May 15, 2013
There are plenty of examples of structures built from recycled materials—even Buddhist temples have been made from them. In Sima Valley, California, an entire village known as Grandma Prisbey’s Bottle Village was constructed from reused glass. But this is no new concept—back in 1960, executives at the Heineken brewery drew up a plan for a “brick that holds beer,” a rectangular beer bottle that could also be used to build homes.
Gerard Adriaan Heineken acquired the “Haystack” brewery in 1864 in Amsterdam, marking the formal beginning of the eponymous brand that is now one of the most successful international breweries. Since the first beer consignment was delivered to the United States upon the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, it has been a top seller in the United States. The distinctive, bright green of a Heineken beer bottle can be found in more than 70 countries today. The founder’s grandson, Alfred Heineken, began his career with the company in 1942 and was later elected Chairman of the Executive Board at Heineken International. Alfred, better known as “Freddy,”oversaw the design of the classic red-starred label released in 1964. He had a good eye for marketing and design.”Had I not been a beer brewer I would have become an advertising man,” he once said. When Freddy’s beer took off in the international market, he made it a point to visit the plants the company had opened as a part of its globalization strategy.
In 1960, Freddy took a trip to the island of Curacao in the Caribbean Sea and discovered that he could barely walk 15 feet on the beach without stepping on a littered Heineken bottle. He was alarmed by two things: First, the incredible amount of waste that his product was creating due to the region’s lack of infrastructure to collect the bottles for reuse. (Back then, bottles were commonly returned for refilling, lasting about 30 trips back and forth to the breweries). Second, the dearth of proper building materials available to those living in the impoverished communities he visited. So he thought up an idea that might solve both of these problems: A brick that holds beer.
The rectangular, Heineken World Bottle or WOBO, designed with the help of architect John Habraken, would serve as a drinking vessel as well as a brick once the contents were consumed. The long side of the bottle would have interlocking grooved surfaces so that the glass bricks, once laid on their side, could be stacked easily with mortar or cement. A 10-foot-by-10-foot shack would take approximately 1,000 bottles (and a lot of beer consumption) to build. Yu Ren Guang explains in Packaging Prototypes 3: Thinking Green:
“On returning to Holland [from Curacao], Alfred set about conceiving the first ever bottle designed specifically for secondary use as a building component, thereby turning the function of packaging on its head. By this philosophy, Alfred Heineken saw his beer as a useful product to fill a brick with while being shipped overseas. It became more a case of redesigning the brick than the bottle.”
A handful of designers have accepted Alfred’s WOBO as one of the first eco-conscious consumer designs out there. Martin Pawley, for example, writes in Garbage Housing, that the bottle was “the first mass production container ever designed from the outset for secondary use as a building component.”
There were many variations of the original prototype—all of which were ultimately rejected as many components were considered unworkable. For example, a usable beer bottle needs a neck from which to pour the beer and a protruding neck makes it harder to stack the product once the beer’s run out—problematic for brick laying. The finalized design came in two sizes—350 and 500 milimeters (35 and 50 centimeters)—the smaller of which acted as half-bricks to even out rows during construction. In 1963, the company made 50,000 WOBOs for commercial use.
Both designs (one of the wooden prototypes is pictured in Nigel Whiteley’s Design for Society), were ultimately rejected by the Heineken company. The first prototype for example, was described by the Heineken marketing team as too “effeminate” as the bottle lacked ‘approprate’ connotations of masculinity. A puzzling description, Cabinet writes, “considering that the bottle consisted of two bulbous compartments surmounted by a long shaft.”
For the second model, Habraken and Heineken had to thicken the glass because it was meant to be laid horizontally—a costly decision for an already progressive concept. The established cylindrical designs were more cost effective and could be produced faster than the proposed brick design. But what most likely worked against Habraken’s design was that customers simply liked the easy-to-hold, cylindrical bottle.
Though the brick bottles never saw the market, in 1965 a prototype glass house was built near Alfred Heineken’s villa in Noordwijk, outside Amsterdam. Even the plastic shipping pallets intended for the product were reused as sheet roofing. The two buildings still stand at the company’s former brewery-turned-museum, The Heineken Experience.
