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.
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.
The image above is a photograph taken from space of a gyre off the coast of Japan. The green swirl is actually quite brown; it is the collection of some of humanity’s most indestructible rubbish – plastic. There are about 5 gyres of this type in the world’s oceans, ranging from the size of Texas to the size of Africa.
A little over half a century ago, scientists came up with a brilliant idea, a new material that would have one of the biggest influences on all aspects of modern society. From toys, to food wrap, to beauty products, to clothing, plastic has provided a cheaper, more durable alternative. It has fueled the economies of the Asia Pacific coast, and is now helping India and Kenya, who are each producing thousands of tons of plastic bags each month. Plastic has also become on of man’s most lasting impressions on the earth.
We bury most of our waste in landfills. This is not a very effective disposal, as polymers, among other materials, have a slowed degradation when they are not exposed to the sun, but rather kept in a cool, dry place. However, we are able to have better control over our garbage when we quarantine it away from sensitive life forms and plant shrubbery over it, creating somewhat of a carbon neutralizing effect.
In reality, much of our litter ends up in the sea, partly through whatever beauty and cleaning products seep through our drains, partly through wind that blows waste off of landfills, and partly through the tons of trash littered into the ocean from modern navies and commercial ships. Some 90% of the waste in our planet’s waters is plastic. Here is a brief background to the substance:
Created in a garage laboratory in Yonkers, NY around the time of World War II, plastic is a combination of carbon and hydrogen. Around the time of the discovery, scientists everywhere began playing with long hydrocarbon molecular chains. Adjustments in these chains affected the durability, functionality, and aesthetics of this material. It was around the same time that plastics began to replace other materials, first in the war and subsequently for commercial use; preserving food, replacing more expensive materials such as metals in toys and other products, and providing for flexible, cheaper clothing material.
There are two huge problems that became immediately apparent to the world. The first is the durability of this material. Except for a tiny amount of plastic that has been incinerated, the vast majority of all plastic produced in the past 60 years is still somewhere in our environment. The substance is very difficult to decompose, but when this does occur, the material breaks down into small particles, comparable to grains of sand. These particles are carried by winds to the ocean, and are eventually mistaken for food by birds and jellyfish, which end up dying because the plastic blocks their digestive tracts. To put this point in perspective, we have to consider the world’s lowest (and therefore most important) step in the food pyramid, plankton. While plankton is abundant and is eaten by many different creatures (which are subsequently eaten by larger ones and eventually humans), there is currently six times as much plastic in the ocean as there is plankton. When organisms confuse the two (an increasing instance, as the polymers continue breaking down into pellets), it is of a direct detriment to humans.
The second huge problem that plastic poses lies in its composition. As a substance built from hydrogen and carbon, it will eventually (over the course of tens of thousands of years) break down into oxygen, water, and carbon dioxide. In a way, by creating plastic, we are ensuring that even if humans die out, carbon will continue to slowly and uniformly be released into the atmosphere. While this second problem may seem slightly less of an immediate consequence, we have to consider the sheer size of plastic on this planet and the fact that we are continuously creating more, without reusing or scrapping our old waste.
Going back to the first setback, we have to realize that as it stands right now, most of our oceans are tainted with the substance and we have to start thinking of alternatives. Researcher and founder of Algita Marine Research Foundation, Charles Moore, has been driven to study plastics and believes that the material is currently the most common surface feature of the world’s oceans. There are, however, ways around every problem and this one is no exception.
I am currently looking into plastic alternatives. Stay tuned to learn of ways to avoid plastics.