I’ve kicked the plastic bag habit, but there’s always the occasional plastic bag that gets into my house. I swear, it’s like an infestation or something, I don’t know how those things get in! Anyway, instead of just carting them off to the grocery store to be recycled, I thought maybe I could cut them into strips and crochet something out of them.

I’ve been needing a new bathmat in the bathroom, and I thought this would work perfectly. Easy to make, easy to clean, it would dry fast, it would be free, and best of all, it would divert something out of the waste stream.

It’s really quite easy to prepare plastic bags to be crocheted. There’s even a nifty way to hook the bag strips together without having to tie any bulky knots.

First, take your plastic bag and fold or roll it so the handles are at one end, and the bottom at the other.

Then, cut it into strips 1-2 inches wide, like this. Each strip will open up to a loop, and that’s exactly what you want. Don’t cut the loops open! You will have to discard the handles and the sealed strip at the bottom of the bag.

Open up the loops, and pull one through the other one, about halfway, so now you have two small loops.

Take one of the ends of the loop and pull it through the one on the other end. Basically, loop it through itself. It will look like this:

Pull it tight, and there you have it!

Continue the process by looping another one on the end, and in no time, you’ll have a giant ball of plastic, ready to be made into something new.

So I started crocheting. And….I blew through my stash of plastic bags. This thing has been quite a while in-the-making, since I just don’t accumulate plastic bags that quickly. That’s a good thing, but this half-finished rug lying around my living room has been starting to annoy me.

Enter: Madeline, my cat.

Something I have to tell you about Maddie: I don’t know why, but apparently, she loves plastic, and she’s been absolutely loving my rug-in-progress. Seriously. Husband and I were laying in bed the other night and wondering about the rustling sound we were hearing from the living room, along with cat howls. In the morning, we found my plastic rug, in a pile in the dining room. She drags it around at night and howls (with joy??). Since I didn’t have enough plastic to make a rug anyway, I went ahead and just finished it as a cat-sized little square for her.

Behold, the happiest cat ever, pictured with her new bed.

But I still don’t have a rug! So when we took down all the plastic window sealer, I started cutting that up into strips and crocheting with it. (As a side note, I hate that we have to seal our windows with plastic every year, but that’s the best solution for us right now. As much as I’d love to just replace all the windows, that’s a task for our landlord.) That clear plastic film in rug form actually looks nice! It gives off a bit of silvery shine and makes a thick mat. But given that I used all the plastic from all the windows and it’s not nearly as big as I want, it might take me about 3 years to finish it 🙂 And in the mean time, I just have to get my cat to NOT steal it….

This was a bit more time-consuming to work with, because when you cut it up it doesn’t make nice loops that you can hook together. I tried cutting it into a spiral shape, and that didn’t work at all. The plastic tore apart at every curve or corner. So I ended up cutting each piece into the longest strips possible and just tying them together. Yeah, it was a bit of a pain, but it gives another use to something that we usually throw away every year. And that makes it worth the trouble.

Here it is as I was just starting out:

And here it is now. Madeline comes running every time the camera comes out, and the fact that I brought my other plastic rug out of the closet was an added bonus. This was the best I could do, a blur of a cat running to get in the picture:

And a few of the happy kitty, just for good measure. She does try so hard to be in every picture, after all.


Recently, I toured my local recycling facility to see how it all works, and it inspired me to think about where all the REST of our trash goes. Around the Greater Boston area, (where space is a premium) almost all of the trash from around here is incinerated, sending the ash to a local landfill.

And guess what? I got to go on a tour of the local waste-to-energy trash incinerator in Saugus, MA.

I have to say, I wasn’t really thinking I’d learn much. I mean it’s just a fire, right? The stuff burns until there’s only ash left and it’s buried. Simple, right? Well, I found there’s a bit more to it than that. And just having the opportunity to see the process in motion made a big difference. And let me tell you, that fire is friggin hot! Even through the super-thick, tiny viewing glass (which was sort of like peering through a welding mask) it felt really hot on my face. They told me they maintain the fire at about 2200-2500 degrees Fahrenheit, and you could really feel it through the reinforced walls and everything.

Here’s a short animation from their website that explains how it all works. This makes much more sense than any long-winded descriptions I could offer. It’s a great little video, showing how the trash gets into the burning room itself, how the metals are sorted out, and how the gas is “scrubbed” afterward to meet air quality regulations.

