So Sun Chips has come out with a new Compostable bag! Exciting! This is a new thing in the snacking industry, packaging that goes away rather than becoming litter. As with many companies this step is a laudable opportunity to create a cleaner environment and promote their product.

If you check out there site you will find great information about the differences between some of the various types of packaging on the market that are touted as ‘green’ or sustainable. They have done a good job of putting out straight forward honest information about composting and how their package breaks down. Overall Bravo.

Now here are the challenges.

1. Most people don’t compost. It is a practice that is not widely accepted either individually or by municipalities. The vast majority of places do not have a separated bin for compostable materials and so the majority of these bags will probably wind up in a trash dump. They will still break down, but when they are mixed with other trash the potential compost is useless. 

2. Sun Chips is Frito Lay company. Why not just convert all of Frito Lay’s packaging to compostable material? In my opinion this step is to place Sun Chips squarely in the public’s eye as the ‘environmental alternative’ for potato chips. It is a play to increase market share based on how green they can be. I am sure the advertising campaign and sales are being closely tracked to see how effective the marketing really is and if the public steps up to ask for compostable packaging Frito Lay will eventually convert all of the products. 

3. There is a statement that this is the World’s First 100% Compostable Chip Package! That is a bold statement if I ever heard one. What I don’t understand is how you compare sealed bags with the brown paper bags of yesteryear? What about simple wax paper? Wax paper if it is truly just a wax-coated paper (most aren’t anymore) is both compostable and biodegradable. Why not just simplify the package to a printed wax paper? 

Overall I think Sun Chips is trying to do something right, but this isn’t about being sustainable it is about commanding market share and making money. I hate to be the skeptic, but I think they would be better off to change over to a simple paper bag to make a real difference.


3 Cups: Addiction

April 26, 2010

3 Cups is a seven part series. This is part 1

I am addicted.

I have been for years. First thing in the morning before I really do anything else I need to get my first hit. By the time I am to work each day I have already done two and most days I wind up getting my fix five or six times. I’m not messing around with drugs like cocaine or heroin. I am totally addicted to caffeine and my delivery system of choice is coffee.

For those of you who don’t know caffeine is a gateway drug. It is highly addictive, but easily managed without legal or significant personal consequences (although if you have seen me without coffee you might not agree). The real problem with caffeine, coffee in particular is that it leads to a heavy addiction to petroleum.

Petroleum? Oil? I am sure you are asking “how are coffee and oil connected?’.

Our global coffee addiction reinforces and supports our global addiction to petroleum. Coffee is one of the largest commodity crops in the world. It is distributed globally and the process from harvest to cup is energy intensive requiring significant transportation, processing (roasting and grinding) packaging, and waste. The volumes of coffee beans, cups, machines and water used are immense and each one requires some amount of petroleum to be successful in today’s market.

Since I know I am addicted, and I am not about to go cold turkey off caffeine I figured I should take the next step. Instead of giving up coffee all together I am going to evaluate the ways I drink coffee to figure out if one way is more sustainable than another and what makes it more sustainable.

Typically I have coffee three ways; at home, on my way to work and driving. At home I use a Keurig machine to make perfect single cups, which I drink out of a ceramic mug. On my way to work I stop, usually at Starbucks after I get off the subway for a tall cup of drip or a latte in a Starbucks paper cup. If I am driving I use my trusty travel mug and stop at Quick Check for a fresh cup of joe. 

Looking at the three ways I typically have coffee you may have already made some assumptions about what is most sustainable, but instead of assuming let’s evaluate. Over the next 6 weeks I will pick apart each of the steps in getting my cup of coffee examining the bean, the water, the cup and the machine in order to understand how much water is used, miles are traveled and ultimately how much oil is in my cup of coffee.   

I hope you’ll come back on Mondays to see my latest update on my 3 cups of coffee.

3 Cups is a seven part series. This is part 1

We have all seen the signs ‘This mile of highway adopted by Joe Mechanic’ or ‘This park maintained by the Knights of the Round Table’. The signs often make me laugh, especially when I see companies that have terrible stewardship programs adopting highway miles or parks. I am sure that Exxon Mobile must have adopted an extra hundred miles after the Valdez incident to improve their status with the general public.

