Solar Meets Sheep (and Bees, and More)

The second word in “solar farm” can sound like a misnomer. Often solar panels sit on former agricultural land, but aren’t what we’d otherwise think of as a farm.

Agrivoltaics aims to change that by hosting PV panels and agriculture on the exact same land. Often, livestock like sheep graze under the solar panels. Sometimes the projects include pollinator habitat as well, which can benefit biodiversity, honey production or adjacent pollinator-dependent crops. And trials are being done growing shaded crops under raised panels, too.

Sheep graze among solar panels in Central New York (Photo: American Solar Grazing Association)

The agrivoltaics concept — also called dual-use solar, or when livestock are involved, solar grazing — is being successfully expanded elsewhere. That includes in our neighborhood of the Northeast (Massachusetts, the Finger Lakes). While it isn’t yet being done at scale in the Hudson Valley, for a range of reasons, interest among farmers and developers is growing.

“When solar’s done right, it can contribute to farm viability. It benefits biodiversity, it benefits pollinators — these larger goals of conservation are coming together,” says Lexie Hain, co-founder of the American Solar Grazing Association. “I’m hopeful this is beginning of a revolution of intelligent co-design.”

The association, formed in rural Ithaca in 2018, has been expanding. Hain has spoken at conferences as nearby as Albany, last January, and as far away (at least virtually) as Europe this fall. She’s aware that land values and terrain are different in the Finger Lakes than near the Hudson River, and that viewsheds are parsed carefully here, too. But she says, “I would love to see it happen in the Hudson Valley. I’m not going to rule it out.”

In some corners of the valley, finding shepherds close enough to a solar project to viably transport sheep from their home farm is the challenge. Nexamp is a developer with community solar arrays in the valley. It currently grazes 2 solar sites in New York State. The advantages to developers like Nexamp can be big: fewer panels damaged by rocks and mowers, reduced vegetation maintenance costs, and more community acceptance.

A sheep arrives to graze a solar site in Central New York (Photo: American Solar Grazing Association)

Next year the company will expand to grazing 12 N.Y. grazing projects, communication manager Keith Hevenor says — but none are local. “For us it’s really about finding the appropriate local farmer who’s willing and able to travel within the distance required,” Hevenor says. “It’s really just a proximity thing.”

Geographic tools have been developed to help it happen. The American Solar Grazing Association recently launched a kind of “matchmaking” tool to help sheep farmers find nearby solar developers, and vice versa.

Scenic Hudson, for its part, is eager to see agrivoltaics emerge as a win-win solution in carefully sited projects. The organization’s Solar Mapping Tool and Renewable Energy Siting Guide provide guidance for bringing it along. “These kinds of techniques can be a real solution and align agricultural policy with renewable energy policy,” says Audrey Friedrichsen, land use and environmental advocacy attorney at Scenic Hudson. “We want to see the transition to renewable energy accelerated with smart planning, because climate change is the issue of our time.”

Despite the delay compared to other areas from North Carolina to Illinois, agricultural observers like Sam Calhoun, FARM Program associate at the Columbia Land Conservancy, believe agrivoltaics is coming our way. The conservancy recently held a Solar Grazing webinar that attracted 25 participants interested in learning what the concept was all about.

“We’re aware of this and looking at it as something we’re going to be seeing more of,” Calhoun says. “We’re trying to stay ahead of it rather than having to play catch-up.”

Lynn Freehill-Maye is managing editor of Scenic Hudson’s HV Viewfinder. She is also a Hudson Valley-based sustainability writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Scientific American, Sierra, Civil Eats, CityLab, Modern Farmer and beyond.

At the Historic Bronson House, a Surprising Solar Success

Tucked in a corner of a medium-security state prison site is a little-known, rarely seen 19th-century mansion that has fascinated Hollywood filmmakers, a legendary investment banker and architectural historians.

The Oliver Bronson House in Hudson, N.Y., features elements from renowned architect Alexander Jackson Davis (1803-1892). The home serves as the earliest extant example of the Hudson River “Bracketed” architectural mode (for which Edith Wharton titled her 1929 novel). And it sits in the middle of a viewshed that gave birth to the Hudson River School of American landscape painters.

