recycling on Maui

I had a lovely vacation and a great birthday on the island of Maui, but besides the tsunami evacuation (which occurred as I was just falling asleep) I was also irked by something else: the recycling situation.

Upon my arrival to Maui I was greeted by “BYO Bag!” banners hanging proudly outside of  grocery stores, from small local shops to Safeway, announcing their participation in the campaign to ban bags in Maui County (similar to our Ban the Bag campaign here in Portland). I saw recycled paper bags that stated “I [recycle symbol] HI” on it. There was a slew of wind turbines near Lahaina. I figured I had arrived in a sustainable place, as such a beautiful island should be, until the end of the trip, when it came time to part with the myriad recycling items that had accumulated in our rental car. Our tourism resulted in glass bottles and the cardboard box/sleeves them came in, plastic, aluminum cans (Maui Brewing Co’s Mana Wheat is a must-try if you are ever there), brochures, paper maps, and magazines.

Now I know “reduce” comes first in the three Rs so I tried to take only what I need, but being a tourist means maps and brochures are inevitable, and as it was my birthday reducing the amount of pineapple beer and wine didn’t seem like an attractive option. On my way out I returned the pristine brochures at a kiosk, even taking a few minutes to make sure they all got back in their correct spots. Next was recycling, which turned out to be nonexistent in some cases. I searched high and low for a bin to put the rest of our recycling, however the only options available offered space for cans and bottles specifically marked with “HI 10 cents.” A lot more stuff than I would have liked ended up getting dumped, leaving me overly-conscious of the fact some of my discarded items will be sitting in a landfill near Hana on a gorgeous island for decades to come.  These items will surely be joined by jillions of other things discarded by tourists who weren’t sure what other option they had besides to jettison the contents of their rental car into the dumpster.

It looks like the green movement is indeed making it’s way to the islands, but as of right now Maui is lacking the facilities to recycle many common items. Unfortunately, this means shipping materials to the mainland, a costly endeavor that utilizes perhaps more energy than would be saved in the end. Regarding energy, I couldn’t help but notice the amount of sunshine Maui gets, as confirmed by my tan (and peeling skin) compared to the appalling lack of solar panels on the island– I think I saw two total. I’m not a solar expert, and I know the panels would be expensive and CO2 intensive to get to Maui, but surely the ROI wouldn’t be too long, and these panels could potentially power a recycling plant. All of their sun (or wave energy) could definitely be put to good use in an area that has some of the highest electric bills in the country.

One article I read mentioned a landfill that was supposed to last ten years filled up in in two. I immediately remembered an article I read a long time ago about Nantucket producing zero waste, simply because they are on an island and that’s what they needed to do to preserve their home. Hopefully Maui can jump on board with zero waste, and implement a plan that works for residents and is also easy for tourists.


a missed bus, but not a missed opportunity

I was on my way home from the second Agent of Change class last night, or at least trying to be, when my attempts at sprinting for the bus, which was currently pulled over at the stop, left me choking on fumes as it pulled out just as I was approaching. I knew the next stop was around the corner, so I made a dash for it. Once again, as I got within reach of the back of the bus it pulled away despite my pleas of “nnnnoooooooo!” So there I was, left standing in the 30-something degree weather with a bus ticket that expired in 10 minutes and an iPod that was going to die any moment.

I take Tri Met all the time, and am always trying to advocate for public transit, but I have to admit sometimes it’s hard. People realize that parking downtown after seven is free (albeit trying to find a spot is akin to trying to find Waldo on the last page of the Where’s Waldo book where there are thousands of Waldos…), and it’s also widely realized that with your car you can control when you leave. Although Transit Tracker is awesome (you can call or text and get next arrivals in real time) the bus leaves you at the mercy of its schedule, especially at night when buses start to come less frequently.

