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EarthTalk®

by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer


EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Can I throw my old disposable batteries in the trash or is there a way to recycle them? -- Jennifer Brandstrom, Chicago, IL

Truth be told, those old used up disposable alkaline batteries (AA, AAA, C, D, 9-volt, etc.) aren’t the environmental menace they used to be before the federal government mandated taking out the mercury, a potent neurotoxin linked to a wide range of environmental and health problems, as part of the Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act of 1996. These days, in every U.S. state except California (which requires recycling of all spent batteries), it is safe and legal to throw them in the trash.

Environmental Health & Safety Online, the leading web-based clearinghouse for information on environmental health and safety, reports that today’s alkaline disposables are composed “primarily of common metals—steel, zinc, and manganese—that do not pose a health or environmental risk during normal use or disposal.”

In California, tighter waste reduction laws mean that residents are required to recycle their spent alkalines by placing them in clear ziplock bags on top of their curbside trash cans (so garbage haulers can keep them separate) or by dropping them in battery recycling bins (such as in larger apartment buildings and at libraries). Many electronics, big box and drugstore chains that sell batteries (BestBuy, Walgreens and others) will also take them back for free and send them off for recycling. Check out CalRecycle’s website for more detailed information on battery recycling in the Golden State.

Unfortunately, some other kinds of disposable batteries, such as the increasingly ubiquitous alkaline manganese “button cells” (commonly used in digital thermometers, calculators and many toys), still contain mercury, and the federal government provides little guidance regarding their proper disposal. The Mercury-Containing and Rechargeable Battery Management Act doesn’t mandate phasing mercury out of alkaline manganese button cells because, at the time of the law’s passage in 1996, including mercury was the only way to control the potentially dangerous formation of gas inside the specialized miniature batteries. Lithium button cells are a safer, mercury-free alternative now widely available, but consumers often opt for the still cheaper alkaline manganese variety.

“The use and disposal of mercury-added button cells are unregulated at the federal level,” reports the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). “They do not have to be labeled; it is legal to dispose of them in the household trash; and they rarely are collected for recycling in most U.S. jurisdictions.” California is currently the only state that mandates recycling even for alkaline manganese button cells, but several other states are considering regulating their disposal and whether to subsidize special recycling programs for them. But until then, most of the mercury from these little wonders will end up in the municipal solid waste stream and contribute to our ongoing pollution burden.

Fortunately, the recycling of most types of rechargeable batteries (which can contain potentially harmful heavy metals and other contaminants) remains easy thanks to an industry-backed program called Call2Recycle that points people toward recyclers and retailers across the U.S. and Canada happy to take them off your hands at no cost.

CONTACTS: Environmental Health & Safety Online, www.ehso.com; Call2Recycle, www.call2recycle.org; CalRecycle, www.calrecycle.ca.gov/reducewaste/Batteries/.

EarthTalk® is produced by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer and is a registered trademark of Earth Action Network Inc. View past columns at: www.earthtalk.org. Or e-mail us your question: earthtalk@emagazine.com. 

EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: What resources are out there for helping teachers integrate sustainability topics into their curricula?     -- Melinda Zullo, Toronto, ON

Teaching our kids about sustainability and green living is one of the most important things we can do to safeguard the future of humanity and the planet we inhabit. The North American Association for Environmental Education (NAAEE) reports that environmental education teaches children how to learn about and investigate their environment and to make intelligent, informed decisions about sustainability. Furthermore, learning about the environment is multi-disciplinary, so it allows teachers a rare opportunity
to integrate different parts of the their curriculum while challenging students to think about the big picture. Thankfully, teachers today have a plethora of resources for incorporating sustainability in their lessons and activities.

