Memories and reflections of Japan- part III

Part 3: Perfect R&R destination: Sapporo

Our 3rd and final destination was to the island of Hokkaido, famous for it’s milk products (think ice-cream, milk-cake, milk shake) and for the city of Sapporo, a former winter Olympic destination as well as a ski town. Although most popular in winter, it was a nice place to be in September too. It was much cooler than Tokyo or Kyoto. Because of their long winters, they almost have an underground city vibe to it. You can do all your shopping and eating underground. We did both. Since it was cooler than we expected we all “needed” to go shopping and bought a bunch of clothes.

Then Sapporo is famous for Japanese chocolate brand Royce, so again we went out for chocolate shopping and stumbled upon a huge depachika, which we promised to return to the next day.

Sapporo is also famous for a type of Japanese cuisine popular everywhere in the world called Ramen. They have two alleys of just ramen shops. I was very happy to get a hot, spicy, vegetarian meal after so many days and really enjoyed my Ramen experience.

Sanjay really liked Sapporo because it felt like a large city minus all the crowd, noise, and dirt- almost like a “Goldilocks city”; just perfect.

We spent one day taking the local train to Otaru- a nearby fishing village. It was amusing because although considered a fishing village, it had a pretty large French bakery, our only spotting of Pizza Hut and KFC in Japan.

But it did have good sushi, great ice cream, a very beautiful blue coast (which was visible from the train itself) and lots of good sake. We were able to take a factory tour of a Sake factory, which everyone in our group (except me) was fascinated by. We all came back happy and ready to head back to home after 2 weeks in Japan.

One complaint we had of the country, which probably needs to be investigated more, is they use a lot of packaging on their products- both paper and plastic and they don’t believe in displaying trashcans. My guess is that they haven’t figured out how to make trashcans look pretty yet. So we had to more or less carry our trash with us or offer it to some store or city officials, who gladly took it away to dispose it ‘who knows where’.

But besides that we all really liked Japan- for it’s pace, sense of beauty, hospitality, and for Japan’s futuristic adaptability but without forgetting its past and its culture.

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Memories and reflections of Japan- part II

Part 2: City of Beauty and Temples: Kyoto

The next part of our trip took us to another of Japan’s major cities, Kyoto, which is also on the island of Honshu. In total, Japan has 6,852 islands but only 80% are inhabited. Honshu is the main island. The other three main islands are Hokkaido, Shikoku and Kyushu.

We got to Kyoto by the famous bullet train, called the Shinkansen. Not only does it look grand and very technically cool, it is very fast, very clean, and quiet. Japan has a term for fans of anything; such people are called ‘otakus’. By the end of our visit we had become train ‘otakus’. To confirm our otaku status we went on a 5-hour round trip train ride, touching another island and then heading back.

The other aspect of the country we really got into was ‘manga’; the common craze all Japanese have for storytelling in the form of comics. We even visited the International manga museum in Kyoto and the manga district in Tokyo. Sanjay bought his first manga book too!

Coming back to Kyoto- it’s very different than Tokyo. Life is a lot less buzzy here, a lot less night-lights and tall buildings too. But what Kyoto lacks in technical glitz it makes up in cultural heritage. There’s a temple almost on every street. We were heading to a popular tourist temple on our first day in Kyoto and ended up stopping at another equally beautiful but unknown temple. My favorite of course was Fushimi Inari; everyone will recognize this temple as it is so well photographed. For 10 years in a row it is now considered Kyoto’s #1 tourist attraction. It’s about 10,000 orange wooden gates (called Toris) that lead up to a temple on a mountain. It was a fun and spiritual climb despite the oppressive heat.

Kyoto is also the land of matcha (green tea in powder form) and geishas (female entertainers often found in the Gion district) and maikos (apprentice geishas), and of course kimonos (traditional Japanese wear.) We took part in a traditional tea ceremony (called cha-do) and even got to wear Kimonos. Kyoto has a lot of rental kimono shops (since a real one is too expensive to own I think!) It was a lot of fun but very elaborate. We have to end drinking your cup of tea by slurping to show our host we enjoyed it.

One day I got to explore Kyoto on my own by going for a long morning walk along the river. That was fun and it was fun to see locals fishing, walking, cycling, and jogging, over all a very livable city.

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Japan through the eyes of an Indian American

Part 1: Mega city-Tokyo

The first thing I remember about Tokyo was how clean and quiet it was; right from the airport to the underground train station. Our first train ride in Tokyo was an express train from the airport to Tokyo. I was both excited and sleepy. We both were. Sanjay was excited to show me Tokyo and Japan, as it was my first time and his second. Before dozing off on the train I remember noticing and marveling at how spotless the railway tracks were. Once we reached Tokyo we were in for a culture shock, the train station was a human zoo- people everywhere; running in all directions. The station itself was multi-tiered, there was so much going on: shops, movements, distractions-a lot of buzz around us but not noisy, just busy. We tried in vain to find an international ATM but gave up for trying later on.

