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by the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Where can I find information on which electronics and their manufacturers are greener than others, with regard to components, manufacturing processes and end use efficiency?

-- John Franken, New York, NY

Now that many consumers are beginning to care about their own environmental footprints, manufacturers are responding with loads of greener offerings. One good place to find them is the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics, which ranks the 18 top manufacturers of personal computers, mobile phones, televisions and game consoles according to their policies on toxic chemicals, recycling and climate change. Greenpeace hopes that by publishing and regularly updating the guide they can both educate consumers about their choices and influence manufacturers to eliminate hazardous substances, take back and recycle their products responsibly, and reduce the climate impacts of their operations and products.

According to Greenpeace, the top five electronics manufacturers from a green perspective are Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Philips, HP and Samsung. These companies get high marks with Greenpeace for eliminating or scaling way back on the use of hazardous chemicals linked to cancer and other health and environmental problems, which in turn makes recycling their products less problematic.

Nokia gets top honors from Greenpeace for the second year in a row: All of the company’s new phone models and accessories for 2010 are free of brominated compounds, chlorinated flame retardants and antimony trioxide, three of the most toxic chemicals used commonly in most mobile phones and other consumer electronics today. Toshiba, Microsoft and Nintendo are the last place finishers on Greenpeace’s list for various reasons, including backtracking on or failing to make commitments to phase out chemicals used in the production of vinyl plastic (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs).

Aother good place to find info on green electronics and related products is the new website of TopTen
USA, a non-profit that identifies and publicizes the most energy-efficient products on the market. The goal of the group—which is part of a global alliance of like-minded non-profits—is to make it easier for consumers to find the most energy- and money-saving models, which in turn encourages manufacturing innovations that will shift the whole market in a greener direction. Besides listing the greenest individual models of desktop computers, laptops, monitors and televisions TopTen USA also lists the greenest refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, clothes washers and even vehicles.

The non-profit Green Electronics Council, initially set up to help government, institutional and corporate purchasers evaluate, compare and select electronic products based on various environmental attributes, has now opened up its EPEAT green certification database to consumers. Some 1,300 computers, thin clients, workstations and monitors from dozens of manufacturers now bear the EPEAT certification label ensuring compliance with green manufacturing and recycling standards. All federal purchasers are required to choose between EPEAT-certified models when possible, and the database has steadily gained traction across a wide range of industries. Now consumers can freely browse the listings to see how various items from the likes of Apple, LG, Panasonic, Lenovo and Sony, among others, stack up.

USA, www.toptenusa.org; EPEAT, www.epeat.net; Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics, www.greenpeace.org/international/campaigns/toxics/electronics/how-the-companies-line-up.

Dear EarthTalk: I’ve heard that New York City schools are trying out “Trayless Tuesdays” in their cafeterias in order to reduce waste. Why are trays such a big issue? And how can cutting them out on one day a week really make a difference? -- Mark, Brooklyn, NY

Unlike the old days when many school cafeterias offered reusable trays that could go into big industrial dishwashers after lunchtime, the trend since the early 1990s in New York City and elsewhere across the country has been to provide students with disposable polystyrene (tradename: Styrofoam) trays that are used once—typically for less than 30 minutes—and then thrown out. From there, most of the trays end up clogging already overburdened landfills or posing a litter problem. Polystyrene, impossible to compost and difficult to recycle, is one of the predominant features of litter-filled beaches, not to mention trash-based ocean gyres hundreds of miles from shore.

According to the grassroots group SOSnyc.org, some 850,000 Styrofoam trays are trashed in
New York City public schools every day. “At 80 trays per foot, the daily stack is two miles high, 8.5 times the height of the Empire State Building,” the group reports.

Polystyrene can be recycled by specialty recyclers, but most municipal recycling programs do not accept it. The fact that homeowners and businesses can’t put it out on the curb with the rest of their recyclables for pick-up—they have to pay a private recycler to take it off their hands—means that more likely than not it ends up in the garbage can or dumpster and subsequently a landfill. Also, polystyrene that is soiled with food is even more difficult and expensive to recycle due to issues of bacterial contamination—most polystyrene recyclers won’t accept Styrofoam that has had contact with food.

According to leading environmental groups, the polystyrene in food trays and other products is dangerous to both people and ecosystems “The basic building block chemicals of polystyrene...have been linked to cancer and other very serious health problems [and are] very hazardous to manufacture,” says Michael Schade of the non-profit Center for Health, Environment and Justice. He adds that he considers polystyrene “one of the most toxic plastics for our health and environment.” Despite these problems, the American Chemistry Council spends millions of dollars per year lobbying to keep products made with Styrofoam on the market, according to SOSnyc.org.

