Hello again! Regular readers will have noticed that Blue Planet Green Living has been on hiatus since May. We’re back, albeit with a sporadic publishing schedule that reflects the busy lives of our volunteers. If you’d like to volunteer a post or your editing talents, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line: VOLUNTEER.
Today’s guest post is by British writer, Tara Gould. As always, when our guest writer hales from a country with conventions of spelling and punctuation that are different from ours, we publish it as written. We think you’ll like Tara’s thoughtful discussion of how to avoid planned obsolesence. ~ Julia Wasson, Publisher
I’ve been writing about sustainability and green lifestyle for a while now. But the recent demise of my kettle, after only three years of use, got me thinking about sustainable consuming in a way that was much closer to home.
I am in my kitchen, drinking a cup of tea, made with water that was boiled in a milk pan. It’s what I’ve used for the last few weeks because I made the decision never again to buy a kettle that is made deliberately to break. Trying to find a sustainable alternative has not been easy. Planned, or built-in, obsolescence is common practice, especially in electrical products.
Unsurprisingly, I was not able to find an electrical kettle with a warranty that stretched beyond five years. But what I did stumble over in my travels across the net was the term heirloom design.
Heirloom design is the notion that we need to design, produce and consume products that not only last a long time and are fixable, but that are also beautifully and timelessly designed rather than faddish and disposable. Heirloom design counters both style- and mechanical obsolescence.
Disposability might be encouraged in the consumer landscape, but many of us, given the budget, would buy well-designed objects and products that promise a lifetime of use. Imagine a home furnished with gorgeous, practical things, which might even increase in value and be handed down through generations.
Saul Griffith is an inventor, sustainability expert and the man behind heirloom design. In an interview with Good Magazine, Griffith advocates the importance of reducing energy use, whilst trying to enjoy the best quality of life:
It probably means you will end up owning less junk, your life will be less cluttered, and your stuff will be more beautiful and serve you with more joy.
While championing this kind of exemplary design, Griffith cites a number of businesses that have been making heirloom products for generations. He challenges other businesses to do the same:
If an object performs its function beautifully, efficiently, and intuitively, it is likely an heirloom product. If not, you shouldn’t make it. Think about the beautiful, timeless objects: Le Creuset pots and pans, Bialetti or Bodum coffee makers, Iittala glassware, Vespa motor scooters, the Citroën 2CV, the Volkswagen Beetle, Lego toys, Zippo cigarette lighters, Montblanc pens, the Land Rover.
Many of these companies offer a lifetime guarantee on their products and provide replacement parts so that items are fixable.
Volkswagen for example, has a designated company that provides VW parts for out-of-production models, as well as vintage VW vehicles.
The current business model makes sense for vehicle manufacturers, who by law have to produce parts for ten years of the car being offered for sale, thereby encouraging people to buy new when the parts supply runs out. Classic and vintage VWs were built to last. They might not be perfect, but having survived 30+ years, people want to keep hold of them and we want to help them to do that. Classic vehicles are part of everyone’s history. VW Campervans and Beetles have become iconic because so many people have fond memories of them, and for that reason it is something that so many owners cherish.
In his book, Emotionally Durable Design: Objects, Experience and Empathy Jonathan Chapman, explores how sociological issues should be considered at design stage. People throw things away, not necessarily because a product is broken, but often merely because it has become old and stale; it is obsolete in terms of style. Chapman states that we are searching for meaning, not matter, that meaning is symptomatic of empathy, but that empathy has a shelf life. Product longevity is not just about making things that sustain physically, but making things sustain emotionally as well:
Most products are capable of creating even a small amount of empathy at the point of purchase. From this point on, however, product longevity is soberly dependent upon the sustainability of that empathy. Like everything in this unstable world, empathy too has a lifespan, governed in this case by the type of relationship that is evident between the user and the object. Waste, then, is a symptom of expired empathy, a kind of failed relationship that leads to the dumping of one by the other.
Chapman’s solution is for businesses to create products that adapt or change with us. His students at Brighton University designed a teacup with a pattern that reveals as the tea stain develops, and a pair of trainers [sneakers] with an illustration that becomes visible only as the trainers age.
