Rachel's Democracy & Health News #898
Thursday, March 15, 2007

From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #898 ..........[This story printer-friendly]
March 15, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: To improve human health, we can focus on 13 community factors that determine who gets sick and who thrives, and then consider using simple strategies to level the playing field and improve the numbers.]

By Peter Montague

As we saw last week, the Prevention Institute in Oakland, California has identified 13 "community factors" that strongly determine human health and health disparities. As an "environment and health" advocate, they've got my attention.

Health disparities are defined as "differences in populations' health status that are avoidable and can be changed. These differences can result from social and/or economic conditions, as well as public policy. Examples include situations whereby hazardous waste sites are located in poor communities, there is a lack of affordable housing, and there is limited or no access to transportation. These and other factors adversely affect population health," according to the National Association of County and City Health Officials.

To recap, the 13 community-factor determinants of health are:

1. Jobs paying living wages -- low-income equates to poor health

2. Education -- school dropouts tend to have poor health

3. Racial injustice -- tends to widen socioeconomic gaps

4. Social networks and trust -- the glue communities together

5. Participation and willingness to act for the social good -- ditto

6. Behavioral norms within a community (e.g., ideas of manliness)

7. What's sold and how it's promoted (alcohol, fast food)

8. Neighborhood look and feel, and safety.

9. Parks and open space

10. Getting around -- public transit

11. Decent housing -- damp, lead-poisoned homes are harmful

12. Air, water, soil -- toxic sludge is a bad neighbor

13. Arts and culture are conducive to health and safety

These things seem obvious -- yet when was the last time we environment-and-health advocates spent time wondering how our local government is spending its "economic development" dollars, or checking the high-school dropout rate in our town vs. the town down the pike? Our activism for "environment and health" really only worries about SOME parts of the environment and SOME aspects of health -- and we include our own work in this assessment. No wonder some people think we're elitists who don't care about them!

But there's hope. The Prevention Institute's 2006 report identifies 10 disparity-reducing strategies and issues that public health practitioners, advocates (like us), and decision-makers can focus on.

1. Primary prevention.

2. Underlying determinants of health, especially the 13 community factors listed above

3. The built environment

4. Sustainable agriculture

5. Economic development

6. Social norms change

7. Community-based participatory efforts

8. Comprehensive approaches

9. Interdisciplinary collaboration

10. Community resilience

The Prevention Institute's report -- which we recommend strongly, along with their 2003 report on Strengthening Communities -- explains how 5 of the 10 strategies can be used to improve individual health and reduce health disparities by focusing on community health instead of individual health.

The Built Environment

The report say, "For people concerned about improving community health, it is critical to recognize the importance of community health factors related to the built environment and become engaged in changing them. Unfortunately, while some of what is known to many as 'smartgrowth' has flourished, it has primarily been focused -- like many health innovations -- on white, middle-class communities. Unquestionably, issues of design and of what is and isn't permissible use demand the attention of advocates interested in reducing disparities."

The report then describes two important "tactics for transforming the built environment [that] are emerging as important in reducing disparities. One is the building of campaigns to address existing deficits in the built environment in a community. The other is to create mechanisms for the assessment of the health implications of proposed investment that would alter existing infrastructure, such as new transit routes, new buildings, and changes to utility services."

An example of the first is the Ironbound Community in Newark, N.J. that has developed its own urban plan for the waterfront of the Passaic River waterfront as it flows through Newark. The community has envisioned its own future and is insisting on its right to sit at the table as the future of the waterfront is decided. They envision a long narrow recreational park where there used to be nothing but trash and decay. Developers of course envision high-rise condos cutting off access to the riverfront for ordinary people. It's a good fight.

The second tactic is to insist that your local health department undertake "health impact assessments" to try to understand the health consequences of new proposals (such as condos along a riverfront). Traditional environmental impact assessments omit the all-important social environment and thus miss many (if not most) of the health impacts of proposed changes in the natural environment locally.

Sustainable Agriculture

Changing the current food system is an essential part of eliminating health disparities. Ninety percent of children in the U.S. are exposed to at least 13 pesticides in their food. Furthermore, food typically travels 1500 miles by truck -- spewing diesel fumes along the entire route. And, "Despite our agricultural system's emphasis on transporting food, residents of low-income communities have lower access to fresh fruits and vegetables than other communities, and a higher proportion of what is easily available, and heavily marketed, is high-fat high-sugar fast foods. This emphasis on unhealthy food of course affects everyone, but low-income people and people of color even more so, says the Prevention Institute's report. Furthermore, in the U.S., the retail cost of fruits and vegetables has increased nearly 40% since 1985, while the costs of fats and sugars have declined, the Institute's report points out.

The solution to all these problems is a locally-based food system that supports local farmers, keeps food costs low, and offers everyone an opportunity to purchase nutritious produce. Part of a healthy food system is the establishment of decent grocery stores in neighborhoods that presently don't have any. Small corner stores that presently depend on liquor sales to survive can be helped to transition away from junk food and liquor (a key factor in violence) toward healthier fare.

Economic Development

The report points out that, "Long-term poverty and lack of hope or opportunity can be devastating for individuals and communities. Being able to support oneself and one's family fosters self-sufficiency and dignity while reducing the stresses associated with poverty and being unemployed. When adults and youth cannot find appropriate employment, they are more likely to turn to crime and violence and associated illicit activities, such as selling drugs. Individuals and communities without resources are less likely to be able to develop strategic responses to health issues (for example, providing healthy food or eliminating lead from houses and soil). Establishing employment programs that link employees to their community fosters community ownership and connection and can result in positive changes for the neighborhood."

Local ownership businesses is the anchor that protects communities against decay. With the price of gasoline rising, redevelopment of the cities is making more and more sense. But it could be done poorly -- giving control of local businesses to outsiders who continue to siphon money away from urban centers. Economic development needs to focus on creating locally-owned businesses that provide goods and services for which people are presenting sending their dollars out of town. The Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), among others, champions this kind of economic development.

