There is a recent article I found particularly interesting and relevant that I just wanted to share. An editorial piece in the NY Times covered the problem of drinking water in the first world. Sound ironic? It is; in fact many people fail to realize that the U.S., among most other first world nations, has a supply of excellent grade tap water. Most of us walk into grocery stores to scour the most fancy, expensive bottled water. The fact of the matter is that Poland Spring and similar companies are robbing consumers blind. This is not a ploy for revolution, these are just facts that most of us overlook because a dollar or two is not an inconvenience.
At the realm of Poland Spring is Nestle Inc., a firm that owns about one-third of the bottled drinking water in the U.S., distributed using over 70 different brand names. Generally this water comes from the same “springs” that our tap water comes from. The only difference is that the company’s filtration systems are believed to be less regulated than our public water’s. This is not an issue which I have researched in depth, nor is it of particular importance to the following argument. If, however, you are interested in comparing the quality of tap water as compared to bottled, a good place to start is here.
Taking our attention back to the individual suppliers of water, there is further evidence that we are buying marked up tap. Coke and Pepsi’s Dasani and Aquafina are derived from filtered tap water. These two brands make up roughly 24% of the water we buy; all at astronomical prices. Even though the water is filtered, in the U.S., tap water is already filtered and some argue that tap water undergoes regulations that are stricter than bottled waters’. In essence, Coke and Pepsi are filtering there water for marketing purposes. The only difference is that you receive a nice piece of plastic that you can give back to the environment.
Looking at the issue economically, I was astonished to find that bottled water is more expensive than just about any liquid we use. Let’s compare bottled water to our precious oil; while we gasp at the thought of $4 gallons of gas, a gallon of Evian water is upwards of $20. Think about all of the processes that go into creating gasoline from oil. Well, we are paying five times that much for something we already get at home for close to free. As one reporter puts it, “the buyers don’t even know the source… Evian spelled backwards is Naive.”
Further, let’s take one of the biggest U.S. consumers of bottled water, California. While most love to enjoy a cold bottle of Fiji or Evian, San Franciscan municipal water is probably much cleaner. Since it flows from Yosemite Park, the EPA doesn’t even require the city to filter it. At the same time, as one article puts it;
“If you bought and drank a bottle of Evian, you could refill that bottle once a day for 10 years, 5 months, and 21 days with San Francisco tap water before that water would cost $1.35 [the price of a bottle of Evian]. Put another way, if the water we use at home cost what even cheap bottled water costs, our monthly water bills would run $9,000.”
While all of those may seem convincing enough to fill up in the kitchen sink rather than running to a store on a sunny afternoon, many will still have another argument; the taste! I, for one, feel a difference in taste with every new glass of water. However, in blind taste tests conducted with 8 different sources of bottled water, an overwhelming majority of people could not tell the difference. Even more surprising, the CEO of San Pellegrino, was asked if he can pick out his brand of water out of fewer than ten samples. The man that boasted about the freshness and crispness of his brand took 5 tries to get it right! The trick here is simple, most tap water will taste identical to bottled as long as it is at the same temperature.
My last argument for tap water is one that has been on the minds of politicians as of late. As the world spends $50 billion dollars on bottled water a year (with the U.S. being in the lead), governments are starting to rethink their spending policies. If most people do not drink tap water, then the government will stop funding it. While the majority of us will be able to just continue only buying bottled water, those who can’t afford it will start to get sick. There is no reason to go down that path, ignoring one of the greatest luxuries we have.
There is a new phenomena in the green community. The term “eco-travel” is on everyone’s mind and tongue. The concept of reducing our carbon footprint seems to go against the idea of holiday travel. When we leave our local communities to see other parts of the world, we are helping foreign economies—surely a good thing. When we visit the serene beaches of Thailand, for instance, we are contributing to indigenous prosperity. We are, however, also using up natural resources in a less efficient way than the locals.
In order to accommodate Western tourists, and their dollars and euros, the Thai (for instance) are forced to build modernized hotels, methods of transportation, and tourist attractions that deplete their environment. Where before each person used a small allotment of water per day, now there are visitors that are using as much as they are accustomed to at home (i.e. 70,000 cubic ft. annually per capita in the United States). The same goes for electricity, natural gas, and oil. As tourists deplete these resources, one could argue, they are also paying a lot of money for the luxury. On the contrary, the appeal of destinations such as Thailand is their value in price. Essentially, Westerners can pay for the average wages and costs in the standards of the developing nation, while depleting resources at a rate that is foreign to the country. The consequence? Less people will have access to resources, as their price continues to rise.