As I sat at the stop, just glad it wasn’t raining, I started to write a blog post in my head. In class that evening, we had talked about how agents of change need to be authentic and trustworthy, so I figured I might as well put it out there in this blog that sometimes sustainability requires you to step out of your comfort zone. You don’t necessarily have to give up as much as you think, but some steps require patience and being ok with not getting everything you want now now now. As I was sitting there, someone slowly approached me with the “I think I know you from somewhere but I’m not entirely sure it’s actually you” look on their face, and it turns out it was someone I haven’t seen in eight months. Because we had nothing else to do besides wait, we had a chance to catch up and chat some about sustainability, and about his job in the realm of sustainable journalism.

I love the idea that taking public transportation presents a great chance to bump into your friends and coworkers, and provides you the opportunity to talk more to people than you normally do or would have the chance to while driving your car. It also offers a common ground that you share with everyone else riding, something that caused a group of women on my bus line to form a “Bus Club.” Though I never met these women, my roommate started chatting with them on the 8:05-8:22am ride in. They told her about Bus Club, and invited her out to one of their monthly breakfast get-togethers . These women were complete strangers who just happened to take the same bus downtown every morning which became the jumping-off point of their friendship.

The moral of these stories is that if you can’t control the exact minute you leave everyday or sometimes have to wait, it can be a good thing. In this day and age it seems like people think of waiting as such a bad thing, but when you consider the opportunities public transit offers, there are many more that allow you to meet and interact with your community as compared to sitting in your car alone.

And have you seen some of the things people are knitting on the bus these days?

innovation curve

Last week I had my first Agent of Change class. It went well and the students come from a variety of professions and lifestyles. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect walking in, but one thing that surprised me was the founders’ approach to making change.

Early in the class the teachers (also the founders of the course) brought up an old friend I had studied in college, the diffusion of innovations and innovations curve. Basically, the curve depicts how ideas are picked up by others and thus move through society (including the sustainability trend). Those who pioneer new ideas and technology are considered “innovators” and quickly adapt to the new idea/technology, whereas those who are the last to get on board are “laggards”. We split into groups and when I really started to consider the curve with my partners I realized how Europe, for instance, and my home state of Ohio need to be considered on separate curves. Sure, on a curve depicting the developed world, Europe is at the front while Ohio is farther back, but when you consider just one place, those in Ohio who have started to make positive change would qualify as the early adopters. Here in Portland if you are just getting on board you may be considered an early or late majority. It’s all relative.

I mention this curve because the idea of the class is not to try to target those in the back of the curve, which I previously would have suspected. The founders decided that there is power in numbers, and if they can reach out and provide training to the early adopter crowd there would be a larger group available to help the late majority and laggards. More and more, it makes me want to take my knowledge and help another area develop and implement a sustainability plan.

Each student in the class chooses a group they are a part of and want to create positive change in. For the purposes of the assignment, I’ll need to choose a group in Portland to practice on, and this will hopefully set me up to work on a bigger project elsewhere. I’m still brainstorming, but will use this blog to record each step of my project.

won’t you be my neighbor?

I’ve been a bad neighbor. Every few months I retrieve the Neighborhood News from our front porch (a four page mini-newspaper lovingly written, edited, and hand-delivered by volunteers) and toss it on the table where it almost instantly gets buried under other mail I deem not important. I’m not sure why I’ve never read it before– I supposed I assumed even though I’m part of the neighborhood that none of it would pertain to me (mainly because of my lack of children and/or pets, which, I know, is silly). But it turns out that a good deal of the newsletter content is about sustainability.

For instance, our neighborhood won a grant that is going to create more community garden space and offer tools near my house; the bad news is there is an eight year waiting list. A seed and harvest exchange is being implemented this year. Earth Day plans are in the making. And, oh, it turns out there is a monthly sustainability meeting located mere steps from my home.