Where Heineken failed in creating a reusable brick bottle, the company EM1UM succeeded. The bottles, which were easier to manufacture for most automatic bottling machines than Heineken’s design, were made to attach lengthways or sideways by pushing the knobs of one into the depressions of another. EM1UM was mostly successful in Argentina and collected awards for bottle designs including prisms, cubes and cylinders.
In 2008, French design company, Petit Romain, made plans to make its own take on Alfred Heineken’s WOBO design, the Heineken Cube. It’s similar to the original concept in that it’s stackable, packable and altogether better for travel than the usual, clinky, cylindrical bottles. The major difference is that the cube is meant to save space, not to build homes. Like Freddy’s WOBO, the Cube is still in the prototype stage.
Though Freddy’s brick design never took off, it didn’t stop Heineken International from maintaining the lead in the global brew market. By ’68, Heineken merged with its biggest competitor, Amstel. By ’75 Freddy was one of the richest men in Europe.
A fun, slightly-related fact: Alfred Heineken and his chauffeur were kidnapped in 1983 and held at a 10 million dollar ransom in a warehouse for three weeks. Lucky for Freddy, one of the kidnappers gave away their location mistakenly while calling for some Chinese takeout. According to the Guardian, after the incident, Heineken required at least two bodyguards to travel with him at all times.
Alfred played a large role in the company’s expansion, championing a series of successful acquisitions, right up until his death in 2002. While his plans for translucent, green bottle homes never came to fruition commercially, the Wat Pa Maha Chedi Kaew temple, constructed from a mix of one million bottles from Heineken and the local Chang beer remains proof of the design’s artfulness. For some designers, it seems, there is no such thing as garbage.
December 10, 2012
When Starbucks announced in late November that it was unveiling a new $7-per-grande-cup brew in select stores, reaction was mixed. Seattle Weekly’s food writer, Hanna Raskin wrote about an office taste test, “The consensus was that the coffee’s good, but not appreciably better than Starbucks’ standard drip.” And yet, the Costa Rica Finca Palmilera Geisha has been doing okay. The Los Angeles Times reported that the online stock sold out in 24 hours, at $40 a bag.
While the news might elicit a Liz-Lemon worthy eye-roll or shooting pangs of jealousy depending on the person, it might actually be something we just have to get used to. Published just a few weeks before Starbucks unrolled its cup of liquid gold, a study from the Royal Botanic Gardens in the U.K. and the Environment Coffee Forest Forum in Ethiopia warned that up to 70 percent of the world’s coffee supply could be gone by 2080 due to climate change.
Turns out, the warnings are actually pretty consistent across the board, the World Bank is practically hoarse with all its calls for caution. On November 18, the World Bank released a new study about the effects of climate change over a long period of time, concluding, “The world is barreling down a path to heat up by 4 degrees at the end of the century if the global community fails to act on climate change, triggering a cascade of cataclysmic changes that include extreme heat-waves, declining global food stocks and a sea-level rise affecting hundreds of millions of people.”
New York University associate professor of food studies and economist Carolyn Dimitri says attention to the vulnerability of the world’s food systems is a step in the right direction but not enough. “These are really big and important groups that are talking about this, but how are they going to gain traction given the way our food system has become so industrialized?”
As someone who’s been studying organic food marketing and access since her days at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dimitri says she wasn’t too surprised to hear about the $7 coffee. “Living in Manhattan,” she says, “people would probably pay even more than that for a cup of coffee.” She sees the launch as a way to appeal to a new set of customers who might have seen Starbucks as selling adequate but not speciality coffee, whether it be for taste or for its unique ethical sourcing, which Starbucks is seeking to expand.
Though Starbucks aims to have all of its coffee meet standards for farmer wages and working conditions by 2015, Dimitri says, “My students tend to be a little bit suspicious of the big companies that enter this area,” as when Walmart began carrying organic products. But Dimitri has a hard time criticizing large companies motives if the end result is an improved livelihood for farmers. Ethical sourcing practices, as defined by Conservation International, include provisions for environmental sustainability as well as economic.
But the commitment is hard to measure. Taking Starbucks as an example, Dimitri says, “You can do a good thing but really a better thing would be for no one to buy coffee in a coffee shop in a disposable cup. Does ethically sourcing some of your coffee, is that sufficient to outweigh all of the garbage that’s created?”
