Josh Harkinson

Josh Harkinson

Reporter

Born in Texas and based in San Francisco, Josh covers tech, labor, drug policy, and the environment. PGP public key.

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MIT's Trash Tracking Project

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are attaching tracking devices to pieces of garbage in Seattle and charting their journey through the global disposal and recycling system. I'll admit to being a bit jealous. Earlier this year, I too followed my trash, starting in my apartment in San Francisco (which recycles more than any other major city), and continuing through the city dump and beyond. I'd wanted to employ tracking devices but after consulting with everyone from a friend at Wired to device manufacturers in Taiwan, couldn't find anything sufficiently small and affordable. Indeed, the Times reports that MIT's plan to use battery-powered tags based on cell phone technology will cost more than $300,000:

Through the project, overseen by M.I.T.’s Senseable City Laboratory, 3,000 common pieces of garbage, mostly from Seattle, are to be tracked through the waste disposal system over the next three months. The researchers will display the routes in real time online and in exhibitions opening at the Architectural League of New York on Thursday and the Seattle Public Library on Saturday.

Interestingly, the $300,000 is coming from Waste Management, the nation's largest landfill company. When I followed my own trash to Waste Management's Altamont Landfill, the project had seemed novel the company's spokesperson. Most of my story focused on the recycling efforts of Waste Management's competitor, Recology, which handles garbage pickup and recycling in San Francisco (but dumps at Altamont). Could the MIT project be a way for Waste Management to co-opt the idea for its own PR purposes? Probably so. But it's also just plain cool, and I'm glad they're doing it.

I have frequently wondered on this blog why the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is taking a leading role in opposing the climate bill when many of its 3 million member companies actually support the legislation. Now comes an interesting post from the NRDC's Switchboard blog (via Climate Progress) that begins to answer that question. It turns out that for the past 11 years Chamber President Tom Donohue has also served as a highly-compensated board member of Union Pacific Railroad, which earns some 20 percent of its revenues from carrying coal. Moreover, Union Pacific has given $700,000 to the Chamber since 2004.

Conflict of interest? Sure sounds like it. Maybe it's time for those Chamber members who first questioned its climate approach to raise a stink about this.

A snag in California's effort to close 100 state parks, mandated under its hard-fought budget deal,  shows why the Golden State has become the State of Unintended Consequences

Neighborhood watch-style groups will have to do the work of rangers to prevent illegal activity in closed state parks unless voters approve a vehicle license fee or some other method is found to save the beleaguered park system, officials and park supporters said Tuesday.

Good luck with that.

As I reported in Mother Jones' July/August issue, a third of California's national parks and all of its national forests have already been colonized by aggressive pot farmers. Where hippies once grew just enough weed to peace out, traffickers now now cultivate more than 100,000 plants at a time on 30-acre terraces irrigated by plastic pipe, laced with illegal pesticides, and guarded by MAC-10s and Uzis.

There's no way that some mace-packing Guardian Angels are going to keep these guys out of shuttered and empty state parks, especially not vast areas like Mount Tam north of San Francisco, and Coe Ranch near San Jose, both of which are on the chopping block. Without rangers and day hikers, they'll be a narcotrafficante's dream.

"We are involved in a process we didn't understand was as complicated as it is," park system spokesman Roy Stearns told the San Francisco Chronicle. Well said, brother. It's what I like to think of as living in California.

The World Bank is spending billions of dollars to help construct coal-fired power plants in the developing world, using a fund that is supposed to help wean the world from carbon-spewing fossil fuels, the Times of London reported today.

The United States donated $2 billion over three years to a fund that would "begin the important work of reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the developing world," US Treasury official David McCormick said in a press release last September. "The United States is firmly committed to the Clean Technology Fund and its mission to help developing countries make transformational investments in clean technology that will be necessary to move them onto cleaner development paths."

It turns out those "transformational" investments include coal plants in South Africa, Botswana, and other developing countries. One loan of $850 million will help erect a coal plant in Gujarat, India that will emit 26.7 million tons of CO2 each year for the next 50 years, making it one of the biggest new sources of greenhouse gasses on Earth.

"There are a lot of poor countries which have coal reserves and for them it's the only option," Marianne Fay, the bank's chief economist for sustainable development, told the Times. "The [bank's] policy is to continue funding coal to the extent there is no alternative."

But is there really no alternative to building a coal plant in Gujarat, one of the most industrialized states in India? A search of carbon offset projects funded through the Kyoto Protocol's Clean Development Mechanism turns up 12 alternative energy projects in Gujarat, including numerous wind projects and a 219 MW LNG natural gas plant. And don't forget the high-profile pact India signed with the US to construct of 18 to 20 nuclear plants. Moreover, South Africa has two nuclear plants and recently opened a natural gas pipeline from Mozambique.

The Times piece gave few details on how "clean" the coal plants will be compared to others in the developing world. But clearly the bank has a lot of explaining to do given its longstanding reputation for funding environmental disasters.

Greens Target Oil Sands Before Obama-Harper Meeting

Breaking out their familiar u-locks and mountain gear today, climate activists engaged in several acts of daring-do to spotlight Canada's oil sands in advance of Wednesday's meeting between President Barack Obama and prime minister Stephen Harper. Members of the Rainforest Action Network rappelled off the observation tower above Niagara falls to hang a 70-foot banner, and Greenpeace's monkey-wrenchers blocked a giant oil sands dumptruck, locked themselves to it, and webcast the affair.

The first Washington meeting between the two leaders is expected to cover a range of issues, including climate change and energy. Massive strip mining of Alberta's oil sands deposits--also known as tar sands--have made Canada  the US' top supplier of foreign oil but also caused it to miss its emissions targets under the Kyto Protocol. Obama and Harper are expected to look for ways to keep the sands pumping. They'll likely discuss cooperation on carbon capture and storage technologies (also a potential boon to coal country). And enviros also fear they'll seek ways to exempt the sands from the federal low-carbon fuel standard; producing oil from the sands emits up to three times the greenhouse gases as pumping and refining oil from the Middle East.

As the world's largest oil reserve outside of Saudi Arabia, the tar sands presents the Obama administration with a vexing political problem. Relying on the sands is exacerbating global warming, creating an environmental wasteland the size of Florida, and sickening and displacing a vocal native community--outcomes at odds with Obama's environmental and climate agenda. But the sands also insulate the US from the volatile Middle East.  So far, there's little doubt which is a bigger government priority: On his first official visit to Canada, in February, Obama was mum on the sands' environmental footprint. And last month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton approved a trans-border pipeline that will send us a whopping 800,000 barrels of tar sands oil a day--equivalent to 8 percent of net US oil imports. Environmentalists are challenging the approval in court.

The activist website Dirty Oil Sands has more on how green groups are targeting Harper leading up to the meeting.

 

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