While this spurt of pessimism may cause you to rethink the exciting Sahara adventure you have planned, there are alternatives. Eco-hotels, tours, and other travel options are springing up all over the world. You can now visit places like Machu Pichu in the Peruvian Andes with less concern about your carbon footprint. Family-owned tour operators provide a variety of tours through the rainforest, while maintaining the same amount of energy use as the locals. At the same time, hotels resort to re-using their water, recycling, and other green practices in order to provide accommodation that is both physically comfortable and ethical. A great resource for such travel, wherever it may be, is the online magazine Ecotravel, where you can browse a directory of eco-travel options based on your favored region.
This is, undoubtedly, a great step in the right direction for travel. There is, however, one serious problem: getting there. Jet fuel emitted from airplanes currently accounts for 12 percent of transit-related carbon emissions in the U.S. As bad enough as it is, airplane travel get far worse once one begins to analyze an airplane’s true impact on the environment.
A recent article found on the AlphaGalileo research news website talks about how researchers from London’s Imperial College have teamed with The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) to study aircraft contrails. These are vapor trails that can be left behind by airplanes. Analogous to the way human breadth is condensed into a cloud on a cold day, contrails are the combination of hot humid air produced by a plane when mixed with the cold air of the atmosphere. These formations are able to trap warmth in the air, contributing to global warming at a fast rate. Researchers say that these effects are more lethal to the environment than the carbon emissions of the plane.
The way to combat these vapor formations? Since they are formed in cold temperature, the airplanes can fly closer to the Earth, at altitudes that are warmer. One proposition is to set altitude regulations that consider temperatures. For instance, an airplane can fly lower in the winter and higher in the summer. The problem with this theory is that more fuel is required to fly at a lower altitude. Disregarding the lesser of evils approach, airplane manufacturers must start looking towards airplane designs that are more fuel efficient at lower altitudes.
Recently, there has been some progress in this field. Boeing has introduced its 787 “Dreamliner.” The aircraft is a relative leap forward, as it is at once more fuel efficient, less noisy, and more comfortable for passengers. By using lightweight composite materials, Boeing was able to produce a lighter plane. They then incorporated new, more fuel efficient engines, and applied their best aerodynamics to reduce fuel use by 20 percent. Let us hope that aircraft companies keep striving in this fashion and that governments keep up. In order to utilize the 787 to its greenest potential, regulations have to be set to ensure that the aircraft does not produce vapor trails.
Just a brief note regarding the e-waste article, there is a reader who directed me towards a few very helpful sources. The Computer Take Back Campaign has pushed past the EPA’s standards to encourage the elimination of brominated flame retardants, PVC, and mercury components. They also concentrate on greener packaging practices, safer labor standards, and more efficient recycling programs. Aside from news and resourceful links on the website, there is an area that allows you to take some action, such as sending an e-mail to the U.S. EPA.
The other site that I was referred to, The Product Stewardship Institute, is a Boston based non-profit that works to study the effects of e-waste and to propose and encourage solutions. I found a particular liking to this site because of the emphasis on legislative action. Case studies for state policies are provided, as well as ideas for different types of recycling programs.
Among the local legislation already passed (in a handful of states), Washington State and Minnesota seem to have the most progressive policies. Aside from working with government, PSI has also collaborated with Staples Inc. (SPLS) on an electronics recycling project. Costs were split between the EPA, for implementing the project, Staples, for helping design the project and for transporting the electronics, and for the manufacturers, for the costs of the actual recycling.
It is great to know that such organized research is happening in the U.S. today and that environmental problems can be a attacked in a number of ways. It would be nice to see a national policy, because the U.S. has enough purchasing power to make major changes universally, at very little cost to any one citizen. If a national policy is too slow, lobby your congressmen and push for changes at the state level.
One of the most underestimated forms of human pollution and carbon emissions on our planet comes from our waste of electronics. As eager as we are to buy a new iPhone, HDTV, or tablet PC, we often overlook the impacts of these purchases. As we advance technologically, we seem to fall behind environmentally. As electronics waste more electricity, they are even worse off if (and when) we throw them away. Made up of a laundry list of toxic materials, high-tech devices are a huge problem in the developing world. Luckily, it is within our reach to reform our production, consumption, and “recycling” practices within the decade.
