Annie Leonard and Stuff

Annie Leonard, author of Story of Stuff, loves to dig through trash.

She has the power to investigate where our stuff comes from, and where it goes after we throw it ‘away’. Her determination to get to the bottom of the Story of Stuff has her digging through landfills all over the world. She can communicate powerfully, making fun little videos that attract millions of viewers.

Annie Leonard produced a little animation, Story of Stuff, seven years ago. By now, the twenty-minute video has been seen over 15 million times! The Story of Stuff, later also published as a book, evolved into the Story of Stuff Project, launching a series of short animations on different subjects, such as Story of Electronics, Story of Cosmetics and Story of Bottled Water.

Leonard loves to dig into trash. “It’s one of my favorite activities when I travel,” she says. “I love to see what people throw away: there’s no better way to get to know a family, a community, a country…. We should look more into our own trashcans, and see that very little of what we throw away is really disposable.”

As a little girl, Annie made her first connection about the story of stuff from seeing chopped down forests in the countryside and cardboard in her trashcan. Then she visited Fresh Kills, the dump island floating outside Manhattan. Over 50 years, Fresh Kills swallowed more than 11,000 tons daily. “When they shut it down in 2001, the mountain of waste was 25 times taller than the Statue of Liberty,” recalls Annie. “It really impacted me and gave me lots to think about. Who could have conceived this monstrous system? How do we allow for this to continue happening? I didn’t even begin to understand. It took me 20 years to make the connection.”

According to Leonard, each year we generate 25 million tons of e-waste as a result of a system that needs to change. “No matter how much we try to reduce the amount of waste in our trash can, the largest waste is produced by industry,” she continues. “That’s where social pressure and political action are key. We need laws of productive responsibility for the whole world. 80% of the impact of a product in decided in the design phase.”

She traveled to Bangladesh, India and Haiti, where she completed the story of our stuff, our system. In her book, she makes the connection between the deforestation in the Amazon and Indonesia, the removal of the mountaintops in West Virginia, the tar sands in Alberta, and the disposal of waste in remote places, out of our view.

“I don’t like that they call me anti-consumerist,” says Leonard, “I think there’s plenty of negativity in the world already.” The combination of Annie’s disarming smile, together with the simple animation by Free Range Studios, and her well-researched, straightforward message are quite captivating. No wonder she’s become a celebrity.

In the Story of Stuff video you discover fascinating facts about our consumption habits, such as how 99% of the things that we buy stopped being used after six months. “I do want to denounce the effect of hyper-consumerism, which happens when we take more resources than what we need, and that the planet can sustain. With 5% of the population, the US consumes 30% of the world’s resources, and produces 30% of the waste. One doesn’t have to be a math genius to realize that we would need three to five planets if all 6,800 million Earth inhabitants were to copy the consumerism of the American dream.”

A paradigm shift is needed. “People are changing their relationship to stuff,” continues the author. “We don’t need to posses and accumulate things, but simply have access to them: sharing them, reusing them, exchanging them, prolonging their use so that they don’t end up in a landfill… and creating community in the process.”

Leonard’s Story of Stuff takes you to an underside look at our manufacturing and consumption patterns in five steps: extraction, production, distribution, consumption and disposal, in a very entertaining and eye-opening way.

“There’s a fundamental truth, that what we call ‘waste’ are mostly resources. All of it mixed up is not good for anything. We end up burying them in a landfill, or what’s worse, burning them. If we separate them, we will be able to use them again. That’s why it’s important to know our own trash, to dig into it to see how much we can reuse. It’s a fascinating activity.”

Change is inevitable. “The question is not whether we will change, but how we will change. Will we do it gradually, with relative effort, but voluntarily? Or will we do it suddenly and by omission?”


William McDonough and the Circle of Life

William McDonough, author of Cradle to Cradle.

Imagine a world where disposable plates were made of rice husk, implanted with seeds. In this world, the signs would read, “Please litter,” as the plates would fertilize and plant new crops.

William McDonough has fully imagined this world. Using examples from nature, he wrote “Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things,” with German chemist Michael Braungart. The book itself is made of completely reusable plastic. Dip its pages in hot water, and the biodegradable ink comes off so that you can print something new.

McDonough dreams of a world in which ecology, economy and equity go hand-in-hand.

“Industry still believes that sustainable and green is not economical,” McDonough says. “Many business people listen to these ideas with interest, but then say, ‘It looks good, but how much is it going to cost me?’ I keep telling them that innovation is not only good, but very profitable in the midterm, plus it makes your company socially and environmentally relevant.”

In our current “Cradle to Grave” model, we approach the world with eco-efficiency, meaning a slower destruction of our environment. “Instead of making our impact less bad, why don’t we focus on making it 100 percent good?” asks McDonough. Our current practices of recycling are really “down cycling,” because the quality of the material worsens in the recycling process, and in many cases it requires the use of toxic chemicals, he says.

Why can’t we be like ants, which have a larger biomass than human beings in this Earth and have been industrious for millions of years, yet they nurture plants, animals and soil? In contrast, as he says in the book, “human industry has been in full swing

Why can’t we be like the cherry tree, which takes from the environment and at the same time feeds it? A cherry tree is not efficient, it produces more blooms than it needs, but it’s effective. Rather than eco-efficiency, the authors invite us to take on eco-effectiveness.

