Folks, this is about my "consumption" of plastic over the next year. I'm looking at what I have, what I buy, and why I seem to need this hundred and fifty year old man-made concoction more than my mother's fried chicken.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Week 21: Plastiponics

Yeah. So, I’m in the Bahamas. Life is tough sometimes. I have been here for about 9 days and I already feel like I’ve been here for a year. I don’t even think I realize how much I am learning each day. My internship here is focused on aquaponics. In a nutshell, aquaponics is a synergistic recirculating system between (in this case) aquaculture of Nile tilapia, Oreochromis niloticus and the hydro culture of leafy greens & herbs. We’ve got 6 different stages of tilapia from little fry to 3-5 pounders as well as a brood stock, or as I like to call it: Big Mamas tank. We’ve got a settling basin, biofilter, and 10 grow beds.

Aquaponics has been around since the beginning of time, but modern aquaponics is quite possibly impossible without…wait for it…wait for it…PLASTIC. So, I’ll walk you through the system as best I can. Keep in mind that I am not an aquarist/culturist by training, or a plumber, or a biologist. So, forgive any mistakes. I’m doing this all from memory as I am in the lab right now AND I’ve only been here a week! That’s what the “comment” component of a blog is all about. I would love to get a holler from NEAq aquarists out there for some edits if you see any!
  1. Let’s start with tilapia eggs. When it’s time for the Big Mama tank to get some action, a few #2 plastic fuel jugs (cut in half) are placed in the fiberglass tank. We drop a couple of males in, magic happens, cut to eggs.
  2. Since tilapia are mouth brooders (keeping the eggs in her mouth), there is a plastic device like nothing I’ve ever seen before to “assist” in gently getting the mama to cough up the goods, as it were. I’m not sure what this egg extruder device is made of, but my best guess would be Plexiglas with some combination of HDPE & PVC.
  3. Skip to fry. So, we have a little nursery of infants, toddlers, tweens, & teens. The infants, toddlers & tweens share a fiberglass tank rigged with 2 plastic dividers, creating 3 tanks in one; each section being rigged with a removable “tray” made of polypropylene netting & PVC.
  4. In the adult fiberglass tanks, there is PP netting spread over the tanks (they’re jumpers!)
  5. The settling basin (aka, poop homestead), where a lot of the solids from the fish settle is covered with a heavy-duty tarp (not sure what kind of plastic) and tied down with PP rope. This is to keep algae from taking over & pigging out on all the oxygen.
  6. The biofilter is filled with this mystery plastic ribbon, which provides surface area for other solids to bail out before entering the grow beds. I want to find out what kind of plastic this is…
  7. Then off we go (about 15 feet of PVC later) to the grow beds. Behold—the miracle of growing plants without soil. Our Genovese basil, Speckled Amish Bibb and Jericho lettuces come into this world surrounded by a growth medium (rockwool or coir) in little black plastic seed pots.
  8. These little black pots are then placed in large HDPE bread trays and watered daily via a plastic watering can or plastic-coated hose.
  9. After a couple of weeks, the pots are placed in one of the hundreds of holes carved out in one of the 30 polystyrene rafts floating in the plastic-lined grow beds.
  10. All of these tanks and beds are oxygenated with the help of clear tubing (LDPE, me thinks) and air stones. Does anyone know off hand, the material of the “stone”?
  11. All of the tanks & beds have in flow & outflow PVC pipes.
  12. And it goes without saying that this program was brought to you today by our sponsor, PVC pipes unlimited. PVC IS the circulatory system of aquaponics. PVC: the necessary evil.

And there you have it. With our 12-step program, you too can have your own aquaponics system. Stay tuned for next week’s posting about CEI’s zero waste initiative! I’m hoping to have some photos of that as well as the aquaponics system up soon.

I never thought I would say this, but…I kind of miss my tidy little plastic pile (errr...not to mention my family & friends!) Since I have been here, I have only collected a handful of plastic items. Living in community…definitely a good cure for the “single serve” mentality in which I usually find myself.

Under this star-littered Bahamian sky in the little town of Cape Eleuthera, I bid you farewell until the next post.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Week 19/20: Plastics Abroad

I have a good excuse for posting late. I've been packing my bags for a 5 month internship in the Bahamas. I'm not kidding. But I have a story to share before I get into that...

The Dentist. First of all, my dentist is pretty darn cool. She's got the most personable chair side manner and she's a whiz with the drill. Anyway, I mentioned the blog to her and that I would need to keep my rinse cup. Shortly thereafter, I realized that I had created a monster. Here is a conversation (inspired by true events) between dentist (D) and dental assistant (DA).
D: (to DA) "Hey, so we have to save everything plastic that we use here today because Sunnye is keeping all of her plastic for a year."

DA: (long suspicious pause) "Is this a joke?"

