Why I Don’t Buy New Electronics

By Adam Brock

This Indian news segment profiles what happens to a good deal of our “e-waste” after we take it to get recycled. Workers in the global south – in this case, India – strip the electronics apart, and burn the plastics to get at the small amounts of precious metals inside. In the process, they inhale some of the nastiest smoke imaginable, pollute the air, and contaminate the groundwater with toxic chemicals. Keep in mind that recycling your electronics is considered the green thing to do, as opposed to throwing them in the landfill. (from the Sietch Blog via Celsias)

The Roots of Freeganism Part IV: Community in America

By Nelson Harvey

“Could you please turn it down, just a little bit?!” Janet Kalish turned away from me and yelled across the room, to the group of neighborhood kids bunched around the community center’s single computer. They were blasting rap music as loud as the speakers would go, and some of the boys, dressed in black puffy jackets and jeans, mimicked the rapper whose music video played on the screen. The kids looked up, and one of them turned the volume down. Or seemed too. A minute later, the noise was back again, and Janet and I couldn’t hear ourselves talk.

We were at a party to raise rent for the 123 Community Space in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. The space, founded by four grassroots organizations focused on anarchism and freeganism, was conceived as a neighborhood gathering-place for young people and community members interested in starting creative projects. Kalish, a middle-aged Spanish teacher and an active member of the New York freegan community, was collecting admission fees that night. She began asking newcomers for donations, but the kids continued to brush past her, in and out, avoiding eye contact. As word of the admission fee began to spread, they slowly dissipated.

New York City’s freegans place a high premium on community, and the success of the 123 Community Space is a case in point. The space now hosts programs every day of the week, from a bike repair workshop to a screen-printing class. It hasn’t always been easy, and the space’s website describes some of the challenges that have come up along the way. The center was founded by a group of mostly white young people in what has long been a predominantly black neighborhood. As the rap music incident demonstrates, building community in a diverse environment isn’t always an easy process.

Nevertheless, New York City freegans still pursue it rather doggedly, holding regular group meetings and ‘trash tours,’ and organizing potlucks with the loot from their dumpster-diving expeditions. Whatever benefits these rituals provide, they are also a reaction against what many perceive as the decline of community in the broader culture.
“I do think people work too hard chasing the almighty dollar and spend too little time doing what is meaningful in life, such as sharing time with loved ones, being artistic, creative, and active within a community,” said Kalish in an email message. She pointed to obesity and the rise of third-party childcare as evidence that today, many people are too busy to exercise or even raise their own children.

This is more than just abstract philosophizing: in recent years, social scientists and critics have documented the decline of community in America rather exhaustively. In 2000, Harvard political scientist Robert D. Putnam published the book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. In it, he described how social networks generate social capital by facilitating information flows between people and encouraging reciprocity among community members. Putnam also introduced a mountain of data showing that social capital in the U.S. has been declining over the past 25 years. For instance, surveys conducted during that period have shown a 50 percent drop in attendance of club meetings, a 43 percent drop in family dinners, and a 35 percent drop in “having friends over.”

The likely forces behind these shifts are familiar to anyone who has picked up a newspaper in the last decade. Technological innovation has certainly played a role, with the advent of devices like the Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) rendering every spare moment a potential working moment. The increasingly global nature of economic life may be another culprit. In his 2005 book American Mania: When More is Not Enough, UCLA neurobiologist Peter Whybrow points out that in the model of capitalism concieved by Adam Smith, devotion to the market was balanced by the demands of community. “With globalization,” as one reviewer for the New York Times put it, “the idea of doing business with neighbors one must face the next day is a quaint memory, and all bets are off.”

Arthur Crosman, a student and freegan who teaches bike repair at the 123 Community Space, agreed. “There’s something about working for a gigantic company where people become removed from the consequences of their work,’ he said. “Globalization makes us forget the local.”

Freegans try to combat this isolation by emphasizing interdependence wherever they can. Many have qualms about modern capitalism, but they still believe in the division of labor. As freegan Cindy Rosin told a group of students at New York University recently, one dumpster diver can often support several hungry people. “I know a lot of people who are the food provider for their household,” she said.

