About a year ago, I was at the SoWa Open Market in Boston with a friend when I stumbled upon a booth selling t-shirts with cute phrases like “You Otter Recycle”. The woman at the booth told me that proceeds from the t-shirts go towards providing environmental education to students. The organization she works for, Change is Simple, brings environmental education to schools and businesses.
An excerpt from the Change is Simple website: “Teaching open-minded elementary students that small changes in their habits can make huge improvements to the environment is extremely powerful. Change is Simple was founded on the values that Lauren and Patrick live by: use resources in a way that does not undermine future generations from using those same resources; live simply; be active in your community; let your passion drive you; and empower others.”
Change is Simple website.
(Image source: Change is Simple)
That’s the title of an article I recently read on Gizmodo. It features Agbogbloshie, the largest e-waste processing site in Ghana, where our old laptops, tablets, and iPhones are dumped in a massive landfill.
“[Agbogbloshie] is a major destination for the developed world’s electronic waste, processing millions of tons of unwanted electronics every year. Most of this “processing” work is performed by young men and children who burn electronics to extract the valuable copper that they contain for pennies on the dollar. A ‘good haul’ reportedly earns workers less than $4 a day, while releasing hordes of toxic chemicals into the environment. This deadly chemical cocktail poisons the surrounding land, air, water, and workers - stunting their mental and physical development.”
The article and its haunting photos stuck with me, and I couldn’t stop thinking about possible solutions:
I talk about education quite a bit on my blog, but it’s because I honestly believe educating the public is the first step in bringing about a sense of responsibility and mindfulness. Educating the public on e-waste can happen in many ways. We can reach out to local politicians and ask that they make it easier for people to responsibly dispose of their electronics. We can ask corporations to play a larger role in promoting ways to recycle devices. We can work within our communities to set up e-waste recycle bins and ensure that electronics are properly recycled. We can start petitions asking the EPA to report reliable data on how much e-waste is exported. We can do all these things publicly and with the help of social media, we can spread the word rapidly as letters to corporations or online petitions go viral.
And because we live in an age of irony, we use our electronics to educate people on reducing the number of electronics they buy and responsibly recycling the electronics they do.
There’s also an opportunity for tech companies to better promote e-cycling on their packaging. A quick step-by-step guide on where and how to recycle electronic devices won’t take up too much space on the package, and it’ll show consumers that companies care about where their devices go after leaving the store. Seeing the recycling information on the package can prompt sales associates to educate shoppers on where they can take their old devices when they’re ready to purchase a new one. We know the number of devices per person will inevitably grow. The best thing we can do right now is educate each person on recycling their devices responsibly.
Here’s an infographic from 2012 that lays out e-waste by the numbers.
The EPA’s page on e-waste.
(Image source: Michael Ciaglo)
When I first heard about the report, I had two main questions:
Why did it take so long for a report like this to be published?
Why do we need a report like this for the business community to understand the seriousness of climate change?
You don’t need to be an expert to quickly see how natural disasters, extreme heat waves, and increasing carbon emissions can have significant economic repercussions such as loss of property, stress on health care systems, and damage to agriculture productivity. I thought the economic impact of climate change was common sense.
Wait a Second
The report calls for businesses, investors, and the public to help mitigate climate change and better prepare themselves for climate risks. But, how can we mitigate climate change when the very capitalist society we live in values the production, transportation, buying, selling, consumption, and waste of materials that destroy natural resources? Market-driven forces are usually the opposite of what we’re trying to achieve from a sustainability perspective.
If we really want to mitigate climate change, then we have to restructure the entire system we live in. How do we create a system that focuses on environmental and human sustainability? And because we can’t just start over and create a new global system from scratch, how do we make little changes that’ll eventually make a big paradigm shift?
In my opinion, it’s all about the little things. If we start thinking about the environment in every little thing we do - from tossing items in the garbage or making smart purchases to the way we design products and packaging - then we’ll see all these little differences start to add up. Little by little, business as usual will begin to be less risky.
The report’s next steps and conclusions are fairly high-level, but there’s one I like in particular - the report urges the public to hold businesses accountable in addressing climate change. Fortunately, we live in a time where public perception is a strong driver in business decisions. Each individual can make a difference. We need to do our civic duty by speaking up and being responsible for our choices and purchases (i.e. purchasing products with unsustainable palm oil as an ingredient - there’s a lot of them).
