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Photo: Yano via Wikimedia.
Kamikatsu, Japan, has worked for years to become a zero-waste town.

Here’s an update on an ambitious Japanese town I wrote about here a few years ago. It’s Kamikatsu, where the residents are still working hard at creating a completely sustainable way of life.

Michelle Ye Hee Lee and Julia Mio Inuma have a report at the Washington Post. “Tucked away in the mountains of Japan’s Shikoku island, a town of about 1,500 residents is on an ambitious path toward a zero-waste life.

“In 2003, Kamikatsu became the first municipality in Japan to make a zero-waste declaration. Since then, the town has transformed its open-air burning practices for waste disposal into a system of buying, consuming and discarding with the goal of reaching carbon neutrality. Now, the town estimates it is more than 80 percent of its way toward meeting that goal by 2030.

“But even for a town its size, carbon and waste neutrality is a high bar. And with more than half of its residents over 65 years old, the rural community is rapidly shrinking. The town is working with manufacturers to encourage them to use more recyclable materials, which would help reduce waste and burning. …

“The Zero Waste Center is the town’s recycling facility, where residents can sort their garbage into 45 categories — there are nine ways to sort paper products alone — before they toss the rest into a pile for the incinerators. …

“The town offers an incentive system in which people can collect recycling points in exchange for eco-friendly products. There are signs depicting what new items will be made out of those recycled items, and how much money the town is saving by working with recycling companies rather than burning the trash. …

“ ‘When residents cooperate, the money used for recycling is reduced at the same time, so you can see the merit to cooperating,’ said Momona Otsuka, the 24-year-old chief environmental officer of the center.

“Two things are key to creating a culture of widespread recycling, she said: policies, such as the 1997 Japanese law that gave towns and cities authority to recycle waste, and the cooperation of residents.

“Attached to the Zero Waste Center is a thrift shop where residents can drop off items they don’t want anymore, and others can take them free. All they need to do is weigh the item they take from the shop and log the weight in a ledger so the shop can keep track of the volume of reused items.

In January alone, about 985 pounds’ worth of items were rehomed — from unused batteries and sake glasses to furniture, maternity clothing and toys. The number is displayed inside the shop. …

“Rise and Win Brewing Co. brews two types of zero-waste craft beer, made of farm crops that would otherwise be thrown out because they are too misshapen to be sold publicly. … For years, the brewery tried to find an efficient way to donate leftover grain from brewing beer. Composting took a long time, and delivering fertilizer to farmers was a lot of work. So last year, they developed a way to convert used grain into liquid fertilizer, which is then used to grow barley for beer. …

“Hotel Why opened in 2020 as a part of the Zero Waste Center facility, which is constructed in the shape of a question mark to depict the question: Why do we create so much waste? The hotel feels like a secluded cabin in the woods, and at night, the stars resemble a planetarium.

“Each guest is given six bins to sort garbage during their stay. The sleek decorations are all reused materials, including a patchwork quilt made of denim scraps, and a wall display made of ropes. The furniture is salvaged from showroom models.

“The hotel emphasizes using just what you need. At check-in, guests cut individual bars of soap so they get just the amount they need for their stay. Coffee beans are ground based on the number of cups the guest wants, so that nothing goes to waste.

“Kamikatsu residents and businesses work to minimize as much food waste as possible. For example, at Cafe Polestar, there was one dish available for lunch to reduce waste: curry made with local vegetables.

“Even the leaf used to decorate their dishes was produced locally, from a company called Irodori, which has been selling products made from Kamikatsu’s lush forestry since 1986. There are 154 families in town involved with the project, mainly women aged 70 and older who can pick leaves to create intricate designs. The leaves are then sold to high-end spas, hotels and restaurants in Japan and other Asian countries, to create sustainable decorations.

“ ‘Our business helps people realize that there are valuable items even in mundane everyday things around them,’ said Tomoji Yokoishi, Irodori’s chief executive.”

More at the Post, here, where you can also read about the town’s ride-share system and its roughly 40 drivers, including the mayor, who use “a handful of cars so they can drive residents or visitors.”

I loved so many of the ideas and like to imagine towns everywhere coming up with their own unique ones.