The Oliver Bronson House near Hudson, N.Y. (Photo by John Ferro)

So it comes as no surprise that plans to build a 5-megawatt solar panel installation just a few hundred yards from the home raised concerns at Historic Hudson, the nonprofit that is restoring the Bronson House and working to establish a park around it.

How that solar farm came to be is a tale of collaborative negotiations between Historic Hudson, Scenic Hudson and East Light Partners, the firm behind the solar farm.

Historic Hudson President Alan Neumann calls it “just a lovely success story of how a smart developer can work with not-for-profit organizations that oversee the cultural landscape and natural landscape at a sensitive site.”

But that success was not a given.

The tale begins in 1838, when Dr. Oliver Bronson, a physician and educator whose father was a successful banker and real estate speculator, acquired the three-story Federal style house that had once been home to Samuel Plumb, a ropemaker from Nantucket.

Bronson wanted to enhance the house and turned to someone he no doubt knew — Davis, the architect, whose primary patron happened to be Bronson’s brother-in-law. Davis is perhaps best known as the designer of the Custom House in New York City; Lyndhurst, the former Jay Gould estate, in Tarrytown, N.Y.; and Blithewood in Annandale-On-Hudson.

Davis oversaw alterations and additions in 1838 and again in 1849 that connected the house and associated outbuildings directly to the surrounding landscape, a hallmark of the Picturesque style. The term “bracketed” refers to the ornamental wooden brackets that were added to extended overhangs and balconies.

The ELP Greenport Solar project, as seen from above. (Photo by Robert Rodriguez, Jr.)

A century later, all of that was virtually forgotten. The site became part of a state-run reformatory facility for girls, which in turn became what is now the Hudson Correctional Facility for men. The house served as a home for the institutions’ administrators. When the state no longer had a use for it, it was scheduled for demolition.

The house was saved, Neumann says, when Richard Jenrette, a founder of the investment bank Donaldson, Lufkin & Jenrette, personally intervened to have the home listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 2003. Fans of the Jason Bourne film franchise might remember the house from the rescue scene at the end of the 2012 installment, “The Bourne Legacy.”

In more recent years, Historic Hudson obtained a lease from the state for the house and 1.2 acres surrounding the structure. Though the house is not open to the public, the nonprofit has overseen $1.5 million in stabilization repairs and has been negotiating with the state to turn the larger surrounding grounds into a park, according to Neumann.

Not far from the house, just over the Hudson city line in the Town of Greenport, was a hayfield that East Light Partners saw as a perfect site for a community solar project.

“It was commercially zoned and had been sitting idle,” says East Light Partners Cofounder Wendy De Wolf.

The company entered an agreement to purchase the site in 2018 and began planning the solar farm. Scenic Hudson later acquired the portion of the property that ELP was not purchasing, mostly woodlands and a stream corridor. Scenic Hudson hopes to work with the community to eventually build a walking trail to connect Hudson to this forested land

Neumann said he became aware of the project after East Light Partners presented its plan to local government officials. The plan initially called for solar panels to be placed within direct view of Bronson House, clashing with Davis’s picturesque legacy. 

Another view of ELP Greenport Solar, near Hudson, N.Y. (Photo by Robert Rodriguez, Jr.)

Neumann wasn’t a fan of the initial plan.

Instead, the solar developers worked with Historic Hudson and Scenic Hudson to revise their site plan. East Light Partners embraced Scenic Hudson’s Clean Energy, Green Communities guide to siting renewable energy projects. Renderings were created to determine the visual impact of different layouts. With input from Scenic Hudson and Historic Hudson, East Light Partners reconfigured its plan so that there were no panels on the portion of the site nearest to and most easily visible from Bronson House. Additional plans call for interpretive signage — highlighting solar energy, conservation and the compatibility of the two — to be placed along the future Scenic Hudson trail.

Now supported by the two nonprofits, the revised plan received the necessary approvals and went live in the fall of 2019.

“We are all about trying to site good projects and doing it in a way that responds to the community,” De Wolf says.