Technology and globalization aside, the decline of some American communities may have a far more unlikely source: diversity. According to conventional liberal gospel, diversity breeds greater tolerance and understanding. But new social science research from Bowling Alone author Robert Putnam shows that in the short run, increased immigration and ethnic diversity tend to reduce social capital and solidarity. At the same time, his research points to the importance of efforts like the 123 Community Space in trying to rebuild these things.

“New evidence from the US suggests that in ethnically diverse neighborhoods residents of all races tend to ‘hunker down,’” he writes. “Trust (even of one’s own race) is lower, altruism and community cooperation rarer, friends fewer.” But Putnam goes on to say that with time, as members of different communities adapt to one another, diversity actually increases social capital by “creating new, cross-cutting forms of social solidarity and more encompassing identities.” This is intuitively obvious to many of us; it explains the allure of places like New York City. And it is precisely what the founders of the 123 Community Space are going for. If they can get there, it’ll be to the tune of rap music.

Photo credit: Flickr, Listentoreason ,Chrisjfry

The Roots of Freeganism Part II: Disposable Culture

By Nelson Harvey


Yes Virginia, those are cell phones

In May of each year, as school winds to a close, many NYU students throw their lives away. I’m not talking about binge drinking, lazy days on the beach, or even the taboo subject of suicide, which has been sadly common lately at NYU. I’m talking about actually putting things in the trash.

They do it for many reasons; most obviously, many would rather purchase their necessities again in the fall than ship them home. Whatever their motives, though, the dumpsters outside of NYU dorms in early May are anthropological treasure troves.

And the freegans know it. Last year around move-out time, they were having a field day, scavenging gleefully through NYU dumpsters, bringing in TV’s, i-Pods, lamps, cleaning products, paintings, and innumerable other items that students had disposed of in their rush for the shelter of summer vacation. Often, the harvest from such events is so great that it can furnish entire apartments.

Affluent NYU students make an easy target for those who would scorn our wasteful society, but their behavior is hardly unique. Disposable culture has become the norm, and it can be understood in terms of three trends: we’re buying more products, the cost of production for many of them is falling, and there are few comprehensive mechanisms in this country for making producers responsible for their waste.

The trend toward disposability in the U.S. is hardly new. In fact, it has its roots in the turn of the 20th century. As historian Susan Strasser points out in her 2003 book “Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash,” the explosion of American industry coincided with the rise of municipal waste collection during the early 1900’s, bringing many previously homemade or bulk-bought goods into the home as packaged products that could be conveniently discarded.

Cars at the scrap yard

Strasser notes that disposability meant more than just convenience: it also implied social standing. “From the start,” she writes, “disposability was promoted for its ability to make people feel rich: with throwaway products, they could obtain levels of cleanliness and convenience once available only to people with many servants.”

This trend also transformed economic relationships, according to Strasser. “Customers” who bought from local storekeepers became “consumers,” who interacted only with large, centralized corporations. Suddenly, advertising was the principle mechanism for people to learn about products. Advertisers, capitalizing on the fact that human desires are infinite, began to fabricate needs left and right.

The results have been impressive. Over Thanksgiving weekend this year, the phone company T-mobile offered a free airplane flight with the purchase of a certain calling plan. I may not have needed to go anywhere before I saw their ad, but such an incentive made a trip to the Isle of Tobago seem as essential as brushing my teeth.

Today, the forces of industry and advertising have combined with the global flows of capital and labor to leave us in quite a fix, one that was summed up nicely in a recent story on the NPR program Marketplace. In it, the reporter relates a story of wanting to fix her broken DVD player, but realizing that it would cost about $150 dollars, while getting a new one would be just over $100. The result? She hit the mall, and the old player wound up at a hazardous waste pickup station.

Gas Cylinders

At least in the case of electronics, any holiday shopper can attest that many goods are cheap and getting cheaper (the iPhone notwithstanding). The falling prices of many technologies are closely tied to globalization, since manufacturers can produce their goods wherever labor is cheap and sell them to Americans at a tremendous markup. Technological obsolescence accelerates product disposal, and e-waste is currently the fastest growing portion of the municipal waste stream. But there are at least two less familiar trends at work here as well.

First, an increasing number of consumer goods are simply not reparable. In their seminal book “Cradle to Cradle” about sustainable design and manufacturing, Bill McDonough and Michael Braungart refer to such goods as “monstrous hybrids;” mixtures of technological and biological nutrients that were not designed with recycling in mind and cannot be readily disassembled.

