Monthly Archives: April 2009

Personal Hygiene and Cigarette Butts: Reflections from a Trash Run

Back Cove Trail  Photo by Phil Poirier
Back Cove Trail Photo by Phil Poirier

On Saturday Becca and I went out for a Trash Run after some morning yoga.  We decided to tackle the Back Cove Trail  in Portland, ME .  As with any Trash Run, there were discoveries of remarkable trash and new trash running terminology (see end of post for new terms).  On this day, there was a definite theme for the bigger items we found – personal hygiene items made of plastic.  Some of the more interesting items in this category included:

  • 4 tampon applicators
  • 2 combs
  • 1 set of green tweezers
  • 1 toothbrush
  • 1 stick of lip balm
  • A partially used stick of deodorant

You may be asking yourself, “Why is someone throwing tampon applicators along a jog/ walk trail?”  The answer is, people are probably not dumping their personal hygiene products.  Much of the trash we picked up probably comes from the streets of Portland and gets deposited into the cove from a storm drain.  If someone does not pick it up, it will make its way into the Atlantic, catch a ride on some ocean currents, and probably end up with its other trash friends at the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

We had hoped to cover the entire 3.5-mile loop around the cove but barely got out of the parking lot. There is one simple reason for this-CIGARETTE BUTTS!  We spent over an hour and a half picking up hundreds of the nasty little butts (and forced ourselves to walk by a bunch so we could actually get away from the parking lot).  In that time we covered less than a quarter of a mile. Our trash run quickly turned into a “butt stroll”.

While it is difficult to estimate the number of cigarette butts that are littered each year, they are commonly considered the most littered item in the world.

Not only are these butts a big contributor to landfills and an eyesore for our parks, roadways, and sidewalks, they are a hazard to nature.  While most people may think that cigarette filters are made from cotton and thus biodegradable, that assumption could not be further from the truth.  95% of cigarette filters are made from cellulose acetate, a plastic that is slow to degrade (estimates from 1.5 – 10 years).  During this time, the butts have a good chance of ending up in our waterways (18% of all litter does), which endangers marine life that mistakes the debris for food.

A depressing problem, right?  Well that’s if you look at it as a problem.  What if you look at this as an opportunity?  Here is the thing, cellulose acetate has many other uses including:

  • Apparel: linings, blouses, dresses, wedding and party attire, home furnishings, draperies, upholstery and slip covers. (Really show people what a die-hard smoker you are!)
  • Industrial uses: filters (other than cigarettes), ink reservoirs for fiber tip pens.
  • High absorbency products: diapers and surgical products.
  • Award ribbons: Rosettes for equestrian events, dog/cat shows, corporate awards, advertising and identification products.

What if we created the infrastructure to collect cigarette butts, purify them, and re-manufacture them into new materials?  What if we provided an incentive for people to submit them (and not coupons for additional cigarettes)?  What if part of the proceeds from the products sold from the new material went to support youth smoking prevention campaigns?  It may be a crazy idea, but most people thought Columbus’s idea that the world was round was pretty crazy too.

New Trash Running Terminology
Baited – while trash running/hiking/strolling along a body of salt water, you bend down to pick up that piece of trash. But alas, it is a natural gift from the sea. Old net? Nope-dried seaweed. Bit of hard plastic? Nope-crustacean shell. (Good thing you opted out of the harder lunges in yoga. You’ll need those thigh muscles today!)

For some other trash running recaps from Atayne’s contest with I Run Far check out these blogs.  If you did a write up on your blog, please post the link as a comment.
http://briangaines.blogspot.com/2009/04/awareness.html
http://briangaines.blogspot.com/2009/04/my-neighbors-are-trashy.html
http://www.gonesomewhere.com/?p=442

So that is what Conventional Means

con⋅ven⋅tion⋅al
-adjective

  1. conforming or adhering to accepted standards, as of conduct or taste: conventional behavior.

I think about the word conventional quite a bit, at least every time I go to a grocery store.  With the rapid growth of organic food over the last 10+ years, just about every grocery store has a good selection of the stuff, especially organic produce.  Walk into nearly any supermarket that caters to middle and upper income Americans, and you will see signs for conventionally grown produce and organically grown produce.

Growth of Organic Food Sales (in USD) Since 1997
Growth of Organic Food Sales (in USD) Since 1997

 Photo: Aude GUERRUCCI / AFP / Getty Images

Photo: Aude GUERRUCCI / AFP / Getty Images

Every time I see this it makes me think, “Since when did spraying harmful chemicals to grow the food we use to nourish our bodies become conventional?”  The best answer I have for that is during the 1950s. Although the use of pesticides goes back thousands of years, the real growth in use has occurred in the last 60 years.  Pesticide use has increased 50 fold since 1950.  About 1.2 billion pounds of pesticides are used each year in the U.S. with worldwide pesticide use about 5 billion pounds per year.  In 2008, the pesticide industry grew $52 billion.  With this strong growth, I find it interesting that the industry is so concerned about Michelle Obama’s organic garden at the White House.

This is not just for our food.  It is also what we put on our bodies.  “Conventionally” grown cotton is one of the most chemically intensive crops out there.  Consider a few facts:

What is even worse, we have essentially created a system where if people want to do something the “unconventional” (e.g. organic) way, they have to pay a tax.  This is not your typical government tax.  It is the tax the farmer/ producer must pay to get their product certified as organic.  This can cost tens of thousands of dollars and is often not feasible for small, local farmers who are growing their crops the old fashioned way.  In the short term, it pays to be conventional.