“Efficiency’s become a sacred word. What if we’re doing things wrong, even if they’re efficient?” McDonough asks. “In nature nothing is disposable, and everything forms part of a regenerative cycle. That’s true efficiency, with one purpose: to maintain the ecosystem and make life possible. In nature, everything is a nutrient. ‘Waste’ is a human invention.”

Currently, we design packaging that lasts much longer than the products they are designed to protect. What if we could use rice husks to make the same products that are currently made of Styrofoam? Actually, it’s already being done in Korea. The rice husk packaging material can then be reused to make bricks.

In the Cradle to Cradle (C2C) concept, products are designed considering the present and the future of the materials. Everything’s a nutrient; even plastic, if we think of it as something that will feed future products, instead of just ending in a landfill. McDonough calls plastic, glass and metal the “technological nutrients”; cotton, wood and cork are “compostable biological nutrients.”

“The first requisite is to separate materials according to their metabolism,” says McDonough. “The second one, which I call nutrient management, is to decide what are we going to do with them after use. The third is that they’re manufactured with renewable energy. The fourth is to minimize water use, and maximize its reutilization. The last, and not least, is that products are made with social responsibility.”

McDonough has worked on C2C designs, such as the Think chair from Steelcase, made with 37 percent recycled materials, and with 98 percent of its content being “upcyclable.” So far, about 300 products have gained the C2C certification.

Many other products such as complete buildings, construction materials, carpets, artificial turf, roofs, diapers, etc., have been designed following this standard. China’s now adopting the C2C concept, as well as India, some parts of Europe and the U.S.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful, if, rather than bemoaning human industry, we had reason to champion it?” asks the authors. “If environmentalists as well as automobile makers could applaud every time someone exchanged an old car for a new one, because new cars purified the air and produce drinking water. If new buildings imitated trees, providing shade, songbird habitat, food, energy and clean water. If each new addition to a human community deepened ecological, cultural, as well as economic wealth?


The Magical Seaweed: Youth Theater for the Ocean.

The Magical Seaweed: Mica’s Adventure in the Sea of Plastic, a play by Isaac Hernández and performed by students from Open Alternative Middle School (OAS), opens at La Cumbre Junior High Theatre (2255 Modoc Road, Santa Barbara, CA 93101) on March 16 and 17, at 6:00 pm (Admission $5). The play, inspired in part by a field trip taught by Art From Scrap Green Schools environmental educators, focuses on the impact that plastic litter is having upon the world’s oceans, while providing solutions and inspiration.

Hernández, a parent at OAS, as well as photographer, writer, and painter, says that The Magical Seaweed is a play for adults and children alike. “The kids add a great dose of humor to a very serious issue. In the play, we try to laugh at the problems while providing sustainability solutions.” Students at OAS worked with Hernández to invent their characters and to create the relevant story, learning by playing. The students designed and built their costumes and sets using plastic litter and trash they collected from their homes. Other materials were donated by Art From Scrap, environmental partner for this production.

“I was inspired to write a play about the negative impacts that plastic has on the ocean after going on the Watershed Resource Center field trip. I saw that many of the kids didn’t know about plastic in the ocean and that they seemed really interested. This motivated me to write the play.” Hernández shares. “The Magical Seaweed takes the mission of Art From Scrap, educating about the environment and arts, and makes people think about how their actions affect ocean health.”

Hernández was also inspired by many of the environmental leaders he has photographed and interviewed for the EcoHeroes Project, including oceanologist Sylvia Earle, Andy Lipkis from TreePeople, Paul Stamets of Fungi Perfecti, artificial leaf inventor Daniel Nocera, and William McDonough, co-author of Cradle to Cradle. The children learn about sustainable solutions while having fun and making their voices heard.

“Many people have worked to make The Magical Seaweed,” says Isaac. “It wouldn’t be possible without the students and their Open Alternative Middle School teacher, David Archer; plus the many parents, grandparents, students, and volunteers. In the same way, it will require the collaboration of many to find and implement solutions for a sustainable Planet Water. As Sylvia Earle told me, ‘the good news is that this is the best chance we’ve got. Never before did we know; and never again will we have such a great opportunity.’ This is part of the message of the play, that we can each contribute our grain of sand, while loving life.”

The evening will include a bake sale and raffle benefiting Art from Scrap and OAS, and a “Trash Art” gallery show of works created by the students. Hernández promises that “The Magical Seaweed will make you laugh and move you. The power of theater has always been to communicate current events. We all learned a lot in the process, like the fact that 70% of the Earth’s oxygen is generated by the oceans.”

The Magical Seaweed is dedicated to three beloved people our community recently lost: OAS teacher and parent Carmen Alexander, filmmaker Mike deGruy, and activist Selma Rubin. They embodied a love for the outdoors, the environment, the arts, and positive education. Carmen was a teacher in the class and contributed to the creation of The Magical Seaweed. Her son, Sasha, is a member of the cast.

March 16 and 17, 6pm
La Cumbre Junior High Theater
2255 Modoc Road, Santa Barbara, CA 93101
Admission $5

Art lovers can invite friends via Facebook for the Friday or the Saturday event.

Isaac Hernández is available for interviews. Members of the press are invited to witness a rehearsal or attend the event with complimentary tickets. Contact for more information.

About Art From Scrap:  Art From Scrap is Santa Barbara’s Environmental Education and Art Center.  Art From Scrap provides the community with a Green Schools environmental education program, an Arts Center, and a Reuse retail store. The Watershed Resource Center is managed by the AFS Green Schools environmental education program.

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