Waste not

February 13, 2007 at 5:23 am (Environment, Health)

I have a pretty good theory about why we Americans are so wasteful. I was just taking out the garbage when it occured to me: I am getting ripped off. I take my trash out pretty frequently, so my apartment doesn’t smell any worse than it otherwise does, but I only bother lugging my can to the curb when it is full. That is about once a month. But next door, a family of ten could generate three times as much trash in a week as I do in a month, and they would be charged the same amount for pick up. I tried to get my service reduced, but was told that there is a flat fee, no discounts offered.

What kind of incentive is there to be a little bit frugal? None. The rate that I do pay is about 5 bucks a week. That seems absurdly low to me, when you factor in all the resources that are required to fuel trucks, pay collectors, sorters, operate machinery at the tipping yards, ship the trash to a landfill, build, maintain and store trash for eternity.

Me and LogJammin’ were hiking in the Columbia Gorge this weekend, and a long freight train went by, probably about a hundred flat cars, each stacked 2 high with semi-trailers. As we descended to the parking lot, we noticed the logo on the side of them , and it was Waste Management, a nationally-known garbage company. Yes, that was Portland’s trash, being shipped out of sight, out of mind, to a landfill in eastern Oregon somewhere. It was quite a sight. I wonder how many of those trains rumble out of here every day?

I remember in 2000, some British guy visited us in Philly, and he was amazed that our trash pick up was free and unrestricted (free if you ignore the 4% income tax the city levies). He remarked that there was a limit in London to one small bag, with hefty surcharges over that modest limit. And the base rate was substantial, I don’t remember what, but you have a clear economic incentive to not toss stuff away willy-nilly. A relatively small government “interference” creates a demand for less wasteful packaging, more reusable materials, and less waste from top to bottom. And the whole system works better. Germany, for example, has a law that requires life-cycle production, in which manufacturers are responsible for disposal of things like household appliances. They manufacture them with this in mind, so that parts are generally reusable. There’s a lesson there.

Is our expectation for cheap and unrestricted garbage generation a cause or symptom of our societal gluttony?


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October 29, 2006 at 10:36 pm (Environment)

I started a new job this week, so I haven’t really had time to do any blogging.  So you will have to make do with my latest (and last) one-pager for landscape architecture (they’re supposed to be short):

I have a problem with sustainability.  Not with the concept, but with the word itself.  It is  simultaneously one of the most widely used and most elusive words in the planning and urban design lexicon.  What is sustainability, anyway?  Taking the word literally, it implies a system that is self-sustaining, able to continue functioning with minimal additional inputs or human intervention.  If that is the case, then the word sustainability should almost never be used in the way that it is.

The construction industry is the most blatant example of the misuse of sustainability.  Buildings are constructed and billed as “sustainable” because they have more efficient water and energy systems, or grass on the roof.  But in the end, each skyscraping condo tower, office building, or college dorm is a net consumer of energy, land and materials.  Even a LEED platinum-certified building creates a negative impact on the environment that can not be mitigated.  “Marginally less damaging than the status quo” perhaps, but “sustainable?”  Hardly.

Construction that has less of an impact on the environment is an improvement, but such practices will always remain “alternative” and outside of the mainstream, as long as they are hidden from view.  A restaurant I patronize frequently recently installed solar panels.  I know this not because I can see the panels, but because there is a sign out front advertising it.  Many innovations take place in residential condominium buildings, where the public is not allowed.  Does the purchaser of a million-dollar condo really care about saving a few dollars each month on a his water bill?  “Sustainable” features are thus not only unlikely to be observable to the public, but also largely ignored by their beneficiaries.

Attempts to incorporate sustainable design into the public realm are a more sensible approach, if the goal is to both reduce environmental impacts and to increase public awareness of environmental issues.  Green streets may be particularly effective, both in the role they play at reducing untreated stormwater runoff, and their visibility.  Maintenance costs are minimal, and a small sign can educate passers-by of the value of the investment.  As the Berlin case shows, “sustainable” must not be something that will or even can be cut from the budget when financial times are hard.  I look at Tanner Springs Park, and while I enjoy it for the open space it provides, I wonder if it was really worth the investment.  It provides a source of water filtration, but as a potential habitat it is of dubious value.  The plant structure seems too engineered, and the pond, augmented with chlorinated city water, may not be particularly attractive to wildlife.  (Although, there are some goldfish in there that seem to be getting along nicely.)  I wonder if the money spent on the park could have been better spent, if more widely distributed.  If Tanner Springs remains only a refuge for Pearl District residents, it will do little toward the betterment of society, and will do nothing to move sustainability concepts away from the “alternative” and into the mainstream.

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October 17, 2006 at 6:45 am (Environment)

I took this picture in Astoria, Oregon a few weeks ago, at the confluence of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean.  For scale, each little box on this boat is the back of an 18-wheeler, or an entire rail car.

