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Darby Minow Smith's Posts


Blimey, it’s slimy: Meet fatberg, London’s 16.5-ton confluence of wet wipes and lard

What do you call a festering schoolbus-sized glob of lard? If you answered 'fatberg,' you'd fit right in at the U.K.’s largest water company. Thames Water uses the silly term to describe a serious lump of trouble that was, until recently, lurking in the London sewer system.

The 33,000-pound 'berg came from modest beginnings: flushed wet wipes and food waste created from Brits pouring grease and fatty foods down the drain. "Fatberg creation is a vicious cycle," Thames Water media relations manager Simon Evans told Henry Grabar of Atlantic Cities. “Fat clings to wipes, wipes cling to the fat."

Neither of these substances should be in the sewer. As John Upton wrote last month, wet wipe packaging claims flushability, but wipes don't come apart in sewers like toilet paper. "You can reach into the fat and you can pull out a wet wipe and it will be sturdy," another Thames Water employee told NBC. And it's easy to let a little fish 'n' chips grease slip down the drain when you don't expect it to turn into Flubber's Revenge: Return of the Grease Menace. While this fatberg is of record-breaking, monstrous proportions, average sewer buildup takes its toll, too. Thames Water spends $1.5 million monthly blasting out smaller fatty deposits, wrongful flushes, and other blockages.

Fatberg (yes, we're on a first-name basis) managed to congeal itself until toilets started backing up. Sadly, this blob couldn't just be killed with fire extinguishers: It took a team of eight to blast the monstrosity apart with high-pressure water hoses, and repairs are expected to take six weeks.

With a scent described as “the worst wet dog you can ever think of" and a texture that “feels like wax and smells much worse,” fatberg is a cautionary tale that will ensure years of nightmares for chafed-butt children doing the dishes. Terrifying photo below the fold:

Read more: Cities, Food, Living


How’d the present get so tense?

man on ipad late at night
Danijel Grabovac

We wake up to our phones. On Twitter, respected news organizations scramble for civilian breadcrumbs from the latest scandal, retweeting and blogging without pausing to check sources. Meanwhile, on Facebook, one friend "likes" Walmart, another shares a Sandy Hook conspiracy theory, and a third sneers about climate change while Instagramming an unseasonable snowfall. Those same bright screens tuck us in late at night, screwing up our internal rhythms and sleep. Corporations, on a constant quest for growth, and our government, in an eternal war against terrorism, gather up as much of this information as they can, searching for patterns of threat and opportunity.

book coverStill with us? Congratulations, so far you've survived the 21st century with an attention span intact. That’s no easy task nowadays: We’ve become so obsessed with chasing the moment, we’re not even living in it, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff argues in his latest book Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now. In Present Shock, Rushkoff attempts to make sense of a world brimming with information but free of context. He posits our society has experienced a fundamental shift in the way we experience time. If the last century was characterized by an infatuation with the future and the Next Big Thing (the title’s a play on Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock), modern culture’s favorite tense is present.

And while living in the moment complicates dealing with future problems like climate change, "presentist" culture holds opportunities for environmentalists, too. We've given up on some of the ideologies of the 20th century and are beginning to grope at something new. Rushkoff points to Occupy Wall Street as the first fully presentist political movement, one that discards end goals and debates in favor of building consensus and making changes on the ground. And we’re poised to transcend being passive consumers: Technology can enable us to question corporations and find new, more sustainable models of commerce.

Douglas Rushkoff
Douglas Rushkoff.

But how do we encourage an open, vibrant world without being driven crazy? While the knee-jerk reaction is to just unplug, Rushkoff is no luddite. He’s been writing about the internet since the early '90s and insists the solution lies in understanding our technology and making it work for, rather than against, us. We must become the programmers instead of the programmed, he argues.

I recently chatted with Rushkoff over the phone about the implications Present Shock has for green issues. (This conversation seems to have staying power across a wide range of media: Rushkoff blew Stephen Colbert’s mind back in May, and he was on Marc Maron’s podcast last week.) The man has a sharp way with words -- he describes Facebook as a modern-day Tupperware party and doesn't hesitate to give the middle finger to Walmart. Below, highlights from our conversation.


