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EarthTalk®

by the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine


EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: I work for an office equipment company selling copiers, fax machines, computers and printers. Each year new models come out making old ones obsolete. As a result, we have loads of trade-ins with nowhere to go. What can we do with this old equipment? -- Jeff P., Worcester, MA

Electronic waste, or “e-waste” as it’s called, is a growing problem in the United States and abroad, as obsolete or broken computers and other electronic equipment are taking up increasingly precious amounts of landfill space and potentially leaking hazardous substances into surrounding ecosystems.

The nonprofit Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition reports that 70 percent of the heavy metals in U.S. landfills are from discarded electronics—even though the e-waste itself accounts for only two percent of the trash by volume. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reports that Americans trash two million tons of unwanted electronics each year—six times the amount they recycle. To make matters worse, U.S. companies often ship old equipment to poor nations whose landfills and incinerators are ill equipped, subjecting already struggling populations to lead, cadmium, beryllium, and other contaminants.

So what can be done? If your old units still work but have merely been eclipsed by newer models, then by all means donate them to a needy cause that will either put them to good use or resell them to help fund their programs. You’ll earn a tax deduction for a charitable donation and, by keeping the equipment alive, prevent the manufacture of new units and thus, if ever so slightly, reduce the footprint of your operations.

But not every charity accepts old equipment, and no one wants to spend all day calling around to find one that does. A good place to look, then, is Goodwill, which will accept your equipment and then sell it through any one of its 1,500 retail stores across the country. Proceeds fund programs to help the disabled, illiterate, homeless, and those on welfare by providing job training and placement programs. The Salvation Army runs similar programs and also typically accepts donated old office equipment.

Another option is to donate your equipment to needy schools, either directly or via a service like iLoveSchools.com, which helps teachers find free supplies and equipment for their classrooms. The National Cristina Foundation also matches donated technology with needy schools and nonprofits. Also, the website GreatNonprofits.org maintains a list of charities in need of various types of office equipment. You can also offload equipment via Freecycle, a free service that helps find homes for unwanted stuff.

While finding a new home for your old gear is preferable, recycling is also an option. Recyclers harvest parts from old equipment that can be reused or resold. Several websites, including My Green Electronics, E-cycling Central, and Earth911, list electronics recyclers across the U.S. Some of these vendors will charge a small fee to recycle an item for you; others may do it for free. Also, Office Depot, Staples and some other stores will take back used electronics—even if not purchased there—usually for a small fee.

CONTACTS: Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, www.svtc.org; Goodwill, www.goodwill.org; Salvation Army, www.salvationarmy.org; iLoveSchools.com, www.iloveschools.com; National Cristina Foundation, www.cristina.org; GreatNonprofits.org, www.greatnonprofits.org; Freecycle, www.freecycle.org; E-cycling Central, www.ecyclingcentral.com; Earth911, www.earth911.org; Office Depot, www.officedepot.com; Staples, www.staples.com.

Dear EarthTalk: I see a lot of “healthy snacks” being marketed for kids that list “natural flavors” but don’t identify them. Should I use these products? -- John Stein, Methuen, MA

Beloved food writer Michael Pollan recommends steering clear of foods that advertise their green attributes on their label. According to his line of reasoning, why give a child a fruit roll-up when you can give him or her a piece of fruit? Only processed foods need to advertise what’s natural about them, whereas an apple speaks for itself, providing wholesome nutrition without the need for marketing hype.

But most of us depend on the occasional packaged or processed food, so choosing between the lesser of two evils sometimes has to be the way to go. If a product lists natural ingredients on its label—anything from real fruits, vegetables and nuts to cereals, grains and other healthy foods you can recognize without a food dictionary on hand—it’s probably better than a food reliant on artificial flavors and sweeteners.

“One way for your kids to enjoy healthy snacks is to get them started on naturally sweet foods,” says Christine Steendahl of Kid Approved Meals, which sells menus and shopping lists to parents looking for guidance in meal preparation. “Since most kids crave sweets…naturally sweet foods such as fruits are perfect,” she says. Real bananas, oranges, apples, cherries, strawberries and other fruits are popular with most kids. “You can mix in yogurt or even make a fruit smoothie with some milk and a drop of chocolate or other natural flavors,” Steendahl suggests.