Norms Change

A good example of norms change is tobacco. Within a fairly short time, attitudes toward tobacco have changed dramatically and behavior changes have followed.

The "norms change" approach could be used to change gender expectations. As the Prevention Institute points out, "Traditional gender norms of masculinity and femininity encourage a wide range of unhealthy behaviors such as risk-taking and over-consuming among men and limiting physical activity and binge dieting among women. Gender norms affect all races and ethnicities and can exacerbate other risk factors. For example, social norms maintain that men should not need to seek help and can handle problems on their own. Men who have more health problems are more likely to suffer from limited help seeking. Low income men and men of color experience more adverse health outcomes, and gender norms that discourage help seeking exacerbate these effects."

Community-Based Participatory Efforts

"Disenfranchised communities have increasingly recognized that they need to organize and work together to receive equitable services and resources," says the Prevention Institute report. "It's no accident that some communities have fewer resources and services. While a complaining phone call in some neighborhoods might be enough to initiate action, in many low-income communities/communities of color, it takes a mobilized effort to catalyze change."

The report highlights the environmental justice movement as an example of collaboration paying off: "While elements of the physical environment might have the closest connection to health outcomes in the research literature, it seems increasingly clear that the health gap will not be closed without engaging the affected community members -- in identifying the problem, solution, and priorities -- for change. Community based participation not only unlocks the energy and knowledge that exists in a community around a specific issue, it also builds on community networks and capacity to address other issues."

The report goes on to describe how, "In Los Angeles the South L.A. Community Coalition was formed to close liquor stores in the almost exclusively Latino and African American neighborhood. The Coalition represented a broad range of community residents and institutions (including religious groups, journalists, and community organizers) and used a variety of tactics (public hearings, letter writing, media stories, and demonstrations) to close liquor stores. The group successfully closed over 200 stores and documented a 27% decrease in crime within a four-block radius of each store that was closed. Similar strategies have been employed to bring supermarkets into neighborhoods." This kind of on-the-ground base-building work has fallen out of favor with some of the funders of social-change work, in favor of lobbying for policy change. But it's that community-based coalition-building that will reduce health disparities by building community coherence, pride, and stability.

Community Resilience

The Prevention Institute's report says, "Community resilience is the ability of a community to recover from and/or thrive despite the prevalence of risk factors and adversity. A resilient community can be described as having social competence, problem-solving capacity, a sense of identity, and hope for the future. A resilient community provides a triad of protective factors: caring relationships, high expectations, and opportunities for participation. Prevention strategies have focused largely on reducing risk factors. Equally important is building upon and enhancing resilience in communities. Enhancing community resilience can have long-term, positive impacts on individual and community health."

The traditional approach to health disparities has focused somewhat narrowly on "risk factors" -- and they are important, no doubt about it. But eliminating factors that threaten health and safety "does not necessarily achieve the presence of conditions that support health."

The Prevention Institute's report concludes, "Focusing on building community capacity and resilience has three important results:

1) community members are brought into the process and feel a greater vested interest in successful change

2) community members can apply new skills to address other health factors

3) community members gain skills and sense of efficacy that can permeate many aspects of their lives and improve broad life outcomes.

The U.S. currently spends $33 per person per year preventing illnesses and $3300 per person per year treating illnesses.

The "medical model" -- one doctor, one patient -- is unaffordable for tens of millions of people. Community-based prevention programs offer a much better return on dollars invested.

Primary prevention has been the core idea of public health practice for 150 years. We "environment and health" advocates would do well to remember this history.


From: Earthjustice ........................................[This story printer-friendly]
March 6, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: A new EPA risk assessment finds a high cancer risk from coal ash and concludes that the lack of federal regulation endangers U.S. water supplies]

Washington, D.C. -- The risk of getting cancer from coal ash lagoons is 10,000 times greater than government safety standards allow, according to a draft report from the Environmental Protection Agency obtained by an environmental group. Although the EPA acknowledges this risk, it has neglected to adopt regulations that will limit exposure and protect against the health threats of America's second-largest industrial solid waste stream, coal ash.

While EPA has not yet formally released the revised assessment, environmental groups received a summary of the draft, which indicates that the cancer risk for adults and children drinking groundwater contaminated with arsenic from coal combustion waste dumps can be as high as 1 in 100 -- 10,000 times higher than EPA's regulatory goals for reducing cancer risks. Read excerpts from the EPA assesment. (PDF)

EPA's failure to limit pollution from coal combustion waste, or coal ash, has poisoned surface and groundwater supplies in at least 23 states, by EPA's own admission. Coal combustion waste is the solid waste produced by coal-fired power plants, which produce approximately 129 million tons of the waste each year. The waste is contaminated with toxic chemicals such as mercury, arsenic, lead, cadmium, chromium and selenium. There are currently about 600 existing coal ash landfills and surface impoundments in the U.S. See the amount of coal ash generated in each state in 2004. (PDF)

There are currently plans to build over 150 new coal-fired power plants in the United States by 2030. Pollution from coal ash impoundments will undoubtedly worsen unless EPA takes the necessary steps to protect neighborhoods and communities from this dangerous pollution source. EPA acknowledges that coal ash landfills and surface impoundments have contaminated water above federal drinking water standards in the following states: Texas, Maryland, New York, Virginia, Wisconsin, Indiana, North Carolina, and South Carolina. The agency also acknowledges that more cases of drinking water damage occur, but that monitoring systems are not in place to detect contamination at a large percentage of the existing dumps.

A broad coalition of 27 environmental and public health groups, led by Earthjustice, Clean Air Task Force, and the Environmental Integrity Project, recently submitted a proposal to EPA detailing ways to protect against pollution from the millions of tons of coal ash disposed annually by U.S. coal-fired power plants. The groups also requested that EPA take immediate action to investigate and abate pollution at coal ash dump sites.

"It's very simple," said Earthjustice attorney Lisa Evans. "Coal combustion waste currently disposed without adequate safeguards poses an imminent and substantial endangerment to health and the environment in dozens of communities throughout the country. EPA has made no effort to protect the public against these pollution sources for over seven years. We believe it is time to act."

