Archive for February, 2010

Garbage Warrior reviews

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Notes from an field trip.


Leila, Flex Unger and I recently went to a screening of Garbage Warrior, a documentary about architect (or should we perhaps say anarchytect) Michael Reynolds, who has spent the last 30 years building what he calls “Earthships” – houses built largely by trash and designed to facilitate an off-grid life (that is, living without electricity, gas and other comforts connected to one’s house). The documentary, directed by Oliver Hodge (founder of Open Eye Media UK) follows Reynolds’ quest to perfect the art of Earthship construction, as well as establish trash house communities in his home state New Mexico.

The main narrative centres on legal battles with the State of New Mexico, with Reynolds putting on a lobbyist hat in order to get legislation passed that will allow him to carry out his visions. Being an anarchytect, Reynolds has little respect for the slow turning wheels of institutionalized democracy, and not surprisingly, the bill passed after three years is stripped of visionary content. During the after-film meet-the-director evening we attended, Hodge felt pressed to point out that New Mexico is one of the more progressive states in the US on off-grid construction.

While the political game is interesting and highly comical, it steals the focus from what we trash fetishists crave the most: Delicious imagery of tyres and plastic bottles being transformed into houses. (Perhaps there’s extra material on the dvd.) We do get our share though, when Reynolds and his crew fly over to the tsunami stricken Andaman Islands, and build an Earthship for the community, inspiring local engineers to wild ideas of putting up a couple of hundred more.


I enjoyed this in-depth look at a community of cutting-edge architects living in their own experiments and thinking about new ways to design homes that don’t have to rely on municipal sources for electricity, water and sewage. The enemy fought in this film are city regulations requiring that homes be connected to the grid, which the architects see as stifling. I see their point; though I am also glad that architecture is a licensed profession that carries with it a commitment to safety. The key to advancement in green building seems to be finding the balance between forcing homes to connect to the grid and ensuring new construction concepts are tested and sound.

As someone who travels a fair amount in parts of the world where municipal infrastructure isn’t the enemy but the impossible dream, I’d like to put in a little plug for government-run utilities. Clean tap water, flushing toilets connected to pipes that take the shit away, electricity so reliable we think black outs are national emergencies or cause for a street party, these are all luxuries I gladly take part in. Yes, these systems can be improved and run on far fewer resources. But let us remember that the time, money, skills and resources to build an Earthship remain out of reach for most. In the meantime, advocate to reform the grid, not destroy it.

Discover discovers the garbage patch

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Check out this in-depth piece chock full of links about the Great Garbage Patch. Not sure I agree that it’s a “new” discovery among enviros, but glad to see the coverage nonetheless.

London poo

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Swedish Television (those lovely public service guys) have correspondents here and there, reporting back to the motherland on the big events that shape our world. Tonight, they will report on our favourite human trash, that no one escapes: poo.

In a glimpse of tonight’s programming, we learn that in November 2009 (due to heavy rains) a fantastic 12,75 million cubic metres, or the equivalent of “3 401 Olympic swimming pools”, of sewage water ran straight in to the famous river Themes. The first to know when this occurs are the rowing teams using the Themes as practise ground, as they sometimes come down with heavy vomiting after a run on the river. Also, it smells.

In a larger perspective, the overflow of human trash is a problem in many major cities, including Paris and New York. I’ll be watching tonight.

Recycle, comost or trash?

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Ever had trouble distinguishing among the above? McSweeney’s offers this helpful guide.

New York City tra$h

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Does your city have a store? Mine does. City Hall augments tax dollars and offsets the cost of renovating and upkeeping by selling New Yorkers city-related stuff. What kind of stuff? Well, for example, if you get married at City Hall, you can pick up flowers, travel tissues, bride and groom rubber duckies, etc. All the essentials, really.

City Hall wedding souvenir

I am deeply conflicted about private/public partnership in this town. On the one hand, we have a beautiful park in the center of Manhattan. You may have heard of it, it’s called Central Park. But the Parks Department can’t afford to keep it fresh-smelling and bum-free on tax dollars alone. That would be a problem if there weren’t so many rich people who love the park and are willing to put their own money into keeping it nice. So they do. And in return, the park has a board of directors called the Central Park Conservancy that oversees official park business. Perfect synergy. Except: the park is also a popular gathering spot. A few years ago, the U.S. wanted to start this never-ending war in Iraq and concerned citizens decided to gather in the park to say NO. Unfortunately, the place they wanted to gather was a grassy lawn recently replanted on the Conservancy’s dime. So the Conservancy said NO, which is kind of scary when you look at it as a private board telling the public they can’t have a public gathering in a public space. Now, this story is not new to most of you and has lots of nuances left out. But it’s an example of the kind of questions this shit raises. Enter Oscar.