“One thing to recognize about children is that if they try enough types of natural and healthy snacks, they will find one that they enjoy,” says Steendahl. “The problem is that many times parents give up trying to find the snacks that their kids like and settle for popular junk foods instead.” She stresses the importance of teaching kids which snacks to eat and which to avoid early in life so that they can sidestep obesity problems altogether. Nuts and dry cereals, for example, are good alternatives to chips and other junk food.

According to California-based pediatrician and author William Sears, who markets his own line of healthy kids snacks called Lunchbox Essentials, parents should make sure that any snack foods they give their family members provide both fiber and protein, which give the feeling of fullness, and taste good as well. He adds that parents should learn to read labels so they can tell which products contain hydrogenated oils, artificial colors, preservatives and high-fructose corn syrup—all of which should be avoided.

As a last resort for especially finicky kids, parents can find packaged snacks that might look like junk food but are actually healthy and nutritious, including certain brands of fruit roll-ups and granola bars. Look in the snack aisle of your local natural foods market for such items, and don’t be afraid to ask store personnel for recommendations. It’s important to take your child’s nutrition seriously. Whether he or she ever realizes it, you are setting patterns that will enable them to live healthier and longer lives.

CONTACTS: Michael Pollan, www.michaelpollan.com; Kid Approved Meals, www.kidapprovedmeals.com; Dr. Sears’ Lunchbox Essentials, www.drsearshealthykids.com.

Dear EarthTalk: Isn’t the interest in electric cars and plug-in hybrids going to spur increased reliance on coal as a power source? And is that really any better than gasoline/oil in terms of environmental impact? -- Graham Rankin, via e-mail

It’s true that the advent of electric cars is not necessarily a boon for the environment if it means simply trading our reliance on one fossil fuel—oil, from which gasoline is distilled—for an even dirtier one: coal, which is burned to create electricity.

The mining of coal is an ugly and environmentally destructive process. And, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) burning the substance in power plants sends some 48 tons of mercury—a known neurotoxin—into Americans’ air and water every year (1999 figures, the latest year for which data are available). Furthermore, coal burning contributes some 40 percent of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions. The National Academy of Sciences (NAS) estimates that coal mining and burning cause a whopping $62 billion worth of environmental damage every year in the U.S. alone, not to mention its profound impact on our health.

Upwards of half of all the electricity in the U.S. is derived from coal, while the figure is estimated to be around 70 percent in China. As for Europe, the United Kingdom gets more than a third of its electricity from coal, while Italy plans to double its consumption of coal for electricity production within five years to account for some 33 percent of its own electricity needs. Several other countries in Europe, where green sentiment runs deep but economics still rule the roost, are also stockpiling coal and building more power plants to burn it in the face of an ever-increasing thirst for cheap and abundant electricity.

On top of this trend, dozens of electric and plug-in hybrid cars are in the works from the world’s carmakers. It stands to reason that, unless we start to source significant amounts of electricity from renewables (solar, wind, etc.), coal-fired plants will not only continue but may actually increase their discharges of mercury, carbon dioxide and other toxins due to greater numbers of electric cars on the road.

Some analysts expect that existing electricity capacity in the U.S. may be enough to power America’s electric cars in the near future, but don’t rule out the possibility of new coal plants (or new nuclear power plants) coming on line to fill the gap if we don’t make haste in developing alternate sources for generating electrical energy. And while proponents of energy efficiency believe we can go a long way by making our electric grids “smarter” through the use of monitoring technologies that can dole out power when it is most plentiful and cheap (usually the middle of the night), others doubt that existing capacity will be able to handle the load placed on even an intelligent “smart grid” distribution network.

Environmentalists—as well as many politicians and policymakers—maintain that the only viable, long-term solution is to spur on the development of renewable energy sources. Not long ago, the concept of an all-electric car charged up by solar power or some other form of clean renewable energy was nothing but a pipe dream. Today, though, such a scenario is within the realm of the possible, but only if everyone does their part to demand that our utilities bring more green power on line.

CONTACTS: EPA/mercury emissions; www.epa.gov/ttn/atw/utility/hgwhitepaperfinal.pdf.

