Composting

Deep Impact

Research to support environmental justice is a priority for EPA’s Office of Research and Development. To highlight that important work, we are reposting the following from the Environmental Justice in Action blog.

 

By Gelena Constantine

Learning about environmental justice is much more than participating in meetings or sending e-mails. To fully understand what communities are experiencing first-hand, you have to experience it. That’s why I embarked on a learning opportunity with EPA’s Region 3 Philadelphia Office of Enforcement, Compliance and Environmental Justice (OECEJ) last summer to learn how the elements of environmental justice, science, and technology coalesce in communities.

My first day consisted of the typical introductions. I met with the Region’s Counsel, Danny Isales, who advises OECEJ on multi-media enforcement issues, many involving environmental justice. At that time, Danny was providing input on a new enforcement case involving a compost center that takes in food waste and places it into large piles for composting. The size of the compost and outdoor temperature created an overpowering odor for the neighboring community.

Truck parked at a composting facility

Mountains of material waiting to be processed.

When I drove by the facility with other EPA personnel, the stench was definitely apparent from a distance, and I could see its proximity to the community. There were mountains of material that also included more plastic bags than I could count. We were followed and approached by a worker from another company in a pick-up truck. He inquired about our actions, and once we shared that we were from EPA and what had been reported, he proceeded to share his unfortunate experiences with the foul smell. According to him, “…depending on the wind direction, some days you’d be knocked off your feet.” It was interesting to see that it wasn’t just the residents that were being affected, but the neighboring workers were as well.

 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action.

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Deep Impact

By Gelena Constantine

Learning about environmental justice is much more than participating in meetings or sending e-mails. To fully understand what communities are experiencing first-hand, you have to experience it. That’s why I embarked on a learning opportunity with EPA’s Region 3 Philadelphia Office of Enforcement, Compliance and Environmental Justice (OECEJ) last summer to learn how the elements of environmental justice, science, and technology coalesce in communities.

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mountains of unprocessed material

My first day consisted of the typical introductions. I met with Regional personnel who discussed a composting facility which EPA was concerned may have been the source of certain odors in the neighborhood. Additionally, I was informed that the facility had been found out of compliance by the state environmental agency and had been issued an order and was fined by the state.

When I drove by the facility with other EPA personnel, the stench was definitely apparent from a distance, and I could see its proximity to the community. There were mountains of material that also included more plastic bags than I could count. We were followed and approached by a worker from another company in a Untitled-2pick-up truck. He inquired about our actions, and once we shared that we were from EPA and what had been reported, he proceeded to share his unfortunate experiences with the foul smell. According to him, “…depending on the wind direction, some days you’d be knocked off your feet.” It was interesting to see that it wasn’t just the residents that were being affected, but the neighboring workers were as well.

I thought that a compost center would be a positive addition to the industrial park it was located in and the local neighborhoods, but it turned out to be much more complex than that. I’d learned that the compost wasn’t being processed within an appropriate amount of time, partly because of the sheer amount, in addition to insufficient staffing.  The company was eventually fined by the state and they hired additional workers.

Residences in close proximity to the composting plant

Residences in close proximity to the composting plant

Next, I visited the office of The Clean Air Council, an EPA EJ grantee that works with communities in the same area. They have interviewed residents about their concerns with the compost plant to help enable the community to find a solution for this problem. When I followed up with the grantee several months later about their work with the composting facility, they shared that none of the residents wanted to speak against the company in court, and they were trying to figure out a way around that challenge. They were afraid of being victimized economically, as many of the residents are employees of the neighboring companies, or just fear in general fear of speaking out.

The community expressed the problem and worked to collaborate and communicate with federal and state government to fix it.  However, the momentum and power of holding the facility accountable and deter them from future mistakes were somewhat impeded because of fear.

