of water or less, and b) some plastic bits.  I’m guessing the secret is in the bits, which are of course proprietary.  The new kind of washing machine is going to be able to replace both wet and dry cleaning, and only uses about 2% of the energy of a washing machine today.  And there’s really no need to dry anything after.  They’ve set up a company, Xeros, and the first machines will be on sale in Britain next year, and they’re not projected to cost much more than a normal washer.  We’ll see if they’re still projecting that next year, but with the savings from dry cleaning, energy and water bills, and not having to buy a dryer, it’d have to be pretty pricey to be “too expensive”.

It’s comforting to know that somewhere out there, people are using science on their brilliant ideas, and coming up with totally cool, useful things.  Hard to get really depressed about this whole environmental crisis when you know that.

Until you read stuff like this again, anyway.  Gah.

I Bought A Laptop

I’ve been waiting for six years to say that.  I’m still using the desktop and CRT monitor that I took to first year of college.  I’ve gotten used to the hum of the CRT, the whir of the fan, and carrying that sucker up flights of stairs in the 14 times I’ve moved since then.  But she’s starting to object to opening web pages, so it’s time for a new beginning. 

So computers are even worse than the fashion industry for engineered obsolesence.  At least we know that every twenty to forty years, what we wore last year will be fashionable again for a bit.  Not so with computers, or phones, or music players- stupid Moore’s Law, making stuff all faster and more powerful.  Now, I’m no luddite.  Catch a luddite blogging!  (Then call them a hypocrite.)  I just don’t demand very much from my technology.  I’m not a power user, I don’t play computer games. All I want is a speedy computer to check email, write some things, and keep my photos on.  Fortunately, the toasters they make nowadays can do all that, so I’m golden.

I think we’re pretty inured to the idea that a computer is just funl, or just work- a complicated tool- and forget their environmental impacts.  They draw tons of power (especially as much as they’re on now, even if they are getting more efficient) and are manufactured from plastic, chemicals, toxic stuff, and all sorts of hard-to-reuse-or-recycle items.  What did you do with the last machine you got rid of?  Did you throw it out, or recycle it?  Was there a program available from the manufacturer to take it back?  As early as 2002, Wired was writing about the need to prevent computers frrm sitting in landfills, here or in China, leaking mercury and lead.

Fortunately, manufacturers and regulators have gotten on that problem, and now with the whole “green” thing, there’s even a host of ratings systems that compare how companies design, manufacture, ship, and recycle their products.  I wrote about the EPEAT ratings a while ago, and Greenpeace scores manufacturers (Apple, HP, Dell, Lenovo) on cradle-to-the-grave machine management.  Verdant Computing rates products they offer on a few different sustainable criteria.  Greener Computing is an industry-oriented website with some interesting articles on ecologically sound IT, including on the burdens of recycling programs for manufacturersSoftchoice is also more for IT professionals, but it links EPEAT-certified hardware for sale.  There’s plenty of information out there if you want to find out how your computers are made, and what options you have when they’re obsolete.

Maybe that’s why it took me 8 months to research this purchase.

So chew on that, and I’m going to leave you with a cliffhanger tonight what I decided, and what I’m going to do with my old one.  Dun dun DUN!

Photo Albums: Coral Reefs

For all the pictures I post here, I have many more I’d like to share- so here we go. First up, the Hyperbolic Crochet Coral Reef display at the World Financial Center. I got to see it over the weekend. It was tucked beside a staircase, and I wish the WFC people had at least finished painting the drywall before they put it on display. Maybe a decent coat of blue paint to get us in the mood? But the crochet/coral forms were really cool, and that’s what I was there for. Some of them were made of yarn, and some of trash- plastic bags, magnetic tape, fancy pop-tab additions, jelly fish with bubble wrap tentacles, and so on.  Also, I get why they were behind glass to discourage this particular urge, but some of them looked so soft and nice to touch, or play with…

Next time: obsessive documentation of my sprouts growing.

crochet reef

PS:  Back story on the HCCF here.

It’s Official

Today was officially the beginning of Spring, in the astronomical sense- the day and night are exactly equal today, so the Earth is going to start getting more sunlight than darkness and cause things to grow, finally. Except, if you’ve been outside the past couple of weeks, things are already growing- the trees were all just plotting something for a couple of weeks, and then bloop! Buds everywhere!


Spring is a fantastic time of year. Well, except for the part of it where it looks lovely out, then you walk to work and it’s actually still cold and windy and starts to rain without warning; stupid spring, just admit you’re sneaky winter, hiding under a pretty face. And then it’s time for the cherry blossoms on the mall (officially, March 29th-April 13th) and the metros are all crowded for two weeks. Except for those parts, spring is awesome.