Newer TVs use more electricity and are getting more popular. By 2009, the year that half of all of new U.S. TV sales are expected to be big screened HDTVs, it is expected that our televisions will use about 70 billion kilowatt-hours per year. This is about a 50% growth from last year’s averages. The electricity bill doesn’t stop there; we are buying more DVD players, laptops, desktops, game systems and smart phones as well. Think about your first cell phone. It probably had very few features, except that essential one that all phones do—it could make phone calls. Its battery, albeit weak, could probably last for a few days on end without a trip to the wall socket. Smart phones, on the other hand, tend to drain a lot of energy; requiring more powerful batteries and more charging.
The other, perhaps more serious problem with electronics is that they are on the far end of the biodegradability spectrum. In fact, they not only contain plastic and other polymers that are harmful to us and our ecosystem, they also contain tons of toxic chemicals. The ingredients of computer monitors, televisions, and laptop displays contain the likes of the neurotoxin lead, copper, beryllium, barium, zinc, chromium, silver, nickel, polyvinyl chloride (the plastic around wiring that generates dioxins and furans), and brominated flame retardants (documented to disrupt thyroid hormone function and act as neurotoxins in animals). Some of the flame retardants are used with the plastics in the casing of cellular phones and have been found in the breast milk of women in the U.S., not to mention marine mammals.
How do these chemicals get into our environment and, more so, our bodies? It all has to do with the life-cycle of these products. Typically, after natural resources and polymers are utilized to make very small chips and boards, they are encased and then marketed to the general public. After the purchase and use of these products, a time period which is also dwindling given the pace of innovation in this field, the consumer often ends up throwing these devices out with the trash. For instance, only about 10% of personal computers are ever recycled.
The overwhelming bulk of our e-waste goes straight into landfills, where about 20 – 50% of the toxic materials will begin to degrade in our soil—that is the good part. Some 50 – 80% will end up being shipped to decrepit villages in China. Here labor is cheap and you can find men and women heating toxic circuit boards over a fire in order to pluck out the chips. This process is repeated for all of the “valuable” materials. For the rest of the waste, a worker administers acid and then lets the lethal mixture flow into the river. It is said that these types of villages produce a toxic odor that can be felt miles away, while the waste ends up in our ecosystems, in our food supply.
In reaction to this horror, certain U.S. states have passed legislation in recent years which bans the disposal of certain chemicals. States like California, Iowa, and Massachusetts have initiated recycling programs of varying degrees. Big buyers are contributing too, with government, schools, and corporations all sending their machines back to manufacturers. Since there is no national initiative, or ban on all the harmful materials, much of the pollution is in full swing. The problem that arises is that most recycling programs are funded by taxpayers and are thus limited monetarily in their ability to extract materials.
Fortunately, the problem of these high costs has already been solved for us. The European Union has ruled to require manufacturers to take back the products that they sell in order to recycle them. The hefty costs of recycling are pinned on the manufacturer in a concept known as Extended Producer Responsibility. This system is financed by fees that are factored into the product’s cost. Not only does this method give incentives for consumers to recycle their e-waste (since they have already paid for it), but it also gives electronics manufacturers incentives to design their products with less hazardous waste. The less waste, the lower their recycling bill, the more profit they get to keep.
Luckily for Americans that have grown accustomed to seeing absolutely no action from their federal government on the environmental front, Europe’s policies will affect the whole world. Since most large electronics producers sell their products globally, their standards for Europe will end up in America as well.
What we can do for now, however, is to stay aware of the issue through informative sources such as the Basel Action Network and the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition. Among all else, we should send our electronics back to the manufacturer once we are done with them, thank Europe, and urge our own government to pass legislation that is universally beneficial.
It seems only human to sympathize with the environmental cause and the advancement of alternative energies. On the other hand, it is often hard for people like me, an average, middle-class, working city-dweller, to truly give back to the environment. There is no denying of the fact that anyone living in an urban environment (more than 50% of the world’s population as of May 2007) has a difficult time greening asphalt jungles. The United States Green Building Council reports that as of 2004, total emissions from the buildings that we are used to living in and going to work at contribute about 38% to the country’s overall CO² emissions. This form of pollution is expected to grow faster than any other form over the next 20-odd years.
What I am suggesting is that we continue to live and work, more or less, the way that we are accustomed to. However, I think that it is very feasible for us to offset some of our “dirty” habits, by making small, if important shifts in the way we view our daily lives. In hoping to lighten my own carbon footprint, I have compiled the following beginners guide to saving the environment, from the comfort of civilization:
Generally, in considering each of the following, have in mind a few factors that are unique to you. Consider where you live geographically, how you consume, and the relativity of your efforts (i.e. if you have a limited amount of time to work on offsetting your contribution to pollution, spend that time wisely).