Dear EarthTalk: Are there any health hazards associated with the use of the new silicone bake ware and cooking utensils? I have found information associated with the hazards/benefits of Teflon and other cookware but nothing on the use of silicone. -- Jean McCarthy, Sebastian, FL

With all the negative press about Teflon and about metals leaching out of pots and pans, consumers are on the lookout for cookware that’s easy-to-clean and doesn’t pose health concerns. Silicone, a synthetic rubber made of bonded silicon (a natural element abundant in sand and rock) and oxygen, is increasingly filling this niche. The flexible yet strong material, which has proven popular in muffin pans, cupcake liners, spatulas and other utensils, can go from freezer to oven (up to 428 degrees Fahrenheit), is non-stick and stain-resistant, and unlike conventional cookware, comes in a range of bright and cheery colors.

But some wonder if there is dark side to silicone cookware. Anecdotal reports of dyes or silicone oil oozing out of overheated silicone cookware pop up on Internet posts, as do reports of odors lingering after repeated washings. Also, silicone’s image may be forever tainted by problems associated with silicone gel breast implants—some women with earlier generations of these implants experienced capsular contracture, an abnormal immune system response to foreign materials. And while theories about silicone implants’ link to breast cancer have since been debunked, the damage to silicone’s reputation lives on.

It’s sad to say, but since the use of silicone in cookware is fairly new, there has not been much research into its safety for use with food. Back in 1979 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) determined that silicon dioxides—the basic elements in silicone cookware—were generally recognized as safe to use even in food-grade contexts. But the first silicone cookware (silicone spatulas) didn’t start to show up on store shelves until a decade later, and the FDA hasn’t conducted any follow-up studies to determine whether silicone can leach out of cookware and potentially contaminate food. For its part, Canada’s health agency, Health Canada, maintains that food-grade silicone does not react with food or beverages or produce any hazardous fumes, and as such is safe to use up to recommended temperatures.

Consumer advocate Debra Lynn Dadd, who steers clear of Teflon due to health concerns, is bullish on silicone cookware after investigating potential toxicity. “I tried to find some information on the health effects of silicone rubber, but it was not listed in any of the toxic chemical databases I use,” she reports, adding that she also sampled material safety data on several silicone rubbers manufactured by Dow Corning (which makes some 700 variations). “All descriptions I read of silicone rubber describe it as chemically inert and stable, so it is unlikely to react with or leach into food, nor outgas vapors.” She adds that silicone “is not toxic to aquatic or soil organisms, it is not hazardous waste, and while it is not biodegradable, it can be recycled after a lifetime of use.”

So while most of us will probably not have a problem with silicone cookware, those with chemical sensitivities might want to stay away until more definitive research has been conducted. In the meantime, cast iron and anodized aluminum cookware remain top choices for those concerned about harmful elements leaching into their cooked foods.

CONTACTS: FDA, www.fda.gov; Health Canada, www.hc-sc.gc.ca; Debra Lynn Dadd, www.dld123.com; Dow Corning, www.dowcorning.com.

Dear EarthTalk: My husband and I want to start a garden this year. I really want to make compost from leftover food scraps and yard materials. He says it will attract unwanted animals, and refuses to agree to it. Is he right? If so, how do we deal with that issue in a green-friendly, non-lethal way? -- Carmen Veurink, Grand Rapids, MI

It’s true that outdoor compost piles and bins can be a draw for wildlife—be it bears, rats, raccoons, skunks, opossums or some other creatures of the night—but there are ways to minimize the attraction. For one, make sure everyone in your household knows to keep meat, bones, fish, fat and dairy out of the compost. Not only will these items “overheat” the compost pile, they’ll also stink it up and attract animals.

Otherwise, home composters should keep in mind that critters aren’t actually eating the compost but are sifting through it to find fresh edible kitchen or garden scraps. To discourage animals, the website OrganicGardening.com recommends mixing kitchen garbage with soil or wood ashes before burying it in the hot center of your compost pile. Washington State’s Department of Fish and Wildlife recommends not putting any food scraps in open compost piles, but says that if you must, bury them under at least eight inches of soil and then place a wire mesh barrier over the top held in place with a heavy object or two.

Putting your compost pile in a pest-proof container is another way to prevent tampering with your precious organic soil-to-be. Compost tumblers are popular because they mix and aerate by just being turned occasionally, and they keep raccoons, rats, dogs and other interlopers at bay. Otherwise, compost bins with wire tops or sealed lids work well too, but require a little more manual labor in terms of stirring.

