Saturday, August 24, 2013

Going Green: Responsible Electronics Recycling

I revised and updated the below article, originally published on

Back-to-school season has rolled back around, and many people will be taking advantage of those "back -to-school" sales to purchase new electronics or upgrade those that are currently out of date.  Beware before you chuck your old computer, television, or cell phone into the landfill or nearest recycling facility: those seemingly innocuous electronics are the cause of devastating pollution and environmental justice issues.

Computers and other electronics contain harmful chemicals and heavy metals and should be disposed of with caution. Electronic waste, or “e-waste” has become a significant problem as old electronics constantly become outdated, broken, or replaced by newer, better versions.  Throwing old electronics in the garbage or taking them to the dump is an unsuitable option; the chemicals and heavy metals in them contaminate the environment. Recycling sounds like a good option, but what happens to your electronics once they are dropped off at a recycling location? The answer may not be what you expect.

Acres of smoldering computer in Africa - Photo Credit:

Typically, once the recycling center has removed all of the reusable parts from your recycled electronics, the remnants will be loaded up and shipped overseas to poorer countries, commonly to areas in China or Africa. There, the remnants are manually taken apart and burned in order to remove trace amounts of valuable metals that can then be resold. This manual processing endangers the health of the workers, who often work with no safety equipment and have little knowledge of the dangers they face. Much of this work is done out in the open, so the toxic chemicals saturate the soil in the village, consequently leaching into the local water supply. Burning the electronics to extract metals causes the toxic material to become airborne—thus the people in these regions are suffering with toxics in the ground they walk on, the water they drink, and the air they breathe.

The Story of Stuff has a great video that illustrates the e-waste issue from production of electronics through their eventual disposal, and points to the "designed for the dump" mentality that leads to our electronics becoming obsolete or breaking, and ultimately needing to be replaced.

There are a few organizations based right here in Seattle that are leading the way in combating the e-waste issue: 

The Basel Action Network (BAN) is a Seattle-based nonprofit organization working internationally to fight the environmental and social justice problems caused by e-waste. They have also implemented a groundbreaking certification program, whereby recycling facilities can become "E-Steward" certified by complying with responsible recycling practices: "no disposal in landfills or incinerators, no prison labor, and no export to poor communities".  Businesses can also sign on to become "E-Steward Enterprises" that have made a commitment to recycle all of their electronics using only "E-Steward" certified recycling facilities.  Companies such as Bank of America, Capital One, and Boeing have signed onto this commitment.

Zero Waste Washington is another non-profit organization based in Seattle, and campaigns for producer responsibility and zero waste in regard to several different issues, including the issue of e-waste.  Along with other organizations, Zero Waste Washington helped push through tough recycling legislation that lead to the creation of E-Cycle Washington, a program whereby producers of electronics are required to fund a state-wide recycling/take-back program.  Since it started on January 1st, 2009, this Dept. of Ecology-administered program has recycled over 190 million pounds of electronics!  With over 200 locations statewide, E-Cycle Washington makes it easy to recycle your electronics responsibly.

If you're like me and are absolutely sickened by the thought of poisoning the environment and endangering the health of our fellow human beings for the sake of a new computer, fear not: a little diligence and extra effort on your part can ensure this does not happen:
  • Buy less: Do you really need to have the newest and best electronics? Use your electronics as long as possible, and repair them when you can.
  •  Be an educated consumer: Know what you're buying, where it came from, and where it ultimately ends up after it reaches the end of its useful life.  Ask questions and take every opportunity to demand that electronics manufacturers give us better, greener, longer-lasting products!

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Overshoot Day: Oh shoot, there go our resources for the year

Overshoot Day will soon be upon us – we don’t know for sure when it will happen, but estimates suggest that it will be sometime next week.  This little-known landmark day, appropriately tagged as #oShoot day in the World Wildlife Fund social media campaign, has occurred every year since about 1970 and marks the point each year at which our global population has used up all of the resources that the earth can sustainably produce/replenish in one year.  Any resource use beyond this date is unsustainable, and is stealing from future generations.  The Global Footprint Network explains Earth Overshoot Day with the metaphor of an ecological budget:  in a balanced budget, our global society would use one earth’s worth of resources (or less) in a year.  Defecit spending occurs when we use more than one earth’s worth of resources in a year.  Currently, we are blowing through our yearly “budget” of resources in just eight months, leaving four months of the year where we are stealing resources from our future.

 Source: Global Footprint Network

Overshoot has serious implications.  If we are drawing down our future resources and using them today instead of saving them for tomorrow, our global society will be facing serious shortages of water, land, clean air, and carbon sequestration capability, which leads to a very ominous picture for our ability to survive in the future.  Let me dust off my population ecology knowledge for a moment and share this graph with you:

 Bing "Overshoot Graph" Images - Original Source unknown

This graph illustrates the idea of “overshoot” in a population.  The dotted line represents the carrying capacity, or the maximum population that the habitat can support.  While resources are plentiful, the population (red line) grows until the resources become scarce (overshoot) and population numbers begin to plummet as a result.  This graph is usually applied to specific populations of an animal species in a given habitat, but can be extremely disconcerting when you think of it in terms of our entire planet.  We currently have the technology to keep extracting resources and extend the resource overshoot without our population being much affected.  However, our technology will not be able to save us when our basic resources run out, because there is no way for us to manufacture fresh water, cropland, forestland, and other resources to sustain our entire global population.  That would be the point at which that red line plummets and populations rapidly decrease (i.e., people die because they lack the basic resources needed to survive).  I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t want to be riding that red line down!

So now we know that overshoot is a very serious problem, but what can be done about it?  First and foremost, everyone needs to understand how their lifestyle is contributing to the problem.  Go to and take the ecological footprint survey to see how many earths’ worth of resources would be needed if everyone on the planet lived like you. This quiz isn't perfect, as the questions are fairly generalized, but it will give you an idea of what your resource use looks like. My results were pretty horrifying: if everyone on the planet lived like me, we would need 4.64 earths.  Yikes.  My Carbon and Food footprints were right on par with the rest of the United States, but luckily my Housing and Goods/Services footprints were well below the US average (yay for 500-square-foot condos and frugal spending!).   

Just for fun, I re-took the quiz and selected Ethiopia instead of the US, and then proceeded to answer the rest of the questions exactly the same.  This time, my result was 0.99 earths.  This just goes to show how much your ecological footprint is influenced by the country you live in—and just how unsustainably we live in the United States!  I would like to extend a challenge: can anyone living in the US get a score of less than one earth on this quiz? I’m not sure if it’s possible, and that speaks volumes as to how much work our country still has to do in order to move toward a sustainable society.

Now that we know how much our ecological footprint is contributing to the issue of overshoot, what can we do?  The overall answer (as it is with so many ecological problems) is to consume less. Consume less, reduce, reuse, recycle, buy locally, plant a garden, and live within your means.  The My Footprint website has a link to a great list of things you can do--conveniently located right below your horrifying quiz result!

Let’s all try to reduce our ecological footprints as much as possible, while also supporting sustainability efforts in our communities, counties, states, and even our whole country.  We all need to pitch in to make sure that resources are available and sustainably managed for future generations, so we can avoid riding that plunging red line down to an uncertain future.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Going Green: Conserving Water (Yes, Even in the Pacific Northwest)

We all know that water is essential for life, and here in the Pacific Northwest where water is gloriously abundant, it is all too easy to be wasteful and take this precious resource for granted.  We might look out the window and see the rain pouring down day after day, and think that water scarcity is certainly NOT an issue here—so why bother fixing that leaky faucet or turning off the water while you’re brushing your teeth? However, even in our rainy neck of the woods, it is important to conserve water as much as possible, as this valuable resource is projected to become scarcer in the coming decades with the competing needs of the growing population, agriculture, industry, and the environment.  Climate change adds another complication by changing our weather patterns:  in the future, climate models for the Pacific Northwest are projecting warmer and wetter winters, and hotter, drier summers, all of which add up to decreased water supply during the hot summer months.

However, fear not: there are simple and painless steps that you can take in your own life to conserve water.  The more of these steps you can implement, the better—before you know it, water conservation will be second nature!
  • Fix leaky faucets – A faucet that leaks 1 drip per second will on average waste 16 bathtubs of water each month, or a total of nearly 10,000 gallons per year!
  • Fix leaky/running toilets – A running toilet can waste as much as 1 gallon per minute, or a whopping 43,200 gallons per month. This is nearly enough to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool over the course of a year!  Some toilet leaks can be silent: some resources suggest dripping a few drops of food coloring into the tank and see if the color shows up in the bowl below without being flushed.  If it does, you’ve got a leak.  (Fair warning: I haven’t tried this, so don't yell at me if it stains your toilet!) 
  • Take a shower – We’ve all heard this one:  take a short ten-minute shower that uses 10 gallons of water, and skip the bath that uses 40-50 gallons.
  • Turn off the faucet when brushing teeth – Leaving the water running wastes 4-6 gallons.
  • Be smart about laundry – Only run the washer when it is full, and be sure to match the water level to the load size.  Try to reduce the volume of laundry by re-using towels.
  • Use a commercial car wash – A commercial car wash uses about 45 gallons per car, while washing at home can use as much as 80-140 gallons.
  • Landscape with native plants – These plants are adapted to the local climate and won’t require watering in excess of whatever precipitation is already readily available
  • Set up rain barrels – Save hundreds of gallons of clean, drinkable water by using water from rain barrels for your plants in the yard and house.
  • Minimize water use in the yard - Watering the lawn and garden can take a considerable amount of water, adding up to thousands of gallons per day in the summer.  Huffpost Green has some great tips for conserving water in the yard.
All of the suggestions above relate to your direct water usage, but it is also crucial to consider your “virtual water” usage.  Virtual water refers to the water that is used to produce the food we eat and the products we buy.  It takes water (irrigation) to grow food crops, and the manufacturing processes of goods such as clothing, electronics, appliances, personal care products, packaging materials – you name it—uses an alarming amount of water, in addition to the water used to grow/mine/extract the raw materials.  Ultimately, the answer to reducing your virtual water usage is to consume less. Buy less stuff, eat less meat, reduce, reuse, recycle... Here are a few specifics to think about (all numbers as reported by the Water Footprint Network):
  • One cotton t-shirt = 2,500 liters of water
  • One pair of jeans = 8,000 liters of water
  • One piece of fruit / vegetable = typically 50-400 liters of water each
  • One kg of beef = 15,400 liters of water
  • One kg of chicken = 4,330 liters of water
  • One bottled water = 3 liters of water… hmm, that just doesn’t add up! (Pacific Institute)
An abundance of water... or is it?

Our lives consume a LOT of water, as you can see from the overwhelming numbers above.  The average American household uses 300 gallons of water per day.  However, it is important to remember that just because we live in a developed country where water availability is not an issue thanks to technology and infrastructure; that does not justify wastefulness and does not mean that water is a limitless resource.  Water tables and aquifers are declining across the country, and with the impending challenges of a changing climate, our water supply may not be quite so abundant in the future.  As Anita Roddick states in her book Troubled Water: “Water covers 70% of the planet.  Of that, 97% is undrinkable seawater.  Another 2% is locked in polar ice caps. Leaving 1% available for human use.  Over HALF of that [water] is polluted”.  Those numbers paint a sobering illustration of the reality of our global water situation, and provide yet another reason to be conscious of our water use now in hopes that we’ll continue to have enough for the future.

For more creative water saving tips, check out 100+ Ways to Conserve

Friday, August 2, 2013

Musings: Embracing the Rain

Isn’t it funny how so often, we find ourselves complaining about certain things that we actually end up missing when they’re gone?  Take for example, the infamous Pacific Northwest rain.  We recently experienced a lovely 35-day stretch of warm, sunny weather, which abruptly ended today with the return of gray skies and rain showers.  Given how vehemently local residents (myself included) gripe about the rainy weather during the wintertime, one would think that 35 days of sunshine would be absolute bliss.  However, as it turns out, those of us who are lifelong Pacific Northwesterners are simply not adapted to that much glorious sunshine.  After hearing from friends and coworkers today, it became clear that I was not the only person who woke up this morning, peered out the window, and immediately broke into a huge, giddy grin at the sight of heavy gray skies, dripping leaves, and wet pavement.

 If this is your idea of beautiful weather... you might just be from Washington

Why do we miss the rain so much?  For me, it’s a comfort thing.  The sound of rain drumming on the roof, hearing the rush of cars sloshing through wet streets, smelling the intoxicating earthy “fresh air after the rain” smell—those are things that I became familiar with growing up in this region famous for its rainy weather, and probably more so than anything else, those things bring back memories and offer a comforting feeling of home.  Give me 35 days of sunshine and temperatures in the 80’s, and I start feeling a little panicky.  The grass is turning brown, the air is getting smoggy, I’m sweaty all the time and I’ve forgotten what fresh air smells like—this isn’t home!  A rainy day like today is a blessed relief and a reminder that yes, I am still at home and things are all right in the world.  After getting home from work this afternoon, I just couldn’t help myself: I whipped up a hot mug of chai tea, rummaged around in my bedroom to locate my long-lost fuzzy slippers and pulled on my old sweatshirt.  No matter that it’s the middle of summer—I am going to take full advantage of the rainy-day comforts this weather brings while I have the opportunity.

Rain not only provides a feeling of comfort, but also a sense of identity.  What would Washington State be without the rain?  Certainly not the Evergreen State.  The natural beauty of the scenery that surrounds us owes its existence to our rainy weather, and this beauty is something that we all take pride in.  However, despite the impressive forests and bounty of lush green scenery that we get to enjoy due to our wet climate, Washington’s identity as a rainy state is often perceived negatively.  For instance, when meeting new people while traveling and vacationing in different regions, there is an inevitable exchange that will take place during the conversation: “Where are you from? Washington?” and then almost pityingly “Oh, it rains a lot there, doesn’t it?”  To which the Washingtonian will regretfully respond “Yes, it does”.  Perhaps it’s time to adjust our response to that question.  Rather than feigning an aversion to the rain, perhaps we Washingtonians should throw our chests our and proudly say “Yes, it does rain a lot.  And I LIKE it”. Because let’s face it: we all feel a little lost and out-of-sorts when the rain doesn’t make an appearance for weeks on end.  We do not really like having to water our lawns, or dig the box fans out of the attic, or put on sunscreen, or wear shorts that expose our blinding white legs, or forego taking our vitamin D supplement for fear of overdosing due to sun exposure.  We need the rain, and there is nothing wrong with that!  

So, join me in celebrating the return of the rain by drinking a hot beverage and wearing fuzzy slippers during the middle of summer, and open all of the windows in your house to welcome in that glorious rainy fresh air and the sound of raindrops softly pattering on the ground.  Because admit it, you’ve missed it!