Then started the Japanese hospitality- the bowing, the attention to detail, the looking in the eye when speaking, the smiles. This is my favorite memory of Japan.

Another memory is of the cabs; they were again very clean, very proper and the door closes automatically once you sit, one less thing to worry about.

The other memories of Tokyo include the oppressive humidity alternating with torrential rains. From a weather perspective, we had not planned our trip well. However, the beauty and the newness of the city kept us going – through the mild jet lag and the less than ideal weather.

We also stumbled upon on an unplanned national holiday called ‘respect for the elders’. With an increasing elderly population for the country it makes sense that they should get their own national holiday. We had nothing much to do that day except “shop till we drop” and we certainly did and enjoyed doing that.

Our shopping experience included visiting a departmental store multi-leveled food court called a ‘depachika’. It is a place where both tourists and locals go crazy food shopping and that’s exactly what happened with us. We bought enough to have an indoor picnic including drinks and deserts.

Tokyo offers its fair share of cultural experiences too and like the greedy tourists we were we took part in more than one cultural opportunity as well. We went for a one act Kabuki play (all male cast performing traditional dance and musical opera), saw our first sumo wrestling, visited a night club (for a whole 15 minutes duration!) and lastly took part in more than one elaborate dining experience, one lasting more than 4 hours and involving upwards of thirteen courses; all served on and in beautiful traditional pottery.

Tokyo was fun all around and we left Tokyo feeling both satisfied but wishing we had more time and promising ourselves a future and longer visit.

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Living treasures of Japan

I am not sure why but it has always been my lifelong dream to visit Japan. Perhaps because this small island country has so much to offer in terms of culture, natural beauty, technological progress, and people habits. Japan’s gifts span from the very beginning of society to today’s world of bullet trains, robotics and more.

In preparation for the trip, I bought a DVD from national Geographic’s website called ‘Living Treasures of Japan.’ It would not be far from the truth to say I was blown away by what I learnt..the concept, the art forms, the dedication and humility of the artists. I had to write about it both to share my learning as well as to capture it for future reminiscence.

Let’s start by first understanding what is a living treasure:

It is a Japanese term that refers to individuals certified by the government as Preservers of Important Intangible Cultural Properties. They are elderly men and women who are given a government stipend that requires only that they exhibit their creations publicly and teach their skills to apprentices.

It is true all the living legends covered on the DVD and described below are not living anymore but they continue to live through their art and stories and mostly their inspired lives. And of course, many of them live through the art being practiced by their apprentice.


The Living Treasures the documentary covered were:

  1. Arakawa Toyozo– He was a master potter; his pottery is said to mimic the pottery style from the stone-age era. His simple pottery reminds one of Zen Buddhism in qualities of simplicity and serenity.
  1. Juzo Kagoshima- doll maker par excellence. The technique he created for doll making sought lessons that went 4000 years back into the history of doll making. The color is applied on them by hand gluing layers and layers of brightly colored local paper. His only apprentices were his daughter and granddaughter and it took them a period of years to make just one doll.
  2. Tamao Yoshida is the only puppeteer designated a Living Treasure. Bunraku is the most developed form of puppetry practiced in the world and Yoshidasan was the master of this highest form of puppetry. Today only the ‘Bunraku of Osaka’ survives. In 2008 Bunraku was incorporated into the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. When asked about his success, he once said, “from the day I started until today every day has been discipline, learning, and practice. And it will be so till the day I die”
  1. Eishiro Abe was the first Japanese papermaker to be designated as a national living treasure. Washi is the japanese name given to the ancient tradition of paper making which was initially taken up as a means to earn some extra income in the non-farming winter months. It is truly an art form, for washi is made from fibers, laboriously extracted from various shrubs and trees.
  1. Koto recital is considered music of the Japanese people. It gained unprecedented popularity at its height. It is a Japanese string instrument about six feet long, with thirteen silk strings passed over small movable bridges. Fumiko Yonekawa started practicing it at age 3 and lived to be a 100 years. Her association with the instrument was then just shy of a century’s worth.
  1. Sword making-There is a Japanese saying: Three sacred objects establish imperial rule on earth, “The mirror of wisdom, the jewel of nobility, and the sword of strength.” The sword was once considered the soul of the samurai. The living treasure selected to represent this art form was Sadakatsu Gassan. He used secret rituals created by his ancestors from a thousand years ago to create his swords and is considered by many as the greatest sword maker of the twentieth century.
  1. Ayano Chiba was a traditional indigo dyer who grew her own indigo and hemp, wove the cloth on a manual loom, fermented her own dyes, and dyed the cloth by hand using traditional methods. She was designated a Living National Treasure in 1955 for her preservation of shōaizome, indigo dyeing.
  1. Kabuki theatre is considered today Japan’s favorite classical theatre. Utaemon Nakamura VI was a Japanese kabuki performer and a Living Treasure of this art form. The name Utaemon indicates personal status as an actor and is not bestowed lightly on one. He was best known for his oyama roles (woman roles).
  1. In my opinion, the most unique art and therefore artist described in this DVD was that of bell making; an art perfected by Masahiko Katori. According to Mr. Katori, “Each bell has its own spirit, its own personality.” Doing research on Mr Katori’s bell making I learnt about this other remarkable worldwide peace phenomena. Japanese bells were cast for the express purpose of symbolizing peace. Founded in Tokyo in 1982, the World Peace Bell Association (WPBA) has placed 21 World Peace Bells (WPB’s) in 15 different countries.