Putting the Pop in Population
In my mind, one major issue not mentioned in the report is the growing human population. We have a number of environmental problems that we’re trying to solve at the same time. But, could we reason that the growing population is the root cause of all of our environmental challenges?
In 2011, Science magazine published an issue dedicated to population growth and changing demographics. An excerpt by Leslie Roberts:
In 1900, there were 1.6 billion people on earth. By 2000, that number had skyrocketed to 6.1 billion. This astounding rate of growth has slowed, but the trend is still heading dramatically upward. It varies substantially by region, however, with the less developed countries growing rapidly and the more developed countries growing slowly, if at all. World population is expected to pass 7 billion in late October and is projected to top 9 billion by 2050; the latest U.N. projections put it at about 10 billion in 2100. In truth, no one knows exactly how high population will grow or when it might fl at-line. All population projections are uncertain, as they are entirely dependent on assumptions about the future—for instance, how many children a woman will have 20 or 30 years hence. In that sense, these numbers can be considered best scientific guesses, not destiny. What’s more, the further out one looks, the cloudier these projections become. Still, they offer a window into what the world might look like in 2050.
Despite my criticism, I appreciate the work done to compile the report and genuinely hope it starts the climate change conversation in the business community. I read in NPR that former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, who co-chaired the report, hopes the report will influence the business community by applying the science of risk management.
To me, the biggest challenge is the education aspect and getting people to have an environmental conscience. I think that once people become better educated on environmental sustainability, businesses will start to see the shift in people’s purchase behavior - the desire to learn more about where their products are coming from and to purchase environmentally responsible products. On the other hand, education will help businesses make better environmental decisions from within, whether by hiring innovative environmental thinkers or by establishing environmental sustainability as a business priority.
(Image source: Linda Yin)
WTF are fossil fuels?
Definition: forms of stored solar energy created from incomplete biological decomposition of dead organic matter. Include coal, crude oil, and natural gas.
Do fossil fuels come from dinosaurs?
I suppose that would make sense since we generally associate the term “fossil” with dinosaurs. However, what I’m hearing is that fossil fuels don’t actually come from the remains of dead dinosaurs. That would be too cool. The US Department of Energy states that “most of the fossil fuels we find today were formed millions of years before the first dinosaurs. Fossil fuels, however, were once alive! They were formed from prehistoric plants and animals that lived hundreds of millions of years ago.” Science writer, Bob Strauss, says that “according to the best theories currently available - microscopic bacteria, and not house-sized dinosaurs, produced today’s oil reserves.” But, I’ve also read theories online stating that fossil fuels did originate from dinosaurs.
Hmmm…I can’t seem to find a straight answer to this yes or no question. I’d like to send a note to my environmental professors to get their thoughts. Stay tuned.
WTF are greenhouse gases?
Definition: the suite of gases that produce a greenhouse effect, such as carbon dioxide, methane, and water vapor. (A greenhouse effect occurs when water vapor and several other gases warm the Earth’s atmosphere by trapping some of the heat radiating from the Earth’s atmospheric system.)
Where does the term “greenhouse” come from?
The Earth’s atmosphere is made up of several layers of gases. When the sun warms the Earth during the day, its heat travels through the atmosphere and reaches Earth’s surface. The heat from the Earth travels back into the atmosphere. The layers of gases in the atmosphere trap some of the heat, working like a greenhouse. The windows of a greenhouse retain heat, keeping the greenhouse warm at night and through the winter. Similarly, greenhouse gases keep the Earth from freezing.
What’s the issue with greenhouse gases?
The fossil fuels we burn contribute to higher concentrations of greenhouse gases, making the layers in the atmosphere thicker and trapping more heat. The stronger the greenhouse effect, the warmer the global temperatures.
What does this have to do with polar bears?
Polar bears have evolved for a life on the sea ice, which they rely on for reaching their seal prey. But the arctic sea ice is rapidly diminishing due to a warming Earth, affecting the entire arctic ecosystem, from copepods to seals to walruses. For polar bears, sea ice losses mean:
Reduced access to food
Drop in body condition
Lower cub survival rates
Increase in drowning
Increase in cannibalism
Loss of access to denning areas
Declining population size
(Source: Polar Bears International)
WTF is global warming?
Definition: natural or human-induced increase in the average global temperature of the atmosphere near Earth’s surface.
How can global warming be real if we’re experiencing some of the coldest winters on record?