I have a novel idea.  How about we put a tax on the conventional products?  Let’s make them pay to be designated as carcinogenic and polluting. These fees could be used to support environmental and health groups doing things to clean up the mess created by these “conventional” products.

I think we should stop doing things that ultimately harm our planet, and ourselves because someone else says it is conventional.  I would encourage everyone to step up and lead the charge to change.  This could be starting a new type of company or quite simply supporting ones that are already doing great “unconventional” things.

“The conventional view serves to protect us from the painful job of thinking.”
-John Kenneth Galbraith

Not Just a Little Spare Change…

“You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

-Mahatma Gandhi

When I started Atayne almost 2 years ago (I can’t believe it has been that long), my vision was to not only change the destructive model of the textile and apparel industry, but also to create a model for a new type of company.  A vision is important, but unless you take actionable steps, it can just be window dressing.

Although we are small and underfunded, we can’t lose sight of our values.  I am proud to report that Atayne is now a certified B Corporation.  What’s a B Corp you ask?  Think of the standard corporate structures, S-Corp or C-Corp.  Now throw them out the window.  B Corps (B stands for Beneficial) are companies that use the power of business to solve social and environmental problems.

That has a nice ring to it.  But it goes much deeper than that. Unlike traditional corporations, Certified B Corporations are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on the long-term interests of their employees, suppliers, community, consumers, and environment.  The ultimate goal of the certifying organization, B Lab, is to create a new, legally recognized corporate form (like a C-Corp or S-Corp) with tax incentives, procurement preferences, and a social stock exchange for sustainable businesses.

As a start-up, why was it important for me to spend the time, money, and resources to go through the certification process?  It is simple–actions speak louder than words.  It is one thing for us to preach our commitment to environmental and social responsibility.  It is yet another thing for us to back up those words.  This was an important step to communicate to the Atayne community that we mean what we say.  We are legally bound in by our operating agreement to do so.  Straight from our operating agreement, and I apologize in advance for all the legal jargon.

In discharging his or her duties, and in determining what is in the best interests of the Company and its Members, a managing member shall not be required to regard any interest, or the interests of any particular group affected by such action, as a dominant or controlling interest or factor. He or she shall give due consideration to the following factors, including, but not limited to, the long-term prospects and interests of the Company and its Members, and the social, economic, legal, or other effects of any action on the current and retired employees, the suppliers and customers of the Company or its subsidiaries, and the communities and society in which the Company or its subsidiaries operate, (collectively, with the Members, the “Stakeholders”), together with the short-term, as well as long-term, interests of its Members and the effect of the Company’s operations (and its subsidiaries’ operations) on the environment and the economy of the state, the region and the nation.

Check out the list of other B Corporations and whenever you can, give them your business.  By doing so you know that you are doing more than adding to their bottom line.  You are adding to the bottom line of your community and planet.

Sex, Drugs, and…

Unfortunately we did not complete the trifecta and discover any rock n’ roll during Atayne’s most recent trash run at the RunTerra race in Gaithersburg, MD.  But as the blog title suggests, we did come across plenty of evidence of sex and drugs.  While running for trash, you find some remarkable objects.  Previous trash run discoveries included a fully functioning iPod, a toilet seat, and a highly alliterative DVD.  (If only the DVD content lived up to its title. Mike?) On this trash run, we encountered less interesting finds, but did come across many condom wrappers and empty beer bottles.  Oh the joys and excitement of running for trash.

On a more serious note, we had yet another successful trash run.  Nearly 20 volunteers (ages 8 – 40) came together to run for trash and prevent recyclable material from going into a landfill. We estimate that 75% of the event’s waste was recycled.  One of our best performances yet!

While the volunteers were instrumental in making this happen, the race organizers took many steps to make our jobs all that much easier.  Being the inaugural event for RunTerra, the number of runners was relatively small–about 250.  But having managed the waste for similarly sized events, the RunTerra organizers did a great job of reducing the waste generated by the event through smart choices made during the planning process.  By far the best way they were able to reduce waste was by handing out reusable bottles of water at the end of the race instead of bottled water.  (One of the biggest sources of waste at most races is plastic bottles.  The scary thing is, most of the time they do not get recycled.)

In addition to reducing their material usage (remember reduce is the first and most important of the 3 Rs), they took some other steps to make for a much less impactful race.  Some of our favorites:

  • Recyclable cups (paper with no waxy lining) at the aid stations
  • A tree planted in honor of every participant and volunteer
  • Attaching the race to an environmental expo for participants to learn other ways to live a more environmentally responsible life

Was everything perfect?  Well no, but sustainability is a journey not a destination. The organizers of the race did a great job of creating the framework for a less impactful event.

Before closing, I want to do one of the more enjoyable parts of trash running, unveiling the new terminology developed while engaging in the sport.  Here are a few more to add to your trash running vocabulary:

  • Trashlek – Much like its “cleaner” cousin the Fartlek, the Trashlek is a great aerobic training technique.  It involves a light jog to a piece of trash and then a hard-paced sprint to put the trash in the appropriate receptacle.  A moving retrofitted trash collecting jog stroller or stationary trashcan does the trick.  This is a great substitute for boring and less environmentally beneficial track workouts.
  • Dumpster Break – A bathroom break while trash running.  No explanation needed.
  • Getting Trashed – Any injury that occurs while trash running, especially one that involves hand, arm or knee contact with the ground.  A very common one is clipping your foot on a guardrail and taking a digger while returning to the road or path after going deep for a piece of trash.

As always, keep it clean!