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Musings about the environment and all it touches, from education to city planning

Archive for November 2013

What do you call garbage?

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Garbage by any other name would smell as rank...the Toronto garbage strike.

Garbage by any other name would smell as rank…the Toronto garbage strike.

In a recent post I stated that the word “rude” comes from the latin for garbage. 

Since I teach a waste management course, aka the garb course, I started wondering why there are so many synonyms for the word garbage.  The origin of these synonyms reveals a whole side of human activity: our history revealed by what we have thrown away through the ages.  (If anyone cares, I got most of my etymologies here.)

Garbage itself is a rather old word – what were people throwing out when the word was coined?  According to my dictionary, it first referred to giblets and other organs of a fowl, and the word may be related to “grab” or “grasp”, in the sense of a handful.  This original, fairly specific meaning became generalized to mean anything thrown away.  How did this happen?  In this case, the word got mixed with a new word that was becoming common during the middle-ages, the word “garble”.  Garble meant what was left over from sifting spices, and comes from the latin cribum, meaning sieve.  (The modern English word crib comes from the Germanic krippa for basket, not from the Latin cribum.  Sieve, basket…)

The main source of spices in the middle-ages was the Arab traders, and the merchant world of the Mediterranean developed a trading language made up of Latin and Arabic words.  This language was mostly incomprehensible for the locals – hence the modern meaning of “garbled”, meaning distorted, incomprehensible.  Our modern word for garbage really comes from the twigs and pebbles left behind by merchant sailors in some ancient Greek or Italian warehouse.

This also gives an insight into why there are so many synonyms.  It seems that every ancient trade left behind some residue with a unique name.  Linen weavers gave us the word lingerie, but also the left-over lint (both from the germanic lin for flax).  Offal is what falls off the butcher block (this one comes from English or Dutch).  Junk is a nautical term meaning old rope, derived from the Latin Juncus for reed.  Crud is simply an older spelling of the cheesemakers’ curd, possibly derived from the Gaelic Gruth (to coagulate).  The blacksmiths’ scrap is originally from the Norse skrap meaning small things, trifles.  Stone cutters, road makers, and quarrymen gave us the words debris (from the old French for breakage), detritus (from Latin from worn away), and rubbish (the origin of this one is a mystery).  Farmers clean their grain of chaff (related to chewing), thrash (from threshing), and crap (in its original sense of weeds).  Dross, the waste from smelting, and dregs, the waste from brewing, both originate from an ancient Indo-European root that means “to make muddy”.  Dutch alchemists gave us “mother”, in the sense of a culture starter that coagulates in liquor, from modder, a old version of the word mud.

Mud, itself, comes originally from a proto-Indo-European word denoting something wet; while the Germanic trajectory gave us our word for mud (and, by extension, something unwanted), it gave the Greeks their word for damp, the Irish for cloud, the Sanskrit for urine, the Polish for slime, and, closing the circle, the Avestan for excrement.  The expression “your name is mud” is not to be taken lightly.

All these synonyms paint a picture of an era when garbage was simpler than now (toxic waste, anyone?).  Yet the words all came charged with the negative value of something unwanted, even possibly disgusting; think of the word reject, one of whose original sense in Latin was projectile vomiting.

So it’s surprising that the words describing what was household garbage back in the era where little was discarded have not themselves taken a negative connotation.  (The word discard, itself, reveals that card games were popular in the middle ages.)

We used to throw out fireplace ashes, bones, rags, oyster shells, and little else.  None of these words got an extended meaning of garbage – possibly because there’s nothing particularly offensive about the substances.  Nonetheless, the word shell has a complex etymology.  None of the derivatives of the root for shell, skel-, have the least association with garbage: shellac, scale, shale, scallop, and skoal.  Likewise, rags (originally from the old Norse rögg for shaggy hair, which also gave us rough) is relatively neutral as a descriptive, becoming negative only in the figurative sense (as in, dressedin rags) or in the word raggamuffin.

So it seems that garbage owes its numerous synonyms to the variety of sources of garbage, as opposed to the euphemisms that have resulted in the countless synonyms for words like excrement.

It may be that the French were more squeamish about their own garbage, because very many of the words used are perfect synonyms that come from descriptive adjectives: déchets (from the latin root that gave us decadent); ordures (related to horrid); immondices (from the latin root for improper); and vidanges, from the latin for vacant, void.

But French is also the only language where the common name for garbage can comes from a patronym.  History has retained the names of only two Parisian prefects: Baron Haussman, who built nineteenth century Paris; and Eugene Poubelle, after whom the garbage can is named in French.  Something to aspire to, I suppose.

