Monthly Archives: November 2012

Scrappers Documentary On Chicago Scrap Recycling Workers Now Available Online

Oscar, one of the men profiled in the documentary Scrappers.

Two years ago, I had the good fortune to see a screening of the documentary film Scrappers at the Gene Siskel Film Center in downtown Chicago. An independent production following two Chicago men and their families as they struggle to make ends meet collecting and selling scrap metal to local scrapyards, my first impression of the film was “The Hoop Dreams of recycling.”

Hoop Dreams, which follows two aspiring basketball players from Chicago, is one of the most acclaimed documentaries ever made.  Scrappers is less famous, but shares an approach with the earlier film.  Scrappers captures the daily routines of collecting scrap remarkably well, and also shows the challenges relating to affordable housing in Chicago and life as an undocumented immigrant. It also, as it was filmed in 2008 both before and after the economic collapse, shows how vulnerable these workers are to market forces.  (Its other achievement, through both the scrappers’ work and comments by Chicago residents who interact with them, is a pointed criticism of the ineffective public recycling system in Chicago.  The film was shot before the 2011 managed competition program started, but the frustrations voiced in this film remain relevant.)

It’s a wonderful film. I had the good fortune to invite the filmmakers (Brian Ashby, Ben Kolak, and Courtney Prokopas) to screen and discuss the film at one of my Roosevelt University seminars, and they also screened it at a benefit for the Chicago Recycling Coalition in the summer of 2011. Other opportunities to see the film depended upon either purchasing DVDs directly from the filmmakers or being in a town where they had scheduled a screening, as it did not have a distributor.

This week, the film is accessible to a wider audience. Scrappers has been released for digital rent or purchase on iTunes and Amazon Instant.  A handful of documentaries about waste-trade work around the world are worth seeking out (among them Waste Land and The Gleaners), but Scrappers is as good a depiction of how scrap markets in the United States work as I have seen in a film.  It deserves a larger audience, and I am glad that more people now have the opportunity to see it.

Evaluating Chicago’s Recycling Services on America Recycles Day

Today is America Recycles Day, a day when Americans across the country join together to encourage diverting materials from the waste stream through recycling efforts. Click the link above to find an event near you.

Today is an opportune time to evaluate the promises about recycling made by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel since he took office in May of 2011. When the new mayor took office, Chicago’s recycling program was the source of some embarrassment to outgoing Mayor Richard M. Daley. Despite spending millions of dollars of public money since the mid-1990s, the city’s blue bag program had failed to reduce contamination or educate the public on correct sorting of recyclables. During Mayor Daley’s final term, the blue bags were scrapped in favor of a blue bin program, but costs prevented the city from giving blue bins to more than a small fraction of single-family households. (And the bins did not affect residents of large multi-family dwellings, who were ostensibly guaranteed private recycling services by the Burke-Hansen ordinance, an ordinance that has never been enforced by the city.) By the time Mayor Daley left office, the city’s rate of recycling wastes (except for construction and demolition wastes) was mired in the single digits. During Mayor Daley’s final year in office, the Chicago Reader‘s Mick Dumke recounted the long, troubled history of municipal recycling services in the city under the headline “Why Can’t Chicago Recycle?”

When Mayor Emanuel took office, he promised that things would be different. During his campaign, he responded to a question about Chicago’s lack of recycling with the following answer:

“I will enforce the City’s solid waste recycling ordinance.

Improving and expanding curbside recycling is a top priority of mine. Picking up garbage in Chicago is too expensive and inefficient and must be reformed. Recycling has to be part of a comprehensive plan to overhaul the City’s garbage collection system, particularly in light of the massive deficits in the City’s budget. I am committed to making this a long-term project so that all Chicago residents have access to curbside recycling, but the time frame for implementing the expansion will have to be determined based upon the availability of revenue and in the context of the City’s budget crisis.”

Two months into his term, Mayor Emanuel unveiled the first step in attempting to provide all Chicago residents with access to curbside recycling, announcing an expansion of blue carts to 20,000 additional households by November of 2011, with further expansion to come. To offset costs, collection from the blue carts would come from dividing the city up into six collection areas, with the massive private vendor Waste Management (previously the city’s partner in the failed blue bag program) collecting from three areas, Midwest Metal Management (a division of Sims) collecting from two areas, and the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation collecting from one area.

