Two and a Half Cheers: Local Water Utilities Win Atrazine Legal Battle

After nearly eight years of litigation, Syngenta, the maker of atrazine, the most widely used weed killer in the world, has settled a lawsuit filed by water utilities in a half-dozen Midwestern states.

The utilities’ beef? They were paying tens of thousands of dollars a year to remove the chemical from drinking water. Regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency, atrazine has been linked with low birth weight, birth defects, and other reproductive problems when consumed at levels below the federal standard. The EPA is currently reviewing atrazine’s safety: read NRDC’s take on the contaminant here and Andrew Wetzler’s (of the Land and Wildlife Program) take on the legal decision here.

If approved by a federal judge in southern Illinois, the settlement will disburse $105 million — minus attorneys’ fees — to nearly 1,900 utilities: the exact amount for each utility will be based on its past atrazine levels, the frequency of contamination, and the population served with drinking water. Syngenta admits no liability in the case and will continue to sell its product in the U.S. (The European Union has banned its use.)

The settlement, which generated 10 million pages of documents, will help utilities cover their past expenses — a significant portion of the budgets of small utilities in agricultural areas where atrazine is in heavy use. (Utilities remove atrazine by adding to their water either powdered carbon or granulated activated carbon, which absorbs the chemical and is then removed through filtration or sedimentation.)

But if farmers continue to use the herbicide, which runs off fields and contaminates both groundwater and surface water, utilities will be stuck paying to remove it long into the future. Sure, the utilities won a rhetorical point — polluter pays — but the biggest winners here are the attorneys representing the utilities. Their cut of the deal: $34.9 million.

Image: Atrazine concentration in the U.S. water supply, via U.S. Geological Survey


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Can hydrofracking affect the plants and animals we eat?

That’s the question I explore in the current issue of The Nation, which can be read online here. Thanks to support from the Food and Environment Reporting Network, I was able to spend a fair amount of time looking into the illnesses and deaths of livestock that live (and eat and breathe) in close proximity to shale-gas wells, which rely on secret combinations of hundreds of different chemicals, many of which are considered toxic, carcinogenic, teratogenic, or mutagenic. I spoke with ranchers whose animals died suddenly of asphyxiation or pulmonary edema, gave birth to deformed or stillborn offspring, lost between 60 and 80 pounds a week, quit producing milk for calves, lost half their tails, developed lesions and infections, and died of massive organ failure. The story raises many questions: are drilling and fracking operations sickening livestock? Can people who eat those animals get sick? Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the answers because:

a) these studies haven’t been funded

b) industry doesn’t reveal all the chemicals it uses to drill and frack

c) complete pre-drilling information on water, air and soil quality is rarely available

d) livestock owners are often reticent, or outright forbidden by nondisclosure agreements, to speak to investigators

My hope for the story is that government will respond to the concerns of ranchers, veterinarians, and scientists; require full disclosure of chemicals and compounds used in oil-and-gas operations; and allocate funds to conduct these much-needed studies.

Photo of cow that lost part of its tail — one of many ailments found in cattle following hydrofracturing of the Bakken Shale in North Dakota — courtesy of Jacki Schilke.

How I Got Arrested While Reporting on How to Improve NYC’s Food Supply

Hunts Point food market

OnEarth’s camera had a tough time getting into the Hunts Point food market. So do local farmers, who have to sell their produce at the nearby Wholesale Green-market instead. PHOTO: ROB HOWARD

By the time the sun had risen over the Bronx River, the crush of delivery trucks at the Hunts Point market — the largest wholesale produce market in the world (which you can read about in my latest OnEarth cover story) — had slowed to a tolerable roar. Walking the length of a loading dock a third of a mile long, I no longer had to duck and weave among the laborers hauling fruits and vegetables into the awaiting trucks of New York City metropolitan-area restaurants, supermarkets, bodegas, and pushcarts. I was just about to rendezvous with two Natural Resources Defense Council staffers who had accompanied me, plus a photographer, at the platform’s opposite end, when one of them texted me: Don’t come. We are being cited.

