Sunday, January 6, 2013

Story of Stuff writes new chapter on Change

Annie Leonard and the good folks at Free Range Studios have been turning out some of the most effective videos on stuff ever made.

Starting with the Story of Stuff (in 2008), which showed the lifecycle of everyday things from extraction, production and use to disposal, they've now launched a series called The Story of Change. 

Change starts with the premise that citizen engagement--not shopping--is key to creating a better world--and provides a mini-roadmap for getting more involved.

It's well worth watching and sharing widely.

If you're looking for a project for students related to Stuff and Change, here's an idea: Ask your students to identify one material object that is about to be thrown away (plastic cup, candy wrapper, broken TV, worn out shoe). Next: have them trace the life cycle of the object:

  • Where was it made? Who manufactured it? 
  • What is it made of? 
  • How did they come to cross paths with it?
  • What happens to the object once it's thrown away?
Object life cycles can be traced with maps, photos, cartoons, video, collage--whatever medium students select to tell the story best.

Then, in the spirit of Stuff have them look at a few key questions:
  • Was this object needed in the first place?
  • Could the useful life of this object be extended?
  • Could it be re-used or recycled?
And in the spirit of Change, looking at all the student objects as a group, have students consider:
  • What policies/practices could be enacted as alternatives, to promote environmental health and sustainability?
  • What individual and collective actions can they take to promote these policies?

Need resources? Check out: Why Should I Care about Waste.
and the Make Change podcast.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


As good as the holidays can be to re-connect with one another and all that we hold dear, this time of year can also generate a surfeit of stuff. The volume of waste we produce during the season generally goes up by about 25 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, 5 million extra tons of household waste, according to the U.S. EPA.

Alot of waste (about 80 percent) is made up of shopping bags and wrapping paper. But after that initial flash of delight, it often ends up in our landfills. Fortunately, these are materials that can be easily recycled--and still be really great.

A few tips:

BYOB (bring your own bag), is of course a quick/easy way to reduce the use of shopping bags. Just have a few bags handy when you need them. And when you go to the store, try to pack stuff into  fewer bags. Does the cardboard box of garbage bags really need its own bag? This may seem like a really small thing, but reducing plastic bag waste adds up.

Wrapping paper is also a relatively easy thing to reduce--since all around us there is paper and other materials that we can repurpose to make even more beautiful and original packages. Maps and catalogs can make really cool packages--and finding unique ways to create cards and wrap gifts is a great craft for kids. Need inspiration? check out: "Unwrapping the Holidays" from "improvised life."

In San Antonio, if you have a Christmas tree to recycle, you'll want to keep this info handy about recycling options.

And shopping locally will not just cut down on fuel and support local businesses--it may also help you recycle a little of your own energy--and sanity.

More tips and links:

Recycle during the holidays - from the U.S. EPA

Reduce holiday waste - from the U.S. EPA

Suggestions from Stanford. 

San Antonio Recycling - Video on Do's and Don'ts (videos in English and Spanish)

In thinking about the holidays, or any other day, my heart goes out to the community of Newtown, Connecticut. I want to express my deepest condolences. You are in my heart and in my thoughts.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Aluminum to Styrofoam

Looking for a place to recycle the odd bit of this or that? Check out the San Antonio Express-News recycling directory (published this spring).

Monday, August 22, 2011

On Tap: Bottled Water Drains Resources

Let’s face it, in the belly of the recession, with about 14 million of us uemployed, concerns about things like recycling tend to move to the back burner. In a state of economic triage, how can we afford to think about “saving the trees?”

But it’s a false choice, because reducing unnecessary consumption and recycling save both resources and money, while being easier on the planet.

Take bottled water. In the U.S., where we are the top consumers of bottled water in the world, a bottle of water costs somewhere between $0.50 and $2.00. Tap water, depending on where you live, can cost something like $2.00 - $2.50 per CCF, where a CCF (100 cubic feet of water) is equal to 748 gallons. Now that’s thirst quenching.

Is bottled water more highly regulated for safety? No. The FDA keeps an eye on bottled water; the EPA oversees water from the tap. But under the EPA, water utilities must provide consumer confidence reports annually on water quality; whereas the FDA does not require that kind of reporting from bottled water manufacturers.

Also, bottled water is expensive to process, package, transport, and distribute. A study by the Pacific Institute found that in 2006, “producing the bottles for American consumption required the equivalent of more than 17 million barrels of oil, not including the energy for transportation.” Also, it takes water to make water. According to this same study, it took 3 liters of water for every 1 bottled liter produced. And then there’s landfill. Recycling reduces waste and cost - but buying less bottled water in the first place is the real resource-saver.

The bottom line? Studies find that bottled water is often no healthier than water you get from the tap, but it costs 10,000 times more. At the same time, the production and consumption of bottled water increases use of fossil fuels, and raises greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.

No doubt: It’s hot out. We all need a long, cold drink. But why not serve it up at cost that we can really afford - and a price we want to pay?

