Kill the planet—recycle contact lenses

This is just a rant about total illiteracy of human behaviour, leading to literally the worst recycling expansion I have seen in my entire career. 

A contact lens weighs about 25 milligrams, so an entire year’s supply of lenses is about two-thirds of a gram. A person’s entire life supply of lenses would weigh less than a small bag of potato chips. 

And some shiny penny thought we should recycle those…

So–what? Do you put that downy featherweight of a lens into an… envelope?

You are recovering just a few grams of plastic. Sadly you cannot recover all the energy needed to manufacture these amazingly precise high-tech accessories. You can’t recover any of the waste manufactured when oil was drilled to supply plastic feedstocks or the transportation energy. You can’t recover any of the ore that was manufactured into steel, and then was manufactured into diggers and loaders and trucks and trains and ships and planes that brought the lens materials and the packaging materials and the lenses themselves to you in your store. 

All of that has been irretrievably burnt, leaving you with just 25 milligrams per eye. 

Just play out the user behaviour. Are you going to store those tiny lenses in a tiny container in the medicine cabinet? Are you going to put them in a dish? Will they be kept in a box?

And then every January 1, Out with the old and in with the new!—you put your 0.65 grams of into a paper envelope that weighs ten times as much and mail it off!

Is there any way I can say this that doesn’t sound totally batshit? That is because it is next level stupidity.

So you put your lenses into an envelope—6.75 grams of paper, backed up by, again, oil pumping and pipelines and refineries and logging trucks and silted streams beside logging roads and barrels of bleach in the papermaking process?

Clearly that is making the world a worse place. 

You make a trip to a depot, or drop your envelope of lenses in the mail–and a postal truck comes to empty the postbox and carries the sack of mail to a sorting centre (a huge building made of mined minerals and extracted trees, manufactured with ever more machines of ore and energy). On and on it goes. 

Even were we so foolish as to participate in this scheme, what will happen to the plastic from the lenses? We can’t just melt it down and make a milk jug, they are totally different plastics. We are certainly not going to make new lenses out of it.

So it is quite likely the company that recycles these is simply going to slit the envelope, dump the lenses in the trash, and toss the envelope in the blue bin. (I am not joking, and I have spent much of my career working for zero waste so I am not some right-wing hater spreading propaganda about the failure of the recycling system.)

But this contact lens scheme will also recycle packaging! And that packaging is already recyclable in even the most basic blue bin program so…the benefit of that is also probably negative.

We are going to use enormous amounts of new resources to capture a tiny amount of non-recyclable materials. That is stupid. 

And we have burnt the attention required to recycle the lenses. The same amount of attention could have been spent on recycling an aluminum can, which has such a positive recycling benefit that there should be the death penalty for throwing cans in the garbage. Or spend that attention on a 25 milligram contact lens, I mean, whatever.

Here is another way to slice the stats. Almost two and half million people live in Metro Vancouver, and of those about 12% wear contact lenses. That is almost 300,000 people and they throw away 192 kilograms of lenses each year.

192 kilograms!

Meanwhile, Metro Vancouverites throw away about 150,000,000 kilograms of paper every year. This is regular paper that should go in the blue box for recycling. 150,000 tonnes of it, but we should burn our cognitive capacity paying attention to 0.65 grams of contact lens per person?

Please just stop.

This is far from the first time this sort of planet-killing distraction has come about. Here is an article from 2010.…/are-glasses-better-for-the-planet-than-…

Here is a high-level look at the life cycle of contact lenses.


Skill, joy, and shaving.

IMG_0075I wrote this about five years ago, but had no place to publish it. After the topic of his most recent post veered to razors, John Michael Greer suggested I post it.

Joy is a thread that runs through our Small and Delicious Life, but this column is explicitly about joy.

And shaving.

For much of my life—once I got over the excitement of having hair on my face—shaving has not been a source of much pleasure at all. But unlike most people, whether they are scraping their face, legs, chest or underarms, I can now say I love to shave, I look forward to it; shaving enriches my day. How I got here is a bit of a circuitous story.

As a designer, I like to figure out new ways to reduce my environmental footprint. Ten years ago, in the hopes I could stop throwing away razor cartridges, I tried shaving with a straight razor. I never got very proficient, especially that bit under the nose known as the coup de maitre, but I could scrape myself pretty smooth. I picked up a puck of soap at the drugstore and a shaving brush off eBay. In the years since I demoted the straight razor to bathroom decor I have also dallied with the “safety razor”, the double-edged type used to chop cocaine or scrape paint spatters in the hopes I could re-sharpen the blades with one of these vintage gizmos.

This always resulted in some pretty wicked razor burn, and I always returned to my twin-blade cartridges. They got me smooth enough for an office job, and were the smallest non-recyclable monstrous hybrid I could find. I did avoid creating garbage from shaving foam cans, but I was not feeling like I was shaving sustainably.

