Thursday, April 22, 2010

Trash Pickers Unite!

Happy Earth Day! This morning, staff at Syracuse Center of Excellence celebrated by cleaning up the trash around our perimeter, the Almond/Water/Washington/Forman streets block in downtown Syracuse.

Our neighborhood is, in terms of infrastructure, urban planning, and landscaping, pretty ugly. The sidewalks have been cracked by years of ice and snow removal, dandelions appear to have won their battle with grass on what verges are still green, and trash—a modern human response to an ugly environment—was everywhere.

We—Carissa Matthews, Aimee Clinkhammer, Stacy Bunce, and Elysa Smigielski, and myself—picked up around 15 pounds of trash from the curbs, our perimeter fence, our parking lot, and the "grass" verges. The items we picked up offer both an instant archeological record of our society and evidence that there are a few industries and companies who are responsible for the lion's share of the unrecyclable materials that become trash. Pressure should be put on them to change their ways, just as pressure was put on the tobacco industry when society decided it had had enough of smoking.
  • Cigarette butts were everywhere, actually, in various slow stages of decomposition, most abundant at intersections where smokers casually toss them out of cars. That the smoking industry has yet to offer a compostable filter is amazing. They've only had 85 years; the filter was invented (using sustainable materials, in fact) in 1925.
  • Fast food wrappers, and especially plastic straws and plastic cup lids, were common. The fast food industry must be persuaded—by a combination of legislation and demand—to offer these items in recyclable form: compostable plastic lids and paper straws, for instance.
  • Small (quarter size) pieces of styrofoam—mostly packaging material, on its way to breaking down and down and down until it enters the soil and water as undissolvable pieces too small to see. Styrofoam as a material of "throwaway items" such as cups and packaging ought to be banned.
  • Candy wrappers—the candy industry needs to assess the ecological costs of using plastic wrappers when alternatives exist. Again, a combination of top down (legislation) and bottom up (consumer demand) tactics should be used on Mars, Nestle, and the industry's other behemoths, who both create trash and contribute to the public health crisis of obesity.
We sent two bags to the recycling bins—paper/cardboard and bottles/metal—and sent the rest to the landfill. Here's hoping there's less work for us to do on Earth Day 2011.

—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Monday, April 19, 2010

Not all who wander are lost

As I become increasingly known in some circles as the “sustainability guy” I’ve had a number of people forward to me interesting articles. Recently, someone sent to me several lovely pieces on pollinators, and another on seeking quantifiable means to measure a manufacturer’s overall sustainability “index”. These are really germane concerns, and from the lowly honeybee to the global chemical manufacturer, span the complexity of the solutions we must generate.

I’ve been sticking with my effort to ride my bike to work, and barring rain, or other commitments (today I drove because at lunch I need to lug an ailing appliance to the repair shop=sustainability), have been very faithful to this practice. I feel better, and enjoy the breeze on my face in the mornings, and most of all it adds a peaceful time to my day. I arrive at work invigorated and less stressed.

Recently, however, (my ego smarting) my wife told me that my practice made me look like I’d“just had my third DWI, had lost my license and looked like an inebriate, derelict.” I mistakenly posted this to facebook (hoping for some spousal reckoning and validation), and remarkably (OK, not remarkably—I know the kinds of friends I have) many of my friends jumped on the bandwagon adding insult to injury with varied and scathing raspberries. Only one of such friends, commented encouragingly, and he remarked that in Albany how nearly 30% of his coworkers ride to work.

Joking aside, it made me reflect how important regional variations are in the success of sustainability practices. In other places there appears to be a more broad appreciation of the environment, with a more clearly galvanized core population of advocates. I have a hard time imagining how discourse around biking lanes would be received in the Oswego community (regional weather challenges aside), and how many takers there would really be. (But perhaps, “if we build it, they would come”…who knows?!).

Now, I don’t want to make more of my friends’ playful derision than is justified, but I think this minor example does speak to the nature of public education efforts around sustainability. If my wife (who really does “get it”) finds my riding a bike to work reminds her more of miscreants and violators of drunk driving laws than to create an mental image of a healthy and sustainabile lifestyle, than imagine how many challenges lie ahead as we try to transition to a more sustainable community. Can't wait to tell her about my plans for a composting toilet....

