Archive for February, 2009

The Goodwill NCW Business Philosophy

I’ve been meaning to write about the philosophy of Goodwill NCW ever since my first day here.  Now that I’m more than half way through this three month internship, I figure it’s about time.

 

My first day, I spend a little bit of time browsing the Goodwill intranet, or, G Wiz, as it’s been named.  It has all sorts of valuable information for “team members,” as employees are called here, including team member communication, information about stores and services, copies of the annual reports, a document sharing site, and—this is what most surprised me—up-to-date reports on Goodwill’s financial status and of the sales at each of the 21 stores.  Now, I haven’t worked for many businesses, so I guess I don’t know exactly how common giving all employees at a business access to this information, but it strikes me as a fairly unique practice.  Another thing that struck me was the available copies of goals and policies—even things that are still in progress.  It seems to me like team members at Goodwill are treated like members of the executive board with all the information about the non-profit they are granted access to. 

 

It’s not only the openness that makes Goodwill so unique; it’s a whole vocabulary.  Just like employees are called “team members,” supervisors are called “team leaders,” discipline is called “care-fronting,” corporate offices are called a “campus,” Human Resources is called the “People Team,” and so many other typical business terms have changed.  It’s a completely different mentality from the often cutthroat business world.

 

Goodwill also differs from a typical business in that it offers job opportunities to many people who may not otherwise be able to obtain work experience, such as those serving time in correctional facilities or with mental or physical disabilities.  These are critical chances for helping these people become self-sufficient and learn important life skills.

 

All these values are best stated as they appear on my office wall.  Every day in my office, when I look up, I see a little plaque that states “Our Mission Statement” and “Our Core Values” for Goodwill.  Here’s what it looks like:

Goodwill Mission Statement and Core Values

 

It’s a unique experience, working here.  On my way in as I walk through the work floor and warehouse, everyone smiles at me and says cheerily, “Good morning.”  When I’ve gone on tours of the Shiner Center with its director, she knows everyone’s name on the floor and says hello to each of them on passing.

 

But, perhaps, the Goodwill NCW philosophy is best captured by its CEO and President, Bob Pedersen.  Pedersen is not your typical CEO.  When I first met with him to discuss internship opportunities at Goodwill, he wore white linen slacks, a blue linen smock and Crocks on his feet.  His business card reads “Chief Visionary and Storyteller” where most CEO business cards would read “President and CEO.”  Pedersen has been leader of Goodwill NCW since 1991, creating more jobs for those trying to overcome barriers to employment, and increasing local collaboration with other non-profits in the area.  He was instrumental in creating the Goodwill Community Center in Menasha, which houses 27 different area non-profits, including the Fox Cities Community Health Center and the Workforce Development Center. 

 

Goodwill is a rare and unique organization that gives back to the community in countless ways.  I am proud to have the opportunity to help them in their newest efforts to “Protect the Planet.”

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E-waste? E-nough.

Those darn electronics!

They’re really gonna get us in trouble some day.  Before we know it, we’ll find ourselves buried not in our own you-know-what, but in all our old computers, cell phones, televisions—all those electronics that we constantly must have the newest, brightest and best of.

Globally, electronics account for almost 2% of the waste stream, which amounts to over 2.5 million tons of waste annually! However, it is possible to recycle electronics to recover the materials inside, reducing the volume of waste landfilled (though currently only 15-18% of e-waste is recycled). Recycling e-waste (or “e-cycling”) is becoming a more common practice both in and out of the United States.  E-cycling not only prevents harmful compounds from entering our environment, but also saves energy and resources.  According to the EPA’s Plug-In To eCycling” program, “Recycling 1 million desktop computers prevents the release of greenhouse gases equivalent to the annual emissions of over 17,000 passenger cars.”  Recovering the metals inside, such as lead, cadmium, chromium, nickel, and mercury, can be profitable as well as save these materials from being released into the environment.

However, here’s the GIANT, frying-pan-to-the-head caveat: e-cycling is NOT nationally regulated except under hazardous materials law, so most e-waste is incinerated or ends up in landfills, releasing the heavy metals inside these electronics into the environment as well as contributing substantially to greenhouse gas emissions.  Collectors often export e-waste from the US to developing countries in Africa and Asia because they can make money exporting, whereas it is costly to dismantle and dispose of e-waste properly inside the US.  According to the Electronics Take-Back Coalition, the lead solder used in electronics circuit boards recovered from e-waste that is melted down in China can end up back in children’s toys and jewelry exported to the US and other countries.

