Thursday, July 31, 2008

An Assault on Batteries

You know that episode of Sex and the City-- I think it was in Season Six-- when Berger, Carrie's boy du jour, admits that he picks up playing cards he finds on the streets of New York in hopes of collecting an entire deck, then suddenly Carrie starts seeing these cards everywhere? I have an admission of my own, in that I do the same thing with discarded batteries.

While I am not looking to start a used battery collection, I am compelled to pick them up because of what will happen if they are left to the elements. Batteries contain hard metals and chemicals such as nickel, mercury, acid, alkaline, and cadmium and have no business in our landfills OR on the side of the road, as exposure to extreme temperatures and moisture causes the casings to crack and allows the chemicals to seep into the soil and groundwater.

I'd like to think that I look slightly less crazy than I would if I went around picking up, say, empty cans, nor am I infringing on those who try to profit from collecting and recycling other people's trash. Not only are batteries easier to pick up and carry than aluminum cans, they are also (at the time of this posting) easier for me to recycle. Household batteries can be recycled at any area Walgreens or Chicago Public Library for free, and considering that there's now a Walgreens on almost every corner, it couldn't be easier!

So if, after reading this, you start seeing discarded batteries everywhere, instead of cursing my screen name, at least consider picking up those little nuggets of encased toxins and recycling them. And when it comes time to replace some spent batteries, know that tossing them is the equivalent of replacing the ice cubes in your next glass of water with some frozen AAs-- gross! From what I can tell, household battery recycling is not yet available nationwide, but if our local program is an overwhelming success, maybe it will be.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

More on the bag debate...

I saw on the news this morning that Los Angeles, much like San Francisco did last year, will fully ban plastic bags by 2010. When I looked a little further, I found this artice from NPR dated March of this year, with plenty of examples from around the world that this trend of charging for-- or entirely banning-- the flimsy, disposable plastic bag is not new, nor is it unique. Ireland has apparently been charging customers upwards of twenty cents per bag since 2003, and some African countries have imposed "minimum thickness requirements" on the bags they distribute. Germany charges a recycling fee to retailers who offer plastic bags, and China's free plastic bag ban went into effect last month.

In this country, several smaller cities in California and Alaska have adopted similar bans, and a number of large cities have plastic-bag policies in the works. Chicago, however-- despite the city's claims that it is one of the greenest in the country-- is notably absent from this list.

I have a number of canvas totes that are in near-constant use, and all of them have plastic produce bags inside that I reuse until they fall apart. I also have a handy nylon bag that folds down smaller than a cell phone that I carry in my purse in the event of a spontaneous purchase. Despite my best efforts, I am not able to avoid the plastic bag entirely, and little irks me more than the double (or triple!) bagging required in stores that use the flimsiest of bags-- why should I need six bags to carry four items!? Even though I try (like many people) to reuse them-- usually as garbage bags-- not all of them are sturdy enough, and the city doesn't accept these bags for recycling, so I am left with no choice but to throw them away.

Whether you're for or against the plastic bag ban, I don't see this trend going away any time soon-- in fact, I think the movement is just beginning to pick up steam. And isn't it better to make the switch now while it's still a matter of choice, than to be forced to switch later as a result of a (what I think will be an inevitable) city ordinance? I'd like to think that it is.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Bugged about bags?

A front-page article in this morning's Tribune portrayed a visionary, yet unwittingly controversial vendor at the Evanston Farmer's Market. It described how the farmer's un-earth friendly act of putting his organic, locally grown produce into more than 30,000 plastic bags a year was weighing heavily on his eco-conscience. So this year, when he decided to start charging people a quarter for up to four of these plastic bags, his noble attempt to reduce his impact on the environment was met with grumbles, complaints, and even outrage!
I have long seen the irony in doling out market-fresh fruits and veggies in scores of plastic bags, and personally, I applaud his efforts. I was just stunned to hear that the Farmer's Market patrons (who, by definition, are usually greener than the average citizen) would meet this action with so much resistance. Indeed, the online poll (at the time of this posting) revealed that 54% of respondents would refuse to pay extra for a plastic bag.
While I realize that the initial gut reaction most people have to new and unexpected charges is one of moral outrage, I see this as less of an attempt to nickel-and-dime struggling consumers and as more of an incentive to change the way we shop. Think about it-- these petroleum-based bags have littered roadsides, vacant lots, and dormant tree branches for years-- few people can argue that finding a way to produce (and discard) fewer of these bags is a bad thing. And stores like Aldi, and (more recently) Ikea and Whole Foods have proven that charging even a nominal five- to ten-cent fee per bag drastically reduces the number of bags their customers use. These bags are still available to consumers, but their convenience is no longer complimentary.
Another thought came to me tonight as well... Even though we can't control the price of a gallon of gas or a barrel of oil, and few of us can get by without using either at this point in time, we can control, reduce, and nearly eliminate our use of a product created from this exorbitantly priced resource-- the plastic bag. While the initial impact may be small, I believe the implications will be far-reaching.
The farmer in question estimates that he has reduced plastic bag use by 90%-- if he stays on track, he will have managed to keep roughly 27,000 bags from being wasted by the end of the season. That's pretty impressive! So to the market-goers of the North Shore (and everywhere!), please continue to support local farmers if you can, just bring a bag if you're able.