The idea was that the three entities were participating in a “managed competition” program, and the goal of the program was to reduce the high costs of recycling. The competition would take place for six months (starting in November 2011), and the city would assess its results as it moved to expand recycling services.

In April of 2012, the city announced that the competition had reduced the costs of the recycling program. The city claimed that blue cart collection had cost the city $4.77 for every blue cart collected before the managed competition program, and those costs were lowered to $3.28 per bin in the area collected by the Department of Streets and Sanitation and to $2.70 a cart in the areas collected by the private vendors. Mayor Emanuel also promised to complete the rollout of blue bins to single-family dwellings by the end of 2014. (No specifics were given about how to improve recycling services in large buildings.)

The city did not disclose how it came up with these figures, nor did it disclose the percentages of material being diverted from the waste stream. Since the private vendors could keep any revenue generated by selling the recyclables on secondary commodity markets, the potential loss of revenue in those areas would be important for assessing the real costs of the program.

I sit on the board of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, an environmental advocacy group concerned about the lack of effective recycling in Chicago. In April of 2012, officials from the city met with the Chicago Recycling Coalition and promised to provide more detailed data to the CRC by the end of June so the public could assess the effectiveness of the program in both reducing costs and diverting materials from the waste stream.

Today, America Recycles Day, is November 15, 2012. The City of Chicago has yet to disclose how it arrived at its claims in April of 2012, nor has it released specifics on how it will expand blue bins across the city over the next 25 months. The public has no idea if the city’s recycling rate has risen out of the single digits. The public also does not know how or when recycling services in large buildings will be a civic expectation rather than a privilege. Updating Mick Dumke’s 2010 story on Chicago’s recycling failures would be an illuminating exercise. Have the changes Mayor Emanuel’s administration has made improved the city’s collection and sale of recyclable materials? Have education efforts improved Chicagoans’ ability to recycle? What will be the long-term details of the private-public partnerships on recycling services? What metrics is the City of Chicago using to assess the effectiveness of the managed competition? What is the current recycling rate (excluding construction and demolition wastes)? Is it still in the single digits, or has it improved?

Answers to those questions will tell us much about how effective Chicago’s recycling program is now, and how effective it is likely to be in the future. I hope those answers arrive before the next mayoral election in 2015.

Spring 2013 Registration Continues for Sustainability Courses at Pratt

How can we develop products, buildings, and systems to make modern society sustainable? What does it mean to be sustainable? Learn more in these three courses offered Spring 2013.

Here at the Pratt Institute, I am offering three sustainability seminars for Spring 2013.  Each of these courses may count as a Social Science or Philosophy elective, and there are no prerequisites for any of them.  One, SS 490-27 Production, Consumption, and Waste, is currently at capacity but waitlisted students will receive priority if space opens up.  The other two courses still have spaces remaining.

One of the most important environmental issues is the unsustainable use of fossil fuels.  It is worth assessing how we came to do so, and the range of options (including design and behavioral changes) we have to alter our present use of energy.  SS 490-03 Power, Pollution, and Profit examines the types of energy (fossil fuels, renewables, nuclear) used in modern society.  Here’s a quick summary:

SS 490-03 Power, Pollution, and Profit
Modern society relies on burning fossil fuel for energy, with serious economic, public health, and environmental consequences. Learn the history of how we came to rely on unsustainable energy sources and ways in which our future use of energy may be made mode sustainable.

Spring 2013: Mondays, 9:30am-12:20pm.  3 credit hours

The reading list is still coming together (and may evolve as New York determines what — if any — fracking will be done upstate), but expect historical, contemporary, and forecasting readings from sources ranging from historian Martin Melosi to Rocky Mountain Institute founder Amory Lovins.

