Burning Calories One Step at a Time

One of the newest buildings in Bangkok is Park Ventures, a beautiful structure that has opened on the corner of Ploenchit and Wireless Roads. The builders have marketed Park Ventures as “Bangkok’s first eco-plex” – whatever that means. Perhaps more green-washing than reality or maybe a legitimate stab at reducing the carbon footprint of the modern office building, hotel, and retail complex.


That said, I was bemused by the steps leading from the footpath to the main lobby. They are marked with the number of kilocalories one ostensibly burns with each step. Looking at the progression – 0.6 kilocalories per step – it looks like the fourth step may have been corrected from 2.0 to 2.4. (That may just be an optical illusion from this angle, though.) Best of all is the Thinglish admonition: “Use calories lose no electricity.” Perhaps they meant “waste”?


Denuded and Exposed

Last December I wrote about some of the changes happening to the landscape in the Thong Lor neighborhood of Krungthep (Bangkok), where Tawn and I live.  Most notably, for selfish reasons, is the demolishing of two houses adjacent to our condo.


One Sunday morning last December laborers started demolishing the internal structure on this first house.  You can see our condo building – one of two U-shaped buildings that face each other around a swimming pool – in the background. 

Thankfully we live on the back side of the building from this picture so the noise and dust didn’t affect us all that directly.  But like any property owners, we were curious what was going on.  Was this adjacent property going to become a thirty-plus story monstrosity like the one to our southeast?


A few days later, heavy equipment came in and the building, an old single-family home dating from the 1960s, was razed.  Once most of the rubble was carted away, everything was quiet for several weeks.  Then about a month ago they started the same process with another house in the property to the left of the one pictured above.

On behalf of the panicked residents, uncertain about what was going to be built just outside their balconies, the homeowner’s association pressured the juristic office to contact the Wattana District office.  The news came back that the properties are owned by an elderly woman who is building houses for her two sons.  There would be no large condos, just new single-family homes.  Of course there are plenty of examples on our street of “single family homes” that become extended family six-story apartments.


Then two weeks ago, once again on a Sunday morning, the construction crews arrived and started cutting down all the trees and vegetation on the two, now one since the wall between them had been demolished, properties.  A few days later they also cut down two beautiful old trees that were at the back of their property, situated so that they provided a nice green backdrop for our pool area.

Last Sunday morning was the annual homeowner’s association meeting.  At the meeting, the head of the association, a Thai man about my age who lives in the mirror image condo from ours on the same floor, explained that he had personally contacted the homeowner and offered to compensate her for the trees so that they could remain standing.

She explained that her sons were going to build a pool and didn’t want to deal with the leaves falling into it.  Bleh.  How’s that for a lame excuse?  If you can afford to tear down old houses to build new ones, I think you can afford a pool boy.  They are inexpensive here.  (I keep suggesting we hire one but Tawn says no.  Ha ha… just kidding.  I mean just kidding about hiring one, not about Tawn saying no.)


The view from our balcony now includes a clear view of the denuded property and the soi (alley) beyond.  There used to be two really beautiful trees that would put forth these large pink blooms twice a year.  I’m hoping they will plant some new landscaping but it could take a decade to get our verdant view back.

At this homeowner’s association meeting there were four vacancies for the committee.  Three people, including Tawn and a British expat who has lived here more than seven years, volunteered for the positions.  One of Tawn’s big issues is greenery – both aesthetically and also since it affects our property value – so I’m sure this will be an issue that gets addressed at the next committee meeting. 

Also, the British guy (John) and several other people have offered to help pitch in money to plant trees on our side of the property to replace the ones cut down.  We’ll see how that goes as the planter area is less than a meter wide, so I don’t think the large root ball of a tall tree could be accommodated.

Anyhow, we’re feeling more exposed these days, now that our neighboring land has been denuded.


A Rubbish Bag Dilemma

money-graphics-2008_867017a Attempting to be an environmentally-aware citizen, I try to do the right thing with my rubbish: I reduce where I can, reuse when I can, and recycle what I can.  Despite the efforts, there is always some rubbish left over to be thrown in the bin.  But the other day at the store, I ran into a quandary: which type of rubbish bag is the most environmentally friendly one?

Since I use reusable bags for most of my shopping – bags that are either cloth or are made from recycled plastic shopping bags – I don’t receive many bags from the store into which I can place my rubbish.  That means I end up going to the store and buying rubbish bags.

This weekend I went to Tesco-Lotus, the local branch of the huge British retailer that is similar to America’s Wal Mart or France’s Carrefour.  There in the household goods section were two different types of Tesco branded rubbish bags:

  • Tesco Greener Living 100% Recycled Garbage Bags – Made with 100% recycled recyclable plastic.
  • Tesco Greener Living 100% Oxo-Biodegradable Garbage Bags – Made with 100% virgin materials but recyclable and biodegradable.