I had come to the Hunt’s Point market well before dawn to collect some color for my OnEarth story about ways to connect upstate farmers with downstate consumers; now, it seemed, my reporting trip was about to come to an abrupt end. I snapped my phone shut and slunk toward my car, darting behind parked trucks in an effort to elude security cameras. I didn’t understand why our group was being cited: after all, we had paid our $3 entrance fee at the security gate, and we weren’t doing anything illegal. Or so I thought.

Within moments of hiding my notebook under the driver’s seat of my car, a Hunts Point police officer pulled up: despite my best attempts to slink away, I had been found out. The officer herded all four of us around the market and upstairs into a dispiriting employee break room, where we would remain for the next two hours, very much unfree to leave.

The time passed slowly. “What would you do if I just walked out?” I asked the armed guard, after 90 minutes had gone by. No one had charged us with any type of crime.

“I would physically restrain you,” he said.

I knew from prior contact with the market’s media wrangler that Hunts Point was touchy about visitors, despite a video on its website that calls the market “New York’s Best Kept Secret,” as if it were a tourist attraction. The video’s ebullient host, TV and radio food reporter Tony Tantillo, even invites viewers to “Come! Join me! Visit!”

I tried, Tony, I really did. I wanted to witness first-hand this spectacle of abundance, wrapped up in a map of the world: blueberries from California, cucumbers from Georgia, apples from Chile, melons from the Dominican Republic, mangoes from Haiti. And for a short while, I did. I saw laborers stack boxed and bagged produce eight feet high; I watched as they trundled pallets and cardboard boxes from truck to platform, from platform to truck, in a steady stream of in and out. The scale of operations certainly impressed me — but I couldn’t help thinking that the ultimate end-consumers of this produce were unlikely to connect it with any particular grower. In fact, only 4 percent (by dollar value) of the food sold at Hunts Point is grown in New York State, with another 12 percent coming from neighboring New Jersey. Those percentages make it somewhat harder to “know your farmer, know your food,” as one USDA campaign exhorts us to do.

NRDC (which publishes OnEarth), along with many other organizations, is working to change this dynamic. But it’s been an uphill slog. The sellers inside Hunts Point don’t want competition from local growers selling food that’s far fresher than what’s currently on offer, who aren’t required to use union labor, and who may receive city subsidies to boot. Meanwhile, local farmers aren’t inclined to pay the 12 to 15 percent overhead that’s demanded by the Hunts Point cooperative, which leases this land from the city.

Nevertheless, there’s reason for hope. For more than a year now, the Hunts Point cooperative has been renegotiating its lease with the city. It recently received a $10 million federal grant to redevelop and modernize the space, so long as it agrees to stay in the Bronx. Local food advocates are trying to persuade the cooperative, as one part of its imminent restructuring, to allow regional farmers to sell their goods at the market — just inside the Hunts Point gate, but not on their high-rent loading docks.

“If we could create a permanent wholesale market for regional farmers, we could get that food into supermarket chains and bodegas that already shop at Hunts Point, and to health-care facilities and the Food Bank of New York,” Mark Izeman, the director of NRDC’s New York Urban Program, told me. “To move the needle of locally sourced food, you’ve got to sell it wholesale.”

With a convenient, centralized wholesale outlet for their produce, New York farmers would, in theory, lease and plant more upstate acres. (Not every upstate farmer wants to spend the time commuting to, and staffing a booth at, a retail farmers’ market in the city.) They would aggregate food with their fellow farmers, package it for transport, contract with shipping companies to deliver it to the Bronx, drop their prices, and turn a profit on the volume.

But before any of these things can ever take place, the farmers need the city to craft policies mandating that institutional buyers — schools, shelters, hospitals, prisons — preferentially purchase regionally grown food, whenever the prices between the locally-sourced and distantly-sourced versions are more or less the same. Currently, city agencies are merely encouraged to buy local. (Of course, New York State produce is seasonal, and many crops will never grow here — which means that brokers, who visit farms and cut deals for buyers, will need to be flexible and creative in their sourcing.) Will it happen? A lot of people hope so. But a lot of political and bureaucratic hurdles still stand in the way.

* * *

The big cop watched me pace the small room. Finally, a senior officer appeared, bearing citations for trespass: we had an official date scheduled for an appearance before the Bronx Criminal Court. Asked why, our armed babysitter said it was a matter of food security. “We supply millions of people with produce; we can’t let just anyone in.” It didn’t seem like they were doing such a great job of that, if anyone with three dollars could waltz through the gate. Either security should be tighter, I thought, or media access should be loosened.