The second new course I am offering assesses how we design goods, and what implications our designs have for the environment as they age.  If you have ever wondered how recycling works, or want to learn ways of minimizing waste in the design of everything from clothes to buildings, consider registering in SS 490-27 Production, Consumption, and Waste.  The seminar examines the ways production and consumption patterns from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the present day have shaped the waste stream, the ways we have defined and handled waste, the consequences of that waste, and ways in which we might reduce the impact of our waste.  This course has reached its capacity, but is maintaining a waitlist.  Here’s a quick summary:

SS 490-27 Production, Consumption, and Waste
What happens to the trash we toss in dumpsters?  How do we determine what waste is, and why do we make so much of it?  Learn about the environmental and social consequences of mass production and disposal (past and present), and ways to make the waste stream safer.

Spring 2013: Tuesdays, 9:30am-12:20pm.  3 credit hours.  

The range of topics will in many ways resemble the scope of the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage, as I kept in mind that reference work’s utility in the classroom when I was editing it.  (Students will not have to buy that book, let alone lug it around!)

In addition to those two new seminars, I am leading a team of Pratt Institute faculty teaching the second offering of SUST 201P The Sustainable Core.  This course is designed as our introduction to sustainability and is an excellent way to get familiar with the many ways sustainability is practiced at Pratt.

SUST 201P The Sustainable Core
This course provides an overview of sustainability by exploring definitions, controversies, trends, and case-studies in various systems and locales (urban/rural, local/national/global). Investigation of critical elements of sustainability, including environmental history and urban ecology, sustainable development and landscape transformations, recycling/waste management, ecosystem restoration, and environmental justice.

Spring 2013: Wednesdays, 9:30am-12:20pm.  3 credit hours.

Each of these courses may count as a Social Science or Philosophy elective, and there are no prerequisites for any of them. If you are a Pratt student and have any questions for me about these courses, please feel free to contact me at czimring@pratt.edu.

American People Vote to Maintain Regulation of Mercury Emissions

Mercury emissions from Chicago’s Fisk power plant have ceased thanks to EPA rules instituted in 2011.

By an electoral vote margin of 332 to 206, the American people voted to maintain the regulation of mercury emissions produced by power plants for an additional four years. The production of ambient mercury by burning fossil fuels poses neurotoxic threats to the people and animals living in proximity to power plants. Mercury poisoning impairs the nervous system, initially resulting in tremors in the limbs and loss of feeling, taste, vision, hearing, and speech. Because mercury accumulates in an affected individual’s tissues over time, poisoning becomes worse over time. Acute cases of poisoning lead to paralysis and death. Mercury exposure to fetuses and young children has particularly serious consequences to neurological development.

The regulation, a result of rules enacted by President Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency starting in December of 2011, has already led to the closing of several of the United States’ dirtiest, most antiquated power plants, including ones in the city of Chicago that were the subject of years of protest by affected residents.

The American people also voted to maintain legislative inaction on limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Returning a Republican majority to the House of Representatives, as well as sending back to the Senate enough Republicans and Democrats (many from carbon-rich states) who support increased greenhouse gas emissions, prevents the legislative creation of carbon cap-and-trade markets, carbon taxes, or other permanent responses to the problem of human-induced climate change and the volatile weather patterns scientists warn come with warming the atmosphere. This, despite the second “storm of the century” to hit the Atlantic seaboard in two years.

The decisions by the American electorate ensure the only action on climate change from the federal government in the next 26 months will come in the form of executive orders that may be reversed once President Obama leaves office in January of 2017. It is likely that the most significant federal actions against greenhouse gases in American history by that date will remain the raising of fuel-efficiency standards as part of the 2009 automobile industry bailout, and the residual effects on carbon by the shuttering of coal-fired power plants due to the mercury emission rules. Current federal policy on climate change is unlikely to reduce the consequences of continued global warming, leaving major policy innovations to municipalities, including New York City.

Three Sustainability Courses Available at Pratt for Spring 2013

How can we develop products, buildings, and systems to make modern society sustainable? What does it mean to be sustainable? Learn more in these three courses offered Spring 2013.

The Pratt Institute has resumed classes in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and students may register for Spring 2013 courses. Among the courses available are three sustainability seminars I will teach.  Each of these 3-credit courses may count as a Social Science or Philosophy elective, and there are no prerequisites for any of them.

