Sustainable Future: The New Plastic

Life in plastic can be fantastic now that Sandra Pascoe Oritz has created a material that could possibly replace regular plastic and help fight the growing climate conditions.

Nopal cactus leaves. genericavatar. CC by-NC 2.0.

Nopal cactus leaves. genericavatar. CC by-NC 2.0.

Sandra Pascoe Ortiz, a Mexican researcher, has created a “plastic” dupe from cacti. Oritz states, “My idea is to produce a plastic from natural ingredients and substitute it for some of the plastics we use today”. Her invention will not only aid the fight against the growing climate crisis, but provide a more efficient way of mass producing cheaper products that will not affect our future in the long-run. The material Ortiz created takes one month to biodegrade in soil and a few days to biodegrade in water. That ensures that the product will quickly be erased, allowing for no buildup or junk yards to pollute the Earth.

Also, the material she created is so natural that it is edible. “All the materials we use can be ingested both by humans or animals and they wouldn’t cause harm.” This means that when the product does biodegrade, it should not affect the surrounding ecosystem, instead contributing to it. 

But what is her process? First, she cuts the leaves off the cactus - the big round part that we associate with the general look of the cactus. Then, she peels the leaves, shaving off the outside spikey layer. Next, she presses the shaved cacti into juice placing the juice into the fridge. After some time, she takes the juice out of the fridge, mixes the non-toxic formula into the juice and after the concoctions are mixed, she laminates the mixture, letting it dry. 

Oritz is currently testing many different ways the new material can be used. “We can obtain different colours, shapes, thicknesses; we can make plastics that are very smooth or very flexible and we can make others that are more rigid.” The material is malleable enough that it can possibly replace most of the functions that plastic is used for. 

Currently, as Ortiz does everything by hand, the process of creating the new “plastic” takes up to 10 days. Ortiz believes that upgrading the process into an industrial factor, the process can be sped up. 

The best part about the whole process? The substance is made up entirely of renewable resources. “The nopal cactus is a plant endemic in Mexico”. To continue the process, the plant must stay alive to create more leaves, ensuring overcropping will not be the result. Although the material is still in development, it shines a light for a hopeful future filled with less plastic and a more sustainable future. 

OLIVIA HAMMOND is an undergraduate at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts. She studies Creative Writing, with minors in Sociology/Anthropology and Marketing. She has travelled to seven different countries, most recently studying abroad this past summer in the Netherlands. She has a passion for words, traveling, and learning in any form.


What You Need to Know About Beyond and Impossible Burgers

Why plant-based meat substitutes are good for you, and even better for the environment.

Impossible Burger. Photo Provided by Impossible Foods.

Impossible Burger. Photo Provided by Impossible Foods.

There has been a lot of buzz recently around plant-based meat substitutes—especially since Beyond Meat just went public in May at a nearly $1.5 billion dollar valuation. Two of the most popular meat substitutes on the market, Beyond Meats and Impossible Foods, have been astonishing consumers at their resemblance to actual meat. These products look and taste like the meat products they are modeled after. 

What makes them different? 

Impossible Foods’ main product is their burger. And while the Beyond Burger is probably the most well known product that Beyond Meats offers, the company also offers “ground beef,” two flavors of “sausages,” and “beef crumbles.” However, it is possible to mash or crumble the Impossible Burger to create meatballs, pizza toppings, or even tacos. 

Additionally, the products differ in their main protein ingredient. Beyond Burgers’ main protein source comes from pea protein, while Impossible Burgers get their protein from soy protein concentrate. 

The Impossible Burger looks a little more realistic than the Beyond Burger. It appears to “bleed” thanks to the Heme molecule an ingredient called soy leghemoglobin. The Heme molecule is found in every living plant and animal. Since it’s found most abundantly in animals, it’s what makes meat taste like meat. Impossible Foods use the Heme molecule in soy roots. In fact, Impossible Burgers taste so much like actual beef, that some vegetarians and vegans don’t like to eat them because it creeps them out! 

Why are they good for us? 

Meat increases risk of cancer by 16% and risk of heart disease by 21%. By eating a patty that looks and tastes like meat—without the added cholesterol—we can satisfy our cravings without having to worry about health risks.

Why are they good for the environment? 

Aside from the fact that less animals will be killed if more people switch to meat substitutes, plant-based substances are made more sustainably than meat products. 51% of greenhouse gas emissions result from raising livestock and producing meat products. 45% of global surface area is reserved for livestock systems. Imagine the greenery and nature that could be preserved with just a fraction of that space! 

So, for your next summer barbeque, try switching to a Beyond or Impossible Burger. Your guests will barely notice the difference. 

ELIANA DOFT loves to write, travel, and volunteer. She is especially excited by opportunities to combine these three passions through writing about social action travel experiences. She is an avid reader, a licensed scuba diver, and a self-proclaimed cold brew connoisseur. 


Turning Plastic Trash Into Cash in Haiti

What would our world look like without plastic? From life-saving medical devices to computers to Tupperware, it’s changed the way we live, work and understand the world around us. But the same wonder material that has revolutionized so much is choking our oceans. It’s estimated that, every minute, an entire garbage truck worth of plastic hits our oceans. Otherwise put, 8 million tons of once-useful items find their way to global waters each year. There, over time, they break into tiny pieces called “microplastics,” which end up consumed by marine life. 

For David Katz, fighting plastic pollution should start long before a soda bottle hits the tide. What’s more, he believes the very plastic waste that litters our shores and seas is anything but waste. In 2014, David launched the Plastic Bank, “a global network of micro-recycling markets that empower the poor to transcend poverty by cleaning the environment,” according to its website. The organization currently operates in Haiti, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brazil, and works like this: community members collect plastic waste (much of it post-consumer products like milk containers, detergent bottles and plastic bags) and bring it to Plastic Bank centers where it’s weighed and exchanged for cash. In Haiti, for example, more than 2,000 collectors have recovered around 7-million pounds of plastic since the organization arrived in 2015. 

What was once considered waste can now be sold to major brands like Marks and Spencer and Henkle, who will use it to package and distribute their products in a more sustainable manner. As David Katz puts it, this “social plastic” is “empowering and precious”—something that bonds collectors in places like the Philippines and Haiti to brands and consumers around the world.

Only Local Amazonians Can Bring True Sustainable Development to Their Forest

Fernando Bizerra Jr. / EPA

Fernando Bizerra Jr. / EPA

The Brazilian government has earmarked a vast tract of Amazonian land for mining. The so-called “Renca” reserve sits in the last great wilderness area in the eastern Amazon and contains lots of unique rainforest wildlife. The controversial decision to allow mining has since been rewritten to clarify that development cannot take place on indigenous lands that lie within the “Renca”, and then put on hold by a federal judge, pending support from congress.