I didn’t know what to make of these choices.  First off, I wasn’t sure what oxo-biodegradable was but it sounded tricky to me.  To top it off, why would any green initiative tout its use of 100% virgin materials?

Not having all day to ponder this, I made my choice for the 100% recycled bags and headed home, where I fired up the computer and did some research.  From what I have read, “oxo-biodegradable” is the so-called second generation of biodegradable plastic bags: 

PLA, or corn-based bags were the first generation.  These seem to have many problems including not being recyclable through the normal process, imparting an off taste to water or other food products carried in them, and decaying so fast in an oxygen-free environment that they give off large amounts of methane.

This second generation, “oxo-biodegradable”, is made with a small amount of metal that allows it to biodegrade in a period of months or years – but only when exposed to oxygen.  If it gets buried in a landfill, it won’t biodegrade any faster than a regular plastic bag.  Plus, the metals added to the bag could cause problems with toxic contamination.

A third generation of biodegradable plastic bags are made from naphtha, one of the side products of the oil refining process.  These bags are ostensibly more durable than the oxo-biodegradable ones, but can biodegrade fully in months or just a few years whether they are exposed to oxygen or buried deeply in a landfill, with fewer of the negative effects of PLA bags.

One thing of note about both the second and third generation bags: they need to be made with all or mostly virgin materials.  Incorporating recycled materials seems to inhibit the biodegradable properties the manufacturers want to achieve. 

It seems that, maybe acknowledging that “biodegradable” isn’t a perfect claim, manufacturers of these bags describe their biodegradability as an insurance policy.  Recycling is best, but in case they get littered, at least they will biodegrade.  While these second and third generation bags are ostensibly recyclable, what happens when those additives that are designed to speed up degradation wind up in other plastic products?  Do those products begin to degrade faster, too?

With my head spinning from all this information – as Kermit the Frog said, “It isn’t easy being green” – the conclusion I’ve reached is this:

Reducing your use of trash bags is best, reuse trash bags whenever possible, and recycle where you can.  And, near as I can tell, it is best to use the bags made from recycled plastic instead of the supposedly biodegradable ones.

Here in Thailand, the rubbish collectors actually sort through all the rubbish, emptying the plastic bags into the truck and then recycling the bags, so using bags that are made of recycled materials and then will be recycled again seems to go a long way to closing the loop.  This manual process (documented in this 2008 blog entry) is a fascinating read in and of itself. 

What about you?  What plastic bag conundrums have you run into?


My Carbon-Neutral Flight

Gas Free Fridays Here’s a concept the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and other groups are promoting: Gas-Free Fridays.  As a way to reduce gasoline consumption, save money and help the environment, they suggest you park the car (i.e. leave it at home) and get around town via transit or, better yet, under your own power.

A really good idea and one that would benefit our waistlines, too.  I’m going to do my part, too, and leave the car at home today.  Unfortunately, my good intentions will be for naught.  Excluding the taxi ride to the airport (which runs on compressed natural gas, so maybe it is a bit cleaner), my 8,049-mile trip to San Francisco today will result in the emission of 3.92 tons of carbon dioxide, according to Carbonfund.org’s carbon calculator.  The cost to assuage my guilt?  $37.62 for the one-way trip.

After getting to this point in the entry, I realized that if I was going to wreak such havock on the world like some uncaring Titan, I had best own up to it and offset that destruction.  No amount of bringing cloth bags to the grocery store was going to offset almost 8 tons of CO2. 

While I originally looked up the information just as content for this entry, I went ahead and offset the cost of my round-trip flight, although I realize now that I forgot to add the domestic flights.  Well, I can go back and do that.


Tawn continued mixing and matching outfits for his trip.  He appreciates the feedback and critiques you have provided.  Here are two final outfits:

P1070592  P1070587

Final thoughts and feedback need to be received in the next few hours.


As a last note in this entry, I’ve discovered we have a small gecko living with us.  Normally he is in the bathroom, where I think he lives behind the toiletries cabinet.  But one evening this week he was running around the kitchen window.  This was the best picture I could get of him.  He doesn’t stand still for very long.


Tawn is freaked out by him but I appreciate the significantly fewer insects we have flying around.  Also, I notice the ant problem has diminished.  Perhaps he likes ants, too?

Finally, here’s a shot I took as we sat in traffic last weekend, emitting carbon dioxide and other foul fumes while running errands.


I think I should do a book of pictures of families on motorcycles.  Between here and Ho Chi Minh City, I could fill thousands of pages.


Dear George…

Body of the email I just sent President Bush:

Dear Mr. President,

I ask for your support of the Renewable Energy and Job Creation Act of 2008, HR6049, which has been passed by the House and was introduced to the Senate last week.

Two years ago, Mr. President, you said that America was addicted to oil.  You even made it sound like you would take some action to break that addiction.  Your latest blustering to Congress shows that you aren’t serious about breaking the addiction at all.  You’re encouraging it!