DSNY Oscar

The latest product launch at the City of New York Store is a series of stuffed Sesame Street characters dressed as employees of various city agencies. Oscar is a sanitation worker, of course. And the others seem to have been determined by fur color. Cookie Monster is NYPD blue. Elmo is a red fireman. And Big Bird Drives a yellow cab (which, as the daughter of a retired yellow cab driver I have to say is poor casting. Where the hell is that gritty muppet from the Caper?).

Don’t get me wrong, I know there’s a financial crisis going on and that if this were a Gund campaign to save the pandas, I’d be cooing. There is just something that rubs me the wrong way about all these products going on sale to raise money for city projects. Part of the concern is the commercialization. Sesame Street is one brand, Gund is another that’s two companies mixing with the brand of NYC. This new product line, however, comes at a time when the city is greatly expanding semicorporate ventures in the name of development. Gutting and reconstructing Coney Island, for example. There is something unfair about the sentiment that grit defines this city and removing it is wrong, I know. But there is also something sad about these corporate ventures. They feel to me like giving up, like quick fixes for what local government should be able to do on its own and like poorly thought-through plans that can lead to private interest trumping people’s interests. Like the people who live in Coney Island now.

Anyway, this is a subject I am inarticulate and confused about. What do you think? Is it a good thing that Snapple is the official drink of New York and that somewhere in America, there sits a Taco Bell chair in Women’s Studies? All I know is that I really want an Oscar the Grouch sanitation worker doll and that I really don’t want to want one.

E-waste boom around the corner

Monday, February 22, 2010

In 2006, 896 million new cell phones were put on the global market. With such an incredibly high input, a good guess is that there is a lot of people using a second-hand cell phone out there, but also that a lot of old cell phones are gathering dust in drawers. What we know is that far too many end up as non recycled trash, or are “recycled” by people working for a tiny income under terrible conditions.

In a new report released today, the United Nations Environment Programme draw attention to electronic and electric waste, pointing out that official data is scarce and that metals in themselves are trashy not only post cell phone life, but that mining is indeed a wasteful business. Electronic and electric waste contains a lot of metal, such as aluminum, copper, palladium and gold.

The report is an intriguing technical guide on how to properly recycle electronic and electric waste, but it also provides estimates on how volumes of electronic and electric waste will increase in so-called developing countries over the coming years. In Uganda, for example, quantities will increase by a factor between 6 and 8 by 2020. Challenges are, as per usual, complex and correspondingly huge. There is need for legislation and policing of such legislation, but legal recycling can’t happen without proper smelting facilities and dismembering factories.

In a comment to the Guardian, Ruediger Kuehr, United Nations University, points out that with increasing demand follows a surge in illegal import of what the global North considers trash.

It’s definitely in the countries which have substantial increase in consumption – countries like China and India, which are still substantial targets for illegal imports of e-waste. The same applies for countries like Nigeria.

With the risk of being repetitive, the background problem is our collective obsession with consuming new products and a world more and more characterized by electronic consumer products, while insufficient attention is given to recycling and upcycling.

Keep it off Trash Island!

Monday, February 22, 2010

Please enjoy this guest post by our friend Alexandra Ringe:

I spent this past week hunting plastic on the beach of Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, Florida. The Atlantic Ocean has its own version of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and I redirected as much plastic detritus as I could from the shore to, well, the landfill.

Wish you were here

I couldn’t stand the thought of walking by a plastic bag that would later drift out to the undulating mass of petroleum product sitting in the Sargasso Sea, maybe choking a bird along the way.

I could let you think that this is a new obsession of mine, this attention to the beach’s accumulation of straws, candy wrappers, kegger cups, and everything else we make out of plastic. But that would be wrong. I grew up in Ventnor, New Jersey, about 100 ft. from the boardwalk. Whenever we went to the beach, my mother picked up other people’s litter in addition to our own trash. “Leave it better than when you found it” — that was her response to our neighbors’ quizzical looks.

Although she talked to me and my siblings about the impact of human garbage on marine life, my mom was driven only in part by a concern for the environment. She applied the “Leave it better” principle at the movie theater and the rest-stop picnic table, too — she felt responsible for the experience of the next person to come along. Her approach expands on the hiker’s “pack it in, pack it out” credo — if you bring something into the woods, you are honor-bound to take it out again — in a way that works especially well for the beach.

Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, FL

A good deal of the trash I encounter doesn’t belong to negligent beachgoers. It blows in from the streets, floats in from boats and ships, or is too small and light to be caught by the tractor-like beach-cleaning machines that skim litter from the sand. Thanks to my mom, I have always seen this vagabond trash as ours, something I need to help pick up. I wouldn’t have it any other way. It feels too good to keep that chunk of crumbling styrofoam out of the sea.