1. Electricity: Some 50% of the electricity pumped into our homes and offices comes from coal, one of the dirtiest substances we can release into our atmosphere. One way to reduce your impact is to unplug any electrical device you have that is not in use (phone chargers, stereo equipment, light fixtures). Another thing to consider for the summer is to turn off all of your air conditioning until you get home.
The greenest idea, however, is to call your local natural gas and electricity provider to ask what options are available to you. Here in New York, we have the option to switch to wind power for our electricity supply, or to a slightly cheaper wind and water power combination. The cost will only be about 10% higher, but if you really want to get down to the dollars and cents of it, do some research on all of the tax benefits of going green.
2. Plastic: While the Japanese are working on a solution, the U.S. is not. One of the biggest ways that plastic enters our oceans is through the plastic particles we wash down our drains (in soaps, hair gel, and other beauty products). If you are living in a city, chances are it’s not too difficult to get your hands on soap made from aloe particles, natural rather than synthetic. One great company that I like is called Method. Aside from hand soap and body wash, they offer cleaning materials for the house that are all non-toxic and biodegradable. The key here is that there are no plastic ingredients, but it is also nice to breathe in natural cleaning products around your home. Remember, you don’t have to buy into any specific brand, just check the ingredients list before you purchase a shampoo or facial cream. You want to make sure that the main ingredient is something like jojoba seeds, walnut shells, grade seeds, apricot hulls, coarse sugar, or sea salt. Most else is plastic and is extremely harmful to the environment.
3. Food: Another critical issue to consider is what your body physically consumes. Consider the following, buying organic Californian strawberries in New York is a good idea for health reasons and for contributing to a greener, pesticide-free economy. However, relative to the amount of travel that the strawberries undergo, it is actually has a negative net effect. When you are buying produce and food in general, try to buy the local variety, it will be healthier and “greener.”
4. Transportation: The last point gets me thinking about another huge contributor to pollution—transportation. A great idea, as mentioned by a very insightful Goal Green reader, in a comment, is to ride a bicycle to work. I live in New York City, and I have to say that this is the ideal location to ride a bike (unless you are in walking distance of work). A bicycle is a completely green method of transportation, with no emissions, and the perk of staying in shape. However, remember to keep things in perspective; if you are traveling by bicycle to your local supermarket, remember that most of the food arrived there by plane, so again, try to eat local products.
5. Garbage: This one is really simple. If you don’t have labeled garbage bins outside (i.e. a green one for paper and a blue one for metal, glass, and plastic), you can simply throw these materials out in clear bags. If you remember to keep paper separate from the metal, glass, and plastic, sanitation workers will take care of the rest. This step is critical towards the greening of our society, as most green magazines complain that they are not printing on recycled paper because there is a very finite supply that is available to them.
Although these seem like the same banal rules that are on every “green” list, we must still value their importance. Ironically, teenagers and young adults are the biggest polluters, so we have to try to reinforce these ideas by action, in order for this age group to follow.
Thanks for reading and I hope that you find these helpful.
Some of the reactions that the Goal Green post “Plastic: The Gift That Keeps On Giving” have been concerned with is how we can proceed from this problem. I want to address some of the ways we, on an individual scale, can begin to offset our carbon emissions. Among many other things, we must educate ourselves and we must elect to federal levels, those politicians that have truly given logical consideration to the issue. In this post, I will write about one that seems not to have done so. In future posts, I would like to evaluate other candidates, and suggest more ways to have a part in conserving the environment.
Last month, President Bush, at the G8 Summit, decided that the U.S. would not partake in Europe’s quest to halve global carbon dioxide emissions by 2050 until other major polluters, like China, would agree to do the same. As I’ve written about before, developing countries like India and China cannot afford to curb emissions as much as the U.S. and other Western nations can. In fact, China is doing a lot that the U.S. is not. Bush’s approach will prove to be strategically ineffective.
The President has decided that for the good of American industry, we cannot afford to cut emissions while growing economies, those that pose a threat to our own GDP, are able to exploit cheaper, dirtier methods of production. This reasoning is wrong on a number of fronts. First, we can analyze how civilians interact with the economy to further understand how big oil and other industries function. As populations across America are becoming wearier of the true effects of our carbon emissions, they are pursuing and demanding greener lifestyles. At the forefront of this shift are the citizens of California. This is not only the state with the highest GSP (Gross State Product), but it also holds the most progressive environmental policy.