SOSnyc.org is campaigning for the removal of disposable trays from the
New York City school system altogether, not just one day a week, but its campaign is a start. The group’s advocacy has not fallen on deaf ears. Since March 2010, all 1,500 New York City public schools have been serving lunch in recyclable paper containers every Tuesday, cutting the waste from polystyrene trays by 20 percent across the five boroughs. SOSnyc.org is spearheading an effort to find permanent alternatives for polystyrene trays five days a week. Those schools with dishwashers could switch to reusable trays. Recyclable or compostable cardboard trays could work for schools without dishwashers, but manufacturers have not yet come up with anything as lightweight and sturdy as polystyrene for such applications. But with such a big potential market for non-polystyrene trays opening up, greener alternatives are sure to emerge soon.

CONTACTS: SOSnyc.org, www.sosnyc.org; Center for Health, Environment and Justice, www.chej.org; American Chemistry Council, www.americanchemistry.com.

Dear EarthTalk: I see more and more organic wines on store shelves these days, but what options are out there today for organic beer? -- Ken Strong, Wichita, KS

Some 80 million Americans drink beer, yet organic beer represents still only a sliver of the $7 billion U.S. craft beer market. But this sliver is quickly turning into a slice: Between 2003 and 2009, according to the Organic Trade Association, U.S. organic beer sales more than quadrupled from $9 million to $41 million.

According to Seven Bridges Cooperative, which has been selling organic brewing ingredients for a decade already, organic beers tend to feature exceptional clarity and a clean, flavorful taste. “On a more technical side, organic malts on average have a lower protein content which produces a clear mash and less haze problems in the finished beer,” reports Seven Bridges. “Organic malts and hops have no chemical residues to interfere with fermentation to give the organic brewer a clean, unadulterated beer.”

Seven Bridges mail you all the ingredients you need to brew your own organic beer at home, but most of us would rather just enjoy the finished product. Depending on where you live, you might have dozens of organic beer brands available in bottles and even on tap at your favorite watering hole.

One of the most visible is Fortuna, California-based Eel River Brewing Company, founded in 1996.
Eel River has the distinction of being America’s first certified organic brewery. Their IPA, Pale Ale, Porter, Amber Ale, Blonde Ale, Old Ale and Imperial Stout are all crafted from organic hops from New Zealand and organic grains from the Pacific Northwest and Canada.

Butte Creek Brewery, established in 1998 in
Chico, California, brews organic Pilsner, Porter, Pale Ale and India Pale Ale. Their award-winning beers are distributed internationally. Olympia, Washington-based Fish Tale Organic Ales has been brewing ales, porters and stouts to rave reviews since 1993, and introduced its first certified organic beer in 2000. And Otter Creek Brewery in Middlebury, Vermont produces a line of organic ales called Wolaver’s, which includes an Oatmeal Stout and a Pumpkin Ale.

UK’s Samuel Smith Brewery turns out a full line of acclaimed organic ale, lager and fruit beers. Other popular choices include Pinkus Organic Munster Alt, Peak Organic, New Belgium’s Mothership Wit Wheat Beer, and Lakefront Organic ESB, among others. And Whole Foods Markets now produces its own private label organic beer called Lamar Street, which is known for its rich flavor and low cost.

Not surprisingly, even the big boys are beginning to jump in. Anheuser-Busch is pushing its Stone Mill, Wild Hops and
Green Valley organic beers. And Miller’s Henry Weinhard’s Organic Amber, on store shelves since 2007, is brewed with local ingredients by the Full Sail Brewery in Hood River, Oregon.

One way to sample dozens of organic beers at once is to attend the North American Organic Brewers Festival (NAOBF), held every June in Portland, Oregon. Whether you clue into organic beers at this event or just at your local pub you can't go wrong by spreading your eco-consciousness to your beer drinking.

CONTACTS: Organic Trade Association, www.ota.com; Seven Bridges Cooperative, www.breworganic.com; Eel River Brewing, www.eelriverbrewing.com; Butte Creek Brewing,www.buttecreek.com; Fish Brewing, www.fishbrewing.com; NAOBF, www.naobf.org.

