Environmental Health News

What's Working

  • Garden Mosaics projects promote science education while connecting young and old people as they work together in local gardens.
  • Hope Meadows is a planned inter-generational community containing foster and adoptive parents, children, and senior citizens
  • In August 2002, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) Board voted to ban soft drinks from all of the district’s schools

#898 -- More on Health Disparities, 15-Mar-2007


Rachel's Democracy & Health News #898

"Environment, health, jobs and justice--Who gets to decide?"

Thursday, March 15, 2007................Printer-friendly version
www.rachel.org -- To make a secure donation, click here.

Featured stories in this issue...

Action to Eliminate Health Disparities
  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.
Cancer: Coal's Hidden Cost
  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
Energy Producers Take Another Look at Trash
  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.
The End of Garbage
  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.
Gore's Carbon Solution Won't Stop Climate Change
  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.


From: Rachel's Democracy & Health News #898, Mar. 15, 2007
[Printer-friendly version]


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

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

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

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

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.

Return to Table of Contents


From: Earthjustice, Mar. 6, 2007
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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.

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


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

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From: Dow Jones Market Watch
Mar. 13, 2007


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

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.

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From: Fortune, Mar. 14, 2007
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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

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

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

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."

Return to Table of Contents


From: Alternet, Mar. 12, 2007
[Printer-friendly version]


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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