For instance, California has adopted a low-carbon fuel standard in which it will require oil companies to cut the carbon content of their gasoline. What does this mean for the oil industry? When producing oil to be sold in the United States, special standards are to be set for the oil being sold in California, not to mention other, runner-up green states, with different standards. Companies are subjected to halt bulk production in order to cater to smaller, state, standards. As the vice-president of public affairs at Exxon Mobil, Ken Cohen was recently quoted as saying by The Economist newspaper, “we need a uniform and predictable system[…] it needs to be a federal system.”
Aside from the fact that the very corporate entities that President Bush is trying to protect are asking him for a national policy, Bush is also failing to realize the potential benefits of the U.S. being a leader in the greening of big business. America’s highest potential lies in innovation. The signs of this are very clear to us. While the country has created and led innovation in automobiles, the industry is now being overtaken by other countries. Meanwhile, America is successful in computing, where Silicon Valley, a hub of software and dot-com innovation, has proven to be one of the most successful American-born industries. So as oil prices are again reaching record highs and European countries, among others, are looking for a way out, why not provide them with one by subsidizing research in the field and requiring large corporations to cut emissions by innovating?
Finally, if Mr. Bush’s true intentions lie in the greater scheme of forcing developing countries and already big polluters like China and India into adopting an energy policy of their own, he is still very much mistaken. It is evident that emerging countries are yet emerging. As such, they cannot allow themselves to set regulations as strict as the Western world. Just like America developed in the late 19th century and early 20th (without much regulation); these countries will not set any policy that can match the first-world. The key point of this argument is America mustn’t lag behind these developing countries; it should push its companies to provide the world with an alternative. Other countries will undoubtedly be happier with a greener energy solution and independence from ties to the unstable Middle East.
In these three points: American companies are asking for a federal policy to restrict emissions, the U.S. can be a leader in the alternative energy industry, and the developing world will not agree to greener standards before the U.S. does, I believe I have identified Bush’s decision for the G8 summit as a big mistake.
The future, however, is a little brighter, as virtually every candidate for the 2008 U.S. Presidential Election seems to favor some sort of green national policy. What we can and should do (for those that are citizens of this country) is to study our options and decide for ourselves whose environmental plan seems most feasible, effective, and thought through. I am convinced that this will be the mark of someone who will truly be dedicated to running this country right in the next four years.
I will soon provide a detailed analysis of each candidate’s environmental policy on this site. Aside from voting, there are other, smaller ways to offset our carbon footprint on the Earth, I am currently formulating a list of such methods and will share them with you soon.
Please share your opinions on this article with me and other readers by either submitting a comment or e-mailing me directly at Arthur.Getman@gmail.com.
Ask and you shall receive. Japan, at the forefront of green innovation, has recently solved the problem I covered in my previous post. The country actually has two interesting forays into dealing with the growing problem of the indestructible substance. Quite a while back, Japan introduced another material that would serve as a substitute to the tradition polymers; furoshiki. In westerners’ laymen, this is a square piece of cloth that the Japanese traditionally used to wrap clothes and transport goods.
Last year, the Japanese Minister of the Environment, Yuriko Koike started promoting the cloth as a means to transport groceries, carry lunches, and perform all other tasks which the plastic bag has dominated since WWII. The bags have proven to be sufficient in carrying and wrapping just about any type of object, not to mention that they are more stylish and neater than your typical plastic grocery bags. Head on over to Furoshiki for different wrapping techniques and PingMag for some beautiful designs. While these bags are not readily available at your local Wal-Mart, I have a strong feeling that they will come onto the scene as the “it” accessory item soon enough.
In other Japanese-produced gifts that the world has yet to discover, Akio Kamimura and Shigehiro Yamamoto have developed a plastic recycling technique that completely breaks down certain plastics with the aid of ionic liquids. The method has so far convinced scientists that it would be both cost effective and energy efficient on a commercial scale. Currently still in the laboratory testing phase, the method seems to be a promising way of breaking down polymers that include Kevlar and Nylon. The interesting aspect of this process is that recycled plastics will be able to actually produce higher quality plastics (and hopefully other materials).
Generally in all recycling processes, an inferior, watered down version of the original product is produced, so, as one could imagine, the process can only go on for so long. This new depolymerizing idea, however, claims to eliminate this problem. A detailed report on the process is scheduled to be published this month. I’ll be sure to report it as soon as I see it. In the meantime, go out and try to find the coolest looking furoshiki design and be on the look out for more innovations from the home of the Kyoto Protocol, Japan. More on all of these subjects very soon.