Friday, July 18, 2008

The Blue Bag Blues

So I was all set to write to my alderman this afternoon, requesting that we get the blue cart program in our ward sooner rather than later, when I came upon this information, saying that multi-unit residences had private trash pickup, and landlords were required to have a recycling program in place for their residents. In addition, residents are to be educated on what items are eligible for recycling in their building, and encouraged to participate in the program.

I wasn't aware of any program in my building, so I called my landlords-- what good are all these ordinances if they're not followed? To my surprise, I was told that we do in fact take part in the blue bag program with our waste management company, and that they just paid the extra "blue bag" charge a few days ago. While I'm glad to know that all those blue bags I've used in the past were potentially separated from the trash flow, I haven't been able to purchase any blue bags since last summer. I even tried to snag myself a free set in January by recycling a Christmas Tree, but they didn't have any to give away, only CFL bulbs and metal water bottles. I tried again this spring-- went to three Home Depots, a Menards and two Jewels before one helpful employee told me that the program had officially ended.

So instead I've spent my afternoon trying to find out if the blue bag program is really dead-- the City's Web site refers to the program in the past tense, with the exception of the following paragraph:

"And whether it comes to yard waste or general recyclables, residents of areas that have yet to make the transition to the Blue Cart can still employ a "last resort" method of recycling by continuing to use the Blue Bag. Since many private haulers have high rise residents that use the Blue Bag, operators of sorting centers or transfer stations where all waste is taken are required by permit to pull these bags and recycle them."

Finally, I found this press release on the Chicago Recycling Coalition's Web site (it's a cool site-- definitely worth checking out-- I'll try to have more on the organization soon) dated May 2, 2008, definitively saying that the program was ending this summer.

Does your apartment building have a recycling program in place? Check with your landlords-- if they're still paying for the blue bag program like mine are, they're wasting their money-- you can't even buy blue bags anymore! If apartment and high-rise dwellers can all get effective recycling programs in place in their buildings, we can turn around the city's dismal recycling efforts way before 2011--even faster than the city itself.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Recycling is hard!

For a city that proclaims to be one of the greenest in the nation, recycling in Chicago is not easy. Since the blue bag program was phased out (as it should have been! Despite the ads on the el depicting Streets and San guys in HazMat-type suits plucking blue bags from mounds of garbage, I seriously doubt that the program was very [if at all] effective), and the blue cart program (a much better idea!) won't be completely in place for another three years, keeping my recyclables out of the landfills requires a lot of effort on my part.

I currently collect recyclables in bins in my dining room. When the bins are full, I bag the contents and transfer them to the trunk of my car. When my trunk is full, I drive WAAAAAAY up north to the nearest of the city's 16 drop-off centers, park my car, stand on my tippy toes to open one of the lids on the dumpster-sized blue bins in the parking lot, heave heavy bags of old newspapers, plastic containers, glass bottles, and the like over my head and into said bins, reach up again to close the lid, then get back in my car and make the 15-minute drive back to my neighborhood.

I know of a couple other friends who have adopted similar routines... One drives carfuls of recyclables to her parents' house in the North suburbs, and another sneaks through the alleys in the ward to the north in the dead of night, trying to find a coveted blue cart with enough space left in it to hold the bags that she's carrying.

If this seems a little extreme, that's because it is. I know my friends and I may be a little crazy, but I also know that we're not like most people. Sadly, most people currently don't have the time or the means to recycle in this city--although many have the desire--and either opt for (or resort to) the convenience of the trash instead, because everybody has that.

I hope to chronicle my recycling adventures in future posts and share my experiences with others. I also want to offer (and receive!) suggestions and ideas on improving the recycling efforts in Chicago. I know that bringing about change in this city won't be easy, but I'm hoping for the best.