How To Save Energy Through Conservation

Out of Sight, Out of Mind:

A Giant Landfill of Plastic Garbage in the Pacific Is Killing Birds and Sea Life

PlanetWatch has called attention to the problems of plastic, either in the form of water bottles or plastic bags, as well as to the problem of waste disposal. While the focus was on the consumption of oil to manufacture plastic or to transport waste to distant landfills, thereby reinforcing our dependence on imported fossil fuels, there is an even more immediate environmental consequence of our reliance on plastic containers.
     Plastic, unfortunately, is not biodegradable and in spite of public efforts to collect and recycle plastic bottles and bags, only 25% of either are recycled, i.e. made into new products. Consequently, much of plastic ends up in landfills, where it will remain undisturbed for thousands of years. But a significant amount ends up being tossed by the roadside, discarded on a beach or blown by the wind across land and water.
     Because of circular wind and ocean currents, debris from sewer outlets, storm drains and streams emptying into the ocean is trapped in certain regions of the world’s oceans. According to marine biologists, a huge concentration of garbage from Asia and North America has accumulated in the northern Pacific containing several million tons of material, 80% of which is plastic. No one really knows how large is this sea of trash; estimates range from 300,000 square miles (Texas is 286,000) to possibly 6 million. Researchers have concluded that there is six times as much plastic as plankton in the affected area.
     This patch, now known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” has been growing since the 1950s, 80% of it coming from land sources, the rest from cruise ships or tankers. Since this part of the Pacific is remote and infrequently traveled, this natural catastrophe does not receive the attention it deserves. Because of ocean currents, garbage from China takes a year to reach the patch while garbage from North America may take several years to reach the same area.
     While plastic does break down, it does not disappear but disintegrates into very small pieces that are still plastic polymers, becoming indigestible plastic molecules, which are ingested by birds, animals and fish. Sea turtles apparently view the floating plastic bags as jellyfish while birds ingest indigestible pieces of plastic in what they see as feeding patches. Eventually they die as their stomachs fill with plastic and they starve to death. Biologists estimate that 267 different ocean species have been affected by ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic debris.
Photo: Algalita Marine Research Foundation
Birds mistake bottle caps and other plastic objects
floating on the sea perhaps for brightly colored fish.
Between the wings of the decomposed carcass of this
albatross is the contents of a stomach filled with
the seaborne trash that ultimately killed the bird.

     Because the particles or parti-culates are so small, the bulk of it cannot be dredged or seined and it remains permanently in water. The only remedy, therefore, is reducing the use of plastic bottles or bags, as some communities are attempting, or education and recycling programs to reduce the amount of discarded waste. However, attempts to ban the use of plastic bags have been effectively opposed by the plastic and chemical industries, while stores and consumers fear the cost of replacing plastic bags with containers made from biodegradable materials.
     Barring effective public programs to recycle and collect litter, individuals can limit their use of plastics, use reusable shopping bags, remove their trash from beaches and parks, and secure their trash containers. Until the public becomes aware of the unseen floating landfills, or even of the problems of land-based landfills, garbage will continue to accumulate and we will continue to destroy our precious offshore and onshore environments. Since the ocean’s food stocks are already being threatened by over fishing and the lack of effective international agreements, reducing the amount of waste dumped intentionally or accidentally in the world’s oceans should have a high priority. As long as we rely on plastic for packaging, however, we will also continue our dependence on oil and its consequences for national security, health and the environment.
      - Tony White


The following essay was written in 1958 by Marya Mannes, an American author and critic. It is amazingly applicable to contemporary conditions. -John Burr

Cans. Beer cans. Glinting on the verges of a million miles of roadways, lying in scrub, grass, dirt, leaves, sand, mud, but never hidden. Piel's, Rheingold, Ballantine, Schaefer, Schlitz, shining in the sun or picked by moon or the beams of headlights at night; washed by rain or flattened by wheels, but never dulled, never buried, never destroyed. Here is the mark of savages, the testament of wasters, the stain of prosperity.
     Who are these men who defile the grassy borders of our roads and lanes, who pollute our ponds, who spoil the purity of our ocean beaches with the empty vessels of their thirst? Who are the men who make these vessels in millions and then say, "Drink -- and discard"? What society is this that can afford to cast away a million tons of metal and to make of wild and fruitful land a garbage heap?
     What manner of men and women need thirty feet of steel and two hundred horsepower to take them, singly to their small destinations?' Who demand that what they eat is wrapped so that forests are cut down to make the paper that is thrown away, and what they smoke and chew is sealed so that the sealers can be tossed in gutters and caught in twigs and grass?
     What kind of men can afford to make the streets of their towns and cities hideous with neon at night, and their roadways hideous with signs by day, wasting beauty; who leave the carcasses of cars to rot in heaps; who spill their trash into ravines and make smoking mountains of refuse for the town's rats? What manner of men choke off the life in rivers, streams and lakes with the waste of their produce, making poison of water?
     Who is as rich as that? Slowly the wasters and despoilers are impoverishing our land, our nature, and our beauty, so that there will not be one beach, one hill, one land, one meadow, one forest free from the debris of man and the stigma of his improvidence.
     Who is so rich that he can squander forever the wealth of earth and water for the trivial needs of vanity or the compulsive demands of greed, or so prosperous in land that he can sacrifice nature for unnatural desires? The earth we abuse and the living things we kill will, in the end, take their revenge; for in exploiting their presence we are diminishing our future.
     And what will we leave behind us when we are long dead? Temples? Amphora? Sunken treasure?
     Or mountains of twisted, rusted steel, canyons of plastic containers, and a million miles of shores garlanded, not with the lovely wrack of the sea, but with the cans and bottles and light-bulbs and boxes of a people who conserved their convenience at the expense of their heritage, and whose ephemeral prosperity was built on waste.       - Marya Mannes