The part I really hate is when you travel that mile of road, or use that park and it is a mess. So many times I have looked at the side of the road or the median and see trash. Highways are often designed more as Parkways in the traditions of Olmstead, bordered by wide swaths of landscape, lined with trees and kept as natural as possible for the pleasure of the driver and the separation from the adjacent homes and businesses. When these areas become infested with litter they seem to be nothing more than big trash bins.  

The parks are often worse. All to often I take my son to the park and the swing-sets are littered with cigarette butts or empty water bottles. On nice afternoons I see hundreds of families come and go with their children to enjoy their time outdoors  together. When the parks are full of litter it is both gross and in some ways dangerous as little hands find bits of glass, or cigarette butts. The park litter requires parents to be more diligent at what should be a playful safe time.

Besides being messy, these places are not just conveniences to all of us, but are also habitats for animals and insects. In some parts of the world medians and parkways are critical acreage for certain species of animals. If we choose to wall them in with busy highways we should also make the effort to maintain their homes.

So that leads me back to my initial point, what ever happens to the folks who adopt a highway but never do anything with it? Is there a phone number I can call or an email address I can write to tell Joe the Mechanic that his mile of route 78 has been trashed and he should get out here to clean it up? Where is the ‘How are we doing’ box at my local park to tell the ‘Knights of the Round Table’ that they need to get a clean up crew to the park on Friday afternoons or Saturday mornings in preparation for the weekend crush of toddlers and strollers? What responsibility do these surrogate caretakers have for the places they adopt?

As I did a little more research I found out that there is at least one place to reach out. In a number of states the actual care for the highway miles are done by a corporation that sends out crews to maintain the roads. It seems like quite a tidy business, but clearly they aren’t keeping up with crap we keep throwing out our windows. Adopt A Highway works in 15 states to maintain miles for busy corporate sponsors.

They are only one company that does this dirty work. In some states the work is done by volunteer groups, state workers or prisoners. Either way it takes many hands to keep our medians and parks clean.

Here is what you can do to help. First, don’t litter. That is the obvious one. Second keep a trash bag in the trunk of your car or your stroller. If you are out and about and see a bunch of litter in a place that you use, take 10 minutes and clean it up. Your action will both help to clean up the outdoors and will set an example for the next person. Lastly tell people about it. Write a letter to the company or municipality that is supposed to maintain that area and remind them of their responsibilities.  Tell them how you helped out on a given day and make suggestions about when and how they should clean the place up.

Maybe we should change all of those signs to read ‘This mile of highway LAST maintained by Jimmy’s Mom and Sammy’s Dad’. Each time one of us takes out the trash at a park we can put our name on the sign with a date to remind people it takes a little effort by all of us to keep these places clean.

Igloos in the desert is a blog about trying to figure out how to live a more sustainable life in our flat, corporate, consumer world. It is about asking hard questions and stumbling along to find better answers. I am one voice, one person, sharing my ideas, issues, triumphs and mistakes on my journey. I am not an expert or an intellect, just an individual who is passionate and invested in making things a little better for all of us. I think sustainability is one of the keys to a better life for our whole species. Am I an idealist, maybe, but I am also honest and struggling to get to the truth about things.

By profession I am an architect and the name came to me from a debate I once had with some colleagues. We were talking about ‘green’ buildings. We were debating about which of a number of recent buildings was the most sustainable. One person talked about a project that had geothermal wells and a super insulated skin, another talked about an old factory that had a new roof garden on top and a third brought up a house that was build completely out of materials from another structure that had been torn down.

As I listened to my friends and colleagues debate the finer points of renewable energy, recycled materials and minimal impact structures I realized that we were probably talking about the wrong things. I asked the question ‘what is more sustainable than an igloo?’. An igloo that simple dome-shaped ice structure created by the Inuit. No built structure is more sustainable in my mind. The material is simply frozen water. The structure is a simple dome with an entrance. It is built for a singular purpose, to provide temporary shelter in extreme conditions. It requires no special tools beyond a saw and a shovel. Best of all, once built it lasts only as long as it is truly required. Once the winter breaks and it is warm the igloo simply melts becoming water yet again. I challenged them all, and I challenge you, to find a more sustainable structure.

My colleagues all looked at me in a bit of disbelief, that as an architect why would I consider an igloo in a debate about important structures. They scoffed and considered my comments foolish. One friend asked me point-blank ‘how do you build an Igloo in the Desert?’

I guess we’ll have to find out.