The impact of climate change is hard to estimate but the study out of Ethiopia took predictions from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to ask what would happen to Arabica bean crops if the temperature increased within a range of 1.8° C to 4° C.
The potential losses would not only mean more expensive coffee for consumers, but fewer jobs and less economic stability for producers. According to the report, “total coffee sector employment [is] estimated at about 26 million people in 52 producing countries.” The study also reports that coffee is the second most traded commodity after oil.
In another alarm-sounding report from the World Bank, the development agency writes that though global food prices have fallen from a peak in July, “prices remain at high levels – 7 percent higher than a year ago.” Some specific crop prices are much higher still, including maize, which is 17 percent more expensive than it was in October, 2011.
In the case of coffee, Colombia recently announced a plan to offer insurance to growers to protect them from losses incurred from severe weather, according to South Africa’s Times Live.
“More people should be thinking about it and talking about it,” says Dimitri. “I don’t think that our policymakers take it as seriously as the researchers do.”
For the consumers who are concerned and have the means and access to purchase sustainably, ethically produced foods, Dimitri says, “they’re willing to make sacrifices in other areas.”
Through a sheer appeal to quality, Starbucks is hoping consumers will find that reason enough to spend on the newest varietal in its Reserve line. Plus, it’s actually not the most expensive cup of coffee ever sold, if you count add-ons. One customer with a veritable blank-check coupon went wild crafting the priciest drink he could, according to Piper Weiss, and topped out at $23.60. His drink–if you can really still call it that–consisted of, “one Java Chip Frappucino ($4.75), plus 16 shots of espresso ($12), a shot of soy milk (.60), a drop of caramel flavoring (.50), a scoop of banana puree ($1), another scoop of strawberry puree (.60), a few vanilla beans(.50), a dash of Matcha powder (.75), some protein powder (.50) and a caramel and mocha drizzle to cap it off (.60).”
Still, for a straight up cup of Joe, it takes the cake. ”It is the highest price we’ve ever had,” a spokesperson told CNBC, adding, “It raises the bar.”
October 20, 2011
Salmon farming has received its share of criticism for being detrimental to the environment. Many salmon are raised in net pens, which allow fish waste, chemicals and farming byproducts to spread into the wild. There’s also the threat of pathogens that could thrive in crowded pens and escape to harm natural fish populations. One disease, infectious salmon anemia, was once thought to be a problem exclusive to farmed Atlantic salmon. A new study by a group of researchers from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia has found that this influenza-like virus is infecting naturally ocurring salmon populations.
Infectious salmon anemia was first observed 1984 and occurs most often in overcrowded, filthy salmon pens. As the name suggests, the virus causes anemia, the condition in which a body doesn’t have enough healthy red blood cells to deliver oxygen to its tissues. Infected fish may exhibit symptoms—such as pale gills and loss of appetite—or they may outwardly seem perfectly fine. While the disease doesn’t pose any risks to humans, it can wipe out upwards of 70 percent of a farmed salmon population.
This is the first time the disease has been found in wild fish off the coast of North America. After observing a decline in the salmon population off the British Columbia coast, researchers collected 48 specimens for study and discovering two juvenile fish infected with the disease. While there is currently no evidence to definitively link fish farming to the presence of salmon anemia in wild populations, there could be devastating ramifications, not just for the fishing industry, but for the wildlife that depends on salmon for food. “It’s a disease emergency,” James Winton, director of the U.S. Geological Survey’s fish health section, told the Associated Press. “We’re concerned. Should it be introduced, it might be able to adapt to Pacific salmon.”
September 20, 2011
California is on the road to becoming the fourth state in the union to ban shark fin soup on account of the ecological impact that rising demand is having on shark populations. A bill nixing the sale, trade or possession of shark fins passed the state senate on September 6 and is awaiting governor Jerry Brown’s signature to be passed into law. The namesake ingredient for this Asian delicacy is harvested by fishermen who catch sharks, remove the fins and dump the carcasses back in the ocean. While other parts of the shark are edible or can be used for other purposes, it makes more financial sense for the fishermen to haul back the fins because they are the most valuable: they can sell (depending on size and the species of shark) for upwards of $880 per pound on the Hong Kong market. (In 2003, a fin from a basking shark sold for $57,000 in Singapore.) It is estimated that between 26 and 73 million sharks are killed worldwide each year for their fins, and with sharks unable to reproduce at such a rate to meet human demand, sustainable shark fishing is a bit unrealistic.