One of the most important environmental issues is the unsustainable use of fossil fuels.  It is worth assessing how we came to do so, and the range of options (including design and behavioral changes) we have to alter our present use of energy.  SS 490-03 Power, Pollution, and Profit examines the types of energy (fossil fuels, renewables, nuclear) used in modern society.  Here’s a quick summary:

SS 490-03 Power, Pollution, and Profit
Modern society relies on burning fossil fuel for energy, with serious economic, public health, and environmental consequences. Learn the history of how we came to rely on unsustainable energy sources and ways in which our future use of energy may be made mode sustainable.

Spring 2013: Mondays, 9:30am-12:20pm.  3 credit hours

The reading list is still coming together (and may evolve as New York determines what — if any — fracking will be done upstate), but expect historical, contemporary, and forecasting readings from sources ranging from historian Martin Melosi to Rocky Mountain Institute founder Amory Lovins.

The second new course I am offering assesses how we design goods, and what implications our designs have for the environment as they age.  If you have ever wondered how recycling works, or want to learn ways of minimizing waste in the design of everything from clothes to buildings, consider registering in SS 490-27 Production, Consumption, and Waste.  The seminar examines the ways production and consumption patterns from the start of the Industrial Revolution to the present day have shaped the waste stream, the ways we have defined and handled waste, the consequences of that waste, and ways in which we might reduce the impact of our waste.  Here’s a quick summary:

SS 490-27 Production, Consumption, and Waste
What happens to the trash we toss in dumpsters?  How do we determine what waste is, and why do we make so much of it?  Learn about the environmental and social consequences of mass production and disposal (past and present), and ways to make the waste stream safer.

Spring 2013: Tuesdays, 9:30am-12:20pm.  3 credit hours.

The range of topics will in many ways resemble the scope of the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage, as I kept in mind that reference work’s utility in the classroom when I was editing it.  (Students will not have to buy that book, let alone lug it around!)

In addition to those two new seminars, I am leading a team of Pratt Institute faculty teaching the second offering of SUST 201P The Sustainable Core.  This course is designed as our introduction to sustainability and is an excellent way to get familiar with the many ways sustainability is practiced at Pratt.

SUST 201P The Sustainable Core
This course provides an overview of sustainability by exploring definitions, controversies, trends, and case-studies in various systems and locales (urban/rural, local/national/global). Investigation of critical elements of sustainability, including environmental history and urban ecology, sustainable development and landscape transformations, recycling/waste management, ecosystem restoration, and environmental justice.

Spring 2013: Wednesdays, 9:30am-12:20pm.  3 credit hours.

Each of these courses may count as a Social Science or Philosophy elective, and there are no prerequisites for any of them. If you are a Pratt student and have any questions for me about these courses, please feel free to contact me at czimring@pratt.edu.

Recycling Cans Come to Pratt Institute Tuesday

The Pratt Envirolutions student group has succeeded in getting several recycle-only cans distributed on the grounds of the Pratt Institute’s Brooklyn campus. On Tuesday at 4pm in front of the Engineering Building, President Thomas Schutte will oversee a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the unveiling of the new cans.

Recycling is an effective and economical way of diverting materials out of landfills and into production. The activity comprises an important part of next spring’s SS 490-27 course, Production, Consumption, and Waste.  Here’s a quick summary:

SS 490-27 Production, Consumption, and Waste
What happens to the trash we toss in dumpsters?  How do we determine what waste is, and why do we make so much of it?  Learn about the environmental and social consequences of mass production and disposal (past and present), and ways to make the waste stream safer.

Spring 2013: Tuesdays, 9:30am-12:20pm.  3 credit hours.
 

I will be at the ribbon-cutting ceremony if anyone has questions about the course.

New York City Hurricane Recovery Resources

In the interest of sorting out helpful information in aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, here are a few links:

WNYC’s Twitter feed and “Your Post-Sandy Questions, Answered” page are invaluable resources to find aid as well as identify volunteer opportunities.

The New York Times has a page combining news updates with a handy list of which services (electricity, transportation, emergency supplies) are currently available (or, in the case of several transportation options and utilities, not currently available). Also at the New York Times, the City Room blog has a list of volunteer and aid opportunities.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has a resource page to donate and find volunteer opportunities. (Link includes resources in various northeastern states as well as New York City.)

NY Tech Meetup and New Work City are working to help local businesses and organizations get their technology up and running. If you can help (or can identify someone who needs help), let them know.