Monthly Archives: January 2013

How to get a bike for free

One of these things is not like the other.

One of these things is not like the other.

Recently I visited San Francisco’s waste management center. My university is a shared governance institution (often more in name than in deed) so I am expected to do service. One of my appointments is to the campus-wide Sustainability Committee. I also had to pick a sub-committee, and I asked for Transportation, because I am all about the bikes. But everybody wanted Transportation and I’m pretty junior, so they put me on Zero Waste instead. Anyway, all members of the Zero Waste sub-committee were asked to take a tour of San Francisco’s waste management centers. My first field trip!

San Francisco’s waste management is run by Recology, one of the country’s largest employee-owned cooperatives. San Francisco diverts 80% of its waste from landfills, better than any other municipality in the US and most countries in the world. The city’s goal is to be zero-waste by 2020. The university, which is Recology’s 2nd largest account, is hanging in at 63%. San Francisco has reached this point by implementing aggressive recycling efforts (including prosecuting recycling poachers), creating a hugely successful composting program (in part by instituting a $1,000 minimum fine for throwing compostables in landfill bins), and to a certain extent, by taking advantage of a quirk in how diversion rates are calculated (albeit no more than other cities and countries do).

This is some of the art made from found materials at the transfer station.

This is some of the art made from found materials at the transfer station.

Our tour was absolutely fascinating. Recology does not allow photos of most of its operations, because there are apparently trade secrets in the world of waste management. I realize that the dump is not a traditional tourist attraction, but if you happen to be in San Francisco, it is definitely worth checking out.

Our visit started at the business office, where we picked up hard hats and met the sales staff. “I’m Maria,” said one woman who looked like a supermodel heading down the catwalk. “I handle the city accounts, and I’m a dumpster diver.” From there we headed to the recycling transfer station.

If you have seen Toy Story 3, the recycling transfer station will feel somewhat familiar. Trucks enter the building (1/3 of its power is generated by solar panels on the roof, because that is how Recology rolls) and dump recyclables onto the floor. From there they are moved by giant front loaders onto even more giant conveyer belts that sort out paper, plastics, metal and glass as they lift materials to the second floor. The Toy Story 3 feeling comes both from being surrounded by garbage and from feeling like a tiny mote in a giant machine. The amount of material being moved through the transfer station is simply mind-boggling. It was difficult to grasp its scale. On the second floor, the materials the machines could not handle are hand-sorted. Watching this process made me despair for humanity, as my fellow San Francisco residents seem unable to grasp the concept of what belongs in the recycling. Dozens of workers attempted to pick out plastic bags, clothing, plastic bottles of motor oil, ad infinitum, from paper destined for bundling and eventual recycling. It was impossible. They aim for 90% appropriate materials in the bales, we were told. That should be easier than it is. The relentless efforts of the hundreds of garbage-snatching seagulls didn’t help matters either.

Is artistic reuse recycling, upcycling, or something else entirely?

Is artistic reuse recycling, upcycling, or something else entirely?

Recycling is a tricky concept. Some things are recycled and some are only kind of recycled. Glass and metal containers and shards are melted down and turned into more glass and metal containers. Concrete is smashed into sand and turned into more concrete. Although the process is energy intensive, these are closed loops.  These products are recycled. Paper is kind of recycled. High quality paper, like office paper, is usually turned into low-quality paper, like paper bags. Low-quality paper is turned into even lower-quality paper, like tissues and toilet paper. The tissues can go into the compost, but the toilet paper goes to landfill by way of the sewer system. The more non-paper waste that gets mixed into the paper, the less likely it can be reclaimed for higher-quality recycled paper. Rigid plastic is down-cycled. Assuming it isn’t thrown away outright, it gets one more use; bottles turn into plastic lumber or carpet or fleece, but once these materials wear out, they all go to the landfill. And soft plastics all go directly to the landfill, although only after Recology workers spend six hours out of every 24 picking plastic bags out of the recycling machinery. Less than thirty minutes into the tour, I was completely convinced that I should never buy another item wrapped in soft plastic. This is surprisingly hard, even in San Francisco.

The university facilities representative leading our group was less sanguine about San Francisco’s 80% diversion rate. Diversion rates are calculated by weight, and San Francisco recycles a lot of concrete. By volume, the endless sea of plastic is a much bigger problem, and landfills, of course, are packed by size and not by weight. Other universities in California also claim diversion rates of 80% but only, he said, “because they tear down buildings or repave parking lots every year.” Construction and demolition, as well as aggressive composting at San Francisco’s many restaurants and parks, boosts the calculated diversion rate. He estimated, glumly, that San Francisco residents are recycling and composting at most 40% of the waste that they could. And that this is the best rate in the country.

