Monthly Archives: June 2013

Diverse Environmental Discussions in Pittsburgh at AESS 2013

2013-Conf-banner2AESS held its annual meeting at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh last week. Having participated in the first AESS meeting (in Madison in 2009), I found it a truly interdisciplinary meeting of scholars interested in environmental education. This remains so four years later; the variety of topics discussed was matched by the variety of approaches to those topics.

Within the three Flows of Waste panels alone, we had discussions of sewage, e-waste, MSW, ambient lead and soil testing strategies, construction and demolition waste, theoretical approaches to flows of waste (featuring an excellent Google Earth presentation by Samantha MacBride), and more. My own contribution was a history of how solid waste and recycling have been managed in the Chicago metropolitan area since the beginning of the twentieth century.

Other panels and field trips saw similarly diverse discussions of such topics as food systems, fracking, climate change, ecoliteracy, and university-community approaches to environmental education. One of the conference keynote addresses was Joel Tarr’s discussion of the region’s environmental history, following from his edited volume Devastation and Renewal.

Just from the recent history since I moved away from Pittsburgh a decade ago (after completing my dissertation under Joel’s supervision), changes in the region’s environmental history are evident. The growth of fracking is an obvious one, as is the expansion of public access to the region’s waterways. One other notable development is the conspicuous growth of environmental education. Chatham University, one of the conference co-sponsors is developing its new Eden Hall campus for sustainability education as a

Carnegie Mellon University's Electric Garage on Forbes Avenue has replaced an old filling station.

Carnegie Mellon University’s Electric Garage on Forbes Avenue has replaced an old filling station.

net zero carbon emission campus scheduled to open this fall. Finally, walking to the bus to take me to the airport, I noticed the decrepit old gas station on Forbes Avenue in Oakland had been taken over by Carnegie Mellon and transformed into an electric vehicle charging station and ZipCar site.

Overall, AESS in Pittsburgh was an inspiring combination of theory and practice without limitations of disciplinary boundaries. Next year’s conference in New York City promises to continue the conversations.

Cutting Down on Waste: Shaving with Safety Razors Reduces Plastic Disposal

SchickRazorsA consistent theme in the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage is the proliferation of single-use plastic goods and packaging over the past half century. These goods are affordable if we only consider the price at the cash register and not the long-term effects they may have on ecosystems. As Skye Moody’s entry on Société BIC discusses, these effects are considerable.

The disposable razor, the disposable pen, and the disposable lighter are iconic symbols of waste. Société BIC pioneered the manufacture and sale of these cheap, mass-consumer products in the second half of the 20th century. In the early 21st century, billions of discarded plastic pens, butane lighters, and personal shavers appear in landfills, litter public land, and wash up onto the world’s beaches, their petroleum-based plastic content augmenting the worldwide accumulation of toxic waste. Société BIC has developed life-cycle assessments of its products, but the continued disposability of its product line encourages consumers to damage ecosystems across the globe with plastic waste.

Millions of consumers use these products. For years, I was one. Fearful of hacking my faceMerkurFutur with a safety razor, I used disposable blades housed in plastic bodies, and threw them out with the rest of my garbage.

This spring, buoyed by multiple endorsements on the Electrical Audio forum (a community having one of its amazing bbq events this weekend), I purchased a Merkur Futur safety razor, set of blades, shaving cream and a badger brush. The Merkur Futur is easy to set up, and adjusting the angle of the blade is straightforward. Worried about a bloodbath, I slowly touched the blade to my cheek. The blade felt more prominent than I was used to with disposables, and I was cautious as I lightly dragged it down. Gradually, I got used to the sensitivity, and have not cut myself with any more frequency than I had with disposables. Learning the technique of several shorter strokes combined with hot water, I now get closer shaves than I did before.

A steel can prepared for used safety razor storage.  You can also purchase a razor bank (right).

A steel can prepared for used safety razor storage. You can also purchase a razor bank (right).

I have much less waste now. Each side of the double-edged blades gets me a good week’s worth of daily shaves. Once every two weeks, I place the old blade in an old tomato paste can with a slot in the lid. By my estimate, I will fill the can sometime near the end of 2014. In the time between purchasing the Merkur Futur and filling that can, I would have used about 80 disposable razors.

The initial cost of the Futur (with brush, blades, and cream, about $100) was more than I usually spent at one time on disposables (about $15 for a dozen), but over a prolonged period of use, I will save money. The blades I now use cost about 50 cents apiece, less than half of what I had been spending on disposables. Within two years, the investment should pay off.