Importance of this concept: I have always been attracted to art and history and culture. So it was no surprise that I found the concept of a Living treasure mesmerizing. But what was most astonishing and eye opening for me was the fact that we live in a world surrounded by such deep and rich crafts tradition. One small island country has so much, imagine how much there is in the whole world.

If you are interested and have about an hour to spend, I invite you to watch the DVD which is so generously available online.

Thank you YouTube!

I invite everyone reading this page to take a moment and think deeply about the importance of art in his or her life. Which art form are you more attracted to? Dance, singing, painting, pottery, cooking? It can be literally anything and then see if you can make an opportunity to learn a little bit more about it, and maybe someday even think about practicing it. I assure you your life will be richer and maybe even a little bit more joyful because of it.

Some additional related fun links:




Nakamura indigo hemp Sadakatsu gassan Lady_playing_koto eishiro abe bunraku kagoshima

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The future of recycling in NYC, especially organics- Part 2

Part 2 of this blog I delve into the various recycling options available in the city and especially the design considerations that need to be in place to make organics recycling a success. I recently came across a great eco newsletter[1] put together by a conscientious NYC citizen, which very succinctly listed the various recycling options the city offers its residents; some new and some which have been in place for many years now. Here’s the comprehensive list.

  • Electronics: Since April 1, 2015, residential buildings can be fined $100 every time electronic goods are put into the building’s trash.  All electronics can be either recycled or donated. Some retail storesaccept computers and other electronic goods for recycling. Additionally, still functioning electronic goods can be traded in or sold online through various vendors.
  • Textiles: It’s still not illegal to trash it but there are many options available throughout the city to donate or recycle textiles-both private and city sponsored. The DSNY boxes (as shown below and called refashionNYC) located on many campuses are quite fashionable and user-friendly.

textile NYC                 Source: NYC DSNY

  • Organics: The organics generated and available for collection includes food waste and yard waste, as well as Christmas trees. More about it in a second.
  • Paper, Plastic, Metal and Glass: Is collected as recyclables throughout the city- both in residential and non-residential buildings.

Let’s discuss organics!

No doubt, it is encouraging to see all the discussion around waste management and the successful companies in this business. On a recent green-tech investment forum[2] I attended, waste management (know increasingly being referred to as materials management) was hailed as the next big business opportunity. However, implementing a great plan is not always as easy as coming up with one.

ecohub nyc
Source: Ecohub presentation, 2015

It is indeed commendable to see all the effort and determination that has gone into making this initiative a success. Since the beginning it was somewhere in between a ‘Just do it!’ versus every detail carefully planned out. Which in the end was the right approach because as in life, you can’t really plan for all the unexpected changes that may happen and sometimes have to keep volleying with whatever setbacks come up.

For example, once separated and collected, where would all the organic waste go? Pretty much a few months into the pilot program, the compost processing facility in Delaware (DE), which the city had relied upon in the absence of large-scale facilities closer by, closed. This article[3] written by a budding food journalist does a good job explaining just one of the many problems in establishing such a widespread and complex program. Lauren Holter states, “The city is eager to reduce the more than 1 million tons of residential and commercial food waste trucked each year to landfills in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Virginia. And the scale of food waste collection may increase dramatically once Local Law 77 and 146 go into effect. The city hopes that these laws will attract composting facilities to the area.” Besides, the private carters who will be responsible for collecting all the commercial food waste; there are three primary organizations that recycle organic waste in NYC for residents:

  • Lower East Side Ecology, a local non-profit that has been involved in composting since 1990.
  • Grow NYC  (, another local non-profit that collects about 20 tons of food scraps each week at its Greenmarket drop-off sites, which is later on picked up by DSNY. And of course,
  • DSNY, which now picks up organic waste in designated areas.

