Tuesday, March 31, 2015

China Recycles Everything Everywhere

China sidewalk waste bins
I was in China last year for my son’s wedding. Got to see some incredible sights, and was quite impressed with how much China recycles and how. It is common to see people rummaging through trash bins to pull out plastic everywhere. You also have to do a double take when you see a motorcycle or scooter, with a twelve foot tall load of Styrofoam strapped on. Every trash can I saw, including in some of the private residences, had one bin for recyclables and one for “other waste”. Another cool feature of waste bins in bigger cities are fly traps hanging discreetly in nearby trees. Waste containers in China came in all shapes and sizes, and nearly all offered recycling options. I took pictures of a few along the way.
City Park
National Park

You see these in city parks, walking down streets, national parks, malls, pretty much everywhere. Not only do they have a recycle bin next to every trash bin, they label them in Mandarin and English and have pictures of what goes in each bin. Just like we recommend!
Styrofoam Recycler on a bike
China has serious pollution problems including air and water quality. It was great to see China making strides to recycle but air quality has a long ways to go. I saw so many cars and it seems everyone has a scooter, even though public transportation is everywhere. I think one of the big causes of pollution is all the small engines running motorcycles, scooters, construction equipment, and trucks al spewing out exhaust plumes. I expected to see more bicycles, but it seems motors have taken over.
I can’t talk about China without mentioning bath rooms. We did find Western style toilets in a few rare spots but most of China uses the Asian system. It is basically a nice porcelain hole in the floor, and by the way you do not throw your toilet paper into the toilet….ever ! You will find a trash can nearby for your toilet paper. Also you will rarely find paper towels to dry your hands even though wash sinks are very common. You just wash your hands and fling off most of the water. No wasted paper in China!
The Chinese people we met were very nice and happy to help even when we had no way of speaking with them. Lots of pantomiming and often times an older person would call out to a younger person to come over and help. Most of the younger people in China have the ability to speak English to some degree. All in all our trip was great. Personally I could never live around so many people all the time. The noise never stops. We finally found some solitude by walking miles down a farm lane far from the city.
We spent some time on bamboo rafts poling up and down a river. Beautiful scenery! My son told us to make sure we never drink tap water in China because the water systems are not like ours and most water sources are polluted. Bottled water is even more prevalent in China than it is in the US. At least in China most of those plastic bottles get recycled!

One thing I did not see in China was compostable packaging of any kind. Lots of plastic and Styrofoam, but no compostable containers anywhere. Crazy since most of the compostable plastics used in the USA are manufactured in China and shipped over here. Our supplier World Centric is working on manufacturing more compostable products like our utensils in the USA so we don’t have the carbon footprint of shipping from Asia to the US. Do your part. Make the switch if you have not done so already and leave petroleum based plastics in the past where they belong. Recycling is good, but compostables are better!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Compostable vs Biodegradable Products For Your Next Event

Compostable and Biodegradable lablels
Can't seem to choose between compostable and biodegradable products for an upcoming event? Whether it's an office party, company picnic, birthday party, backyard summer barbeque with the neighbors, or any other group event, you should remain conscious and aware of its impact on the environment. We only have one Earth, so it's important for us to keep it clean for future generations to enjoy.

Biodegradable Defined

It's a common assumption that compostable and biodegradable are interchangeable terms used to describe the same thing. Green marketing campaigns leverage these assumptions to promote the wrong choices.

According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission's (FTC) Green Guide, a product is biodegradable if it completely breaks down within a “reasonable amount of time.” Synthetic plastics are typically not considered biodegradable since they require years – sometimes decades – to break down. Companies know consumers want products that don’t harm the environment, so they leverage marketing skills to confuse what we think of as biodegradable. Plastics will eventually break up into tiny enough pieces so they can no longer be seen. Out of sight, out of mind… and some even small enough to be consumed by micro-organisms. But these “Biodegradable” plastics stick around for a very long time and may never actually benefit future plants. When they get thrown in the trash (they cannot be composted) and then buried in a landfill, they have done nothing to help the planet.  There are even reports of researchers discovering 30-year-old newspapers buried deep in a landfill. Some of these biodegradable products use toxic metals and materials to enable the plastic to “break” apart and these products leave residues as they break down. Plant materials on the other hand, are not only biodegradable, they are compostable as well. They start out as plants, and when they decompose they become nutrients for future plants. Synthetic plastics, even biodegradable ones just don’t do that.