Protected areas such as the Renca are under threat right across the Amazon, and many have already been downsized or downgraded. Conservation is undermined by chronic underfunding of the national environmental protection agencies, the devolving of environmental enforcement to regional states that cannot cope, and by rural violence so severe that Brazil leads the world in assassinations of environmentalists.

The result of all this is an Amazon where 90% of logging is illegal and deforestation is increasing, where unprecedented wildfires burn each summer, and where large vertebrates are now going extinct for the first time since the Pleistocene.

Brazil says mining and logging will boost national economic growth. Yet people in the Amazon remain some of the poorest and most marginalised in South America, and there is little evidence this kind of development has enhanced their quality of life. For example, the municipalities of Eldorado dos Carajás, Marabá, and Paraupebas, all of which surround large mining operations, have a human development index lower than that of Libya, a country stricken by civil war. And the construction of the controversial Belo Monte dam resulted in the regional capital of Altamira attaining the highest per capita homicide rate in all of Brazil, equivalent to 25 murders a day if scaled to a city the size of London.

Why has development failed Amazonians?

First, the companies driving the change are generally big multinationals based either in and around Rio and São Paulo (1,700 miles away) or abroad. Despite some municipal taxes, only a tiny portion of the profits remain locally.

Carajás Mine, the largest iron ore mine in the world, is found within the Carajás National Forest (pictured above). T photography / Shutterstock

Carajás Mine, the largest iron ore mine in the world, is found within the Carajás National Forest (pictured above). T photography / Shutterstock

Development, as currently practised, also favours the wealthy over the poor. When protected areas are downgraded the chief beneficiaries are landholders who are able to log or mine their territory. Other social groups aren’t so lucky. Some are even actively attacked – either directly, as occurred in the assassination of ten landless movement squatters in a large Amazonian farm, or through legal changes, such as the downgrading of the rights of quilombolas, historical communities descended from African slaves, and indigenous peoples.

Brazil’s ongoing “car wash” corruption scandal has led to allegations of worrying links between large development projects in the Amazon, such as the Belo Monte dam, and the diversion of state funds to political parties. If the purpose of development is political gain, there can be little hope for regional citizens.

Are there alternative ways forward?

Both Amazonian people and forests would benefit if we stopped evaluating development schemes solely in terms of the profits they could generate. This sort of narrow, economic assessment cannot truly capture the value of the Amazon’s forests: how do you put a price on conserving unique species, or mitigating global climate change?

The Guianan Cock-of-the-rock ( Rupicola rupicola ) is one of northern Amazonia’s more spectacular inhabitants. Alexander Lees, Author provided

The Guianan Cock-of-the-rock (Rupicola rupicola) is one of northern Amazonia’s more spectacular inhabitants. Alexander Lees, Author provided

The forests of the Renca are some of the most dense and slow-growing in the Amazon basin. Even deforesting just 30% of the area would effectively emit more than four billion tonnes of CO₂ into the atmosphere – equivalent to Brazil’s entire fossil fuel emissions over the past ten years. Unless climate change forms part of the decision making process in the region, Brazil will fail to meet its international commitments such as the Paris agreement.

Development must also secure constitutional rights for everyone, not just those of the elites. Brazil currently has so called “differentiated citizenship”, where in practice there is a gradation of rights among citizens, depending on their race, social class or region.

Munduruku people map out their territory along the River Tapajos in Pará state. Larissa Saud, Author provided

Munduruku people map out their territory along the River Tapajos in Pará state. Larissa Saud, Author provided

Local action is often the only defence against the expansion of mining or dams. Recent examples of a grassroots success include the Munduruku indigenous people, who are forcing various concessions by resisting megadams on the middle Tapajós River. Another example is the practice of “counter-mapping” among indigenous peoples which entails them mapping their own territorial boundaries to defend their land from industrial agriculture, mining, dams and logging.   These alternative approaches are the best way forward in the Renca too. Instead of opening up the area for mining multinationals, Brazil should recognise the rights of local people and empower them to lead decision-making. Brazil nut harvesting is already big in the local economy and, along with ecotourism and carbon-payments (being effectively paid to not chop down a forest), could deliver sustainable development, while leaving the minerals in the ground.

JOS BARLOW is a Professor of Conservation Science at Lancaster University.

ALEXANDER C. LEES is a lecturer in tropical ecology at Manchester Metropolitan University.

ERIKA BERENGUER is a Senior Research Associate at University of Oxford.

JAMES A. FRASER is a Lecturer in Political Ecology at Lancaster University.

JOICE FERREIRA is a researcher in Ecology at Federal University of Pará.


Students Across Europe Protest in Hopes of a Greener Future

After years of political gridlock surrounding climate change legislation, students emerge as a force for change.

Photo of a student protester. By  Josh Barwick  on  Unsplash .

Photo of a student protester. By Josh Barwick on Unsplash.

Thousands of students across Europe left school on Friday, February 15 to protest the lack of action on climate issues in their countries. In what the New York Times called a “coordinated walk out for action on climate issues,” elementary, middle, high school, and undergraduate students came together to demand a greener future. In London, protestors held signs reading “The ocean is rising and so are we” and “Act now or swim later.”

The student-led movement for climate action that is currently taking Europe by storm began with 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg. In September, Thunberg started skipping class to stage sit-ins at the Swedish parliament, demanding that her government seriously address climate change. Thunberg’s action inspired teens worldwide, some of whom created the global movement Youth Strike 4 Climate and began organizing protests and walkouts, using social media to coordinate efforts. According to the New York Times, demonstrations have been held in Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, Ireland, Sweden, and Switzerland, among others.

The New York Times writes that the new organization gained even more energy in October of 2018 when a report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change disclosed that the world has only twelve years to change its climate policy before the consequences of inaction such as food shortages, rising sea levels, floods and forest fires manifest themselves.

Thunberg remains a notable voice in the movement she inspired, and went on to speak at the global climate-change conference in Poland last December. “You say you love your children above all else — and yet you are stealing their future in front of their very eyes,” she told politicians at the conference. “Until you start focusing on what needs to be done rather than what is politically possible, there is no hope. We cannot solve a crisis without treating it as a crisis.”

In British schools, protesters received mixed reactions from teachers and staff. While some encouraged students, others threatened to punish them for skipping class. “My school was not supportive at the start. They said I would get detention for unauthorized absence,” Anna Taylor, the seventeen-year-old co-founder of the UK Student Climate Network told the New York Times.

Sixteen-year-old Bonnie Morely, who was attending the strike with friends from school, told the New York Times that a head teacher had taken down posters advertising the strike in her school’s common areas. “They’re treating us like we are doing something really wrong,” Morley said. “The future of our planet is looking really bleak, and all the politicians are asleep at the wheel. We have to wake them up, and I think thousands of kids on the streets will do just that.”