Hayley Carlock, Scenic Hudson’s environmental advocacy director, said the collaborative effort brought together the full spectrum of Scenic Hudson’s skillsets and services, from land conservation and legal work to advocacy and scientific expertise. She says, “That is part of what makes Scenic Hudson so effective in what we do.”

Says Neumann: “We couldn’t be happier.”

Recycling’s Robotic Frontier

AMP Robotics

To understand the challenges at the root of municipal recycling programs, check out a video clip from the TV satire “Portlandia.”

In a segment called “Which bin does it go in?” a character played by Fred Armesin says, “Now there is a bin for everything!” The video shows bins for sorting cardboard and paper (blue); plastic, aluminum and glass (black); then descends into the absurd. Orange bins for coffee cup sleeves. Brown bins for stir straws. Periwinkle bins for the cups. Fuchsia bins for coffee cup lids, unless they have lipstick on them. Those, of course, go into the rose-colored bins. Et cetera, et cetera. (And you’ve gotta crack up at what comes out!)

The video gets some laughs out the confusion people face when sorting recyclables, but it also highlights a big problem: Without effective sorting, the commodities that are generated by municipal programs have less — and sometimes little to no — market value due to cross-contamination.

While optical sorting machinery has long been in use to separate materials, it is far from perfect. Much of the sorting is often done by workers who stand along a conveyor belt and pick out undesirable items like plastic bags. The work is dirty, dangerous, and even more challenging due to the coronavirus pandemic. Even in the best of times, the jobs can be hard to fill.

The challenges are reflected in recycling rates. In Dutchess County, 44.1 percent of the 381,500 tons of municipal solid waste generated in 2019 was recycled, according to the county’s annual report. That’s well below the goal of 54.6 percent Dutchess established when it crafted its solid waste management plan in 2013.

The Power of Artificial Intelligence

Now some recyclers are considering technologies more familiar to science fiction fans in order to improve the sorting process.

“Companies like AMP Robotics have introduced robots with artificial intelligence systems that enable the sorting and production of high-quality commodity bales of paper and plastics, while adding safeguards against contamination,” said Bridget Croke, a managing director at the investment firm Closed Loop Partners, during a recent Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works hearing on the challenges facing the recycling industry.

Based in Colorado, AMP combines optical sorting, robotics, and machine learning to create systems that can identify and then sort items mechanically at high speed and with higher accuracy than traditional machinery.

The company says the system’s digital brain uses computer vision to identify not just material types such as plastics or metal, but also colors, textures, shapes, sizes, patterns, and even the features of brand labels. The decisions made by one AMP system can be transmitted to the cloud, where they can be compared with those of other AMP systems in order to improve sorting efficiency. In this way, the system is constantly training itself.

“[Artificial Intelligence] is very much a tool that elevates optical sorters and provides a way to sort more specifically. A.I. complements traditional optical sorters in that it allows it to select materials in a more refined way,” Mark Baybutt, AMP’s vice president of product, told Recycling Today.

The company says its systems can be installed within existing machinery at municipal and private materials recovery facilities.

Earlier this year, AMP announced its systems had sorted 1 billion individual recyclable items from billions of other materials in a 12-month period ending March 31. The company has received financial backing from brand-name investors, such as Sequoia Capital and Google’s parent company, Alphabet.

“A.I. complements traditional optical sorters in that it allows it to select materials in a more refined way.”

Mark Baybutt, AMP’s vice president of product

The potential for increased efficiency is considerable. For instance, as much as 85 percent of Dutchess County’s single-stream recyclable material — plastics, metals, cardboard, and paper — is sorted at one privately-owned materials recovery facility in Beacon, according to the county’s resource recovery agency.

AMP spokeswoman Carling Spelhaug confirmed to Viewfinder that the company “does have a presence in New York State.” However, it is unable to disclose which facilities have installed the systems due to nondisclosure agreements that protect commercially sensitive pricing and application details.

AMP vice present Chris Wirth told TIME that inquiries from potential customers increased at least fivefold from March to June of 2020 and that 35 facilities used the company’s technologies in 2019.