Green Design with Humans in Mind
In terms of sustainable design and its central considerations, notions of human behaviour need to be explored. Sustainable design is about reducing waste and pollution, but it is also about creating products that work with the way people are. Reducing our current levels of consumption is crucially important, especially if you consider that an estimated 80% of the impact in the environment of a product is rooted within the design phase.
The business model as it currently stands is one that needs to make and sell the most products in order to make the most profit. But this is creating a waste crisis that our planet cannot cope with indefinitely.
As I return to my cup of tea and scan my kitchen, I have to admit that my toaster, blender, stereo, and juicer will soon, no doubt, meet their fate piled atop a mountain of broken electrical items in a landfill somewhere out of sight. I don’t want to be part of that anymore.
In my search for an heirloom kettle, I finally found two possibilities that I like, both stove top kettles with replacement parts and a lifetime guarantee—one made by Le Creuset and the other by PicqoutWare. Expensive, yes, but when you do the math, it works out cheaper than buying multiple kettles over the course of two decades. Meanwhile, until I save my pennies, the milk pan will suffice.
Comments Off on Diversely Sustainable Cities II: Philadelphia and Medellin
In the second story of the Sustainable Cities sequence, we’ll look at two other diversely sustainable cities that may surprise you: Medellin, Colombia and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Medellin has been long known as a city of turmoil — both immersed in filth and historically recognized as the most violent city in the world. Medellin’s former mayor, Alonso Salazar, however, opted to shift Medellin in an entirely new direction.
Following the implementation of several new public transportation initiatives, the city has seen immense changes. Thanks, in part, to Salazar’s initiatives, Medellin now boasts of a public bicycle system, ride-sharing programs, and a savvy 1,300-ft. escalator that links Medellin’s formerly poorest neighborhood, Comuna 13, to the city center.
Medellin earned the 2012 Sustainable Transport Award — alongside San Francisco — issued by the Institute for Transportation & Development Policy. San Francisco comes by no surprise, but Medellin’s award demonstrates that any city can undertake such initiatives and make very impressive strides in the right direction.
Since Medellin implemented these sustainability changes, the city has also seen a drastic reduction in its crime rates — demonstrating clearly that sustainability and environment can, perhaps, have positive social impacts, too.
Philadelphia is another city not often acknowledged for its environmental savvy. Yet, like Medellin, the city has demonstrated impressive improvements since 2008, when Mayor Mike Nutter vowed in his inaugural speech to make Philadelphia the greenest city in the nation.
Halfway through a six-year plan, the city is well on its way to meeting the 14 beginning initiatives that make up the plan. Included are ambitious goals like these:
- lowering the city government’s energy consumption by 30 percent
- reducing city-wide building energy consumption by 10 percent
- diverting 70 percent of solid waste from the landfill, and
- increasing tree coverage toward 30 percent in all neighborhoods by 2025
Given that Americans generated 250 million tons of municipal solid waste in 2010 alone, Philadelphia’s waste diversion initiative is particularly impressive. Most of the initiatives are nearly halfway to their six-year end goal, demonstrating a strong commitment to the mayor’s efforts.
Furthermore, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) is helping the city reach its goals with its Wayside Energy Storage Project. Designed to replace electricity consumed by the city’s subway system with energy captured and stored through regenerative braking. This project is estimated to lessen electricity by 1,600 megawatts annually.
Again, diversely different, but equally inspirational, both Medellin and Philadelphia remind us that all cities have the opportunity to become global leaders in sustainability efforts.
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Maybe you’re already a gardener, ready to plant some vegetables to reduce your grocery bill and gain some peace of mind about what additives you will not be putting into your family’s bodies. Or, maybe you secretly yearn for a yard filled with colorful flower blossoms from early spring until late fall.
If you see yourself in either of these scenarios, then The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Composting: Turn your organic waste material into black gold, is for you. No, this isn’t a book about planting a garden. It’s about how to nourish the soil you will use to grow amazing veggies and posies. And, I have to say, it’s even fun to read.