Like the teachers, European politicians displayed mixed reactions, with some supporting the students and others going so far as to suggest that the strikes were the product of a secret governmental organization.

According to the New York Times, a spokesperson for British Prime Minister Theresa May said that, “everybody wants young people to be engaged in the issues that affect them most so that we can build a brighter future for all of us. But it is important to emphasize that disruption increases teachers’ workloads and wastes lesson time that teachers have carefully prepared for.”

Thunberg tweeted in response: “British PM says that the children on school strike are ‘wasting lesson time.’ That may well be the case, but then again, political leaders have wasted 30 years of inaction. And that is slightly worse.”

“We don’t miss school because we’re lazy or because we don’t want to go to school,” Jakob Blasel, a high school student who assisted with the organization of an earlier protest in Berlin told the Washington Post. “We can’t go to school, because we have to strike. We have to deliver an uncomfortable message to our leaders that it can’t go on this way.”

Youth for climate is currently planning another round of protests and another global youth strike for March 15. The movement is growing and more students from nations across the world are expected to join.

EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

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Ireland Becomes the First Country to Divest from Fossil Fuels

Executive Director of Trócaire calls the bill “both substantive and symbolic.”

Sunset in Skerries, Ireland.  Giuseppe Milo. CC BY 2.0

Sunset in Skerries, Ireland. Giuseppe Milo. CC BY 2.0

Last July, Ireland moved to take public funds out of fossil fuels. While many universities, organizations, and even cities have made similar commitments, Ireland will be the first country to do so. According to the New York Times, Ireland’s action represents the most substantial advance for divestment in the world.

The bill commiting to divestment was passed with all party support by the lower house of Parliament and necessitates that money from the sovereign fund (8.9 billion euros) be taken out of fossil fuels. According to a statement, the change will be made, “as soon as practicable.” (The phrase likely refers to changes made to the bill: originally it called for divestment within five years, but was altered to give the government more flexibility.)

According to the Guardian, the bill defines a fossil fuel company as one that receives 20% or more of its income from the “exploration, extraction or refinement of fossil fuels.”

The divestment bill will move on to the Senate which has the ability to delay, but not overturn it. According to the aid of Thomas Pringle, the parliament member who introduced the bill, it has the support of Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and is thus almost guaranteed to become law. Varadkar’s support is expected, as he has professed hopes that Ireland will become a “leader in climate action.”

According to Pringle himself, the “movement is highlighting the need to stop investing in the expansion of a global industry which must be brought into managed decline if catastrophic climate change is to be averted. Ireland by divesting is sending a clear message that the Irish public and the international community are ready to think and act beyond narrow short term vested interests.”

Eamonn Meehan, director of Trócaire, the environmental organization that advocated for the bill, told the New York Times that the bill, “will stop public money being invested against the public interest, and it sends a clear signal nationally and globally that action on the climate crisis needs to be accelerated urgently, starting with the phase-out of fossil fuels.”

Currently, Ireland has over 300 million euros in fossil fuel investments, according to the Guardian. The country's decision to divest is so momentous in part because of its reputation as slacker in fighting climate change. According to a survey by Climate Action Network, conducted a month before the decision, Ireland was was ranked second to last in the category of climate action, followed by Poland. The country’s decision to divest promises a greener future for Ireland.

Now, Ireland hopes that other countries will follow its lead. According to Gerry Liston of the Global Legal Action Network, and drafter of the bill, “governments will not meet their obligations under the Paris agreement on climate change if they continue to financially sustain the fossil fuel industry. Countries the world over must now urgently follow Ireland’s lead and divest from fossil fuels.”




EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

emma bruce.png

How a Game Can Move People From Climate Apathy to Action

High school students at the University of Maine Farmington’s Upward Bound program playing the World Climate simulation. Mary Sinclair,  CC BY-ND

High school students at the University of Maine Farmington’s Upward Bound program playing the World Climate simulation. Mary Sinclair, CC BY-ND

The latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been called a “deafening” alarm and an “ear-splitting wake-up call” about the need for sweeping climate action. But will one more scientific report move countries to dramatically cut emissions?

Evidence, so far, says no. Countless scientific studies have been published since the 1970s on the dangers of climate change, many offering similar projections. And social science research shows that showing people research doesn’t work. So, if more reports and information don’t spark action, what will?

In a recent study led by the University of Massachusetts Lowell Climate Change Initiative, we identified a promising approach: Playing a game called the World Climate Simulation, originally developed by the nonprofit organization Climate Interactive, in which participants play delegates at international climate change negotiations.

We examined how this experience affected more than 2,000 participants from nine countries, ranging from middle school students to CEOs. Across this diverse population, people who participated in World Climate deepened their understanding of climate change and became emotionally engaged in the issue. They came away believing that it was not too late for meaningful action. These emotional responses were linked to a stronger desire to learn and do more, from reducing their personal carbon footprints to taking political action.

How it works

Participants in World Climate take on the roles of delegates from different countries or regions and are charged with reaching an agreement to limit warming to no more than 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. Each delegation offers policies to manage its own greenhouse gas emissions. They also pledge either to support or request money from the Green Climate Fund, which was created to help developing countries cut their emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

Each group’s decisions are entered into C-ROADS, a climate policy model that has been used to support actual negotiations, immediately showing them the expected climate impacts of their choices. First round results usually fall short as participants resist making deep cuts to their own region’s emissions, demand more money from the Green Climate Fund, or assume the pledges they and others have made are enough to meet the global goal. When those pledges are not enough, the simulation shows everyone the harm that could result.

Participants then negotiate again, using C-ROADS to explore the consequences of more ambitious emission cuts. As in the real world, people learn through trial and error until they succeed. But unlike the real world, there is no cost or risk of failure.

For many players, the impact is deep and personal: “I feel like I was a part of something way bigger than myself. I am going to look for ways on campus to get involved,” one undergraduate participant said afterward.

“Since the simulation, I … have been continually thinking about the effects of our consumption and how it affects others,” a high school educator reflected.

The October 2018 IPCC report warns that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C would require ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented’ cuts to carbon dioxide emissions, beginning within the next 12 years. IPCC

The October 2018 IPCC report warns that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C would require ‘rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented’ cuts to carbon dioxide emissions, beginning within the next 12 years. IPCC

Play together, not just with the ‘usual suspects’

Climate change has become highly politicized in the United States, with political orientation often determining people’s views, rather than science or data. For example, conservatives who oppose international agreements or government action to address the problem often react by denying that climate change is real, or is caused primarily by human actions, or poses a grave threat to our prosperity, security and health.

Overcoming this barrier has proven to be extremely difficult, yet is essential for effective action. We were therefore quite surprised to find that World Climate is effective with Americans who are free-market proponents – a political view linked to denial of human-caused climate change. World Climate also has a bigger impact on people who were less inclined to take action or knew less about climate change before the simulation than those who were already engaged.