New Regs May Help N.Y. Meet Its Big Climate Goals

Danskammer Energy

Last year, New York State established itself as a leader in climate action when the Legislature passed and Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act. The law, which the New York Times called “one of the world’s most ambitious climate plans,” establishes aggressive carbon-reduction goals and ensures that process will benefit the populations that suffer the most from climate change.

The measure, signed by Cuomo on July 18, 2019, requires the state’s electricity system to be carbon-free by 2040. It also requires greenhouse gas emissions from human sources to be reduced 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 and 85 percent by 2050. And it requires a minimum of 35 percent of investments from the state’s clean energy and energy efficiency funds benefit disadvantaged and vulnerable communities, which typically suffer the most from pollution, heat, and other climate impacts.

Danskammer Energy power plant in Newburgh, NY (Photo: Jeff Anzevino)

Now comes the hard part. While the law establishes the goals and a framework to form advisory councils that will create the plans, it does not specify what steps must be taken in order to meet those goals. Now, the state is beginning the work on that sticky question.

It all begins with some accounting. On Aug. 19, the state Department of Environmental Conservation took a first step when it issued proposed regulations for greenhouse gas emissions. To start, the regulations establish how the state is going to calculate the 1990 baseline that will be essential in measuring progress in the coming decades.

That baseline includes all statewide sources of greenhouse gas emissions, as well as emissions associated with imported electricity and fossil fuels. The DEC estimates that figure to be 401.38 million metric tons of carbon-dioxide equivalent coming from four sectors:

  • Energy, including fuel combustion,  fugitive emissions, electricity transmission, imported fuels, and imported electricity
  • Industrial processes and product use, including mineral, chemical, metal, and electronics industries
  • Agriculture forestry and other land use, including livestock, land use and aggregated sources
  • Waste, including solid waste disposal, biological treatment of solid waste, waste combustion and wastewater

That means that in order to meet the carbon reduction goals, CO2-equivalent emissions from those sources would need to fall to about 241 million metric tons by 2030 and 60 million metric tons by 2050.

The proposed rules do not impose any requirements or penalties on carbon-emitting entities, private or otherwise. Rather, they create standards that other state agencies will use when issuing permits, licenses, or other determinations. This, the DEC said in its announcement of the regulations, enables the state “to apply a flexible, stakeholder-driven approach for the annual accounting of net emissions.”

The regulations also do not address the CLCPA’s energy or social equity goals. 

Danskammer Energy power plant in Newburgh, NY (Photo: Jeff Anzevino)

 “Achieving the dramatic CO2 reduction targets set by the CLCPA would help us avoid the catastrophic impacts of climate change, and the standards set forth in the DEC’s draft regulations are essential to meeting those goals,” Scenic Hudson Director of Advocacy Hayley Carlock says. “Getting these rules right would be a huge step forward in mitigating climate change. This is an important opportunity for the public to weigh in and make sure New York stays on track to reach our climate goals.”

The regulations are open to public comment until Oct. 27. An online public hearing webinar will be held on Oct. 20. Instructions on how to join the webinar and provide an oral statement will be published by Oct. 7 in the DEC’s electronic Environmental Notice Bulletin. Scenic Hudson expects to provide comment, and encourages the public to do so as well. Stay tuned!

Green Burial A Growing Option in the HV

The Natural Burial Section Woods of Rosendale’s Plains Cemetery

Joel Kovel was laid to rest directly in the Hudson Valley ground, his body in a wicker casket pulled on a hand-drawn cart led by a jazz band. His funeral wasn’t the usual. But everything about what happened to Kovel’s body after his death was different: it was a return to the earth. “In harmony with the cosmos, with rights to clean water, for the renewal of life,” his cart read. Kovel was among an influential band of area residents who have recently chosen green burial.

Before the Civil War, American burial rituals were age-old and necessarily all-natural: a hole was dug in the ground, and a body placed in it. Embalming began during wartime so soldiers’ remains could be brought home from battlefields. The “American Way of Death” (described in a 1960s bestseller by the same name) gradually took on the professional morticians, elaborate caskets, chemical embalming and makeup, and green-carpeted vaults we associate with modern funerals.