“The first thing you need to know is that no matter what you do—compost happens,” author Chris McLaughlin says. She sets out to educate, support, inform, and entertain her readers.
I’ve always been a kind of a sucker for the “idiot’s guide” type of book, since I don’t know all that much about anything. I’m not much of a gardener, but I started a compost pile 20+ years ago as an environmental gesture to remove organic waste from the garbage can.
McLaughlin is right, “compost happens.” I knew nothing. I did my composting with the most minimal effort possible. I created a designated spot in the far end of the backyard, put some landscaping logs around it, and began dumping all the kitchen waste there. (Even I knew enough not to put in any meat scraps.)
All I did was keep a covered bucket under the sink, then haul it to the backyard when it was full. Then I dug a small hole and poured it in and covered it up with some dirt. The microbes and worms did the rest. Simple.
Unfortunately, what I didn’t know about the valuable applications of the black gold I was creating has been a terrible waste. After reading this book, I realize I have been accumulating a pile of invaluable compost without actually putting it to use.
From “Idiot” to Composter
In this enjoyable, easy to read, and surprisingly thorough and diverse book, McLaughlin moves us from “idiots” to knowledgeable composters ready to create black gold with minimal effort and maximum results. She not only tells us how to make the stuff, but how to use it effectively and with ease.
Most environmentalists are aware of the rebound in “locavore” eating and the mushrooming of home gardening: community gardens, potted mini-gardens on apartment balconies, backyard gardens, plots shared with neighbors, and even indoor greenhouses to extend the growing season.
But we also are recognizing the urgency for using more sustainable methods. These are part and parcel of the composting process:
- eliminating synthetic fertilizers
- using natural weed control
- growing plants that are healthier and more disease and pest resistant
- conserving water
McLaughlin reminds us that “composting is sustainability at its finest.” It’s good for our gardens, good for us, and good for the earth. She quickly addresses the issue of common myths and bad reps about composting, such as it attracts rodents, or it stinks, or it requires lots of time and effort and is very complicated or expensive. Nix on those. Read on.
Composting Made Simple
The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Composting is well organized, succinct, and rich in information, helpful hints, and DIY instructions. I particularly enjoyed the iconic little sidebar boxes in each section that address potential problems, provide definitions about terms and techniques, offer fun facts, and afford opportunities to “dig deeper.”
Perhaps most encouraging is the admonition: “Ignore anyone who tells you it has to be a certain way. Use a system that fits your lifestyle.” Yes!
The Basics of Composting
Here are the nuts and bolts (or shall we say, “the humus and mulch”) found within the 193 not-dense pages:
Part 1 – “The Dirt Beneath Your Feet”
- Learn what makes soil healthy and fruitful, and discover the benefits of composting.
- Find out how it works and the four main things every compost pile needs.
- What to compost and what to avoid.
- The difference between a “hot” and “cold” compost pile, and how to do it.
- Inexpensive do-it-yourself methods of building your pile.
- How to shop for commercially available bins.
- Troubleshooting if necessary.
- How to use the gold, once it’s ready.
Part 2 – “Worm Wrangling 101: Vermicomposting”
You can do without the worms, as I have for 20 years—or read it and then decide. You’ll definitely be better informed. This chapter covers:
- How to harness the power of worms for particularly potent composting.
- Everything you need to know about housing and feeding worms.
- What to do with all that rich worm poop
Part 3: “Creative Composting: Beyond the Bin”
- Bed, Sheet or Sandwich Composting (you’ll have to read it, I’m not telling)
- Grasscycling for keeping grass clippings where they belong – on your lawn
- Mulching is composting, too
- Planting cover crops for adding nutritional value to your soil
- Taking compost into the community as a way of sharing the wealth and building community
I told you this book was thorough and diverse.
