Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Six Tenets of Zero Waste

1.    Smart Design
2.    Producer Responsibility
3.    Community Investment
4.    End of Taxpayer Subsidies
5.    Local Markets and Jobs
6.    Transparency

Introduction: As consumers, when we purchase items, we vote with every dollar we spend. If cheap is all we look for on the price tag then we pay later with our tax dollars cleaning up water, land and air that did not need to be polluted from the start. We pay through poor health and medical bills.

Cheap today just means pay much more later in taxes, or health, or inaction due to lack of funds.

Paying it forward is in the long run the least expensive manner to shop by. No toxins, pesticides or fungicides in my food processing means no watershed clean-up, no elimination of beneficial insects or depleted soils later and no toxins in my body from eating. No lead in my child's toys means more to me than a dollar or two. A car returned to the manufacturer instead of the junk yard means fewer materials and chemicals in the cars manufacturing so it can be reused again to make more cars or another product.

To encourage manufacturers and government to implement clean green products that will not harm us, our children or the environment we need to consider the tenets of zero waste in each item we purchase until it becomes the norm in manufacturing.

The really crazy thing is this is already happening in Europe and has been for over a decade. Companies here in the US that operate in the European Union already practice these tenets because they have to by law. They don’t do it here because we are not telling them we want it. We just accept what they give us. Remember you vote with every dollar you spend.

What exactly is Zero Waste?
Specifically, Zero Waste has six basic tenets:

1.    Smart Design. Redesign involves smart planning to limit the resources consumed in producing a product, in its totality, before manufacturing begins. Analyzing waste throughout the process and eliminating it is fundamental. Instead of using virgin materials recovered materials are priority through reuse, repurposing and recycling. All products are designed to be environmentally benign if not beneficial, and packaging is returned to the cycle (not landfilled) or compostable.

2.    Producer Responsibility. Manufacturers are held responsible for the waste and environmental impact their product and packaging creates, rather than passing that responsibility on to the consumer. The end result is that manufacturers redesign products to reduce materials consumption and facilitate reuse, recovery and recycling.

3.    Community Investment. Rather than using the tax base to build new landfills and incinerators, communities invest in new facilities designed to take the place of a landfill or incinerator. Combined with social policies and market signals, the technological advances can easily support the diversion of almost all of society's discards and create a broader job market.

4.    Taxpayer Subsidies would end for wasteful, polluting industries. Manufacturers use virgin resources for raw material partly because tax subsidies and other social policies make this a cheaper and easier alternative than using recycled or recovered materials. This is the beginning of the pollution, energy consumption and environmental destruction chain. Additional public subsidies exist to keep "disposal" costs through landfills and incinerators artificially low by not assigning significant economic penalties to the harmful emissions produced by these facilities. Properly allotted taxes to recover these “externalized” expenses would have an immediate impact.

5.    Local markets and jobs. Creating a new local market from discards, creating jobs and new business opportunities. Wasting materials in a landfill or incinerator also wastes business opportunities that could be created if those resources were preserved. Per-ton, sorting and processing recyclables alone sustains ten times more jobs than landfilling or incineration. Each recycling step a community takes locally means more jobs, more business expenditures on supplies and services, and more money circulating in the local economy through spending and tax payments. Sending our recycling overseas, while cleaner and simpler, removes these opportunities and is environmentally unmonitored.

6.   Transparency. In order to be believable, accountable and to adjust to changes in technology and perception in real time we need a sixth tenet of zero waste and that is transparency. This can help identify true innovators and socially responsible acting industries from their green washing competition who are trying to look good, and possibly mean well, but taking the cheap way around their true actions. If an incinerator claims to not pollute and be better for the community we need to be able to measure the pollutants released and energy consumed in real time, not years later, we need soil samples before incineration and after, often. If a company claims to be a green innovator we need to see the totality of their commitment, not just one or two green buildings out of thousands around the world.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

What is all the fuss about?

If ever anyone wanted to truly understand the complex interrelationship between our consumerism and its true impact on the planet the is the first place they need to go. The Story of Stuff written by Annie Leonard is the most comprehensive, personable, straight talking, simple yet all encompassing video and book available today.

Annie demonstrates in clear, simple manner the facts and truths about how all of our actions are interconnected and the true scope of consumption. This woman is brilliant and I highly recommend everyone to visit her site and watch the videos. Her book is a comprehensive detailed expansion of the video written in a voice that speaks to you as a friend, neighbor and educator.

Biodegradable vs. Compostable plastic labeling

 Picture from Worldcentric

There is some confusion regarding the labeling of biodegradable vs. compostable, specifically in plastic products and containers. This confusion is misleading customers into believing that biodegradable is a positive and reliable measure where the purchase will have little impact on the planet compared to standard plastics that are landfilled or recycled. I’m going to focus on disposable tableware commonly used for take-out and home entertaining.

Definition of compostable plastic:
To be compostable three criteria must be met.
1.    The plastic needs to breakdown into viable soil enhancers and leaves no toxic residue. This means the product breaks down into carbon dioxide, water and biomass at the same rate as paper or cellulose.
2.    At final disintegration there is no visible materials that need to be screened out.
3.    The biodegredation does not produce any toxic material or residue and can support plant growth.

What is “plastic corn”
Compostable “plastic” is PLA, Polylactic acid.
Normally made from corn grown in the USA.
The leading corn plastic company that makes plastic containers and cups is NatureWorks , a joint venture of Cargill and Teijin.

Compostable plastic complies with ASTM standards ASTM-D6400 and European EN13432

Definition of biodegradable plastic:
Biodegradable plastic is plastic that will degrade from natural microorganism, such as bacteria, fungi ect. The difference from compostable plastic is that there is no requirement that there is no toxic residue and no time frame for how long the plastic degrades. Most of biodegradable plastics are meant to decompose in a landfill and not in a compost facility. ASTM D5988-96

Definition of degradable plastic:
Plastic that undergoes a significant change in chemical structure under specific environmental conditions resulting in a loss of some properties.
No requirement that the plastic has to degrade from the action of naturally occurring microorganism or any other criteria required for compostable plastics.

An example of this type of plastic can be found on: biodegradable plastic

The European union was dissatisfied with the confusion the label of biodegradability created for consumers and determined that biodegradable would not be an acceptable label. At present they endorse the labeling of compostable or landfill products only to minimize confusion and keep companies transparent.

In the European Union products  the standard of “Precautionary Principle” dominates labeling and code standards. This policy will be discussed in detail in another blog.

The European precautionary principle (PP) standard and labeling policies are under constant pressure and criticism by the plastics industry and we will keep monitoring their progress.

Personally, I like the PP. It’s clean, neat, simplified and puts the pressure on companies to prove their products and practices will do no harm to the environment, people and reduce the risk of future problems in the light of insufficient scientific data. This reduces the probability of problems such as lead in childrens toys, toxins in food and everything we here in North America need to litigate personally or as a class action suits to repair damages done to us and the taxes we pay for environmental clean-up.

In the meantime, as zero waste practitioners, the best way to prevent and eliminate these issues is to not use disposable products of any kind. Use ceramic plates, metal cutlery, glass cups and cloth napkins for our own events at home or away. Slow down and to eat on proper plates and cups in the restaurant or café we buy the food in instead of eating on the run or in the car is extremely effective to become the zero hero we strive to be.