My biggest complaint with biodegradable products is that they are usually made from petroleum based plastics and that plastic constitutes 98% or more of the raw materials used. Adding 1 or 2 percent of a “magic” material so they quickly break up into millions of tiny pieces of plastic is not what I think of as biodegradable. Plastics should only be used for recyclable products, not one time use disposable items.

Why Compostable Products Are a Better Choice

Compostable products decompose into a nutrient-rich solution known as humus. As the compostable product begins to decompose, it simultaneously releases rich soil-conditioning material (AKA mulch); thus, promoting a healthy environment for future plant growth.

The FTC requires all products labeled as compostable to break down into beneficial mulch in a reasonable amount of time in either a commercial composting facility or a home compost pile/bin. (Be careful to understand the difference. If it requires a commercial compost facility, it will not realistically break down in your home compost bin.) The main difference between biodegradable and compostable is that compostable, unlike its counterpart, offers beneficial nutrients and sustenance to the soil as it decomposes.

Opting to use compostable products in your next event will give you the peace of mind knowing that you aren't contributing to plastic accumulation on our planet. Use wheat straw plates, PLA (made from corn) or paper cups, plant fiber forks, spoons and knives. Setup trash stations so your guests can throw trash in one bin, compostables in another, and recyclables in a third. Use clear labeling so they know how to separate them. Tell them why so they understand how important it is to do this at home and where they work. Is it all just going to go in the trash anyway because you don’t have a compost facility? Compostable is still a better choice because these certified compostable products are plant based, not synthetic plastics. Nothing really breaks down in a landfill, it just gets mummified, so at least it did not start out as a synthetic plastic.

If you are one of the millions of environmentally conscious consumers who maintain their own compost bin, you can toss compostable products into it for additional fiber and nutrients. Many compostable products like paper and wheat straw will decompose in just a few months time along with all the food wastes, offering all-natural fertilizer to boost your plants' growth and development. Send anything with Bio-Plastics like clear corn cups and containers, utensils, and clear clamshells to a municipal compost facility. These products require higher temperatures and humidity than most home compost bins maintain. Now you can feel good about hosting an event that is friendly to the Earth.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Super Green Your Business

Zion Visitor Center

When you have millions of visitors from around the world come to a concentrated space, you need to think Super Green!

This was reinforced during a recent trip to one of my favorite National Parks, Zion in SW Utah. Zion is where you will find the largest sandstone cliffs in the world! I have traveled to most of the National and State parks in the West, and have been to Zion many times in the past. Why is it a favorite? It's beautiful, has great interpretive exhibits, awesome trails, and a shuttle system that minimizes the automobile smog and congestion found in so many of the national parks. Years ago I almost quit visiting the popular parks because the congestion, trash and smog from auto and tour bus exhausts were ruining the experience. Then I visited Zion after they converted to their propane shuttle system and kicked cars out of the park during the busy season. WOW !!! What a difference. Now I can park my rig at the Watchman campground, and walk to the Visitor Center where I hop on the super green propane powered shuttle system.
Zion Shuttle Bus