It all makes a big environmental impact. Each year, American burials together use more than 827,000 gallons of toxic chemicals and 1.6 million tons of concrete. Every conventional burial contributes to the production of about 230 pounds of CO2 equivalent, according to the California-based nonprofit Green Burial Council. Even cremation is equivalent to driving 600 miles, producing about 150 pounds of CO2 per body burned.

Now that people want to lighten their carbon footprint, the old ways are mounting a comeback. Modern green burials swear off concrete vaults, non-biodegradable caskets and toxic embalming. More than 200 natural burial grounds have opened around the country over the last couple decades, more than half of those in the past 5 years alone.

In the Hudson Valley, cemeteries with natural burial sections now include Sleepy Hollow’s in Westchester County, and Rhinebeck’s and Rosendale’s in the mid-Hudson. Both the Rhinebeck and Rosendale grounds were established in 2014, with similar standards, if not starts. 

“How do we want to use and live with and care for the land? It would make sense that those things might be tied together.”

Suzanne Kelly

Rhinebeck’s was led in part by Suzanne Kelly, a former academic, author of “Greening Death” and leading national expert on natural burial. Kelly spent years examining the green burials’ “dust to dust” ideals. She has studied everything from the movement’s emergence in the U.K. in the early 1990s to the more recent American development of “conservation burial grounds” that agree to preserve natural lands in perpetuity. “How do we want to use and live with and care for the land? It would make sense that those things might be tied together,” Kelly says.

Rosendale’s natural burial ground was established by Richard Hermance, a former police officer turned accident reconstructor who had long served on the local cemetery board. He saw the idea on the History Channel and thought it made practical sense. “There are a lot of environmentally-minded people here,” he says. “I figured natural burial would be really popular.” 

A gravesite within the Natural Burial Section Woods of Rosendale’s Plains Cemetery

Both mid-Hudson green burial grounds have taken off. New York City residents regularly call each, willing to trek the couple hours up to bury their loved ones this way. They have attracted prominent local names as well. Joel Kovel, laid to rest with the jazz funeral in Rosendale 2 years ago, was a well-known professor at Bard College. Scenic Hudson’s late general counsel, Warren Reiss, chose to be buried in the Rhinebeck Natural Burial Ground at his death in 2016. 

Rosendale’s natural burial ground includes a meadow section, but both Kovel and Reiss lie in the wooded sections of their respective grounds—peaceful forests where sunlight dapples through cherry and locust branches. Reiss’ daughter, Taylor Reiss Gouge, has said no resting place could be more fitting for someone who loved nature as much as her dad: “He found peace being among the trees.”

Mapping the Hudson Valley’s Urban Ecosystem

Adam Dylan was a professional landscape designer by day, casual backyard gardener by night. Tending his family’s raised beds of vegetables and native flowers last summer, he’d be digging in the soil, thinking about how some of his friends and neighbors were doing the same. What if there was a way for them to add up their cumulative impact on the environment, he wondered?

Adam Dylan’s garden in Beacon, New York (Photo by eco-nectar)

Dylan spent the winter thinking about how to make that collective tracking happen. The idea was to support urban ecology by encouraging DIY habitat restoration, resource conservation, and pollutant reduction. He told fellow Beaconites like my husband about the plan, and plotted out the finer points with his wife, Kate. In March they launched their virtual group and mapping project, called eco-nectar : beacon. 

“Beacon is a pretty densely developed city, which is good in a lot of ways, but you have these voids where little creatures like butterflies and bees don’t have a way to get through because they don’t have food or shelter,” he told me. “We’re creating these habitat corridors.” 

Eco-nectar has nearly 200 members who put themselves on different maps by reporting the earth-friendly efforts they’re making on or in their own balconies and backyards. Planting native pollinator habitat, installing rain barrels, using solar power, and composting are among the activities people can log to claim badges on the maps. Pledging not to use synthetic fertilizers or chemical pesticides, or to plant only hardy native species, can also earn a badge.

Dylan hopes participants will see that, multiplied by thousands of others, even a little veggie garden makes an impact. And he thinks the maps’ visuals will inspire people’s neighbors to make even more environmental impacts. 