In 2000, EPA committed to establishing regulations for coal ash disposal. Since then, the agency has met repeatedly with industrial polluters and will soon issue a Notice of Data Availability (NODA), which is expected to defer federal waste regulation in favor of a voluntary industry agreement. However, the voluntary industry agreement, announced by a consortium of coal-fired electric utilities last fall, promises no controls on the hundreds of existing waste dumps and gives industry three years to place monitoring wells around dumps within a mile of drinking water sources.

Simple measures such as isolating the waste from groundwater, prohibiting dumping of coal ash in sand and gravel pits, and lining landfills and surface impoundments would have a huge impact on limiting pollution from these facilities.

"The people who are exposed to a greater cancer risk by drinking water poisoned by coal ash landfills and surface impoundments need to be heard," said Jeff Stant, Director of the Power Plant Waste-Safe Disposal Project for the Clean Air Task Force. "EPA has ignored affected communities for far too long."

"Many coal ash disposal sites lack the most basic safeguards such as liners, covers, and groundwater monitoring -- standards that are routinely required for household trash at sanitary landfills," states Eric Schaeffer, Director of the Environmental Integrity Project. "In fact, in many cases, the operators are simply dumping the waste straight into groundwater and face no cleanup requirements by states."

The National Academies of Science (NAS) found in a March 2006 report studying the practice by utilities of dumping coal combustion wastes in coal mines that high contaminant levels in leachate, or runoff, from coal ash dumps has contaminated drinking water and caused considerable environmental damage, including the local extinction of multiple species. The NAS report cited EPA's commitment in 2000 to promulgate federal regulations to require adequate safeguards for disposal of toxic ash and called for the development of regulations mandating safeguards for minefilling. The Environmental Protection Agency, nevertheless, has neglected issuing these much needed safeguards.


Lisa Evans, Earthjustice, (781) 631-4119 Eric Schaeffer, Environmental Integrity Project, (202) 296-8800 Jeff Stant, Clean Air Task Force, (317) 359-1306


From: Dow Jones Market Watch ..............................[This story printer-friendly]
March 13, 2007


Federal grants help refuse-to-energy plants get going.

[Rachel's introduction: The federal government never misses an opportunity to subsidize the garbage industry -- because they can count on the industry to kick back mountains of cash at election time. Now the feds are subsidizing what they hope will be a new generation of trash incinerators, which destroy resources and create massive pollution, just like older incinerators did.]

By Elizabeth Davidz

WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) -- There's a lot of trash talk in D.C., but it's not what you might expect. In the hunt for the new energy sources, politicians and energy experts are taking another look at America's refuse.

And it's not all talk. Millions of federal and private dollars are already backing new energy enterprises across the country from a California plant turning trash into ethanol, to a Minnesota plant turning poultry feces into power.

Waste-to-energy technology has been around since the 1930s, but even as it evolves it's been elbowed out of the marketplace by cheaper fossil fuel-based power.

As the president and Congress dole out more renewable energy incentives, "trash" tech may finally be able to compete and shed its image of being costly and inefficient.

Under President Bush's initiative to reduce the U.S. gasoline usage by 20% in the next 10 years, the Energy Department announced last month a $385 million grant to help factories producing cellulosic ethanol, a type of ethanol that can be made from non-food crops and trash. "We're not using a food commodity, we're using a wasted commodity," said Arnold Klann, CEO of BlueFire Ethanol Fuels Inc. one of the six companies awarded money.

BlueFire Ethanol was awarded up to $40 million to develop a solid waste bio-refinery at a Southern California landfill. The plant, which will start construction this year, will use the landfill's organic trash to produce 19 million gallons of fuel-grade ethanol per year, according to the company.

The plant, which should be built by 2009, will run on methane -- a gas emitted by rotting organic trash that can be used like natural gas. Fed by corn, America's ethanol production leads the world. But as corn prices rise, there's a hunt for new ethanol sources. With Americans producing about 250 million tons of trash per year, there's plenty of raw material for BlueFire's ethanol. Klann said the company has plans for 20 more plants across the country.

'BlueFire's technology has been around since 1992, according to Klann. Although there are plants in Japan, there hasn't been financing for a U.S. plant until now.

"We're going to be an overnight success in a tad under 15 years." Klann said.

BlueFire isn't alone. The U.S. leads the world in developing so-called green energy technologies, but lags behind in forming companies around these technologies. Investors have seen Europe and Asia as being more regulatory-friendly to renewable energies. That may be changing. Turning trash into ethanol is relatively new, but burning trash to create energy date backs to the 1930s.

In the nation, there are 89 plants generating 2,800 megawatts of energy from burning trash, enough to supply more than 2 million households, according to the Energy Department. Although these plants rid the U.S. of 14% of its trash, they produce less than 1% of the total national power.

It still costs more to generate electricity at a waste-to-energy plant than it does at a coal, nuclear, or hydropower plant, the Environmental Protection Agency says. Plus, it takes 2,000 pounds of garbage to equal the heat energy in 500 pounds of coal. Scientists working with the newer technologies are finding more efficient ways to turn the trash into energy.

The ash created by traditional trash-burning plants can also contain high concentrations of various metals that were present in the original waste. In Minnesota, Fibrominn LLC's plant will also burn waste when it opens for business, but its ash is actually a commodity. The difference is in the waste. Fibrominn's plant, due to open in June, will burn poultry feces.

By burning the litter, the plant will produce enough electricity for about 90,000 homes. The resulting nutrient-rich ash can then be sold as a fertilizer. The company's European partner, Fibrowatt LLC, has three similar plants already running in the United Kingdom.

"As long as people eat chicken, this energy source will be around," said Fibrowatt's CEO Rupert Fraser.

The fuel from the plant will come from poultry farms in the area. Usually farmers have to pay to get rid of litter, but instead they will receive market-value for the 700,000 tons of fuel the plant needs. Fraser said the company is looking at building more plants across the country.