According to the article, currently, it is these non-profits that are helping the city fill the gaps in both collecting and processing organic waste. For example, in Brooklyn, twelve greenmarkets have stepped up to accept organics. Since 2012, the DSNY has been working with the greenmarkets to haul scraps to a transfer station within the city, and from there, a composting facility retrieves the waste. With the closing of the DE composting facility, the city divides the collected waste into three streams. Staten Island’s scraps collected in Staten Island (one of NYC’s five boroughs) goes to the DSNY-managed Staten Island Compost Facility, other DSNY-amassed food becomes organic fertilizer at McEnroe Organic Farm in Millerton, New York, and the rest goes to a private facility in Connecticut. It’s manageable but not perfect. Case in point- the DE composting facility had the processing technology to handle organics from New York City schools, which are often contaminated with non-compostable items. Now the DSNY must take schools’ scraps to a transfer station before it can be composted in order to remove inorganic materials. An extra and I am sure costly step.

These days we hear so much about anaerobic digestion. Many of us wonder (including myself) why NYC couldn’t just build one and have all this organic waste get converted to useful energy. Firstly the cost of building such a behemoth as can be expected is quite massive. And then there is the space issue. Where in the city is there enough land to build one? Luckily NYC does have some infrastructure available. But currently that infrastructure is owned privately (by Waste Management). Known fondly as ‘the eggs’ (because of it’s round shape), this facility is actually a wastewater treatment facility. But there are talks[4] of “Waste Management of New York (WMNY) partnering with the NYC Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Department of Sanitation (DSNY) to operate the city’s first organics recycling facility to convert food waste into a renewable energy source through co-digestion.” They will start by processing commercial food waste only. This is because, yard waste, food soiled paper etc. collected from residential buildings can’t go to the eggs. The hope is commercial food waste will satisfy this need.

wm nycSource: Waste Management, 2015

Similar to organic waste disposal, there are also a few hiccups when it came to organics waste collection. In NYC, residential collection comes from taxes so there are no incentives for residential folks to participate in taking the time to separate, bear with the smells and other minor inconveniences that come with any type of recycling effort. For a large apartment building with more than nine units to join the pilot program the building must be located on an existing organics pick-up route, so to avoid wasted trucking time and resources. Once that is confirmed, DSNY then visits the building to see how it assembles garbage and often has to train residents on separating their food scraps. The good news is that because large apartment buildings have been recycling for years, transitioning to collecting food scraps is sometimes just a cultural and motivational shift.

Besides cultural changes, let’s look at some of the design considerations that must be in place in the future to support the massive onslaught of waste collection that will happen once the organics collection is in full swing. Food waste consultant and expert Chris Grace[5] thinks about these design issues all the time as part of her work with various realty and corporate clients. Should a new building ask residents to drop off organics in one place or have separate waste chutes? For high-rise buildings, which are fast becoming the norm in most of NYC, waste chutes require maintenance. Low- rise buildings have to do it on their own so they require a lot of education. Commercial strips have space constraints to separate out organics. Also, a central collection area for all the different businesses would make it difficult to keep track of each commercial business separately and thus be prone to contamination. How should the actual disposal happen? Dumping organics in plastic bags would cause one set of (separation) problems, putting the waste in a compostable bag is not ideal either as once they get heavy, the compostable bags are prone to ripping. Who should the rules apply to? Just NYC’s 8 million residents or should it include the additional 6 million tourists that visit NYC on a daily basis?

Coming back to recycling in buildings, it turns out that due to all the transportation hurdles posed in getting waste from inside the building to carting trucks outside, more and more realtors are considering onsite processing. Fortunately there is more than one option when it comes to handling waste onsite. Chris Grace, being the local expert on this topic, shared extensively. In general there are five options available to businesses:

  1. Waste to water- Systems built on this technology aim to convert food waste to usable water by using very little additives and not much external water. A popular brand available commercially is Enviropure[6]. Watch this interesting and short explanation video they have. Insinkerator[7] is another widely used option in this category.
  2. Waste to energy-The best example of this would be Flexibuster[8], a product that claims to be a self-contained anaerobic digester, designed to process food and organic waste.
  3. Composting: we all know what that means
  4. Dehydration– In this process, food waste is loaded into a machine, ground and dehydrated. This reduces the volume by up to 80% and produces a useful soil amendment in the process. Check out the Rendisk [9]suite of products as well as Enviropac from Global Enviro[10].
  5. Pneumatic systems-Although only possible with new buildings, this technology basically removes the waste using a comprehensive pipe system. Related, the company behind the much talked about Hudson Yards complex will be using Envac systems. Envac is famous for building this waste pipe system in the 1960s in Roosevelt Island. After a long hiatus, they will be doing the same for Hudson Yards[11]. Check out this impressive video explaining their history and technology.

So folks, this concludes this blog piece and most of the thoughts I had to share on waste management processes in and for NYC, my home for now. It’s Friday so if you are reading this on a Friday, Happy Friday and if not, don’t worry; time flies when having fun and Friday will be here soon.

[1] UWS Eco newsletter

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The future of recycling in NYC, especially organics- Part 1

I am not sure what made me want to write this piece except that I was finding the whole waste management scenario in NYC pretty confusing. I thought to myself, this is where I live; this is where I studied sustainability. If I find it confusing, I am sure others might also and what better way to learn then to teach?

