No matter how much I tried to focus on the heaps and heaps of super awesomeness of people, panels, power-shifting, and parties at NN13, I just couldn't help but being deflated by the heaps and heaps of plastic cups, plastic water bottles, single-use everything, overflowing trash cans, and general lack of attention to leaving the place the way we found it.
This is how I felt walking through the building and at most events (replace bags with plastic cups)...
It was often a pretty lonely existence, just me and my Klean Kanteen, surrounded by water bottles everywhere...
photo by debra baida
Despite some heavy detective work I couldn't find out who exactly to blame for
my inner the conference's garbage crisis, so let's just say it was 's fault and get on with it.
Because as we all know, being progressive is about making things better, so my hope is that by bringing attention to this issue, things could be improved a little at NN14. Maybe a lot. Is a zero waste conference possible? Maybe not 100%, but if you don't try, you won't find out.
The good news is that the folks at Netroots Nation are very receptive to the idea. In fact, after my wild garbage chase throughout the conference (described below the orange squiggle), a simple email after I returned home yielded a quick response from Eric Thut, Operations Director at Netroots Nation. In a nutshell, there were a lot of false assumptions regarding resource recovery at NN13 and they would love to make NN14 more eco-friendly. Any suggestions and community participation on how to make it happen are welcome and encouraged. We can gather ideas in the comments, or you can also email him directly at eric at netrootsnation dot org.
If there are any Detroit eco-people reading this, it would be great to hear what's already going on recycling and composting wise in the city, and how NN14 may be able to work with the convention center and the city to leave the smallest footprint possible next year.
For more detail and my trashy impressions from NN13, read on...
Do you know the way out of San Jose?
At first I thought there must surely be someone who was in charge of reducing our garbage footprint, but it was during the food truck lunch when the trash bins were overflowing with soda cans, paper plates and plastic utensils that I knew this ship had no captain.
I was a newbie, so I didn't really want to rock the boat, but when the Sierra Club sponsored!!!! sandwiches during Nancy Pelosi's keynote lunch the next day came in big plastic boxes, I just couldn't help myself anymore. I went to the Sierra Club booth in the main hall and asked the staff what was going on with all the disposable plastic boxes. The woman was very friendly and apologetic, saying that this was not what they had intended to happen and that something along the way had got terribly screwed up. She said she didn't know where and how the miscommunication happened, but she asked for my email and said she would send me an email as soon as she found out. So far I haven't heard from her.
Later that day during the Environmental Caucus, amidst a who's who of climate hawks and eco heavyweights, I used my 30 seconds to introduce myself as the guy who'd love to see this conference without all the waste, to roaring applause in the room. By then I had also talked to a few other people who were wondering about the excessive presence of single-use items and glaring lack of attention to any of the 4 Rs: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot. So I knew I was not alone, which was also confirmed in the comments of Lorikeet's excellent NN13 diary.
Reassured that I hadn't just unknowingly been transplanted into some sort of a parallel Wall-E-like reality, I finally went to the Netroots Nation desk on the last day to inquire whether anyone had put any thought into this. When one of the staffers at the booth said, "What do you mean? We have recycling bins!" I had to explain to her that a) if you have recycling bins you have to put one next to every garbage bin, not just a few in the back of the hall, and b) it doesn't help one bit to have blue recycling bins that don't tell you what to put in them. The magic bin that automatically keeps everything you toss in it out of landfill hasn't been invented yet, even in innovative Silicon Valley.
The look of an effective resource recovery
Of course, no separate bins are needed if you have crews going through the trash every day to pick out everything that's recyclable in the San Jose municipality and make sure it is actually sorted and taken to the recycling facility (or sorted at the recycling facility). That's what the second staffer at the booth seemed to think, as he told me that he thought the convention center had the recycling covered. When I pressed him on whether he knew that as a fact, he punted. The third staffer finally took mercy on my poor eco soul and said that he was just as appalled by all the waste as I was, and that Netroots Nation had most likely just assumed that since the conference was in the Bay Area this would automatically be covered by the facility or the city.
Now I don't know whether the San Jose Convention Center paid someone to go through all the trash bins and sort the items, but I seriously doubt it. I know they have a curbside recycling program, but it's based on residents pre-sorting particular items into recycling bins. The way it works even in Zero Waste Utopia San Francisco is that once something is in the trash can it goes straight to landfill.
The bigger point, however, is that even if some magic elves were to dig through the massive heaps of disposables created at NN13, it's the wrong signal to send at a progressive event to have all these single use items in the first place.