While most Americans say that climate change is important to them, they don’t talk about it in their daily lives. World Climate is a richly social experience that breaks down this “spiral of silence.” As participants negotiate, they talk about the issues face to face. They discover shared concerns, which creates an opportunity to move on to the important next step: Doing something about them.

Getting to scale

Mitigating the threat of climate change requires science-based, grassroots action at scale. And as the IPCC report makes clear, there’s no time to waste. However, telling people about the threat doesn’t work. They have to learn for themselves; our research shows that World Climate can help.

Everything people need to run World Climate, including the C-ROADS model, is freely available online. The program is aligned with U.S. national education standards and has also been designated as an official resource for schools in France, Germany and South Korea. It is adaptable and relevant to academic disciplines ranging from physics to ethics.

Since mid-2015 World Climate has been played by more than 46,000 people in 85 countries, including students, community groups, executives, policymakers and military leaders. More than 80 percent said it increased their motivation to combat climate change, regardless of their political orientation or prior engagement with the issue. Our research shows that World Climate acts as a climate change communication tool that enables people to learn and feel for themselves – experiences that together have the potential to motivate action informed by science.

For most of history, experience has been humans’ best teacher, enabling us to understand the world around us while stimulating emotions such as fear, anger, worry and hope that drive us to act. But waiting for experience to show how disastrous the impacts of climate change could be is not a realistic option. Just as pilots train in flight simulators so they can save passengers when real emergencies strike, people can now learn about climate change through simulated experience and become motivated to address it, instead of suffering the real-world consequences of inaction.

JULIETTE N. ROONEY-VARGA is an Associate Professor of Environmental Science at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.

Co-authors of the study described in this article included J.D. Sterman, MIT Sloan School; T. Franck, E. Johnston and A.P. Jones, Climate Interactive; E. Fracassi, Instituto Tecnologico de Buenos Aires; F. Kapmeier, Reutlingen University; K. Rath, SageFox Consulting Group; and V. Kurker, UMass Lowell Climate Change Initiative.


10 Ways to Travel More Sustainably

Taking your sustainable living habits on the road.

Traveling by train is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint and see more of the place you are traveling through. Image Credit: Jonathan Combe. CC BY 2.0

Traveling by train is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint and see more of the place you are traveling through. Image Credit: Jonathan Combe. CC BY 2.0

It is easy to get caught up in the beauty and newness of the places we travel through. While this element of escapism is part of the magic of travel, it often means forgetting to treat the place we are in as what it is: someone else’s home. Sustainable travel is important—not only because we need to protect the world that is our collective home, but because we need to respect the places that are someone else’s environment, their home. These ten ways to travel more sustainably explore actions we can all take to be greener travelers and to show respect to the places we are traveling through.

1. Avoid flights.

Sometimes this can be difficult to do. However, whenever possible try to opt for slower forms of travel like trains, buses, or boats. It may take you a bit longer to get to your final destination, but you will significantly reduce your carbon footprint and enjoy a richer sense of place. If you absolutely must fly, try to book a nonstop flight — taking off and landing only once uses less fuel. There’s one exception: if you’re traveling alone, driving has more of a negative impact on the environment than flying.

2. Stay in hostels.

There may be fewer amenities, but that means less waste. Many hostels even use renewable energy and recycle. Hostels are also cheaper, and the connections you’ll end up making with your roomates will be priceless.

3. Stay in green hotels.

If hostels are simply not available (or not for you), try to stay in a green hotel. When traveling in the US look for a hotels with a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. The certification means that the building is green and energy efficient.

4. Bring your reusable water bottle.

This one is just common sense, but we could all use a reminder. Single use plastics (water bottles and other packaging) are harmful to the environment because they are difficult to recycle and don’t decompose naturally. To learn more, check out 5 everyday products that hurt the environment, or this video, following travel producer Marie McGrory as she attempts to spend a week in Belize without using any single use plastics.

5. Hang up your towels.

Hanging up towels in a hotel is pretty much a universally accepted sign that you’d like to re-use them. Chances are, you probably don’t use a fresh towel every time you shower at home, and it takes a lot of energy, water, and other resources for the hotel to launder everyone's towels, every day.

6. Support the local economy.

According to the World Tourism Organization, out of every $100 spent on a trip, only $5 will have a positive impact on the destination. This is partly due to the uber cheap, made in China merchandise available at almost every popular destination. Instead of buying a cheap sweatshirt, support your destinations “real” economy by purchasing souvenirs from local shops, created by local artisans.

7. Partner with nonprofits.

If you have extra space in your luggage, try to give back to the communities you visit. Partner with organizations like Pack for a Purpose that give the school supplies and other items you pack to local communities. Partnering with a non-profit means knowing what people need, and where they need it, bypassing the negative effects of well-intentioned but harmful gifts.

8. Go on tours run by local guides.

Do your research to make sure you are supporting the local economy and not something that is endangering local communities or their environment.

9. Don’t buy wildlife products.

Again, this one is common sense. When you purchase wildlife products you’re supporting (consciously or not) an industry that trafficks rare and endangered wildlife.

10. Remember: sustainable travel isn’t just about the environment.

Kelley Louise, executive director of the Impact Travel Alliance put it best when she wrote in the New York Times that, “Sustainability has a positive impact not only on the environment, but the culture and the economy of the destination you’re visiting.” While excessive tourism does much to hurt the environment and culture of a place, sustainable travel can begin to reverse that damage.



EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. While not writing she explores the nearest museums, reads poetry, and takes classes at her local dance studio. She is passionate about sustainable travel and can't wait to see where life will take her. 

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How the Dutch are Creating “Room for the River”

The 2.3 billion dollar project fighting rising sea levels in the Netherlands.

View of Rotterdam at sunset. Image credit: ZOOM.NL

View of Rotterdam at sunset. Image credit: ZOOM.NL

One third of the Netherlands lies below sea level. Thus, the presence - and threat - of water has been a central part of Dutch culture since the first medieval farmers built dams and levees to control it. Now, a thousand years later, water technology in the Netherlands has evolved to pursue a goal that seems counterintuitive. To control water, and keep their citizens safe from it, the Dutch are in the midst of a 2.3 billion dollar project to let the water in.

The project is aptly called Room for the River—a national aim focussed on widening rivers, creating lakes, plazas, garages—all of which can function as public space but also provide somewhere for the water to go when lakes and rivers spill over. Part of the national shift in thought was due to massive amounts of flooding in the 1990s which forced many people to leave their homes. According to Harold van Waveren, a senior government advisor, the floods “were a wake-up call to give back to the rivers some of the room we had taken.”

In recent years, as cities such as New York and Miami struggle to find ways to protect their billion dollar real estate from rising sea levels, Dutch water engineering has become something of a national export —the Dutch equivalent of Swiss chocolate, or German cars.