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Photo: Pacific Beach Coalition.
Scientists investigate whether a “superworm” can help solve our styrofoam problem.

It’s no secret that plastic has become a huge challenge for our poor old planet. Concerned people are finding solutions where they can. Ploggers of India (and other countries) pick plastic off the ground when they go jogging. Plastic Free Hackney is a UK town that aims to do without. Artists turn plastic waste into sculptures.

In today’s story, we learn about scientists testing a “superworm” that might be able to break down a particular kind of plastic, styrofoam.

Pranshu Verma reports at the Washington Post, “A plump larva the length of a paper clip can survive on the material that makes Styrofoam. The organism, commonly called a ‘superworm,’ could transform the way waste managers dispose of one of the most common components in landfills, researchers said, potentially slowing a mounting garbage crisis that is exacerbating climate change.

“In a paper released [in June] in the journal of Microbial Genomics, scientists from the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, showed that the larvae of a darkling beetle, called zophobas morio, can survive solely on polystyrene, commonly called Styrofoam.

“The findings come amid a flurry of research on ways bacteria and other organisms can consume plastic materials, like Styrofoam and drinking bottles.

“Now, the researchers will study the enzymes that allow the superworm to digest Styrofoam, as they look to find a way to transform the finding into a commercial product. Industrial adoption offers a tantalizing scenario for waste managers: A natural way to dispose and recycle the Styrofoam trash that accounts for as much as 30 percent of landfill space worldwide. …

“The material is dense and takes up a lot of space, making it expensive to store at waste management facilities, industry experts said. The cups, plates and other materials made from it are also often contaminated with food and drink, making it hard to recycle. Polystyrene fills landfills, where it can often take 500 years to break down and decompose, researchers have found. …

“In 2015, researchers from Stanford University revealed that mealworms could also survive on Styrofoam. The next year, Japanese scientists found bacteria that could eat plastic bottles. In April, researchers from the University of Texas found an enzyme which could digest polyethylene terephthalate, a plastic resin found in clothes, liquid and food containers. …

“[The Microbial Genomics study’s coauthor Christian Rinke] said he was excited by his research results but noted it will take time to develop into an industrial solution, estimating somewhere between five to 10 years.

“To conduct the study, his research team in Australia fed the superworms three separate diets. One group was given a ‘healthy’ solution of bran. The second was given polystyrene. The third was put on a starvation diet.

“Ninety percent of the larvae that ate bran became beetles, compared with roughly 66 percent from the group given polystyrene and 10 percent from those forced to starve. This indicated to researchers that superworms have enzymes in their gut that can effectively digest Styrofoam.

“Next, the scientists will study those enzymes to see how well they can digest polystyrene on a large scale — modifying them if necessary to become more effective. ‘We want to not have gigantic superworm farms,’ he said. ‘Rather, we want to focus on the enzyme.’

“If the research proves successful, Rinke said waste managers could collect and grind Styrofoam materials and put them into a liquid solution made with the superworm enzyme. The solution would ideally dispose of the Styrofoam or digest it in a way that allows new plastic products to be created, thereby reducing the need for new plastic materials, Rinke said.

“ ‘If you can go all the way to the end,’ he said, ‘the idea is to use the system and come up with a biological solution to recycle plastic.’

“Despite the findings from Rinke and others, there are reasons that none have successfully translated into industry applications over the past decade, researchers said. Andrew Ellington, a professor of molecular biosciences at the University of Texas at Austin, said it has been difficult to find a plastic-digesting organism or enzyme that can operate in industrial conditions, which often process trash in very hot environments or through the use of organic solvents. … He suggested an alternative solution.

“ ‘I believe that we will be able to offer up, in the not-so-distant future, worm-based composting kits so that individuals can do this themselves,’ he said.

“Jeremy O’Brien, the director of applied research at the Solid Waste Association of North America, said there are other business challenges in putting this type of solution into use. As envisioned, the solution would require waste managers to collect Styrofoam separately from other trash, he said, which makes it cost-prohibitive.

“O’Brien also said it remains unclear what kind of organic waste the enzyme process would generate, and he worries it could harm the microorganisms landfills already use to process trash and reduce odors. He added that a more desirable and cost-effective solution would be to take Styrofoam in landfills and condense them enough so that they can be turned into new plastics.”