The waste-to-energy technologies of BlueFire, Fibrominn and other companies don't add to greenhouse gas emissions, because they run on carbon already in the environment.

Under EPA guidelines, waste-to-energy plants must control unpleasant odors by containing and scrubbing the trash's emissions prior to and during use. Waste-to-energy byproducts are often less pungent, but also regulated.

Both BlueFire's and Fibrominn's plants are being built in states that already have "green" energy incentives. As the Congress looks to extend and create "renewable" energy incentives -- like those in the 2005 Energy Policy Act -- it is possible these companies and other new tech waste-to-energy companies will be able to get a foothold in more places across the country.


From: Fortune .............................................[This story printer-friendly]
March 14, 2007


Can you imagine a world of zero waste? Cities and towns across the world -- and a surprising number of companies -- have adopted that goal, says Fortune's Marc Gunther

[Rachel's introduction: Instead of "cradle to grave" management of waste, forward-looking people are aiming to design products for perpetual re-use, essentially eliminating the concept of waste.]

By Marc Gunther, Fortune senior writer

"Garbage," says the character played by Andie MacDowell in Sex, Lies, and Videotape. "All I've been thinking about all week is garbage. We've got so much of it, you know? I mean, we have to run out of places to put this stuff eventually."

In 1989, America had garbage on its mind. A barge called the Mobro had carried 3,000 tons of unwanted trash up and down the East Coast. California told its cities to recycle 50% of their garbage by 2000 or face steep fines. The national recycling rate was only 16%.

Today San Francisco has a recycling rate of 68%, the best of any American city, and it intends to do better. Much better. San Francisco and Wal-Mart (Charts) do not have much in common, but there is this: Both have a goal of achieving zero waste.

So do cities and towns from Boulder and Carrboro, N.C., to Buenos Aires and Canberra, as well as a surprising number of businesses, including Toyota (Charts), Nike (Charts), and Xerox (Charts). They're making headway: Toyota has eliminated all the waste from its 5,000- employee U.S. headquarters near Los Angeles. Governments, meanwhile, are stepping in to regulate the disposal of computers, cellphones, and packaging.

Zero waste is just what it sounds like -- producing, consuming, and recycling products without throwing anything away. Getting to a wasteless world will require nothing less than a total makeover of the global economy, which thinkers such as entrepreneur Paul Hawken, consultant Amory Lovins, and architect William McDonough have called the Next Industrial Revolution.

They want industry to mimic biology, where one species' excrement is another's food. "We're not talking here about eliminating waste," McDonough explains. "We're talking about eliminating the entire concept of waste."

This utopian vision is a long way off. But the changing economics of waste disposal, technical advances, and grass-roots activism -- along with the feverish desire of big companies to appear green -- are bringing it closer than you might think.

San Francisco offers a glimpse of the future. Norcal Waste Systems, the city's trash hauler, provides customers with color-coded 32-gallon carts known as the Fantastic Three -- a blue cart into which they can throw paper, glass, plastics, and metal for recycling; a green cart for food and yard waste; and a black cart that's destined for the landfill. (Remember, in cowboy movies the bad guys wore black.) Norcal also recycles tires, mattresses, and light bulbs. "The other garbage companies think we're nuts," says Mike Sangiacomo, Norcal's CEO.

Sangiacomo, 58, has been trash-talking for years. His dad collected garbage back in the days when sanitation men were called scavengers because they salvaged bottles, rags -- "anything they could come up with that had value," he says. Now he's trying to return the waste industry to its roots.

Technology is a big help. Norcal operates a $38 million facility that disaggregates all the recyclables in those blue bins. Conveyor belts, powerful magnets, and giant vacuums separate computer paper from newsprint, plastic jugs from water bottles, and steel and tin cans from aluminum. Materials are then sold to global commodity markets -- and we do mean global.

Wastepaper, for example, is the U.S.'s No. 1 export by volume to China, according to PIERS Global Intelligence Solutions, which tracks trade. Ships that bring products from China to the U.S. return with wastepaper, which becomes packaging for goods made in China.

A second innovation is the city's handling of food scraps. Another Norcal facility grinds all that up with yard waste and cures it for three months. Banana peels, onion skins, fish heads, and other detritus are thus transformed into a nutrient-rich product dubbed Four Course Compost, which sells for $8 to $10 per cubic yard.

One satisfied customer is winemaker Kathleen Inman, who knows that all good wine -- her 2004 Olivet Grange pinot noir retails at $42 a bottle -- begins in good soil. She spreads Four Course Compost on her ten- acre vineyard in Sonoma County's Russian River Valley. "I was very taken by the concept of bringing into my vineyard what would normally go into a landfill," Inman explains. "When someone enjoys the wine at a table, they are completing the recycling circle."

Driving this virtuous cycle are market incentives. San Franciscans get about $5 off the standard $22-a-month collection rate if they can make do with a smaller black bin, sending less to the landfill. Merchants earn discounts for recycling, and Norcal gets bonuses for keeping waste out of landfills.

Jared Blumenfeld, director of the city's environment department, says, "The most important thing we do is incentivize people financially to do the right thing and make it more expensive for them to do the wrong thing." This "pay as you throw" pricing scheme drives up recycling rates sharply, studies show. But only about 20% of Americans pay for trash collection based on how much they discard. No wonder we're an effluent society.

While the concept of zero waste is as old as nature, recycling is newer. In 1968, Madison, Wis., became the first U.S. city to offer curbside recycling, for newspapers. Recycling got a boost with Earth Day in 1970, and again after the EPA imposed strict regulations on landfills in 1991. When done right, recycling saves energy, preserves natural resources, reduces greenhouse-gas emissions, and keeps toxins from leaking out of landfills.

So why doesn't everyone do it? Because it's often cheaper to throw things away. The economics of recycling depend on landfill fees, the price of oil and other commodities, and the demand for recycled goods. Paper, for example, works well: About 52% of paper consumed in the U.S. is recovered for recycling, and 36% of the fiber that goes into new paper comes from recycled sources. By contrast, less than 25% of plastic bottles are recycled, and we use five billion (!) a year.