Addicted to Water:

Are Americans Catching On to the Bottled Water Hoax?

D rinking bottled water, especially imported brands, is dangerous to the planet's health. It may also be hazardous to your personal health.
     This revisionist view of the nation's chronic drinking habit has appeared in the media with regularity over the past several months, and it just may be taking hold. San Francisco's mayor signed an executive order in June banning the use of city funds to buy bottled water. Ann Arbor, Michigan, likewise banned municipal purchases of bottled water. Half a dozen restaurants in California's Bay Area have replaced bottled water with pitchers of filtered tap water, and restaurants elsewhere are following suit. "Filling cargo ships with water and sending it hundreds and thousands of miles to get it around the world seems ridiculous," said an owner of upscale Del Posto in New York. Are we witnessing the glimmerings of a trend?
     If you haven't noticed the brewing backlash, its reasons range from environmental objections
to outright fraud, which we summarize here.
     Contrary to the perception that bottled water is more healthy, that you are drinking a pure, natural form of that vital liquid, approximately 40% of the brands are filtered tap or well water and the regulations on bottled water are less stringent than those on tap water throughout the United States. If bottled water is produced and consumed within the same state, which most are, it is even not covered by FDA standards, which are less rigorous and less frequently imposed than those of municipal water systems.
     In addition, some bottled water contains minerals which, when consumed in large quantities, can be dangerous to one's health, especially infants or young children. Because of the mineral content in bottled water, a branch of the French government has recommended switching brands from time to time to avoid an overload of certain mineral properties.
     But the real hoax is that the labels often portray the source as bubbling springs or snowcapped mountains, when it is really a well or public water system.
     Pressured by a group named Corporate Accountability International, Pepsico recently agreed to spell out the unexplained "P.W.S." on its Aquafina labels as "public water source". A study by the National Resources Defense Council a few years ago found a number of cases such as that of a Massachusetts company bottling water from a well next to a state-designated industrial waste site contaminated with industrial solvents including trichloroethylene.
Pouring Oil on the Water Moreover, the mining, production, bottling and transportation of the water may be threatening to destroy the very sources of those images of pristine mountain streams, while polluting our atmosphere.
     Whether the source is a tap or straight from nature, the process is wasteful and destructive. Not only are the plastic bottles made from crude oil, transported across great distances, but the bottled product is also shipped across national boundaries and oceans. A French brand of water, for instance, would have to travel 5,000 miles to reach shelves in Chicago, while water
What about the admonition to "drink eight 8-oz glasses of water a day"? Turns out, that's another hoax. No one seems to know where it came from, as seen here, where a Dartmouth professor says it's "difficult to believe that evolution left us with a chronic water deficit that needs to be compensated by forcing a high fluid intake".
from Fiji or Finland would have to travel thousands of miles to reach markets in the Middle East or California.
     Plastic water bottles are made from polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, which derives from oil. Americans used 50 billion of these plastic bottles last year, and are expected to discard two million tons of PET bottles after guzzling nine billion gallons of water this year. For every bottle of water produced, it is estimated that at least 2 ounces of oil have been consumed. That adds up to a lot of gasoline -- an estimated 18 million barrels in 2005, according to the Container Recycling Institute -- that could have fuelled thousands of cars and trucks. Oil is not only used to make the plastic, but to transport the water and refrigerate the bottles, and as most of us know the weight of a case of water is not insignificant.
     Although used plastic bottles can be recycled, less than one-quarter are, and the vast majority end up in garbage bins or landfills. As in many communities, garbage in Sonoma County, California is trucked out of the county and may be shipped by rail 150 miles from its origin, adding to the real costs of bottled water. Since some of the recycled plastic is shipped to China, more fuel is consumed, releasing more carbon emissions.
     In response to these concerns, at least one company has switched to a type of plastic made from corn. These containers not only do not consume precious oil, but they are also biodegradable, not like those made from oil. However, the increased demand for corn for ethanol has led to a doubling of the price of corn in the United States, thereby increasing the price of other products based on corn.
You're Not Buying the Water, You're Buying the Container Since many of the bottled waters can be matched for purity by filtered tap water in most communities in the United States, why spend billions of dollars every year for something that is basically free and carefully monitored? Bottled water is far more expensive than gasoline, despite the latter having to travel great distances and be refined. If gasoline were priced in proportion to that $1.19 you just paid for a 20-oz bottle of Aquafina at the 7-Eleven, you would be paying $7.62 a gallon to fill your tank.
Collateral Damage Some neighbors of beverage bottling plants have also blamed the depletion of their local water source on its activities.
     After the United States, Mexico is the next largest consumer of bottled water, though Italians consume the most per capita. While bottled water may be the only safe choice in developing countries, only the upper class can afford it and therefore, it does not address the lack of pure water for the majority. The availability of imported water for the elite or visitors in poor countries tends to cause their leadership class to ignore the lack of pure water for the majority and prevent its solution through new wells, water purification plants and improvements in distribution. The billions of dollars spent on bottled water every year would go a long way to providing a necessity of life to desperate millions.
     The question is whether these concerns will register with the supposedly environmentally concerned younger generations. Can they wean themselves of sucking on their ever-present water pacifiers?
     But if you insist on believing it, you can stay healthy by drinking safe tap water and feel good by not consuming bottled water, especially from other states or countries. In the process, you will help to reduce our dependency on imported oil and prevent further destruction of the planet. If your health precludes this behavior, at least recycle the containers you do use!
     While you're at it, replace your incandescent light bulbs with CFAs and break out your clothesline, weather permitting. And slow down! Think of the money and lives you will save.       - Tony White