More at the Post, here. What do you think of this? Is breaking plastic down to enzymes enough to keep us safe?

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Photo: Cool Hunting.
Brooklyn bar owner Henry Rich, pictured in 2019 with co-owner Halley Chambers, says, “You start with the commitment to remove the trash. That creates quite a bit of clarity in terms of what we can and can’t, should and shouldn’t do.”

One of the challenges of blogging since the pandemic started has been trying to figure out if the stories I was saving are still relevant. For example, was the New York wine bar that was aiming to create zero waste in January 2020 even still in business and was there any point in reporting on its laudable goal?

Well, hooray! Google informs me that Rhodora is still in business, and I think you’ll appreciate the banner at the top of its home page that may be a reason it has remained in business. It reads, “Hello! Due to the rise in Delta variant Covid cases we are requiring proof of vaccination for guests dining indoors. Thank you for helping keep our doors open + our community safe!”

As Matthew Sedacca wrote in the New York Times in a time of innocence, New Year’s Day 2020, “Garbage is inevitable in the restaurant and bar business. Kitchen employees toss onion skins and meat fat into the wastebasket almost instinctively. Once-used plastic wrap and slips guarding the linens find their way into black bags for trash-day pickup. Plastic bags are ordered by the bundle and then often discarded after customers use them to take leftovers home.

“At the Brooklyn natural wine bar and restaurant Rhodora, however, taking out the trash works a little differently.

“The new eatery is one of a handful of establishments in various cities that have begun to operate under a zero-waste ethos, meaning they do not send any trash or food waste that enters their business to a landfill. There is not even a traditional trash can on the premises. …

“Such radical idealism comes with challenges, including finding producers and distributors who can accommodate requests like compostable packaging and figuring out how to recycle broken appliances. …

A recent report from ReFED, a nonprofit organization focused on food waste reduction, found that restaurants in the United States generate about 11.4 million tons of food waste annually, or $25.1 billion in costs. The Environmental Protection Agency has reported that food waste and packaging account for nearly 45 percent of the materials sent to landfills in the United States. …

“Mr. Rich and Halley Chambers, the deputy director of his Oberon restaurant group and co-owner of Rhodora, spent almost 10 months and $50,000 researching and transforming their Fort Greene space into a neighborhood joint that could operate without any trash pickup.

“Out went many of their regular vendors who wrapped deliveries in single-use plastic. In came tools to aid their waste-reduction efforts: a cardboard shredder to turn wine boxes into composting material, a dishwashing setup that converts salt into soap, beeswax wrap in lieu of plastic wrap.

“ ‘It’s not arcane secret knowledge,’ Mr. Rich said. ‘It’s just a couple things that are very specific, and you need to kind of re-engineer how you think about’ operating a restaurant or bar.

“Much of the planning time was spent searching for distributors and producers who could adhere to Rhodora’s mission. … A handful of companies were able to accommodate the unorthodox restrictions, including She Wolf Bakery and its sister butcher shop, Marlow & Daughters, which deliver reusable plastic bins full of fresh-baked breads and jars of pickled vegetables and eggs via Cargo Bike Collective riders. Another company, A Priori Distribution, switched to using compostable packaging and paper tape when dropping off aluminum tins of fish. …

“The paper menus, which feature a mini-essay on the restaurant’s green mission, are fed to the compost pile when they become outdated or tattered. Anything left on customers’ plates is dumped into collection bins in the kitchen, which are fed into the commercial-grade composter tucked inside hutches adjacent to the bar. (Rhodora does not serve meat, which is more difficult to compost, although its composter does process any fish that is left over.)

“Natural wine bottles and most other non-compostable containers are removed for recycling via Royal Waste Services, which the restaurant said also accepted broken glass. Corks are donated to ReCork, a recycling program that repurposes the material for shoe soles and yoga blocks.” More at the New York Times, here.

I wonder if not being able to compost meat is another reason to give it up. Our extended family composts, but there are always discussions (arguments?) about what to do with leftover meat before the trash man cometh. My husband and I double-bag ours and freeze it, but others think it’s gross to keep any garbage in the freezer.