My visit was extremely illuminating. There are many laws and technologies in place to assist in environmental justice efforts, but implementation and enforcement is not always clear-cut as one might think. My experiences helped cultivate a better understanding of what I’ve spent the last two and a half years of my professional career assisting the Agency and many other partners doing: Positively impacting human health and general well-being, people’s livelihood, their history and future.  It is gratifying to know that we are making a difference, and doing what we can for those whose voices sometimes go unheard.  Although not all problems can be solved completely, they can and must be addressed somehow.

For those who haven’t had a chance – especially those of us at EPA— I would highly encourage at least one visit to a community with real environmental justice issues. I’m confident it will be as enlightening and an invaluable experience for you as it was for me!

A relative newcomer to the EJ Community, Gelena Constantine works as an EJ Coordinator in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.  She has worked with several NEJAC workgroups and EPA committees on EJ. 

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Get to Know Your Bin

By Colleen Keltz

“We’re in the midst of our Earth Month celebration.”Let’s recycle everything in sight!

Whoa now. Sometimes I get a little excited about Earth Day. After all, there are so many ways you can celebrate Earth Day:

  • Volunteer as part of a neighborhood or stream clean up.
  • Start composting at home or join a community compost program.
  •   Do a bit of spring cleaning and donate, reuse, or recycle the items you no longer need.
  •   Re-familiarize yourself with your recycling bin.
In DC, blue bins are for recycling and green bins are for trash.

In DC, blue bins are for recycling and green bins are for trash.

Think you know what goes in your recycling bin? Well, I’ve lived in the District of Columbia for four years and I just recently looked at DC’s Department of Public Works website to find out what can and cannot go in my residential curbside recycling bins.

The curbside recycling program in DC is single-stream, meaning all recyclables (paper, glass, and plastic) go in the same bin. Pretty easy! After visiting DC’s residential recycling webpage, I realized I could recycle more items than I had thought. In DC, aerosol cans, yogurt containers, and empty over-the-counter medicine bottles can all go in the recycling bin. Great news!

Knowing recycling rules for your area is important because putting the wrong things in the recycling stream can decrease the value of recyclables and even break the equipment at the recycling center. You might be surprised by how different the recycling collection rules are from one area to another. And, you might be able to recycle more than you realized.

I also found out that my area has opportunities for residents to drop off household hazardous waste, pharmaceuticals, and used electronics, as these items require special care when recycling. Sometimes, it can be hard to figure out what to do with odd items that you no longer need – like an old garden hose or used paint. If you find yourself with odd items after spring cleaning, take these steps to make sure the items are put to the best use possible:

  •  If the item still works, give it to a friend, host a garage sale, or donate it.
  • If it’s not on the list of regular recyclables in your community, check for special collection events.

As you approach this Earth Day with great enthusiasm, I encourage you to familiarize yourself with your community recycling program – you never know what may be able to go in that recycle bin!

Happy Earth Day!

About the author: Colleen Keltz began working for EPA’s Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery in 2008. She’s been excited about reducing, reusing, and recycling ever since.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Upcycling for Life

By Mark Seltzer

With Americans creating literally millions of pounds of trash each year, and 135 million tons ending up in landfills and incinerators in 2012, I’m always looking to upcycle. I enjoy giving unwanted objects new life. Here are some of the interesting items I’ve made over the years out of objects that otherwise would have gone in a landfill.   Macquarium

Back in the day, my high school was discarding Macintosh Plus all-in one computers.  Determined to find a creative use for out-of–date computers, I built a Macquarium – a Macintosh computer aquarium. I took everything in the monitor out and replaced it with an aquarium tank and a filter.  See photos and specific details on how to make one.

Gardening and Composting

Composting is one way to upcycle your food waste, but you can build a composter with recycled materials too. I designed two composters out of reused materials – a tumbling composter with a recycled 35 gallon barrel, and a worm (vermacomposting) bin out of a reused plastic tote.