There are however, many perspectives to waste management and this blog piece focuses on mainly the operational/process dimension. So here goes-

Let’s start with some numbers. According to Steve Cohen, Columbia University’s Earth Institute Director (and my former professor)[1], “New York City’s 8 million residents and millions of businesses, construction projects and non-resident employees generate 14 million tons of waste and recyclables per year.”

So vast is this amount, that NYC needs both a private and a public waste management system. New York City Department of Sanitation (DSNY) – serves residential buildings, government agencies and some nonprofit organizations. Private commercial firms pick up the rest of the city’s trash- mostly from private commercial buildings including the myriad food establishment places. The 3 major private carters that work in the city are: Action Carting, Royal, and ESI (collects compost). But there are at least 500 or other private carters according to this government provided list[2]. That should give a sense of how much waste there is to collect! According to Steve’s article, “the city spends about $2.3 billion annually on garbage pick-up and disposal. And, of the 3.8 million tons of solid waste that the New York City Department of Sanitation now collects annually, 14% is recycled, 76% is sent to landfills and 10% is converted to energy at a waste-to-energy (WtoE) facility[3].”

This dramatic image[4] created by Columbia University’s Urban Design Lab does a really great job of showing the complexity of waste management in NYC.

nyc waste streams

So, what do we know so far? A few basic statistics and facts: NYC has private public waste collection, three options to dispose of the waste (recycled, landfill and WtoE) and, a pretty low recycling rate.

I learnt a few other interesting facts when I attended a talk given by DSNY on their latest strategy to increase this recycling rate…by encouraging where possible and regulating where encouragement isn’t enough the separation and collection of organic waste.

I learnt that DSNY was the largest municipal sanitation department in the country employing 9,600 employees, operating 2,000 collection trucks, 4 marine transfer stations and 1 rail transfer station[5]. As the name suggests, the transfer stations are where the waste collection trucks bring in waste from various parts of the city and then make their journey either outside the city to be landfilled or recycled or converted to energy within the city.

I also learnt that private haulers and carters have their own transfer station and their own means of disposing the waste collected. For example, Cooper Tank Recycling, which has been operating in NYC since 1986 processes over 1,400 tons of material per day, at their transfer station in Brooklyn and thankfully is able to recycle 85% of the material collected[6].

It’s interesting and somewhat confusing that although private carters collect a large portion of NYC’s waste, these carters are licensed and regulated by NYC Business Integrity Commission (BIC), not by DSNY. The businesses (who generate the waste) however are regulated by DSNY. It is DSNY’s job to educate the generators while it is BIC’s responsibility to educate and support the carters. So DSNY decides that paper should be recycled, plastic bags should not be recycled but if the private carter wrongly disposes the paper collected for recycling, then only BIC can reprimand them. This leads to some lack of transparency for sure.

waste DSNY
Source: DSNY presentation, July 2015

DSNY’s hope (and all of us green folks!) is that NYC can improve its organics-recycling rate by expanding the NYC Organics program[7] to serve all New Yorkers by the end of 2018. This would help the city reach their goal of zero waste to landfills by 2030[8]. To that effect, two new local laws have been put in place. Local Law 77, which calls for curbside collection of source-separated organic waste, and Local Law146, which applies to large-scale food waste generators. The program would require all food service establishments to source-separate food waste reducing the commercial waste disposal by 90 percent by year 2030. Businesses required to participate in this program will include5: All food service establishments in hotels with 150 or more rooms, all food service vendors in arenas and stadiums with seating capacity of at least 15,000 people, food manufacturers with a floor area of at least 25,000 square feet, and food wholesalers with a floor area of at least 20,000 square feet.

The good news is that Local Law146 gives the food establishments options on how to dispose of their food waste. They could donate it, compost it onsite or offsite, or send it for anaerobic digestion within 100 miles of NYC. A presentation given by Leanpath[9] on the various options available to food establishments to reduce food waste listed some pretty innovative ones such as:leanpath options.png
Source: Leanpath, 2015

This concludes part 1 of this blog piece because there’s only so much facts that we can learn at one time, even if it’s related to the ever curious topic of waste in NYC. See you again for part 2.

[5] DSNY presentation, July 2015
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Forked by Saru Jayaraman

I don’t usually read two books by the same author because I feel there are so many topics, so many authors one can sample in our ever shrinking time that’s devoted to the lost art of reading books.

However Activist Saru Jayaraman is an exception and so is the work she’s devoted her life to doing. I really admire her and feel so proud that we share the same gender and Indian heritage. She’s a great role model and is making a positive difference in the lives of so many people.

I was introduced to her through some article that made me watch her TED talk and then read her first book; Behind the Kitchen Door, 2014. I wrote a book review of it, which can be found here. This week I finished reading her second book called Forked, 2016, which is equally inspiring. Here’s why. (Bernie Sander’s style!)