Your kid’s Christmas present is probably in one of those containers. (click to enlarge)


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October 6, 2006 at 6:27 pm (Environment, Random)

I am taking a landscape architecture course this quarter, and every week we have a reading response essay we have to write. Don’t worry, it’s short. As an extension of my existential blatherings, I thought I would post this one. Even though you haven;t likely read the articles I am talking about, hopefully it still makes sense. Enjoy:

I had no idea that Niagara Falls was so heavily altered by humans. Admittedly I have never been there, but I always assumed that this quintessential symbol of the majestic power of nature had been untouched by man. In retrospect it makes perfect sense that its flow was once diverted for industry. Until reading Spirn’s piece, however, the idea that the river was once dammed and people walked across the bottom in order to create a scale model that would guide restoration was unfathomable to me. I had a similar revelation about Central Park recently, a place I have visited many times. As a city park, I assumed it was substantially engineered, but until I took a guided tour of the park this summer, I did not realize that every aspect of the park was constructed from the bedrock up. I had assumed that the design was limited to working with the existing conditions; such is my bias against 19th Century technology.

If Olmsted’s intent was to create a scene that mimics or at least works with nature, then these can be considered great successes. At what point does such a landscape, Biltmore is a great example, cease to become a human creation and revert to something natural? Human control can only extend so far, and even in the most contrived gardens, the landscape architect must work within the rules that nature provides. But what is nature? Smithson asks this question pointedly when he says “Once a student told me that ‘nature is anything that is not manmade.’ For that student man was outside the natural order of things.” This is a concept I have struggled with for some time now. When I look at freeways, airports, and strip mines, my impulse is to say “That’s not natural.” But how arrogant we human must be, to assume that we are “outside the natural order of things.” To take a religious approach, we are all part of God’s creation, God who remains in control, and therefore all that we do (including altering or destroying ecosystems) is part of the Grand Plan. To take a scientific approach, our time on this earth is an eyeblink in geologic time, and in a few million years there may be little evidence that we ever existed. What we do to the earth really only affects our own existence, and we will quickly be forgotten.

Neither of these arguments can de empirically disproved. God’s will (and existence) is certainly a debatable point. We do not live in geologic time, so that argument is not really relevant to a discussion of how we live today and tomorrow. What, then, is “natural?” I don’t personally believe that everything humans do is ok because we are embedded with nature; we have been blessed (cursed?) with the ability to think, plan, and contemplate the consequences of our actions. Conversely, I don’t think all development translates to a rape and pillage of the land. There is no clear line that can be drawn between “natural” and “unnatural.” Some people will give the human race much more leeway than others, but short of reverting to a hunter-gatherer society, everyone will consume non-renewable resources and have a marginal negative impact on the environment. Even solar power impacts the environment: silicon must be mined, refined, shipped, and manufactured into cells.

As a discipline, I think landscape architecture is actually quite benign in its overall impact on the environment. Contours designed to direct water flow are slaves to gravity. Lakes and streams will ultimately find their own course, barring constant vigilance by the landscaper. Plants will grow or not in a certain area, and there is little we can do to change that (will palm trees like NW Flanders St?) And what of so-called “invasive species?” True, blackberry may significantly alter established ecosystems, but is it not a defining characteristic of life to adapt to ever-changing conditions? We are simply accelerating a natural process. We praise controlled alterations to the landscape, and lament those we have caused but over which we seem to have no control. Therein lies the problem: by placing ourselves “outside the natural order of things” we humans greatly overestimate our importance and level of control over nature. This invokes the McHargian concept of Designing With Nature, in which we should strive to accept our role as within the natural order of things, and work with natural systems, rather than attempt to subdue them. We will ultimately lose that battle. This idea would serve humanity well if applied broadly, not only to landscape architects but also to civil engineering, federal energy policy, and everyday consumption.

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Hydro hogs

September 27, 2006 at 5:14 pm (Environment, Portland)

Willamette Week has published their annual report of local people who use the most water.  It’s always an entertaining read.  Here’s my personal favorite:

4. Robert Pamplin Sr. Edgecliff Road, Dunthorpe

Market value: $2.44 million

Lot size: 3.2 acres

Water used: 1,059,916 gallons—enough water to make homemade paper and self-publish 21,198 copies of the King James Bible. Sitting atop the stack, one would be a third of a mile closer to Heaven.

Previous ranking: No. 4 in 2004.

Annual bill: $2,030

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More good fortune (for me)

July 26, 2006 at 10:57 pm (Environment, Random)

One of the major objectives of my summer project is to figure out what to do with an abandoned amusement park and an abandoned trailer park. The Forest Service acquired these properties piecemeal 10-25 years ago, with a mandate from Congress to restore the natural ecology, and has done absolutely nothing with them. I could go on about that for a while, but I’ll just say the areas are a mess.