Two months later, the “Hunts Point 4” appeared in court — represented by none other than NRDC’s director of litigation, Mitch Bernard. Sending Bernard to help us fight our trespassing charge in the Bronx was a little like sending in the Navy SEALs to rescue a cat up a tree; indeed, our attorney admitted that he had to bone up on criminal-trespassing law and make some calls to a few friends who knew about the borough’s courtrooms, in order to learn what he could expect. He was far more familiar with the folkways of the federal court system, where he has successfully litigated some of the biggest environmental cases of the last 20 years.

In less than an hour, we were free to leave, though we were all warned to stay out of trouble for the next six months. Next time we decide to take up Tony Tantillo’s offer to check out the wonders of New York’s food-distribution system (and, in the process, explore some of the structural barriers confronted by local farmers), I’ll make sure to dress down, hide my notebook and camera, and pretend that I’m anyone other than a journalist doing her job.

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When Disaster Strikes, Local Food Alone Won’t Cut It

Five days after Hurricane Sandy, my local greenmarket in Brooklyn was in nearly full flower. Everywhere I went, citizens were asking food producers, or their hired hands, “Is your farm OK?” Largely, they were. (The fishmonger was absent, dealing with storm-related damage to his boats.) Kira Kinney of Evolutionary Organics, a small farm 90 miles north of the city, told me how strange it felt “to be here as if nothing happened when, to the south, there’s devastation. Last year it was me.” In the wake of Irene, the only thing Kinney was selling were pastel drawings of the vegetables that were underwater in her fields.

For years, locavores have maintained that food travels, on average, 1,500 miles from farm to plate — a compelling reason, they say, to encourage eating foods grown and raised closer to home. (The data to support this claim aren’t abundant or recent, however; and the original supposition measured U.S. food that was traveling to Chicago. Your own results may vary.) But certain climate events — Hurricane Sandy, which slammed into the metro New York area last week; Hurricane Irene, which hit the Northeast in 2011; and the intense floods, droughts, and heat waves that have been occurring in the rest of the country over the last few years — raise some questions about the wisdom of clipping our supply lines too short.

Hurricane Sandy did wipe out many farms to the city’s southwest and east, but New York’s hyper-local upland farms — in the backyards of brownstones and on rooftops — fared slightly better (though some beekeepers lost their bees). Farms near the water’s edge, unsurprisingly, did worse. At Manhattan’s southern tip, the Battery Urban Farm was inundated with saltwater from upper New York Harbor, while Brooklyn’s Red Hook Community Farm was flooded with up to four feet of water from Erie Basin and the Gowanus Canal, a Superfund site that also overwhelmed a fuel-oil depot down the street. Along with 30 other volunteers, I spent several hours on Saturday raking fouled wood chips and hay from the 2.5-acre garden and carting tons of sodden, polluted debris to the street corner, where sanitation workers would later collect it for landfill disposal. Rural farmers, I imagined, would kill to have all this free labor — a huge advantage, one supposes, of putting down roots in the social-media heartland.

Walking among the bounty of the farmer’s market, which doesn’t sell hyperlocal produce, and thinking about the storm’s winner and losers, I reviewed the benefits of a regional food network. It provides economic sustenance to nearby farmers who, in turn, preserve open space for ecosystem services and wildlife habitat. It increases the traceability of food. And it brings us produce that’s fresher, and might very well taste better, than food that has been hauled long distance. (At the very least, local food is grown to be eaten, not shipped.)

While I was speaking with farmers, Corbin Laedlein, the youth empowerment program coordinator for the Red Hook Community Farm, was giving voice to these ideas on the radio program Democracy Now. “[M]any people argue that local farms are the solution,” he said. “You know, our industrial agriculture system is based on using fossil fuels for pesticides, and natural gas. We ship food all across the country. And it just doesn’t make sense. We need to localize production to reduce our carbon footprint.”

Well … yes and no.

