Cycling to Recycle

Throughout the year the Thailand Cycling Club conducts many different charity events.  They collect and repair old bicycles, donating them to underprivileged children.  They raise money for various causes.  And they help recycle pull tabs from aluminum cans into artificial limbs and crutches for those without arms and legs.

After getting my bike rack fixed and taking my bicycle in for a much-needed service, I was ready to accept my friend Poom’s invitation to join TCC on this annual trek to bring the hundreds of thousands of pull tabs they’ve collected up to BCM – Bangkok Can Manufacturing – the largest maker of aluminum cans in the kingdom and one of the main drivers of the “pull tabs to limbs” charity.

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The meeting point was Suan Rot Fai (Railway Park), built on the old executive golf course for the State Railways of Thailand.  There were about 150 riders.  In addition to each of us carrying a pink back pack full of tabs, many riders were carting additional tabs using any means necessary, including this cart fashioned from PVC pipe.

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Me with my sporty pink back pack.  Notice that I’ve decided, despite the political unrest pitting the Yellow Shirts (royalists) against the Red Shirts (republicans), to go ahead and wear my yellow jersey this morning.  Hope I don’t get beaten up!

We set off from the park just after the national anthem was played at 8 am, as it is in public places all over the country.

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The route north took us past the old airport, Don Meuang, along a wide road that had light traffic and, unfortunately, not much shade.  On the 30-km route in the morning, the weather was still relatively cool and a little breezy, so the lack of shade wasn’t much of a problem.  Above, we make a stop at a petrol station to use the facilities.

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Poom figures we should wait at the “point assembly”.

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When we arrived at BCM’s factory (which is located across the street from one of the country’s largest indigenous beverage companies, Green Spot), the staff had chests of ice cold beverages for us including plenty of water.

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Above, our haul of pull tabs being piled up in the BCM parking lot. 

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A display in their lobby shows the products made from the recycled tabs and, presumably, cans.  I’m a little confused.  I’ve long believed that the tabs are made from a different metal than the cans themselves.  A little research on Snopes.com debunks this myth, explaining that the tabs are also aluminum and that the extra work to remove the tabs and handle them separately is wasted effort.

Nonetheless, the charity is being organized by the can manufacturing company, so I would think they must know what they are talking about when it comes to cans.  I will continue to set aside my pull tabs while recycling the rest of the can as normal.

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Instead the conference room with the air con at full blast, we watched a video presentation about BCM and then had some dignitaries speak.  An official presentation of the pull tabs was made by some representatives of the TCC.  Then it was time for entertainment.  After the group sang an a capella version of the royal anthem (that’s HM the King on the portrait they’re holding), a young man who is the recipient of two artificial legs made through this recycling program spoke to us.  He expressed how much having these artificial limbs had improved his quality of life.  Then he put on his guitar and, strapping a pick on his handless left arm, led us through a popular song about having courage.  Snippet in the video below.

Afterwards, the group posed for pictures.

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At this point we were all set to roll out for lunch at nearby restaurants along the Rangsit Canal.  Unfortunately, we discovered that Poom’s rear tire had a flat.  So while the rest of the group road ahead, Poom and I stayed to repair the flat with the help of two other riders.  While he was carrying a patch kit, we were fortunate that there are more expert riders who carry larger pumps and better equipment.

After lunch we started our route back.  Riding through the town of Rangsit, two khatoey on the back of a motor bike called out to me, “Farang lor jang leuy!” as they sped by.

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Because it is rainy season and we’ve received a lot of precipitation, some of our route along the canal was flooded.  It took us a little longer to head home than it did to ride to the plant in the first place.  To top it off, I had to take a few breaks on the way back to cool down as the sun was really beating down by that point.

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Nonetheless, it was a wonderful ride and a very worthwhile cause.  Lots of fun!

 

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?

 

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.