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Photo: Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality
The new Istanbul subway machines add credit to your subway cards while crushing, shredding, and sorting your recyclables.

Creating a more sustainable world doesn’t have to be painful for the individual or expensive for government. In Turkey, a city government wanted people to recycle more, and so it got the idea of rewarding subway riders who help out. Ceylan Yeginsu has the story at the New York Times.

“Istanbul [has] rolled out an alternative currency for commuters who need to top up their subway cards but are short of cash: recyclables.

“The city is installing ‘reverse vending machines’ at metro stations that allow passengers to add credit to their subway cards simply by inserting a plastic bottle or aluminum can into the machine. Once a value has been assigned to the recyclables, the machine will crush, shred and sort the material. …

“This is how the vending machines [work]: A 0.33-liter plastic bottle, for example, roughly equivalent to 11 ounces, would add 2 Turkish cents to a subway card, while a 0.5-liter bottle would add 3 cents and a 1.5-liter bottle would add 6 cents. (A subway journey costs 2.60 Turkish lira, about 40 United States cents; 100 Turkish cents, or kurus, make up 1 Turkish lira.) …

“Istanbul’s mayor, Mevlut Uysal, said the machines would track the number of bottles recycled by each passenger and reward those recycling the largest number of containers with free or discounted events such as theater tickets.

“Turkey is Europe’s third-largest producer of household and commercial waste, after Germany and France, and it is the worst in the region at recycling, according to a 2017 report by the consultancy group Expert Market, which is based in Britain. …

“Elif Cengiz, a manager for the waste management project, called Zero Waste, said … that the municipality had made waste management a priority in recent years because of rising concern over the damage that waste is causing to the environment.

“The country’s recycling drive has started to produce results, saving 30 million trees in 15 months since last June, Mustafa Ozturk, the under secretary for the Environment and Urban Planning Ministry, said, [adding] ‘The use of recycled material in production contributes to productivity and separate storage for paper waste also saves storage space and decreases waste collecting costs for local administrations.” More at the New York Times, here.

I’d love to see the perennially cash-strapped Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) try the reverse-vending idea instead of constantly raising fares.

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What to do about our throwaway culture? Well, Sweden has a proposal: tax breaks to encourage people to get things repaired.

Charlie Sorrel at fastcoexist.com explains that the idea involves “halving the tax paid on repairs and increasing taxes on unrepairable items. …

” ‘If we want to solve the problems of sustainability and the environment we have to work on consumption,’ Sweden’s finance and consumption minister Per Bolund told the Local. ‘One area we are really looking at is so-called “nudging.” That means, through various methods, making it easier for people to do the right thing.’ …

“The proposed legislation would cut regular tax on repairs of bikes, clothes, and shoes from 25% to 12%. Swedes would also be able to claim half the labor cost of appliance repairs (refrigerators, washing machines and other white goods) from their income tax. Together, these tax cuts are expected to cost the country around $54 million per year. This will be more than paid for by the estimated $233 million brought in by a new ‘chemical tax,’ which would tax the resources that go into making new goods and computers.

“In 2015, France passed a law requiring manufacturers to label products with information about how long spares will be available, and also requires free repair or replacement for the first two years of the product’s life. That’s another step forward, but it’s also cheaper for manufacturers to replace a broken cellphone than to repair it.

“Apple takes a third path—it swaps out your broken phone for a new one, often free of charge, and then breaks down your old unit, reusing its internals if possible, or recycling them.”

More here. Not sure how you benefit if you do the repair yourself. But knowing those Swedes, they’ll figure out something.

Photo: Geri Lavrov/Getty Images

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Christo is known for making impossible-seeming public art, and just recently, he made some again. Margaret Rhodes reported the story at Wired magazine.

“It takes serious engineering to let 640,000 people walk on water. Luckily, that’s exactly the kind of technical and creative challenge that Christo — the artist who wrapped the Reichstag and dotted Central Park with 7,503 orange panels of fabric—excels at. …

“The new project, the ‘Floating Piers,’ comprises two miles of marigold-yellow walkways gently bobbing on top of Lake Iseo, a small lake in northern Italy, connecting the waterside town of Sulzano with two small islands. …

“Making them work was tricky. Marinas often use temporary, floating piers; a common technique involves propping them atop styrofoam cubes. ‘We discovered very soon that this cube system was perfect for us,’ says Wolfgang Volz, Christo’s project manager. So in the fall of 2014, Christo’s team ran a secret simulation of the Floating Piers in Germany. But the styrofoam blocks were too small and too dense.