Additionally, they have an ash landfill on site, so they don’t have to take the waste all that far. They told us that they reduce the size of the incoming trash by 90% which is nothing to sneeze at. Another upside was that the power generated (in the form of steam that runs turbines, I think) powers the whole plant, with plenty of energy leftover that they sell to the local electricity company.

Maybe one of the reasons I originally didn’t feel it was necessary to see this facility along with the recycling plant was the lack of the feel-good component. There’s nothing good that comes from this. It doesn’t get sent somewhere else so we can use it again. We’re left with a pile of super-toxic ash that needs disposed of in a landfill that (we hope) won’t contaminate the groundwater, affect local wildlife, or harm people around it.

But I’m really glad I went. Just seeing the sheer volume of garbage in person is an image that will haunt me for quite a long time.

For our waste, this is the end of the line. There’s nothing else, nowhere else for this to go. They process 1500 tons of trash per day, and that’s only off the top of the mountain waiting to be incinerated, all while a steady flow of trash trucks shows up to dump more constantly. Their little animation video shows that giant “claw thing” lowering all the way down to the floor to grab a load of garbage, but in reality, it only had to scoop from the top of the pile near the ceiling, 200 feet above the ground.

What really bugged me the most was to see so much stuff that had so much potential. Lots of recyclables, pieces of furniture that could have been reused or refurbished, so much stuff that could have gone around again, that could have served another purpose. And once it’s ash, it’s ash. There’s no more reusability, no more use that can come from it. It is a true last resort for disposal.

Ok, enough of the depressing stuff. I asked our tour guide (who also works there) for a list of his top 5 things he should never have to see coming into this facility and being fed into the incineration rooms. I was very surprised to hear they really don’t have a problem with hazardous materials, electronics, or large appliances coming through. He said those would definitely be on the lets-never-see-them list, but he didn’t feel it was necessary to list them because they weren’t really a problem.

So what were the items they see a lot of but shouldn’t have to deal with? They were all completely obvious things, but it was still staggering to see so much of those very items going through the system, just in the short time I was there.

  • Food scraps: Food scraps, because they’re over 90% water don’t burn very well and sap energy from the fire. They’re way better off being composted. It’s ridiculous to dispose of food waste any other way. (I keep meaning to write a post on how easy composting is, but sometimes I don’t even know what to say. Put food scraps in a pile outside and they’ll turn into dirt. That’s basically it.)
  • Metals and Glass: Metals and glass don’t burn. With metals, it takes a lot of energy to melt them, and I mean a lot, and it slows their system down just to send the stuff to a recycler anyway. Metal and glass both have a very high resale value and can easily be remade into other useful things. There is absolutely no reason to dispose of them through incineration.
  • Paper/cardboard and recyclable plastics: Recycling is a much better use for stuff like this because it has reuse/recycle value. Again, why burn and waste what someone else will pay money for so they can make it into something else? Yes, paper products burn well, but then they can’t be used a second time around or more.

So basically, it doesn’t make sense to burn things that don’t burn, it doesn’t make sense to burn things which can be used again and again, and it doesn’t make sense to burn food scraps that can be composted to make valuable topsoil. The longer we can keep the same things going around, the better. Duh.

So how big of a problem are those things? They estimated about 40-70% of their incoming trash was either recyclable or food waste. Yeah, you read that right. 40-70% of what they process shouldn’t even be there in the first place. I’d say that’s a pretty good starting point for improving things: getting every town to offer a recycling program, and getting people to put their recyclables in the right place.

I asked if people really did recycle all of that stuff if there wouldn’t be a need for their plant anymore, and if anyone would have to worry about that. Nobody at the plant hesitated with their solid  “no.” There’s always more trash out there. They run their facility 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and can’t keep up with the incoming trash. And they only have contracts with 14 surrounding communities. There’s more than enough to go around, and not enough time in the day to process it all.

I couldn’t help but think about the recycling facility down the road that is crying for more material to sort, sell, and recycle, all while valuable materials are burned to ash and buried in a landfill (around which a wildlife refuge was designated).