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If Only Every American Were to Drive Like This

    Click to return to beginning e) lots of acceleration and deceleration on crowded roads, f) and long periods of engine idling.
     The differences you can achieve in mileage are astounding, often as much as 40% better than otherwise. So you can turn a vehicle that gets 15 mpg into one that gets 21 mpg. Or a 30 mpg car into a 42 mpg one. That is the kind of improvement that environmentally conscious motorists are trying to achieve by spending $25,000 or more to buy more fuel efficient hybrid cars. And this is not an either/or can do both.
     Even without technology advances, all motorists can produce far better fuel economy in their current cars with only their brains and a lighter foot on the pedals. The trick is to preserve hard-earned momentum whenever you can by accelerating gradually, to coast whenever you can, and to adjust speed to minimize the need to stop.
     It will be a neat trick to get Americans, who love the open throttle on the open road, and who have heavy feet on the brakes and then the gas, alternately, to modify their behavior. But it is well worth it.
     Also, don't carry heavy items in your car unless you need them; weight translates directly into higher fuel consumption. So, if you keep concrete blocks in the trunk for better traction in the winter, take them out and get snow tires.
     Efforts to promote eco-driving have been around for years, mostly in Europe, where fuel is expensive, as it is all imported and therefore highly taxed. About ten years ago, Germany began requiring that eco-driving be taught in driver-education classes — not easy in the land of the autobahn. Nearly a million new drivers get their licenses annually in Germany, and they are supposed to learn three basic eco-driving tips, according to the manager for road safety for the German Road Safety Council.
     First, watch the tachometer, not the speedometer, and shift gears as the car's engine speed reaches 2,000 rpm to minimize how hard the engine has to work. Second, don't tailgate, because tailgating requires a lot of unnecessary braking and accelerating. Third, coast to an upcoming light if it is red, letting it turn green before there is a need to stop.
     In the U.S., where one twentieth of the world's population consumes nearly a fourth of its oil, eco-driving has existed so far mostly among a tiny group of hobbyists. It has given rise to an extreme form of the sport called "hypermiling," a quirky new competitive pastime, where winning drivers have achieved 150 mpg in mass-produced hybrids.
     A basic hypermiling technique is called "pulse-and-glide", used by a Texas man who drove a Prius 844 miles on a single tank of gas. The driver slowly accelerates to about 60% of full throttle — the point where a car's engine tends to operate most efficiently — and then steps off the gas, coasting until the car's speed drops. At the right moment, before losing too much speed, the driver gently presses the gas pedal again.
     Now, interest in eco-driving is going mainstream. Various tech companies are capitalizing on the trend by offering hardware and software that aids a driver in learning the techniques. Meanwhile, here is one of their tips: Drive as if there is a full open hot cup of coffee in the cup holder and you do not want to spill it. In the early part of the last century, when many middle class families had chauffeurs, the schools where these men learned their trade used to advise them to drive as if they had a hot cup of tea in their laps. This was guaranteed to give m'lady a comfortable ride and to provide job security for the driver.
     Ford Motor Co. has reportedly been promoting eco-driving for several years in Germany. Last year, they flew a German Road Safety Council instructor to Detroit to give eco-driving lessons to drivers from a Phoenix professional-driving company. Later, Ford staged an eco-driving test with 48 Phoenix-area drivers, who improved their fuel economy an average of 24%.
     How often have you been tailgated by trucks or cars whose drivers figure they can intimidate you into speeding up. Most of us have once been that kind of driver, weaving in and out of traffic to get a few feet ahead. Later we often realize that it makes no sense to speed up just to sit at the next traffic light. And then we learn to enjoy a sense of superiority that comes from saving the planet rather than treating driving as a competitive sport.
     To help drivers adjust to eco-driving, car makers now often include technical aids, including dashboard gauges that display fuel economy in real time. The reasoning is that when consumers can see how their behavior affects their energy consumption, they will be more conservative. One Japanese car company plans to start offering a feature that it calls the "eco-pedal" — a sensor that, when the driver is accelerating too aggressively, pushes back against the driver's foot. It will have a switch to turn it off when the driver wants to.
     Our hope at PlanetWatch is that, little by little, our subscribers will modify their driving along these lines, see the benefits, and pass the word to their families and friends. We know the net effect will not be large, but we also know that we must take every step we can to reduce our reliance on foreign oil, and that every little bit helps.
- Douglas Ayer