Now I don’t know about you, but when something is weighing on me—when I am, as they say, down in the dumps, I tend to stay up late. And when I stay up late, I tend to drink and Google. For some reason I began googling things related to shaving. My, how the internet has grown up. No more peach fuzz, there is a great hairy bonanza of shaving information, equipment and ephemera.

I think I first came across this guy, who explains how to make a great shaving lather—turns out I had been doing it wrong, wrong, wrong. To start with, you don’t make lather in the soap mug—all those well-meaning Christmas gifts of a Shaving Mug and Soap Kit…how sad. Anyhow, maybe I wasn’t wrong, just joyless, and wasteful and ineffective. He shows how to make great foam in a variety of ways: in a bowl, in your palm, or on your face. I tried them all and spent several months making lather in a bowl. With the bowl you can preheat the ceramic; I floated my bowl in my sink of shaving water so I always had warm lather just like the barber’s. Finally I settled on working the lather up right on my beard. I am not a stiffly bristled guy, and this works wonderfully.

There is a pretty clear consensus in the online shaving world that the old safety razor is the ne plus ultra of depilation tools. I had a razor my father gave me, so I ordered a sampler of new blades and a brush from a fine Canadian supplier. Each manufacturer has its own characteristics—some are sharper, some hold an edge longer. I spent many a contemplative hour with my Scotch and water, pondering geopolitics and potential disruptions to my supply if I settled on blades manufactured in Egypt, or India, or Israel. I also got a very nice puck of French shaving soap—turns out shaving soap comes in many flavours, and none of them smell like Old Spice.

As with life, so with shaving—by which I mean advertising gets it all wrong. With a safety razor there is no grand swipe through your stubble, leaving a perfectly polished swathe through the lather like the beautiful people do with their Mach Whatever. The safety razor requires short little strokes, and lots of them. Do you watch Mad Men? Don Draper does it right.

Now I am smoothly shaven—in fact, I have never been so smooth. I also never get razor burn. And here is where the joy comes in—I shave four times, lathering freshly each time. I shave down, and then at a 45 degree angle, and then at the opposite 45 degree angle and then up. With a safety razor you use no force, just let the weight of the head glide over your skin. Those who are really serious make beard maps, getting to know their own face, how the bristles grow, and where they need to change direction for the closest shave. And the added bonus that started it all? I never throw away empty shaving foam cans, I see no reason to ever own another razor and my blades are a single material, 100% recyclable stainless steel.

It may seem inconceivable that I get up early in order to shave four times, but it is truly a blessing unto my day. Here is the thing—we have taken all that is truly challenging and artful and demanding and given it to the machines. For the humans we leave the task of pressing the start button—cars that parallel park themselves, jigs to cut dovetails, gas fireplaces that never fail to light, razors with four or five blades—pressing the button, over and over again, at work, at home, all day long. It is like we are trying to systematically destroy anything that requires practise, anything that may require expertise. To fit with other design strategies like Design for Environment, Design for Disassembly and Design for Recycling, I call this Design for De-skilling.

Why get out of bed at all, let alone early, when all you have to look forward to is flicking the switch on your electric razor? The economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen wrote:

…we should cure ourselves of what I have been calling “the circumdrome of the shaving machine”, which is to shave oneself faster so as to have more time to work on a machine that shaves faster so as to have more time to work on a machine that shaves still faster, and so on…

As with Slow Food, Slow Shaving stands against this de-skilling. It takes practice to make a good shaving lather. It takes effort to shave closely. Each of these things forces me to focus, brings me back to a challenge in my life, the challenge of getting the right amount of water in the brush, of getting the blade angle just right. When I stroke my chin in thought my reverie is broken by amazement at how smooth my face is. When was the last time you had that sense of amazement delivered by the space-age multi-blade razor? It feels great—satisfaction at a job well-done—like making perfect pie crust or getting nothing but net on a three-point shot. That is a feeling we could have much more often in our lives.

Five years later I have a half-beard—a Hollywoodian—and so my shaving joy is reduced. But that means my shave soap may never run out.


Crushing the Solar Garbage Compactor

Photo by David Markland

Photo by David Markland

I am not a violent man—but I can be quite ‘passionate’, and today I am feeling passion about solar garbage compacters. It may seem an unlikely lens, but garbage compactors are—ahem—very juicy.

The passion precipitating post, on TreeHugger, was mostly about the compactor doors breaking, which causes mounds of trash to build up on the street:

…the trash cans have solar-powered sensors and compactors that keep the trash compressed, only calling out to be emptied via wireless communication when truly full, which results in fewer trips from city employees to empty the bins and thus big fuel savings. They apparently saved the city $900,000 in the first year and reduce the number of times the trash cans need to be emptied from three times a day to three times a week. Impressive!

Impressive? You will notice there is no ‘green’ tab on this website; I am not impressed by green. I want to talk about the bigger picture. So…

We have a problem; garbage is overwhelming municipal budgets. Garbage compactors address that problem in a very typical way, which is to assume business will continue as usual, and to ‘fix’ the problem with brute force—massive amounts of money and technology: solar panels, sensors, computer boards, motors, crushers—moving parts of all kinds!

