Tag Archives: plastics

Saving What Matters: Taking Sustainability Personally

I was asked to deliver a talk to the School of Arts, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University last week.  As I was preparing, I recorded a rehearsal version of the talk and posted that on YouTube:

This version cut off the bottoms of the slides, which included some important source links and some other information.  That information is visible in this PDF: MM talk to ADM Sept 2015 v4


Dr. Merrill will discuss her research on rainforest apes, how these experiences moulded her views on sustainability, and how everyone’s choices shape the future. She will share her adventures watching bonobos (Pan paniscus) in central Congo, and orangutans (Pongo abelii) in northern Sumatra. She will talk about some of the threats to these endangered primates, and how they connect to the decisions people in Singapore and all over the world make about what to buy and do. She will show why these actions and choices have repercussions that are relevant to the well-being of current and future generations of people everywhere. She will provide examples of how we can make better choices, and explain how these choices can have greater effects because of the way humans have evolved to learn.

Good riddance to disposable plastic bags in CA

The Cabrillo Sustainability Council worked to eliminate plastic bags in 2011. Now a California statewide ban looks likely, having passed in the state legislature, though we’re still waiting for Gov. Jerry Brown to sign it into law.

Learn more at Grist/CityLab:

Last month, California became the first state to pass a bill banning the ubiquitous disposable plastic bag. If signed into law, the measure will prohibit grocery and retail stores from providing single-use plastic bags and require them to charge at least 10 cents for paper bags, compostable bags, and reusable plastic bags. The bill, introduced by Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Los Angeles), will also provide funding for California-based plastic bag companies to develop sturdier, reusable options.

Worldwide, consumers use an estimated 1 trillion plastic bags each year—nearly 2 million a minute—with the use time of a typical bag just 12 minutes. Californians alone throw away 14 billion a year, creating 123,000 tons of waste and untold amounts of litter… [more at Grist]

Also at HuffPo.

Quick update: Jerry signed!  It goes into effect in July, unless lawsuits get in the way.



Biomimicry responses to climate change challenges

It’s always great to see Janine Benyus spiral forth some of the ways that nature can collaborate with us and suggest solutions to our most vexing problems.

Learn more about Biomimicry here.

Capitola Bags the Bag

It’s time to Bag the (Plastic) Bag! Way to go, City of Capitola.

Marine Debris from 2011 Japan Tsunami

Shortly after the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, I mentioned the concern about what would happen as all that stuff moved out into the Pacific.  See video below for a summary of NOAA’s recent work on this issue:

Shopping our way out of it?

So, there’s a kind of thinking about sustainability that is very pro-business, that says “if we just bought better stuff, the world would be a better place.”  And, to an extent, they’re not wrong.  Certainly, in Bill McDonough‘s parlance, it would be “less bad,” but not necessarily “more good.”

A few weeks ago, I was faced with something I always dread – having to purchase a piece of junk… no, an undeniably useful, time- and energy-saving household appliance (a microwave oven).

So first of all, I’m feeling ooky because I’m potentially sending the old one to a less-than-ideal recycling (at least it’s not a landfill), because it would cost as much to have someone look at it and tell me what’s wrong as it costs to replace the dang thing, let alone take the time and get the parts to actually fix it.  I was at a point where someone was offering to purchase a new one for me (thanks Mom & Dad!), so I succumbed to the money-culture logic of the least-cost option.

There were plenty of microwaves in the same $120-ish price range around.  So I wanted to find out which would be the least evil option – seeking out the less bad.  How to choose?

The now-dead one was a hand-me-down, produced by the acutely evil GE. Why would I say GE is acutely evil?  After all, it had been a perfectly serviceable microwave for at least 7 or 8 years (until a short in the front panel meant that it had started to turn itself on in a way that was suggestive of demonic possession).  But I knew that GE, in addition to producing perfectly serviceable appliances and even some CFLs, produces sketchy nuclear power plants.  I have some real concerns about that, and about their former practice of nuclear weapons production, too.  So I knew I didn’t want to participate in their financial success in any way, shape or form.  But what about other brands?  Who was least bad?

I went to one of my favorite resources when it comes to figuring stuff like this out: the Ask Umbra column on Grist.  (She was the one who told me that using the dishwasher is more eco-friendly than handwashing – yay, laziness! Umbra, will you marry me?  Oh, wait, already have a spouse… never mind then, goes against minimalist principles I suppose.)  But aside from noting that they are very energy efficient for certain kitchen tasks, and reminding me to never nuke plastics (carcinogenic squick in your leftovers, anyone?), Umbra couldn’t help me decide which microwave was least offensive on short notice. 😦

Then I remembered, there are some websites that are meant to help.  Daniel Goleman has a book called Ecological Intelligence:How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We Buy Can Change Everything (which I loaned out to someone before I read all of it…).  Part of it talks about an online tool for comparing consumer choices: the GoodGuide.