Bunk is also used to mean garbage, in the figurative sense. The word is short for bunkum, a phonetic spelling of Buncombe, a North Carolina city.  A Buncombe representative became notorious for his overly long, vacuous speeches.  I wonder what the modern Buncombians think of that.

And what about the word waste?  It comes from the Latin vastus, meaning empty, desolate, desert, or wilderness, and it’s interesting how the Romans called desert any wilderness that wasn’t settled, including forests.  German has retained the original meaning in wüste (desert).  Vastus, which also gave us vast, vain, and devastate, came to mean a waste of money and ultimately garbage.  It is tempting to see a relation with the word west – the ancients didn’t like the west, where the sun “dies”, and associated the west side with death (the Egyptian tombs and pyramids are always on the west bank of the Nile, for instance).  There’s no support for this idea in the dictionnaries, unfortunately.

But I remain convinced that if we, in the West, don’t mend our ways, we risk turning the planet into a lifeless desert under heaps of waste.  Which would make for a grand etymology – and a great tragedy.

Written by enviropaul

November 29, 2013 at 4:44 pm

Artfully laid out garbage: photography by Pascal Rostain

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A picture of Madonna's garbage

A picture of Madonna’s garbage

The word rude comes from the latin rudus, which means garbage (well, rubble, to be exact), and the French have coined rudologie, meaning the science of garbage as an discipline (think anthropology meets geography meets waste management).

Rudologie was recently raised to an art form by Pascal Rostain, a photographer and former paparazzi who has an exhibit (and book) of nicely laid out garbage.  Consistent to his former profession, a large part of his work is taking pictures of the garbage of stars; should you wish to know what to expect from Madonna’s garbage, or Ronald Reagan’s, he’s your man.

His work also includes garbage from ordinary people all over the world, from Paris suburbs to Malawi or Malaysia.

Ordinary garbage from Malawi

Ordinary garbage from Malawi

Curiosity prodded Rostain to look through Serge Gainsbourg’s garbage, and what he found somewhat surprised him: there was no secret Gainsbourg, there was only garbage that matched the public persona: packs of Gitane cigarettes and bottles of Ricard pastis, all empty.

Beyond the paparazzi interest, garbage reveals a lot about an individual or an era.  It is a snapshot of consumerism, of eating, of leisure.

Anonymous trash from Kuala Lumpur

Anonymous trash from Kuala Lumpur

Rostain is of course not the first to sift through garbage for anthropological interest; William Rathje’s garbage project (“an anthropology of garbage”) started a good 35 years ago.  And turning garbage into art is also not new, from work using found objects to the work of Tim Noble or Sue Webster, for instance, or HA Schult.   Art photography is not unique, either; Chris Jordan, in particular, has made amazing work out of repeated patterns of waste or consumer items (check out his Intolerable Beauty series, in particular).  

But Rostain’s work is the only one that lays out the garbage, carefully sorted out by size and shape, and simply takes pictures – as if it were an illustration plate for a zoology book.  Strangely compelling.

We like to ignore garbage, just toss it into some imaginary “away”.  But Rostain’s work shows that this is willful blindness on our part – there is a weird beauty in objects of all kind, and they present us with a mirror of who we are. 

Bruce Willis' garbage.

Bruce Willis’ garbage.

Written by enviropaul

November 25, 2013 at 5:55 pm

SWAG: High school students who care

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Last week I visited RE Mountain Secondary School in Langley, for the Langley Green Teams Conference.  This was an event organised by high school students.  Andrew Frank, a fellow instructor at Kwantlen, had been invited and asked me to join him.

I was really quite fun to be there – you can’t beat the charge you get from a bunch of smart, enthusiastic students. 

Andrew and I were asked to speak: how we became “environmentalists” (whatever that may mean to a young mind) and why we felt it mattered.  I’m not sure who inspired who the most, between us, these students, and some of their teachers – what a devoted bunch!  

It was also neat to hear how Andrew got connected with First Nations fighting against the oil industry ’s plans, and we he learned from that experience (which is still on-going).  Andrew recently produced an award-winning video that juxtaposes footage of the Exxon Valdez with Simon & Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence to wonderful effectiveness – if you haven’t seen it yet, here it is – a real treat.

The group who hosting us is called Students Working in Alliance for Green International Society (SWAG).  This is an initiative born out of the 2012 International Baccalaureate World Student Conference at UBC.  This led to the RE Mountain group to organise a conference for other high scholl green teams across langley, the very first intiative of its kind.  They also started a school composting program, Earth Week activities, and a classroom garden system.