About Those Expensive and Wasteful Night Lights

Most children in the '60s and '70s grew up having one last request after being tucked in bed at night. There were variations, but the gist of it was, "Please leave the door open just a little bit and don't turn off the hallway light". Within a short while, parents would turn off that light and a few hours later the house would be utterly dark except possibly for a 25 to 40 Watt lamp in some strategic location. More frugal folks enjoyed the economy and style of the 7W ping-pong ball sized light introduced by G.E. around 1966.
     Fast forward to the average American home today, turn out "all the lights" and it's not all that dark. If you haven't noticed, try it. Most rooms will still be dimly lit by a plethora of green, blue, amber and red lights; they're often even safe enough to walk through. Your home office or entertainment room may virtually glow. Light from a computer screen would calm the most timid child afraid of the dark.
     Except for L.E.D. lights showing the time from nearly every appliance imaginable, these eerie sentries are harbingers of glutinous energy hogs behind them. Each is seemingly a little bitty piglet, but ensemble they root away at energy budgets like ravenous wild boars. O.K., enough of the animal imagery already and down to the facts and figures.
     Here is a list of typical household energy wasters in average standby mode:

  • A cable or TiVo video box; 15 watts.
  • Stereo amplifier and components; 43 watts.
  • Home Theater System; 34 watts.
  • CD Boom Box; 4 to 6 watts.
  • VCR player; 5 watts.
  • DVD player; 10 watts.
  • TVs (nearly regardless of size); 4 to 5 watts.
  • Cable and Satellite TV; 15 to 16 watts.
  • Desktop computers; 4 watts.
  • Laptop computers; 2 watts.
  • Old Monitors; 4 watts    New Monitors; 2 watts
  • Peripheral printer; 5 to 6 watts.
  • Cordless phones; 2 watts
  • Telephone answering devices; 3 to 4 watts
  • FAX machine; 10 watts.
  • Video games; 17 to 168 watts, average 36 watts

For source of numbers, see this report from Tiax LLC, a technology company in Cambridge, MA: Thus, it's not unreasonable to assume running up to 100 to 150 unattended watts for our gadgets is likely for a single person or easily 200 watts for a small family. Sneaky isn't it? If you accrue 200 watts for 16 standby hours each day for a month, does 96,000 watt hours surprise you? When translated into your electric bill, 96 kWh at $0.18/kWh (in Connecticut) is nearly $18 a month or an annual cost of $200.
     Thus, someone in the 28% income tax bracket must earn roughly $275 a year for what runs behind those colorful little lights mentioned innocently at the outset of this article. Some might think $275 a year isn't a lot for the convenience of just letting things be. Would the effort become more appealing if reminded that investing $275 each year for 20 years at 6% compounds to over $10,000 in 20 years and over $42,000 in 40 years? And that assumes no inflation in the base saving of $275. Thus, being motivated as an environmentalist need not be a factor in reducing waste.
     A 147-page study, titled "Energy Consumption by Consumer Electronics in U.S. Residences," concludes that consumer electronics consume 11 percent of residential electricity and 4 percent of total U.S. electricity.
     The buck does not stop there. Today, the population is just beginning to appreciate many other hidden costs in environmental pollution that we end up paying for one way or another. If interested, the subject is fascinating and important, but, as illustrated here, you needn't know a wit about it in order to save a lot of money.
     Recently, most levels of government are recognizing the need to conserve energy and industry is competing to educate you to spend your energy dollars efficiently. A case in point is the Environmental Protection Administration's Energy Star compliance program. Just in terms of computer power management, check out this report from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Conservation efforts such as this are quite encouraging, but increased efficiencies in power usage are continuing to be offset by sales of more and more consumer electronics to ever growing populations now beginning to afford their purchase.
     So adults and children of every generation should habitually turn off electronic devices and lights when not in use. Those multiple plug strips purchased to protect sensitive electronic gear from power surges are a convenient way to cut all power to them with just one switch. Then, ask about both the operating and standby costs of every energy-consuming product you think of buying.
     Even if you think only in terms of reducing your electric bill, you will decidedly be assisting in your county's fight to become more energy independent and less polluted as well. It's a win-win alternative to the status quo.      - Roger Whitcomb

At Our Landfills: 'No Vacancy' :

Colossally Wasteful America Gradually Discovers Value in Its Garbage

    Click to return to beginning
and thirty times more than the average citizen of India. Since 1950, Americans have used up more natural resources than any other generation who ever inhabited the planet.
     Only a fool would not realize that this is a prescription for disaster.
     Even though the problem is more profligate in the United States, it is a worldwide problem, and it is complex.
     This article will deal with only the problem in the U.S.; a subsequent article will discuss the broader problem worldwide.