A hundred years ago, a superstorm could easily have wiped out regional agriculture and left residents eating storage crops until merchants could import other food. Today, storm-wracked metro-area residents can shop at supermarkets, which mostly buy their produce at the Hunts Point Produce Market in the South Bronx. (I recently visited the market — the largest distributor of fruits and vegetables in the world — while reporting for the OnEarth cover story, “Fresh Food for All.”) Hunts Point buys from 55 countries and 49 states; but only four percent of its produce is grown in New York State, with another 14 percent coming from New Jersey. Thank goodness, I say, for a geographical diversity of producers, for long-haul refrigerated trucks, and for the fuel to keep them running. (Yes, the system depends on fossil fuel for now — but in the future, it could very well run on electric or other low-emissions vehicles.)

As global warming strengthens the intensity of storms and brings more unpredictable and extreme weather, diversifying our food sources and creating some redundancy will increase our stability. “We need to optimize the local and the regional, but integrate it with national and global trade,” says Michael Hamm, director of the Center for Regional Food Systems at Michigan State University. “First, we’ll need that food in times of crisis; second, cities as big as New York can’t grow enough locally to feed themselves; and third, if regional farms, which could be producing a lot more, optimize their capacity, they’ll be able to supply other areas in time of need — a sort of quid pro quo.”

Hamm lives in Michigan, where an early spring and a late frost wiped out 95 percent of this year’s cherry and apple harvest. “If we depended only on local supplies, local processing companies that make jams and pies would have gone out of business. Instead, those companies immediately contracted with Poland for fruit.” It takes a global village, indeed.

And here’s another reason local connections matter: last year, in the weeks following Hurricane Irene, visitors to New York City greenmarkets donated more than $100,000 to 25 upstate farmers in distress. This year, farmers and their customers at the market were donating apples, kale, Brussels sprouts, and potatoes for delivery to hard-hit coastal areas on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in Brooklyn’s Red Hook, and in Queens’ Rockaways.

“A regional food network is all about relationships with people,” Cheryl Huber, an assistant director at GrowNYC, the nonprofit that operates the city’s green markets, told me. “This storm hit the city, and now upstate farmers are asking how they can help by donating food through City Harvest,” a hunger charity. Some upstate farmers even brought fuel into the city, Huber said, so that GrowNYC vans, which had trouble finding gasoline, could service the greenmarkets. “There are relationships here, between rural and urban, that do not exist in other parts of the nation. And these relationships help keep money in the community” instead of sending it off to a supermarket’s corporate headquarters in some distant state.

Clearly, the nation needs to increase its resilience to big storms — by shoring up infrastructure, for example, and by softening shorelines. Farmers can build buffers around fields and adopt such practices  as conservation tillage, mixed cropping, and nitrogen-fixing cover crops, which tend to increase, rather than decrease, their soil’s ability to withstand weather extremes. Optimizing our regional farms will help provide more food security to more people in a less certain future. But we’re still going to need those connections to farms that lie farther afield.

Image: Alec Perkins/Flickr

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Don’t ask, don’t give: a policy for single-use plastics

plastic utensils
I recently ordered a grilled cheese in an airport restaurant, but along with the sandwich came a napkin, wrapped and taped around a plastic fork and knife that I didn’t want or need. The sandwich was deliciously greasy, so I ended up using the napkin, but I felt bad about the accompanying utensils that are now headed for a landfill. (Sure, I could have kept them for later use, but that would merely delay their trip to the dump.)

It was a tiny moment of garbage guilt, out of many, but I remembered it when I read about the efforts of ten-year-old Milo Cress of Burlington, Vermont, who last year persuaded a local restaurant to hand out straws only upon request. Milo’s Be Straw Free campaign has since spread the practice to scores of other restaurants nationwide, including some chains. Establishments that quit giving straws as the default have found their straw use (and straw spending) cut by up to 90 percent. (Americans go through more than 500 million plastic straws a day, according to Simply Straws, which makes — you guessed it — narrow glass cylinders designed for sucking liquids from containers.)

Thanks to Milo’s efforts, the National Restaurant Association now recognizes “offer-first” as a best practice. Just goes to show: if you don’t ask, you don’t receive. And if you don’t offer single-use disposable plastics in the first place, some people might not even miss them.

*Bonus pedantry!
Q: What did we use for straws before the days of cheap plastic, paper, or glass?
A: Actual straw: a single stalk of grain.