At the beginning of 2014, Chicago had one of its coldest winters on record, leading people to question whether global warming was actually occurring. But while the reality for Chicagoans at the time was extreme freezing temperatures, potholes riddling the streets, and ice everywhere they turned, the reality for Australians on the other side of the globe was extreme heat, destructive wildfires, and drought. Extreme weather - whether (no pun intended) hot or cold - doesn’t tell us what’s going to happen with climate in the long-term. The NOAA defines “weather” as conditions at a given point in time (e.g., today’s high temperature), whereas “climate” refers to the average weather conditions for an area over a long period of time (e.g., the average high temperature for today’s date). We can’t dispel the concept of global warming because of the short-term weather we experience. We need to look at the long-term climate trends instead.
Neil deGrasse Tyson also does a great job helping us visualize the difference between weather and climate.
WTF is climate change?
Definition: change in mean annual temperature and other aspects of climate over periods of time ranging from decades to hundreds of years to several million years.
What’s the issue with climate change?
Yes, climate change is natural. But, the speed at which climate change is happening is not. Since the Industrial Revolution began in the 18th century, humans have made an increasing impact on climate change. The human activities making the biggest impact on climate change include the production and waste of plastic, major deforestation, and adding billions of tons of heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. In the fall of 2013, Stanford scientists reported that climate change is on pace to occur 10 times faster than any change recorded in past 65 million years. Climate change has detrimental effects on human health, natural ecosystems, civil infrastructures, and the economy.
Learn more about the impacts of climate change in a recent report.
The EPA and climate change.
Read about plastic bags and climate change.
For more climate change myths, check out this link.
(Image source: Pinterest)
The basic idea behind carbon offsetting is compensating for the carbon you create. Sure, we reduce, reuse, and recycle, but most of our lifestyles still produce waste and carbon dioxide (i.e. driving, flying, using styrofoam and other non-recyclables, etc.). It’s almost impossible to have a carbon footprint of zero but buying carbon offsets can get us pretty close if they’re calculated and purchased correctly.
To me, air travel has the biggest opportunity in carbon offsetting. In 2013 alone, Americans took 1.6 billion leisure trips and 452 million business trips. That’s a lot of trips. That’s also a crazy amount of carbon emissions.
I haven’t double checked these numbers but about a year and a half ago, The New York Times reported that “one round-trip flight from New York to Europe or to San Francisco creates a warming effect equivalent to 2 or 3 tons of carbon dioxide per person [and that] the average American generates about 19 tons of carbon dioxide a year; the average European, 10.”
I’ve seen some airlines - like Air Canada, United, and Virgin - make it easier for flyers to offset their carbon emissions by providing links to carbon offsetting programs. But, these links or call-to-action buttons are usually small and unnoticeable, which is sad because I think it would benefit airlines to make their environmental commitment stand out more. Without compromising safety, I think there’s an opportunity here for an airline to emerge as “the most environmentally friendly” airline and show flyers that they know flying produces carbon emissions but that they’re doing everything they can to offset them. To me, that commitment to sustainability would speak volumes for an airline (especially since they don’t often have the best customer service reputation).
When it comes to carbon offsetting programs, there are a number of different types - from forest restoration to tire recycling. Forest restoration might be the most popular one, especially since 81% of Americans believe planting trees will reduce global warming.
Trees can help offset the carbon emissions from air travel since they store (sequester) carbon.
Forests are known as carbon sinks, which essentially means they can absorb large amounts of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Part of the forest’s life cycle is storing carbon dioxide, so when you cut down a single tree (let alone an entire forest), you release carbon dioxide into the air - the carbon dioxide that was trapped in the tree. Not only are you releasing carbon dioxide every time you cut down a tree, you stop any capacity to capture carbon dioxide.
Of course, there will always be critics. Some say carbon offsets don’t actually solve our carbon emission issues and instead give people an easy way out for living wasteful lifestyles. The same is said of businesses who might use carbon offsets to justify wasteful practices. Others believe carbon offsets aren’t enough to compensate for the damage done to the environment. In my opinion, there are certainly truths in the criticism. I appreciate carbon offsetting programs as an option for people trying to reduce their impact. I wish more people and businesses took part in these programs. In fact, I wish it were a mandate for people to purchase carbon offsets not only when they flew but whenever they drove or purchased non-recyclables. Then, we might really see how carbon offsets can make a difference. Just a thought.
An infographic on carbon offsetting.
Neat infographic on the greenest ways to get around.