I am a case in point: I knew I wanted to get on the map. After reading entomologist Douglas Tallamy’s bestseller Nature’s Best Hope: A New Approach to Conservation That Starts in Your Yard, my husband was committed, too. Our neighbors down the street had already mapped themselves with badges for establishing an “Urban Forest” and a “Pollinator Patch.”

Dylan felt momentum was building this for the project this spring, but shutdowns because of COVID set eco-nectar back in some ways. He had hoped to spread the word at local events, but so far there’s been no chance to pitch the concept at now-paused social gatherings like Hudson Valley Green Drinks.

Yet this strangely slowed-down, home-centered stretch of time helped in other ways. For one, so many Americans took up gardening this spring that seeds are in short supply.

People like my husband and me had time to research the perfect composting system (I went with the Exaco Trading Co.’s massive no-turning Aerobin 400) and best native plantings for our backyard’s wooded edge (he chose species like purple aster and woodsy, cinnamon-scented northern spicebush from standout local nursery One Nature).

Bee Badge from eco-nectar

We’re not on Facebook, where eco-nectar maintains a group, so we emailed Dylan. And pop! Within days, our “Soil Builder” and “Pollinator Patch” badges put us on the map. Our next plan, joining a local CSA, will earn us another badge. The project is designed to include actions that apartment dwellers and other non-homeowners can also take.

Businesses can join as well — the Beacon cafe Homespun recently became the first to display eco-nectar’s hummingbird logo in its shop.

Eco-nectar started with Beacon to demonstrate how the map can illustrate community involvement in a colorful way, and they plan to expand to more Hudson Valley communities within the next year.

Bioplastics as a Climate Solution

Abaca Mask

Plastic isn’t just a pollution problem or a health problem — it’s also a climate change problem.

The impacts of plastic waste on oceans and shorelines are have been devastating. And a 2019 study by the University of Newcastle in Australia found that humans are ingesting the equivalent of a credit card’s worth of microplastics every week. However, because virtually every step of plastic production requires fossil fuels, the impact plastic makes on global greenhouse gasses is arguably most pressing.

That’s because overproduction from the fracking boom and the pandemic’s economic slowdown have driven crude oil prices to historic lows. In search of new profits, major fossil fuel companies are investing in plastic production, according to Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

A recent study led by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and a number of other environmental organizations warned that if these and other companies achieve their planned plastic production goals by 2030, emissions could reach 1.34 gigatons per year. That’s the same impact you would get from building 295 new 500-megawatt coal-fired power plants, the study said.

Judith Enck, a former regional director of the Environmental Protection Agency and a founder of Beyond Plastics, told Columbia’s Earth Institute that the issue is particularly urgent because the permit review for many of the new plastic production facilities in the U.S. has already begun. “If even a quarter of these … facilities are built,” Enck said, “it’s locking us into a plastic future that is going to be hard to recover from.”

Finding Alternatives in Nature

Fortunately, there is another way.

Bio-based plastics are made from renewable, naturally occurring feedstocks such as corn, cassava, sugar beet, or sugar cane.

Bioplastic bottle made from corn (Photo: totophotos on iStock)

Some types are biodegradable. And since they don’t rely on oil or gas as a primary ingredient, they result in much lower levels of carbon emissions. Indeed, the nonprofit group Project Drawdown (which in 2017 published the New York Times bestseller, Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming) lists bioplastics as one of the most effective solutions to reversing global warming.

“What affords plastics their malleability are chainlike polymers, comprised of many atoms or molecules bound to one another,” Drawdown writes. “Cellulose, the most abundant organic material on earth, is a polymer in the cell walls of plants. Chitin is another abundant polymer, found in the shells and exoskeletons of crustaceans and insects. Potatoes, sugarcane, tree bark, algae, and shrimp all contain natural polymers that can be converted to plastic.”

Will Bioplastics Take Off?

Whether bioplastics can gain a meaningful share of the market remains to be seen. The coronavirus pandemic has hurt the bottom lines of plastics companies, which recently requested $1 billion federal bailout to help in recycling during the public-health crisis. Yet the Covid-19 outbreak has also slowed the growth of plastic alternatives.

Public concerns about the spread of the virus have reinvigorated the use of single-use plastic items, raising concerns that old habits will stick for years to come. During a recent Senate committee hearing on recycling challenges, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyoming) said the virus “has reminded us that the critical role that single-use plastics do play in protecting public health.”

