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Reduce Your Landfill Contribution by Avoiding Monstrous Hybrids

by Hallie Brennan, Upcycle Santa Fe

If you’ve been keeping up with the zero-waste community lately you may have come across the term Monstrous Hybrid.  A pairing of words that undoubtedly sparks the imagination as to its origin and meaning.

Monstrous Hybrid: [mahn-strus high-brid] Noun. English origin.

1. To describe the hostility of ones ex lover.

2. The worst pizza toppings combo you sadly decided upon which brought on 24 hours of heartburn fire.

3. A term coined by Michael Braungart and William McDonough from Cradle to Cradle Design for a product, component, or material that combines both technical and organic nutrients (such as recyclable paper and poly-vinyl-chloride) in a way that cannot be easily separated, thereby rendering it unable to be recycled or reused. Most monstrous hybrids can only be thrown away and directly contribute to the waste stream.

I’m going to let your ripe brain decide which of those three definitions is the accurate one…

Wherever you’re sitting right now there is very likely a monstrous hybrid in your presence.  Look around you.  Where I’m sitting I see a shiny magazine whose pages are coated with a plastic-based epoxy; a mailing envelope that is on one side paper, and the other side glued bubble-wrap; last night’s part aluminum part paper restaurant to-go box; paper mailing envelopes with plastic windows; packing tape; nylon rope; old cotton-elastic blue jeans; meat pads; Clorox wipes… okay, okay, enough!  Are you getting the point?  We are surrounded by monstrous hybrids.  A product made of two components, usually glued or infused together where one part may be recyclable or reusable, but because it’s sealed to another part we cannot separate it, therefore we cannot recycle it, and can rarely upcycle it, either.  We have no choice but to use it once, then toss it to the landfill.  Our homes, workplaces, landfills, and oceans have been invaded.  There are these objects we well-behaved and compliant consumers have allowed in to our lives for the sake of convenience, but at the expense of our environment.

There’s no denying we live in a capitalist world.  The disease of consumerism has leaked beyond the United States and Europe and into countries throughout the world whose infrastructure often times isn’t prepared for the waste management that comes along with mass consumerism.  Here in the United States our own infrastructure is falling behind the demands of US consumers, too.  But what if we weren’t buying convenient atrocities, like the monstrous hybrids?  What if such objects weren’t even sold on the shelves of our local markets, but instead only products that could easily be recycled or upcycled once we’re finished with them?  This idea has absolute probability of becoming reality.  How do we go from ‘idea’ to ‘reality’?  Conceptual designers Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby sum up this idea in their book Speculative Everything, “For [designers] the separation from the marketplace creates a parallel design channel free from market pressures and available to explore ideas and issues.  These could be new possibilities for design itself; social, cultural, and ethical implications for science or technology research; or large scale social and political issues such as democracy, sustainability, and alternatives to our current model of capitalism.”

photo credit: Getty images

Step One, awareness.  The term monstrous hybrid isn’t heard on a daily basis, though our encounters with such things are.  If we are to begin the process of conscious consumerism and weed out these harmful monstrous hybrids from our lifestyle and landfill (those two go hand in hand!) we must begin with some awareness on our own behalf.   Awareness is within reach, my friend, and you’re probably already doing it.  You’ve likely already developed an awareness to toss your glass bottle in the recycling bin, or perhaps you’ve switched over to the swirly last-five-years eco-friendly lightbulbs in your home?  Personally, I have found my awareness of unnecessary plastic has increased since becoming an ecobricker.  A little effort seriously goes a long way.

Step two, commit.  That’s a really scary word for some of you… #sorrynotsorry  If awareness while shopping in stores takes hold of our consciousness, then as consumers we begin to change our buying habits and patterns.  Again, you’re probably already doing this.  Organic food?  Fragrance free?  No yellow #5 mustard?  Fair-trade coffee?  All of these buying habits changed because of your awareness to specific health and/or social issues.  Committing to avoiding monstrous hybrids is the next step to take, you lovely conscious consumer, you!  I am going make a commitment, too, and I welcome you try it.  I am no longer accepting my leftovers from restaurants in the offered to-go box.  More times than none, these to-go boxes are not easy to ecobrick or recycle because they’re drenched in food saturation, are a monstrous hybrid, or even worse, styrofoam.  Now you have the next blog post to look forward to where I discuss the awkward but intriguing art of carrying around my own reusable to-go box in my purse.