So what’s the big to-do over this dish? It’s certainly not the fin’s flavor—which has been described as being relatively tasteless—but rather it’s unique, rubbery texture. Once dried, processed and incorporated into the soup, the fin looks like fine, translucent noodles whose culinary value is in their mouthfeel—all the flavor has to come from the other soup ingredients. Some chefs have tried using gelatin-based substitutes, but, for those intimately familiar with the dish, imitation shark falls short of capturing the feel of the real deal.
“This is the most stunning aspect of the entire economic empire that has arisen around shark’s fin soup” environmental reporter Juliet Eilperin writes of the soup in her book Demon Fish. “It is, to be blunt, a food product with no culinary value whatsoever. It is all symbol, no substance.” Indeed, with some iterations costing upwards of $100 a bowl, it’s a dish that, if nothing else, displays one’s social status.
The dining tradition that dates back to the Song Dynasty (960 to 1279 A.D.), becoming a mainstay of formal dining during the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644 A.D.), and it continues to be a popular dish at Chinese weddings. Opponents see the ban as an act of cultural discrimination, with the language of the bill singling out shark fin soup and giving no mention of other shark-based products, such as steaks or leather goods.
But shark populations are declining. In the 1980s, Hong Kong’s local shark populations were overfished to the point that its fishing market went bust. In the U.S., dusky shark numbers have declined by roughly 80 percent since the 1970s, with conservationists estimating that it would take upwards of 100 years for those populations to rebuild. In western Atlantic waters, hammerhead sharks have declined by up to 89 percent over the past 25 years. And in spite of cultural traditions, the international community—with the exceptions of Japan, Norway and Iceland—has placed bans on whaling because humans put such a strain on those populations. Should the same reasoning be applied to sharks?
August 11, 2011
In the story of Kermit the Frog’s rise to fame recounted in The Muppet Movie, the road to stardom is paved with danger—namely in the form of Doc Hopper, the owner of a fast-food chain specializing in frog legs who wants Kermit for a singing, dancing spokesman. Our amphibian friend is horrified by the prospect. “All I can see are millions of frogs with tiny crutches,” he says in response to Hopper’s initial business proposal. And while things turned out well for Kermit and his talented troupe of friends, in real life, it’s not that easy being green. A worldwide penchant for frogs’ legs results in billions of frogs being snapped up and eaten every year, and according to a new study, it’s a dining habit that is putting considerable strain on frog populations.
In Europe, the mild-flavored meat has been a part of the cuisine for centuries, but demand for frogs’ legs skyrocketed after World War II to the point that local frog populations in Romania went extinct. France had to place a ban on the collection of indigenous frogs in 1992. To meet consumer demands, the European Union has been importing frogs from Asia. The United States is another major frog consumer, importing an average of 2,280 tons of legs per year, most of which come from, ironically, American bullfrogs.
India was a major frog exporter starting in the 1950s; however, the wild populations of those animals eventually collapsed, and with fewer predators to feed on insects and other pests, local agriculture started to suffer. It was a problem that prompted India to ban trade in frogs in 1987, and populations have since recovered. But now history may be repeating itself in Indonesia. Using farmed frogs may be a means of taking some pressure off the animals hopping around in the wild, but even that route poses problems: non-native frogs raised on farms can escape and introduce diseases or turn into an invasive species, which is the case with Indian bullfrogs raised in Madagascar. And then there are animal welfare issues (as dramatized on “The Muppet Show“); frogs are sometimes dismembered while still alive.
The study offers a number of ways to make frog leg trade sustainable and to minimize ecological impacts, such as setting export quotas, carefully monitoring wild populations, restricting commercial farming to native species and setting humane standards for the capture and slaughter of the animals. All that said, with so many issues surrounding this food source, would you spring for a plate of frogs’ legs?