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 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.

The Roots of Freeganism Part I: Food Waste

By Nelson Harvey

Freeganism, the philosophy of non-participation in the capitalist economy through minimization of what one buys, has been getting heaps of press lately, with outlets as high-rolling as the New York Times and the Washington Post running pieces on the subject. But while much recent media coverage focuses on what it’s like to live as a freegan, I’m interested in the forces that freegans are reacting to, and the realities that allow them to sustain their lifestyles. In this four part series, I’ll be examining these questions by looking at food waste, disposable culture, modern work, and the state of community in America. 

New York Freegan Janet Kalish salvages pastries from the garbage in front of Le Pain Quotidien.

One night in late November, in the courtyard of a community center in Bushwick, Brooklyn, a bread mountain was constructed. It measured about four feet tall and 10 feet in diameter, the product of a few nights of dumpster diving throughout New York City. Hundreds of rolls, pumpernickel loaves and baguettes lay stacked in various states of edibility, but like so much wasted food in New York City, they would never make it to the people that needed them most.

In 2003, the most recent year for which data is available, businesses in New York generated over three million tons of organic waste. Although it isn’t known how much of this was food waste, the much-publicized success of freeganism in the city suggests that most dumpsters contain much more than just coffee grounds and banana peels. Indeed, on the same evening that I came upon the bread mountain in Brooklyn, the community center hosted a freegan benefit party, with a buffet spread featuring chili, vegetables and dip, and various breads and cookies, all of which had been scavenged from the trash.

There’s no way to tell precisely how much edible food winds up in New York trash cans, particularly since the term “edible” is so subjective. Nevertheless, it’s clear that much more would go to waste if not for the organization City Harvest, which uses a fleet of 16 trucks to rescue over 2 million pounds of wasted food in New York City annually, and transfers it to community centers and homeless shelters. According to the organization’s website, there are over 1 million people in the city who do not get enough food to meet their basic needs.

For Jesus Ortiz, who has been driving a City Harvest donation truck for more than 5 years, such figures are all too familiar. “We get up to 1300 pounds of food per day on city routes, and our base in Brooklyn gets up to 6000 pounds,” he told me, as we set out on his route one recent morning.

 

Whole Foods gave these bananas to City Harvest for donation.

From the perspective of a restaurant or grocery store, wasting food is effectively throwing away money. So how can there be so much waste? One stop on Ortiz’s route is the Institute of Culinary Education, where we picked up extra cilantro, carrots, and several other vegetables. “This is food that is not quite high enough in quality for the students who pay $25-30,000 per year to go here,” said the chef who gave Ortiz his load. “But it’s still all perfectly good.

I heard similar explanations from at several food providers we visited. Indeed, it seems that for many of them, appearance has replaced abundance as the main food-related concern. There are some businesses with inefficient ordering systems, and for them, working with City Harvest can provide a much-needed wakeup call.”When organizations sign up with City Harvest, they often start to realize that they’ve got a problem, which makes them ask ‘Who’s ordering all this stuff?’” said Ortiz.

Still, a single organization can only do so much. Jennifer McLean, City Harvest’s Director of Program Operations, noted that liability prevents the group from accepting any food that has been damaged or previously served, including things like restaurant hot bars or leftovers from corporate lunches. “Many of us go into a bodega near the end of the day and think of what a shame it is that all that food will be wasted, but unfortunately, we can’t take it,” she said.

NYU students dumpster dive outside of a Gristedes supermarket in Greenwich Village.

A recent evening out with a couple of New York City freegans reinforced McLean’s point that even a well-run organization like City Harvest can have only a limited impact on reducing food waste. We traversed several markets and eateries throughout Greenwich Village, and one of our greatest hauls came at Gristedes, a New York supermarket chain that doesn’t donate any food to City Harvest at all. We pulled everything from frozen pies to iceberg lettuce from their trash bags, but we also did quite well at several restaurants that actively donate to the organization. At the French Bistro Le Pain Quotidien, we salvaged bags full of muffins and croissants. The Sullivan Street Bakery, which is also a City Harvest partner, is notorious among freegans for its remarkable quantities of wasted bread.

“Most stores always order more than they need,” said Janet Kalish, a freegan and high school Spanish teacher. “They do it to perpetuate the myth of abundance, the idea that there is always more than enough.”

You won’t find this in the mission statement of any grocery store, many of which feature sophisticated computerized systems that strive to match supply with demand by re-ordering items automatically when they are sold at the register. “Why would we waste?” asked Norbert Jones, the assistant manager of a Dagostino’s supermarket in Greenwich Village, when I inquired what the store threw away most often. “It’s bad for business!”

Nevertheless, the huge volumes of food involved in the modern grocery business make it all but inevitable that some inefficiency will surface. And it’s hard to ignore the lengths that many businesses will go to in order to create the illusion of a cornucopia. Bakeries advertise bread “baked fresh, all day,” while grocers heap exotic produce in precarious piles and lay out epic spreads of prepared food. Unless appearance becomes less vital or stores become much smaller, it’s likely that freegans will continue to live off of our food supply system for a long time to come.

And for now, they’re enjoying it. As student and freegan Arthur Crosman told me, “Sometimes I go inside the stores where I’ve been dumpster diving and see how much the stuff costs that I’ve been getting for free!”

Harvesting in the Concrete Jungle

By Nelson Harvey

This Thursday, many of us will eat more than we do on any other day of the year. I thought it was a good time for a couple of posts on food, and the incredible abundance of food that has turned out to be a mixed blessing for this country in so many ways.

City Harvest trucks prepare to make the morning rounds, and driver Jesus Ortiz collects excess bread from Daisy May’s BBQ.

“When Pizza Hut does a commercial, they call us after they finish with thousands of pounds of pizza to donate.” That’s what Jesus Ortiz told me last week as he wound through the streets of Manhattan behind the wheel of a delivery truck. Ortiz, a friendly tank of a man, is a 5-year employee of City Harvest, the New York-based organization that rescues over 20 million pounds of food annually from restaurants and businesses in the city, and delivers it to food banks and homeless shelters.

I joined Ortiz on his morning route last Monday, and within a few hours, we could have built a food pyramid out of all the victuals he’d collected. Whole Foods gave Ortiz 50 pounds of organic bananas, the Institute for Culinary Education provided carrots and cilantro, and a west side Dagostino’s supermarket unloaded more than 75 pounds of spare bagels and bread.

One of the most novel things about freeganism is the bounty of food that freegans tend to find, so it’s striking to note that what they take home is often the stuff that even the charities can’t collect. Damaged produce, items past their expiration date, or food that has already been served is off limits for City Harvest. The group collects from over 1900 business in the city, but they still only scratch the surface of the excess supply that exists.

But why so much waste? Aside from simple imbalances between supply and demand that occur in any large food system, it seems to me that one of the largest drivers of the problem is the high premium that food providers place on appearance. Much of what City Harvest recieves is just slightly blemished or damaged in some way, be it a dented can or a slightly bruised fruit. What’s clear after a day on the truck is that our society has reached a level of abundance where many of us can afford to be picky.