Disposable is NOT Environmental

I was perusing Kickstarter when I happened upon a solution to a problem that I didn’t know was that big of a deal: spices going bad. As it turns out, it’s not that big of a deal, it’s what could easily be classified as a “first world problem.”

Spices, because we live in a commodified society with more supply than demand, often sell us large quantities of pre-picked, pre-ground spices. Moreover, these spices are picked from around the world, very far from where we live, and so by the time we use much of them, they lose some of their pungency.

For the same reason that many people grind their own coffee beans, and in many parts of the world including Europe, their own grains, many people still grind their own spices. (Full disclosure, wherever possible, I grind my own spices too – they taste way better fresh that way; no pre-ground spice, no matter how well packed, will taste as good). There is no secret to this. A couple of good kitchen tools, and you’re good to go with most spices. It keeps the nutrients fresh and less degraded (though of course, from picking a spice, it’s shelf-life starts ticking away), and much more pungent and enticing.

Yet, this Kickstarter doesn’t say, “hey, I’d like to make some money by selling you high quality spices, but you’ll still have to grind them yourselves and take an extra minute of delight every time you cook!” No, instead, it fails to see that good cooking, by its nature is a meditation, not something to create a lot of trash with for convenience’s sake. It is a fail because it does not understand that gourmands who like fresh spices are happy to take the extra 30 seconds and grind their own pepper, ginger, or nutmeg. Instead, it grinds the spices already, prematurely, and puts all of its heft on the claim that it has found a better “preserving” mechanism, better than glass containers, but somehow stopping short of formaldehyde.

By appealing to “design” this company is yet another hipster gourmand appropriation of disposable trashy production in order to pull the wool over consumers’ eyes. They have the gall not to merely discuss how their throw away, potion enough for a bachelor(ette) only spice capsules, but to call their product “revolutionary” for its ability to “keep spice fresher at the molecular level.” At the molecular level! I love it–they don’t explain what they mean (except through appealing to the boogieman of “oxidation”) by saying “molecular,” other than that it has become the new buzzword after “neuro” and “nano.” But hey, if you’re already in the business of commodifying trends, why not throw in meaningless buzzwords to prey on consumer gullibility?

Beyond their appeals to their product perhaps rightly being “more flavorful,” than old forgotten spices, they also make the much more suspect claim of it being more “affordable” as well. But worst – and here it’s just a blatant lie – they also claim that their throwaway aluminum pod peel trash wrapper is also more “sustainable.” And that’s why I’m calling bullshit on Occo, and all products like them that attempt to solve a non-problem for people who have more money than they know what to do with, by creating more trash for future generations.

For fun, let’s take a look at some of their misleading and fallacious sustainability claims:

(1) That aluminum is “the most recyclable material in the world”

(1) A: The price for aluminum is higher today than it has been in many years. That’s why there have been, for the first time a rash of thefts of aluminum bleacher seats at parks. So I ask the very Instagrammable Connie and Lisa: do you know what bauxite is? (The raw material from where aluminum comes from). Have you ever been to a bauxite mine? How about a bauxite processing plant? Ever breathed in those fumes? No, because otherwise, you would avoid aluminum like the plague that it is.

Sorry to burst your bubble, but disposable aluminum (where do you even discuss recycling, and the fact that in many jurisdictions your customers may not even have adequate access to recycling facilities?) is a loser. It’s an environmental nightmare, not the paragon of recyclability you paint it as.

Anything that can be used more than once, or say, used many, many times, for years, is more sustainable than something that is only used once. Period. You don’t have to be an industrial ecologist to do the math and realize that even in the best case scenario, if you melt something down, you’re using a tremendous amount of energy to do so, (coming from where?), and then refashioning that raw material into another thing–losing material and energy along the way.

(2) “Saving food waste” claim.

(2) A: Another fallacy is that Occo is helping reduce food waste and saving the planet by selling expensive spices in high quantities in disposable aluminum. The company even does a masterful deflection of using a loaded label against the waste in bulk food items (they call it the “Movie Soda Mark-Up”), that strikes a chord with their Millennial audience of single, big income, no children. They say that food waste is created because people buy more than what they need, and when people are more minimalistic (I love the movement of minimalism, but detest the way it has become commodified to sell more crap that people don’t need to them in the name of minimalism!). But I truly have to question how true this is around spices: what percentage of the 40% of food waste boils down to spices? 1%? 0.5%? If so, that would boil down to 0.4-0.2% of food waste blamable on too many spices. And this is a generous estimate. Nice try, but this is a clear case of the misuse and abuse of pulling on legitimate environmentalist heartstrings.