Three Additional Resources
In the back of the book, McLaughlin gives us these helpful resources:
- Appendix A: A useful glossary of terms for easy reference
- Appendix B: The “Resource Appendix,” with helpful websites and blogs on composting, a list of retailers selling composting supplies, other books on composting, a list of university extension offices, and some composting organizations
- Appendix C: “Compost and Worms in the Classroom,” a fun resource for teaching kids, complete with activities and classroom planning
A Gift to the Earth
If you are or are going to be a gung-ho gardener and composter, this book is invaluable. If you are a new or casual gardener, this book is invaluable. If you are no gardener at all and just want to expand your horizons, this is also valuable and fun to read. If you want to help the planet and cease from putting your organic material down the garbage disposal or in the garbage can, by all means, take a look.
The truth is, I don’t feel like I’m as much of an “idiot composter” as when I began reading. And McLaughlin supports whatever composting efforts I decide will fit in my lifestyle. That’s a gift for me, my garden, and the Earth.
The Fine Print
Blue Planet Green Living received a free copy of the book reviewed in this post. No other compensation or incentive was provided.
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Have you ever wondered what happens to the waxed cardboard boxes that vegetables are transported in? Most of the time, they’re dumped in landfills. But that’s changing, as they are now being reclaimed and turned into Enviro-Logs, clean-burning logs for your fireplace, campfire, or woodstove. Today, Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) spoke with Ross McRoy, the founder of Enviro-Log, to find out his take on why Enviro-Log is a better choice as an alternative to wood. It’s too hot in Iowa to light a fire this month, so we aren’t able to review Enviro-Log for its quality of fire or length of burn — we’ll get to that in a month or two, when the nights cool down. — Julia Wasson, Publisher
BPGL: Has this technology been around a long time?
McROY: About 10 years. The developers just couldn’t commercialize it. It’s a great idea. But there was no sense of market presence and how it fit into the marketplace and how to navigate the waxed box and sell fire logs in parallel, because they’re two separate business events. That makes it a challenge.
BPGL: Where do you get the cardboard?
McROY: If you go to a restaurant or grocery store, and you purchase a salad or a bag of lettuce, that lettuce was more than likely shipped in a waxed container. That waxed container is used to move all perishables around the US.
Plastic is also an alternative, but it’s an expensive, petroleum-based alternative. And it requires shipping in both directions. So, it’s not preferred.
Wax is a preferred container because it is pliable. Two heads of lettuce are not necessarily the same size. Plastic is very rigid, but wax will give. So, when workers are packing them in the field, they prefer wax because of that feature. They can put 10 head of lettuce in every box and guarantee it, whereas plastic sometimes doesn’t necessarily work out that way.
In general, the waxed cardboard moves from the farm, where it is water cooled — hydrocooled — which is what they do to all ground vegetables to improve the shelf life. By cooling it down with chilled water, the vegetable stays on the shelf or into the distribution system and doesn’t spoil as fast. So they prefer to do that. Then they’ll take it into the grocery stores and unpack it, put it on display, then take away the waxed box, fold it up, and throw it in the trash.
BPGL: So, typically, it just goes into the landfill?
McROY: Yes. They only use it one time, because of food contamination.
BPGL: How much of the waxed cardboard market are you diverting from solid waste?
McROY: We probably are doing between 20 and 30 million pounds annually, and we’re looking to get to 40 or 50 million here in the next 12 months or so. So, we’re pushing very hard.
We’re looking for other applications for waxed cardboard. We have a tremendous amount of opportunity handed to us. We’re not able to take all the opportunities. But we’re looking for partners that have energy plants so we can make them fuel that would be more efficient than wood burning. We’re doing some different things to continue to work with our partners to preserve as much as waxed cardboard as possible.
BPGL: Do you get criticism for burning the waxed cardboard? Or are environmentalists, in general, happy that you’re recovering energy from this waste product?
McROY: Here’s what we’ve done, because we did get posed that question, Is burning better than landfilling or composting? We actually did a greenhouse gas study. We found that, if a company were to divert our waxed box — let’s pick a grocery chain or a produce company that had two choices: they either throw it in the landfill or send it to Enviro-Log.
The perception, based off your question is, burning might be worse. But actually, it is 50% better in greenhouse gas emissions to let us burn it and return it as fuel. And that’s not even counting the fuel benefit to a home. That’s just strictly emissions from the burn event, versus landfill. That same box would generate 50% more greenhouse gases than it would if you let us burn it.