Dear EarthTalk: In my business courses in college, we were taught that ecological degradation was an “externality”—something outside the purview of economic analyses. Now that the environment is of such concern, are economists beginning to rethink this? -- Josh Dawson, Flagstaff, AZ

By definition, economic externalities are the indirect negative (or positive) side effects, considered un-quantifiable in dollar terms, of other economic acts. For example, a negative externality of a power plant that is otherwise producing a useful good (electricity) is the air pollution it generates. In traditional economics, the harmful effect of the pollution (smog, acid rain, global warming) on human health and the environment is not factored in as a cost in the overall economic equation. And as the economists go, so go the governments that rely on them. The result is that most nations do not consider environmental and other externalities in their calculations of gross domestic product (GDP) and other key economic indicators (which by extension are supposed to be indicators of public health and well-being).

For decades environmentalists have argued that economics should take into account the costs borne by such externalities in order to discern the true overall value to society of any given action or activity. The company or utility that operates the polluting factory, for instance, should be required to compensate the larger society by paying for the pollution it produces so as to offset the harm it does.

So-called “cap-and-trade” schemes are one real-world way of monetizing a negative externality: Big polluters must buy the right to generate limited amounts of carbon dioxide (and they can trade such rights with other companies that have found ways to lower their carbon footprints, thus creating an incentive for polluters to clean up their acts). While cap-and-trade was invented in the U.S. to clean up acid rain pollution, it is a model used in Europe but not yet in America, which has yet to pass legislation mandating it. Until Congress acts to regulate the output of carbon dioxide in the U.S.—via cap-and-trade means or others—such emissions will remain “external” to the economics of carrying on business.

Recent news that has many greens excited is that the World Bank, the leading financier of development projects around poorer parts of the globe, is starting to think outside the traditional economic box. This past October, World Bank president Robert Zoellick told participants at a conference for the Convention on Biological Diversity (an international treaty signed by 193 countries—not including the U.S.—that went into effect in 1993 to sustain biodiversity) that “the natural wealth of nations should be a capital asset valued in combination with its financial capital, manufactured capital and human capital.” Zoellick’s comments are the first sign from the World Bank of its recognition of the need to consider externalities in any overall economic assessment. “[We] need to reflect the vital carbon storage services that forests provide and the coastal protection values that come from coral reefs and mangroves,” he added.

Critics are still waiting to see if the World Bank will walk its talk. “It’s a fine rhetorical start,” says the New York Times’ Andrew Revkin in his blog. “But the announcement by the bank of a $10 million ‘Save Our Species’ fund, with the United Nations Global Environmental Facility and International Union for Conservation of Nature, seems quite piddling in a world where money flows in the trillions,” he adds. Indeed, we may still be a ways off from including our environmental impacts into our measures of social wealth and health, but at least the World Bank has gone on record as to the need to do so, and you can be sure that environmental advocates will be working to hold its feet to the fire.

CONTACTS: World Bank, www.worldbank.org; Convention on Biological Diversity, www.cbd.int.

Dear EarthTalk: I understand that
China is about to overtake the U.S. as the world’s largest global warming polluter. What is China doing to address this issue as well as its other environmental impacts as such a populous nation? -- Sophie N., Andover, MA

Actually, China passed the U.S. as the world’s leading greenhouse gas emitter back in 2006 and today produces some 17 percent of the world’s total carbon dioxide output. According to the China Daily news service, air and water pollution, combined with widespread use of food additives and pesticides, make cancer the top killer in China. Meanwhile, World Bank data show that, based on the European Union’s air quality standards, only one percent of the country’s 560 million urban inhabitants breathe air deemed safe. But many Chinese insist that all this environmental trouble is part of the cost of developing into a world superpower, and government leaders there are hesitant to impose restrictions on economic development.

Nevertheless, the Chinese are starting to take action. In December 2009 at the Copenhagen global climate talks, China announced plans to slow greenhouse gas emission increases relative to economic growth by 40-50 percent between 2005 and 2020, and use renewable fuels for 15 percent of its energy. China also committed to increasing forest cover by 40 million hectares by 2020 (forests absorb carbon dioxide).

But even with such measures, analysts say China’s carbon dioxide output will still increase a staggering 90 percent in the next decade, assuming eight percent economic growth. While international negotiators were pleased to finally secure a commitment from the Chinese, it was a far cry from the fast and binding emissions cuts many scientists say are necessary to stave off potentially cataclysmic climate change.

Regarding other pollution, China is a signatory to the Stockholm Convention, which governs the control and phase-out of major persistent organic pollutants (POPs), including many pesticides, PCBs and other chemicals. China has committed to eliminating the production, import and use of pollutants covered under the treaty, and will establish an inventory of POP contaminated sites and remediation plans by 2015.