Image: Duane Romanell

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The Worm Turns

Environmentalists in the United States have long pushed to keep compostable organics — yard waste, food scraps, paper and the like — out of landfills. Diverting this material conserves landfill space; it avoids the generation of methane, which occurs when organic material breaks down in the absence of oxygen; and it allows these compostables to be put to beneficial use. (Learn more about these efforts at, a project of the Grassroots Recycling Network.)

Out in front of the U.S. on this particular issue is the European Union, which has issued a directive obliging its member states to reduce the organic content of waste in their landfills — although it doesn’t specify just how these organics should be composted: in the traditional manner, through anaerobic digestion (a process by which microorganisms break down waste in an enclosed vessel), or in some other way. Earlier this month, the British think tank CentreForum recommended banning food waste from U.K. landfills by the end of the decade, ahead of the EU directive, in order to boost the stream of organics that can be converted through anaerobic digestion into heat and energy. (The study, it should be noted, was funded by the anaerobic digestion industry.)

Anaerobic digestion is popular in Europe, and several large A.D. plants are in the planning stages or already in construction in North America. But these systems are expensive to build and have had problems with feedstock purity, maintaining proper pH, odors, and the quality of the digestate — the material that comes out on the back end, which can be used as a soil amendment but lacks the nutrients of traditional compost.

Composting aerobically (outdoors, in windrows) is cheaper and technically simpler: it doesn’t generate methane, and it produces higher-quality material that can boost soil health and increase drought resistance. But composting this way has run into its own problems with quality control and odors. (Not to mention the fact that it doesn’t produce energy.)

The quality issues aren’t just limited to the occasional twisty tie, fruit sticker, or bread-bag clip that ends up in your potting soil. A few weeks back, the Chittendon (Vermont) Solid Waste District discovered that its bagged and bulk compost contained traces of banned pesticides, most likely “carry-over” from illegal lawn applications. The levels weren’t harmful to human health, but the chemicals did burn many gardeners’ vegetables and flowers. In another case, in Maine, Picloram, an herbicide used by horse farms to control thistles and milkweed in their pastures, poisoned tomato seedlings fertilized with manure from horses who grazed those fields. (Happily, the seedlings recovered in less than three weeks after being transplanted into clean garden soil by an astute gardener who happens to run a compost test lab.)

In an era in which more people are growing their own food, and in which more people — with the best of intentions — are composting organic material, these episodes are an important reminder of two tenets of ecology: everything has to go somewhere and everything is connected. Fertilize your lawn, and your community-composted lawn clippings can nuke your neighbor’s Napa cabbage. The same stuff happens in a landfill, of course, but there the input (persistent organic pollutants) and the output (contaminated soil and water) can be separated by decades and many miles. It’s yet another argument for both localism and transparency. When inputs and outputs are local, what goes around — whether it’s good or bad — is bound to come around more quickly.

Image: Phil Shaw/flickr

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Trash tourism?

Tsunami Trash

NOAA’s model tracks where debris likely will circulate in the Pacific Ocean. Courtesy of J. Churnside/NOAA’s Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research

Do-gooders can always be counted on for beach clean-ups, but Oregon’s Seaside Visitors Bureau has taken this impulse to a new level, trying to lure visitors to its shore to scavenge for Japanese debris linked with last year’s tsunami. (Don’t worry: it’s unlikely to be radioactive, say researchers, as the household goods and other materials were miles away from Fukushima by the time nuclear reactors malfunctioned.) Worried about navigational hazards, NOAA is tracking the debris. Its first wave — some 1 million to 2 million tons of trash– is due to hit U.S. territory (northwestern Hawaii, to be specific) within days. What doesn’t wash ashore there will continue to slowly drift and float, joining up with the “dismal abundance of discarded plastic” already congregating and circling in the North Pacific garbage patch, which now sprawls over at least 270,000 square miles. Sorry, Oregon, your disaster tourists may have to wait until 2013 to start their scavenging engines. But Hawaiians will get another whack at it when the debris field circles back around in years to come.