“You can say we are marketing our expertise,” Dutch water expert Henk Ovink told the New York Times, “but thousands of people die every year because of rising water, and the world is failing collectively to deal with the crisis, losing money and lives.” He is happy to share his country’s pragmatic solution that views rising sea levels as an opportunity for environmental and social growth: a solution that features neither denial nor barrier building.

Dak Park, the largest rooftop garden in the Netherlands absorbs rain and CO2. Image Credit:

Dak Park, the largest rooftop garden in the Netherlands absorbs rain and CO2. Image Credit:

The Room for the River project is most visible in Rotterdam, the gritty city of the 70’s and 80’s that has reinvented itself as a hotbed of modern architecture, design, and business. Rotterdam is now home to innovative structures such as underground parking garages, plazas, and basketball courts that can double as retention ponds during a flood. A few miles outside the city in an area 20 feet below sea level, the project funded a new rowing course which can also hold water in emergencies. The course is part of the Eendragtspolder—an area of reclaimed rivers that doubles as a popular spot for biking, swimming, and community events. The area is also a river basin for the Rotte river and is expected to protect communities when the Rhine overflows—an anticipated 1 in 10 years event. The Eendragtspolder project represents the heart of the Room for the River project: pairing environmental reform with social reform. It’s what Mr. Molenaar, Rotterdam climate chief calls “investing in resilience.”

State of the art rowing course in the Eendragtspolder area doubles as water storage during extreme flooding. Image Credit: Willem Alexander Baan

State of the art rowing course in the Eendragtspolder area doubles as water storage during extreme flooding. Image Credit: Willem Alexander Baan

It seems the United States, with its plans to build an colossal wall around lower Manhattan, has a lot to learn from the Dutch perspective. Unlike the Dutch water parks that serve as protection as well as social spaces, the fortress-like walls being erected along Florida’s coast and the plans for a wall around lower Manhattan will do little to protect from a storm and less for the quality of life of those surrounding it. Unlike water parks, walls separate rather than unite; in a storm they decide who is protected—who gets to live, and who doesn’t. In the best case, they only buy a city a couple of years before the sea rises higher and the barriers built become inconsequential.

“We can’t just keep building higher levees, because we will end up living behind 10-meter walls,” says Harold van Waveren, senior government advisor. “We need to give the rivers more places to flow. Protection against climate change is only as strong as the weakest link in the chain, and the chain in our case includes not just the big gates and dams at the sea but a whole philosophy of spatial planning, crisis management, children’s education, online apps and public spaces.”



EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. She has worked as a volunteer in Guatemala City and is passionate about travel and social justice. She plans to continue traveling wherever life may take her.

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Meet Kelley Louise, Founder and Executive Director of Impact Travel Alliance (ITA)

Photo of Kelley Louise speaking at 2017 Impact Travel Global Summit. Photo by Naomi Figueroa.

Photo of Kelley Louise speaking at 2017 Impact Travel Global Summit. Photo by Naomi Figueroa.

Impact Travel Alliance (ITA) is an organization that seeks to raise awareness about sustainable travel. The nonprofit defines themselves as a “community of doers and dreamers united by a love of exploration and doing good.” This community has grown over the years, since its birth under the name Travel + SocialGood, to its current embodiment of 15,000 advocates and 20 chapters in cities worldwide. Together, this community that was once imprisoned into a niche is breaking into the mainstream and spreading the word that tourism can be used to make a difference. Kelley Louise, the Founder and Executive Director of ITA, recently offered CATALYST some answers to questions about the role of her team’s work in raising awareness about sustainable travel.

When did you start ITA and what inspired you to begin this movement?

I always knew that I wanted to work within the travel industry and make a positive impact but when I started I didn’t exactly know how that would take shape. When I started learning about sustainable tourism, I felt like there was this huge part of the industry that had a lot of potential. But there wasn’t really a community that I felt like I would want to be a part of within the industry. What’s cool about ITA is we are a global community of changemakers around the world and there’s strength in our numbers. That is very valuable in terms of being able to collectively work together to push the industry forward. Community has always been at the forefront of what we’re building and creating. We have global conferences. We have local chapters. We have a media network. We’ve developed those initiatives based off of the need from the industry as well as feedback from the community at the same time. It has come to life in a very organic way for that reason.

The original name of ITA was Travel + SocialGood. Is there a specific reason for this and if so, what was the intent behind it?

Yes, and we have a full blog post on this subject. However, to give a general overview: I wanted something that really reflected who we had grown to be as an organization. Again, having something that was really focused on community at the forefront. “Alliance” was something that made you feel like you are part of something bigger than yourself. The big push was having a name that felt more inclusive as well as reflective of the organization we had grown into…

For those who want to learn to travel with a more sustainable mindset but don’t fully understand the concept, how exactly do you define sustainable tourism?

To distill it into its easiest definition I would say that it is tourism that has a positive impact on the environment, the economy and the culture of the destination you are visiting. It has that triple bottom line approach to it. We [ITA] try to make it easier to understand in order to get more people excited about being involved in this movement.

The 2018 Thought Leadership Study, released by ITA as a research endeavour about the growth/need of sustainable tourism, mentions that the goal of ITA is to reach out to the “average traveler”... How inclusive is this definition of your average traveler?”  

The average traveler is your mother in law or your uncle or your brother or someone who isn’t already necessarily trying to do good. We are looking at the entire industry. I think the big push behind everything we do is to build a more impactful industry. Sustainable tourism is not a new concept. It’s been around for a long time but when you look at the average consumer base of people who are traveling, they are not traveling sustainably. Most travelers, even if they want to travel and make a positive impact do not know how. They might also not know that their travels can be sustainable. You can apply sustainable tourism to any type of travel whether that’s a cruise in the caribbean or a business trip to Chicago.

The Thought Leadership Study also says that big entities and corporations (i.e. Expedia) aren’t necessarily readily offering the opportunity to travel sustainably.. If this is so, how does an average traveler come across experiences that are “sustainable”?

The biggest thing travelers can do is to understand that sustainability is a journey. Everyone is constantly evolving and constantly doing better. Sustainability in itself  can always be improved. It comes down to a lot of little changes that make it easier over time. As an organization, we’re focused on progress over perfection. Additionally, it’s important travelers understand sustainability is a lifestyle. If you look at your own lifestyle and what you do on a day to day basis and then start making travel decisions, those sustainable habits will become second hand nature. For example, straws. It’s great that everyone is switching straws; either using an alternative or not at all.. What’s cool about this model for sustainability is that it opens the door to a wider conversation. [This transition away from straws] might make it easier to remember a reusable bag or to try to purchase something not wrapped in plastic. If you were to try to completely cut plastic out of your life, it would be very hard. It’s a lot easier to take the first step.