If nothing more, it’s made me think harder about what exactly I throw away. Do I really not have any other use for that? Am I sure I need to throw that away? Do I really need to buy this? Can I buy another option with less packaging? Now that I know where it all goes and saw it firsthand, I don’t want to contribute to that anymore.

Anyone have any other thoughts? Have you given any thought to reducing your trash? What changes have you made (or plan on making) to reduce your trash? How can we get more people to recycle??

The hard part about recycling–and waste disposal in general–is that we never get any feedback. If we’re doing something that doesn’t work for the disposal system, we have almost no way of ever knowing that we’re even doing anything wrong, let alone given a chance to improve.

And I, for one, have a million questions about the details of the whys and hows.

Why ISN’T styrofoam recyclable, even though it’s labeled as #6? I really can’t just toss it in, and it will make its way to the right place? Why do the plastic bags have to be recycled at the grocery store separately rather than going in the recycle bin, even though they’re #2 plastic? Is it better to leave the lids on plastic bottles or off? Does it matter if we take the labels off things? Exactly how much peanut butter do I need to rinse out of the jar before tossing it? Should I flatten cardboard and smash bottles before tossing them?

I like to know the details, because realistically, someone–a person, a human being, an employee of the plant–has to sort it out when we don’t do something right. And I’d like to know what I can do make that person’s job just a little bit better.

My visit to the local materials recovery facility allowed me (as well as others on the tour) the opportunity to ask just those kinds of questions. And what I learned was very interesting.

Surprisingly, the machines sort the stuff pretty well. This particular plant just upgraded to some state of the art sorting equipment, which made the job of hand sorting much, much easier. What kept recurring in our conversations was that the lack of education (or plain laziness) of patrons, concerning what can be recycled, clogs the system at every turn. Their biggest problem is that the equipment can’t process what it wasn’t designed to handle. That’s why it’s so important for all of us to only put in our recycle bins what’s meant to go in the bins.

That’s mainly why they need quality control staff in the first place. And as I looked down the pit into the piles of inappropriate things they pulled out, I could see they weren’t kidding. A mangled shopping cart, crutches, a broken wheelchair, old stained pillows, and countless plastic bags, sheet plastic, styrofoam, and more were being sorted into piles for disposal outside of their facility.

Any time something that’s not meant for their system gets in, it slows down the whole process. They have to take the time to pull it out manually, and if they miss it, it could jam the machinery down the line, or affect the quality of the baled materials they’re selling, affect the resale value of those bales, and even affect the quality of the materials remade from those recovered materials, if they’re “tainted” with pieces of things that aren’t supposed to be there.

So as for some of my questions earlier, I got the opportunity to ask! And I got some good feedback.

Regarding plastic bags, they’re one of the worst things for the whole plant. Not only can the equipment not process them, but they routinely get sucked into the machinery, jamming it. It actually breaks the gears and can compromise the whole plant’s ability to process anything at all. They wreak havoc on the system at every turn. If there was only one main thing the plant workers could ask everyone to do, it would be to NOT put any plastic bags of any kind into the recycling. That includes sheet plastic, plastic wrap, bubble wrap, those air pocket things used in shipping (even though they say right on the bag they can be recycled), and any kind of plastic grocery or storage bags.

Styrofoam is too light to be sorted properly, and it doesn’t have much any resale value, it’s just not profitable to process, and it’s difficult to remake it into much else. They said that it’s much better to try to get people to stop producing, buying, using, and disposing of styrofoam in the first place rather than trying to make it into something else. (I tend to think that about single-use disposable containers in general, but…..that’s a discussion for another time.) Additionally, paper or cardboard are much better alternatives to styrofoam in just about every instance.

Shredded paper is too small to go through the sort process–literally falling through the cracks onto the floor–and will get swept into the trash. They CAN process shredded paper, but it should be tied in a clear bag and labeled so the hand sorters can see what it is and can pull it out and place it with the paper. This can be the ONLY exception to the no plastic bags rule. Putting it in a paper bag or other type of container is fine, just make sure it’s clearly labeled that it’s shredded paper, otherwise they just have to tear it open to make sure it’s not everyday trash. (Once it’s torn open, you can guess what happens from there…scattered on the floor to be disposed of elsewhere.)