Barrasso’s statement overlooks the overwhelming negative health and climate impacts of single-use plastics — and ignores the potential benefits bioplastics would provide.

Drawdown estimates that if bioplastics captured 12 percent of the market by 2050, nearly 1 gigaton of carbon emissions would be avoided. If that figure increases to 46 percent of the market, 3.8 gigatons of emissions would be saved.

There’s even a promising new bioplastic solution for disposable face masks. Abaca, a fiber from a relative of the banana tree, is often used in teabags and monetary bills — it’s as durable as polyester but can decompose within two months. The pandemic may be creating new challenges, but it may open up new climate solutions, too.

Time to Update the Bottle Bill



That’s the percentage of glass containers manufactured in the United States that ends up in landfills every year.

Despite the fact that glass is 100 percent recyclable and can be recycled endlessly without loss of purity, 53.1 percent of the beer and soft drink bottles; wine and liquor bottles; and bottles and jars for food and juices, cosmetics, and other products were dumped into landfills in 2017, according to the most recent Environmental Protection Agency data.

That’s a lot of broken glass — 4.7 million tons of it, according to the EPA.

Broken Glass Bottles (Photo: Anders Sandberg on Flickr (CC BY 2.0))

New York’s Proposed Expansion of the Bottle Bill

In New York, state leaders are envisioning a future with far lower levels of wasted glass. And they are looking to do it by enhancing a familiar tool: the bottle deposit.

New York is one of 10 states with so-called bottle bills that add a small, cash deposit to the sale of certain types of beverages. The others are California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Oregon, and Vermont, according to the Container Recycling Institute.

New York’s bill was enacted in 1982 and amended in 1983, 1992, and 2009. It adds a 5 cent deposit to sales of bottled beverages: carbonated water, energy drinks, juice, soft drinks, and tea; soda water; beer and other malt beverages; mineral water; wine and wine coolers; and any water that doesn’t contain sugar.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed adding sports drinks, energy drinks, fruit and vegetable beverages and ready-to-drink teas and coffee to the list. And state lawmakers have introduced legislation that would also include wine, liquor, cider, and distilled spirits.

Why Municipally-Recycled Glass is Hard to Get Rid Of

One of the goals of the proposals is to keep as much glass out of municipal recycling systems as possible. Glass that comes out of the municipal materials recovery facilities (or MRFs) tends to be of much lower quality than the glass that is collected through redemption programs at grocery stores and other retail outlets. That’s because the mechanical behemoths that are used to separate glass, plastic, newspaper and cardboard are not foolproof.

“When glass makes its way through the recycling system, it gets crushed and breaks down,” said Angelina Peone, Recycling Coordinator for the Ulster County Resource Recovery Agency. “In order to capture that, we have to capture these small pieces. So if you put anything in your recycling bin that is smaller than a tennis ball, it is going to get corralled with the crushed glass and contaminate the purity of the glass. We see things like bottle caps, batteries, small pill bottles — anything smaller than a tennis ball is essentially going to contaminate the glass.”

Recycling (Photo: Alan Levine on Flickr (CC BY 2.0))

The resulting product is often referred to MRF glass, or “murf” glass. Because of its low purity, MRF glass “is extremely hard to get rid of,” UCRRA Executive Director Tim Rose said. A survey by the Northeast Recycling Council found that 38 percent of MRF glass ends up in landfills in the Northeast.

Is the Impact Worth It? We Think So

In November 2019, the New York State Pollution Prevention Institute at Rochester Institute of Technology published a study assessing the impacts if just wine and liquor bottles were added to the bottle bill. The study estimated that such a change would impact 4,500 businesses and approximately 488 million containers in New York. Recycling rates of these containers, the study found, would increase by 65 percent.

Of course, that recovery would come with a cost. The study suggested that expansion would be costly for the wine and liquor industry, which would have to implement new collection procedures. New deposit initiators and dealers would experience approximately $40 million in direct costs, including $36 million in new labor costs.

“Taking responsibility for our waste is a critical step toward achieving a cleaner and greener Hudson Valley.”