Americans generated an average of 4.5 pounds of garbage per person per day in 2005, the EPA reports. About 1.5 pounds were recycled. That's a national recycling rate for municipal solid waste of just 32%.

What's in our garbage? Paper and cardboard (34%), yard trimmings (13%), and food scraps (12%) are the three biggies. All can be easily if not always profitably recycled. Plastics (11.8%) are next, and are harder to recycle. "The plastics industry hasn't been as interested as others in working through its problems," says Gary Liss, a California zero-waste consultant. "They have fought bottle bills all over the country for 30 years."

Bottle bills are an example of "extended producer responsibility," a key tenet of zero-waste. It puts the onus for safely disposing of products on the companies that make them. Yes, it's a controversial concept. (In this country. In the EU, makers of household appliances are obliged to take them back.)

The deeper purpose here is to change the way things are made. "From our perspective, waste doesn't need to exist," says San Francisco's Blumenfeld. "It's a design flaw." Carpet companies Interface, BASF, and Milliken, furniture makers Herman Miller and Steelcase, and clothing firms Nike and Patagonia have all redesigned products to make them easier to recycle.

Over time the economics of recycling should improve. The costs of virgin commodities are likely to rise as supplies dwindle; fees will climb at landfills as they fill up. Landfills also release methane, a greenhouse gas that could be taxed because it contributes to global warming. Meanwhile, recycling has become a $238 billion business, employing 1.1 million people, according to the EPA.

Despite all that, recycling rates have flattened lately. "We have to reengage the consumer," says Kate Krebs, executive director of the National Recycling Coalition, a trade group whose board includes executives of Dell (Charts), Coca-Cola, and Time Inc. (Fortune's parent company). "If we don't, then all the commitments that Wal-Mart and Dell and others have been making will be difficult to keep."

A Hewlett-Packard (Charts) executive named Rene St. Denis went to China in 1994 to see what happened to printers and computers after they were thrown away. In the coastal city of Guanjo, she watched hundreds of people smash machines to get at the metals inside. "The disassembly process was basically -- and I'm not kidding -- hit it with a rock," she recalls. "You pay someone $2 a day to strip away $3 worth of copper, and it's a pretty good business." It's also a dangerous business because computers may contain toxic materials such as lead, mercury, and cadmium.

Within a year St. Denis had begun to clean up HP's act. She helped form a partnership with a Canadian metals and mining firm called Noranda to build a recycling facility near Sacramento. Here, old printers and PCs come to die: After technicians recover reusable parts, the machines are chopped up by powerful shredders, smashed to bits by a granulator, and sorted by magnets and air currents. Precious metals go to Noranda; aluminum, glass, and plastic are sold to recyclers. Nothing goes to landfills.

HP provides free recycling to some customers but charges others $13 to $34 per item. Even so, HP's recycling operation runs at a small loss, which is viewed as an investment in the firm's reputation and values. "To the degree they understand, customers have a better view of HP," says St. Denis, who now runs HP's recycling business.

As HP set the pace, Dell became a target. Because Dell used prison labor to recycle PCs, protesters picketed a speech by Michael Dell at the Consumer Electronics Show in 2003. The company began offering recycling: first to buyers of new equipment, then to anyone willing to pay $30, then $15. Last year it eliminated the fees altogether -- the only PC maker to do so. In January at CES, Michael Dell said, "I challenge every PC maker to join us in providing free recycling for every customer in every country all the time. No exceptions."

Dell collected about 79 million pounds of e-waste in 2005, up 72% over 2004. HP collected more -- 164 million pounds -- but experts say Dell has leapfrogged its rival in greenness. "It's been a tremendous turnaround for Dell," says Barbara Kyle, coordinator of the Computer Take-Back Campaign, an advocacy group. In part because they now take back their products, Dell and HP have redesigned them to make them easier to disassemble and recycle.

The e-waste problem is huge. The Computer Take-Back Campaign says the U.S. spewed 2.6 million tons of e-waste in 2005, and only 12.5% was recycled. (Even HP and Dell figure they get back at most 20% of the gear they sell.) Four states -- California, Washington, Maine, and Maryland -- have passed e-waste laws, and another 22 have legislation pending.

In 1975, Casella Waste Systems began with a single truck in Rutland, Vt. Thirty-two years later it is a $550-million-a-year company that collects, transfers, processes, and disposes of garbage. Most of the waste is trucked to 11 landfills in the Northeast that are big enough to hold about another 30 years' worth of trash. "The foundation of the business is disposal capacity," says chief executive John Casella. "It's such a finite resource."

Lately, though, Casella has taken the company in new directions. In 2003, Casella Waste entered into a partnership with Ontario County, N.Y., to operate a $29 million facility that recycles, generates power from landfill gas, and will eventually use waste heat to grow hydroponic tomatoes. U.S. GreenFiber, a joint venture with Louisiana Pacific, uses old newspapers to make insulation and lawn products.

Golfing in New England? You may tee off on a course fertilized with Casella's Earthlife compost. You don't want to know what's in it, but we'll tell you: biosolids, which are what remain after everything that's flushed down the toilet is treated at a sewage plant.

Casella generates nearly 20% of its revenues from recycling. That hasn't impressed Wall Street. The stock is around $12, below the $18 price when Goldman Sachs took the company public in 1997. The company's profitable, but investors haven't bought into recycling. John Casella says there's no turning back. "The economic model continues to get stronger and stronger," he says. "We are just starting to grow the industry of the future."

"When you look at a dumpster, you see trash," David Redfield says. "When I look at it, I see materials and money." Redfield, a Bentonville, Ark., native who has put in 15 years at Wal-Mart, is the man in charge of getting the world's biggest retailer closer to its zero-waste goal. It's good for the planet, he says, and for the company's bottom line. As Wal-Mart CEO Lee Scott has explained, "If we had to throw it away, we had to buy it first. So we pay twice: once to get it, once to take it away."

