Friday, October 30, 2009

Wrap This Blog!

As I write this--my subject was always going to be packaging, honest--a very large plastic bag is floating around in the wind outside my window on Syracuse University's South Campus. It looks like one of those utterly superfluous bags that wraps a DVD player inside its cardboard box, surrounded by polystyrene peanuts, bubble wrap, or, if the planet is lucky, low-grade paper padding.

If the planet is unlucky, as it often is these days, then no-one will think to pick up this "piece of trash"--or no-one will be able to because a gust of wind just turned it into a balloon--and it will float for miles, possibly to end up in one of the massive ocean trash gyres, to be broken down by the sun and waves into its microscopic, poisonous, and practically indestructible constituent elements.

There were once hints of protest about modern culture's insistence--even reliance--on single-use, unrecyclable, redundant packaging for almost every object we buy. At my mother's local supermarket in Brighton, England, sustainability-minded shoppers objected to apples individually wrapped in cling-film and polystyrene, as if nature's wrappers (you can always peel the apple if you can't wash it) aren't good enough. But what I take to the curb after being a pretty thorough paper/plastic/metal recycler and enthusiastic composter is mostly packaging waste.

An answer might come if sustainability thinking and collaborative problem-solving entered disciplines other than engineering, architecture, environmental studies ... Calling all industrial designers! If society can't do without packaging, at least every package should be firstly re-usable and secondly recyclable.

What if, for instance, bright sparks at Rubbermaid and JVC could work together on a sturdy shipping package for a DVD player that then had second life as a tub container (you know, for all those spare video connectors everyone has) and then a third life as a recycling container for when the broken DVD goes back to JVC for dismantling? In other words, an upscaling of coffee-tin-as-odd-nail-container.

And that's a wrap.

--Martin Walls
Syracuse Center of Excellence

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Don't spit into the wind

As a little boy, I grew up listening to AM radio, flopping around in the back compartment of my parents' station wagon--no seat belt, no air bags, just a single low-fi speaker--singing along to the hits of the 70s. Jim Croce was one of my favorites, and my parents laugh to this day, as they tell stories about me crooning away, knowing the words to all the songs.

Croce’s anthem to revenge and vindication—“You don’t mess around with Jim”—told the story of a bully that got his comeuppance. The refrain goes (sing along if you know it):

“Now they say you don’t tug on Superman’s cape
You don’t spit into the wind,
You don’t pull the mask off an ‘ole Lone Ranger,
And (in the last refrain) you don’t mess around with Slim”

These were the rules; law to a child. They were simple, concrete, understandable (“Hey, Superman’s busy with global concerns—lay off his cape”; “Bully Jim, did Slim wrong”—note to self, be good, stay away from pool halls). To this day, I never spit, and definitely not into the wind.

As an adult, the rules seem less simple, and decidedly more relativistic, especially when we talk about sustainability. If I own an SUV, but drive it many fewer miles than you drive your hybrid, can I lay claim to “green”? Who’s more sustainable: the family with two children that mows with an old manual reel mower, or the D.I.N.K.s who are less stringent about recycling their junk mail (assuming having kids imposes some significant costs to the environment)? Cloth diapers (incurred water resource utilization) v. disposables (landfill utilization)? [For more on this latter conundrum see this interesting link on the idealism and reality diaper debate:]

Perhaps, these comparisons don’t really matter, but the workbook the Citizens Academy group relies on encourages us to begin to apply metrics to our respective choices: a personal, ecological scorecard. Yet, the complexity of all the categories of self-assessment seems more complicated than a multi-million dollar LEED certification process. Where to start?

One outgrowth of said searching, the distillation or “Golden Rule” for the group grew to be the concept that …"we all live downstream.” Choices we make impact everyone in this scenario, including ourselves…a giant, Mobius band, where operationally our downstream returns as our upstream. A karmic, bio-ecological boomerang.

Or, as “Jim” came to see, what goes around, comes around.
-Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego

Green Is Brown

I owe the title of this post to Mike Rowe, host of the Discovery Channel show "Dirty Jobs." In his travels around the country looking for "the honest men and women who make civilized life possible for the rest of us," Rowe often meets sustainability entrepreneurs working hard at both large and small scale operations. Rowe's point with "green is brown" is that often the jobs he attempts with these entrepreneurs is a million miles from green and clean high tech or earth crunchy environmentalism. Many of the jobs in the "new green economy" are dirty, smelly, and hard--more like the trench work that was the foundation of the industrial revolution. Green is brown.