To sum up: the problem with this scheme and so many like it is that there’s no money in simply telling people to go quality over quantity; and to buy less instead of buying more. The “super premium” segment of the nouveau riche, always eager to virtue signal their “style” and “taste” is one of the leading contributors to ecological disaster and climate chaos.

To falsely claim some sort of ecological currency in doing so, should be met with a healthy dose of reality and opprobrium. There are enough charlatans around; the last thing we need is more cannibalism of truth by poseur minimalists willing to say any ecological lie to make a quick buck.

P.S. After writing this, I just found some more spurious reasoning from these poster-children for the Dunning-Kruger effect (a little bit of knowledge is dangerous–you might actually think you know something when that’s not the case). I’m not going to comment on it, I’ll just put it here:

The Elon Musk of E-waste

My new article, “Is This Man the Elon Musk of E-Waste?” in my favorite popular science online magazine Nautilus, describes the Right to Repair movement, and the necessity to move from a linear manufacturing process built on planned and perceived obsolescence to a circular economy.

If we are to combat the 99 billion pounds of e-waste produced per year, ending up incinerated, in lakes and rivers, and trashing our communities and the lives of future generations, we’re going to need to mandate manufactures of electronics such as Apple, Samsung, Microsoft, IBM, Dell, and all the other major players, to engineer products that can DIY be taken apart, repaired, and built to last.

My interview with Eric Lundgren, his last before he was sent to prison for creating 28,000 Microsoft Windows restore CDs meant for refurbishing computers that otherwise would end up as e-waste, describes the necessity for financial mechanisms to incentivize companies and consumers to place e-waste back into an (dis)assembly line of reuse, reduce, recycle.

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Lundgren has championed the right for electronics to be repaired rather than tossed by staging high-profile recycling demonstrations including his Guinness Book of World Records farthest driving on a single charge electric car (999 miles with 90% recycled materials including recycled hybrid batteries) and his flagship solar-powered e-waste recycling factory.

I appreciate the comment on the article made by Ryan Shaw, who wrote:

Mr. Lundgren has done more with far less than what Musk started with so I don’t think the comparison does Lundgren justice (although I am a huge Musk fan). Maybe someday if Tesla starts a car rebuild program to re-use scrapped cars the title would be, “Elon Musk is the Eric Lundgren of car manufacturing.”

Electric Cars are Not Enough for Life

As the New York Times recently reported, State SenatorScott Weiner’s California Legislature bill to increase density allotments along transit corridors is a much-needed method to solve both housing and environmental burdens. Driving, no matter how you slice it, takes more energy than public transportation, so getting people on high-quality and convenient public transportation, is a sustainability priority.

Unsurprising, however, is that many of the bluechip environmental groups, like Sierra Club, oppose higher density housing zoning near transit centers because their members may be negatively affected by, say, decreased property values from higher density. Such self-serving agendas are understandable, if misguided. Those who got in early in a housing rush, enjoy their peace and privacy, and higher density changes the feel of the neighborhood. On the other hand, a commitment to sustainability, which really means finding a livable way to continue business as usual as much as possible without too much discomfort (like cataclysmic climate change), requires simple measures like smart zoning in order to make it happen. The very notion of a transition town, or a sustainable city is based on accessible public transportation. We shouldn’t fail to see the forest of preventing climate change through the trees of inconvenience. Sustainability means that we all make some small sacrifices now in order to prevent much larger ones down the road.

Sharing the sacrifice is a fundamental principle of democratic societies. For too long, women, people of color, and the poor have had to make sacrifices (living further from work, paying more than half of their paycheck in rent, etc.) while the middle-class and wealthy have serially insulated themselves from as severe costs. Having mixed neighborhoods is a small but important gesture from those who comprise well-funded environmental groups. Overcoming internal resistance to change will allow greater accessibility for those in need of convenient housing. Higher density live/work areas (like any major city in Europe) is smart, low-carbon planning. It is effective because it obviates the need for a car. Sustainable cities are resilient because they have redundancy (more than one way to get to work), flexibility (if one option is closed, take the other), diversity, and slack (abundance, more than enough niches for everyone). California can achieve this much better with more environmentally-sound zoning. One can only hope that the major, private donor-funded environmental orgs can get on the right side of history.