Reclaimed Wine Bottles

I’ve reclaimed wine bottles by building several prototype lights and pencil cups. These items can be found on my desk at EPA and can make great gifts.

winecup

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ski bench

I work part time as a National Ski Patroller at a local ski mountain, and I decided something must be done with discarded skis. Now skiiers can rest at the top on the bench I designed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Planters

I turned a tiny recycling bin into a mini “Zen Garden.”  I wanted a low profile planter and found that a cast-off recycling bin serves as a narrow planter in a high traffic walkway.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lights! Bike Light

For a coworker and good friend who is an avid biker, I designed a bike floor lamp.  Certainly one way to recycle!

 

 

 

 

Repurposed Jelly Jars Lights

Jelly jars make great candles. Here are a couple with recycled (filtered) vegetable oil and a wick.   Currently, I’m renovating my house and donating things to a local building material thrift shop. I intend to reuse as much as possible for creative upcycling.  Here’s one gem from my house, a funky shower fixture.  Ideas for reuse? Coat Rack? Bookshelf? Stay tuned … I hope to write a blog post on my reuse ventures from house renovations.

 

 

 

 

About the author: Mark Seltzer works as an attorney advisor for EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention. During the winter months, he can be found on the ski slopes as a ski patroller at a local Pennsylvania ski mountain. During the summer, he can be found running, hiking, biking or canoeing along the Potomac.  

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Making Your Yard Wildlife-Friendly

By Lina Younes

While enjoying the fall foliage on a recent walk with my dogs, I noticed that the birds seemed to be chirping more than usual. Perhaps they were saying goodbye to their friends, who were starting their trek to warmer settings.

Since not all birds are migratory in nature, how can we help those species that remain in northern areas, even during the winter? Personally, I’ve always debated whether it’s better to allow them to find their own food or have bird feeders. I’m concerned that, by providing bird feeders, we might be making birds more dependent on humans and interfere with their feeding habits. Either way, greenscaping is a great way to create a natural environment that’s friendly to many animals, including birds, butterflies, and bees.

Here are some tips to help you create this welcoming environment in your own backyard.

  • Plant native trees, bushes and plants, especially ones with berries, fruits and flowers.
    When planting your garden, plan in advance.
  • Plant shrubs and trees that will blossom at different times throughout the year so our feathered friends and wildlife will always have food available.
  • Check with your local cooperative extension office or environmental authorities to identify plants that will attract birds and wildlife in your area.
  • Consider composting at home to enrich your soil without using chemicals that may be harmful to birds and wildlife.

Have you seen any interesting birds in your area this fall? Have you taken steps to greenscape your yard? As always, we love to hear from you.

About the author:  Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and currently serves the Multilingual Communications Liaison for EPA. She manages EPA’s social media efforts in Spanish. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Portion Control for a Greener World

By Lina Younes

As someone who has struggled with weight loss issues for most of my adult life, I am well aware of the importance of managing food portions. Even when I try to make myself believe that I am controlling the amount of food I’m eating by limiting my portion sizes, I’ve noticed that the scale never lies. When my servings become more generous, the weight on the scale inches up in the same proportion. So, have you thought about how managing food portions can lead to a healthier lifestyle AND to a healthier planet?

Let me explain.

Did you know that when we increase our food portions at home, at schools, and restaurants, in fact we are wasting a lot of food? In 2011, Americans threw away more than 36 million tons of food in 2011. Nintey-six percent of that wasted food ended up in landfills or incinerators around country. So what can we do to waste less food?

  • How about serving smaller portions or eating on smaller plates. Also, when you pause to think before you eat, you might realize you’re full and not go for the second serving.
  • Before you throw away fresh fruits and vegetables that you have in the refrigerator, why don’t you try new recipes? Have you thought of freezing fruits for use in making smoothies at a later date? You can also wash and freeze vegetables to use in stews for a future meal.
  • How about cutting up stale bread to make your own home-made croutons?
  • Have you thought about composting food scraps like potato peels, fruit waste, coffee grounds, egg shells, and old spices?

Earlier this summer, EPA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a collaborative effort called the US Food Waste Challenge  to raise awareness of the environmental and health issues created by food waste. Learn more about the program and see how you can become involved.