As some of my blog readers may know by now, I am a student of and believer in sustainability. One thing we learn early on when studying corporate sustainability is the list of ‘green’ companies out there who are making a profit while saving or at least not destroying the environment. This book talks about some of these companies. Starbucks is one such hero. McDonalds makes it to some lists too. And we all know of Subway, whose claim to fame is the “Subway for lunch” diet that promises better health outcomes.

The point many of these companies forget that in its truest form sustainability is not only about the environment. It concerns the 3ps- planet, people, and profits. So if a company makes profits or is able to stay in business by hurting the planet (environmentally non-friendly) OR the people (socially-destructive) then it is really not a very green or even decent company. It is making profits at the cost of the people or the planet and sometimes both. That’s what this book highlights and that’s why it’s a really good read: to help us think about what an ideal company should be and can be.

The format of the book is interesting in that it covers various dining categories. Each chapter covers one of the major dining avenues such as cafes, sit down restaurants, steakhouses etc. and compares a high road (provides for and cares for its employees) and a low road company (poor working conditions). A company is categorized as high road, low road or in the middle based on four essential criteria

  • Wages for non-tipped workers (hosts and hostesses, dishwashers, prep cooks, line cooks, and porters)
  • Hourly wages for tipped workers, which can legally be as low as $2.13 per hour (thanks to what Saru and her organization (ROC) refer to as the other-NRA; National Restaurant Association)
  • Policy on paid sick days (it’s astonishing to find out that most restaurants think its ok to have workers come into work while sick and both harm themselves as well as their customers!)
  • And finally access to training which eventually should lead to salary raises or promotions.

The goal of the book is to raise diners’ consciousness about wages and working conditions for those who prepare and serve meals.

For those who believe in the cause and want to take action beyond reading the book, the author recommends downloading the ROC (Restaurant Opportunities Center) smartphone app to serve as a guide to dining out. This app helps us pick high road restaurants. However, to make an equally meaningful change, she recommends visiting low road restaurants and sharing ROC values with restaurateurs. And finally for all us who understand that our voice matters and counts, we could tell our elected (or soon to be elected) officials to support “One Fair Wage” for all restaurant employees.

I know it seems a lot of work to do while eating, especially since eating for most of us is a means of escaping the harsh realities of society and our daily lives but we can start by maybe giving anonymous feedback when asked by Yelp, Google, or One table. That’s what I did.

Happy eating and if nothing else this is a good book to read to be aware of issues that matter and that are important; since we all eat out and we all like being treated fairly.

411rio6hv8l-_sx333_bo1204203200_ event_jarayaman

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Food Sustainability-at places of learning (Part 2)

Follow up to my earlier blog piece on food sustainability initiatives at some of the leading educational institutes around NYC, this piece focuses more on Sustainable Food Practices through the lens of one University, Columbia University in the City of New York. Here’s what I found out.

Columbia University dining serves 12,000 meals a day on campus and each meal consists of 500 pounds of protein. According to the Director of Dining services at Columbia University, “There is very little waste that happens at the other stages due to a lean purchasing strategy. Additionally, to avoid food waste, a lot of food is first prepped in a raw state and not cooked. We do this by following a production report- it proves to be a helpful tool to ensure the right amount is cooked based on experience and estimates.” This implies most food waste at the University happens at the post-cooking/consumer stage.

However, they have found an innovative means of reducing even this category of food waste by reusing much of the leftover; such as coffee is served as iced coffee, bananas are made into banana pudding etc.

An important but unavoidable source of food waste at Columbia (which is probably also true for other educational institutions) is when food is thrown out because it has been exposed over a meal period. This happens because a large percentage of students have meals throughout the meal period, which involves dining services continuously replenishing the displayed food for the dining laggers so that the food experience of the last student is no less than that of the first student. This food unfortunately due to current Board of Health regulations cannot be recovered (i.e. donated). One way around this waste according to a LeanPath® case study on Boston College was, “Front-line staff members came up with a creative idea to scale back the salad bar after peak time by using different merchandising, displaying upside-down pans as the centerpiece and using smaller pans for the product.”2

In another initiative, Columbia Dining and the sustainable student body (also known as EcoReps) jointly initiated and managed an on-campus composter. Additionally, a partnership between the University and GrowNYC encourages both the on campus and off campus community to bring over their food scraps for composting to the Greenmarkets that visit the campus once a week. About 20 gallons of food scraps each day are collected for composting. Amazingly, Columbia Dining also recovers and recycles about 4,000 gallons of cooking oil annually through The Doe Fund. They in turn have a program in place that trains men for future employment – and gives them immediate employment in picking up cooking oil from restaurants and other dining locations. They then work with METRO® Biofuels to recycle the oil into bio diesel fuel.