The free shuttles take you anywhere you need to go in a much more efficient and earth friendly manner than allowing automobiles into the canyon. It's also safer since tourists tend to be oggling the cliffs and not paying nearly enough attention to the roads. I love bicycling the park and shuttle drivers respect bicyclists far better than the tourists do. Zion is a real leader in being gentle to the planet. Their Shuttle Buses allow you to park your car and enjoy the park without the hassles of watching the road and finding parking spaces. Watch out in the winter though. Zion's shuttles are parked from October through February so this trip we had to actually drive once to reach the far end. Most days we just walked from the campground using the trails and a few miles along the road. Traffic this time of year is pretty minimal so no problem at all. I walk facing traffic so can easily step to the side as they drive by.
It was fun to see the wildlife enjoying some shelter around the parked shuttles. Here is a shot of a few of the dozen or so deer we walked next to along the Archaeology trail that goes beside the lot where the buses are parked. Those are the shuttle buses on the left. By standing still, a dozen deer soon moved along the trail and contently munched the spring grass as we strolled by. We also saw a gray fox wander through a parking lot.
Another nice feature at Zion is the way they handle trash. Old style metal trash bins are found most everywhere people congregate (exhibits, buildings, parking, rest rooms, trail-heads, etc.) so people have no reason to toss trash on the ground. Most of the trash bins in high traffic areas also have recycling bins. Although I would like to see more options than just plastic and metal, it's a start. If you take the effort to look around, you will find more options for recycling paper, cardboard, and glass. I found them at the campground trash dumpsters. Follow this link to find out more about Zion's recycling efforts. Did you know the Zion Lodge composts all of its food wastes, lawn clippings, and shredded paper! They use the Green Mountain Technologies Earth Tub system. Follow the link above to find out how much waste their two tub systems divert from land fills every day.
Zion Trash Containers
Are you doing all that you can to encourage your customers to reduce, reuse, recycle in your business? Have you started composting yet? For more info on greening your business try our Guides to Green My Business. I'm going to see if I can get Zion (and the other Parks) to switch to using Compostable Trash Bags and liners to reduce their plastics and carbon foot print. How about you? Let us know what ideas you have for going Super Green with your business.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Healthy Soils Hold Carbon The Right Way

4th Annual Western Slope Soil Health Conference
Had a great time attending the 2014 Soil Health Conference in Delta, CO last week. I'm a semi retired organic grass farmer/rancher so the topics were very close to my heart. Speakers covered Green Cover Crops and No Till farming, along with a great movie called "Symphony of the Soils". It's amazing what people are doing and how these speakers travel extensively to spread the word. The message is pretty simple....

Healthy Soils Hold More Carbon

Where is most of the Carbon stored on planet Earth? Here is the breakdown according to Wikipedia:

  • Atmosphere = 720 Gigatonnes
  • Biomass (like trees) = 575 Gigatonnes
  • Soils = 2700 Gigatonnes

Six inches of healthy topsoil will hold tons of Carbon  in the soil underneath.  Why so much more than the plants and air above ground? Because healthy soil has billions of living things in it, all using carbon every second of every day. 1 Teaspoon of healthy soil can hold as much as a billion bacteria. When we plow up our soils we release that carbon into the air at the expense of that underground life. Mother nature hates bare soil but loves diversity so why do so many farmers plow a field at the end of the season and leave bare soil so much of the year. Did you know most farmers will disturb the same soil 4-5 times per year. Why do we plant fields in monoculture crops like corn, wheat, and soybeans that require massive tilling of the soil each time?
My favorite speaker at the conference by far was Gail Fuller. He runs his own farm and still finds time to travel and spread his ideas while listening and learning along the way. Here's a link to one of his talks: http://waterandenergyprogress.org/case_studies.php?id=10. You can also catch a video here about his Farming in Natures Image. Gail is all about using cover crops and no till farming. He no longer plows up his fields. When he plants, he plants up to a dozen different varieties of plants using no till seed drills that plant the seeds in the residue left by his previous plantings. When that planting reaches maturity, he will harvest the "Cash Crop" out of the mix, and then brings in a mob of livestock to eat and trample the vegetation. All that manure and urine gets absorbed as nutrients into the ground so the soil organisms can convert it into nutrients used by earthworms, dung beetles, and future plants. He also will broadcast seed (throw it out on top of the ground) in front of the livestock and let them trample the seed into the ground. Mob grazing has been proven to trigger plants, seeds, and soils to respond like crazy. It goes back to the hundreds of thousands of years of conditioning that happened as the great bison herds roamed the plains. These huge herds would come in, graze and trample everything into the ground along with the manure and urine. The ground would then get a long rest period. This cycle was repeated over and over again in nature. The process created incredibly fertile soils and increased the layer of topsoil farmers found when they moved West. Farmers moved because they were rapidly depleting the soil behind them. Modern farming practices have been take, take, take and have removed that fertility instead of building on what we found. The USDA states that US farmers in 2007 lost on average 4-5 tons of topsoil per acre every year ! Roughly half to runoff, and half to wind blowing it away. We have got to stop doing this. As Gail said in the conference,

"If we don't stop farming this way, our grandchildren will be farming on rock!"