Solid Waste

Less than one-quarter of our solid waste is recycled. The remainder is buried in landfills or incinerated. If we were to make recycling a high priority, we could reuse more than 70 percent of what we bury in landfills, including glass, metal, and paper. That would reduce the demands on primary natural sources of these materials and help rid the areas where the waste originated of potentially dire environmental, economic, and public health consequences.
     What about burying it?
     According to the EPA, a high percentage of the country’s landfills have been closed, for one of two reasons: they were filled to capacity, or they were contaminating groundwater. (Once groundwater has been contaminated, it is prohibitively expensive, very difficult, or sometimes impossible to clean up.)

Georges Seurat's "Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte"? Not quite. This is a photo composed entirely of discarded soda cans. Below is a blow-up of a segment of the "painting".

     As for burning it, the plus side is that it generates energy; the minus side is that toxins could be released into the atmosphere to create ash, which would require disposal in hazardous-waste landfills.
     Consequently, it takes little common sense to tell us that we’re running out of landfills and landfill space, nor can we move it somewhere else. Former outlying areas around metropolitan areas have been and are becoming bedroom communities, whose inhabitants have put up stiff opposition to expanding landfills, or to creating new landfills, even in the face of politically-induced perks. State and local officials are increasingly reluctant to accept imported waste from other states or municipalities, because they have become totally embroiled in the waste problems of their own constituencies. In 1988, there were more than 8000 landfills in the U.S. As of today, there are fewer than 1700.
     The amount of waste we generate is only part of the problem. So much waste being created means that we are not using resources efficiently. If we did, we wouldn’t need to go back to natural sources for new materials nearly as much as we now do. Moreover, the management and disposal of waste in its present form is neither efficient nor clean. Waste management facilities continue to be significant polluters. Many put methane into the atmosphere, dump illegally, and pollute the air with waste incineration.

Waste as Financial Incentive

The environmental impact is only part of the mess. Waste costs money—a lot of money. On the positive side, the cost of containing and reducing it offers a strong financial incentive to the business community. Last year, recycling companies earned over $160 billion in the United States. Similar figures apply to the disposal companies. In this economy, the financial incentives can also play a huge social role: providing jobs, often in sheltered workshops, for people trying to get back into the workplace.
     At least prior to the recession, wage rates in U.S. were too high to permit manual sorting, but prices of waste material were high enough to warrant sending partially sorted waste abroad for further sorting in low wage environments (filling containers that were otherwise “deadheading” – returning empty across the Pacific). In many U.S. ports, waste product is the highest volume export product, with much of it destined to be turned into the cardboard boxes for the next wave of imports. All of this is, of course, much slowed down today.
     In America, of course, the changing value of waste brings out the best and most ingenious in us. Recyclers are coming up with striking new ideas for disposing of America’s waste, from collecting and selling aluminum and tin cans, plastic, cardboard, and mixed paper, in warehouse pallet-sized amounts, to other ventures, such as removing e-waste from trashed computers and televisions and selling the copper, gold, and other materials in them.
     Witness the wonder of recycling in a massive entry hangar in a large Casella Waste facility, which bursts at the seams with bottles, newspapers, glass, plastics -- the works. Trucks enter the facility, one of several in the northeastern U.S., laden with recyclables they have picked up from homes and businesses. Men in hard hats, goggles, and vests watch as magnetized sorters, chutes, and sifters sort through the huge piles of stuff.
     But the process isn’t a cure-all. It can’t process glass effectively. It spits out huge amounts of mixed-color glass shards. Unfortunately, buyers want crushed glass separated by color, which, up to this point, has been impossible with the existing technology. Because of this, erstwhile big investment money still remains off the table. If an answer to this problem is found, there is big money to be made in delivering high-quality recycled glass to end users. Some companies deliver higher quality glass by getting it from municipalities that solve the problem by getting their residents and businesses to sort in advance. One of the reasons for the high demand in one-color recycled glass is that it uses 40% less energy to process than virgin glass.
     Venture capitalists are increasingly getting into the act, some in a big way. Three of them, Khosla Ventures, Advanced Technology Ventures, and GreatPoint Ventures, all have put their bets on cellulosic ethanol startup Coskata in Illinois, which has set itself the goal of producing one dollar-per-gallon ethanol from landfill methane, construction debris, tires, and miscellaneous other municipal waste, using its collection of botulism-related bacteria, which feeds on the gas produced by the trash and excretes the final product, ethanol. Corn-based ethanol yields only 1.3 times the energy needed to produce it, while trash-generated ethanol yields 7.7 times the energy, a considerable improvement in cost savings.
     Coskata still faces some roadblocks, however. The recyclable materials they need and use, though conducive to the process, are hard to find and obtain in the proper form, that is, free of contamination by foods and liquids. Coskata won’t realize its full potential until this problem is solved. “You can drive a couple of cars on trash-to-energy, but it just doesn’t scale against petroleum,” says Tadeusz Patzek, an environmental engineering professor at the University of California at Berkeley in a Business Week article on recycling. “It’s like paying down the interest when society needs to address the massive principal.”