Woody Harrelson wants your paper to be less, well, woody

Woody Harrelson
Steve Rogers Photography
Woody Harrelson: actor, activist, paper man.

Woody Harrelson could put the crunchiest Grist staff member to shame. The Academy Award nominated actor lives off the grid in a solar-powered, organic farming community in Hawaii. He’s been a vegan for 26 years and eats a mostly raw diet. Scratch dairy or meat cravings. He just craves cooked food.

Harrelson, who calls himself a “lover of the forest,” first became involved in environmental causes back when he was playing the part of a bartender on Cheers. In '92, a bipartisan bill in Congress aimed to make millions of acres of virgin Montana wilderness available to logging companies. Harrelson joined forces with a coalition of environmentalists, including Peter Bahouth of Greenpeace, that was pressuring lawmakers and pushing to weaken the legislation. While the bill ultimately failed, it got him thinking, “Geez, even if you do stop the deforestation here or there, the timber industry just goes somewhere else. You really need to change systems.”

For Harrelson, that meant finding a replacement for paper made from wood. And so, in the late '90s, Harrelson started working with Canadian entrepreneur Jeff Golfman to figure out how to make paper without using wood. After 15 years of research and development, the company has a product made from 80 percent wheat straw waste. Today, the company, Prairie Pulp & Paper, is announcing the sale of its Step Forward Paper at Staples stores.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, Harrelson made brief calls to the media about the announcement. I took the opportunity to ask him about everything BUT paper, but he managed to squeeze in some paper talk anyway. Golfman, Prairie Pulp & Paper's president, joined us for the call. Here's our lightly edited conversation:


Fashion isn’t frivolous — it’s a matter of life and death

Relatives mourn as they look for a garment worker, who is missing after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, outside Dhaka May 2, 2013.
Reuters/Khurshed Rinku
Relatives mourn as they look for a garment worker, who is missing after the collapse of the Rana Plaza building.

I was 9 years old when the political first became personal. Swayed by stories of kids not much older than me stitching together soccer balls and sneakers, my sister, mom, and I made a pact to never wear Nike. In a sea of Air Jordans, I held my own in uncool shoes* against neoliberal arguments I could tell were bullshit years before I hit puberty.

Sixteen years later, I found myself sneaking stories about sustainable fashion into Grist. Why clothing? Why this issue, so often associated with vanity, and not another, more worthy topic? What about the local food movement? Or the multifaceted battles over renewable and dirty energy? The world is burning, and you want to write about jeans? Really?

Clothing is a giant, wasteful industry in need of serious reform. Just growing enough cotton for a T-shirt swallows up anywhere from 700 to 2,000 gallons of water. Then there’s the other end of that shirt’s life cycle: Americans threw out 11.1 million tons of textiles in 2010.

There’s good news, too. An army of millennials are fighting to shake up, reinvent, and reinvigorate the way we do fashion. Major brands are already gearing up to go green (or greenwash like mad). And there’s a growing backlash to business-as-usual. "We're having conversations about clothing that people were having about food 15 years ago," Elizabeth Cline, author of Overdressed, a book on the social and environmental costs of fashion, tells NPR.

That’s all important, but it wasn’t until I tried to write about the recent collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory building in Bangladesh that I made the connection as to why this stuff matters so much to me. By last count, more than 1,000 people have died in Rana Plaza, making it the most deadly accident the garment industry has ever seen.

One-thousand. For comparison, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire, which spurred safety and labor laws across the U.S., killed 146. Last November, 117 people died in the Tazreen Factory fire in Bangladesh. And while they were still pulling bodies out of Rana Plaza’s rubble, another Bangladesh factory went up in flames on Thursday, killing eight.


Of a Kind brings ‘know your farmer’ mentality to clothing

Hats by All Knitwear.
Jamie Beck
Hats by All Knitwear courtesy of Of a Kind.

Your favorite clothes always have stories attached. Like your best-loved jeans with the soft knees from hours of gardening or that shirt you wore on the blind date with the weirdo from the wine futures business who ended up becoming your husband.