Same with lids of bottles and other tiny bits of material: the machinery just isn’t designed to sort small pieces. Lids have a much better chance of getting to where they are going if they stay attached to the bottles. And if the bottles are smashed before the lids are put on, it makes even more likely that they’ll both make it to where they’re going. I heard lots of “POP” sounds from lids blowing off plastic bottles as they were run over by bulldozers and such as they were being pushed toward the entry conveyor. I imagine that also affects the safety of the workers down there too. No one wants to get hit by a jet-propelled plastic cap. And while receiving 400-700 tons of recycling material per day, I imagine the fact that it just plain takes up less space makes a big difference too.

Here’s a shot of the floor, in case you’re mildly curious about what falls through the cracks…

Paper labels should come off so they will get sorted into the paper rather than heading off with the glass, tin, or plastic container they’re attached to. This cuts down on contamination in the final bales of material.

Now as for the giant pieces of metal, while the system can’t process it, they end up with so much of it, the facility itself carts it to scrap metal places for cash. They said they’re not really thrilled to have to pull it out manually, but it is a source of extra revenue for them. And they were really pulling a bunch of it out. The problem with that is it takes more human power to do that. And it can impact both the machinery and the finished baled products if it doesn’t get all pulled out by hand in the first stage of sorting. I can imagine they get a pretty good chunk of change from all that stuff, that bin was enormous:

The best thing to keep in mind is what I mentioned earlier, that the system can’t process what it wasn’t designed to handle. Otherwise, the sorting system works quite well. And it would work even better if we could all make sure to do the best we can to put into the system only what was supposed to be there.

So go back and take a second look at your neighborhood’s collection policy. Check with your recycling coordinator if you have specific questions, or ask them what facility handles the recycling and contact them directly. They can’t make their recycling system  better without our informed efforts.

It was a little challenging to take pictures during the tour portion, as it was important to keep moving and stay with the group, but I have a few to share. Enjoy!

The first step: onto the tipping floor.

Everything is then pushed toward the entry conveyor to start the sorting process.

After everything has been sorted, it is fed into this machine and baled. The baler was spitting out a long line of paper bales when I was there.

Forklifts arrange the bales into sections according to material.

It looked like a warehouse in there, piled high with bales. The nicest-smelling section was the one with all the laundry detergent container bales.

A close-up of an aluminum bale.


I know it sounds weird but, I really enjoy reading stuff by economists. Leavitt and Dubner’s Freakonomics and Super Freakonomics as well as their podcast, everything by Daniel Pink (books and blog), the list goes on and on. So when I heard about this new book by Gernot Wagner, who’s not only an economist but an environmental economist, I knew it was going to be a definite must-read for me. The book is called But Will the Planet Notice? How Smart Economics Can Save the World.

It’s a great read, with clear explanations of problems and policies needed, if a bit on the grim side. It’s actually been a while since I’ve read it, (this post has been a long time coming), and I regret not writing a lengthier review when it was all fresh in my mind. (I meant to, but you know……) I’ll have to get back on the library’s wait list to re-read it.

Perhaps the most jarring part was that he continually referred to the atmosphere as “our atmospheric sewer,” which is indeed what it is, unfortunately. One of his major arguments is that we don’t need to worry about oil running out, as we’ll run out of breathable air long before that happens if we remain on the path we’re on. Yikes.

His main point is that we can change what we do as individuals, but the population is so massive, our little efforts don’t make a difference. What we really need to do is change the policies and laws, which will change the behavior of everyone to make the largest possible impact. He lays out exactly what kinds of policies that would need to be put in place, as well as how and why they would work.

Sometimes I feel like I might have missed my calling as an economist, because I love reading about stuff like that.

If you, like me, have an interest in all things green through economist’s goggles, or if you’re interested to know more, or you just think I’m weird and are perversely curious about my crazy thing for economics, here are a few links you might enjoy:

What are YOUR most highly recommended blogs, books, documentaries, podcasts, websites, or other eco-minded sources of information?

These days, footprints are all the rage. You can calculate your eco footprint, your carbon footprint, water footprint, energy usage footprint, and even your foodprint. And I’m sure there’s many, many more.

Recently, I was made aware of a website that calculates an estimated number of how many slaves work for you based on where our goods come from, who makes them, and how many you have. Which they call, of course, the slavery footprint.

I know, what you’re thinking, “Slavery has been outlawed. I don’t benefit from slavery.” But that’s not the case. And it’s complicated.