By taking simple steps to reduce food waste, you will save money from buying less food, conserve energy and natural resources, and, especially, lower your carbon footprint by reducing methane emissions that are produced in landfills during the decomposition of food waste. It seems like a green win-win for all involved.

About the author:  Lina Younes has been working for EPA since 2002 and currently serves the Multilingual Communications Liaison for EPA. She manages EPA’s social media efforts in Spanish. Prior to joining EPA, she was the Washington bureau chief for two Puerto Rican newspapers and she has worked for several government agencies.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Composting in Urban Areas

By Claudia Gutierrez

On a recent trip to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden, I purchased the latest Brooklyn Botanical Garden Guide for a Greener Planet titled, “Easy Compost.” For those of us who live in urban centers, with limited space, sometimes it’s challenging to compost. Composting, however, can play a large big role in reducing waste that is sent to landfills. Studies have shown that as much as 40% of our organic waste can be diverted from landfills if composted. New York City just recently passed legislation to begin a residential composting program. Check out the NYC Department of Sanitation’s Bureau of Waste Prevention, Reuse and Recycling web site at: www.nyc.gov/html/nycwasteless/html/compost/composting_nyc.shtml.

While you’re at it, also check out the “Easy Compost” guide. The guide focuses on teaching the reader how to compost at home. It details the type of bins, worms, etc. that one should choose based on their needs. It is a very resourceful guide for urbanites who want to help mother earth in diverting organic waste from landfills. For more resources about gardening and composting, please visit www.bbg.org.

About the Author: Claudia Gutierrez is currently a Senior Advisor on Caribbean issues for the Regional Administrator since 2010. In this capacity, Claudia is working on different partnerships, including the White House Puerto Rico Task Force on Status, Vieques Sustainability Task Force and both the Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands Recycling Partnerships.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Missing: One Smelly Old Garbage Gremlin

By Felicia Chou

Today, I found out that our office’s beloved Garbage Gremlin costume is M.I.A, after being “borrowed” by someone from another office. While I’m sure it’ll turn up somewhere soon, its disappearance eerily coincides with the release of our new report that tells us what our nation’s recycling rate is, what is in our trash, how much of it ends up in landfills and incinerators, and how we’re doing compared to previous years.

Perhaps the missing Garbage Gremlin (a grumpy monster that hates recycling) is a sign of how far we’ve come as a nation when it comes to recycling. Maybe we’ve moved past needing a grumpy, stinky ol’ monster to remind us that most of what we throw away is actually recyclable, and that creating less waste in the first place is really the way to go. On average, Americans create 4.4 pounds of trash per day, and we’ve kept 87 million tons of garbage from landfills and incinerators, compared to 85 million tons in 2010 by recycling and composting. But even so, more than 60% of our trash still ends up in landfills. So while we might not need the Gremlin as much as we used to, we’ve got some work ahead of us.

This infographic gives us a general overview of our nation’s progress, the environmental impact we’ve made through recycling, and what we can do to continue to make a difference.

There’s also the new report, along with the fact sheet, where you can learn all sorts of other neat things.

Learn more about the stuff we throw away, how it impacts climate change, and what you can do to make a difference.

About the Author: Felicia Chou is a Program Analyst in the Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery. She is currently organizing a manhunt in search of the missing Garbage Gremlin, and is considering offering a reward of eternal gratitude with a three-month expiration date.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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P.S. 166 is a Green Elementary School

P.S. 166 Cafeteria Composting Setup

By Karen O’Brien

How much garbage does one school cafeteria generate each day? At P.S. 166, the Richard Rodgers  School of the Arts and Technology on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, elementary school children and school staff have teamed up to reduce their cafeteria garbage from 12 bags per day to just one!  With the assistance of school staff and student monitors, everyone from kindergarteners through fifth graders separate liquid, compost, recyclables and garbage from their breakfast and lunch.  The school has also switched to biodegradable bagasse trays, as an alternative to Styrofoam.  P.S. 166 participated in a 2012 composting pilot project with seven other local schools in Manhattan District 3, reducing the volume of cafeteria waste by 85%, and diverting food waste from landfills each day.