Another good point about making decisions when traveling abroad is in regards to how you are spending your money and what products you’re buying. If you’re buying a souvenir, think about where and how its made. Where is the money going? Is it ethically sourced? Were labour practices done well? Where are you going to sleep at night? All these little decisions should be considered through the lens of sustainability. Question: How am I having an impact on the world around me through these purchase decisions?

You mentioned that sustainability is a concept that has been around for awhile. Why is now the best time for growth and why is the marketspace ready?

There are a lot of reasons. In a way, it's almost a perfect storm of things coming together from different directions and different sides of the industry. A core part of what contributes is that consumers are seeking sustainable experiences. There is a want within the industry to create these products and platforms [with reference to statistics in the Thought Leadership Study]. There is research that backs up the fact that people want to have a positive impact on the destinations they are visiting. It’s a better experience at the end of the day; more immersive to the given destination.

There’s also a huge need. We have more and more travelers each year, creating issues like overtourism. In Barcelona, for example, people are protesting the tourists. In Thailand they shut down a beach too many tourists were visiting and destroying. Sustainable tourism offers a way to have a more innovative approach towards issues of the like. There’s a need and business case for it. Sustainable tourism is a great business decision. You can increase your profits. You can increase brand loyalty. There’s many reasons but these are the three core reasons. There’s a rise in demand. There is a need because of over tourism and there’s a business case for sustainability.

Does traveling sustainability anticipate that some destinations should be visited over another out of respect for issues like overtourism? How does this decision play into sustainable travel?

It’s all about being mindful about how you spend your money. In terms of choosing a destination, consider how you can make an impact on that community. That might mean that if they are protesting tourists in a certain city then perhaps you consider going in the off season or you consider staying outside city limits. It’s about being considerate of the locals. There is always going to be different [decisions to make] for different destinations. Doing research beforehand can be beneficial. You can also ask the locals how to be a respectful tourist. Do you stay in a homestay? In a hotel? How can you have that high positive impact on the destination you are visiting?

How can we get involved? Both with your organization and with this movement —in small and large part?

On our website,, we have a list of ways to get involved. Whether you’re a business owner or a traveler, whatever side of the industry you’re on, there’s a ton of ways to get involved with our organization. There’s not a one-size fits all. In general, I would start with the little habits. They make a big impact over time. When we’re all working together towards the greater good then there’s a lot of contextual impact over time.


ELEANOR DAINKO is an undergraduate student at the University of Virginia studying Spanish and Latin American Interdisciplinary Studies. She recently finished a semester in Spain, expanding her knowledge of opportunity and culture as it exists around the world. With her passion to change the world and be a more socially conscious person, she is an aspiring entrepreneur with the hopes of attending business school over seas after college. 

Japan’s Town With No Waste

The village of Kamikatsu in Japan has taken their commitment to sustainability to a new level. While the rest of the country has a recycling rate of around 20 percent, Kamikatsu surpasses its neighbors with a staggering 80 percent. After becoming aware of the dangers of carbon monoxide associated with burning garbage, the town instated the Zero Waste Declaration with the goal of being completely waste-free by 2020.

5 Everyday Products that Hurt the Environment

… and Sustainable Alternatives.

Image Credit: HuffPost UK

Image Credit: HuffPost UK

In our fast-paced busy lives it can be difficult to remember to make sustainable choices. Here are a few products that most of us use everyday that have a negative effect on the environment.

Plastic Bags

You’ve probably heard this one before, but despite widespread coverage of the issue, between 500 billion and one trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year. These bags take enormous amounts of energy to produce and ship, they are difficult to recycle, do not decompose, and emit toxic chemicals into the environment.

Fortunately, there are many green alternatives to the plastic bag. Fabric or canvas shopping bags are relatively inexpensive to purchase and can be re-used for grocery shopping.

Produce Bags

Produce bags often get left out of the conversation surrounding plastic bags, but they are made from the same materials and are equally harmful. Try using mesh washable produce bags instead — they are fairly cheap and can be reused.

Exfoliant Products

Many facial soaps contain tiny plastic microbeads that help exfoliate the skin. These beads are too small to be filtered during sewage treatment and have started to build up in lakes and oceans. In a year alone, researchers found 1,500 to 1.7 million bits of plastic per square mile in the great lakes. California, Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland and New Jersey have already banned microbeads, and it is likely that other states will follow. There are many alternatives to these soaps which are environmentally friendly and better for the skin. Try using oatmeal, raw honey, or coffee grounds scrubs — often you can make them yourself from ingredients you probably already have in your pantry.

Coffee Pods

They may be convenient, but single serve coffee pods aren’t recyclable, meaning that almost all of the 10 billion made each year end up in landfills. Brewing coffee the old fashioned way may take you a few minutes longer, but will reduce your waste in the long run. You can recycle the paper filter (as long as it’s unbleached) and compost the grinds or use them in a face scrub.

Non shade-grown coffee

While we’re on the subject, the coffee industry is responsible for massive amounts of deforestation and water pollution. Buying shade grown coffee is easier on the environment because it allows trees to grow alongside the coffee plants, which not only guards against deforestation, but controls soil erosion and filters carbon dioxide. Shade-grow beans also mature at a slower rate which creates a delicious flavor.

Prepackaged Food

From juice boxes to chips, almost nothing you buy at a grocery store is free of plastic packaging. While these products are convenient, they pose a risk to the environment. Like plastic bottles and bags, plastic food packaging is difficult to recycle and does not decompose. While there are alternatives to pre-packaged food such as zero waste grocery stores, they can be hard to come by. Try to reduce the amount of packaged food you buy, but when necessary buy bulk products instead since single serve items have more packaging.

In the end, working to reduce or eliminate your consumption these five products is a step toward a greener planet and a more sustainable lifestyle.



EMMA BRUCE is an undergraduate student studying English and marketing at Emerson College in Boston. She has worked as a volunteer in Guatemala City and is passionate about travel and social justice. She plans to continue traveling wherever life may take her.

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Unraveling the Fashion Industry

The fashion industry’s unsustainable practices are increasingly under scrutiny.

A snapshot of the 26 billion pounds of textile waste (source: Planet Aid).

A snapshot of the 26 billion pounds of textile waste (source: Planet Aid).

The environmental impact of the fashion industry has become a matter of Parliamentary concern in the United Kingdom. The Commons Environmental Audit Committee is launching an investigation into the fashion industry to assess just how unsustainable it is and how the industry might become more sustainable for the future. The inquiry reflects growing concern over the fashion industry’s fast fashion phenomenon that rapidly mass produces clothes for consumption.