Other green strides China has made include 2008’s nationwide ban on plastic shopping bags. Before the ban, China was using 37 million barrels of crude oil annually to make the bags that would no doubt come back to haunt people, wildlife, land and water bodies as litter. China has also signed on to an international effort sponsored by the United Nations and the Global Environment Facility to phase out incandescent lightbulbs over the next decade in favor of more efficient varieties. China makes 70 percent of the world’s supply of lightbulbs, so the switch could have a big impact on energy usage for lighting around the world.

China is also no slouch when it comes to manufacturing green technologies and now produces more solar panels and wind turbines than any other country. And the Chinese government recently committed $216 billion in subsidies to further develop the nation’s green technology sector. A recent report by the non-profit Pew Environment Group found that in 2009 China spent two times as much as the U.S. to fund so-called “green markets,” and close to 50 percent of world expenditures overall.

CONTACTS: Copenhagen Accord, www.unfccc.int/home/items/5262.php; Stockholm Convention, www.pops.int; Global Environment Facility, www.thegef.org/gef; Pew Environment Group, www.pewtrusts.org/our_work_category.aspx?ID=110.

Dear EarthTalk: Are the world’s amphibians still in decline and what’s being done to help them?

-- Chris W., Stamford, CT

Unfortunately yes, amphibians are still in serious trouble around the world. A recently updated worldwide population assessment by the non-profit International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) found that 32 percent of the 6,000-plus amphibian species left on the planet have declined to dangerously low levels—and qualify for vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered status on the group’s “Red List” of at-risk wildlife.

Perhaps even more disturbing is that upwards of 160 amphibian species—some of which have been around for hundreds of millions of years—have gone extinct just in the last 25 years. Since amphibian species are particularly sensitive to environmental change, they are often the first animals to decline in areas just beginning to experience environmental degradation, and as such are considered to be important indicators of the health of the wider ecosystems surrounding them.

Scientists are hard-pressed to pick one major cause for such dramatic declines, but at least one key culprit is a fungal pathogen called “frog chytid” (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis). According to the non-profit
Amphibian Ark, frog chytid causes changes to amphibians’ sensitive outer skin layer, making vital life processes—such as the absorption of water, oxygen and electrolytes—difficult or impossible. Prior to 1999 researchers hadn’t yet identified this variant of the chytid fungus, let alone the role it was playing in decimating amphibian populations. It is particularly dangerous because none of the world’s amphibians seem to be immune—even those species that survive an infestation still carry and transmit the parasite.

Frog chytid isn’t the only factor in amphibians’ recent troubles. According to the AmphibiaWeb website, habitat destruction, alteration and fragmentation (with the forest goes the frogs), as well as predatory introduced species, increased exposure to UV-B radiation (likely caused by erosion of the Earth’s protective ozone layer), various forms of air and water pollution, and poaching all combine to stack the odds against amphibians. Human-induced climate change is likely playing a role in the decline as well, with rising global temperatures creating optimal conditions for the growth and spread of the frog chytid pathogen while also displacing amphibians from formerly hospitable habitat zones.

IUCN and its partners Conservation International and NatureServe have released an Amphibian Action Conservation Plan, which outlines ways that international institutions, national governments, corporations and even everyday people can take part in helping to save our frogs and their relatives. According to the plan, reducing pollution and lowering our carbon footprint is an important first step. Likewise, preserving more amphibian habitat—especially in Latin America, which has the largest number of threatened amphibian species, and the Caribbean, where upwards of 80 percent of amphibians are at risk—will be key to the survival of our frogs, toads, salamanders and caecilians. Captive breeding programs in various zoos and labs around the world, reintroductions of species into formerly abandoned habitats, and the removal of harmful non-native species also need to play a role in preserving these many species that, once gone, will never reappear.

Amphibian Ark, www.amphibianark.org; AmphibiaWeb, www.amphibiaweb.org; International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN), www.iucn.org; Conservation International, www.conservation.org; NatureServe, www.natureserve.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Can you explain what “desertification” is and why it is an important environmental issue? -- Jay Harris, Nashville, TN

Desertification is the degradation of land in already dry parts of the globe that results from various factors, including natural climate changes as well as human activity. As the name connotes it is the expansion of desert-like conditions which render useless land that was once biologically and/or economically productive. According to the United Nations’ Convention to Combat Desertification, the phenomenon occurs in “drylands” (arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas) on all continents except
Antarctica and affects the livelihoods of millions of people, including a large proportion of the world’s poor.

Drylands constitute about 40 percent of the world’s total land area, and are home to some two billion people—a third of human population. Water scarcity in existing drylands makes it difficult for plants, animals and humans to thrive there; desertification makes it impossible, forcing those affected to flee to more hospitable lands, whether they are welcome or not. The United Nations estimates that 10-20 percent of the world’s drylands are already degraded to the point where desertification is an imminent threat.