One great resource is Green Teacher, a quarterly magazine dedicated to helping educators promote environmental awareness among young people aged six through 19. The magazine offers perspectives on the role of education in creating a sustainable future and provides lots of ready-to-use activities. Green Teacher has also released a series of books, including Teaching Green: The Elementary Years, Teaching Green: The Middle School Years and Teaching Green: The High School Years, each which contain over 50 of the best teaching strategies and activities published in the magazine over the past decade. These books contain kid-tested ideas contributed by educators from across North America and cover a wide spectrum of environmental topics, from biodiversity to resource consumption to green technology. Another one of Green Teacher’s books, Teaching in the Outdoors, is a practical guide for getting students outside and includes helpful suggestions for maximizing their learning experience when they get there.

Another great resource is the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s “Energy Kids” website, which provides teachers with energy related stories, hands-on activities and research articles for their classrooms. Free, easy-to-access lesson plans allow students from K-12 to have fun learning about different forms of energy and why some are better for the environment than others. The website also offers biographies of scientists that discovered the energy sources we use today, energy timelines that show how different energy sources and technologies have evolved, and stats on topics like what renewable fuel the U.S. uses most.

A more “hands-on” approach to getting students involved and concerned about their environment is to start a school garden—planted and tended by the kids themselves.  According to KidsGardening.org, school gardens build an understanding of and respect for nature and our environment while motivating kids to eat and love fruits and vegetables. Gardening also teaches children to nurture and care for other living things while developing patience. KidsGardening.org provides a full step-by-step guide to help any teacher get a school garden off to a great start.

Meanwhile, more than 5,000 K-12 schools worldwide have teamed up to network about and integrate environmental best practices into their curricula, administration and facilities through the non-profit Green Schools Alliance (GSA). Membership in GSA is free, but requires a commitment to take action on any or all of three tracks: (1) reducing the member school’s climate and ecological impact; (2) educating and engaging the local community; and (3) connecting to nature and place. No doubt, GSA is right when it asserts that schools are “hubs of their communities that build resilience, transform markets and policy, shift behavior, and prepare the next generation of innovators to become environmental stewards.”

CONTACTS: Green Teacher, www.greenteacher.com; EIA Energy Kids, www.eia.gov/kids; NAAEE, www.naaee.net; KidsGardening.org, www.kidsgardening.org; Green Schools Alliance, www.greenschoolsalliance.org.

EarthTalk® is produced by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer and is a registered trademark of Earth Action Network Inc. View past columns at: www.earthtalk.org. Or e-mail us your question: earthtalk@emagazine.com. 

EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Where will be the best places to live if global warming gets the best of us?
­-- Cynthia McIntosh, Jasper, WY

If temperatures around the globe continue to rise in the face of human-induced climate change as climatologists expect, some of the world’s most populous areas could become uninhabitable. Rising sea levels will flood out coastal areas, while increasing drought will make survival in already arid areas difficult at best. While we may have at least a few decades of runway to prepare ourselves for the worst, advance planners might want to think carefully about where to put down roots now.

According to the Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index (ND-GAIN) that measures and ranks 175 countries based on vulnerability and readiness to adapt to climate change, Scandinavian countries—Norway, Sweden, Finland and Denmark—just might be the safest spot in the carbon-compromised world of the future.

ND-Gain researchers stress that residents of just about any developed country (including the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Russia, China and most of Europe) will likely be fine staying put given the fact that better-heeled governments are already gearing up to adapt to warmer temperatures, more intense storms, rising sea levels and other expected changes. On the flip side, the worst places to be may be mid-latitude developing countries, including most of Africa and South Asia. The countries ND-GAIN predicts will be hardest hit by climate change include Chad, Eritrea, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, Sudan, Niger, Haiti, Afghanistan and Guinie Bissau.

Americans looking for the best place to live domestically as the world warms should also look north. Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, both blessed with plenty of water and plenty of terrain well above sea level, are generally acknowledged to be the best parts of the country to be in under a new climate regime. In fact, University of Washington atmospheric science professor Cliff Mass believes the Pacific Northwest will be “a potential climate refuge” in coming decades. He writes in his popular weather blog that Washington State could soon become the nation’s premiere wine production region as California’s vineyards continue to be slammed by years and years of drought.