More art from reclaimed waste

More art from reclaimed waste

From the recycling transfer station, we headed to the main facility, where household waste, compost and landfill waste are packed up for their eventual destinations. Recology served us a nice lunch on plates and silver diverted from landfill, showed us an upbeat little movie, and answered questions. I was not brazen enough to ask whether the food was dumpster-dived, but after seeing what people throw away in this city, I would not be surprised if it was. We had lots of questions. I learned that you can recycle (okay, down-cycle) dental floss containers because they are rigid plastic; removing the metal cutter is nice but not necessary. Dental floss itself, however, is uniformly made of plastic and messes with sorting machinery and should always go in the landfill bin. Toothpaste tubes, tetrapaks: landfill. The soft plastics “recycling” bins at grocery stores that supposedly send plastic bags to be turned into park benches? Our facilities representative reported that almost no store will say where they’re actually going, so they’re probably being sent straight to the landfill.

The most hated word at Recology turned out to be “biodegradable.” Nearly everything is biodegradable eventually, they said. But people think that means it can be composted. It cannot. “Compostable” is a legally binding term in the state of California; if an item says it is compostable and it’s not, the state will levy massive fines. Biodegradable is a weasel word intended to sidestep the law. So “biodegradable” materials and bioplastics: landfill. The plastic keeps the biological material from composting, and the biological material contaminates the plastic. That was depressing.

More art from the gallery

More art from the gallery

Much less depressing was the visit to the Artist in Residence program, where artists are sponsored to create projects out of whatever they can find on site. Much of the art was wildly impressive, and there are regular shows where it can be viewed, as well as an outdoor sculpture garden. Many of the other sites showed where visitors came to drop off household waste sorted through it; construction debris is sorted, furniture is donated to thrift stores, electronic waste and batteries are sorted by type. Recology was also pioneering Styrofoam recycling; clean packing materials were compressed into thin, heavy sticks that could be used for things like crown molding. The process is hopelessly expensive and energy-intensive so it’s more of a demonstration project than a feasible way to handle waste, but it was interesting. The inevitable seagulls were controlled by an on-site falconer who kept four hawks circling all day. Recology had tried bottle rockets, netting and dogs, but the hawks were the most effective. We did not get to tour the compost transfer station, probably the biggest success of the program; San Francisco’s compost is used by California wineries and farms. And I got to take some compost home to show my kids what putting food waste in the compost bin, which they do diligently, really meant. They were completely floored.

Our old seat cushion went to the Pit. Is there any alternative?

Our old seat cushion went to the Pit. Is there a better alternative?

Our last stop was The Pit. Everything that goes into a black bin in San Francisco is dumped, unsorted, into The Pit, shoveled into tractor-trailers, and trucked to the landfill. The Pit is huge. It runs 24 hours a day and seven days a week. There is a smell. Trucks enter at the top level and drop their loads. The sounds of breaking glass and the efforts of occasional seagulls to snatch food make it pretty clear that a lot of what’s in The Pit could be recycled or composted (efforts to assess it suggest that two-thirds of what’s in The Pit could be diverted). Bulldozers shovel the waste into waiting tractor-trailers below. The process never stops. It is difficult to describe the feeling of watching massive piles of trash build and be shoveled away, endlessly. It turns out that material in landfills does not biodegrade. Everything that goes into the landfill is forever. I will never look at a garbage can the same way again.

This is how we shop now.

This is how we shop now.

I see now why were asked, as part of our service on the Zero Waste sub-committee, to visit Recology. This is the best that the United States currently has to offer in terms of waste management, and that was sobering. At home, post-tour, we are now uncompromising in using cloth produce bags (we had always used cloth grocery bags) at the farmer’s market and we don’t shop at Trader Joe’s much anymore, because there’s almost nothing to buy there that’s not wrapped in plastic. We now buy milk and yogurt in glass, and everything else in bulk. But mostly, we are buying less, because everything we buy must eventually be handled somehow, and packaging is not free.  It is probably not a coincidence that this month’s grocery bill is half of last month’s.

I am familiar with life-changing experiences by now, and this one didn’t require a trip to Copenhagen. I only had to ride across town.

But I promised to tell how to get a bike for free. The answer is to work for Recology. One of the tour guides mentioned that he never had to take his own bike to site visits and lock it outside, because he could always pick out a nice bike from the garbage. Recology workers never have to worry about San Francisco’s rampant bike theft. He admitted that the last bike he picked up was better than his commuter bike, “way more gears for the hills.” It’s entirely possible that anyone could show up at the dump and ask for a bike.

This is our refrigerator post-tour. We are trying harder.

This is our refrigerator post-tour. We are trying harder. (The glass jars are sold by Cole Hardware in San Francisco for thrift store prices, luckily for us.)

At Recology they suggest people stop calling the things in bins “garbage.” A better word for the many unnecessary things we throw away is “waste.” And a free bike is the least of it.