Resources and to Learn More:

Pacific Institute Factsheet on Bottled Water

Story of Stuff Video: Bottled Water

Discovery Channel: Bottled Water Carries Hidden Costs

San Francisco Department of Public Health - Bottled Water vs. Tap: Making the Healthy Choice

Special thanks to photographer Maheash Nelanka for sharing an image of water in Creative Commons!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Plastic Bag Gets Boot in Brownsville

A high-pitched scream emanating from a million single use plastic bags could be heard across the Valley on January 5th when Brownsville became the first Texas City to roll out a plastic bag ban. Or did that pain cry come from the executives of Texas’ plastics industry?

If the latter, it may be in large part because plastics turned out to be as lucrative as Mr. McGuire implied when he told Ben in The Graduate to think about the “great future in plastics.”

Soon after 1967, when The Graduate hit U.S. theaters, plastics streamed into American grocery stores. And since their introduction in the 1970s, they have come to dominate the grocery market. As the cost to produce plastic bags fell to a penny per bag, the industry grew, and bag use became ubiquitous at checkout counters. It is said that today between eighty and ninety percent of all grocery bags are plastic.

Your bananas merit a plastic bag and so do your eggs, milk and bread--all before slipping inside another bag. We bag just about everything as if encasing vegetables and fruits in translucent film could protect us and our families from life’s larger, unseen harms.

But the urge to enwrap has ushered in a new era of pollution and waste.

“Plastic - especially plastic bags and PET bottles - is the most pervasive type of marine litter around the world,” according to research by the United Nations Environmental Programme. The finding was followed by a call by the UNEP for a World-Wide Ban on Pointless Thin Film Plastic Bags.

“[Plastic bag] manufacture requires large quantities of petroleum,” reports Newsweek, “And, once discarded, they tend to take flight in a puff of wind, snagging in trees and fences or floating in bodies of water, where they can choke marine life and birds. As litter, a plastic bag's life expectancy is far greater than a human's — 1,000 years or more.”

Adding to this list of concerns, the City of Brownsville asserted that plastic shopping bags…

  • “have a significant impact on the environment such as contributing to unsightly litter on the streets, sidewalks, beaches, clogging sewers and drainage systems, and polluting the Resaca waterways”
  • “are difficult to recycle and currently contaminate material that is processed through Brownsville composting program”
  • “create a burden on the city’s solid waste disposal process"
  • “have significant environmental impacts each year, including felling of over 14 million trees, and use of over 12 million barrels of oil for bags in the U.S.; and
  • “cause the death of well over 100,000 marine animals."

Based on these problems, Brownsville found that it is “in the best interest of the health, safety, and welfare of the residents of Brownsville to reduce the cost to the city of solid waste disposal, and to protect the environment by banning the use of plastic checkout bags.”

No doubt there are things to iron out with plastic bag bans. Charging customers to buy bags at check out is generally regressive—impacting people the most who have the least. But at least Brownsville and other cities are on a path to sorting this out--and we can help by learning from their experience, passing single use plastic bag bans in our own cities and towns, and sharing what we learn in Texas and other states.

Actions you can take:

1. Use fewer plastic bags and reuse the bags you have. You can recycle used plastic bags by dropping them off at bins located outside HEB stores.

2. Get cloth bags out to everyone. For free. Consider an idea taken up by youth in the Ecoppell Club -- to provide free cloth bags to the residents of Coppell, Texas. Their goal? Eliminate the use of plastic bags not only in Coppell but “in United States and even the world”

3. Support schools, recycling at the same time. You can recycle plastic bags and help schools earn cash through HEB’s Enviro-Bag program.

4. Contact your City Council member to see what plans they have for putting a plastic bag ban on the table.


The Graduate (1967) (video clip)

Marine Litter: A Global Challenge (2009) by the UNEP

Taking Aim at All Those Plastic Bags (NYT article)

Battle of the Bags (

Copy of the Brownsville Ordinance posted by Plastic Ban Report

Monday, January 10, 2011

Still time to recycle the tree

A lone Christmas tree, rolled onto its side against the median strip, was spotted this morning on I-10, just near Fresno. Maybe it missed this weekend's drop off date but you don't have to.

You can still drop off a tree 8 - 5pm on on January 15th and 16th and while you're there, pick up a little free mulch for the spring garden.

Here's the map of drop off locations and the "411" from Solid Waste Management.

Monday, December 20, 2010

San Anto City Council Says Yes to Recycling for Multi-Family Units

The sky was an especially bright shade of blue that afternoon on December 9th, when San Antonio's City Council voted unanimously to approve the multi-family recycling ordinance that ensures that "residents living in multi-family units have convenient access to recycling programs."

Multi-family recycling, the ordinance asserts, is "a key component of the 10-Year Recycling and Resource Recovery Plan approved by City Council in June 2010 [where] multi-family property units represent approximately 30% of all housing units in San Antonio and generate between 100,000 and 150,000 tons of waste annually."

The plan is to roll out recycling on a schedule that calls upon the biggest complexes to jump in first by July 2011 and to have all complexes--from 3 units to 300 units--on track to recycle by April 2012.

Here is a link to the ordinance with all the concomitant “whereases” and “be it ordaineds (suitable for framing!)

So break out the champagne. Uncork the sparkling cider. Then, save up those bottles for a collection COMING SOON to your apartment, condo or townhouse.

Congratulations to ALL who worked hard on making this happen!


You can arrange for a water audit to save money on water bills at San Antonio Water System.