There’s Gold in Them Thar E-Wastes

E-waste, in addition to being the fastest-growing trash category, is also the most dangerous, as it seeps mercury, lead, and other heavy metals into landfill soil.
     American creativity and ingenuity has inundated the country and the world with innovative, high-tech consumer and business products.
     Tech-Turn, an e-recycler, got $50 million in venture capital from Catterton Partners, a Greenwich, Connecticut private equity firm, in 2006. The company refurbishes discarded electronic products and sells them to schools, non-profits, and poor countries, while recycling the copper, gold, and other precious materials from the units it is unable to save. They did $40 million in sales last year, and have projected $200 million in 2010.
     Surprisingly, the core money to the company comes from salvaging the working computers. “We don’t look at hardware as e-waste,” Jeff Zeigler, Tech-Turn’s president, told Business Week. “An American student can reuse an executive’s laptop for maybe five years, an emerging-market customer even longer.”
     It wasn’t very long ago that people would not think twice about throwing their outdated or non-functioning computers in dumpsters, but as they have learned about the realities of toxic wastes generated by these junked devices in landfills, they have been more prone to store these assets in closets, attics, and basements. Further, with the worry over having their data stolen, it has made them even more reluctant to junk their old stuff. Over 40 states have enacted special handling laws for electronic trash. So there is a problem of too much trash and too many businesses that can use all they can get of it. Then, there is the problem of some municipalities who have laws and/or policies that don’t really deal with the realities of the problem. For several months in Manhattan, drivers were picking up color-sorted recyclable bottles and paying a premium of 7 cents a bottle for them, many of them sorted and collected by street people. They sold the bottles to a recycler for a small profit, and everyone was in a win-win situation. Then the police and the mayor stepped in, stopped the practice, and put new laws on the books which further penalized anyone picking up curbside recyclables, thus relegating the bottles in question (which Manhattan residents couldn’t be otherwise bothered to redeem) to landfills.

Garbage Gas

Another group of companies plans to build plants that would use wood chips, garbage, and crop waste to make motor fuel. Some 28 plants are now being planned, are under construction, or completed and running in a test operation.
     These companies are largely underfunded, and are counting on substantial government subsidies to get off the ground. Furthermore, no one knows what the true cost of the developing technologies will be, nor are any unintended environmental consequences yet understood.
     The government is making every effort to get this industry off the ground. Most of the private investment is coming from Silicon Valley, where the venture capitalists who funded the Internet revolution are optimistic about doing the same for waste-to-fuel. Venture capital in 2008 reached $612 million in this category, almost twice what it was in 2007.
     Other companies plan to make ethanol from wood chips, although fuel can be made from plastics, construction debris, forest and lawn trimmings, wheat straw, and all kinds of agricultural waste: almost any waste material that contains hydrogen, carbon, and oxygen.
     The possibilities are endless, but so are the hurdles. The recycling industry is in its infancy, as are our approaches to the problems that waste poses to our future health and lifestyle. It will take a concerted effort on the part of government, the business community, and the people to work together to forge the necessary changes in how America deals with its ever-burgeoning trash and garbage, and the laissez-faire mentality that led to the problem in the first place.
      - John Burr

Ubiquitous Plastic

(And What You Can Do About It)

Lately there has been a lot of fuss on the part of environmentally concerned citizens about plastic water bottles, as they seem to be constantly in the hands of people on the go everywhere. And, of course, the major concern is what happens to them after they no longer contain the water. As almost everyone knows by this time, the biodegrade time for these little gems is horrendously slow, and way beyond this generation's lifetime and many more to come.
     Unfortunately, water bottles are only the tip of a very massive iceberg.
     Consider first the other liquids that come in plastic bottles: soft drinks (virtually all of them), shampoos, hand lotions. hair care liquids, some toothpaste (most come in plastic tubes), pills, garden care products, household care products — and here's the worst of it, almost anything small that can otherwise be shoplifted: cell phones and accessories, computer-related accessories, office supply products, not to mention the vast amount of toys of all shapes and colors. Furthermore, nearly anything that doesn't require two hands to carry is marketed and released in a plastic wrap with lots of cardboard backing with full color promotional printing all over it. (No, it's not about just shoplifting considerations anymore)
     Walk into any hardware store, drug store, grocery store, department store, office supply, Circuit City, Best Buy,Wal-Mart, Target, Radio Shack, Home Depot, Lowe's or the like, and start counting up all the stuff enclosed in promotional and descriptive plastic enclosures. You won't believe the numbers. When you think of how much of this is sold every day of the week, the amount of discarded plastic going to recycling plants or landfills boggles the mind.
Let the Future Deal With It It's easy to assume that people have become so conscientious about recycling (since most communities now offer separation of trash from recyclables) that people will do the right thing and set the plastic discards apart from the trash, but that has not been this writer's observation, especially in the workplace. In most of the trash bins of office buildings, it's all mixed together, even when separation is offered, so where does it all go? Why, to landfills, to sit underground for mega years for someone else in the distant future to deal with.
     In the not-too-distant past we used to buy solids in cardboard and wood boxes, and anything liquid in glass bottles. We collected bottles and turned