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Filed under advocacy, commuting, San Francisco, zero waste

Ch-ch-ch-changes

Note that the kids don't necessarily bother to dress for the weather anymore.

Note that the kids don’t necessarily bother to dress for the weather anymore.

It’s been cold in San Francisco. Yesterday my kids found that a cup of water they’d left on the back deck had frozen. Since when does that happen? When I took them to school this morning they refused to get out from under the Bullitt’s canopy, which basically functions like a greenhouse (that Splendid canopy was worth every penny). After we dropped off my son, my daughter slept in the box all the way to preschool, and that is the kind of thing that definitely draws envious looks from other parents on bikes. But even with two pairs of gloves and the canopy covering my hands, they were freezing. At the Rosa Parks drop-off I talked with another parent and my son’s teacher about trying to find decent gloves for our rides to school–it is amazing how many parents are on bikes at school now. These are my people! Mighty mighty Dragons! Anyway Matt and I went to a sporting goods store a couple of weeks back and all their winter gloves and mittens were sold out already.

It could be worse. Matt is in upstate New York this work, where temperatures promise to be in the mid-teens. What’s more, he drew the short straw and is his group’s designated driver. Next week I’m heading to Atlanta, but I never get to go outside when I’m working in Atlanta, so I’ve stopped checking the weather for these trips. It’s all: airport to taxi to hotel to taxi to 16-hours-in-a-windowless-meeting-room, then reverse.

Like it or not, we're on the move.

Like it or not, we’re on the move.

But the biggest news around the HotC household is that everything is changing. We received notice last month that the cooperative university preschool my daughter attends was being sold off to a for-profit corporation. Much of our winter break was spent unsuccessfully searching for a new preschool. A couple of weeks ago I got notice that the university was selling off the campus where I work, although it lacked information about trivial details like where we’d all be moved when this happened. Then on Friday afternoon we were notified that the university is also clearing out the faculty housing where we live. Over a hundred tenants will be kicked out in July, and the rest, including us, will be kicked out next year. At least we’re in the second group, I guess.

In summary, it was not exactly a low-stress weekend. I’d like to know where I’m going to be working before we try to move house, and the preschool situation is too depressing to think about altogether. I realize that it’s not progress when everything stays the same, but this feels like a lot at once. At least I like my bike. When Matt’s away I spend almost two hours a day doing drop-offs and pickups on the Bullitt, and despite the cold it’s hard to stay frustrated on the bike (although lately there have been times that I’ve managed it). For this reasons, among others, updates are likely to be light-to-nonexistent over the next couple of weeks.

No way are we getting out from under here.

No way are we getting out from under here.

One thing for sure: we’ll be looking to live in a flatter neighborhood. Tips welcome.

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, family biking, San Francisco

How much can a Bullitt bicycle haul? 1 kid, 2 kids, 3 kids, 4!

Yep, that's two kids on one Brompton bicycle. We are our own clown car.

Yep, that’s two kids on one Brompton bicycle. We are our own clown car.

A while ago my brother-in-law suggested that I was perhaps overly aggressive in testing the limits of our cargo bikes. I can’t deny it. I put two kids on a Brompton folding bicycle (and it was so much fun that I haven’t exactly stopped, although it I am sure the manufacturer’s lawyers would have aneurysms).

Biking with Brad demonstrates how much you can haul on a Big Dummy.

Biking with Brad demonstrates how much you can haul on a Big Dummy.

But I’m hardly alone. Family Ride is a one-woman toy shop on a Big Dummy, and A Simple Six put five people on a Yuba Mundo. I saw a photo of a dryer being carried on a Bullitt. When the Yuba Boda Boda and Kinn Cascade Flyer midtails came out, one of the first questions I heard people ask was whether there was a way to squeeze two or three kids on there. Definitely two: I’ve carried both my kids on the back of the MinUte when they’re not in a fighting mood. Something about cargo bikes makes you want to tempt fate.

Even last summer when we rented the Bullitt, both kids were sometimes willing to ride together.

Even last summer when we rented the Bullitt, both kids were sometimes willing to ride together.

So it is perhaps no surprise that Matt has now gotten in on the act. We’d had the Bullitt for less than a month when Matt took our son to a birthday party on it. When he came home he mentioned that he’d taken a ride with a few kids. On further questioning he admitted it was four kids, all in the box at the same time. I didn’t even think this was possible unless they were really little, but found out that the kids in question were a 7-year-old, his 5-year-old sister, and a pair of 4-year-old twins. I was depressed that he didn’t get a picture, but I can’t really complain, because I also didn’t get a picture when I hauled our PTA president (over six feet tall and wearing in a three-piece suit) in the box of the Bullitt. And we have the standard narrow box, not a custom box intended to carry multiple kids.