Fortunately Redfield is getting help. This month Wal-Mart will bring 3,000 people to a trade show in Bentonville with the goal of reducing the packaging in its stores. Most are suppliers, which will meet with vendors from about 150 packaging companies. Wal-Mart has begun to measure how much packaging its suppliers use; they get a scorecard based on nine factors, including CO2 emissions, the product-to-package ratio, and the use of recycled content. (Possible targets: toothpaste, which comes in a tube and a box, and small electronics wrapped in bulky plastic.) Wal-Mart wants to reduce packaging by 5%, which it estimates will save the company and its suppliers about $11 billion. About 30% of municipal waste comes from packaging, the EPA says.

Redfield's efforts to reduce Wal-Mart's waste are already bearing fruit -- in part by recycling it. The company's experimental green stores collect food waste, which is made into compost and resold by Wal-Mart. More significant is a curious innovation called a super sandwich bale that Wal-Mart is now rolling out nationally. Machines in every store will crush plastics, paper, and cans into layers of a big "sandwich," which is then taken apart at recycling facilities.

Wal-Mart has been using the sandwich bales in Oklahoma, where Redfield led me on a tour of a "closed loop." We watched the bales being crushed in a Tulsa superstore. We visited a local recycler where the junk is sorted, mostly by hand. At a huge Georgia Pacific mill, we saw wastepaper turn into pulp and then into toilet paper, paper towels, and napkins.

"Two things shocked us about the sandwich bale," Redfield says. "There was less paper than we thought there would be. And there were more hangers. Oh, my goodness, the hangers. It was amazing."

Hangers? Amazing? Until recently Wal-Mart paid a trash company to haul them away from its 3,900 U.S. stores. Now it sells them for about 15 to 25 cents a pound to Mountain Valley Recycling, a Tennessee company that turns them into pellets of resin, which can be molded into virtually anything made with commodity plastics. Twenty-five cents per pound doesn't sound like much until you realize that Wal-Mart goes through more than one billion hangers a year. The money adds up in a hurry. "Trash," Redfield says, smiling, "is cash."


From: Alternet ...........................................[This story printer-friendly]
March 12, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: The free market solution to global warming is based on carbon trading. Unfortunately, as we saw last week, it isn't working. Here David Morris explains why.]

By David Morris

These days, everyone thinks that carbon trading is the solution to our climate crisis -- from Congress members to Al Gore to the folks organizing the Oscars. Here's why they are wrong and what we can do instead.

At the Oscars, former Vice President Al Gore and megastar actor Leonardo DiCaprio informed a billion viewers that this was the first "green Oscar," at least with respect to global warming. The hosts had purchased sufficient greenhouse gas offsets to allow them to free the event of any responsibility for increasing greenhouse gases.

Two days later, Al Gore and emission offsets were again in the news when reports circulated that his Nashville house consumed 20 times more energy than a typical house. His spokesman responded: The Gore family had purchased green electricity and carbon offsets in sufficient quantities to render the house's net contribution to global warming as zero.

Over the succeeding weeks, a flurry of articles appeared about the growing use of carbon offsets. According to USA Today, the market for voluntary offsets in 2006 was almost 20 times greater than it was in 2004. Dwarfing this market is the market for what might be called involuntary offsets -- that is offsets purchased as part of the mandatory emissions reductions program agreed to by the 38 industrial nation signatories of the Kyoto Protocol. Nicholas Stern, former chief economist of the World Bank and a major player in the global climate change game, estimates the value of carbon credits currently in circulation as $28 billion and predicts it will climb to $40 billion by 2010.

The shortcomings of current carbon trading systems are clear. As a piece in Newsweek concluded, "So far, the real winners in emissions trading have been polluting factory owners who can sell menial cuts for massive profits and the brokers who pocket fees each time a company buys or sells the right to pollute."

Currently, the link between the purchase of carbon offsets and the actual reduction of carbon emissions is highly controversial and almost impossible to verify. The process is easily manipulated. Measurement tools are remarkably primitive. Even the most basic calculations are subject to wide variations. The New Internationalist requested estimates from four reputable carbon trading companies for the number of credits a passenger would need to purchase to offset an around-the-world flight, starting and ending in London. The magazine received four answers: 4.3, 6, 8.68 and 11.63 tons.

Despite the criticisms, the concept of emissions trading continues to be vigorously supported by major U.S. environmental organizations. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, recently embraced by nine northeastern and mid-Atlantic states, allows for carbon trading, as does California's new global warming initiative. Emissions trading is at the heart of the European Union's strategy to meet its Kyoto Protocol goals. Several congressional bills embrace carbon trading to meet greenhouse gas-reduction goals.

Most environmentalists tend to agree with the assessment of Dan Esty, director of the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy: "Carbon trading is a promising strategy for reducing greenhouse gas emissions but the current structures have serious flaws."

In other words, the system is new. As with all new systems, carbon offset trading is working out the kinks. Carbon trading 2.0 will be much better than carbon trading 1.0. Give it a chance.

I disagree. Carbon trading is not a promising strategy. Its costs outweigh its benefits. We don't need carbon trading to reduce carbon emissions. Indeed, it is likely that we will reduce carbon emissions much more without carbon trading.

Unfortunately, policymakers and environmentalists have all but welded together the words, "cap" and "trade." They talk as if a cap cannot exist without a trading mechanism. That's not true. We can have caps without trade.

We should impose an immediate moratorium on carbon trading while imposing ever-more rigorous carbon caps. And stop the use of long- distance offsets. All offsets should be local or regional.

Why is carbon trading inherently problematic?

1. Buying offsets encourages complacency.

Those who purchase offsets believe they are doing something significant when they are not. Their sense of mission accomplished undermines their enthusiasm for real actions that require more sacrifice, which indeed, may be the key selling point for those selling voluntary offsets. As Mike Mason, Climate Care founder told the New Internationalist, "I would rather that 100 percent of people offset their emissions from flights than 50 percent of those people not fly at all."

