Thursday, February 7, 2008

Environmentally Speaking

The environment, a favorite subject of mine, has taken a back seat lately to confessions, politics and other weighty matters. But, today my file is overfull with environmental topics of interest and is crying to be heard. Even though it does agree that CEO God needed to be heard as well, it feels a bit slighted that the other subject matter has taken precedence over it. So, in deference to the feelings of my overburdened file, I declare today Environmental Thursday and promise that we will get to the very bottom of the stack before we're through. So, here we go:

For some reason poaching fascinates me. Maybe that's because I cannot imagine killing an animal, let alone illegally--particularly if it's endangered. The poached animals parts are used for all sorts of purposes--many rather outlandish, like walrus tusk as an aphrodisiac or tiger hide for a carpet. Even killing a razorback gorilla for food doesn't seem like the best source of protein when it can also spread the Ebola virus to humans. After all, scientists believe HIV was spread by eating monkey meat hunted legally and illegally from the jungle.

Thus, I'm always delighted when the authorities outsmart the poachers in this never-ending cat and mouse game. The February 2008 issue of National Geographic described a novel approach taken by zookeepers at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington DC in their attempt to save the kori bustard from extinction. Kori bustard, you ask? Well, this huge bird is the world's heaviest and weighs in at 40 pounds. Unfortunately for its long-term survival, it's colorful feathers are a favorite of trout fishermen and a big plume can go for $300. But, this is the good part--the zoo recently began giving molted kori bustard feathers away for free. In the process, the clever zookeepers clipped the clandestine desire for kori plumage by thwarting the economic advantage in killing the birds. Now, the beleaguered birds may stand a chance of survival outside of zoos.

On the other hand, poaching and poverty go hand in hand and one will not be controlled without reducing the other. Wildlife conservationist Hammersskjoeld Simwinga, an African native, knows this and is actively working to restore Zambia's wildlife while at the same time transforming "poverty stricken areas by providing sustainable economic alternatives to poaching." For this she received recognition as one of National Geographic's 2008 Emerging Explorers along with Cid Simoes and Paola Segura who are working with small farmers in Brazil to create innovative agribusinesses while protecting threatened habitats. These are just three of many young thinkers ready to creatively tackle the environmental challenges of the 21st century which increasingly have been recognized as economic issues as well.

They say recognition of a problem is the first step in solving it. Motive aside, that is one reason why it is so important when multinational corporations jump on the environmental bandwagon with both feet and say let's go. As an example, at the recent Davos Economic Forum in Switzerland, Pepsico announced that it had given $6 million to Columbia University's Earth Institute, directed by the vocal antipoverty advocate Jeffrey Sachs, to identify community-based solutions to improve water access and productivity. The corporation also gave $2.5 to Matt Damon's H2O Africa Foundation for water projects in several African nations. Not to be outdone, Coca-Cola said it and its bottlers have launched 120 projects in 50 countries around sustainable water use (WSJ, 1-24-08, p. A9.) Both companies had been criticized by activists for their over-use of water, and this is their collective response. Although the PepsiCo's contributions are paltry in comparison to its worth, the funds represent a step down the road to corporate third-world enlightenment. And with Dr. Sachs involved, it will be just a start, you can bet on that.

Corporate banks are reading the environmental tea leaves as well. On February 4th, WSJ announced that "Three of Wall Street's biggest investment banks are set to announce today that they are imposing new environmental standards that will make it harder for companies to get financing to build coal-fired power plants in the U.S. Citigroup, JP Morgan Case & Co. and Morgan Stanley say they have concluded that the U.S. government will cap greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants sometime in the next few years. . .The standards result from nine months of negotiations among three banks and some of the biggest U.S. utilities and environmental groups."
The three bank's new standard is already making a huge impact on the industry, and plans for many coal-powered plants are being shelved. For example, TXU in Texas originally proposed 11 plants and scaled that number back to 3 following the proposed introduction of these standards. Could this be fallout from the perceived inevitability of a Democratic White House and Congress come November? If so, my question, what will take the place of these power plants? Hopefully, there is a viable Plan B in the wings although the article did not mention what that might be. As we so often do on these pages, we will have to stay tuned.

Intel is another mega-corporation that in a full-color, front page WSJ ad on February 5, 2008 invites the reader to check out about their eco-smart computing achievements. This colorful ad, highlighting a red-eyed, green tree frog of unknown origin, touts the fact that the company made it to first place on the EPA's green power partners list
. Fact is, we never used to see these kind of ads tooting the horn of corporations about revolutionary environmental improvements and my hat goes off to them. We should always give credit where credit is due.

