Seven years ago, Walt Disney released the animated film, Wall-E, the story of a robot whose pointless job is to clean up our abandoned, waste-covered planet. Fairytale? Recent reports show that we should take the animated film as a cautionary tale and approach the problem of the massive rate we are generating waste with real solutions.
The World Bank predicts that globally we will generate six million tons of garbage per day and by 2100 reach “peak garbage” where we will be generating 11 million tons of garbage daily.
One of the report’s authors, Daniel Hoorweg, calls garbage the “canary in a coal mine,” when it comes to environmental impact. Trash harms the environment in numerous ways, from leaking into our ground water to methane and greenhouse gas emissions to acid rain from incinerators and endangerment of marine life.
Closer to home, many of us are unaware that Pennsylvania is the number one importer of trash in the United States—importing nearly 10 million tons of garbage a year, almost double that of number two-ranked Virginia.
What are we doing about it? The good news is that locally, many organizations are tackling the problem with diverse solutions. Grant Ervin, the City of Pittsburgh’s Sustainability Manager, provides leadership for the City’s sustainability programming and policy efforts. Through its programs and collaborations, Sustainable Pittsburgh is the region’s advocacy and policy organization that aims to “accelerate the policy and practice of sustainability.”
There are also a number of organizations that are actively focused on recycling, reuse and redirection. In a recent Sustainability Salon, advocate Maren Cooke’s long-running series that presents organizations focused on the environment, I represented 412 Food Rescue in a session titled “Waste Into Resources” and met other groups that redirect viable materials from landfills.
Here are some of the local organizations that turn waste into resources.
A Few Bad Apples
A Few Bad Apples is a small operation run by Mike Sturges in Stanton Heights that gleans apples from trees in the neighborhood (that aren’t being picked or that fall to the ground) and makes excellent hard cider from them. Sturges’ small operation is a great example that redirection of waste into a viable product can start at a small scale.
Based on the Northside, Brother’s Brother takes surplus goods from companies—such as textbooks, medical equipment and medicine—and sends them to partners in over 146 countries. Founded in 1958, the organization has redirected over 100,000 tons of products to those in need.
The Pittsburgh Center for Creative Reuse operates a shop in Point Breeze that offers a vast array of affordable art materials such as fabric, paper, frames and a variety of other items. The stock depends on what comes in through donations.
Construction Junction is Pittsburgh’s popular building material surplus retailer–going to this Point Breeze warehouse is a virtual treasure hunt where you can find anything from mid-century gems to doors of every kind (They divert more than 5,100 doors per year from entering the landfill). Their Facebook page is a must-follow—it’s where they post new arrivals as soon as they hit the floor.
I wrote about Samir Lakhani and EcoSoap Bank in a previous article. This Pittsburgh-based nonprofit, started by a young Pitt grad, reuses unused soap from hotels and turns it into hand soap in developing countries, vastly improving hygiene practices and helping prevent the spread of communicable diseases.
Braddock-based Fossil Free Fuels turns waste cooking oil from restaurants and homes into fuel that can be used by retrofitted diesel engine vehicles. Its fuel station in Braddock provides pure plant oil fuel that “reduces carbon emissions by 85% compared to petroleum-diesel fuel, according to the EPA.” This is a very welcome service in our region which ranks in the 98th percentile in diesel particulate air pollution.
Global Links is a 25-year-old Pittsburgh nonprofit that recovers surplus products from hospitals and ships the goods to nonprofit partners in Latin America and the Caribbean. Because of its long-term focus on these regions, the nonprofit has developed thought leadership about the public health conditions in the countries they serve and ensures donations and partnerships that produce the most impact.
The Pennsylvania Resources Council’s regional composting initiative redirects food waste from landfills and turns them into much-needed nutrients for farms. Since it began in 2008, the program has helped eight farmers obtain composting permits from PA-DEP. Farmers have received over 9,000 tons of compostable waste that produced over 4,500 tons of quality compost, enabling them to not only utilize the product for their own soils but also to generate over $133,000 in additional gross income.
You may have seen PittMoss’ CEO Mont Handley come out of Shark Tank with a $600,000 investment from Mark Cuban. No surprise. The quietly innovative company uses recycled paper as an effective and environmentally-sound alternative to peat moss, developing a proprietary product that not only has better moisture-holding capacity but also prevents the release of vast quantities of carbon that result from peat harvesting.
Another Braddock-based organization, Steel City Soils takes food waste and grass cuttings and via a corps of volunteers turns it into rich compost. The small operation sells compost at the Squirrel Hill Farmers Market and the East End Food Coop.
Pittsburgh-based Thread takes plastic water bottles and turns them into fabric. With Haiti as its first base of operations, the social enterprise creates jobs through plastic collection and sales. Thread then uses the resulting processed plastic flakes to make fabric that it sells to manufacturers. Thread has used over 1.26 million pounds of waste as raw materials and provided 100 Haitians with job training and professional development.
I co-founded 412 Food Rescue to address this disconnect: We waste 40% of our food while one in six of us goes hungry. 412 Food Rescue redirects viable food from farms, wholesalers, retailers and restaurants toward organizations that serve those who are food insecure. In six months and through the work of volunteers, 412 Food Rescue has redirected over 75,000 pounds of food from waste. Slated to release an app in the fall, the goal of our organization is the redirection of over 2,000,000 pounds of waste in Allegheny County in three years and expanding coverage to other cities.