George Monbiot, author of the terrific new book, "Heat" (the U.S. edition will be published in April by South End Press) has likened the purchase of offsets to the purchase of medieval indulgences. We sin, and we buy absolution.

Even worse, the cost of absolution is so low, little incentive exists to dissuade us from sinning again, and again. For less than the cost of a single tank of gasoline, BP allows its Australian consumers to sign up for a program in which the company offsets any carbon emitted from cars using its gasoline all year long. Environmentally speaking, one might say that at a BP station you can fill and unfill a gas tank at the same time.

Using $10 per ton of CO2 as the average offset price (current prices are as low as $3 per ton), the United States, which generates about 20 percent of the world's greenhouse gases, could buy complete absolution for about $50 billion a year. For that price it would announce to the world, as the Oscars did, that we are not responsible for any net new greenhouse gases. The cost is less than half the annual spending on the war in Iraq, a little over 5 percent of the Pentagon's annual budget.

2. Carbon trading is inherently susceptible to fraud and manipulation.

Carbon trading systems are devised and managed by computerized brokers who buy and sell on a global scale. Their goal is to increase the volume of trades while buying low and selling high; that is, selling credits at a price higher than they buy them. Nothing necessarily wrong with that. But globalized, computerized trading is notoriously untransparent. We know that Enron and others manipulated the electricity market to create a crisis and steal billions of dollars from California households and businesses, primarily because we have tapes of Enron traders on the phone bragging about their manipulations. Yet to this day, investigators have had a hard time identifying the data trail that would prove malfeasance.

Some carbon traders guarantee to retire their credits, which is a step in the right direction. Far more will buy and sell them on a secondary market. As a secondary market emerges, as happened with currency trading in the 1980s and electricity trading in the 1990s, we will see the introduction of ever-more complex and abstract carbon-based financial instruments. And as with electricity and currency trading, an exceedingly handsome prize will go to those who can figure out how to game the system.

One large company announced its withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol's program of allowing signatories to buy carbon offsets from developing countries while predicting that current carbon-accounting methodologies "will create other Enrons and Arthur Andersens."

The New York Times reports on a deal in which the carbon offsets for a $5 million incinerator in China were sold to European investors for $500 million. "The huge profits will be divided by the factory's owners, a Chinese government energy fund and the consultants and bankers who put together the deal from a mansion in the wealthy Mayfair district of London," the Times observes.

3. Carbon trading encourages cheating and rewards low-cost cosmetic changes while undermining higher cost innovation.

The greater the "baseline" emissions, the greater the payoff that can be derived from selling emission-reducing projects. Thus, there is a perverse incentive to emit as much greenhouse gas as possible today in order to make projects appear to be saving as much carbon as possible tomorrow.

The Dag Hammarskjold Foundation did an excellent analysis of carbon trading in its September 2006 Development Dialogue magazine. "With a bit of judicious accounting," the report found, "a company investing in foreign 'carbon-saving' projects can increase fossil emissions both at home and abroad while claiming to make reductions in both locations."

Carbon traders seek the lowest cost carbon offset. Which almost always means tree planting in some far off country, without regard to its long-term effects on the community or the environment, or a modest reduction in the emissions of a highly polluting factory in a developing nation. A company needing, or wanting, offsets may have to choose between investing a significant amount of capital that has long-term and very substantial savings, or buying much lower cost and short-term offsets. From a short-term economic perspective, the latter will always be the preferred choice. A study reported in Nature, the scientific journal, supported this proposition. It found that only 2 percent of the United Nations' trading projects involving either renewable energy or communities that follow eco-friendly practices with regard to tree cultivation and harvesting.

4. Carbon trading separates authority and responsibility, undermining coherent, holistic community-based efforts.

Globalized carbon trading lends itself to similar criticisms of globalized trade agreements: the preemption of local and national authority, the separation of those who make the decisions from those who feel the impact of those decisions, the separation of those communities that receive the benefit from those who bear the cost.

Indeed, Michael Zammit Cutajar, ex-executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has made the comparison explicit: "Establishing a robust global regime for addressing climate change is... comparable to the creation of the international trade regime under the World Trade Organization."

The Hammarskjold Foundation offers a case study of one of the first international carbon offsets project, and its aftermath. In the late 1980s, Applied Energy Service, Inc. (AES), a U.S.-based independent power producer, had been looking for a cost-effective technique for reducing carbon dioxide emissions at a new 183-megawatt coal fired power plant in Connecticut in order to make the plant more acceptable to state regulators.

AES decided to "mitigate" the plant's carbon emissions by offering $2 million to finance 10 years' worth of "land-use activities and multiple-use forestry projects" in Guatemala. Some 40,000 small farms would plant 50 million pine and eucalyptus trees in the course of establishing 30,000 acres of community woodlots and 150,000 acres of agroforestry.

AES obtained permission to build the coal-fired power plant. But an analysis done 10 years later found that the offsets had fallen very far short of the level promised. More importantly, the project took access to the trees out of the hands of ordinary people. One result was that conflict grew between municipal and village authorities and individual landowners. Another result was increasing distrust of government forest offices. And finally, the Guatemala-based organization that was supposed to manage and monitor the project found that the level of monitoring required diverted its resources away from its more community-building projects.

As with the WTO, globalized carbon trading regimes are very susceptible to corporate influence. Which is why, despite strong opposition from environmental organizations, the EU allowed offsets to occur outside of Europe.

It is true that a ton of CO2 reduced in Africa has the same impact on the biosphere and global warming as a ton of CO2 reduced in Minneapolis. But there are other impacts that come with that reduction that have a more localized impact. Reducing carbon emissions invariably also reduces toxics that constitute a local and regional threat, like lead or mercury or benzene or arsenic or particulate matter or ground level ozone. An urban-based coal fired power plant that offsets its CO2 emissions by helping to plant trees in Africa continues to emit pollutants that adversely affect the health of local residents.

Where do we go from here?