“So they built their own blocks—220,000 in total. They’re about 20 percent bigger than the ones marinas use, and more buoyant. A Bulgarian company supplied the materials, and Christo hired four different manufacturing companies to ensure they’d have enough.

“Once Christo had his blocks, he, Volz, and a few dozen workers started connecting the cubes into 50- by 330-foot sections. They attached the cubes with giant screws, right on the water, in a corralled section of Lake Iseo.

“One by one, workers pushed the white styrofoam rafts out into the lake and anchored them to 5.5-ton concrete slabs arranged on the lake floor in a configuration conceived by Christo. ‘Very tedious work,’ Volz says. ‘Every day the same.’

“It took four months, with workers doing shifts of two weeks on, two weeks off the job. ‘The same as an oil rig schedule,’ Volz says.’ ” More here.

Temporary, like most of Christo’s work, the walkway was scheduled to come down early this month and get recycled. But it lives on in photographs — and the memories of those who visited and got a chance to walk on water.

Photo: Wolfgang Volz
Christo’s project the “Floating Piers” comprised two miles of marigold-yellow walkways on Lake Iseo in northern Italy. Visitors walked the path without handrails.

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Here’s a creative way to address the urgent need for housing in this country: make a deal with Canada to take the houses it doesn’t want anymore.

Kirk Johnson has the story at the NY Times.

“In the San Juan Islands of northwest Washington State, where a severe shortage of affordable housing threatens the economy and the community, a small nonprofit group has found an unlikely way to help anchor families that are struggling to stay — by lifting up unloved houses in Canada, hoisting them onto barges and hauling them to where they are needed. …

“The structures had what builders call good bones, and the group, the San Juan Community HomeTrust, discovered that the cost of transporting them across the Haro Strait from Canada and restoring them here was comparable to the cost of building from scratch. …

“The number of people living in poverty in the county has risen about 17 percent since the end of the recession in 2009, according to census figures, even as the economic recovery in Washington and around the nation gained steam.

“ ‘It’s kind life or death to keep our working families here,’ said Peter Kilpatrick, the project manager in refitting the houses to be imported by the San Juan Community HomeTrust. When the rewiring, painting and structural repairs are finished in June, buyers who have already met income and residency requirements can take possession.

“Through a combination of donated land, government and foundation grants and local fund-raising, the homes will cost the buyers — a hospital worker, several teachers and a massage therapist among them — from $160,000 to $210,000. The median market price here was almost $500,000 at the end of last year.” More here.

Nothing like a little recycling ingenuity applied to a problem! In fact, I was just commenting to a blogger who’s teaching in El Salvador that the locals’ skill at repairing and reusing items is a great foundation for creative problem solving in general. (Please read Milford Street’s report from El Salvador, here.)

Photo: Nancy DeVaux
Houses from Canada were transported by barge to the San Juan Islands in Washington State, where affordable housing is badly needed.

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A website affiliated with Fast Company and called FastCo.Exist has some interesting information on sustainability.

Consider the article showing how Mexico City is promoting several public goods simultaneously. The city’s environmental agency recently launched Mercado de Trueque, a barter market where recyclable materials are exchanged for fresh food to support the city’s farmlands.

Michael Coren reports: ” ‘This innovative program is designed to show citizens directly and tangibly how what we call trash becomes raw materials. If solid waste is properly separated, it still has value,’ writes the Ministry of Environment (in Spanish). The market accepts glass, paper and cardboard, aluminum beverage cans, PET plastic bottles, and returns ‘green points’ redeemable for agricultural products grown in and around Mexico City, including lettuce, prickly pears, spinach, tomatoes, plants, and flowers.” More here.

Co.Exist also has an article by Ariel Schwartz on how you may track where the things you buy come from. For example, your canned tuna. Check it out.

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