For all its tantalizing niceness, it’s not such a great thing that we’re getting the season earlier and earlier every year. Discovery News reports on how the accelerating spring is damaging to migratory species, and disruptive to the seasonal life cycles of others. And for humans, a shorter winter may mean lower heating bills this month, but it will increase allergic reactions to pollen sooner, too. Data from all the way back to the 1400s shows a significant jump in the earliness of spring starting in the 1980s- on average, the green is coming 8 hours faster each year.

On the upside, that should give us a hint to go see the cherry blossoms in the next few days- so we don’t miss the peak blooms, and we do miss the rush.

tree with bag

Ah, the green is coming back! It sure is too bad that our improperly disposed-of plastic bags got there first. Bah.

Six Month Summary

As of March 5th, this blog was six months old. As of September, I’ve started packing my own lunches, biking to work (when I wasn’t riding the bus), made a shopping bag and “audited” my plastic use, tried out some resolutions to make my holiday season sustainable, culled my belongings, and attempted composting a few times- all in an effort to live better, whatever that means. Biking and culling were the biggest successes. I haven’t started a good composting culture yet, and I have still have an odd relationship with plastics.

The biggest change I’ve made, though, wasn’t due to a monthly goal at all. By moving to Old Town (necessitating the culling and negating the biking to work), I’ve decreased my footprints of all kinds (except the kind that I actually walk with). It’s allowed me to sleep more, get more exercise, and use stairs at home instead of the elevator. After the flurry of move-driving, my car sat unused for almost a week: barring some specific errands and classes, it’ll stay right where it is. Since it’s been sitting, the price of gas has gone up 15 cents a gallon. The closest grocery stores- Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, Giant, MOM’s, and the farmer’s market- are all well stocked with organic and/or locally grown foods. Now I have to pay utilities separately, and I can have more direct control over how much energy I use- since I’ll know how much it is. And I have three house mates who are wonderful, and wonderfully tractable, and whom I’m secretly (not very secretly) hoping to inflame.

Inflame with sustainability, that is. Anyway. A while back, I took myself to task for not having defined what sustainability means. I’ve worked on that a bit, and I’ve come up with something round about but better than nothing.

One definition of sustainable living isn’t going to pertain to everyone- and it shouldn’t. Everyone’s got a different pet “green” issue- no plastic vs no cars vs global warming doesn’t exist because it’s cold out vs no nukes, etc. I’m not a zealous environmentalist. I don’t think this problem can be solved with one fix (no oil!). In order to live sustainably, I must first and foremost be an open environmentalist, willing to consider differing points of view, and informed enough to determine which makes sense. Next, I must live practically and thoughtfully, with a view to finances and the human, environmental, and moral costs of my actions. Under this all, though, I must be able to live- work and play and learn and all that stuff. So much of sustainability is seen as limiting- we can’t do this because of those whiny polar bears, we can’t eat that because of the toxic wastes. I think the emphasis should be on how much can we do, individually and as humanity, while still living within sensible boundaries- how much can I do with how little?

The unanswered question there is, how little is little enough? I’ll leave that hanging for now. I suspect it has something to do with “little enough so that everybody can use the same amount”, but given the different ways to measure that (carbon footprint? resource use?), and that merely by living in the US I’m using way more than my fair share, it’s intractable. The answer to climate change and sustainable living is not “move to a developing nation and start subsistence farming”.

I think large environmental issues will only be solved through meaningful government and industry action, and only after we make some big technological innovations. I’m not holding my breath for government or industry help, though, and I’ll do my small part to vote with magic machines and my money (for all it’s still worth) in the meanwhile.

That’s what I’ve got. Muddled, but let me know what you think. I appreciate discourse, after all- that’s first!

Odds and Ends: I never did hang up that biodegradable plastic bag from Harris Teeter outdoors (I forget where I promised this, but I did, and someone asked a while ago, and I still haven’t done it). When I find one, I’ll hold onto it until I get some duct tape, and fulfill my promise. Also, remember that debate I was having with the conservative blogger? It’s been so long since she called environmentalists Nazis and cited the Heartland Institute as a more authoritative body than the IPCC on the question of climate change that you’ve probably forgotten- I had, hurrah for archives. I pointed out certain factual and logical inaccuracies, she responded with silence, so I’ll take the Godwin’s Law victory and let it lie.

Thanks for your time, and your comments, and I’m excited for the next parts.  Keep coming back, but, oh ho, you’ll have to, since I cleverly told you all about the last six months without revealing March’s goal!  Mua hahaha.  Ha.  I’ll let you know once I think of it, or by Wednesday.

Handmade update: Knit scarf, three inches done, one completed stripe.

But Plastics are Kinda Sweet

There’s been a lot of ecotalk on the scourge of plastics, and that’s generally fine by me. I made my own shopping bag, I have ranted about excess plastic packaging, I’m hip. Yo.