Is there an alternative to carbon trading? Of course there is. Emissions trading itself is a relatively new policy tool. It was first used by the EPA in the late 1970s but became a key component of U.S. environmental policy in the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990 when the trading of SOx emissions was allowed.

By the late 1990s the Clinton and Gore administration and major environmental organizations were pushing the use of offsets internationally at the Kyoto negotiations. As Michael Zammit Cutajar, the former executive secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change has said, the carbon trading approach embodied in Kyoto was "made in the U.S.A."

But the implementation of the Kyoto Protocol is only about a year old. The European Union Emissions Trading Scheme came on line only in 2005. The Northeast Greenhouse Gas Initiative and California's low carbon initiative are still in the rule-making stage. There is plenty of time to step back from the growing reliance on the purchase and trading of long-distance offsets.

One alternative is good old regulation, which contrary to the popular wisdom, has worked very well, especially when the regulations are performance-based. The United States required 23 years to eliminate leaded gasoline, in part because it created a lead trading program. Without allowing trading, Japan eliminated lead in 10 years and China in three. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulation, enacted in 1975, did not allow trading but effectively doubled auto efficiency within 10 years. The 1970 Clean Air Act, without allowing trading, reduced emissions significantly through a regulatory approach.

Environmentalists almost always point to the experience under the SOx emissions trading a highly successful use of emissions trading, and that experience was highly influential in persuading nations to adopt emissions offset trading under Kyoto. It is important to note here that no one claims the SOx trading program reduced emissions more or even more rapidly than would have occurred without trading. The argument is that it achieved a given level of emissions cheaper.

SOx trading did reduce the costs of reducing emissions to 9 million tons. But it is unclear just how much the costs were reduced. The Hammarskjold Foundation estimates that at least 20 per cent of the SOx reductions were achieved before the emissions trading program began. Moreover, it argues that factors other than trading were far more important, such as the increased availability of low sulfur coal, and the plunging transportation prices in the aftermath of the railroad deregulation of the mid 1980s. In addition, the claimed cost reductions are from the initially wildly inflated estimated costs of cutting emissions developed by industry. In fact, after the trading scheme got under way, many installations managed to cut emissions without trading at all. Most of those who did trade traded only within their own firm. Interfirm trading amounted to only 2 percent of total emissions.

Thus the savings achieved through SOx trading were probably modest. And it represented a best-case scenario for savings. Measurement equipment was widely available. There was a single target chemical. Only a small number of installations were included in the program.

A greenhouse gas reduction program, however, targets at least half a dozen chemicals and encompasses hundreds of millions of targeted facilities. And measurement and monitoring equipment is unavailable.

Another program adopted about the same time as the SOx trading program might serve as a better model for implementing the Kyoto Protocol. The discovery of the depletion of atmospheric ozone led to the international Montreal Accord. Signatories agreed to phase out specific ozone depleting chemicals. The U.S. Congress coupled the phase-out requirement with a very high tax on chlorofluorocarbons, sending an important price signal it correctly predicted would accelerate phase-out.

Of course, most greenhouse gases can't be phased out. They are part of the natural cycle. But a national and state carbon cap, ratcheted down every five years is similar. To provide a price signal for the market and to raise money for ameliorative investments and other public purposes (e.g., compensating low income households for price increases), impose a significant and increasing carbon tax. Or possibly, governments could auction off carbon allowances (while not allowing trading) and use the money raised for similar purposes.

Offsets should be allowed, but only if they occur on the local level and do not involve long-distance trading. Let me explain this further. For the past year, the Institute for Local Self-Reliance has been working with states and cities to encourage the enactment of climate neutral bonding initiatives and climate neutral building codes. Such codes would encourage architects and engineers to design energy efficient buildings. But rarely will they result in literally zero energy buildings. Thus even in the best cases some amount of greenhouse gases will be emitted. That amount will have to be offset. But the offset must come from a comparable reduction of greenhouse gases within the community. If Al Gore were operating under this standard, he would have to invest in greenhouse gas reductions within Nashville equal to the amount of greenhouse gases generated by his house.

Initially architects and builders will see this as an inconvenience. Far simpler to buy offsets from the Chicago Climate Exchange or other offset traders. But eventually, as communities develop an inventory of buildings that need energy efficiency investments, the overhead costs involved will be quite small.

There are psychological, political and economic reasons to favor investing in carbon reductions within the community. Psychologically, it builds self-awareness at the community level about the interrelationship of individual behavior and global environmental consequences. The community as a whole is taking responsibility for its behavior.

Politically, cities and counties have a great deal of authority over policies that affect energy use (e.g., building codes, land use regulations, transportation systems). Here, authority is married to responsibility. A community that decides, as a community, to adhere to the Kyoto Protocol or more rigorous guidelines has many policy tools to move it toward that goal.

Economically, local offsets may be viewed as investments while buying distant paper offsets are more of an operating expense. Offsets must be purchased every year. But an investment will repay itself in energy savings. In the first case, money flows out of the community. In the second case, money not only stays in the community, but after the initial debt is repaid from reduced operating costs, additional money is generated within the community.

Carbon trading makes us feel good. Investing in local carbon reduction strategies will also make us feel good. But unlike carbon trading, investing to reduce local carbon emissions strengthens the local economy, encourages real innovation, and is a long-term, durable strategy.


Rachel's Democracy & Health News (formerly Rachel's Environment & Health News) highlights the connections between issues that are often considered separately or not at all.

The natural world is deteriorating and human health is declining because those who make the important decisions aren't the ones who bear the brunt. Our purpose is to connect the dots between human health, the destruction of nature, the decline of community, the rise of economic insecurity and inequalities, growing stress among workers and families, and the crippling legacies of patriarchy, intolerance, and racial injustice that allow us to be divided and therefore ruled by the few.

In a democracy, there are no more fundamental questions than, "Who gets to decide?" And, "How DO the few control the many, and what might be done about it?"

Rachel's Democracy and Health News is published as often as necessary to provide readers with up-to-date coverage of the subject.

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