Saturday, February 20, 2010

Last weekend while in Uganda for work, I had the amazing opportunity to visit the Ziwa Rhino Sanctuary in Nakitoma. We drove out to where the rhinos graze and peeked in on a few of them sleeping.

Taleo, the dominant male

The guide and sanctuary brochure were full of all kinds of interesting rhino factoids. For example, the term “White” rhino derives not from the color of the animals but from the dutch word for wide (and they are). They started the sanctuary with four rhinos from Kenya then got two more donated from the US. The offspring are the first rhinos born in Uganda in at least 28 years. Pretty cool. And want to hear something cute? Because the first baby was born to a Kenyan dad and American mom, they named him Obama.What, you might ask, does any of this have to do with garbage? Well, for one thing, the sanctuary itself is an ecotourism destination, low impact, solar powered, etc. More on Northern Uganda and low waste traveling to come (in the meantime, check out Uganda trash photos on the Facebook page).

For another thing, my friend Flex Unger just sent me this amazing link to a roundup of used tire sculptures from around the world.

Tire rhino by artist Ji Yong Ho

My favorite, of course, is this rhino by Korean artist Ji Yong Ho. According to this Theme Magazine article:

To Ji, rubber symbolizes mutation. “The product is from nature,” from the white sap of latex trees. “But here it’s changed. The color is black. The look is scary.” He tried experimenting with clay and bronze, but the sculptures looked too much like robots. “Rubber is very flexible, like skin, like muscles,” he explains. It gives him more freedom in capturing the animals’ expressivity—the horse’s wistful glance or the way the hyena cocks its hind leg, ready to spring into an attack.

Artful upcycling.

UPDATE: Rhinos, rhinos everywhere. As soon as I posted on the White rhinos in Uganda, I read this sweet story about Sumatran rhonos in Indonesia. Also, for those who may not know or remember, the official mascot is a rhino made of flip flops named P.C.

Stockholm in tra$h uproar

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

[This will be a total rewrite, but as I don’t live in the motherland at the moment, I have to rely on larger news outlets. Apologies.]

According to newspaper Svenska Dagbladet, municipal authorities have been getting 17 times as many complaint calls from citizens regarding uncollected garbage bags, following the decision by Stockholm refuse collectors we reported on earlier this month.

In short, a conflict between contractors and their employees has led to a situation in which the refuse collectors refuse to carry more than what is legal, in manners that are legal, as stipulated in the Occupational Safety and Health Act. Trash bags heavier than 33 pounds remain uncollected, as do any bags positioned in a facility behind piles of snow.

City officials are of course blaming the contractors, who seems to have failed to comment properly so far..


Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Kampala, Uganda

Sorry for the unannounced hiatus.  I’m in Uganda for work. Pushing my way through the narrow aisles of Owino market in Kampala the other day, I turned a corner ot face this: a plastic bag bearing President Obama’s face with “Best of Luck” written accross the top.  Profoundly depressing on a number of levels.

More images of Ugandan trash on Facebook.

A recipe for bioplastic

Friday, February 5, 2010

A quick how-to on making bioplastic in your kitchen via MAKE. Laser cutter not included.

Trash all over Stockholm

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Remember the trash collector wildcat strike that broke out in Stockholm exactly one year ago? Yesterday, the labour court came to a decision on issues in the aftermath. In short, the court ruled in favour of the tra$h company who fired wildcat striking trash collectors who wouldn’t accept a monthly salary, instead of the piece wages traditionally paid in the industry.

The union organizing trash collectors have (in outrage) responded to this by announcing that they henceforth will abide strictly to the Occupational Safety and Health Act, which will be problematic to say the least. Union spokesperson Peder Murell issued the following statement to the Swedish Radio:

We will not haul trash bags heavier than 15 kilograms [33 pounds], we will not handle containers without wheels, we will not collect if snow hasn’t been shoveled away. I expect a lot of stuff will stay where it is.

As context, Stockholm has had its coldest January since 1987 and there is more snow than anyone can remember. To be continued.

Plastic chandelier

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

unconsumption finds the neatest stuff. Anyone who follows this blog should also follow that one. Case in point, this recycled plastic chandelier by artist Katharine Harvey.

Katharine Harvey's recycled plastic chandelier

Reminds me of this chandelier, also brought to our attention by unconsumption.


Wednesday, February 3, 2010

City Harvest‘s new PSA highlights food waste in New York.

White Goat

Monday, February 1, 2010

Office paper to toilet paper. Amazing. Thanks for the tip, Brendan!

via Uber Gizmo and

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