But what about your clothing’s story before it ever held your body and softly whispered “Pinot Noir 2007” into your ear? Aside from that tiny “Made in Indonesia” tag, our clothing rarely tells us where it’s been, who made it, or how it was dreamed up.

Telling those tales is the inspiration behind the online apparel hub Of a Kind, which connects shoppers with small-time, and often sustainable, clothing makers. Working under a philosophy similar to the “know your farmer” creed of the food movement, the site aims to make “people feel like they’re investing in a person and not just buying a necklace or a bag,” says President and Cofounder Erica Cerulo.

Here’s how it works: Of a Kind works with a designer to release tiny batches of clothing or accessories that are usually made in the U.S. and often handmade. Alongside its wares, the site gives glimpses inside the designers’ studios and creative processes.


How to explain the atmosphere with a soccer ball

The next time your weird uncle Jim says it's arrogant to assume lil' ol' people can affect something as big as the atmosphere, try using the visual described in this video. All you need is a soccer ball, newspaper, and the patience to explain it again after your science-hating cousin inevitably kicks the planet out of your hands.


Lose the girdle: Sustainable ‘Mad Men’ fashion for plus-sized awesome

Anslee Connell.
Annie Ray
Anslee Connell.

When Anslee Connell was growing up, her TV was always tuned to Nick at Nite. She was enamored with the fashion of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, I Love Lucy, and Bewitched and spent hours digging through secondhand shops and her grandmother’s closet. But the vintage finds just didn’t fit. “I’ve always been a big girl,” she says. “I remember saying, ‘One day, I’m either going to be able to wear this or I’m going to make something like this.’”

Luckily for full-figured vintage lovers in Austin, Connell not only picked the latter, she decided to make a career out of it. For the past three and a half years, she’s been designing clothing under the moniker Savannah Red. And the 27-year-old is committed to sustainability, with a sizable percentage of her materials coming from upcycled, vintage, or organic sources.

In her 2012 collection, Connell explored how to make the boxy flapper style of the '20s work on women with curves.
Hanan Exposures
In her 2012 collection, Connell explored how to make the boxy flapper style of the '20s work on women with curves.

One of the few plus-sized designers working with a sustainability bent, Connell makes dresses out of old tablecloths and bedsheets and has a soft spot for reworking vintage polyester, as its colors hold much brighter than newer blends. She sums up her philosophy with a phrase she spotted on the side of an apartment building in Switzerland: “Whoever destroys the old does not deserve the new.” Making good use of existing materials and time-tested styles, rather than just chasing trends, gives her designs a timeless edge.

And the old can look damn good. “The ‘50s silhouette really comes in at the waistline and accentuates the natural curves of the female body,” she says. “Today’s styles don’t accentuate curves at all, especially for the plus-sized woman.”

Caleb Bryant Miller

On the business side, things aren’t always easy. Taxes and profit margins and reality can hit hard. And selling $200 dresses in a world brimming with $5 ware from H&M and Forever 21 will always be an uphill battle. “I’ve been running into so many ‘no’s lately,” she says. Connell works out of her garage and still babysits occasionally to make ends meet. 


There must be 50 ways to share your sweater

Open your eyes to the world of clothes sharing.
Gibson Regester
I can't bear to look at this sweater anymore, so if someone wants to just swap, y'know, let's.

Repurpose an afghan, Stan. Trade out a shirt, Curt. Don’t need corduroy, Joy. Just listen to me.

Some tricks for building collective wardrobes are as old-fangled as Garfunkel's turtleneck, while others are new. Here are five of the best.

1. Leasing

Gone are the days when the only rentable clothing was regrettable men’s prom wear. Now, you can lease high-end dresses from Rent The Runway and Lending Luxury, and designer purses from Bag Borrow or Steal.

sharing-economy-detailWhile this is dandy for formal events, if you’re like me, your idea of everyday luxury is a shirt with no visible holes and/or marinara stains. Renting something for daily wear seems far-fetched, obtuse. Not to mention, not-so-sustainable. If you’re so caught up in trends that you need to constantly update your wardrobe, the clothing selection’s rentability will diminish faster than your wallet and green cred.