And, for many things produced by big-ish brands, the Good Guide lets you compare the same product made by different brands (e.g. “How does Jif compare to Kettle peanut butter?”), in terms of their personal health, environmental and social impacts, using the work of a panel of reliable-sounding scientists.  I’d trust those folx to help me in my decision (unfortunately, they didn’t have anything to say on microwave ovens, either).  More recently, I found Better World Shopper, which uses similar rating criteria.

Of course, these don’t cover the (often much more ecologically sane) options of buying used, buying locally-made, choosing radically different alternatives (why buy diet soda, when you could get a carbonator, fizz your tap water, and put homegrown lemon slices in it?) or doing without things. But, as Shepherd Book always said, “if you can’t do something smart, do something right.” Or, do something a little smarter and a little less wrong.


The immense human tragedy of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan is just starting to fade from the headlines.  The crisis of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear facility is at a plateau, but still far from resolved.

As I reflect on the enormity of what happened on the other side of the ocean we share, I see some cause for my usual Cassandra-esque blend of gloom and repressed rage tinged with the darkest glimmers of optimism, some small bright linings to the heavy smog.

First,  the prevailing winds.  While there does seem to be radiation coming to ground on Japan, most of it is blowing to sea.  That’s the half-full. The half-empty is that… it’s going to sea.  Yes, as long as there are no major fires like Chernobyl, it shouldn’t be enough to pose an immediate threat to human health, at least in the short term.  But how will it affect small sea life (algae, krill, etc.) and the bigger things that feed on that and might concentrate it?

And the silvery glimmer… this was a wake-up call about Black Swan events and nuclear power plants.  In the last several years, I’ve been discouraged to see more greenthinkers turning to nuclear power as an option to prevent the worst effects of climate change.  Not only did they seem to be overlooking the high carbon price we pay to get the damnable things built out of concrete and keep them operational (and we still don’t know exactly what it will take to decommission them since we don’t have a good way of doing it yet), but they apparently forgot a basic tenet of the Precautionary Principle – if the outcomes of a mishap are intolerable, even if the perceived likelyhood of such a mishap is small, just don’t do it. “If the Japanese can’t build a safe reactor, who can?” James Lovelock, Stewart Brand, et al. – what do you have to say for yourselves now?

Next, all that other stuff.  Videos show the tsunami grabbing and tossing things – heck, even the little one that tore through Santa Cruz harbor did that – and as it receded it pulled lots of those big and small things out to sea.  Now, my students in the Cabrillo Sustainability Council have been planning an event focusing on plastic waste and its impact on our oceans, so I’ve been thinking a lot about the gyre in the Pacific that lead to the formation of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  The big ocean current comes right off northern Japan, and moves across the central Pacific, and that’s where things that float just get stranded in the doldrums. Affluent, convenience-minded Japan had an awful lot of plastic to go around.  How much is this adding to our already awful mess in the middle of the mighty Pacific, and how will that affect marine ecosystems?

Finally, there are the economic ripples that will spread from this latest shock.  In our globally interconnected system, the disruption to Japan’s mighty industrial output is going to cause shivers and shudders worldwide.  Our ridiculously long and convoluted supply chains will experience gaps, though I’ll admit that they’re actually embedded in networks that provide some resilience – if you can’t get your widget from Japan, if you look around you can probably get one from India or Belgium or Argentina or Singapore or…  Now, economists say Japan’s economic woes won’t be big enough to derail overall global growth, especially when they consider all the GDP boosts from reconstruction in the coming months (yet another example of the twisted logic of money culture economics – horrific disasters are good for the economy!).  But I still have hope that Japan’s unexpected plunge into the Ω-phase of release and destruction in regards to their energy-intensive industrial economy might open the way for a very creative re-emergence in the α-phase.  After all, one of the seminal books on permaculture philosophy – The One-Straw Revolution – was penned there back in the 1970’s, so the seed of a new approach is already present.  And if permaculture gets big in Japan…

See, hope amid the rubble.  It’s not all gloom and doom, all the time.  As we begin the work to heal Japan, perhaps we can learn ways to heal some other world wounds, too.