Except for the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA), which regulates the disposal and recovery of so-called “hazardous wastes” from “cradle to grave,” the United States does not have any national laws or regulations regarding electronics disposal or export.  Instead, electronics recycling is “regulated” by voluntary disposal guidelines.  The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has two documents, “Guidelines for Materials Management” and “Responsible Recycling (R2) Practices for Use in Accredited Certification Programs,” providing recommendations for environmentally and socially responsible disposal of e-waste. These voluntary disposal guidelines for companies looking to dispose of electronics encourage reuse, refurbishment, and recycling of electronics over disposal or incineration, and promote finding disposal facilities that 1) reduce harmful exposure and emissions during disposal process; 2) comply with environmental, health, safety and legal standards and requirements; 3) ensure that end locations for recycled goods is not energy recovery, incineration or landfill disposal; and 4) provide complete documentation for disposal procedures.

The only source of e-waste disposal regulation inside the United States are the states themselves; laws of various strength and merit have been passed in 19 states (if you include New York City’s 2008 law), most since 2007. And, unfortunately, most electronics manufacturers are only beginning to institute electronics equipment “take back” programs in those states with laws.  For instance, Panasonic, Toshiba, and Sharp have banded together to form a sort of e-cycling collective called the Electronic Manufacturers Recycling Management Company, LLC (known as MRM for short).  BUT this program is currently focused on Minnesota, because of that states new electronics recycling law.  Effectively, if there is no law in your state, there is unlikely to be an easily accessible electronics recycling program.

But there are efforts to remedy this.  With the switch to digital TV on February 17 (or, well, between then and June 12, now because of the delay), the Electronics TakeBack Coalition has started a “Take Back My TV” campaign to lobby television manufacturers to take back their old TVs as consumers buy new ones.  They have made an aggressive case against landfilling of all the cathode-ray tube (or CRT) television sets, due to the amount of toxic chemicals, such as lead (up to 8 lbs per TV!), cadmium, and beryllium, that are dangerous when exposed to humans.  According to the TakeBack website (under such aggressive page titles as “How the Digital TV Conversion Deadline Is Creating An E-Waste Tsunami”), these chemicals will either be dumped into American landfills or recycled.  But when recycled (which about 15% of e-waste is), much of this waste is sent to Asia, and then merely gets landfilled there, or even worse, ends up in their air and water.  If TV manufacturers were more responsible for the mess they have created with all these TVs and adhered to a sense of “extended producer responsibility,” they’d take back and properly dismantle, recycle or dispose of all these TVs.

And unless they do, I have a feeling Goodwill is going to wind up with a bunch of useless, toxic TVs come the 17th of February.

Oh, and for a laugh, watch Take-Back My Tv’s video, “The Revenge of the Return of the Undead Toxic Televisions Strike Back.”

Sources: EPA’s Plug-In to eCycling website; Electronics TakeBack Coalition; Wisconsin DNR; National Electronics Recycling Infrastructure Clearinghouse

(Part of the above is modified from an Electronics Recycling Report produced by myself for Goodwill NCW.)

New blog look

I am switching blog providers, from blotspot to WordPress, because I found I like this one better.  It’s a cleaner, simpler look, and easier to use and make do what I want.  So, the first five posts posted to this blog are the ones that were posted between 1-26-09 and 2-4-09 to the blog hosted at http://advanturesinsustainability.blogspot.com.

“The Adventures of Captain Cullet and the little Gob o’Glass”: Glass and You

In this internship, I am learning about all sorts of things, through all sorts of media. I Google things profusely, of course, but that’s not all I do; I also make sales calls to companies who may be potential buyers of our waste; browse periodicals for relevant scientific articles on uses of scrap glass, wood, electronics, and more; read books on green business; and even watch online promotional videos on recycling. Today, I came across this one for glass. Companies constantly seek ways to market their product, which, these days, means claiming it is “green” and “sustainable.” Usually, these claims are simply green washing; however, this video is surprisingly factual and actually presents most sides of the story behind glass as a packaging material. Granted, it helps when you’re manufacturing and marketing a product that actually is relatively environmentally benign.

Glass can be one of the more environmentally friendly means of packaging food and drink products. Glass is made of melted sand, silica, sodium carbonate, lime and possibly cullet, or crushed pieces of recycled glass. All these materials can be mined from the earth. However, glass is one of the few materials that can be truly recycled and remade into another container of the same integrity, because glass cullet from old glass containers can be incorporated in large amounts into the process without losing its original material integrity. Cullet saves not only raw materials, but also in energy consumption, because it can be melted at a lower temperature than the raw materials that would otherwise be used.

Glass packaging is also better for your health and safety: glass doesn’t leak endocrine disrupters like much of the plastic packaging available can. Plastics contain bisphenol A (BPA), which has been scientifically shown to disrupt cell division, possibly resulting in cancer, brain development problems, and birth defects including Down Syndrome. Glass is also completely tasteless and completely impermeable, so it doesn’t leach chemicals or coloring into or out of the food or drink inside.