Many freegans, who can tend to benefit from such design practices, attribute them to corporate greed. “I think it is ‘good for business,’” said New York freegan and high school Spanish teacher Janet Kalish, in an email message. “I think companies don’t work hard to make their parts accessible for repair because it is more profitable for them to have customers buy more.”

Circuit Boards

The “Cradle to Cradle” authors propose one solution that could preserve profits while transforming “consumers” back into “customers”: service-based business models, where companies could lease durable goods like computers, washing machines, or other appliances, offering trade-ins and upgrades with the advent of new products.

A better-known solution is the idea of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which would shift responsibility for end-of-life processing of products from governments to the companies that produced them. This approach is based on the idea that many of the factors that make contemporary products so difficult to dispose of–hazardous materials content, lack of biodegradability–would be “designed out” once producers were burdened with their consequences.

As usual in the environmental arena, those curious about the performance of new policies need only look to California and Europe for guidance. In 2003, The European Union passed a directive requiring producer take-back of many household appliances, and this was followed three years later by an outright ban of many toxic materials in consumer products, including lead, cadmium, and others.

California followed suit in 2005, with the E-Waste Recovery and Recycling Act, which requires that retailers attach a fee to certain consumer electronics. The fee is then passed on to companies that collect and process the goods when they are no longer wanted. At the beginning of 2005, there were more than 550 hazardous waste drop-off sites throughout the state, and collection was projected to exceed 50 million pounds by year-end.

Phones, chargers, and who knows what else

The California approach may encourage recycling, but as Resources For The Future (RFF) economist Margaret Walls told me in an email message, it could be less effective at getting companies to change the design of their products. That’s because the program relies on third party recyclers to process electronic waste, rather than the companies themselves.

“An individual company never sees its own product again at end-of-life,” said Walls, “…this yields some economies of scale in collection and recycling, but it diffuses the incentive to undertake green design.”

Some companies may be shifting their design practices anyway. The rise of government programs has coincided with a spate of EPR initiatives from private companies; Hewlett Packard, Dell, Apple and Xerox are a few of the many corporations that accept some products for recycling and reprocessing. At least in the case of Xerox, this seems to have yielded concrete changes in the design process.

Although Walls notes that many EPR programs remain most costly than municipal recycling efforts, she holds out some hope. “In theory,” she said, “this could work for every product we consume — a general sales tax coupled with a payment to recyclers and re-processors for every ton recycled.”

The photos in this article were taken by Seattle-based photographer Chris Jordan, and are used with his permission.

Three Times the Signs

By Adam Brock

Three recent articles from the New York Times are WGYworthy in their Forest Green implications. Let’s connect the dots:

Tom Friedman, of all people, finally seems to be catching on to the fact that we’ll have to seriously retool the economy to save our species. With Bali more or less a wash thanks to the Bush Administration’s anti-diplomacy, Freidman seems to have decided that market forces are more powerful at raping the planet than any kind of diplomacy can be at saving it:

Indeed, today’s global economy has become like a monster truck with the gas pedal stuck, and we’ve lost the key — so no one can stop it from wiping out more and more of the natural world, no matter what the global plan.

And this from globalization’s prime hype man… perhaps there’s a downside to all that world-flattening, after all.

In the Magazine, meanwhile, Michael Pollan weighs in on the overuse of the term “sustainable” and the inherent fragility of mass-produced monocultures. The MRSA scare and Colony Collapse Disorder, he explains, are symptoms of the same impulse: treating living things like machines in an effort to widen those profit margins just a little bit more. The last couple lines say it all:

…whatever we may gain in industrial efficiency, we sacrifice in biological resilience. The question is not whether systems this brittle will break down, but when and how, and whether when they do, we’ll be prepared to treat the whole idea of sustainability as something more than a nice word.

Finally, on a somewhat more encouraging note, consumer critic Rob Walker has a lengthy piece on the revival of craft culture as self-conscious antidote to soulless consumerism. Thanks in large part to Etsy, an ebay of sorts for crafty types, tinkerers worldwide are able to connect, trade entrepreneurial tips and hone their artistic skills.

To sum up: a free-trade cheerleader admits that globalization is destroying the earth, the hero of sustainable agriculture points to signs of the industrial food system nearing collapse, and the internet is being leveraged to launch a mass movement against mass production. Sounds like the first rumblings of a paradigm shift to me.