them in for "reward" money at collection centers. It was a real incentive to contribute to the recycling process, and it gave a lot of kids some spending money.
     Now, over the last sixty years, a very expansive industry has burgeoned to the point where it is dependent on future business continuing as usual for the livelihoods of its employees and the investment growth of its stockholders. If the powers that be see the light and try to turn back the clock to the old ways, any move by state or federal governments to even slow the plastics industry down will be met with fierce resistance. (This is true with many other entrenched industries, as well). Therefore, it is also a vexing political problem.
It's Not Just Non-Degradable Trash, It's Oil As if the problem of disposal weren't enough, there is another significant concern with our developed dependence on the plastics industry. The production of plastic consumes billions of barrels of oil. At a time when Americans are screaming about domestic oil shortfalls, it seems ironic that we are using so much of it for wrappers and containers we really don't need, and up to the years following World War II, didn't have. Somehow, we got along fine with what we had. We were satisfied, and yes, even comfortable.
     Since I have found scant evidence in newspapers, magazines, and on the Internet that any steps have been taken to make people aware of or begin steps to ameliorate the problem (one lone article in The Week about a month ago called attention to plastic bottles only), the solution seems to me to lie within our capacity for conspicuous outrage.
     Do we care enough about our future (and our children's and grandchildren's) to stand up, inform, and protest loudly and persistently? Or are we content to sit back and hope someone else will do it for us? They won't. Passivity is contagious. Unless the vast majority of us become involved consistently in the workings of our government from the very top right down to the local level, reforms won't happen.
     The plastics problem is only one of many grim realities America must acknowledge and treat, as described in this website.
     We ask you, our readers, to again become involved with how your government works, to take an interest in the global warming issues, to educate yourselves on all environmental, social, and political considerations, and above all, to search for the truth. It's out there, albeit frequently and elaborately camouflaged.
     Complain vigorously, if you observe events unfolding that you don't believe serve the public good. Write your congressmen, senators, mayors, city councils, news reporters, and Internet blogging sites. Get the word out. Participate.
     Reform begins with you.       - John Burr