America needs a strong and innovative energy policy, one that breaks our dependence on oil and that promotes alternative sources of energy.  Offshore and ANWAR drilling are not the answers.  Increased fuel efficiency is important.  But the most important thing is to extend the incentives for alternative energy sources.

Thank you for taking the time to consider changing your position on this issue and lending your support to this important legislation.  You still have a few more months left in which you can work on improving your legacy – this could be your opportunity!


Chris Schultz


I also sent similar emails to my Senators, asking for their support of the bill.  Here’s a link to the Thomas Friedman column that spurred me to write.


Downstream Recycling

It was a computer-free weekend for me, thus no new entry until today.  Sometimes I feel like I spend too much time in front of the computer, since my job is entirely based on working on the computer and I have several projects (including this blog) that see much of my “free” time spent staring at the screen.

So this weekend, I opted to take a break from the computer.  I did all sorts of exciting things including making beignets, going on a long bicycle ride, and catching some sort of digestive discomfort.  Maybe I should have stayed in front of the computer, huh?

Anyhow, getting back into the swing of things, here is an entry based on some observations I made about recycling in the Big Mango:


When I first moved to Khrungthep, I was appalled by what I perceived was the lack of any recycling.  In fact, on my first trip back to the US, I filled one suitcase with large plastic water bottles (the 5-gallon size, cut in half so they could nest together).  It was only later that I discovered that recycling does happen here in the Big Mango, but it is so-called “downstream” recycling.  This means that I can throw my rubbish in the bin without a care in the world, and someone who makes much less money than I do, will sort it all our for me.

Since discovering that, I started to separate the items that were readily recyclable and place them in a separate bag or container, so they would be easy to find.  Also, all of my table scraps and vegetable peelings are put in a milk carton in order to keep the rest of my rubbish clean.

P1050787 But I didn’t realize just how much recycling is actually occurring until the other morning when I was up early.  There is a large condo complex, some thirty stories, kitty-corner to ours and three mornings a week the rubbish collectors arrive. 

Long before sunrise, they are banging around and making noise, but I never really saw what they were doing until one morning when we had the perfect convergence of factors: the sun was rising earlier, they were running behind schedule, and I was up extra early.

What I saw was eye-opening and gave me a much greater appreciation for the extent to which recycling does take place.

The rubbish collectors actually open every single bag of refuse and sort through them.  On the back of their truck are bags into which they sort just about everything that could be recycled: glass, plastic, newspaper, cardboard, etc.  All of the plastic bags – including the ones in which the rubbish was disposed – are collected for recycling.  It has to be one of the most unpleasant jobs I can imagine and one of the most labor intensive, too.

I shot some video of the process:

This just reinforces for me the importance of keeping my refuse as clean as possible.  It also makes a good case for using the shredder for any documents with personal information on them.


Reduce, reuse, recycling: the Three R’s that we’ve all learned are the cornerstone of environmental awareness.  Of course, there should be a fourth R preceding the others: rethink – as in, rethinking processes and systems so they are less consumptive of resources in the first place.

P1050822 It seems that “just saying no” to plastic bags has become the cause de jour all around the world.  Designer “I’m Not a Plastic Bag” tote bags are being sold for top dollar, supermarkets offer reusable bags, and t-shirts have been supplanted in the world of freebie giveaways by canvas and cloth bags stamped with promotional logos and environmentally feel-good slogans.

In January, Beijing joined the list of municipalities imposing some sort of ban or restrictions on the use of plastic shopping bags.  I was in Hong Kong at the time and read an interesting article about the ban in the South China Morning Post.  The article quoted Li Wei.  “I like the idea of limiting the use of plastic bags because it is a good think for society.” said the Beijing office clerk, “But why should I, a small citizen, bear the extra inconvenience?”

That quote leads me to wonder whether or not these types of initiatives are really that effective.  Do they really make a difference?  They don’t seem to actually change any of the fundamental behaviors of people.  We still drive too many cars, live in houses that are larger than we need, consume all sorts of things that are wasteful and extravagant, etc. 

200px-Earth-Hour-Logo A good example of questionable benefits was the recent “Earth Hour” – a movement to have everyone switch off their lights and electrical appliances for one hour the past Saturday evening. 

Maybe the value is more symbolic than anything else, but when there are official t-shirts for sale from the website, candlelight weddings and outdoor broadcasts by the Weather Channel using only LED lights, I’m inclined to view these efforts as gimmickry rather than anything meaningful.

Another very important point to consider is that some of these efforts are affected by the agendas of their sponsors, more so than honest goodwill and concern for the environment.  See this interesting media criticism by Andrew Bolt. 

As they say, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.  Maybe these types of events and actions are those single steps.  But until I see people in Western countries showing up at their city planning commission and saying, “Yes, I’d like more mixed-use, high-density development, please” or, “Instead of adding another lane to that freeway, why don’t we add bus rapid transit service?” then I’m going to be skeptical that we’re really rethinking the fundamentals of our relationship with the world around us.