This fall, I’ll teach another section of SUST 405 Production, Consumption, and Waste. One of the assignments I give in that course is a personal waste inventory, a useful way to become aware of how systems of production and disposal shape the options individuals have in deciding what to use. Through past inventories, I have been aware of my disposal of razors, and I am glad that the availability of good safety razors allows me an alternative to plastic-encased razors. Furthermore, this alternative is superior. I get a better shave than I did before, and I produce less waste than I did before. Committing to use a safety razor is a better result for my face, for my wallet, and for the environment. It’s a more sustainable way to shave.

Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences Conference Meets in Pittsburgh

2013-Conf-banner2Today marks the start of the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS) conference at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. The theme this year is “linking rural & urban societies & ecologies.”

If you read this blog for discussions of waste and waste management, well, this AESS is the conference for you. Several of us are participating in Flows of Waste panels. The first, on organic waste, meets Thursday at 11am. The second, on e-waste and heavy metals, meets Friday at 9am. The third, on solid waste management, meets Friday at 11am. I’ll be discussing historical trends in the Chicago metropolitan area’s waste management at the third panel.

These are only three of the many panels at AESS; for a full list, click here.

New York City’s Opportunities for More Sustainable Waste Management

Mayor Bloomberg touting the expansion of recycling in 2004.  What will his successor do?  What should New Yorkers ask his successor to do?

Mayor Bloomberg touting the expansion of recycling in 2004. What will his successor do? What should New Yorkers ask his successor to do?

In the closing months of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration, New York City’s waste management practices have room for improvement.  A quarter century after the Mobro 4000’s voyages embarrassed New Yorkers, the city still ships its garbage to distant landfills.  The residential recycling rate hovers around 15%, well below that of San Francisco (though still well above Chicago’s rate), and most food waste goes into landfills.

The latter may be changing soon.  The New York Times reports the city will soon announce that it is hiring a composting plant to handle about 100,000 tons of food waste annually.   While that sounds like a lot, in a city with over 8 million residents, that works out to about one-tenth of the wasted food in town.  Still, carting food scraps to industrial composting facilities would represent a major diversion of waste away from landfills.  Increasing the volume at local composting facilities might also make it possible to process potentially compostable resins used in packaging materials and bioplastic cutlery (which do not break down unless temperatures are sufficiently hot, a problem in small-scale operations).  While any program would not become fully operational until into the next mayor’s term, the Times reports at least two of the Democratic candidates (Christine Quinn and Bill de Blasio) appear to support expanding composting. Should all go according to plan, the program will grow in the next three years.

Sanitation officials said 150,000 single-family homes would be on board voluntarily by next year, in addition to more than 100 high-rise buildings — more than 5 percent of the households in the city. More than 600 schools will take part as well.

The program should expand to the entire city by 2015 or 2016, the sanitation officials said.

Under the program, residents collect food waste — like stale bread, chicken bones and potato peels — in containers the size of picnic baskets in their homes. The contents are then deposited in larger brown bins on the curb for pickup by sanitation trucks.

Residents of apartment buildings dump pails of food scraps at central collection points, most likely in the same places they put recyclable material.

It remains to be seen whether New Yorkers will embrace the program, given that some may cringe at keeping a container of potentially malodorous waste in a typically cramped urban kitchen.

The city has historically had a relatively mediocre record in recycling, diverting only about 15 percent of its total residential waste away from landfills.

In the latest 12-month period recorded, the Sanitation Department issued 75,216 summonses to home and building owners for failing to recycle. Officials expected that more summonses will be issued in the current fiscal year, because the department has redeployed personnel to recycling enforcement.

Still, the residential food-waste program would represent the biggest expansion of recycling efforts since the city began separating paper, metal and glass in 1989.

“It’s revolutionary for New York,” said Eric A. Goldstein, a senior lawyer with the Natural Resources Defense Council, a prominent environmental group. “If successful, pretty soon there’ll be very little trash left for homeowners to put in their old garbage cans.”

The city spent $336 million last year disposing of residential trash, exporting most of it to landfills in Ohio, Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

Food waste and other organic materials account for almost a third of all residential trash, and the city could save about $100 million a year by diverting it from landfills, said Ron Gonen, who was hired last year as deputy sanitation commissioner for recycling and sustainability, a new job at the department.

Composting is one way to reduce the materials in the city’s waste stream. Another would be to eliminate or reduce the single-use shopping bags retailers give customers in New York City. Several other municipalities across the United States either charge a fee for plastic bags or outright ban them. Should New York City follow suit?