And then, typically, we will all be shocked—shocked!—when all of the technology turns out to be less simple and more expensive than a barrel with a bag in it.

So, reducing diesel truck trips may be ‘greener’, but there are many reasons it isn’t sustainable. We all agree oil isn’t going to last forever. And so diesel garbage trucks aren’t going to last forever, right? Which means this whole approach is both temporary and unsustainable, a brute-force, end-of-pipe patch. Yet we will be left with a bunch of once-expensive, now salvage, infrastructure sitting around our city.

Let’s address the actual problem in our pattern of living.

Let’s make less garbage. It is not like it is rocket science. Garbage cans on city streets are mostly full of food wrappers, coffee cups and newspapers. McDonalds, the chain we love to hate, proved a fully composting restaurant could be successful, and newspaper means there should be a blue bin, not a trash compactor. So, let’s stop it with the expensive, cumbersome and ugly band-aid solutions. Just address the real problem—too much garbage—by actually just reducing the amount of garbage, but sometimes people still need to use dumpster for their garbage, so dumpster rental services are also necessary, but people can just check out here to find this services as well.

Three groups of people need to be much, much more courageous for this to happen: engineers must build a city for people, not diesel trucks; bureaucrats must develop systems and regulations that are outside their comfort zone; and politicians must actually regulate garbage-based business models.


Why is changing behaviour so hard? In this slidecast I share a way of answering that question, and how Compassionate Systems can increase the effectiveness of our work.

This was recorded at the Invasive Species forum in Richmond, BC, in January 2013. Apologies for the occasionally tinny sound—and, of course, it is only a slidecast. Think of it as a podcast with a screensaver.


Homemade Bulk Food Measuring Bags

Orginally published on the Glenbrook North Zero Waste Blog (more about them at the end).

bulk-bag-pics-002I keep a lot of my dry goods in glass jars to keep them fresh and safe from insects. And, of course I hate garbage, so I like to buy in bulk. The thing is, it is annoying to buy five cups of corn meal from the bulk bin when my jar will only hold four cups—I needed a graduated bag to help me buy the right amount for my jars.

I started with a piece of unbleached cotton pillow ticking 20” tall and 13” wide. The ticking is intended to hold feathers, so the fabric is woven tightly enough that I can buy flour and not have it leak all over the place. I also designed this bag to not have any hidden corners to trap dry goods.

Wash and dry your fabric to shrink it before sewing.

First I tore a one inch strip off the long side for my tie. I pressed the edges in to the centre, then folded and pressed the tie in half again to make a long narrow strip with no raw edges before I sewed it closed.

Tearing off the edge for the tie left me with a piece 20” by 12”. I wanted to have the seams on the outside so nothing would get caught inside the bag, so I used a French, or lingerie, seam. For normal sewing, you put your fabric right sides together to sew the seam, then turn your piece inside out for the finished item, and for a French seam you put wrong sides together.  So for the French seam to end up on the outside, you still put the right sides together, and sew a seam ¼” from the edge. Then turn it inside out and sew a 3/8” seam. Now you have a finished seam on the outside of the bag.

bulk-bag-pics-003Fold and press the top edge over twice and seam it—again so that it is on the outside of the bag. No flour or corn meal will get caught in the fabric when you dump it into your jar.

Now flatten the fabric tube, fold the bottom end over twice and seam on the outside. Now you have a bag, but we are going to make it even better.

If you put a square of cardboard inside your bag, flat on the bottom, you will see two triangular little ears on the bottom of the bag. These are just like the little triangular ears you see on a drink box or Tetra Pak. You want to sew two seams to close off those triangular little ears. This eliminates two annoying little corners inside your bag that lentils would get caught inside.


Design Alert!!

I said if you put a square of cardboard inside your bag, you will see two triangular ears. But, if you put a rectangular piece inside, the ears will be long enough to overlap. Then, if you sew the ears together you get a great little handle on the bottom of your bag to help you shake the flour out of your bag. My rectangle ended up being 3 ½” by 2 ¼”, but try it out for yourself.

bulk-bag-pics1Your bag should be done now. Measure something like rice or beans into the bag, one cup at a time. Make marks for each cup with a permanent marker. Sew the tie on and enjoy shopping your bulk section.

black and white threshold edited

Glenbrook North was a community group I helped support while I was working at Metro Vancouver, and I want to share a little anecdote about this suburban cul-de-sac.

Metro provided a little infrastructure–signage and couple of composters, and the GNNWC was expected to weigh all their garbage and give Metro the data. So, while I was crunching the data I started feeling kind of sick—their recycling rate was plummeting. This was not good. But, as I continued, I found garbage was also plummeting. They weren’t recycling much because they had hardly any garbage of any kind. It was the Holy Grail of garbage, they had changed their consumption.