But last week, while sick and moving, I spent an afternoon being very grateful for my drugs and my bubble wrap (I’m betting the drugs had a bit to do with all that deep contemplation). My pills were packaged in plastic, and bubble wrap is, of course, plastic, and these are wonderful things. Actually, lots of wonderful things are plastic. Plastics are durable and can be made so much stronger and lighter than most natural materials, and they’re fantastically easy to manufacture into almost anything. Plastics have made incredible engineering advances possible. Plus they’re cheap enough so that goods ordinary people could only dream of a few decades ago are readily available to the masses. These time-saving devices  allow people to raise their standards of living at no cost to resources like wood and ore. Without them, modern medicine wouldn’t exist (and they’d even have to package all those natural supplements in something else). Plastics are awesome.

So why do we hate them? They’re made of chemicals. They’re overused. Their lovely inexpensive qualities take care of that. Stuff we most noticeably don’t need is made of plastic- again, it’s the cheapest way to hand out toys with every faux-food meal, or flimsy bags with every purchase. And once they’re made, they’re here forever. Recycling them is difficult and tends to degrade their properties, and on their own they won’t break down for centuries. And when they’re not stuck in landfill properly, adorable things choke on them, or they blow around tackily. But most of that is because we use plastics poorly, not because plastics are bad.

Maybe part of it is that plastics are decidedly “unnatural”. There’s no “handmade” plastic anything- they reek of machines and mass production and technocracy. Homesteaders can swap butter recipes, but not plastic recipes. The Economist’s green.view column a few weeks ago was on how us hippie folk think that all things unnatural are bad. I thought the column was singularly poorly thought out for such a respectable publication (tone was derisive and bitter, examples chosen were blatantly skewed), but is that it? Is our visceral reaction to plastic the result of our yearnings for an ideal of naturalness?

I think it has more to do with the abuse of plastics by man, and not the plastics themselves. I’m an engineer, after all, and I like science and technology, and I appreciate that we can make it work for us, or we can abuse it. It’s just a lot easier to crusade against the definite “plastics” than against everybody’s thousand bad plastic habits- that makes ecopeople seem so judgemental and self-righteous, after all.

I’ve struggled with my plastic use in the past.  All those piles of guilt stuffed in rustling baggies. I’m still going to avoid foam plates and grocery bags (unless I need trash liners) and use aluminum foil instead of sandwich baggies- but I’ll rejoice in my plastic tupperware (or reused cream cheese tubs to prevent food and other waste!) and useful medicine containers and new, affordable latex mattress. Plastics can be part of a sustainable lifestyle, as long as we use them wisely and well.

Progress: Reduction and the Next Step

It would appear that moving is going to keep me from posting as often as I’d like for a few weeks, but there’s a progress report due.

Reducing is going slowly, but it’s still going. Last weekend I took my gigantic pile of random stuff to the Salvation Army, and since then I’ve gathered another pile of stuff. Progress, but not enough, plus I’ve still got caches in 3 or 4 corners. Fortunately, moving is going to force me to finish this all in the next few months. Besides the Salvation Army, anybody have any advice on places to donate things?

While I was cleaning out, I found my (plastic) bag of useless plastics from the Nov. goal. It was apparently stuffed in a box in a fit of guilt, and not discarded.  I finally tossed it- I didn’t get to the pillow stuffing idea, and I’ve made my peace with that.  “Reducing plastic intake” was another goal that didn’t go well- but I have made progress on it since I last reported, actually.  I’ve stopped getting plastic grocery bags almost entirely (maybe 2 in the last month?), I try to buy food and objects with no plastic or the smallest amount of plastic wrappings, and I’ve also given up the thinner plastic vegetable and fruit bags from the supermarket- I just put food in my basket loose now, and wash them at home.  They need a washing anyway.  Reassuring to find myself working on goals after the month is up, but still a long way to go on that one.

Next goal for the month will be composting. I’ve already fired up my unit, with the dirt and the brussels sprout leaves and baking soda and such. Ok, it’s not actually going to be composting, so much as figuring out how to compost successfully with the Naturemill Plus. Twice I’ve had to unplug my unit and leave it on the porch, because the smell is too much to handle. This is either because a) the unit is not as smell-isolated as it claims to be, or b) because I’m doing it wrong. I have a horrible feeling it’s the former (seriously, how could I be doing “put the food scraps in the top part” wrong?), but I need to dig out the instructions again and do some experimentation.

I would have included a picture of what the stuff looks like now for you as a special treat, but I checked and it looked pretty gross, so I’ll wait for a less gross, more successful dirt batch. The last porching of the composter was this morning, since I had invited my future housemates over for brunch and bonding and didn’t want to start our relationship with a noseful. I did show it to them, though, and waft a bit their way- none of them seemed overly concerned. Let’s see how they do when it’s in their kitchen…or, more likely, on their porch.

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