BPGL: How does that work?
McROY: You’re breaking down an organic component, so when it breaks down, one of the components of landfill emissions is methane. When methane is converted in the fireplace, it’s consumed, so you end up with a higher efficiency. There’s carbon and other components used in the calculation, but it’s a significant positive impact for us.
So, a grocery store or restaurant has a choice. They can stick it in the landfill. But, actually, an environmentalist would want it to come to our facility to convert it and send back to a home to heat the home.
Now there’s another benefit that we didn’t talk about. For every log you burn — say our log has got 50,000 BTUs, that’s 50,000 BTUs of natural gas or fuel oil or electricity they didn’t have to use. And in doing it, they reduced the greenhouse gas footprint of their fireplace, because it’s less than wood in general. And there’s the landfill effect — how much waxed cardboard they keep out of the landfill and help the environment in that way. Which is huge. It’s a huge carbon-positive program.
BPGL: Your advertising says that an Enviro-Log burns for up to three hours for a five-pound log. But someone on the web commented that the burn time was more like an hour.
McROY: That is probably not accurate. There are several factors that affect all fire logs, not just ours. One is if you burn it in a hot fireplace, under hot conditions. You can lose 20-30 minutes if you’re burning in a fireplace that’s already very hot, simply because it’s more efficient to combust.
There are a lot of variables. Testing shows our burn time to be anywhere between 2 hours 30 minutes to 3 hours 15 minutes. It varies on how cold the air is, how cold the fireplace is, how did it get started… all these variables.
So you have to go into a burn standard: flame in when you light it to flame out. Because it is a recycled material, it does have a little variance. But normally it lands around a 2½- to 3-hour range very, very consistently. And, occasionally, depending on how it got started, it might go into 3½ hours.
BPGL: What’s the best way to start it if you want to prolong the burn?
McROY: Currently, our fire log is a lot like wood. We light it. We take it out of the wrapper and use the wrapper as the kindling. It lights extremely fast; it’s probably the fastest-lighting fire log on the market in that regard. We like to train people to use two. That differentiates us. They can add one fire log as they need it. With the Enviro-Log, you can build a fire to the size you want.
BPGL: Why would you train people to use two Enviro-Logs?
McROY: Our packaging says to use two to start a fire, and crisscross them like pieces of wood. You can do it like a traditional fire log, and just burn one at a time. But we are unique in that we want customers to recognize that they can tend our fire just like they can wood. They can build a fire, and if they’ve got guests over, and the fire is dying down, with a traditional fire log, you don’t add anything to it, because it’s inherently not what they consider a safe practice.
But with us, you can add another log. Two hours into the burn, if you’ve got guests over and the evening is going well, you can extend it by adding an Enviro-Log and build a fire as much as you want. It’s the same thing with outdoors, and that’s an advantage. We want customers to recognize that we are like an ultimate substitute — and cleaner.
BPGL: What do you mean, “cleaner”?
McROY: Counties that have what they consider wood-induced smog are putting a lot of regulations into place about burning wood. With our fire log, we are much cleaner. They wouldn’t have an issue if everybody burned Enviro-Logs. They wouldn’t have any smog associated with wood-burning during the winter.
We’re even cleaner when you burn two than when you burn one, but I don’t want to complicate it. We have 30% less emissions. We’ve got 80% less carbon monoxide. We produce 50% more energy than wood at the time of the burn. We’ll burn a little bit longer than a bundle of wood. And, our logs produce 86% less creosote. That would be the three big attributes that separate us from wood.
BPGL: Creosote is a huge problem that can cause chimney fires. Do you not have to add a creosote treatment to a wood burner to keep the chimney from clogging? Or would you still recommend that?
McROY: You would still maintain your fire maintenance on your home. Our feedback is the chimney flue is very clean, so you don’t have to clean it as often. But you still need it inspected, and it’s good practice. The idea is, the creosote buildup is not there.
BPGL: You were saying that burning two Enviro-Logs causes less emissions than burning a single Enviro-Log. What do you mean by that?