Of course, another option would be to make the compost indoors using a worm bin. You can still put kitchen scraps in just like in a bigger outdoor compost pile, but without the worry of attracting wildlife. The website Instructables.com offers instructions for how to create your own worm composting bin. Another good source is the blog One-Change.com, which offers a step-by-step guide to the process.

The long and short of it is that if you know what you’re doing, composting can be a rewarding, environmentally friendly and pest-free experience. For some great tips on how to get started, visit the website Composting101.com, a comprehensive and free guide for the home gardener on what to do and how to do it. Also, some forward-thinking cities such as Seattle are picking up food scraps with yard waste at the curbside along with garbage collection, and making huge amounts of commercially viable compost out of it. If your city or town offers a similar program you might want to consider saving yourself the trouble of doing it at home for the common good.

One more thing to keep in mind is that the garden itself may attract as much if not more wildlife than some food scraps in a compost pile. Strategically placed fencing and wire mesh can frustrate some critters enough to keep them moving along, but you can be sure some of your neighborhood wildlife will reap the harvest that you’ve sown. And as long as they leave enough for you, who can’t live with that?

CONTACTS: OrganicGardening.com, www.organicgardening.com; State of Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife, wdfw.wa.gov; Instructables, www.instructables.com; One Change Indoor Compost Bin, one-change.com/blog/2006/04/indoor-compost-bin/; Composting101.com, www.composing101.com.

Dear EarthTalk: What happens to major appliances that get carted off when new ones take their place? We have a dishwasher and a refrigerator that are both on the blink now and may need replacement. I’d rather fix them than buy new, even if it’s more expensive to do so, because I don’t want to add these big clunkers to the waste stream. What’s your take on this? -- D.M., Westport, CT

If you look hard enough you might be able to recycle those old appliances, and they will likely be reconditioned and find a good home in a household less privileged than yours, or broken down into their reusable parts and used to help rejuvenate other salvageable units.

The first place to check is with your utility, which would like to see you upgrade to a more energy efficient new model—an older fridge uses upwards of three times the energy of most newer models. Utilities in 10 U.S. states and in Ontario, Canada offer some kind of rebate and free pick-up if you do decide you want to upgrade in partnership with a company called Appliance Recycling Centers of America, Inc. (ARCA), which oversees the appliance recycling process. ARCA’s system can prevent up to 95 percent of the recyclable materials in old refrigerators and freezers from entering the waste stream.

Check with your utility to see if they participate in ARCA’s program or perhaps offer one of their own. For example, Puget Sound Energy in the Seattle area works with ARCA to offer customers free pick-up of old appliances for recycling and a $30 rebate on their next bill. One caveat is the appliances must be operational, even if not working at full capacity.

If your utility doesn’t participate in ARCA’s network or have its own appliance recycling program, maybe your municipality recycles appliances, although it’ll likely cost you $30 or more. Some will even send a truck for pickup for an additional fee.

But what if neither option is available in your area? Check out the non-profit website Earth911.org, a free online database of recyclers for anything imaginable across the U.S. Search for the keyword “appliance” and enter in your zip code. You will likely find more than one option within driving distance, but don’t be surprised if, like with a municipality, you have to pay not only to recycle your poor old broken down fridge but also for pickup if you need it.

If the appliance is still working, another alternative would be to donate it to a worthy cause which can either find it a good home with a needy family or sell it and put the proceeds into its programs. The housing non-profit Habitat for Humanity runs Habitat ReStores to resell donated goods in 48 U.S. states and nine Canadian provinces. Appliances as well as donated furniture, home accessories and building materials are sold to the general public at a fraction of the retail price to help local affiliates fund the construction of Habitat for Humanity homes within their communities while simultaneously keeping reusable appliances and other materials out of the waste stream. The Salvation Army, St. Vincent de Paul and the American Council of the Blind also may take donated appliances in working order.

CONTACTS: ARCA Inc., www.arcainc.com; Puget Sound Energy, www.pse.com; Earth911, www.earth911.org; Habitat for Humanity, www.habitat.org; Salvation Army, www.salvationarmy.org; St. Vincent de Paul, www.svdpusa.org; American Council of the Blind, www.acb.org.

SEND YOUR ENVIRONMENTAL QUESTIONS TO: EarthTalk®, c/o E – The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; earthtalk@emagazine.com. E is a nonprofit publication. Subscribe: www.emagazine.com/subscribe; Request a Free Trial Issue: www.emagazine.com/trial.


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