The show that premiered on Oct. 20, 2009 had a perfect example. Rowe re-visited a remarkable San Francisco recycling operation that has provided him material on two other occasions, when he showed how this firm is at the cutting edge of composting and of complete household recycling. In the Oct. 20 episode he helped the firm deconstruct porcelain toilets from a disused factory. The bowls and urinals were sent to a crusher that eventually broke them into three-inch chunks. Recycled porcelain can be used to make new porcelain items or added to macadam for roads.

But beyond the "green is brown" stinkiness of the job and Rowe's inevitable toilet jokes was an almost-hidden moment that shows how the new economy is working. The massive, complex, wholly impressive, and absolutely necessary three-inch crushing machine can eat porcelain, stone, and metal. Rowe casually mentioned that one of the engineers he was working with designed and built it--and there you have it: green is brown is problem solving is innovative engineering is the new industrial revolution.

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Whatever Happened To ...

It's surprising how much sustainability has been lost in a couple of generations. Fewer people garden than they did in our parents' and grandparents' days. Clothes and shoes are thrown away rather than mended at tailors and cobblers. When I was growing up in Brighton, England, "rag and bone men" still collected metal scraps for smelting and old clothes for the paper industry. Sustainability—eating local food, making do and mending, recycling everything—wasn't a lifestyle choice, it was life.

One of the strangest "steps backward" I noticed on my last trip home has to do with milk delivery. In my neighborhood there used to be a local milk distribution center—The Dairy, as it used to be a real dairy—from whence every day at about 4 am little three-wheel electric milk trucks would trundle to delivery milk in foil-top bottles and collect washed-out old bottles for re-filling.

Local food, local distribution, re-usable bottles, electric vehicles—sounds like a dream for today's sustainable community movement. Except that my neighborhood, town, country turned away from this model. My mum now gets milk in plastic containers from a supermarket.

No doubt the economic model for this kind of distribution couldn't compete. But that's an economic model that can't or won't take into account the lifecycle cost of milk that is distributed in polluting trucks and drunk from unreusable plastic bottles, or the lifestyle cost of losing a center of community life—not to mention the butt of many British jokes—that is the milkman in his blue and white uniform and his sputtering electric truck.

--Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Be careful which seeds you water…

Over the last two sessions of the Saturday morning Citizens Academy we’ve had ardent discussions about the U.S. consumer culture and food purchasing. Readings described our current economic model, based upon consumer spending, and we lauded local alternatives—Grindstone Farms Organic delivery, Ithaca dollars, the expanding barter network—as well as issuing a lament that derided the confusing and probably confabulated explosion of “digestive disorders” among female yogurt consumers (aggressively marketed probiotics--didn’t yogurt always have probiotics?) that then leapfrogged to the scourge of ED among the mature male population (Who would have “thunk” our national eating epidemic might connect the dots from atherosclerosis to circulatory disorders to ED?!).

The rising tide of contamination in the water supply roiled the collective group stomach, and there seemed to be no sop to the corrupt confluence of hormones, pesticides and herbicides polluting the planet.

Always seeking (and seeing) convergence, I was struck by the recent Ken Burns documentary on the National Park System, and how good and judicious planning (sustainability?) has played a role over time in the formation of this majestic resource. Obviously, some remarkable maneuverings in our collective national history conspired to “water these seeds…”and for the most part, in this example--sustainably—we appear to have “got it right.” In that same film, Frederick Law Olmstead (father of American Landscape Architecture, designer of Central Park) advocated that “in a place as special as Yosemite, ‘the rights of posterity’ were more important than the desires of the present. He called for strict regulations to protect the landscape from anything that would harm it and stressed the importance of making Yosemite accessible to everyone….”

It all begs the important question: “What are the rights of posterity?”

Thinking of this, lately, it strikes me that an element of green-washing has colluded to co-opt our Native American intellectual heritage. Everywhere, we hear the “seventh generation” maxim, and at keynote after keynote some (typically) “majority population” emcee rolls out this tired salvo to perform like a precocious savant for the expectant crowd till the original force is nearly diluted beyond meaning.

Admittedly, it’s a great barometer. But if as some statistics estimate the top ten in demand jobs today didn’t even exist ten years ago, how do we begin to talk about seven generations from now? The Citizens Academy group, while noting the imperative, recoiled from the magnitude of pondering so many years out. The operative question then became collectively, and fundamentally, locally: “What will we each do in this next week…and what will we do today?”

Some members decided to purchase more organic produce, others to eat more mindfully. Others still, to do a better job deciding what they really need vis-à-vis what they really want. Some thought a more frequent trek to the Best Kept Secret for a clothing purchase might stem their collusion with “consumerism.” Others decided—no more bottled water, while a remaining few decided just to learn more about what really constitutes “organic.” All decided to water new seeds…while consciously thinking of the rights of future generations.
-Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego