Creating a Sustainable Future
Today's Best Read:
Making the Right Choices for a Sustainable Future
-- just because that plastic water bottle is recyclable, doesn't mean that its footprint is eliminated once you diligently place it into a recycle bin.
Happy Earth Day, everyone! Thanks to you lovely readers, I had the opportunity to really research the issues affecting our home planet this year, and by filling in some critical gaps in my education, I've finally received the nudge I needed in order to graduate from intention to action.
Here at CP Lab Safety, we're proud to be among the first U.S. companies to have brought our manufacturing back to the United States (a kind of reverse off-shoring). That's because product transportation is one of the most significant drains on resources, and produces some of the largest carbon footprints on the stratosphere. Each day, products are boxed and loaded into trucks, delivered to boats or planes, carried across state and international borders, relocated onto more trucks, and then fanned out across the country so consumers everywhere can choose from isle upon isle of redundant options. Imagine the gallons of fuel, oceans of exhaust, mountains of packing and packaging material proliferating on a daily basis, and without end. The ability to share the world's wealth is a wonderful thing, particularly when it means bringing essential goods to deprived communities. But clearly our lust to consume has eclipsed our sense of moderation.
As consumers, we have the power to minimize waste by being more conscientious in our purchasing decisions. Giving preference to locally-made products reduces the necessity of long-distance shipping. Bringing your reusable items with you rather than accepting disposable, single-use products saves valuable resources. Consider the process that brings your favorite disposable products to your fingertips, and then think about how often these items are restocked with a whole new batch of the same products. Daily? Weekly? It's a relatively modern phenomenon, but the culture of convenience has rendered things like the single-use grocery bag or water bottle a presumed necessity, even though they're not.
A clever poster circulating the web neatly summarizes this curiosity:
It's pretty amazing that our society has reached a point where the effort necessary to extract oil from the ground, ship it to a refinery, turn it into plastic, shape it appropriately, truck it to a store, buy it, and bring it home is considered to be less effort than what it takes to just wash the spoon when you're done with it.
In recent years, a growing awareness to the issue has given rise to a boycott on plastic bags, evidenced by an increasing number of major outlets no longer offering them. But as we reported in a previous Earth Day newsletter, switching to paper bags is not the holy grail that we hoped for. Recycling any product is a fairly expensive process, and with each pass through the production mill, components break down at a molecular level, reducing their structural integrity. Reprocessed paper and plastics may have to be combined with newly milled trees or minted polymers to be usable.1
This applies to products across the board. Just because a plastic water bottle is recyclable, doesn't mean that its footprint is eliminated once you diligently place it into a recycle bin. Aside from the extensive resources consumed to keep our stores initially stocked, those that make it back to the recycling plant still have a finite cycle of rebirth. And that doesn't account for the vast number that end up in landfills anyway. Clearly, simple recycling isn't a perfect answer.
So what is the answer? As is often the case in complicated matters, sometimes its simple steps, taken by a large group, that can make the most difference. Convenience has given rise to a broad range of single-use products, but we can choose the situations in which we accept them, and where we can do better. Instead of mindlessly grabbing a new bottle off the shelf, accepting disposable bags at checkout, or purchasing a nine dollar shirt that will fall apart in the wash, it would do the world a good turn if we all invested in more durable, more personal, and less replaceable items. Thinking ahead even saves money long-term; 99 cents per bottle, per day will save you $350 every year (even after you subtract the cost of a reusable bottle and the water to wash it). Living responsibly has more to recommend it than a clean conscience.
To really maximize their environmental impact, some creative companies and consumers are turning to "upcycling" - a privately-driven recycling process where waste products are reassembled into original and unrelated products. Several successful and promising ventures have been sprouting up as a result of the movement. Melissa Richardson of Totem sells a line of bags converted from old advertising banners. Connie Carman does the same with recycled newspapers. Jake Bronstein has a kickstarter going on right now for a hoodie that comes with an unusual warranty - free mending for life. And if you're feeling adventurous, sites like Pinterest, Etsy, YouTube, and of course the ever reliable Google are a treasure map to inspiration.
The reuse wagon still comes with a warning. Although reusable products are better for everyone, potential remains for abuse. Be mindful in your decisions. If a free or inexpensive reusable bag is just going to end up forgotten in your trunk, resist the reflex to accept. Waste is waste, green or not, so inflating the apparent demand for it is still donating straight to the local landfill. For those of you in Sales, how about limiting marketing material production to a volume you can reasonably liquidate, to minimize your overrun instead of printing extras? There are lots of small decisions we can make every day that contribute to the greater whole.
Finally, if green incentives just aren't working, the Mother Nature Network offers the following insight for businesses wishing to reduce the consumption of disposables: penalty often garners greater success than reward. Rather than offering benefits to the already conscientious consumer, perhaps a slight tax on single-use products may be just the thing to startle sleep-shoppers from their stupor?
Jordan Leigh and Michelle Walters
CP Lab Safety
More Important Reads and Resources from CP Lab Safety
Is your recycling program legit? Many recycling programs cut costs by dumping domestic waste on developing countries with weaker safety and environmental regulations. Heaps of garbage have overtaken entire communities, like Guiyu, China, leaving families to subsist among dangerous debris, toxic soil, and poisoned air and drinking water. Lest you think this isn't a domestic issue, keep in mind that many U.S. manufacturers import produce grown from the same foreign shores.
Due to cost benefit, completely eradicating offshore recycling may be impossible under present conditions. Steps must be taken to change the paradigm at its root. Without the benefit of safety protocol or equipment, recyclers in developing nations must strip products by hand to their basic components, and dispose of non-reusable materials in acid baths and open fires. The situation is compounded by the fact that such communities rarely provide health care or legal protection for their suffering constituents.
To offset the damage, progressive companies are taking strides to produce fully recyclable products free of hazardous materials and designed for easy dismantling. Contact your electronics manufacturers about getting involved. Greenpeace International provides the following guide to the best and worst offenders:
And to make sure that your discarded products aren't recycled into someone else's tragedy, websites like these will point you to approved facilities:
Alternately, you can take advantage of Trade-In or Mail Back programs:
And to further neutralize your eco-footprint, take advantage of services like those provided by the E-Waste Foundation. For any certified electronics equipment purchase, the E-waste Foundation will apply the price of certification to responsibly dismantling an equivalent amount of waste components!
By now, we've heard the virtues of buying local. But it's not always easy to know where things originate at the supermarket. Need help? Here are some useful websites to point you in the right direction:
Avoid disposable products! Even recyclable items require energy and resources to breakdown and rebuild - an expense many companies aren't willing to pay. Shipment and processing also generates pollutants, and that's the positive side. A large percentage of recyclable products still end up in landfills or littering public spaces. Support your local tailor, keep a shopping bag in the car, invest in that reusable coffee mug. Small steps add up quickly!
Break the bottled water habit. Though a relatively new phenomenon, bottled water has become an international craze. But investigations have revealed that claims to purity are often fallacious, rendering mass manufacture, shipment, and disposal of the single-use product a financially and environmentally expensive mistake. Disposable water, soda, and juice bottles also release trace amounts of toxins which, over time, can pose serious health risks. A return to multi-use containers is the best way to protect both yourself and the planet.
One of the more controversial claims of the Green movement in recent years has been the existence of "energy vampires", or electronics that consume energy in the "off" position. The standard advice is to unplug electronics when not in use, to reduce energy consumption and, ideally, electricity bills. But is it true? When a man whom I admire confessed his doubt; citing the fact that electricity continues to circulate even without direct access to your peripherals, I decided to see if there was more to this trend than hearsay.
Conclusion? Apparently, "energy vampires" are real. The California Energy Commission says the only myth is that plugged-in electronics can ever truly abstain. As long as there's a link, there's a leak; it's just a matter of how much. Newer technologies may be better at minimizing the flow, but as How Stuff Works explains, many electronics were designed to standby, not switch off, to hasten reinstatement. The Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory has a government website that outlines the typical "standby" usage of most common household appliances.
Don't throw away good food! The USDA gives you a detailed report on the actual expiration date of your perishable foods:
Don't use the phone book? Opt out today!
More Good Ideas
Check this handy Footprint Calculator on out Earthday.org:
And visit Earth911.com to learn how to plant a garden, discover non-toxic cosmetics, stay apprised of the latest earth-friendly innovations, and more!