Environment tooting has actually become the rage, especially in Europe where the environmental movement has had a foothold for quite some time. What is a newly emerging problem worldwide is advertisers making sketchy environmental claims that range from somewhat deceitful to outright fraudulent. And, you guessed it, when there's a dark side, the light side springs into action. The WSJ declared:
"In one of the latest examples, the United Kingdom's Advertising Standards Authority found this month that a series of television ads by the Malaysian Palm Oil Council misleadingly claimed the industry was good for the environment. . . From the U.S. to Norway to Belgium, watchdog groups are trying to police against the rise of bogus environmental marketing, a practice known as greenwashing. In most cases these groups are set up by the advertising industry and they operate on the honor system. When the watchdogs are set up, marketers and ad agencies agree to abide by their rulings, which often means dropping ads that are deemed deceptive" (1-30-08, B4.)
Now, that makes sense, when it works. But the U.S. Federal Trade Commission is also getting into the act by updating its environmental advertising guidelines that governs what kind of claims can be made under the rubric of green marketing, which was last reviewed in 1998. Now I feel better, how about you? Just kidding. My advice, buyer beware, even if it an ad is festooned with cute green frogs.

In the News You Can Use category: have you wondered what to do with those rechargeable batteries when they have given up the ghost? Now Call2Recycle , a project of the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation, has come to the rescue with drop off spots at multiple retailers including Lowe's, Home Depot, Best Buy, Sears, Target and Staples to name a few of its 40,000+ locations in the U.S. and Canada. All rechargeable batteries are welcomed as are used cell phones in prominently displayed boxes. The National Geographic ad touting this advance said that "reusable metals from the rechargeable batteries are recovered and recycled to make new products such as new batteries and stainless steel. "

Sometimes, however, we don't know exactly where the recycled material might show up. In this blog, we previously covered this environmental problem, which is increasing becoming a scourge in developing nations. The Electronics TakeBack Coalition, a national group out of San Francisco that promotes responsible recycling, said that about 50% - 80% of electronic waste gets dumped in developing countries. Environmental laws are either non-existent or lax there, and the recyclers, who are often individuals, expose themselves and the environment to toxic waste. Because of this, the coalition's coordinator, Barbara Kyle, recommends recycling electronics through the manufacturer. "Consumers can also check a database called e-Stewards at where they can search for local recycling firms that have taken a pledge not to export the waste to developing countries or allow it to end up in landfills or incinerators" (WSJ, 1-24-08, D2.)

And speaking of recycling, what would you think about drinking used toilet water? Sounds kind of gross, doesn't it? Well, many municipalities are grappling with that very issue. Orange County California, the home of Los Angeles, which formerly relied on the parched Colorado River for the bulk of its needs, looked first at desalinization but found the cost prohibitive. Authorities there decided it was a no-brainer when recycled sewage came in at $525 per acre-foot and desalinated water at $800 - $2,000. Based on these convincing figures, "the county recently opened a 'Groundwater Replenishment System' that feeds treated sewage through clay and sand then into lakes," says Eilene Zimmerman of Slate magazine as reported by WSJ, January 28, 2008, B5.
I predict that with the current and future water shortages, more consumers will be confronted with this toilet bowl reality and will have to put their squeamishness aside. After all, some municipalities took the leap years ago, and consumers hadn't a clue that they were drinking what was formerly sewage. I guess that proves that what you don't know, won't hurt you.

And finally, my environmental file is smiling now that it's almost empty. The formerly hefty file feels vindicated since this has been the longest blog on record because it had so much to share. But, it has one last enlightened piece of news from TIME magazine, February 11, 2008: Svalbard Global Seed Vault opened at the end of January and by the end of this month will be home to 4.5 million samples of seed from all over the globe. This repository, a gift to the Earth from the Norwegian government at a cost of only $9 million, was built into the mountainside of a Norwegian Arctic island to guarantee the continued existence of global seed stock. The magazine reports that the seeds will be kept at 0 degrees in a very dry environment and even without electricity, the inventory should stay viable in the Arctic for thousands of years.

Many countries, the U.S. included, have their own seed bank of indigenous species. However, with the instability of many developing countries, many seeds have been lost to future generations. For example, the article notes that Afghani seed bank was looted during the rule of the Taliban and rare varieties of walnut, cherries and apricots were destroyed. The Norwegian government should be commended by the international community for stepping up to the plate and taking responsibility for this global initiative. With that, we say Adieu!

Of note: This blog will return on Monday, February 11, 2008, so you have several days to read today's entry. Grandma Schirott's birthday on Sunday takes precedence over staying home and confessing my transgressions few needed to know anyway.

Todays Weather Report: it was well below zero when awakening this morning, and it is only in the teens now. Burr, but we did like the sunshine, which has been out two days in a row now. A record for this winter to date, I think.

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