But one thing that really made an impression was a video that was created to address negative and cynical attitudes towards the environment in school kids.  It is remarkable effective, using a backwards-forwards video technique.  Take a look here:

That’s a really cool group, at any rate, and I’ll be exploring ways to see if our own Kwantlen student environmental groups, S.A.F.E. and Kwantlen Students for Sustainability, may be able to partner with them somehow. 

SWAG can be contacted at

SWAG students at Earth Week

SWAG students at Earth Week

Written by enviropaul

November 24, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Consumerism and its waste

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Christmas market in Lubeck...fattening, but not toxic!

Christmas market in Lubeck…fattening, maybe, but not toxic!

Christmas is coming, what to get, what to get? 

Because consumerism has a lot of waste associated with it (to say nothing of stress), Green Wednesdays, a group that I participate in, has decided to focus its December meeting by showing The Economics of Happiness, a movie that discusses consumerism, globalisation, and the good life.

(Green Wednesdays feature an environmentally-themed movie, with a speaker for Q&A, every month at Kwantlen’s Langley campus.  The next showing is on December 4th, 7pm, room 1030, 10901 Langley Bypass – everyone is welcome.)   

In this context I thought I’d share some notes I’ve given my students, about the health and environmental impacts of consumer products.

It is easy to think of toxic substances as something resulting from large industrial activities, but that would be a misconception.  In fact, most of our toxic body burden comes from consumer products (food, personal care items, etc).  Some are present as by-products or contaminants, but many are there as ingredients, despite their known health or environmental effects.  A good overview is provided by this article here, which lists some of the most common (as well as ways to avoid them).

Specific examples are found in these links: carcinogens in shampoo; flame retardants in fabric and electronics; mercury in cosmetics, and in fish; phthalates in consumer plastics.

Consumer products affect the environment, as well as human health.  Cosmetics, in particular, are poorly regulated in that respect.  Of particular interest are personal care products that contain the anti-bacterial triclosan, small plastic scrubbing beads, or nanoparticles such as silver.

Drugs and pharmaceutical products, of course, do end up in receiving waters (many of them are not broken down in wastewater treatment plants); the gamut ranges from estrogens, sedatives, caffeine, to metabolites of illegal drugs such as cocaine.

Other consumer products affect our environment in different ways; some can obstruct sewers, while others, more problematically, can strangle, suffocate or starve wildlife (plastic litter in particular).  Flushable cat litter may result in bacterial or parasite contamination of water bodies.

Art, handicraft, home-made food (like what you find at a Christmas market) are wonderful alternatives.  But if you’re still looking for a Christmas gift, you could do worse than pick a copy of the book Slow Death by Rubber Duck (2009 Rick Smith & Bruce Lourie), for your disbelieving uncle or your scoffing “whateva” kid sister.  Books ain’t toxic.

The Heather Street incinerator

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The incinerator in Vienna

The showy incinerator in Vienna

This week the short list for garbage incinerators (sorry, I mean waste-to-energy facilities) for Metro Vancouver came out.  One of these, a bid by Plenary Group, would be located at the foot of HeatherStreet (9000 block) in Vancouver.  Right away mayor Greg Robertson stated that the city does not support mass burning of garbage.

Given the politics surrounding waste management, and the tug-of-war between Metro Vancouver and its municipalities, this isn’t too surprising.  But it’s regrettable nonetheless.

I know I’m a minority in the environmental community for endorsing incinerators (see WC’s position here, for instance),  but please hear me out.  I’ve seen centrally-located incinerators in European cities.  They work well, and are equipped with very thorough air pollution control devices.  Ditto for the Burnaby incinerator, which has operated for over twenty years without a hitch, with very low air emissions.   If you’ve been to Paris, Berlin, Vienna, or London, you may have walked past a central incinerator without ever noticing.  These machines are considered so innocuous that Copenhagen is planning to build one that will be in the cenmtre of town and will double up as a tourist attraction, with an artificila ski hill on top.   

Why I prefer incinerators to other waste management systems is because of their effectiveness at recycling energy.  A well located incinerator can produce heat and hot water for a whole district, over and above the electricity that it produces.  It takes away the need to burn natural gas (our main residential heating fuel) and so produces a net reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.  These CHP systems, as they’re called, produce district heating as well as electricity, and their central location means that there is less pollution from garbage trucks.  In contrast, landfills are far from the centres, are a menace to wildlife, and try hard to capture their emissions – but mostly fail in the attempt.