Meanwhile, UCLA environmental economics professor, Matthew Kahn, says that otherwise fading cities like Minneapolis, Milwaukee and Detroit will become more and more attractive as their counterparts to the south (Miami, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Diego) take the brunt of global warming’s fury. In his 2010
book, Climatopolis, Kahn predicts that Detroit will be one of the nation’s most desirable cities by 2100. Other climate change winners could include Vermont, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana and Colorado.

Not everyone agrees that Detroit will be the golden city of our future world. Author Giles Slade contends in his 2013 book, American Exodus, that we all may be heading for northern Canada when global warming’s fury really starts to kick in. “The safest places will be significant communities in the north that are not isolated, that have abundant water, that have the possibility of agricultural self-sufficiency, that have little immediate risk of forest fires, that are well elevated, and that are built on solid rock,” he writes. “Our northern lands are our Noah's ark—a vital refuge against the moment of mankind's greatest need.”

CONTACTS: Notre Dame Global Adaptation Index (ND-GAIN), www.gain.org; Cliff Mass Weather Blog, cliffmass.blogspot.com.

EarthTalk® is produced by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer and is a registered trademark of Earth Action Network Inc. View past columns at: www.earthtalk.org. Or e-mail us your question: earthtalk@emagazine.com. 

EarthTalk®
From the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: It seems like I’m getting more junk mail than ever these days. How can I stop the deluge? -- Grace Dixon, Houston, TX
 
First of all, you’re probably right! Junk mail has increased to a massive scale in recent years, with the average American receiving 16 pieces each week. While this might not seem like much, it adds up to weigh an estimated 41 pounds each year, according to leading anti-junk mail organization, 41pounds.org.

What’s more, 44 percent of it is never opened, though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates only about 40 percent is recycled properly. This enormous waste of paper has triggered the U.S. Postal Service to install over 4,000 postal recycling stations around the country. From a financial perspective, nearly $320 million of local tax money is used to dispose of and recycle of junk mail each year.
 
However, junk mail has environmental repercussions on a larger scale than individual inconvenience or waste of tax money. The paper for these mailings comes from more than 100 million trees each year. Not only does this cause deforestation and other direct problems to the local environment, it also creates an imbalance of the planet’s carbon levels. While forests usually act as “carbon sinks” to maintain constant levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, chopping down these trees and converting them into paper emits this stored carbon prematurely back into the atmosphere. On top of that, according to 41pounds.org, the carbon emissions from junk mailings each year are roughly equivalent to those of nine million cars.
 
ForestEthics.org, another leader in the charge against junk mail, estimates that junk mail produces 51.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year. Ciara O’Rourke reports in The New York Times that this is roughly the same amount of emissions produced by heating 13 million homes in the winter. ForestEthics’ report, “Climate Change Enclosed,” likens junk mail’s carbon burden to 2.4 million cars idling 24/7 year-round.
 
Another negative impact of junk mail is the water waste it creates. As drought becomes an increasingly important problem across the country, Americans continue to waste upwards of 28 billion gallons of water on junk mail production and recycling every year.
 
Thankfully, these enormous environmental costs can easily be reduced by taking basic steps to get off mailing lists. By registering at 41pounds.org, junk mailings can be reduced by 80-95 percent for $41. Similar to a no-call list for telemarketers, you can also opt out of these mailing lists at catologchoice.org. By contacting dozens of these mailers directly, these organizations aim to eliminate junk mail waste.

After five years, 41pounds.org estimates “you’ll conserve 1.7 trees and 700 gallons of water, and prevent global warming emissions—and you’ll gain about 350 hours of free time.” Though readers should note you must re-register every five years, this simple action can make a huge impact in stopping the torrent of junk mail being crammed into your mailbox each week. 

CONTACTS: 41pounds.org, www.41pounds.org; Catalog Choice, www.catalogchoice.org; Forest Ethics’ “Climate Change Enclosed,” donotmail.org/downloads/ClimateReport.pdf.

EarthTalk® is produced by Doug Moss & Roddy Scheer and is a registered trademark of Earth Action Network Inc. View past columns at: www.earthtalk.org. Or e-mail us your question: earthtalk@emagazine.com. 


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