McROY: When you burn two, you have a better entrainment of the air. You have better mixing, because your fire is a little more aggressive. As a result, you get better combustion. And the combustion yields better emissions. When you slowly combust, the traditional fire logs will give off smoke — they’ll go in and out of heavy smoke. And that’s just because there’s not a good entrainment.
But burning two stacked logs creates a teepee effect, and that’s the entrainment action. The air’s coming in underneath it, and it just becomes very efficient to burn that way.
When a fire is about to go out, it starts smoking. But when it becomes very efficient, all that smoke goes away. That smoke is uncombusted fuel. It’s not hot enough to burn. When you add a little bit more fuel to the fire, the fire gets hot enough to burn all the fuel. It’s very efficient.
It’s similar to wood. When you build a wood fire, you build a little teepee and you make it big. And while it’s burning real well, it has no smoke, and it’s a pleasant fire. As it begins to die out, it becomes a lot more fuel but not enough mixing to create 100% combustion. That is inherent with anything that burns.
That’s what we’ve found out from some of our testing. We don’t promote the use of two logs, simply because we have to compete one log to one log. But it’s nice to know that when you do burn two, you’re actually getting a cleaner burn than burning one.
BPGL: When you light Enviro-Log directly with a match, does it flame up around the log really fast?
McROY: It’s like lighting kindling or paper. It’s not a very aggressive lighting in that regard. It has no added flammable to it. So it’s just pure waxed cardboard.
BPGL: Do you have some estimate of how many BTUs folks produce in a year using Enviro-Logs.
McROY: It varies widely. I don’t have anything specific. The federal government keeps the winter fuel oil forecast statistics average, and you could extrapolate what it is. A normal house in the Midwest may burn up to two cords of wood, depending on how they use it. There’s such a variance. Some people use it as supplemental heat; some people may use it more as a primary heat. Some people might go back to their fuel oil for a couple weeks. I would think two cords of wood would be a winter event for somebody. We have people who will purchase several pallets of the material. We have others that just buy two fire logs, and they’re content.
BPGL: Who does your testing?
McROY: All our testing is done by Omni Environmental Services. They’re the leader in fire log and fire products, like fireplaces and pellet stoves, and things of those nature. They do UL and EPA testing. They’re retained by the other major competitors in the fire log industry, too. So they have a head-to-head benching capability. But Enviro-Log is the only wax box firelog that maintains an on-going test program with Omni.
BPGL: Do you add anything to your fire logs?
McROY: It’s just waxed cardboard.
BPGL: Do you sell retail on your site?
MCROY: We normally try to move customers to the retailer. But we do make it available as a convenience island, which is delivered by UPS to your door. That’s a cost, if you choose to go that route. But we do not sell what we could sell on our internet site, because it’s not healthy to do that with retailers out there selling the same product in different markets. Our retailers are our first priority.
BPGL: What else should consumers know about your product?
McROY: The big thing is that we’re growing. Awareness is key. People understand how we fit in the marketplace, and the versatility of our product is the key. We’re the only fire log sold nationally that can be used in a wood stove. And we can be used for camping. We have a tremendous amount of flexibility. It’s really a year-round product for the upper United States. We also sell into Canada.
State parks could use us for bug control. The ashes can be used as soil amendments. There’s nothing left over, and the ash can be absorbed by the campground. With other products, they’re not necessarily good for ash back into the soil.
BPGL: Why is Enviro-Log better than other fire logs for bug control?
McROY: In state parks, they frown against bringing in outside wood in — period —because of transmission of beetles and other bugs. Let’s say you pick up something in the northwest and you travel over to Florida, and you drop a bug on Florida’s coast that doesn’t go well with the forest, it will cause infestations. A lot of state parks — California and Georgia, for example — are big on not allowing outside wood to be brought into their state parks. You can buy it locally, but they discourage any transfer of wood from one region to another. I know Canada does the same thing because of the transmission of infested wood. They have a Japanese beetle in Canada, and if you bring your wood down to Florida, Florida could have it.
Our product is a versatile product. It’s a wood substitute. You can take it with you camping, and it has no shelf life. You can leave it in the camper, and then you don’t necessarily have to buy wood when you get to the campsite. If you have wood, but it’s raining, or you couldn’t get wood because you got to the campground late, our product would still light up and go.