Check out your own results here: http://slaveryfootprint.org/

The quiz leads you through lots of questions about what you own and how much of it, and the site estimates, based on all your information, how many slaves it took to manufacture those goods and materials. Mine came out at 31. I have an estimated 31 slaves (indirectly?) working for me. It hit me like a punch in the stomach.

I don’t want to participate in maintaining the institution of slavery, in any of it’s forms. Working to be greener is only part of the story. We have to care about the preservation and protection of the people as much as the planet. The site offers some great background information, as well as direct actions and ways to make changes, both large and small scale.

What’s your slavery footprint?

And for a very interesting read on modern slavery, check out this article: http://www.cnn.com/interactive/2012/03/world/mauritania.slaverys.last.stronghold/index.html

I have allergies. And I get lots of colds. And during the times I’m most suffering, Vicks is a close friend of mine. Both in the vapo-rub form as well as inhaled form.

So when I last visited my sister and saw her homemade version, I had to know more.

It’s very easy to make your own Vicks-style inhaler.

Find a small airtight container and put a cotton ball in it. This will be your inhaler container, so find one as small as you can that will seal tightly and hold a cotton ball.

For the actual solution, you’ll need a mix of 3 different essential oils: Peppermint, Eucalyptus, and Lavender.

On the cotton ball, add:

  • 8 drops peppermint oil
  • 20 drops eucalyptus oil
  • 28 drops lavender oil

When your symptoms are bugging you, simply take the lid off and take a deep breath through your nose. It really does help.

My sister uses it for her kids’ asthma, as a supplement to their inhalers, NOT to replace them. But I find it helps with my allergy congestion as well.

Here is an article from the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy  about asthma, which also might be helpful for allergies as well.

Now, I’m not advocating that anyone with asthma use only this. Not at all. What I AM saying is that there are other options you could try if you suffer from asthma, allergies, congestion, etc. and see what works best for you. This is simply another option to try.

Ok, so I have this weird thing for recycling. I like recycling, but it’s also about how recycling works. It’s a complete mystery. I mean, you toss your stuff in the bin and don’t think about it anymore. And it disappears, to be remade into other stuff. That’s awesome. It’s like magic.

But let’s face it, the recyclables don’t just disappear from the bin and miraculously appear as something new. Someone comes and picks them up, takes them to a recycling facility, and there are lots of people involved, and lots of hard work, and a lot of energy usage. And then what? Yeah, I don’t know either….Aren’t you curious too?

I found this interesting video I thought I’d pass on, just in case you’re wondering how all that stuff gets sorted.

Of course, it’s always better to reduce your usage so you don’t have anything to recycle in the first place, but as we work toward that, it’s definitely cool that more and more people see the value of remaking our trash into something else.

So back to my recycling “thing.” In my quest for all things green, I’ve subscribed to the city of Cambridge, MA recycling e-newsletter. I don’t live in Cambridge and therefore can’t participate in their programs, but they’ve got it going on. They recycle just about everything, have a strong framework for neighborhood recycling, and are great about getting information out there. They do school programs where someone from their recycling department will come to your school and give a presentation on how best to support the recycling workers when you recycle. (I used to teach in Cambridge, and my school took advantage of that one.)

And what was in my inbox from them this week? Why, nothing other than an invitation to tour their recycling center in Charlestown.

Here’s what they have to say about it:

Cambridge residents and City employees are invited to tour Casella Recycling in Charlestown and Waste Management’s incinerator in Saugus. No children under 16. The tour lasts about 2 hours and involves lots of walking on narrow catwalks and stairs, close to heavy equipment. If you can’t keep up with a group walking at a steady pace, unfortunately this is not for you. We meet at DPW and carpool. Let us know if you can drive and how many people you can take. Email to sign up and we’ll send more info.

Recycling Tours: 4/10 (early afternoon), 5/17 (early afternoon), 6/6 (morning).  Or, watch a short video at www.zero-sort.com.

Trash Tours:        4/18, 5/22, 6/13 (all early afternoon)

I can’t explain why that sounds so cool, but I really want to go. Hopefully they’ll allow non-Cantibridgian recycling enthusiasts along for the ride too. I’ll have to let you all know what more I learned about how recycling works 🙂