Los Angeles and the Methane Crisis



There seems to be a proliferation of instances of catastrophe which Ulrich Beck long predicted in his work on our contemporary risk society. Certain events, like the continued unabated spewing nuclear radiation from TEPCO’s Fukushima Daichi plants, are world crises which have global impacts, even though technically the jurisdiction for dealing with such a problem is national, in this case, falling to the Japanese government.

If TEPCO had been an entirely nationalized company, the Japanese government would be directly beholden to its people–and the rest of the world–to take responsibility for swiftly taking action in cleaning up the plant.

Los Angeles is currently experiencing a similar such state of emergency. SoCalGas, a private corporation, has since October 2015 had a major leak at their methane plant in the middle of Los Angeles County.


This gas leak has caused nose bleeds, mass evacuation of over 2,700 homes surrounding the area, and still, is months away from being cleaned up. While some residents have demanded that the facilities be closed down, the sensible environmental health thing to do, there is great resistance by the company to do so.

The effects of SoCal Gas’s refusal to divert their full energies to stopping the flow of methane into LA’s atmosphere is that residents have been experiencing a sharp uptick in “nosebleeds, vomiting, hives, headaches and respiratory illnesses.” But instead of seeing this as a problem of the commons, one where politically active people are speaking for the thousands or millions in LA affected but for whatever reason not available to be politically involved, attendees to a recent meeting were instead “asked to keep track of what they’re spending,” so they might be at some far-off future date financially reimbursed.

But does money buy environmental health? The answer is decidedly “no.” Environmental health is an aspect of environmental justice, meaning that often times those most vocal about existing problems are but the tip of the quickly melting iceberg. Such a piecemeal squeaky-wheel solution is a classic case of what Andrew Szasz has called the “inverted quarantine” of privatized health. Rather than considering the commons, such approaches attempt to move away and protect oneself from public harms that effect all. This is the very opposite of environmental justice. The able-bodied, financially-able, time-flexible, flee the scene of the crime and protect themselves from disaster. And who can blame them? The problem is, that when there are public disasters-=disasters that harm everyone in that area (or according to that metric)–but private solutions which leave those worst off out in the cold (or out in the methane, as the case may be), what then? Unless there are public political bodies mitigating against the systematic degradation of all citizens’ health, regardless of their income, education, or political or economic acumen, then we truly are living in barbaric times.

With only a little exaggeration, LA County Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich has dubbed the crisis a “mini-Chernobyl.” Such a descriptor unintentionally gets at the heart of the crisis.

One of the main differences between Fukushima Daiichi and Chernobyl was that the USSR took care of Chernobyl by cementing it over in 4 days, while nearly 5 years later Japan and TEPCO have been passing the accountability buck back and forth without decisively stopping the harmful flow of radiation.

In a risk society, when things go wrong, quick and bold action must be taken. Waiting to see what will happen, or trying to make a buck despite the crisis, is an unethical approach to grievous accidents that could mean the deaths–directly or indirectly–of countless human lives now and in the future.




“I am pro-coal,…

“I am pro-coal, and I am pro-coal miner. I will fight President Obama, the EPA, the Senate and anyone else who tries to undermine our coal jobs.”

“In West Virginia, where coal is king, Senate candidate Natalie E. Tennant, a Democrat, quickly turned on Mr. Obama when asked about the regulations.” (From http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/jun/1/new-epa-rules-could-burn-coal-state-democrats/)

I understand it’s all just politics and rhetoric, but what a backwards thing to say. When a Democratic candidate for the Senate says that she is “pro-coal” at a crucial time when coal mining is patently a non-sustainable way of life, she is only proving her unelectability and lack of moral compass. Sure, West Virginia is an ur-coal state, but there is a way to be “pro-coal miner” without having to be “pro-coal” and posturing like she will defend her nest from all of the nasty predators wanting to hurt her constituency. It doesn’t have to be purely adversarial, politics. Tennant could have framed it as, “we know that there is a limited amount of coal, and we are concerned for the health-risks coal-mining poses to our beloved citizens. Therefore, we will lead this change to sustainable and healthier energy production by making sure that any coal mine that is shut down happens with funds for the training and retooling for every worker to immediately get started on a new and exciting job that replaces that which was given up.”

But then of course, we could also follow the tack of challenging why jobs are some sort of inalienable right, or that everyone in fact needs to work a full-time job in order to have a full-time life.