 The good news is that more and more farmers are listening. A new generation of farmers are starting to take over their parents farms and have seen what modern farming does and want a better way. Many of these "New Ideas" are actually pretty close to the way we farmed a few generations ago. When Keith Berns of Green Cover Seed was asked what varieties of cover crops worked best, he said "The old ones. We look for varieties that were in use 100 years ago." WOW ! Why.... Because seed producers have spent the last 100 years hybridizing plants to produce the greatest amount of seed, on the smallest possible plant. That meant more money for the grain seller, but at the cost of soil health to the rest of us. In the old days, a plant grew large and lush to produce seed. After harvesting the grain, the plant was grazed and all that residue went back to nourish the soil. Today it's all about the grain and no where near as much plant residue is returned to the soil.
In case this wasn't enough, our use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers have nearly sterilized the soil. Chemical fertilizers are like salting the earth. That is what you do when you want to poison the soil. Pesticides wipe out beneficial bugs right along with the unwanted ones. In nature, there are predator bugs to take out every bug we call a pest. When you nuke all bugs, nature is out of balance and we see pesticide resistant bugs (Super Bugs) increasing in numbers every year while our beneficial insects including bees are dying off.
I could go on all day about this so better find an ending here. What can you do???
It's simple really. Look to nature. Take a walk in your favorite natural setting. Look around and look at all the incredible diversity. Get down on the ground and take a look. Move some of the plant debris aside and look at all those bugs, and worms, and tiny little things living there. Smell the earth, look at the color of the water when it rains. This is what a healthy farm also looks like. Now go take a tour of a local farm and see how many places you can find nature. Look around their barns, walk out into their fields, look at the edges of their farm along the fence lines and the driveway. Is that farm blending in with nature, or are they fighting to change it into bare soils with a single crop growing in endless rows. We need to move away from massive mono crop farms and food systems that rely on transporting semi loads of products over a thousand miles. Support that local farmer that farms with nature instead of against it. The soil is everything to a true farmer, and it should be to us as well.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

New Year’s Resolution: No More Petroleum Plastic – Switch to Compostables

Make 2014 the year you get petrol plastic out of your business and switch to compostable products.

Petroleum based plastics are just bad for the environment. No nice way around it. Did you know that the majority of recycled plastic collected was sold and shipped to China? We’ve been exporting our scrap for 20 years. China used to gobble it up and scrap became our largest export to China. Well China decided they want to clean up this act and instituted Operation Green Fence. Most of this was implemented to reduce the amount of contaminated product. Why the change? Well in part it’s due to the switch to easy single stream recycling in the US where you can just mix everything you recycle into one bin? Guess what… that increases the amount of contamination because people tend to just toss anything plastic in the bin without checking to see if it is actually recyclable.

China’s change has hit recyclers hard.

If their shipment of recyclables gets to China and has too many contaminants (limit is 1.5%) in it, the shipment is refused. WOW ! Now they have paid to ship it from the US to China and no buyer. That means they have to find a new buyer and pay to have it shipped again. Usually that means it goes to some other Asian location where the tightly bound bundle gets torn apart, and sorted the way it should have been done in the first place to remove any contaminants.
The impact has been huge. US Recyclers are not set up to sort this stuff and cannot afford the risk of it being rejected, so the recycled waste is piling up. Many areas ran out of room so have to send it to the landfill. The good news is that this change is forcing a lot of recyclers including municipalities to put in the sorting systems needed to keep recycling clean! It will take time, and add to the cost of recycling.

Make your New Year’s Resolution to get plastic out of your business and switch to plant based compostables. Don’t put off the decision any longer. Make the change over the course of the year if needed. Take small steps that become bigger strides. You know it’s the right thing to do, now more than ever.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Is Plastic Food Packaging Preventing our Local Businesses from Composting?

We recently had an interesting exchange with another member of a sustainability group. Kathy W. said: "Any hope for composting movie theater trash? I have a client that generates a lot of trash at their multiple locations. We've got them recycling the cardboard and larger plastics, but the bulk of their waste is from the snack bar. There is nothing clean about any of it: nacho cheese sauce on boxes, popcorn, cups with soda, etc. Is there any hope to help them compost or otherwise recycle this mess? They do not, under their current staffing levels, have the time or manpower - or even storage space - for sorting. I welcome any suggestions!"