“Plastic shopping bags are an enormous problem for New York City,” said Ron Gonen, the deputy commissioner of sanitation for recycling and waste reduction, noting that the city pays $10 million annually to send 100,000 tons of plastic bags that are tossed in the general trash to landfills in South Carolina, Ohio and Pennsylvania. That, he points out, “is amazing to think of, because a plastic bag doesn’t weigh much at all.”

All across the country, plastic bags are the bane of recycling programs. When carelessly placed into recycling bins for general plastic — which they often are — the bags jam and damage expensive sorting machines, which cost huge amounts to repair.

“We have to get people to start carrying reusable bags,” Mr. Gonen said. “We’re going to do what we can to start moving the needle.”

“The question,” he continued, “is do we use a carrot or a stick to change behavior?”

New Yorkers interested in adopting a proven stick to change the behavior can discuss the idea of a plastic bag ban in Park Slope (Greenwood Baptist Church, 461 6th St. at the corner of 7th Ave., to be specific) at 7pm on Monday, June 24. Brad Lander from the city council will be one of the speakers discussing how a plastic bag ban could work to lessen the environmental and economic costs these bags incur. No word as of yet on which (if any) mayoral candidates would support a ban.

Food waste and single-use plastic bags are two vexing issues in municipal solid waste, ones that deserve the discussion they are getting in New York City.

Chicago Checkout Bag Ordinance Hearing June 18 at City Hall

PlasticBagsChicagoOne of the themes covered in several entries of the Encyclopedia of Consumption and Waste: The Social Science of Garbage is the vast proliferation of plastic wastes generated over the past half century, and the toll these wastes have had on ecosystems throughout the world.  Plastic bags, which jam sorting machinery at recycling facilities, choke aquatic life, and clog sewer systems, impose particular difficulties on modern societies and other species.

Ordinances to impose fees or outright ban single-use plastic shopping bags have proliferated across the United States over the past five years.  The City of Chicago has no such ordinance, yet the idea of one is being discussed amongst aldermen.  On June 18 at 10am, City Hall will host a hearing on a Chicago Checkout Bag Ordinance, and the public is invited to attend.  The group Bring Your Bag Chicago is coordinating attendance and circulating petitions, and you may learn more about their efforts on their Facebook page, or from this short video: 


Spaces Added in Fall 2013 Pratt Sustainability Courses

How do humans live in concert with the environment?  Discuss this question in these two Fall 2013 courses.

How do humans live in concert with the environment? Discuss this question in these two Fall 2013 courses.

An update on my two sustainability seminars at Pratt for Fall 2013.  When these courses were originally added to the schedule, they were, respectively, a special topics course and a provisional course.  Now that the Institute has approved them as permanent additions to the undergraduate catalog, we have raised the enrollment caps in each.  Each of these courses may count as a Social Science or Philosophy elective, SUST 201 is required for the new Sustainability Studies minor, SUST 405 is an elective for the minor, and there are no prerequisites for either course.

SUST 405-01 Production, Consumption, and Waste has three seats available as of this morning. 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:

SUST 405-01 Production, Consumption, and Waste
No product or building is adequately designed without considering the consequences of its deterioration and disposal. Evaluating the ways in which consumers. states, and manufacturers define and classify waste allows us to consider those consequences. In this course, students analyze ways in which waste is created, defined, and managed in industrial society, and they create recommendations for improving problems with the waste stream.

Fall 2013: Tuesdays, 2pm-4:50pm.  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!)

I am also leading a team of Pratt Institute faculty teaching the third offering of SUST 201-01 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.  We’ve raised the enrollment cap on SUST 201-01 to 25 so that students interested in the minor may enroll in this required course.

SUST 201-01 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.

Fall 2013: Mondays, 2pm-4:50pm.  3 credit hours.

Both of these courses may count as a Social Science or Philosophy elective, SUST 201 is required for the Sustainability Studies minor, SUST 405 is an elective for the minor, and there are no prerequisites for either of them. If you are a Pratt student and have any questions about these courses, please feel free to contact me at

Upcoming Conference Presentations

Two quick notes about upcoming conferences, and specifically my participation in waste history panels at these conferences. On Friday, June 21, I’ll participate in a panel on “Flows of Waste” at the Association for Environmental Studies and Sciences (AESS) conference. My topic for that talk is “Consumers’ Metropolis: Chicagoland’s Wastes in the Twentieth and Twenty-First Centuries.”

Just heard that a panel I’m on will be part of the 2013 Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) meeting this October. That presentation is called “Toward a History of Upcycling: Reconsidering High-End Aluminum Reuse Since World War II.”

More proposals are in the works, but those two are confirmed. Say hi if you attend either.