Over the years, quite a few sustainable supplier practices have also been put in place, which are noticeable even to the indifferent eye. For example, bottled water is not served at most events on campus; the preferred means being to have tall glass jars of tap water. The estimated 6.6 million napkins used annually are made of 100 percent post-consumer recycled content.  Biodegradable plates, bowls, cups, and flatware are used in almost all dining areas as well as reusable disposable/to-go containers. Coffee being a huge consumable by students, teachers, and staff alike, a more eco-friendly “rippled” coffee cup was recently introduced that would eliminate the need for coffee sleeves. Made from 75% recycled materials with non-toxic, water-based ink, the cup will divert approximately 4,500 pounds of waste from landfills annually3.

Students go a long way in both advocating and inspiring some of the more success University initiatives. For example, the University introduced sustainable seafood and local purchasing (as much as practical) which were huge hits on their own merit, however others such as ‘plate scraping’ were student proposed ideas and equally popular. This particular idea consists of making students aware of how much leftover they left on their plates that had to be scraped and thrown away. It both made them aware as well as guilt-ed them into changing their behavior. With this they were able to reduce food waste from 220 pounds per meal period (in 2009) to 20 pounds per meal period (presently).

The good news is, Universities are not alone when it comes to practicing sustainability. STARS, The Sustainability Tracking, Assessment, & Rating System, is a transparent framework for self-reporting by colleges and universities that produces detailed measurements of sustainability performances.  It was developed by AASHE, The Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.  Columbia University was previously graded on the College Sustainability Report Card. In 2012, Columbia received an overall Gold rating from STARS.  Dining received the maximum points of 6.0/6.0 based on the percentage of food and beverage expenditures devoted to sustainable food and beverages, which was 51.79%.  Dining was also rated on a variety of measures introduced.

In conclusion, the picture I saw is that of definite improvements on college campuses across the nation both in terms of food offerings and food practices. The only way to keep this up or even take things up a notch is by both being aware of the larger issues in the area of Food Sustainability and asking for the better changes. After all, there are many ways of influencing sustainability in our lives and many start right in our kitchen or in this case, the University kitchen.

columbia dining

Students eating at John Jay Hall source:

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Food Sustainability-at places of learning (Part 1)

New York City is home to 215 higher education institutions that are responsible for educating nearly 500,000 students[i].  Dining facilities have a significant impact on the carbon footprint of their respective universities. Think food miles, think water, excess chemicals, food waste and landfills etc. The good news is that over the years, food sustainability has gained prominence at Universities and a lot is being done to address food sustainability in day-to-day operations. Presently, some colleges are even offering food related programs, the two most popular programs being NYU’s Master in Food Studies and ‘The New School Programs on Food Studies’.

Being a recent graduate from Columbia University’s MS in Sustainability Management with a focus on and interest in sustainable food systems, I thought it would be a great idea to research, observe, and evaluate how educational institutions are practicing food sustainability on their own campuses.  My hope was to be pleasantly surprised with the opportunities and solutions offered as well as to make aware of and share various challenges this particular sector faces.

This blog piece is divided into two sections. Part 1 focuses on various offerings and its implementations at certain key NYC educational institutes. I decided to focus on obviously my alma mater but also some of the other highly visible and public institutes. Part 2 dwells into details of Sustainable Food practices at Columbia University in specific.

Some overall measures being instituted are listed in this table:


Comparison table

 A little bit more information about some of the programs mentioned above:

Meatless Mondays:
This is an international initiative to reduce the amount of meat in our diet by 15% to improve personal health and the health of the planet. Just one day a week can help
reduce the risk of cancers, heart disease &Type 2 Diabetes. Click here for more information.

Sustainable Seafood:
When seafood offered is based on Seafood Watch safe list based on guidelines set by non-profit organization’s programs such as Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch. This ensures fish offered on a daily basis are from the fish populations that are plentiful and caught or farmed according to sustainability standards.

Meet Your New Fitness Pal (NYU specific):
A calorie counter, diet tracker and exercise journal all in one, the free My Fitness Pal app is meant to help students stay on track with their health goals. It also has the ability to link to the menus of various university dining locations allowing for healthier eating habits.

Food Waste:
Food waste at places of education can be categorized into two buckets, consumer waste and pre-consumer waste. Pre-consumer waste refers to the food wasted by dining operators. Universities especially have large food operations. These large operations require a system’s approach to help them identify what, where and why waste was occurring to avoid the same in future. Similarly, preventing consumer waste at universities requires constant education followed by behavior changing strategies. Some of these include introducing students to tray less dining, partnering up with a local food charity, creating a student led garden using in house compost etc.

Tray less dining:
Removing trays throughout University cafeterias has resulted in savings in the thousands of gallons of water per day (spent in washing the trays) and approximately 50 pounds of food waste per meal (from students taking only what they can carry and therefore eat).