August 2017

The Lab Results Are In… Get Excited

By: Hallie Brennan | January 2017

If I had a dollar for every time I heard that…” is a popular phrase many identify with in a world of varied interests.  We’ve all got that something in our lives, whether it be a fitness routine or an invention, that keeps others asking the same question (or making the same comment) over and over.  For us at Upcycle Santa Fe our ‘if I had a dollar for’ question is, “Don’t ecobricks off-gas?  They’re made of plastic… so aren’t they unsafe as a building material?” Sometimes we respond to this with questions of our own, such as “Are you wearing plastic (polyester) on your skin right now?” or “How many times every day do you touch plastic to your mouth or unwrap food to eat that is wrapped in plastic?” For us, these seem to be more serious health concerns than living in a well-built home with upcycled plastic insulation in the walls.

jo-1-high-resThe emissions question remains though, or at least it did before our first research experiment with Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).   After a year of planning, fundraising, building, testing, and finally reviewing, Upcycle Santa Fe has received some answers to the questions of off-gassing and emissions. Upcycle Santa Fe was a 2016 recipient of a research grant through the New Mexico Small Business Assistance (NMSBA) program.  We knew right away we needed to use this funding to benefit our inquisitive supporters and partners worldwide.  There was a Doubting Thomas that needed our attention, and we hope you’re paying attention now!  With funding assistance through NMSBA, Upcycle Santa Fe worked alongside LANL to get these tough questions answered, and much to our enjoyment (and also relief!) the lab results are in and favorable to the continued usage of plastic waste as an alternative insulation material.

14102136_653820084767497_5279145463529160852_nLets get straight to it – “LANL advises Upcycle Santa Fe that with the techniques used, there are no observable emissions from the recycled [& upcycled] insulating materials under the conditions measured” (p 7, “Recommendations”, NMBSA Project Report)In total, 5 upcycled insulation materials were tested alongside 2 recycled types of insulation and 3 conventional types of insulation that are commonly available in building stores. The final report concluded that along with the conventional types of insulation, the recycled insulation materials and alternative plastic waste insulation materials do not emit harmful chemicals, or off-gas.  Note that these tests were not performed in extreme temperatures, and that revising this testing under extreme temperature may conclude different results, or as LANL states, “LANL cannot rule out the possibility that degassing or off-gassing may occur under different conditions than those encountered during the sampling period, e.g. higher temperatures.”  (p 7, “Recommendations”, NMBSA Project Report)

testing-2There you have it, folks.  Confidently move forward with stuffing those ecobricks and using them in building projects because this good news actually goes a little further.  Of the 12 insulation test subjects submitted for this research ecobricks and mixed plastic bags performed on par, and in some cases better than conventional and recycled insulation material (i.e.: recycled PET #1, recycled denim, R-Tech foam, and fiberglass batt) when it comes to R-value.  What on Earth is R-value?  It’s the measure of resistance to heat flow through a given thickness of material.  The higher the R-value, the greater the resistance, or in other words, the insulation actually works to keep your structure warm in the cold, and cool in the hot.  Rigid fiberglass, ecobricks, and mixed plastic bags were the top three performers in R-value, respectively.  Coming in closely behind were recycled PET #1, carton ecobricks and Ubuntu-Blox.  So breathe easy, literally.  The alternative insulation materials you’ve been building with, or are planning to build with, should work as ideally as conventional insulation at a fraction of the cost, and not at the expense of your local landfill or beach.

Knowledge is power!  Empower yourself and your community with these lab results.  Encourage your community to begin, or continue, building structures using plastic waste as a safe and reliable alternative insulation material. Oceanographers believe there are 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic debris in Earth’s oceans.  Americans, alone, are sending 121 million tons of waste to landfills each year.  Please let that sink in, and we’ll be right back.

Click here to view the full report from LANL

 

Click, click, Ecobrick!

By: Hallie Brennan | November 2, 2016

Ladies and gentlemen, we are entering into a judgement free zone, because I’m about to share with you the things I’ve purchased over the internet in the last 30 days:

1 vacuum cleaner

12 sharpie markers

1 bag of dog vitamins

1 roll of glassine paper

12 quartz crystals

Copper wire

Jewelry beads set

1 pair of booties

2 sweaters (it’s Fall, I buy these instead of pumpkin-spiced things…)

Convenience is king, and as a result the online retail world is unstoppable.  By now I think it’s safe to assume everyone has purchased an item over the internet.  It’s easy, care-free, and gives opportunity for the world’s millions of products to be delivered to our doorsteps… Click, click, new vacuum cleaner!