After the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, tons of debris was swept into the Pacific. Much of it is buoyant enough to float on the surface and can be moved around by small scale currents and large scale circulation patterns, such as the North Pacific Gyre. The gyre, bounded by the Kuroshio Current on the west, California Current on the east, and Equatorial Current on the south tends to entrain debris in the center of the Pacific basin, creating what is commonly known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Though the bulk of the marine debris remains in the ocean for years in an area north of Hawaii, individual pieces are continually washing up on the continental and island shores that border the basin. NOAA’s Marine Debris Program leads efforts to track and remove much of this existing trash, and is currently assessing the tsunami debris.

Scientists as NOAA’s Earths System Research Laboratory developed the debris dispersion model, shown here. Using five years of historical weather patterns, the model is used to approximate how debris will circulate across the basin.

After the earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Japan on March 11, 2011, tons of debris was swept into the Pacific. Much of it is buoyant enough to float on the surface and can be moved around by small scale currents and large scale circulation patterns, such as the North Pacific Gyre. The gyre, bounded by the Kuroshio Current on the west, California Current on the east, and Equatorial Current on the south tends to entrain debris in the center of the Pacific basin, creating what is commonly known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Though the bulk of the marine debris remains in the ocean for years in an area north of Hawaii, individual pieces are continually washing up on the continental and island shores that border the basin. NOAA’s Marine Debris Program leads efforts to track and remove much of this existing trash, and is currently assessing the tsunami debris.

Scientists as NOAA’s Earths System Research Laboratory developed the debris dispersion model, shown here. Using five years of historical weather patterns, the model is used to approximate how debris will circulate across the basin.

From sinkhole to stimulus: Fixing our water systems will get jobs flowing

Water Main Break

Credit: Chris Upson/Wikimedia Commons

Much ink has been spilled on the deplorable state of the nation’s drinking water and wastewater infrastructure — and the terrifying sums ($390 billion according to the sometimes-hyperbolic American Society of Civil Engineers) it will take to remedy the situation. The EPA estimates $188 billion is necessary to manage stormwater and preserve water quality nationwide.

Yes, it’s a lot of money, but there are some positives attached to that pricetag: it’s not only going to bring us cleaner, safer drinking water, says a new Green for All report called Water Works. Spread over five years, that investment would also generate $266 billion in economic activity and create close to 1.9 million jobs.

Green For All

Credit: Green for All

Water Works functions as a primer on our infrastructure woes (from cracked pipes to sinkholes to combined sewer overflows), focusing on green infrastructure as a major part of the solution. The good news — if you’re a glass-half-full type — is that there has never been a better time to tackle these problems: borrowing money is cheap, construction costs are down (because of increased competition for jobs) and unemployment is high.

But where will we get the money? From municipal bonds, state revolving loan funds, higher rates for consumers and other (nonspecified) “fee-based approaches,” says Water Works. (The report shies away from the polluter fees proposed in Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer’s Clean Water Trust Fund.) Government spending will add to the national debt, but it will doubtless pay off in the long term with healthier people, a cleaner environment and the avoided costs of filtering ever-dirtier water.

At any rate: do we have a choice?

Age and neglect have caught up to our water systems, some of which date back to the end of the 19th century. Climate change wreaks havoc even with relatively youthful infrastructure: extreme heat, drought and deluge all cause pipes to shift and crack. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave both the nation’s drinking-water infrastructure and its wastewater in­frastructure a D-minus in its 2009 fell 12 feet into the earth when a sidewalk over a ruptured drainpipe suddenly collapsed. Although the woman was rescued from the sinkhole, it took divers and emergency workers more than a day to find the body of her son, who had been swept by rushing waters through subterranean pipes to a sewage collector.

In his State of the Union speech, President Obama called on Congress to pass legislation to repair the nation’s infrastructure. He proposed footing the bill with half the money we’ll save from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to the Congressional Budget Office, that’s about $440 billion dollars between 2012 and 2021. It’s not enough, but it’s a good start.

The third R: An answer to all our problems?

Just before the holidays, EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson went on the Dr. Oz Show to talk about drinking-water safety. She concluded with her one wish for a cleaner, greener earth. To my surprise, she wished for more recycling.

Not that again, I groaned. Does anyone really listen to pro-recycling arguments these days? The subject is so 20th century, so fraught with disappointment and misunderstanding.