You can even figure out how to offset your wedding or parties.
Air Canada’s carbon offsetting page.
(Image source: Linda Yin)
Some shocking statistics about environmental education in the US:
In 1993, only 24% of high schools taught environmental science.
In 2000, the number had slowly climbed to 39%. To this day, a majority of high school students don’t even have the option of learning about environmental science.
(Only) 50% of Americans believe global warming is caused by human-related activities.
57% of Americans understand the greenhouse effect refers to gases in the atmosphere that trap heat.
60% of Americans can correctly identify natural gas as a fossil fuel.
(Surprisingly) 81% of Americans believe planting trees will reduce global warming if done worldwide, and 73% of Americans believe reducing tropical deforestation will reduce global warming if done worldwide.
I think it’s safe to say not nearly enough Americans understand the fundamentals of environmental science (and perhaps even the concept of sustainability). How do we bridge this gap?
To me, environmental education begins at the elementary level. By making environmental science a required subject for students from elementary school to college, many of the environmental issues we’re facing today might have been prevented.
At the university-level, it’s important for professors to ask that students consider the environment. When we have business students and engineering students thinking about inventing “the next best thing”, they should ask themselves how it impacts the environment and whether it’s sustainable. It doesn’t make sense for business and engineering students to develop something that damages what environmental students are trying to improve. We all need to work together towards a common goal. We only have one earth to cohabit.
By fundamentally instilling an environmental consciousness in students, we’ll begin to see new job opportunities arise in the sustainability field. In my ideal world, people will begin to understand the importance of buying locally, reducing energy usage, and biking instead of driving. I want to bring the public back to the basic principles of reducing, reusing, and recycling.
(Image source: The Saturday Evening Post)
It was a hot summer day in NYC, but I hardly noticed. I was sitting in the middle of the Popular Mechanics office, shivering from the AC. A dozen tabs open on my desktop computer. Post-it notes scattered all around me. I was an intern at the time and had been assigned to help fact-check an article for the upcoming October issue. The article was about people who live completely off the grid.
Wait a second. There are people in the U.S. who live completely off the grid? Grow their own food, generate their own electricity, and collect all the water they need? I couldn’t believe it. I was amazed by their creativity and resourcefulness. By “resourcefulness”, I mean this mindset of first using what you have and only what you need. I was familiar with this concept of resourcefulness having grown up with a family that reduces and reuses as much as possible. To this day, my grandpa gardens with used materials - plastic milk jugs as plant pots, flattened soy sauce containers as the lining of his cistern, a wheelbarrow made from scraps around the garage. By the way, he’s 93.
While living completely off the grid is extreme, I wish resourcefulness was more top of mind for people. At work, I often think about “resourcefulness” in terms of my team and the hours they spend working on projects. How do I use their time wisely and their skills most effectively? Are we agile enough to adapt to different situations and challenges? We need to ask ourselves similar questions outside of work. Do I need a new car or handbag? Am I too reliant on materials that don’t really matter? How can I be more efficient?
(Image source: Popular Mechanics)
Despite the great reviews, I didn’t have the urge to see Wall-E when it first came out. I couldn’t understand how an animated movie without very much dialogue or human characters could be so compelling. I also couldn’t bring myself to pay $10 at the theater to see it - I was in college at the time and figured $10 could get me a nice sandwich instead.
A couple years ago, I finally had the chance to watch Wall-E while surfing through TV channels and found the Disney channel airing it.
Incredible. Everything people said about Wall-E is true. The movie is thematic, romantic, comedic, simple with powerful perhaps political environmental undertones, beautiful yet heartbreaking, familiar yet groundbreaking. The creators at Pixar brilliantly do all this with two main characters who happen to be robots.
I’ve watched Wall-E a few times since and each time, I end up in tears. The movie shakes me to my very core because it perfectly visualizes how I imagine what the world will be like if we don’t start taking environmental conservation and sustainability seriously. Yes, I know. My mind often jumps to either side of the spectrum - things are either going to be perfect or it’s the end of the world. In real life, I try to balance the ideal with the practical.
I love movies like Wall-E and The Lorax because they appeal to a general audience and tackle topics like environmentalism, consumerism, human behavior and complacency, the usage of technology, etc. I wish these topics were more top-of-mind in schools and in media.
(Wired wrote a nice article about the connection between Wall-E and environmentalism.)
(Image source: Design Through Storytelling)