How is this not the best thing since sliced bread?  Well, plastic.  Ordering a product online almost always goes along with shipping that same product.  By the time our purchase magically makes it to our doorstep it’s often times wrapped in plastic, or in a box stuffed with plastic, bubble-wrapped plastic, styrofoam peanuts, plastic packing tape, plastic bags, saran wrap like stuff wrapping more plastic objects to cardboard… It makes you wonder just how many accidents shipping companies have had with broken purchases delivered to doorsteps so that now everything is jumbo-plastic-beans-bubbles-boxes galore!

Alright ladies and gentlemen it’s time to enter into a guilt free zone.  We may be eco-conscious, but the directions of society and the economy often make it difficult to keep up with environmentally conscious living.   We deserve to enjoy convenience, and a little retail therapy every once in a while, too.  Rather than completely banning things from our lives, lets find ways to utilize what we’ve got.  What do we got?  Loovvvvin’  But also plastic waste.  Order the sweaters and booties, vitamins, and vacuum cleaners (consciously, por favor) but remember, almost all of that material your new purchase is delivered in is ecobrickable!

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Pro tip: Pop the bubbles of the bubble-wrap before ecobricking.  Help the environment and find mild stress relief at the same time.   You’re welcome, pal.

Talkin’ Trash and Tacos

By: Hallie Brennan, September 2016

If you’ve been Googling “zero waste home” lately chances are you’ve come across images of spotless homes whose “waste” for the year can be seen in a single Mason jar.  Perhaps the thought that comes to your mind is, Easy, no problemo!  Bulk aisle here I come!  And all the power of bulk to you, my friend!  But many of you may be thinking, yeah freakin’ right!  As trashy thoughts of last night’s pizza and Coca-Cola order with extra napkins and that side of ranch start to resurface in your mind.  So lets be real; most of us grew up in a home where tossing something into the trash carries with it less thought than hash-tagging your latest Instagram post.

Jo and I have the luxury of calling beautiful Santa Fe, New Mexico, our home.  Often times referred to as the City-Different – by means of widespread local businesses, one-of-a-kind Northern New Mexican cuisine, world renowned art markets – but one additional difference that allows Santa Fe to stand out among other US cities is its alternative to landfill usage by means of the local organization, UPCYCLE SANTA FE.

That’s right, Santa Feans, we’re here to help you not get too trashy with your life!  We understand a year’s worth of trash isn’t going to easily fit into a single Mason jar.  Someday I hope we all have the perseverance to achieve the single Mason jar lifestyle, but in the meantime, UPCYCLE SANTA FE is here to help wean you off trash, and here’s how…

We’re building stuff!  And I mean some serious stuff!  Did you know most of what’s tossed into your trashcan, and then into your landfill, can be reused as a building material?  Meet Eco-Bricks and Ubuntu-Blox.  By consciously separating what is Upcyclable, and what you think is trash, you can cut back your landfill contributions tremendously!  (Insider secret: there’s really no such thing as trash.  Stay tuned for our next blog post…!)

So let’s start in the kitchen; an area of the home where a lot of trash can be easily generated by simple everyday tasks like making dinner for yourself, or the family.  Lets talk about tacos.  You like tacos, right?  You’re vegan, vegetarian, pescatarian, or carnivore… chances are you like tacos.  I’m inviting you to taco night at our place.  Zero-waste taco night; of course, there’s a catch to these delicious, Earth friendly, tacos!

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Here we have our ingredients for delicious slow-cooked BBQ chicken tacos.

  • 2 raw, bone-in, chicken breasts
  • 1 bottle of BBQ sauce
  • 1 can black beans
  • 1 bag of kale
  • 1 bundle of cilantro
  • 2 avocados
  • 3 limes
  • 3 tomatoes
  • 1 onion
  • 2 packages of deli cheese
  • 4 jalapeños
  • 1 can of corn
  • 1 Amber Ale (for that tasty beer baste flavor; irresistible)

After whipping up some of the best chicken tacos this side of the Mississippi, we’re left with quite a mess in the kitchen.  The aftermath photo of fresh ingredients from the grocery store is less pleasing to view.  It’s kind of gross, right?