Monday, April 12, 2010

Catch the Litter Bug

Two recent letters to the Syracuse Post-Standard inspired me to write about littering, especially since my colleagues and I are planning to do something about the trash around the Syracuse Center of Excellence's perimeter fence on April 22, aka Earth Day.

The letters express dismay and disgust at the amount of litter around Syracuse. Of course, one culprit is spring—that is, as soon as the snow banks melt you get to see what's hidden beneath the carpet, so speak. Earth Day clean-ups are a chance for all of us to spring clean our neighborhoods and communities.

One letter attempts to empathize with the litterers, but "Who they are, or why they litter, I don't completely understand." I originally was going to ask the question in the blog, "Is picking up litter a sustainable practice?" A pretty basic hypothesis, I admit, but I wanted to ask essentially the same question as Mary Armstrong of Cazenovia: "Why do people litter?" So, for my benefit and Mary's, some possible answers ...
  • Litterers are unaware of the lifecycle of materials and how toxic some are—which is why we all need to educate ourselves about what materials go into products and how/if they breakdown if not properly disposed of. Plastic bags are a great example of a common throwaway item that has a very troubling lifecycle beyond its immediate use.
  • Litterers are unable to find proper places for trash or enough bins—Lack of trash cans is a perennial problem for many towns, especially a cash-strapped one such as Syracuse. And municipal recycling bins are even harder to find. However, tossing trash out of a car window is a pretty lazy option when one of those plastic bags could be used in a car to collect cigarette packets and burger wrappers.
  • Disrespect for environment or community—I think Syracuse's historically poor urban planning has lead to a certain amount of disrespect for the environment that leads to excessive littering. Beautification, green space, and smart growth, should have the effect of reducing littering as a form of civil disobedience!
  • Overwhelmed by trash (packaging)—Packaging is excessive these days and being overwhelmed by lots of fiddly bits of plastic—think of all the stuff that encases and protects something as common as an ibuprofen bottle—doesn't help matters. Reduced packaging means less litter. Packaging that can be be easily recycled or that naturally breaks down means less litter.
  • Other people will clean it up—At great expense to our community, which is the subject of the other Post-Standard litter letter, by Alicia Murray of East Syracuse. A public education campaign might help explain to folks that sales/property taxes are affected by littering when the somebody picking up the trash is a city worker.
—Martin Walls, Syracuse Center of Excellence

Friday, April 2, 2010

Cooking (without) gasoline

I made a spring resolution this week, and as I live in close proximity to work have decided that I will try to ride to work whenever it’s feasible. This week, I’ve pedaled my way to campus every day except for one day when I had to attend an activity in Fulton at the start of the work day. This process has meant I’m now rifling through biking websites searching for new tires, a bottom bracket wrench, fenders for the rainy days, flash flag, rear view mirror, and a bike rack. Additionally, I have plans a la “” to build my own panniers and a bike rack box so that I can start cycling to the grocery store and on other local trips.

The upshot was that today, as I was working on a plan to conduct a sustainability experiment at work, you would find me cycling to work with a five gallon contractors bucket, a automotive sun shade, thermometer, non-stick pans, eggs and milk in a coffee thermos, and a box of Jiffy brand corn muffin mix straddled against my handlebars. Today, I decided, was Solar Cooker day, and utilizing a model found on the internet ( I attempted to cook corn muffin mix at work, with only a few handy home items and some reliance on the sun.

I decided I would make something simple like corn muffin mix in a pan rather than try individual muffins. I mixed the corn muffin mix in our staff lunch room, put it in a pan, and placed it in the cooker. For the next 2.5 hours, I watched as the temp climbed at one point to a max of around 200 degrees at 2:30 pm, and then held steady around 175 the rest of the time. As you can see I would consider it a moderate success; the muffin mix started to bake, and next time with a slightly more reflective shade, I think the muffins will completely cook.

The purpose, for me, and for others for this experiment was to underscore how with simple technology those that live in less developed conditions could use the sun cooker to cook their food. This frees them from searching for fuel, and being exposed to the harmful smoke from the fires. In Haiti, and other places suffering from natural disasters people can cook, and have safe drinking water with little need for fuel to burn. Overall, we can have less reliance on cooking fuels like gas and electricity.

-Thad Mantaro, SUNY Oswego