But what Jackson said was actually quite bold, and it certainly needed saying:

“If we could increase our recycling rate from about 39 percent to 80 or 90 percent,” Jackson said, “we would do a bunch of things. Certainly, we would have a cleaner environment. We would save a tremendous amount of water and energy. We would create millions of jobs, because recycling, in and of itself, would become a supply chain in our country — a very domestic one.  . . . Think of [recycling] as a homegrown jobs program and an environmental program and an energy program and a water program all in one.”

It sounds like magical thinking, but groups like the Institute for Local Self Reliance have been talking about the jobs angle for decades, and groups such as NRDC have harped on the energy and water benefits for even longer. (See “More Jobs, Less Pollution“ — a report released last November by NRDC along with the BlueGreen Alliance, the Teamsters, the Service Employees International Union, Recycling Works! and the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives — for data that support Jackson’s claims.)

All we need to do is expand access to recycling programs for residents and businesses, to increase the number of recycling bins in public places, to broaden the range of materials accepted by processors (think textiles, electronics, construction and demolition debris, and agricultural and industrial waste), to limit the use of packaging and other materials that can’t be recycled or composted, to shorten the supply lines between generators of scrap materials and their end users, to develop composting programs that handle food as well as yard and garden waste, and to educate everyone about all these changes. (Oh yeah, and end subsidies that encourage burying and burning waste.)

Jackson’s comment reminded me of a Simpsons episode called “Lisa the Vegetarian.”

Homer: Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. Lisa, honey, are you saying you’re never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?
Lisa:        No.
Homer:  Ham?
Lisa:        No.
Homer:  Pork chops?
Lisa:        Dad! Those all come from the same animal!
Homer:  [Chuckles] Yeah, right Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.

Could recycling be that wonderful, magical animal (and pay for itself, too)? One can always dream.

Wither the coffee lid?

Recycling bin

A recycling bin that’s trying. Credit: Scott Dodd

After finishing my coffee at a New York City Pret a Manger restaurant recently, I lingered near the trash bin, which was divided into separate sections with uniquely shaped openings — not unlike a toddler’s shape-sorting block toy. In my hands: a napkin, a paperboard coffee cup, a cardboard sleeve, a plastic lid. It took me, something of a garbage geek, nearly a minute to figure out what I was supposed to do with each discard.

Did the napkin go with the paper, or did the napkin go with the food waste, which was bound for a composting operation beyond the city limits? (After all, paper is compostable, though experts say ’tis a far better thing to make new paper from old, in places where recovery systems can handle potentially soiled paper, rather than to make compost from paper.)

Did the plastic lid go with the plastic recycling or into the compartment labeled “trash?” At home, the lid would have gone into the trash, as New York City’s Department of Sanitation, like many others, accepts only narrow-necked plastic bottles for curbside recycling. But businesses in New York hire private carters and so march to a different drummer. Pret a Manger uses Action Carting, a progressive company that collects food waste for composting and, I happened to know, a wider range of plastics for recycling.

I did, eventually, study the educational illustrations above the waste bins, which should have set me straight. But still I had trouble identifying the cup lid among so many different shapes. Maybe I need to go back to kindergarten and the block sorter. Or maybe the illustrations could be a little clearer. (Or perhaps the bins could have a built-in object recognition device: I hold before an electric eye my lid, empty fruit cup, or sandwich box, and a quiet, friendly voice tells me where to put it. I’d prefer a more parsimonious — that is, less technological and less expensive — fix, but what can I say? People do love their apps.)

I can’t offer enough props to Pret for lightening its environmental impact and nudging customers in the same direction. But my interlude at the waste bins tells me that we’ve got a ways to go down the path toward sustainable packaging (an ideal that ought to include no packaging). According to the EPA, packaging makes up nearly one third of municipal solid waste; between 1990 and 2007, containers and packaging have increased by nearly 14 million tons.

Pret a Manger, which works with environmental groups (like Global Green), packaging designers, waste haulers, paper mills, and composters to blunt the impact of its single-use packaging, and is still experimenting with the perfect receptacle, is leading the way. But peering inside the bins, where cups were mixed willy-nilly with “trash” and bottles were mixed with napkins, I wondered if the public really had the stomach to follow.