Loading up: three kids in the box of our Bullitt bicycle.

Loading up: three kids in the box of our Bullitt bicycle.

Over the winter break we met some friends at the San Francisco Children’s Creativity Museum, which our daughter is finally old enough to really enjoy. Because it was a cold day we had the rain cover on the Bullitt, so I was a little skeptical when they wanted to try riding in the box with our son (our daughter was busy climbing the bike racks and wasn’t interested).  But to my surprise, you can in fact pack two 7-year-olds and a 5-year-old in the box of a Bullitt with a rain cover on top. They didn’t have helmets so Matt rode them slowly around Yerba Buena Gardens, but credit to him; it may have been a slow ride but he took them up and down two stories of elevation.  It looked pretty cramped in there, but their verdict was, “It was AWESOME!” I completely underestimated the bike when we tried it last summer.

So how many kids could you put on a Bullitt? Up to four kids in the box if the weather is good and they don’t need the cover. Matt didn’t put any of them on the top tube, but he says he could have handled it. And our son sometimes rides on the Roland add+bike in back as well. I wouldn’t take a bike loaded up that way either up or down a hill. But if I ever see anyone try it, I’ll definitely take a picture.

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Filed under Bullitt, family biking, San Francisco

What we did on our winter vacation

There were enough other people at Muir Woods on Christmas Eve to get a family picture.

There were enough other people at Muir Woods on Christmas Eve to get a family picture.

There are some things we do every year over winter break. The main one is to go to Muir Woods on Christmas Eve. We rented all-electric Leaf this year (the trip up and down the mountainside is sobering even with the help of a motor) and had the unnerving experience of watching the “miles remaining” gauge tick away rapidly as the car grunted up the hills. Then we earned them all back as we coasted back down. This year half the road had washed out, and there were temporary stop signs where passing cars had to take turns, because one lane had crumbled away and dropped into the forest below. When we got to Muir Woods some of the trails were blocked by fallen trees due to all of the rain. But anything that discourages visitors is good from our perspective, and as usual it was quiet and peaceful, as long as listening to our kids yell, “Where are the beavers?!? Can I climb that stump?!?” fits your definition of peaceful.

It turns out that reindeer hate rain. Who knew?

It turns out that reindeer hate rain. Who knew? (at the California Academy of Sciences)

It would be an understatement to say that it rained the first week of our vacation. It poured. Trees fell over, and garbage cans rolled down the street. Astonishingly, our basement did not flood. When the kids got stir-crazy enough we finally packed them up and headed to the California Academy of Sciences, the closest indoor attraction to home. And thank goodness we sprung for the Bullitt rain cover last month. Matt rode the kids right up to the front door and dropped them off, and picked them up at the end of our visit the same way. We were soaked but they were completely dry. They could easily have done the whole trip in slippers. As we rode through the park, watching the wind make actual waves in the streets filled with rain and people walking back to their cars struggle to keep their umbrellas right side out, while our kids sung songs obliviously, we felt like parents of the year.

Our kids mostly ignored the view from the tower of the de Young museum.

Our kids mostly ignored the view from the tower of the de Young museum.

Eventually it stopped raining but it stayed cold. Happily the cover handles that as well. We packed up the kids for trips to the Children’s Creativity Museum, the Japanese Tea Garden, the de Young museum, and parks, and most of the time they refused to even put on a sweater. At the same time, I was wearing two pairs of socks, two pairs of gloves, and long underwear, and shivering. Matt had initially had second thoughts about getting a box bike rather than a longtail, but after the last two weeks, we’re both really glad we got the kind of bike that comes with a kid-cover.

The Children's Creativity Museum has its own carrousel.

The Children’s Creativity Museum has its own carrousel.

It can be hard to get on the bike when it gets cold. These days, however, because we don’t have a car sitting in the garage, if we want to go anywhere we’re going to get cold and/or wet no matter what. Most of the time, unless we’re leaving the city altogether, it’s easier to get on the bikes than to hike over to a car share pod. And we’re always glad when we ride. Matt and I took several trips downtown and beyond, beyond our usual stomping grounds, and it was good to be moving. Especially after a few days trapped indoors, even riding in a downpour so thick it’s impossible to see a block ahead seems appealing. At least, it does now that I have decent rain pants.

Check it out: we're all trend-setting and stuff.

Check it out: we’re all trend-setting and stuff.

We saw many more bikes on the road this year than we did the same time last year. But the biggest change was the massive increase in assisted bikes we’ve seen. I used to snap photos when I saw an electric assist in San Francisco. Now that I see at least one every day, even on the hills near home, it hardly seems worth the effort. We went electric in 2012, but for once it seems as though we were cutting edge. If we saw is any hint, it’s 2013 that will be the year of the electric assist.

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, family biking, San Francisco