Under the leadership of the Green and Wellness Committee, and with the cooperation of teachers and custodial staff, P.S. 166 has implemented environmentally sustainable practices throughout the school.  Each green program is an excellent opportunity to engage students, teachers, school staff and parents, learning about recycling, pollution prevention, climate change and sustainable living.  Waste reduction and recycling programs at the school include composting food, and recycling bottle caps, electronics, and textiles.

P.S. 166 participates in the Green Cup Energy Conservation Challenge each year, challenging .  students to reduce their energy consumption by turning off lights and unplugging appliances in the class room.  Each class room is assigned two “Climate Captains,” who assume a leadership role ensuring the school does its best to conserve electricity and reduce greenhouse gases.

P.S. 166 won the Green Cup Challenge in 2010 with a reduction in electricity useage over a six month period of 17.75%.  In subsequent years, P.S. 166 has reduced energy consumption even more, but as a mark of progress, this was not enough to take the Cup! In 2011, PS 166 won 4th place and a $10,000 prize for reducing its electricity consumption by 23.3%, saving $2,403 on their electric bill in one month, and prevented 19,815 pounds of carbon dioxide from being released into the environment. Other schools are catching on, making the competition fierce for this year’s Green Cup challenge! For more information about greening schools, check out greenschoolsny.com and P.S. 166’s Green page.

About the author: Karen O’Brien is an Environmental Engineer in the Clean Water Division of EPA Region 2.  She holds Master and Bachelor of Engineering degrees from the Cooper Union in New York City, and is a licensed Professional Engineer.  At EPA, Karen works to regulate discharges of wastewater under the Clean Water Act, and has performed temporary assignments in the fields of climate change, pollution prevention, and air quality monitoring.  Karen has three children, two of whom attend P.S. 166!

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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Celebrating America Recycles Day by Not Wasting Food!

By Sarah Dominguez

Yesterday I opened up the produce drawer in my fridge to put away some apples. Lying inside were two wilted heads of lettuce and a rotting zucchini. Thankfully, we have curbside compost collection in the Bay Area, so I made a mental note to remind my roommate to put inedible food in the compost bin.

Later that day at work, preparing for America Recycles Day on November 15th, I realized that my conversation with my roommate shouldn’t be just about the correct bin to use, but also about preventing the food from being wasted in the first place. That lettuce and zucchini could have been a delicious salad. Before I came to the EPA, I had a vague idea that I shouldn’t waste food. But now every time I throw out food I don’t just see dollar signs- I see the wasted water, energy and methane produced by food waste.

This year for America Recycles Day, we’re focusing on wasted food and the many ways it can be avoided, especially through donation to those in need. We are not talking about wilting vegetables when we mention donation, but instead fresh, safe to eat food that is donated before it expires. There will be food donation focused events across the country:

  • In Wilmington, Delaware, the grocer ShopRite is meeting with their partners at the Delaware Food Bank to donate food they must take off their shelves, but that is edible and wholesome.
  • In Washington State, Joint Base Lewis-McChord is encouraging attendees of their 4th Annual Recycling Extravaganza to bring non-perishable food items to donate to the Tacoma Rescue Mission.
  • The University of Texas, Arlington is celebrating America Recycles Day with a Campus Sustainability Food Drive. Their event is helping to spread awareness about wasted food and food insecurity.

For my roommate, it was too late to donate his vegetables (but not too late to feed the soil through composting). But if I share with him the implications of wasted food and strategies to reduce it (like meal planning, proper storage or recipe creativity), next time he can avoid tossing a head of lettuce and maybe make dinner for me at the same time.

About the author: Sarah Dominguez is a University of Southern California Masters Fellow in EPA’s San Francisco Office. She works on the Sustainable Materials Management Program’s Food Recovery Challenge. In her Urban Planning program at USC, she studies sustainable land use and environmental justice focusing on the built environment.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

Please share this post. However, please don't change the title or the content. If you do make changes, don't attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.