But the main argument against incinerators is that they need to be fed, and accoringly to that logic incinerators discourage recycling initiatives.  The mayor stated that “Vancouver is committed to zero waste solutions”.  All well and good; but we are a long way from reaching that goal, despite some very interesting initiatives; and the population is growing, and so is, unfortunately, the volume of garbage produced.  Right now, Vancouver’s garbage goes to the landfill, where little of its energy is recovered and where it remains liable to producing leachate and uncaptured methane, or worse yet, catch fire.  I suggest you visit the ladfill; even if recycling was so effective that only half of the trucks that currently feed the landfill were needed, that would still represent a small mountain of garbage, daily.

People are fond of pointing out that some incinerators in Sweden have to import waste from abroad, because the Swedes do such a good job of recycling.  Fair enough – but what isn’t usually mentioned is how much money they make by processing the garbage of their neighbours; not exactly a big downside.  It is true that, in an ideal world, there is universal producer responsibility and no waste is ever produced – or is recycled, or reused, or turned into compost, etc.  But Vancouver is betting on an utopia instead of dealing with its own waste responsibly.  It is generated in town, it should be treated in town; that’s just the right thing to do.

Much as I like our council and support most of their environmental initiatives, I can’t get on board with this decision.  A missed opportunity, really, and kinda sad.  Oh well, maybe Lehigh’s bid in Delta will get the nod, and that would mean burning garbage instead of burning coal to make cement.  An improvement.        

Written by enviropaul

November 22, 2013 at 9:49 pm

Nukes are needed against climate change: yes, no, maybe?

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Parneet, a former student, recently asked me whether I thought nuclear energy was the energy of the future – especially in the context of climate change.  I said no – a bit quickly.  Turns out, it’s a complicated question.

Last week Jim Hansen and other climate scientists wrote an open letter to environmentalists who oppose nuclear energy.  Here are excerpts:

As climate and energy scientists concerned with global climate change, we are writing to urge you to advocate the development and deployment of safer nuclear energy systems. We appreciate your organization’s concern about global warming, and your advocacy of renewable energy. But continued opposition to nuclear power threatens humanity’s ability to avoid dangerous climate change.

Renewables like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy, but those energy sources cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires… We understand that today’s nuclear plants are far from perfect. Fortunately, passive safety systems and other advances can make new plants much safer.

With the planet warming and carbon dioxide emissions rising faster than ever, we cannot afford to turn away from any technology that has the potential to displace a large fraction of our carbon emissions. Much has changed since the 1970s. The time has come for a fresh approach to nuclear power in the 21st century.

The open letter generated a good number of responses, including this (excerpted) one from NRDC, one of the environmental organisations targeted. 

Hansen and his coauthors are right to underscore the dangers of climate disruption from the global addiction to fossil fuels.  As longtime leaders of NRDC’s energy program, we agree with them that “energy systems decisions should be based on facts, and not on emotions and biases.”  But the authors of this letter (and other nuclear energy proponents) are on the wrong track when they look to nuclear power as a silver bullet solution for global warming.  To the contrary, given its massive capital costs, technical complexity, and international security concerns, nuclear power is clearly not a practical alternative. Instead, energy efficiency will always be the quickest, cheapest solution to our energy and climate challenges, and clean renewable energy is growing today by leaps and bounds…  the open letter suggests that that it is the environmental community that is somehow holding back a nuclear power surge.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  A US “nuclear renaissance” has failed to materialize, despite targeted federal subsidies, because of nuclear power’s high capital cost, long construction times, the lower demand for electricity due largely to improvements in energy efficiency, and competition from renewables.

Energy guru Amory Lovins responded (in a comment quoted by Andrew Revkin…scroll way down in the comments section):

Building new nuclear power plants would reduce and retard the climate protection that Drs. Hansen et al. (and I) want…Why? Because new nuclear power plants (of any kind) are so costly and slow to build that they’d save ~3-20x less carbon per dollar and ~20-40x less carbon per year than investing the same money in efficiency, cogeneration, and modern renewables.

The empirical data show that nonhydro renewables are adding 80+ GW/y, have already added more capacity in less than a decade than nuclear power has achieved in a half-century, and are attracting a quarter-trillion dollars of private capital per year. Nuclear energy is losing capacity (and was even before Fukushima), will soon fall behind nonhydro renewables in output as it already has in capacity (even China’s nuclear power was outgenerated last year by its windpower), and is unfinanceable in the capital markets.

More fundamentally, nonhydro renewables are scalable, mass-producible manufactured products. They’re exploiting the economies of mass production and fast marketwide installation that for nuclear power are a remote hope…If the concern is the supposed challenges of grid integration, I’d invite the authors to explain why Germany and Denmark (with 23% and 41% renewable electricity in 2012) have Europe’s most reliable electricity, and how the lights stay on in Spain (48% in the first half of 2013) and Portugal (70%), all without new bulk storage.