Two sites that bridge the gap nicely are Mine for Nine for maternity rentals and thredUP for kid’s clothes. While we obviously don’t want y’all getting pregnant just so you can rent some flexi-pants and OshKosh B’goshes, it makes sense to quit buying clothing for rapidly changing bodies.


Knit together: Can collaborative fashion change the way we approach clothing?

Amy Twigger Holroyd.
Amy Twigger Holroyd.

Amy Twigger Holroyd approaches fashion with sharing in mind. In one project, she created garments that could be shared by friends with different body types. By making clothes that don’t constrict in places where people vary the most, a size six could potentially share her sweater with a size 16. Yep. Her project basically takes the magic out of Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. (Unless you count buying a pricey sweater with the express intent of sharing it with friends a different kind of magic, which I certainly do.)

But Holroyd’s projects go beyond one-size-fits-all couture. Her PhD research on “fashion as a commons” is an exploration of how to democratize and disrupt the clothing industry. “If you’re not able to make, you’re dependent on buying,” she says. “And if you’re dependent on buying, you’re dependent on what those people [in the fashion industry] have chosen -- the quality of it, the design of it, the aesthetic of it.”

sharing-economy-detailAnd so, under the umbrella label Keep & Share, she teaches folks how to fix and knit their own clothing, creates and sells long-lasting, sharable clothing, and hacks into cheap knitwear to send a message about the industry. Thanks to the independence of PhD funding, Holroyd is trying to figure out how to make this work in the real world without, you know, tanking her business in the meantime.

Holyroyd has been working and thinking about sustainable fashion since 2003 and describes her job as “designer-maker-researcher -- lots of hyphens.” I was curious about Holroyd’s experiments and called her up. Here’s our edited conversation.

Q. I first came across your work with sharable clothing in Fashion and Sustainability. Judging from your website, your work is much broader than that.

A. My design philosophy has always been about trying to help people get more out of each item of clothing, but to do it in a gentle way. There are some approaches like creating clothes to be multifunctional -- it’s one thing then it transforms into something else. Whereas, I have always tried to take a more gentle approach. I try to create things that can be shared between purposes. So a garment which you feel comfortable and happy wearing in different situations. And also things that can be worn by different people so they can be handed down over time.

Read more: Living


Lessons from the women who are leading the sustainable cities movement


I've known for a while now that the real action on sustainability is happening in cities -- other than Washington, D.C., that is -- but a few months back, it came to my attention that many of the people leading the charge are women, often young ones.

While higher-up positions in city government are still skewed in favor of men, sustainability directors seem to be more evenly split between the genders. Because most sustainability director positions have been created in the last 10 years, there isn't the same good-ol’-boy hierarchy in place. And due to the fact that the field is so young, so are many of its practitioners. Take, for example, Katherine Gajewski, who was just 29 years old when Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter asked her to head up the city’s sustainability department.

Inspired by the women who are leading the sustainability movement in cities big and small, I created Knope and change, a series named after Leslie Knope, the main character in the popular television show Parks and Recreation. Knope, played by the estimable Amy Poehler, is a mid-level bureaucrat working in her city’s parks department. She loves her city, works tirelessly to improve it, and never lets bureaucracy discourage her.

Over the course of the past five months, I found a lot of Knope-ish energy in the burgeoning field of urban sustainability. Although there are still female sustainability directors out there deserving of a profile, my compatriots and I felt 15 interviews were enough, so with this post, I'm wrapping it up.

I realize how lucky I’ve been to write this series -- talking to passionate women from around the country was like taking a carbon-free trip every week to a new city. I wish every young writer could do the same. I wanted to share a bit of what I've learned, in case you haven’t read and reflected on every piece. (Of course, you’ve read every piece. Right? Right?)


1. When you’re building a new field, you need all the help you can get.

“Sustainability” is such a broad term -- and the resulting city policies and programs are just as wide. A sustainability director must be versed in local food, energy efficiency, waste management, and public transportation. “You have to be ADHD” to do the job, jokes Oak Park, Ill., Sustainability Manager K.C. Poulos.