Sunnye: (chuckling sheepishly with numbed lower jaw) "Ith notha joke."
DA: "OK, that's just weird."
D: "Anyway, we have to keep everything we use on her that we would otherwise throw in the she can take it home with her."
DA: (now on board with the idea) "Ooooh--and we can put it all in her plastic headrest cover--it'll make a good baggie."
D: "Good idea."

Both roll their chairs to hover over Sunnye's mouth and continue their dialogue. Sunnye is reluctantly no longer able to participate in the conversation due to rapidly spinning dental tools on her teeth.

DA: "So, what is the blog about?"
D: "She gave us a card; it's right there on the counter, so we can look it up later."
DA: "But why is she doing it?"
D: "I told you! We have to just read it. Do you recycle?"
DA: "Only plastic bottles, but my mom recycles EVERYTHING."
D: (jokingly exasperated) "What are you, a polar bear hater?!"

(Sunnye chuckles & drools a little)

DA: "No!"
D: "Well, then you should recycle more. I'm always picking my husband's recyclables out of the trash. Then I ask if he hates polar bears and that always seems to get him."
DA: "We can give her the suction tubes too."
D: "Oh yeah, and we need to keep the brush tips and plastic barriers on the light."
After a quick filling, my dentist handed me a little doggie bag of plastics--about 15 items in total. And to think, I was feeling on top of things for remembering the rinse cup.
As I was leaving, she mentioned how cool it would be if I could come in and spend a day auditing their plastic consumption. This brings me back to my very first post. Where would the medical/dental world be without plastic?

Right. So, back to the Bahamas. I will be spending the next 5 months of my short life in Cape Eleuthera, Bahamas as an aquaponics intern for the Cape Eleuthera Institute. I am leaving tomorrow and will return June 15. The humorous serendipity of this whole thing is that the institute began a zero waste initiative on September 1--the same day I started my blog. When asked if I might be challenged by sharing an environment with my waste, a huge smile spread across my face. Phew...I guess this means I won't have to secretly stuff my plastic under the mattress.

It goes without saying that this blog will evolve a bit. I am guessing I won't have the time or the patience to post each week. The work week is 5.5 days and the internet connection is on "island time." I will still be collecting my plastic and I'm still working on the logistics of how to get it all back to Boston. Any bright ideas are welcomed. Since the institute is a community of shared resources, I am hoping that my individual plastic consumption will decrease, but who knows? I am excited to fill my brain and hands with all things aquaponics as well as permaculture, aquaculture, alternative energy, small island development, shark research, Island School student research projects, and maybe I'll have time to slip in a little half marathon or a 4 mile swim with the new found winter weight will thank me for it. ; )

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Week 18: Plastic is Beautiful

Coffee cup clouds, Mylar mushroom colonies, sweater button stalagmites, plastic cup landscapes, scotch tape tapestries & soda straw walls. No, no, I am not collaborating on a new song with Beck...I went to the ICA last Friday.

It was the last weekend of the Tara Donovan exhibition. Although I was not allowed to touch any of her work, it touched me. I like to think that's why the no-touch rule exists at art museums. I'm just so tactile and art museums challenge me to fine-tune my other senses. This exhibition just shut my mouth. I love the things in this world that silence me. Sunsets, scuba diving, "Shenandoah" sung by Charlie Haden, and homemade carrot cake with cream cheese frosting are just a few of those silencers. I think Tara Donovan's imagination just made the list.

Some of the installations played with sound. The labyrinth wall of transparency sheets actually carried your voice from one side of the art to the other. The drinking straws literally sucked up the sound in the room.

I was with 4 other people and we each quickly went our own way as if in a dream. I had these moments when I forgot I was with anyone because I was so lost in my own thought squat, asking, how many plastic cups did it take to create this? Did she buy them? Does she reuse them when it is broken down? Were they donated? How many of these has she installed? What could she create with my year of plastic? How many buttons? How many miles of scotch tape? How many drinking straws?

During my reverent wanderings, I received a message from the styrofoam coffee clouds...
Look for the beauty...even in the mundane and industrial. Look for thoughtful design and get excited about it, even if it (and because it) IS in the process. Despair with the intention of coming from it with a new sense of purpose, understanding, and compassion for what others (myself included) are learning. If another human being can ignite an awestruck smile through drinking straws, the possibilities for creating beauty through the use and renewal of natural materials are endless...
"The material transcends what I do to it and becomes something else."
Tara Donovan, ICA exibit video, 2008

front-lit packed transparency sheet-like material

back-lit transparencies catching a glimpse of someone's purple shirt on the other side.

Me & Josh with clouds-in-my-coffee cups

Mylar mushrooms...I felt like Alice in Wonderland

Sasha standing in front of the wall of plastic drinking straws...

Check out photos from Ace Gallery...