Lovins makes the most important point: nuclear is so slow that it would retard climate abatement efforts.  Renewables work, and so does conservation.  I agree with Hansen’s that nuclear energy risks pale before climate change; and that nuclear R&D offers hope of cheaper and safer nukes, and should be expanded (as should all scientific research).  But wind and solar are no longer “the energy of the future”.  Both are now the energy of the present, and, along with energy efficiency, they offer the better solution.  

Written by enviropaul

November 11, 2013 at 2:20 pm

The Fair Trade symposium at Kwantlen

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In good company with panelists Anna Mathewson, Arzo Ansary, and Scott Jacobson

In good company with panelists Anna Mathewson, Arzo Ansary, and Scott Jacobson

I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in the Fair Trade symposium last week (Oct 29) at Kwantlen, organised in large part by students. 5425810

I couldn’t catch all of it, but what I saw was inspiring.  Victoria Wakefield explained how she directs all purchasing policies at UBC to be Fair Trade wherever possible, as if it were the most natural thing.  Vancouver Councillor Andrea Reimer did a marvellous job summarizing the huge task of getting all of the city’s purchases to be green, local, and/or Fair Trade wherever possible – sometimes all three at once.  It sounds simple, but we’re talking about taxpayers money, with the shadow of the Charbonneau (municipal corruption) inquiry looming large.  The city had to devise a plan to coordinate all its procurement, and find a rating system that ranks bids in a way that is fair and transparent.  Andrea told me that, in hindsight, it may have been better to proceed slowly, division by division…but, hell, it’s done now!

Why does it matter?  We got quite an insight into this question thanks to a skyped presentation from Stacey Toews.  Stacey has run Level Ground Trading for over a decade, bringing coffee, tea, dried fruit and other goodies directly from producers, from Africa, Latin America, and India.  The basic idea behind Fair Trade offering a living wage is to skip the middlemen, the brokers that squeeze producers for the lowest possible price.  But Toews isn’t doing charity: the price he offers (and pays upfront) does guarantee a living wage for the producers, but it also ensures continuity of supply and superior, consistent quality.  It’s just a business practice that makes sense for both parties.  The key is to develop trust on both sides.

Stacey has been in the business for quite a while, and his passion was obvious – including when he lambasted the fair Trade organisations for being too bureaucratic, and charging certification costs that are out of reach for some of the smaller producers. 

His talk was followed by Social Conscience’s James Milligan, who markets footballs (soccer balls, if you prefer).  Footballs, as it turns out, are made mostly in a single village in Pakistan.  By buying directly from producers, Milligan is able to pay sufficiently for the villagers to bring in health care and education, and shake the control of the buyers for the big branded companies like Adidas.  I’ll never look at a football the same way anymore.

And me? I was asked to speak to the question of what Fair Trade means to a member of the Kwantlen community.  Why me?  I’m still not sure, but I presume it’s because of my big mouth.

I said, of course, that as a faculty member I support Fair Trade; that as an environmentalist, I originally learned about Fair Trade because of concepts such as bird-friendly coffee or organic bananas, both of which protect nature and migratory birds, but also protect the health of farmers.  Fair Trade is not about organic farming – but there is a lot of overlap, as much of what is sold under Fair Trade also happens to be organic.  So, from an environmental standpoint, add to the benefits of organic production the fact that farmers can make a decent livelihood and so are less likely to damage the environment through poaching or other unsustainable practices.

BXxa-y8CQAAyaKO.jpg_largeI also mentioned that I want to be proud of where I’m working, and of what my employer does in terms of social responsibility.  Especially for a university: we can be a place of vision, inspire our students and teach by example…or become a K-mart of education: cheapest tuition, bland offerings, no vision (and eventually bankrupt).  I’m not at all interested in the latter.  The conference, I hope, will prod Kwantlen into joining UBC, SFU, and McGill into the Fair Trade campus network.

I congratulated the students for organising a great conference (and speaking: damn good talks by Arzo Ansary and Scott Jacobson).   But I deplored two things: these students that spent lots of time organising learned a huge lot, but they won’t get academic credits for their efforts.  And very few students could attend, because they didn’t want to risk missing classes.  Again, a great shame: a learning opportunity lost.  Carpe Diem, we don’t – but hopefully we’ll remedy that.

Moral of the day, though: ask for Fair Trade goods, buy it when you find it.  It’s the only way we’ll ever get to prosperity.