Have I been living under a rock? (No, actually on the side of a mountain.) I thank my lucky stars everyday that I live in a place that offers curbside recycling, walkable neighborhoods, bike lanes, and progressive people who want sustainability to be ingrained in every day life– all things which were unheard of in the city from which I originally hail. But as you may recall, I always like to think about what the world would be like if everyone acted like me, and in this case there would be no neighborhood volunteers, let alone a whole group within the neighborhood volunteers dedicated to sustainability, bettering our community.

So why not get involved? Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our schedules that it becomes difficult to find the time or energy to attend these types of meetings, especially heading in to them not knowing a soul. Even though I may be moving soon-ish, I’m challenging myself to attend the next sustainability meeting, and see how I can help create change and let my ideas have a voice in the community that I am a part of. If anything, I may get good ideas to test out in my next neighborhood/office/wherever. I’d also like to extend the same challenge to you– a first step could be doing some research on what your neighborhood is up to. And if your neighborhood doesn’t have a group, why not ask around and get together with other interested neighbors to start one?


“the recycling nazi”

Last week I was riding MAX with some friends and we started chatting about work. I’m not sure how it even came up, but one of my friends started telling me about one of her co-workers who has taken it upon himself to micromanage the disposal of items in the communal kitchen. Apparently he makes his own signs to hang by the compost bin, lightly scolds those who do not rinse their plastic before tossing it in the recycling bin, and even told my friend she should request that the nearby coffee shop she patrons switch to biodegradable cups.

At first I thought this guy sounded cool. I assume their office has no Green Team, so this fellow is stepping up and making sure the compost and recycling aren’t being contaminated to the point where they will end up in the landfill. He’s educating his coworkers, right? But the more my friend talked about this guy (and even referred to him as the “recycling nazi”) the more I saw her point of view. After a stressful meeting no one likes to spend their lunch break being told by some random office mate to rinse their yogurt cup or have tons of all caps signs in their face. Her not-so-positive feelings toward this guy and his kitchen project really resonated with me.

Most people would agree that recycling is good and something they want to do, but I’m learning more and more that you have to be careful with how you communicate the message. This is where I feel my trusty marketing degree could come in handy, but I sometimes feel lost about how to apply it correctly to a cause I feel so passionate about. That evening I went home and did something that has been recommended to me by more than one person: I signed up for the Agent of Change course through the Center for Earth Leadership.

Starting this February I’ll be joining weekly with a group of others who have sought out this course to brainstorm ideas for positive change in our respective circles. I’m excited to learn how to take all this energy and good intention I have and direct it toward a project based around positive change. Best of all, this course is offered at no charge for those inspired and able to attend all courses.

If I were my friend’s “recycling nazi” coworker, I would redirect my time and energy spent monitoring the kitchen to establish a Green Team at the company. There must be other folks who want to make sure items are being properly recycled, and with a small team to split up the workload a proposal could be drafted to ask for support and funding from the operations department. He could start the process by getting help from this Bureau of Planning & Sustainability Green Team web page.

Or who knows, maybe I’ll meet this guy in my Agent of Change course.

paper & plastic vs. reusable

I started off this morning searching for the answer to a question someone asked me recently that stumped me: “How many times do you have to use a reusable bag at the grocery store to cancel out the energy used to make the bag?” I had no clue and vowed to look it up.

There is no simple answer, I’m finding. One reason is that reusable bags can be made out of a variety of materials, and some are more natural than others. Take for instance the popular non-woven polypropylene (NWPP) bags which are recyclable only in some places, yet not biodegradable which means they can take “hundreds of years to break down in a landfill.” It also turns out reusable bags may contain lead and there’s been some studies that they may contain bacteria.

Some of this doesn’t surprise me. We live in a culture where news seems to highlight the scary end of things,  and most everything seems to be bad for you. If you’re worried about the issues mentioned above, avoid taking the chintzier reusable bags that companies pass out for free and invest in the more natural type, wash your bags occasionally, or (and you should be doing this any ways due to pesticides) wash your produce well. You can also support women in other countries who hand weave baskets by purchasing a fair trade basket to use at farmer’s markets and the store.