Now you'd think that it should be fairly simple for a movie theater to divert most of its waste either to a recycling or composting bin. After all, what are the major waste categories at a theater:
  1. Tickets = Paper (Recyclable or Compostable)
  2. Paper Towels in the Bathrooms = Paper (Compostable)
  3. Food and Drink = Organic (Compostable)
  4. Food and Drink Packaging from the Snack Bar = Plastic (! Not Compostable !)
There it is again... pesky plastic food packaging getting in the way of businesses who want to move toward zero waste. As Kathy notes later "Many theaters have tried cafes with baked goods, healthy foods, etc, but the public still wants their jumbo popcorn, drink and jumbo candies when they go to the movies. And that is where the theaters make their money, not on the price of the ticket." So the food packaging is here to stay (at least for now). The question is, can we divert it to a recycling or composting bin? So with that, here are:

3 Quick Recommendations for Diverting Your Waste and Reducing Your Business' Plastic Food Packaging

  1. Create Killer Signage on Your Composting & Recycling Bins - Ever since San Francisco started requiring businesses to offer composting to their customers I've seen great examples of recycling and composting signage. The best signage in my opinion involves:
    • Color coded bins (blue = recycle, green = compost),
    • A large sign on the bin that says either "Recycle" or "Compost", and
    • (this is the most important point) Pasted onto these signs are the actual objects that are supposed to go in either the recycling or composting bin. This is an amazing visual cue for customers and it's very effective at getting the waste into the right bins.
  2. Switch to compostable food packaging - If you're municipality will not recycle your plastic soda cups, lids, styrofoam containers, etc, then move to compostables. Most of these items come with some form of labeling (typically a green-stripe) and while it may take some effort to get your customers to place them in the correct bin, good signage will go a long way.
  3. Remove your trash can or make it dramatically smaller. Let's take the example of a movie theatre. They should be able to use compostable containers made from PLA-lined paper or bagasse for all their popcorn, hot dogs, nachos, etc. Soda cups, straws, and lids could all be made out of compostable PLA. The trouble is, you still have all those plastic snack wrappers and you're not going to get the snack companies to move away from those over night. So what do you do? How about reducing the size of your trash can by 3X and leaving just a very small hole only large enough for a crumpled up snack wrapper. This will make customers think twice the next time they throw something away and should prevent the vast majority of your larger compostable and recylable containers from being put in the wrong bin.
Plastic Food Packaging may be unnecessary, tough to get rid of, and bad for our environment, but it doesn't have to prevent us from diverting 80-90%+ of our waste to recycling or composting bins. PS - I mentioned to Kathy that some snack manufacturers, like SunChips, have already moved to compostable bags, and that maybe they should be working with SunChips more. What did she say: "I mentioned the Sun Chips bag and my client laughed -- 'Do you know how loud that new packaging is?', he said. Not a good fit for a movie theatre." Ha. Guess she has a point there.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Compostable Coffee Pods - Taking Out The Trash

The number of coffee pods or capsules thrown into landfills each day is staggering! Biome Bioplastics, a leading developer of natural plastics made from plants is trying to change that. Check out the video to see a compostable coffee pod.

In the US alone, 9.1 billion single serve coffee and drink containers end up in the landfill each year.
Biome Bioplastics CEO Paul Mines sums it up with this quote:
"Single–serve coffee pods are an excellent example of the fundamental role that packaging plays in delivering quality and convenience in the food service sector. The challenge is to reduce environmental impact through packaging optimisation without impacting on food quality or safety, or inconveniencing the customer. Bioplastics are an important part of the solution."
Ultimately we should not go down this road of single servings anymore than we should use disposable packaging for our business, but the reality is coffee pods are here and growing like crazy. Rather than generating mountains of new plastic that will be here for thousands of years and use barrels of oil, maybe for now we can switch to a compostable solution. At Viv, we don't sell coffee pods so we bring you this info in the hopes that if you do use them or sell them, do the right thing and insist on compostable pods from your suppliers.