Fast fashion is a recent phenomenon that is part of the evolution of the fashion industry. Traditionally clothing was a household endeavor. Changes began with advancements of the Industrial Revolution that introduced ready-made clothing, or clothes sold in a variety of sizes. Yet the changes were selective and mostly reserved for the middle-class individuals who could afford it. Changes continued to occur throughout the 20th century, but it was not till World War II that standardized clothing was widely accepted.  However, the signal for today’s fashion driven world was the 1960s: when the younger generation embraced cheaply made clothes.

Companies responded to increased demand by outsourcing labor to developing countries—much as it is done today. The low quality, high quantity mentality of today’s fashion industry can be seen as a natural development of shifts over the years to more affordable clothing. 

The drive for affordability has led to certain practices that many question for the waste
produced. Instead of the traditional two seasons—Spring/ Summer and Fall/Winter—in
which designers launched the next fashion trend, there are now about 52 micro-seasons in which new fashion is constantly being churned out. Further, popular retailers are often receiving weekly  shipments of new clothing. What this does is make the consumer feel like they are always out-of-date and compel them to keep buying clothing so they can keep up with current trends. Another factor that encourages waste is that most clothes today are made out of lower quality fabrics. Plus, retailers may even disguise such lower quality clothes with “discounts” to convey an illusion of high quality goods. These practices, focused on getting the consumer to consume, only create more waste.

Eco-fashion activist Livia Firth is known for saying in 2015 that “Disposable clothes…stay in a woman’s closet for an average of just five weeks, before being thrown out.”

Indeed, a 2016 survey concluded that the average American throws away around 82 pounds of clothing a year: 26 billion pounds of textiles. Of that 26 billion pounds, according to the nonprofit Council for Textile Recycling, only 15% is donated and 85%, or about 70 pounds per person, ends up in the landfills. This waste is a result of a cycle of “careless production and endless consumption” as stated in the 2015 True Cost documentary.

And it’s not just the landfills that are feeling fast fashion’s impact—fast fashion is criticized for its water pollution, use of toxic chemicals, and its treatment of workers. The Parliament’s inquiry into the UK fashion industry will provide a necessary glimpse into how the global fashion industry might be able to change for the better. But is also a responsibility of individuals to be conscious consumers of what they wear.


TERESA NOWALK is a student at the University of Virginia studying anthropology and history. In her free time she loves traveling, volunteering in the Charlottesville community, and listening to other people’s stories. She does not know where her studies will take her, but is certain writing will be a part of whatever the future has in store.

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Sustainable Cities Need More than Parks, Cafes and a Riverwalk

Small tankers unload along New York’s Newtown Creek in 2008.

Small tankers unload along New York’s Newtown Creek in 2008.

There are many indexes that aim to rank how green cities are. But what does it actually mean for a city to be green or sustainable? 

We’ve written about what we call the “parks, cafes and a riverwalk” model of sustainability, which focuses on providing new green spaces, mainly for high-income people. This vision of shiny residential towers and waterfront parks has become a widely-shared conception of what green cities should look like. But it can drive up real estate prices and displace low- and middle-income residents.

As scholars who study gentrification and social justice, we prefer a model that recognizes all three aspects of sustainability: environment, economy and equity. The equity piece is often missing from development projects promoted as green or sustainable. We are interested in models of urban greening that produce real environmental improvements and also benefit long-term working-class residents in neighborhoods that are historically underserved. 

Over a decade of research in an industrial section of New York City, we have seen an alternative vision take shape. This model, which we call “just green enough,” aims to clean up the environment while also retaining and creating living-wage blue-collar jobs. By doing so, it enables residents who have endured decades of contamination to stay in place and enjoy the benefits of a greener neighborhood.

‘Parks, cafes and a riverwalk’ can lead to gentrification

Gentrification has become a catch-all term used to describe neighborhood change, and is often misunderstood as the only path to neighborhood improvement. In fact, its defining feature is displacement. Typically, people who move into these changing neighborhoods are whiter, wealthier and more educated than residents who are displaced.

A recent spate of new research has focused on the displacement effects of environmental cleanup and green space initiatives. This phenomenon has variously been called environmentaleco- or green gentrification

Land for new development and resources to fund extensive cleanup of toxic sites are scarce in many cities. This creates pressure to rezone industrial land for condo towers or lucrative commercial space, in exchange for developer-funded cleanup. And in neighborhoods where gentrification has already begun, a new park or farmers market can exacerbate the problemby making the area even more attractive to potential gentrifiers and pricing out long-term residents. In some cases, developers even create temporary community gardens or farmers markets or promise more green space than they eventually deliver, in order to market a neighborhood to buyers looking for green amenities.

Environmental gentrification naturalizes the disappearance of manufacturing and the working class. It makes deindustrialization seem both inevitable and desirable, often by quite literally replacing industry with more natural-looking landscapes. When these neighborhoods are finally cleaned up, after years of activism by longtime residents, those advocates often are unable to stay and enjoy the benefits of their efforts.

The River Walk in San Antonio, Texas, is a popular shopping and dining area catering to tourists

The River Walk in San Antonio, Texas, is a popular shopping and dining area catering to tourists

Tools for greening differently

Greening and environmental cleanup do not automatically or necessarily lead to gentrification. There are tools that can make cities both greener and more inclusive, if the political will exists.

The work of the Newtown Creek Alliance in Brooklyn and Queens provides examples. The alliance is a community-led organization working to improve environmental conditions and revitalize industry in and along Newtown Creek, which separates these two boroughs. It focuses explicitly on social justice and environmental goals, as defined by the people who have been most negatively affected by contamination in the area. 

The industrial zone surrounding Newtown Creek is a far cry from the toxic stew that The New York Times described in 1881 as “the worst smelling district in the world.” But it is also far from clean. For 220 years it has been a dumping ground for oil refineries, chemical plants, sugar refineries, fiber mills, copper smelting works, steel fabricators, tanneries, paint and varnish manufacturers, and lumber, coal and brick yards. 

In the late 1970s, an investigation found that 17 million gallons of oil had leaked under the neighborhood and into the creek from a nearby oil storage terminal. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency placed Newtown Creek on the Superfund list of heavily polluted toxic waste sites in 2010.

The Newtown Creek Alliance and other groups are working to make sure that the Superfund cleanup and other remediation efforts are as comprehensive as possible. At the same time, they are creating new green spaces within an area zoned for manufacturing, rather than pushing to rezone it. 

As this approach shows, green cities don’t have to be postindustrial. Some 20,000 people work in the North Brooklyn industrial area that borders Newtown Creek. And a number of industrial businesses in the area have helped make environmental improvements.

Just green enough

The “just green enough” strategy uncouples environmental cleanup from high-end residential and commercial development. Our new anthology, “Just Green Enough: Urban Development and Environmental Gentrification,” provides many other examples of the need to plan for gentrification effects before displacement happens. It also describes efforts to create environmental improvements that explicitly consider equity concerns.