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Take a walk through any major city, and you’ll see tall banners fluttering from light poles or hanging from rooftops on the sides of a museum. Most are colorful and attractive. Some are splashy, with eye-catching designs. Nearly all are time-sensitive, advertising this month’s music festival, tomorrow’s convention, or next weekend’s exhibit.
Because banners have to survive the elements day and night — often for months at a time — the material they’re made from is generally not biodegradable. So what happens to these used banners? Do they retire to a storeroom to collect dust, or make a one-way trip to the landfill?
Thanks to the creativity of Monica Shuman, co-founder of Florida-based RetroActif, the number of discarded banners is rapidly dwindling. Shuman turns retired banners into fashion handbags, hats, backpacks, purses, and more. She and her husband, Ziad, established RetroActif in December 2006 and have rescued tons of used banners. The company has partnered with a manufacturer in Florida, who supplies them with used banners, which Retroactif repurposes into fashion accessories.
Two and a half years after establishing RetroActif, the Shumans have transformed their company from an idea into a thriving business. The couple divides the business between retail accounts and corporate accounts. The company uses retired banners to create stylish fashion merchandise, which they wholesale to boutiques around the world.
If you’ve ever visited a rare museum exhibit or attended a festival or convention, you are sure to have noticed vibrant banners hanging throughout the area, drawing you to each event. RetroActif uses attractive banners from events such as these to create special collections. Each collection is made from banners for a specific event, which may number as few as 10 or more than 100.
Sample items from RetroActif’s collections are displayed on the their website, but can only be purchased through a retailer or by contacting the company directly. RetroActif also works with a wide range of corporate clients, who are looking for unique, eco-friendly giveaways for their events.
FROM RETIRED BANNER TO FASHION ACCESSORY
Cleaning a banner may sound simple, but some of the banners RetroActif receives have been exposed to nature’s elements for many years. Because of their size and the materials they’re made from, they can’t be washed in an industrial machine; each banner must be hand washed and dried. After being thoroughly cleaned, the banners are then cut into pieces for assembly.
In addition to banner material, each item may require cotton, straps, zippers, and lining from other manufacturers. Shuman says that RetroActif tries to uses as much banner material as possible. “If the bags need reinforcements, we’ll put an additional layer of banner between the lining and outside banner for extra support. We are very good about that,” Shuman says.
What’s the end result to this labor-intensive process? Not your average handbag. Each item features a unique design that has been carefully placed to highlight interesting elements of the original banner, while not revealing any copyrighted corporate logos or branding.
Because banners are made to withstand weather, the finished bags are resistant to nights caught out in the rain or the accidental rendezvous with a puddle. If a bag does happen to encounter nature’s elements, all it takes is a quick wipe down with a wet cloth and possibly some mild detergent, and the bag will be as good as new.
Monica Shuman reminds customers that the key to keeping their bags in good condition is simply to handle them with care. As proof of this, she mentions that she is still using bags she made when she started the company three years ago. Some banners are made with ink that will fade faster than others, or scratch more easily. Some are thin, while others are thick. Regardless of the banner material, the stitching is dependable, Shuman says, and if customers are kind to their RetroActif accessories, they will get years of use out of them.
WORKING WITH CORPORATE CLIENTS
RetroActif has experienced rapid growth as consumers have begun to appreciate the benefits of repurposing banner material. Shuman’s handbags and other fashion accessories are for sale in almost 100 stores around the world. The company recently expanded its wholesale operations to retailers in Canada, Australia, and Europe.
For the past year and a half, RetroActif has been working with corporate clients to develop prizes, presents, and giveaways for their specific needs. “We make a variety of items for our corporate clients. The types of clients we serve are so different: Banks. Museums. We’re working now with the Miami Heat. We worked with Four Seasons. We don’t just make bags; it’s amazing the variety of things they want us to make for them,” Shuman says. RetroActif offers a wide range of eco-friendly gift alternatives, such as backpacks, computer bags, and notebook covers.