Trash talkin'

FIRST THINGS FIRST…

Lets remove the easy stuff: recyclables and compost material.  Glass, aluminum and tin are tossed into the recycle bin, and all of the discarded organic materials are tossed into the backyard compost pile.  (If you’re not composting food waste from your kitchen it’s totally time you start!)

 

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Here’s what remains after recyclables and compost material has been removed.  Things have already gotten a little less trashy around here!   I’ve taken a few minutes to rinse out that chip bag, scrub off the raw chicken gunk from the laminated deli paper, and rinse off cheese residue from the deli wrap.  Once rinsed completely clean of residue, place the clean “trash” on a drying rack to drip dry.  You might be thinking how disgusting this all sounds, and wondering why on Earth someone would take time to do all of that?  Again, if this stuff grosses you out, why on Earth do we assume Earth enjoys it?  Does Earth enjoy your raw chicken gunk deli paper sticking to Her soil?  Probably not, folks…

Time to make the ecobrick!  Whatever is an eco-brick?  Click here to find out!

PRO-TIP:

The key to a successful eco-brick is clean and dry non-organic “trash”

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AND LAST, BUT DEFINITELY NOT LEAST, WE STUFF!

Once all the “trash” is clean and dry we begin to stuff the eco-brick in what becomes a wonderful bicep workout.  I’ve got my favorite wooden spoon, but drumsticks, chopsticks, or long-handled paintbrushes may also do the trick… stuff the “trash” into the plastic bottle.  Keep it firm from the bottom to the top.  Remember, after all, you’re creating a BRICK!  A building material!  Once you’ve filled the brick to the brim simply drop it off at the UPCYCLE SANTA FE eco-brick collection point at:

917 Don Juan Street, Santa Fe, NM 87501

Don’t know of an eco-brick collection point in your town?  Google it!  You’d be surprised to find out about environmental activists getting active in your own community.  And if you aren’t able to find an eco-brick collection point in your town, we’d like to encourage you to start the first!  Take this honorable chance of a moment into your own hands, and plan your own building project!  We’d love to help you with this, just shoot us an email!

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Upcycling the Plastic Waste Dilemma

Upcycling The Plastic Waste Dilemma by Joseph Stodgel. Originally printed in the Santa Fe New Mexican and Santa Fe Reporter for the April, 2015 Earth Day insert.

Since its invention and widespread production, plastic has enabled huge leaps in technological and industrial innovation and has in no small part ushered in the modern world as we know it. At the same time, plastic has become a massive and widespread environmental and health problem.

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Plastic, as a valuable piece of the human technological cycle, has for the most part leaked into biological cycles. In the ecosystems of the world, plastic is a hazardous material that harbors environmental toxins. In the light of the sun, and the salt of the ocean, plastic breaks apart slowly into microscopic particles that are all the more toxic due to their easy ingestion.

Plastic of all kinds disrupts endocrine function and mimics estrogen, and thus holds the potential to wreak widespread reproductive havoc on biological systems. To put it simply, plastic does not belong in the biosphere, and it is imperative that it is kept within human technological cycles. What can be done to accomplish this?

First and foremost, products must be designed to be easily integrated back into either biological or technological cycles. Secondly, businesses of all kinds that produce or sell plastic components and packaging must take responsibility for and encourage the proper return and reuse / upcycling of their plastics. Thirdly, towns and communities must set up simple initiatives to responsibly deal with plastic waste in a local context.

This brings us to the difference between downcycling and upcycling. We have been taught to believe that recycling is the best thing that we can do with plastic waste, but what really happens when a plastic bottle is “recycled”? It is shipped hundreds if not thousands of miles around the world, broken down and processed in a number of factories to become a product of lesser value and range of use, and then again is shipped hundreds if not thousands of miles to be sold again. This is downcycling – it takes materials of one value and downgrades them at the expense of the environment.

Ecobrick Doghouse

Upcycling, on the other hand, takes materials of one value and upgrades them for the benefit of society and the protection of the biosphere. A simple example of this is an ecobrick – a plastic bottle used not only to contain and compress common plastic waste, but to build creative structures as well. In Guatemala, where the practice of making and building with ecobricks first took hold, upwards of 200 structures (most of them schools) have been built using these upcycled plastic vessels stuffed with “trash”.

Choose intelligent, holistic design, demand extended corporate responsibility, and start upcycling your plastic waste today.