For example, UPROSE, Brooklyn’s oldest Latino community-based organization, is combining racial justice activism with climate resilience planning in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood. The group advocates for investment and training for existing small businesses that often are Latino-owned. Its goal is not only to expand well-paid manufacturing jobs, but to include these businesses in rethinking what a sustainable economy looks like. Rather than rezoning the waterfront for high-end commercial and residential use, UPROSE is working for an inclusive vision of the neighborhood, built on the experience and expertise of its largely working-class immigrant residents. 

This approach illustrates a broader pattern identified by Macalester College geographer Dan Trudeau in his chapter for our book. His research on residential developments throughout the United States shows that socially and environmentally just neighborhoods have to be planned as such from the beginning, including affordable housing and green amenities for all residents. Trudeau highlights the need to find “patient capital” – investment that does not expect a quick profit – and shows that local governments need to take responsibility for setting out a vision and strategy for housing equity and inclusion. 

In our view, it is time to expand the notion of what a green city looks like and who it is for. For cities to be truly sustainable, all residents should have access to affordable housing, living-wage jobs, clean air and water, and green space. Urban residents should not have to accept a false choice between contamination and environmental gentrification.

Trina Hamilton: Associate Professor of Geography, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York

Winifred Curran: Associate Professor of Geography, DePaul University


Biking through a Guatemalan Jungle Preserve

Winding through the lush rainforests below Guatemala’s Volcan de Agua is a growing mecca for mountain biking. Known as El Zur, the 2,500-acre private nature reserve was created to protect the land. Turns out, the best way to protect the land sustainably is to offer a variety of outdoor activities. Join guide José Pablo Jelkmann Mendia as he takes us through this pristine paradise on bike, replete with lush trails, suspension bridges and dreamlike waterfalls. It's truly a site to behold.

How Nairobi Can Fix Its Serious Waste Problem

Nairobi’s current waste disposal system is fraught with major problems. EPA/Dai Kurokawa

Nairobi’s current waste disposal system is fraught with major problems. EPA/Dai Kurokawa

Uncollected solid waste is one of Nairobi’s most visible environmental problems. Many parts of the city, especially the low and middle-income areas, don’t even have waste collection systems in place. In high income areas, private waste collection companies are booming. Residents pay handsomely without really knowing where the waste will end up.

The Nairobi county government has acknowledged that with 2,475 tons of waste being produced each day, it can’t manage. Addis Ababa Ethiopia has a similar size population but only generates 1,680 tons per day.

Nairobi’s current waste disposal system is fraught with major problems. These range from the city’s failure to prioritise solid waste management to inadequate infrastructure and the fact that multiple actors are involved whose activities aren’t controlled. There are over 150 private sector waste operators independently involved in various aspects of waste management. To top it all there’s no enforcement of laws and regulations.

Nairobi’s waste disposal problems go back a long way and there have been previous efforts to sort them out. For example in the early 1990s, private and civil society actors got involved, signing contractual arrangements with waste generators. They often did this without informing or partnering with the city authorities.

More recently other strategies were put in place, some of which left parts of the city clean. They worked for a period, but unfortunately they weren’t sustainable because no institutional changes were made.

But there’s hope on the horizon with a new Nairobi Governor – Mike Sonko Mbuvi. He should learn from the mistakes of the past and put a new regime in place that addresses the structural problems that have plagued the city. This would include an improved improved collection and transportation plan that incorporates the private sector.

Learning from the past

In 2005 John Gakuo took over the management of city affairs as the Town Clerk. During his tenure (2005-2009) he made a deliberate effort to introduce new approaches.

When he took over the city only had 13 refuse trucks. They were able to collect a paltry 20% of the waste produced by the city. To overcome this, the authorities contracted private waste collection firms to collect, transport and dispose waste at Dandora dump site which is the biggest and the only designated site. This quickly boosted the total waste collected with levels oscillating between 45%-60%.

Other changes included:

  • The development of a proper waste collection and transportation schedule with market operators. This meant waste from open-air markets was brought to identified collection points on specific days.

  • A weighbridge to measure amounts of waste disposed at Dandora was introduced. An important way to know disposal levels vis-a-vis collection and generation.

  • Enforcement officers were deployed to prevent dumping in parts of the city that were notorious for waste accumulation.

  • Over 2,000 arrests were made, making residents aware that indiscriminate dumping was illegal and punishable under the city authority laws.

All these efforts paid off – for parts of the city. For example, the heart of the city, the Central Business District, was cleaned up and waste was brought under control.

But crucial elements that would have ensured that the changes were sustainable were left out. For example, no new physical infrastructure, like the construction of waste transfer centres and proper landfills, were built, nor was new equipment bought.

After Gakuo’s regime, the next one worth a mention is Evans Kidero’s regime (2013 - 2017). It can be credited for trying to fast-track the implementation of the Solid Waste Management Master Plan which assessed the waste management problem of Nairobi and developed projects that could be implemented to ensure a sustainable system was in place.

This ensured that while the private sector needed to help with waste collection and transportation, the government was key to institutionalising waste management services.

Thirty waste collection trucks were bought and serious investment was made into heavy equipment. And in an effort to streamline waste collection a franchise system of waste collection was rolled out. This involved dividing the city into nine zones to make it easier to manage waste.

The franchise arrangement gave private operators a monopoly over both waste and fee collections, but relied heavily on the public body for enforcement of the system.

The franchising system failed due to a lack of enforcement by the city. In addition, in-fighting broke out between the private waste collection firms that had individual contracts with waste generators and the appointed contractor.

But other changes introduced during this period were more successful and had longer lasting effect. For example new laws were introduced designed to create order in the sector. These included the solid waste management act in 2015. This classified waste and also created a collection scheme based on the sub-county system. It also put penalties in place.

In addition, in 2016, 17 environment officers were appointed and posted to the sub-counties to plan and supervise waste management operations alongside other environmental issues.

These changes planted the seeds of an efficient and working waste management system. But the regime fell down when it come to enforcement. This meant that the gains that had been made were soon lost.

What needs to be done

Expectations are high for the new regime that has taken over. It should look to fast-track the following programmes:

  • Implement an improved collection and transportation plan that incorporates private sector and civil society groups;

  • Establish a disposal facility to reduce secondary pollution from the city’s dumps;

  • Decommission the Dandora dump site;

  • Implement the re-use, reduction, and recycling of waste;

  • Establish intermediate treatment facilities to reduce waste and its hazards;

  • Create an autonomous public corporation;

  • Put in place legal and institutional reforms to create accountability;

  • Implement a financial management plan, and

  • Implement private sector involvement.

Nairobi can fix it’s waste disposal problems. All it needs is focused attention, good governance and the implementation of systems that ensure changes outlive just one administration.


This article was originally published on The Conversation.




Part-time lecturer and Director of the Africa Livelihood Innovations for Sustainable Environment Consulting Group, University of Nairobi