Andy Bicking, Scenic Hudson’s Director of Public Policy.

Not surprisingly, the bill is opposed by the wine and liquor industry and supported by the recycling industry and some non-industry stakeholders. In a joint statement, more than 50 recycling organizations and environmental groups — including Scenic Hudson — noted that it’s been more than decade since the last amendment to the bottle bill.

“Taking responsibility for our waste is a critical step toward achieving a cleaner and greener Hudson Valley,” says Andy Bicking, Scenic Hudson’s Director of Public Policy.

He adds, “The bottle bill is a proven strategy that works for New York by incentivizing the return and redemption of empty containers and keeping them out of our river, parks and playing fields. The time has come to take the next step and expand the state’s bottle redemption law.”

Vertical Gardening at Home

A decade ago, Bryan Meador was an art student in New York City alienated by too much concrete. He felt far from Oklahoma, where he’d grown up gardening with his Cherokee grandparents. Wandering city streets in search of natural inspiration, he found joy at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. That gave him an idea. What if more greenery could lace through even the most built-up neighborhoods?  

The idea germinated over about eight years. By then Meador had graduated from the Parsons School of Design and begun living upriver in Kingston. Even in the much smaller town, he’d walk toward the Hudson and see acres of chain link fence along the way. In 2018, he started working out a design: the Seadpod, a recycled-plastic microplanter that could hang on chain link in groups, transforming cold metal fences into lush vertical gardens. 

Photo: Courtesy of Plant Seads

Meador’s start-up, Plant Seads (yes, it’s spelled with an “a”—the word is an acronym for Sustainable Ecology, Adaptive Design) is placing its first installations this summer. Fifty will hang in Kingston at the YMCA Farm Project, and more will be placed around Hudson by the Kite’s Nest youth organization.

In Kingston, the vision is to grow plants like climbing peas. Kids can tend them for snack-off-the-vine veggies, but they’ll also cover the fence with blooms (and fill the air with a sweet orange-honey scent). Back in the city, Plant Seads is finalizing plans with organizations like the New York Restoration Project, Harlem Grown, and Grow NYC as well. 

Photo: Courtesy of Plant Seads

Plant Seads is part of a larger global movement toward vertical gardening, which injects green into areas that have no soil in order to reduce heat, improve air quality, and mitigate runoff. Meador, whose mother keeps bees, hopes they can serve as pollinator habitat as well.

“I’m really excited about how these planters can work within the built environment we have right now, offering sound insulation and water absorption and air purification and all the psychological benefits of plants.”

Bryan Meador, creator of Seadpods

As cities densify, using every bit of space will become critical. More plant life has proven benefits to climate and human health, helping people grow food and breathe cleaner air. “The majority of people on this earth live in urban spaces now,” Meador says. “What I’m interested in is the atomization of gardening. One individual has 10 planters, and you multiply that by 1,000—that suddenly becomes a significant amount of organic material injected into the city, and a significant amount of rainwater absorbed.”

Photo: Courtesy of Plant Seads

Seadpods are true products of the Hudson Valley. Dan Freedman, dean of the School of Science and Engineering at SUNY-New Paltz and head of the Hudson Valley Additive Manufacturing Center, helped Meador perfect the design, along with Dan Young of M-Tech Design, Inc.

At 8.5-by-8.5-by-10 inches, the planters are carefully weighted to hold a gallon of soil each so they won’t collapse a fence. They mount using a keyhole and clamping key so they’ll swing flexibly to withstand high winds. Usheco, a local plastics manufacturer, is producing the containers, which are made from BPA-free recycled milk jugs and retail for $8 each.

Video Courtesy of Plant Seads

At home along the Hudson, vertical Seadpod gardens would ideally act as sponges. Their collective soak-up could help improve water quality in the river. When stormwater overwhelms combined sewer systems, waste goes into streams and on into the river. Seadpods can be a solution to help people hold their rainwater and keep it out of the sewer system.

“By holding onto the rainwater where it is, these planters help the natural aquatic ecosystem.”

Bryan Meador, creator of Seadpods

Have a fence of your own that you’d like to turn into a green wall? Seadpods are available at