New School:
2 Leanpath Case Study:
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Learning about Anaerobic Digestion through a live tour

Sometime this September, a few of us waste geeks got invited to tour a municipal waste facility as well as a company trying to convert waste into energy. It was both fascinating and heart breaking; mainly because the company has such a great idea and business model but is still waiting for all necessary permits from the government. Hopefully they will get all necessary approvals very soon and will be in the news as a great success story. The visit still made me think this would be a great opportunity to both learn and report on the various technologies, parties, parts involved in this process of converting waste to energy; so read on.

Some related terms:

Co digestion After a bit of research, I was able to find the following general description of Co-digestion. It refers to the anaerobic digestion (AD) of multiple (hence the ‘co’ part) biodegradable substrates (feed stocks) in an AD system. The general idea is to maximize the production of biogas in an AD plant by adding substrates that produce much more biogas per unit mass than the base substrate. (src:

Anaerobic digestion: is a series of biological processes in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of large supplies of oxygen. One of the end products of this process is biogas.

Aerobic digestion: In an aerobic system (such as composting), the microorganisms access free, gaseous oxygen directly from the surrounding atmosphere. The end products of an aerobic process are primarily carbon dioxide and water and of course, the reusable compost.

BOD vs. COD: The quality of the wastewater (speaking for US regulation only) is measured by a variety of factors. One of them being lab tests determining the concentration of carbon-based (i.e., organic) compounds aimed at establishing the relative “strength” of wastewater. Related measures are, Biochemical Oxygen Demand (BOD), Chemical Oxygen Demand (COD), Total Organic Carbon (TOC), and Oil and Grease (O&G). (src:

Tipping fee: In the simplest of terms, this is the fee charged by the waste haulers (the companies that collect waste from transfer stations) for collecting the waste and then ‘tipping’ the collected waste into a landfill. The image below should help explain it.

Project Background:

This project is currently in pilot phase and aims to use municipal waste generated by the local communities to feed the digester. This waste was otherwise headed for the landfills where they would not only take space but also produce odor and harmful methane gas (a gas that contributes towards climate change). To run operations smoothly, the digester needs to receive raw material reliably, the more organic raw material (i.e. food waste), the better. Although the digester can accept all types of waste, the richer the organic component, the better. What would help is legislation encouraging and requiring food waste as a separate waste stream. Currently in the municipality where this project is based out of, only two towns collect organics/food waste as a separate waste stream. As some of you may know, there are two related food related projects gaining popularity throughout the world simultaneously. One is to produce less food waste being more aware of what we eat/produce vs. what we waste and the second initiative is trying to ensure the food waste that does get generated, doesn’t end up in the landfill. For this reason, this and similar projects are both very necessary and should be encouraged by all-government and citizens alike.

$$ and Process:

Currently the local government pays $130/ton tipping fee to waste haulers such as Waste Management to have waste put in a landfill. Using this new technology (a machine from Denmark), the project aims to charge the govt. $60/ton tipping fee for having all the waste come to the transfer facility and then be converted into 60% bioslurry and 40% clean shredded recyclable plastic that can be pelletized. The company is trying to get funds from an Energy resilience bank that specializes in sponsoring such projects that look into generating clean (renewable) energy.

The current slurry has volatile content that needs to be reduced or checked. The bioslurry once created is captured in a dewatering box. Once the majority of the water has been removed (which is then recycled and reused), the rest of the bioslurry is transported to the nearby Duck Island, NJ Anaerobic Digestion facility, is about 5 miles away. Final product from the anaerobic digester would be biogas, compost, and, liquid ammonium sulfate, (NH₄)₂SO₄, which is an inorganic salt that is used that can be used as a soil fertilizer. It is also often used as a good solution to water treatment, especially to treat wastewater. The biogas produced can power the whole facility as well as the city’s nearby water treatment facility.


This is an amazing breakthrough, which gives three immediate benefits:

  1. No transportation costs involved in moving the collected waste from the transfer stations to the landfill
  2. Significant reduction in waste going to landfills (slated for the landfill located in Grose, PA) which means no waste of land, no greenhouse gasses generated from the landfill, no NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) claims, and no waste of recyclable material going to landfills
  3. Generation of clean gas and clean liquid fertilizer from the conversion of the waste

Additional benefits include:

  1. No compost created; currently there is too much compost with nowhere to go
  2. 130 or more jobs created to run the Anaerobic Digester and related activities
  3. No bad odors.

What could be stalling it?

Some of the reasons this project may be having a hard time getting off the ground is because of the existing monopoly of the waste haulers. Currently, for all waste haulers, tipping fee is 50% of all the revenue generated, thus a change in process would result in this revenue getting lost. Also, if legislation could be put in place to have organics collected separately, that would help since organics are exempt from tipping fee. And the fastest way to get any sort of legislation passed is to take active interest in such affairs, which is just starting to happen in public circles. For things to take a turn for the best, we just need to hope and pray the old adage stays true of ‘Better late than never.’

Interested in learning more on this project?

Garbage-container-being-tipped 13796021-standard

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