Corporate customers have the option of providing their own banners or choosing from banners in RetroActif’s stock. For example, when Bank of America approached RetroActif about making a giveaway for a conference in Miami, they had no banners of their own to work with. They selected a theme for their conference, found banners in Shuman’s stock that fit their theme, then attached their own labels to the finished items.
I asked at beginning of this post what happens to banners when they are no longer needed. According to Shuman, many manufacturers were simply storing used banners for their clients.
But as the popularity of banners rose, the manufacturers began to run out of storage space. They were faced with the unpleasant task of informing their loyal customers that they would either have to pay for storage or send the banners to the landfill.
Shuman provided a welcome alternative, and their supplier now offers customers a third option: Donate retired banners for use in RetroActif’s custom accessories. This arrangement provides a winning scenario for everyone, including the environment.
The Shumans are committed to sharing their success and have adopted the non-profit organization Room to Read. A percentage of every RetroActif purchase is donated to this worldwide cause, which partners with local communities to establish schools, libraries, and other educational infrastructures. As Shuman says, “Our eco-conscious philosophy goes hand in hand with Room to Read. We believe that educating today’s children will eventually benefit our environment in the future.”
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I’ll bet you’ve got stuff you don’t want anymore. It’s still too useful to trash or recycle, but nothing you want to keep. One good choice is to donate it to a charity group for resale. Still, there are things even Goodwill won’t take, but that others might want. How do you find a home for that half can of lavender paint or old-style television? Freecycle it.
If you’re not yet aware of Freecycle, it’s time you got acquainted. The whole point of Freecycle is landfill avoidance. Maybe you’re tired of that sweater Aunt Nellie crocheted for you, but you don’t think you could sell it (or just don’t want to bother). Freecycle gives you an alternative to trashing it.
Freecycle is actually a two-way service. You can offer something you no longer want (a bathroom scale, a skillet, or a large couch, for example). And you can ask for something you need (a double stroller for twins, canning supplies, a wrench set, etc.). All kinds of goods change hands between strangers who would otherwise never know of each other’s needs.
The main restriction is that everything must be truly free. No strings. No behind the scenes requests for money. Strings-attached transactions will get you kicked off the list in a hurry.
If you’ve never used Freecycle, you’ll want to pay attention to the rules and etiquette.
1. If you ask, offer. It’s just good manners. Let’s say you want an old lawn mower. What have you got to offer someone else? Maybe you’ve got a tree full of apples that would make great pies. It’s unlikely that the person with an old lawn mower to give will be the same person who wants your apples. That’s okay. The theory is, what goes around comes around — eventually. Everyone who participates gets multiple opportunities to give and get.
2. Be polite. Don’t forget the pleases and thank-yous that your parents taught you. If you’re rude, you stand to be blackballed by individuals you’ve offended — not necessarily by the list as a whole, but don’t count on getting any freebies from a person you’ve insulted.
3. Be entertaining. People who offer things may get dozens of responses. If yours is the most entertaining or sincere, the person with the goodies to give may decide to give the item to you. So make ’em laugh. Or try a little heartfelt poem. What’ve you got to lose?
4. Be honest. If that vaporizer you’re offering is missing a piece, make sure you say so. Someone else may need the parts that you’ve got. But don’t try to fool anyone into thinking you’re giving away a perfect gem, if, in fact, it’s not.
5. Follow the rules. Freecycle has specific guidelines about what can and cannot be posted. No pornography, no guns, no medicines, no alcohol, no tobacco. There are a few more “nos.” Check them out before you offer anything that might be questionable.
6. Be careful. Sadly, not every environmentally minded individual is trustworthy. You probably won’t know the people you contact through Freecycle. Consider making the exchange in a public place. Or leave the items on your porch for pickup. Don’t tell anyone that you won’t be home at a certain time. Safety first. Always.
So, don’t hang onto those Halloween costumes that no longer fit, the roller blades sitting in your garage gathering dust, even that twin bed your kids left behind when they went to college. Sign up for Freecycle and let someone else enjoy your castoffs. You’ll get the double benefit of making someone else’s day and clearing a path in your home or garage.
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