Green Goods and Carbon Offsets

Thanks to the efforts of dedicated scientists and persistent activists, the message of global warming and its impact on the planet has been heard. National leaders have also recognized the connection between energy independence and national security and the need to develop new strategies to achieve the former and guarantee the latter.
     Although the final version left out two major provisions, Congress passed an Energy Bill which received bipartisan support and was signed by the President. Following the lead of California, other states and local communities have adopted measures to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions.
Greening Business      Since businesses are always interested in reducing costs, many are already converting to alternative energy sources, which not only promise lower operating costs but also more stable prices and supplies, while also implementing conservation measures. Besides installing solar panels, some firms have also converted truck fleets to electric vehicles or plug-in hybrids. By reducing energy consumption, they hope to lower operating costs, making them more competitive and increasing profit margins.
     Responding to a growing market for "green" products and services, corporations have developed new processes and products which are more efficient, less polluting and purportedly "green." They have also launched promotion campaigns to convince customers that their products and operations are environmentally sensitive.
Buyer Beware!However, there is no government agency or trade association to certify that corporate operations, products or services are "green", and the consumer either must personally investigate these claims or rely on manufacturers' claims. While claims that food products are natural, light or organic can be checked, the assertion that products are "green" is more complicated, since it is not just the ingredients of the product which are in question, but how it was manufactured, processed, packaged and delivered, information beyond the knowledge base of most consumers. How do consumers know that a product is biodegradable, carbon neutral or made from sustainable materials?
     By way of illustration, the recycling of plastic bottles to make rugs and outerwear saves raw materials, including oil, and keeps the bottles out of landfills. But those products may be made from plastic bottles collected in the United States, shipped to Asia for processing and then shipped back to the American market. Likewise, clothing made from natural plant-based materials may require the use of chemicals to make the fiber softer or more durable.
     Since the American public has apparently endorsed the concept of "green," and consumers are more likely to buy a product which is labeled natural, organic or carbon neutral, they can also be misled into purchasing items whose claims are false or exaggerated. When this happens, the consumer has been duped by "greenwashing" to purchase falsely advertised "green light" products.
     Lacking any certification by a government agency or consumer association, consumers have no proof of the green claims other than the information provided by the producer or retailer. If that information is inaccurate, the false claims will not only distort the market, but also undermine the public's willingness to pay higher price or to patronize companies which are truly green. Even buying strictly local products is no guarantee that your purchases have had minimal impact on the planet.
     "Greenwashing" can also create an illusion that a large corporation deserves patronage or capital, thereby discouraging smaller, truly green firms, or denying them the necessary capital to produce and distribute their green products.
Carbon Trading/Offsets      The emerging carbon trading market may also be subject to "greenwashing," since there may be no proof of actual carbon offsets and there is no agency or association to certify what is a valid offset. While it is admirable that airline passengers or purchasers of new automobiles can learn how much their travel or purchases have affected carbon emissions and purchase carbon offsets, how do they know that what they are investing in will help to reduce emissions, especially since this involves highly technical information and there is no way to measure or guarantee this benefit?
     Selling carbon offsets has been compared to selling indulgences, allowing those who travel extensively, live in monster houses or drive gas-guzzling cars to relieve their consciences without changing their habits. It is a way of letting the wealthy feel good, thinking that they have made a donation to counter the damages of their affluent life styles. As in the case of green washed products, there is also no standard or oversight to guarantee the results of their donations.
     As an alternative to purchasing carbon offsets for new automobiles, some concerned citizens have advocated a carbon tax which would be based on a car's fuel consumption or emissions. But others have pointed out that since the poor and elderly tend to drive older, less efficient cars for relatively short distances, a gasoline or fuel tax at the pump would be more equitable. Under either proposal, the additional revenue could be used for renewable energy projects or to provide a rebate for the purchase of more energy efficient cars.
     Since there is no universal standard for measuring one's carbon footprint or the processes whereby one can become carbon neutral, how does the average consumer make a well intentioned decision to offset their emissions? Planting a tree may absorb carbon during its lifetime, but when it dies and decomposes, carbon dioxide is released. Donating to alternative energy projects may feel good, but does it really make a difference in the development of that industry or the production of clean energy? And who will determine the amount of the savings or guarantee that the trees will not only be planted, but will not be cut down, all of which is susceptible to manipulation or fraud.
Federal Trade Commission      Since American corporations and consumers spent $54 million last year on carbon credits to offset their operations or purchases, the Federal Trade Commission recently held meetings on green marketing. Although the FTC regulates advertising claims, it has not revised its "Green Guides" since 1998, and is asking for suggestions on how to update these guidelines as well as to regulate the carbon offset programs which companies offer to their customers.
     To be effective, however, these new guidelines must be drawn up in an open and transparent process and have the full backing of the federal government. Given the recent scare about the safety of imported toys and foods, and the urgency of converting to a greener economy, adopting and enforcing comprehensive guidelines for green products and carbon offsets should have a high priority. This means providing adequate resources to hire the best scientific minds, develop state-of-the art research facilities, and provide adequate enforcement for enabling legislation.
Consumer Choice and National Policies      Just as wealthy individuals may purchase carbon offsets, wealthy nations can invest in energy saving or carbon-reducing operations in poor countries, without cleaning up their domestic operations. Generally, this is cheaper, but since the wealthy nations have been the major producers of carbon emissions, it basically lets them off the hook, but is good for public relations. Because this also raises the question of whether the project would have been initiated without new foreign investment, the Kyoto Protocol provided that such investments must be in addition to what was already planned by the host country, in order to be certified as constituting a valid carbon offset by the Clean Development Mechanism.
     Instead of purchasing questionable carbon offsets in order to feel good, individuals, as well as corporations and nations, should be looking for ways to reduce their consumption of fossil fuels and, therefore, their emissions. As a nation we need to establish standards that will make a difference, allowing us to accurately measure and reduce our carbon footprint, make informed consumer choices and support the efforts of government agencies, corporations and international agencies to reduce emissions and address global warming.
     There is also a need to make intelligent consumer choices, not changing wardrobes every season, or replacing our perfectly functioning appliances to match our decor, or buying new luxury cars, all of which increase our carbon footprint. While some of the "green products" may be organic, or made in an environmentally sensitive ways, we should ask how have the organic materials been processed or have they been transported thousands of miles to be manufactured and then shipped to retail outlets? What kind of energy has also gone into the growing, harvesting, processing and distribution of "natural" products?
     Since our over-consumption is part of the problem, requiring the use of more and more raw materials and energy, "green consumerism" is a contradiction which may actually increase our carbon footprint, while not addressing the fundamental issue of consumerism. Eating fresh fruit in winter from half way around the world, no matter how organic, is farcical in terms of reducing carbon emissions or alleviating global warming. Since they do not require any new materials, the greenest clothes you can wear are those you already own.
     Because making informed consumer choices does not really address the problem of global warming, we need to develop effective public policies to address our dependency on oil for transportation and coal for electricity, and to promote higher density housing at affordable prices, combined with public transit. If consumers consciously decide to purchase green products, certified by a federal agency or trade association, perhaps they will also be motivated to endorse constructive "green" public policies needed to address a complex problem.       - Tony White