Overall, I’m not going to stop using any of the bags I have. There are still many great reason to use reusable bags, and according to #24 on this list your reusable bag lasts about 700 times longer than a plastic bag. Paper bags take more energy to produce (a lot more, apparently) and are heavier than plastic bags so they burn more resources to transport. Plastic bags are cheap but are subject to photodegradation, meaning when they finally start to break down they seep into soil and waterways, contaminating required resources for life in animals and humans. And when they get mixed in with recycling they clog the machines. In some areas you can recycle reusable bags– just check with your city (for PDX) first.

My favorite carrying satchel still remains my trusty backpack, which is the easiest way to transport groceries while biking.

case of the winter house blahs

Every so often I peruse websites with “green lists”, hoping to find some outside-the-box thinking on how to help the old house I live in be as efficient as I can make it. As a renter, I can let my landlord know our furnace and windows aren’t the most efficient, but at the end of the day I don’t make the call if they are replaced or not. And on top of wanting to live in a greener space, I also really would love my share of the gas bill to not be more than I am making a month.

Everywhere I look I find recommendations to buy CFLs, turn off the water when I brush my teeth, and my favorite, “turn the thermostat down to 68 degrees in the winter” (ours is currently set at 63 degrees and I am fine in a sweater).  I’m looking for a new round of ideas, and ready to kick it up a notch. In winter the main source of energy use in our home is by far the heater. Here are a few really simple things I have been doing, and if you have more suggestions please share.

Clean your furnace filter. I have no clue why I waited so long to do this, but I recently contacted my landlord to ask how often we should be changing the furnace filter. The good news? We have an eco-friendly filter, and don’t need to purchase a new one. The bad news? We are supposed to be cleaning it every month, which has happened two times in the past 15 months I have lived here. Cleaning your filter increases the efficiency of your furnace (especially if it is a million years old, like ours) and is quick and easy to do.

Get in your shower already! A pet peeve of mine is when people turn on their showers and walk away. I get it, it’s unpleasant to enter a freezing cold shower in the dead of winter, but your shower might be warming up faster than you think. Our (very old) shower has piping hot water within seconds, so I always jump right in. If your shower really takes a long time to warm up consider purchasing a shower head valve ($30 or less usually). These allow the water to heat up while not wasting tons of water in the process.

Turn your water heater down. When I first moved in I would always have to turn the cold water on along with the hot water when I was doing dishes to avoid scalding my hands. I quickly learned I could not burn myself and save a ton of energy by turning our water heater down. I’ve since turned our water heater down many times, in small increments, to test where the temperature should be. If the maximum hotness you can make your shower or sink is more than enough try turning yours down a smidge. This will not affect the amount of water at all, just the temperature of the very hot water stored in the tank. If you are going to be away from your house on a vacation, consider turning the hot water tank way down. No use in paying to heat water for a week or more if you are not going to be using it.

Weatherize your windows. Last year I was so inspired by volunteering with the Community Energy Project that I decided to help my friends weatherize their windows, too. So far this year I’ve weatherized seven sets of windows between my house and friends’ and I’ve discovered the secret weapon: the hairdryer. After you blast a hairdryer over the clear window covering I swear you cannot tell that it’s on at all. And it’s strangely fun. For double coverage use rope caulk to cover any gaps on older windows (ours leak pretty bad) prior to covering. A word of advice, try the 3M kit– although it works, I was pretty disappointed with the Frost King kit.

Leave your oven open. Baking something delicious? Leave your oven open when you are done instead of letting the hot air inside go to waste.

Air dry your clothes. I always think of letting clothes air dry as a summer time event, but have you noticed how dry your skin gets in your house in the winter? The air is so dry inside I’ve found that my air drying clothes dry almost as fast as clothes left out on a sunny day.

Bonus points: Reclaim your dryer heat. For safety reasons, they say this one only works for electric dryers (ours is gas so I can’t participate). Instead of letting all that lovely heat float away outside, put it back in your house.