While global warming—and the resulting intensification of fresh water scarcity—is the most serious factor in converting drylands into deserts, population pressure and lack of proper land use planning only serve to make matters worse. In Sub-Saharan Africa, one of the regions most vulnerable to desertification, severe droughts already lead to major food and health crises once every three decades or so on average; environmentalists and planners worry that human-induced warming and other factors will increase the frequency of such debilitating droughts and lead to even more problems with desertification there. The African Union is working to muster international support for the creation of a “Green Wall”—a forested green belt—to help hold back the
Sahara desert.

Other governments are also taking steps to keep desertification in check.
China is working to create a 2,800-mile forest belt that will not only block the fast advancing sands of the Gobi desert but serve as a “carbon sink,” as well, to absorb greenhouse gas emissions. And Algerian leaders are optimistic that the recent creation of a 600,000 acre national park will head off a looming desertification crisis there.

Desertification is also a problem right here in the
United States, mostly a result of overgrazing by farm animals and poorly designed irrigation schemes across especially vulnerable parts of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Some 40 percent of the continental U.S. is dry enough to be at risk for desertification.

Historians point to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s as proof positive of America’s susceptibility to such problems. Lessons learned then led to the creation of the Soil Conservation Service—now called the Natural Resources Conservation Service—to teach farmers and other landowners agricultural practices that reduce soil loss and maintain biological diversity around agricultural operations. In spite of such efforts, desertification still plagues parts of the U.S. today. The hope today is that global warming won’t tip us to the point where have to learn some hard lessons all over again.

CONTACTS: UN Convention to Combat Desertification, www.unccd.int; African Union, www.africa-union.org; Natural Resources Conservation Service, www.nrcs.usda.gov.

Dear EarthTalk: What’s up with dishwasher detergents of late? They’re clearly not working as well. I hope whatever was done is helping the environment because it’s not helping my dishes.

-- Sally P., Everett, WA

What happened was that in July 2010 a significant reduction in the amount of phosphates allowed in automatic dishwasher detergent went into effect in Washington State. Similar regulations were implemented in 14 other states (Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin) for 2009 before Oregon and Washington added their names to the list earlier this year. Previously phosphates could constitute up to 8.7 percent of dishwasher detergent; now the new regulations limit them to 0.5 percent.

The main problem with phosphates, which also come from agricultural and landscaping activities, is that they get into natural water bodies and act as fertilizer, accelerating plant and algae growth. When the plants and algae die, a feeding frenzy of bacteria consume all the oxygen dissolved in the water, creating an environment inhospitable to fish and other aquatic life. These oxygen-devoid “dead zones” can occur in freshwater or in the ocean. In fact, two of the world’s largest dead zones are in the
Baltic Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, the result of fertilizers running off of farmland. Besides phosphates’ negative effect on water bodies, their presence in the environment can also be harmful to terrestrial wildlife and can trigger skin and eye irritation and allergies, among other ill effects, in humans.

Environmentalists and others supportive of the reduction in phosphates claim that the new regulations will spare wastewater treatment systems from dealing with 10-12 percent of the phosphates previously encountered. Wastewater treatment managers in Spokane, Washington, for example, found that a local year-old ban on phosphates in dishwashing detergent there saved them from dealing with upwards of 180 pounds of phosphates—or about 10 percent of the total load—each and every day at municipal wastewater treatment facilities—saving not only money but also the other chemicals used to treat the water.

Given the shift in so many states, many manufacturers have reformulated their entire product lines for markets across the country, so even if you don’t live in one of the affected states you might be getting dishwashing detergent with a lot less phosphorous as well. Consumer Reports tested 24 of the leading low-phosphate dishwasher detergents to see which ones got dishes cleanest. The top finishers were Cascade Complete All in 1 pacs (at a cost of 28 cents per load), Ecover tablets (27 cents), Finish Powerball Tabs tablets (22 cents), and Method Smarty Dish tablets (21 cents), but other brands and formulations also performed adequately if used properly.

Consumer Reports also provides tips on optimizing the performance of your dishwasher and dishwashing detergent no matter which brand you use. For starters, load large items at the sides and back of the dishwasher so they don’t block water and detergent from reaching other dishes. And place the dirtier side of dishes towards the center of the machine to provide more exposure to the sprayer. Also, try to prevent dishes and utensils from nesting within one another so that the water can reach all surfaces.

CONTACT: Consumer Reports, http://blogs.consumerreports.org/home/2010/11/how-to-load-your-dishwasher-.html.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.

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