I have become fascinated with the idea of completely artificial landscapes being abandoned, and seeing how nature reclaims the area. The trailer park, for example, has an artificial lake, held up by a dike/tidegate system, which is in the midst of a catastrophic failure. The Lake has flooded the surrounding lowlands, and as a result the wildlife includes an odd mix of anaerobic muck, dragonflies, birds, emergent freshwater wetland species (this is in the middle of an estuary), invasive plants, and dead trees that have been flooded out in the past year or so. It is eerily beautiful.
Yesterday, The Schriz and I took some kayaks out on the lake to get some depth measurements. If you remove the dikes, how long will it take for the stream to find it’s old channel? was the question we were asking. Probably not too long, we determined, since the lake isn’t very deep. And all the falling trees would provide great salmon spawning grounds.

I took the kayaks back in the evening, only to later learn that we get to keep them until we’re done (2.5 weeks). In fact, the truck they were in can’t park where we got it, due to space limitations. So I have to go get them and bring them back to the house. Now I have a F-250 and two free kayaks at my disposal for the rest of my little “vacation.”

In other news, the local blackberry population has begun referring to me as the “Butcher of Otis.” I never knew it could be so much fun to hack things up with a machete and devour the remains. Of course, as an eradication method, that is about as effective as draining the ocean with a tablespoon.

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This reporter places the blame squarely on YOU, the viewers

November 29, 2005 at 5:40 am (Environment, Planning)

Want to know just how much personal blame you are shouldering with regard to humankind’s impending doom? Check out the CO2 calculator.

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World Jump Day

October 31, 2005 at 7:32 am (Environment, Random)

Apparently this is serious. There is a movement afoot to curb global warming, not by altering our energy consumption patterns, but by altering the earth’s orbit. How to accomplish such a monumental task? By getting about 600 million people in the western hemisphere to jump at the same time. No kidding, there are graphs and everything, so it must be legit. I urge everyone to participate in what could be the most significant event in human history. Only 37 weeks until the big day!

But man I hope these scientists are right. I think there was an episode of Star Trek kind of like this once, but the guy was off in his calculations slightly and disaster ensued (I think Geordi eventually saved the day). What if one too many people jump, or they forget to factor in the morbid obesity rate of American civilazation, and earth goes careening into the sun? Things would probably only get a lot hotter in that case.

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Pen pals

September 20, 2005 at 12:30 am (Environment)

In spring term I took a class called Environmental Policy, and I wrote my term paper on mercury contamination and policies to reduce it. Specifically, how EPA addresses mercury emissions from coal power plants. I used my old addresses in WV and PA to contact relevant Congresspersons in those states, and to date, no Rep. has responded to me, and 3 Senators have (thanks, Rick Santorum, you asshole). Of course none of the correspondence arrived in time to include in the paper, and today, I heard from Senator Specter. Apparently he has been busy with other things. Below is his response…he proposes exactly the policy instrument I came up with in my paper. Maybe I should run for office when I turn 30.

Dear Mr. JB:

Thank you for contacting me in regard to the recent vote in the United States Senate on S. J. Res. 20 regarding mercury pollution.

I believe mercury pollution is a real problem, particularly for vulnerable populations including children. Given these concerns, I support efforts to reduce mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants, which account for forty-two percent of U.S. emissions. This is in line with my support for many years for clean coal technologies, which will allow our nation to utilize our most abundant natural resource in a cleaner, more efficient manner.

Debate on this resolution has revolved around two regulatory approaches – a Maximum Available Control Technology (MACT) rule or a “cap-and-trade” rule. I suggest that there is a third option that combines elements of both. A MACT system is enormously expensive on its own, costing up to $358 billion according to the Energy Information Administration compared to $2 billion estimated by EPA for a cap-and-trade approach. However, a cap-and-trade-only system is inadequate on reducing pollution levels around specific plants, referred to as “hot spots.” The Leahy-Collins resolution would tie EPA’s hands by restricting it to a MACT-only approach.

Under a third option, EPA could set a national emissions level, based on the best available science to protect public health and the environment, and implement a cap-and-trade system to meet this goal with the addition of measures to take care of hot spots, EPA could require reductions at specific plants. To this end, I have written the Administrator of the EPA urging this hybrid approach, which would meet environmental goals while balancing the implementation costs faced by consumers.

I assure my colleagues and my constituents that I will be monitoring this situation as the current mercury rule is litigated in the court system and as EPA considers further mercury emission control options.

I appreciate your taking the time to bring your views on this important matter to my attention. As a United States Senator, it is essential that I be kept fully informed on the issues of concern to my constituents. Should you have any further questions, please do not hesitate to contact my office or visit my website at http://specter.senate.gov. Thank you again for writing.

Arlen Specter

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September 1, 2005 at 6:00 am (Environment, Politics, Republican incompetence)

The ozone layer has stopped shrinking. The Montreal Protocol was implemented in the 1990s, during the biggest economic boom in human history. Now the U.S. is not undertaking measures to slow climate change, becuase it might hurt our economy.


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