For one, just because your plastic water bottle or cup says it's recyclable, doesn't mean it will be recycled, even if it has a fancy label on it that says something inane like "Eco2o." Moreover, plastic bottles and cups don't get turned into new plastic bottles and cups, but into things like lawn chairs, doormats, or textiles. That's really not recycling, but what's known as down-cycling — those lawn chairs, doormats, or textiles cannot be recycled and will end up in landfill eventually.
Even worse, 92 percent of all plastic in the U.S. doesn't even make it that far: According to the EPA, only 8 percent of the total plastic waste generated in 2011 was recovered for recycling. So really, those half a billion bottles of water Americans buy and consume each week, thinking they'll get recycled because there's a recycling symbol on it, are really going to the dump. And that's not even counting all the CO2 emissions from shipping billions of water bottles across the country and the world.
And to think that there were water fountains all over the San Jose Convention Center. Sometimes it feels like we've literally gone insane...
Anyway, as I mentioned above, the good folks at Netroots Nation are very much interested in reducing our ecological footprint next year in Detroit. When I emailed them through their website after I returned home, I got this response from Eric:
We too were surprised on how un-eco friendly the CC was in San Jose. Honestly after much better experiences even years ago in cities like Pittsburgh - we assumed San Jose would be far ahead of where the are, but no longer. Of course cost is always a factor but time is a well. We would love the community to step up and help with these efforts. Would you be willing to lead such a community undertaking?So it basically turned out to be kind of an epic miscommunication. Everyone thought someone else had it all covered. While I'm somewhat curious to dig deeper and check with the administrators at the convention center and the City of San Jose what their deal is regarding waste reduction, I just don't have the time right now.
Likewise, while it would be fun to lead a community undertaking to green NN14 I don't have the luxury of taking on another big unpaid project (not sure if I'll even be able to attend). FWIW, I actually think that Netroots Nation should hire a Director of Sustainability, but I feel like I already know what the answer to that suggestion will be.
But absent a staff commitment to greening NN, the community effort is the best way to go, because when people hold a stake in their own conference footprint, they'll be less likely to assume that someone else has it all covered.
What can the community do?
So this diary is my contribution to start the dialog. A lot of what will be possible regarding recycling and composting in Detroit will depend on what that city's resource recovery infrastructure looks like. Even more important and effective would be to try and not fill up any bins in the first place. I've been to plenty of conferences where at least the beverages were served with real mugs, so why not ask the conference center if they could do that? Maybe it could be some fun mugs that people can take home after the conference...
Either way, it'll take some research and concerted effort. But one thing I can already say right now and that can easily be started is educating people on how to stop relying on someone to pick up after them and reduce their own consumption. For example, if pre-conference mass emails include information on how to attend the conference without producing trash, I think a lot of people will be more thoughtful about their consumption of disposables.
I mentioned my Klean Kanteen thermos above. It's good for hot beverages but also functions as a water bottle, as it comes with both a coffee cap and a sealed water cap. Hey, I even chugged my $9 Heineken out of it at the Laughing Liberally event! Having people use those would already make a huge difference. If a majority of people brought their own mug and there were big water dispensers in every room (I saw a couple of them in the main hall), it would already significantly cut down on waste. Make some fun signs for those who didn't bring their own mug, encouraging them to write their name on their mug and reuse it for as long as possible, and voila, you've taken a big, simple and non-costly step towards reducing waste and creating more environmentally-conscious attendees.
If you're really into it, you can take it further by encouraging people to bring their own plates and utensils. Look at the Life without plastic site, there are some amazing items that are convenient, simple and beautiful. Sure, not everyone is going to do this for every meal, but do you really need a paper or plastic plate for every pastry or piece of cheese you grab throughout the conference? Is wiping a couple of crumbs off your own plate really so hard to do? You could even just use a frisbee, like Donnie Oliveira from SF Environment...
I know that disposables are all about convenience, but using your own mug and plate is really much easier than people think it is. It's just a matter of changing a habit we have all collectively adopted (with great help from the disposables industries' marketing departments), and if it's not us who are willing to be the change we wish to see in the world, then who?
It's tempting to write off the mounting garbage crisis as an old-school eco problem in the age of climate change, but the two are intrinsically linked. Shipping half a billion water bottles across the country burns huge amounts of CO2. 17% of methane emissions in the U.S. are from food scraps rotting in landfills that could be composted. Just making all that stuff that goes straight into a hole in the ground after we use it just once is a mind-boggling waste of energy. Consumerism is a huge climate change problem!
So these are some of my suggestions. You guys will have all kinds of other great ideas, and I know the good folks at Netroots Nation will be psyched to hear and read them all.
If you'd like to get more deeply involved in this effort, feel free to email Eric Thut, Operations Director at Netroots Nation, at eric at netrootsnation dot org.
Let's hear it for the arc of sustainability bending towards Zero Waste at Netroots Nation 14...