The only downside to glass is that it unfortunately is only rarely recycled by consumers. Glass recyclers often require glass to be sorted by color and type of glass, and rarely accept kitchenware glass or any glass containers other than post-consumer bottles and jars. This makes my job difficult, because the glass Goodwill gets is almost solely kitcherware: vases, drinking glasses, plates, etc. that are chipped, broken, and unsalable. No one seems to want this, as far as I’ve researched. But I’m not giving up yet.

Sources: Saint-Gobain Containers promotional video entitled, “The Adventures of Captain Cullet and the little Gob o’ Glass;” “Plastic (Not) Fantastic: Food Containers Leach a Potentially Harmful Chemical,” by David Biello, from Scientific American, 19 Feb 2008; Wikipedia; personal communications with various glass recycling companies.

Post-industrial “recycling”?

In a phone conversation with a certain company one day last week (whose website lauds the environmental benefits of all the recycled material they use in making their products), I was told, “We only accept post-industrial glass. Post-consumer glass is too contaminated for use in our product.” Though their website markets their product as “an effort to be environmentally conscious” and “[utilizing] 100% recycled glass products,” the glass they incorporate into their product most likely has never left the factory production stream. Wait. Is this really recycling?

In all my research about the merits of recycling, this is the one thing has come to most frustrate me; this notion of incorporating refuse product that has never left the factory (because of defects, or quality control, or whatever) in new product and marketing it as “recycling” is not only a misnomer but blatant green washing.

Melting down defective glass bottles to make new glass is not recycling; it’s something manufacturers have always done because it’s cost effective. It makes sense to use to defective, but still pure, materials in making new product instead of mining new raw materials. The same goes for paper: defective rolls of paper that are ground up into pulp to make new paper is the economic action for a paper plant to take, instead of putting the defective roll into the waste stream and paying for new wood or fiber materials to feed the pulper.

These processes are not new; they’ve been around as long as manufacturing has been. However, the sudden need to market products whose manufacturing processes had not changed at all as “containing recycled content” began with the rise of “reduce, reuse, and recycle” in the early-1990s. Unfortunately, the true meaning of recycling – that centering around the re-using of post-consumer materials – was somehow lost to many manufacturers who began labeling their products, which still incorporated the same amount of post-industrial refuse, as “recycled.”
With the recent rise of green and sustainable thinking – called the “Green Wave” by Green to Gold authors Daniel Esty and Andrew Winston – the temptation to green wash consumer products has grown even greater. “Green washing” refers to a companies attempt to market a product as “green” or “environmentally-friendly” when it may only be only marginally so, or may only stereotypically agree with the ideas of environmental stewardship and sustainability. The marketing of any product as “natural,” “organic,” “recycled,” or “green” is legal as long as the product contains at least some amount of the marketed ingredients…as defined by the company making the product.

Hmmmm….This creates quiet the Catch 22 for those of use trying to make sustainable purchases. However, watch for certification labels, such as “USDA Certified Organic” or “Sustainable Forestry Initiative” or “SmartWood” or even “Contains 50% post-consumer recycled content.” These labels may not insure 100% organic materials, or 100% recycled content, but they at least have legal definitions by which manufacturers must comply. And they can (at least mildly) assure consumers that the manufacturers aren’t greenwashing their product.

Too bad they just don’t have a label for recycled glass yet.

(An earlier version of the above was printed in The Lawrentian on 1-30-09)

“Bioconversion of wood wastes into gourmet and medicinal mushrooms”??

(A version of the following article was printed in The Lawrentian on January 23, 2009.)

Today, while researching possible outlets for scrap wood and furniture at my Goodwill internship, I came across a paper sponsored by the US Department of Agriculture published in 1999 for The International Research Group on Wood Preservation on the possibility of converting wood waste into edible mushrooms. Wood into mushrooms? In the lab? Could this be the epitome of the “waste to food” concept proponents of “cradle to cradle” design so espouse?

In this study, wood waste is inoculated with a certain white-rot fungus from the genus Pleurotus and low concentrations of sugar, to stimulate fungi colonization and growth. The “wood wastes” can be conventional wood waste (e.g. leftover materials from construction and demolition), agricultural (e.g. trees, branches, and woody brush), and even paper product waste. Apparently, a variety of different mushrooms grow well on different compositions of waste material; some grow better on sawdust, while others prefer the corn stocks of agricultural refuge. The fruiting bodies of each mushroom were large (5-15cm in diameter) when harvested and could be harvested (or “flushed”) up to ten times at up to 250 grams per flush before the fungi stopped producing fruit.

What’s more impressive is the biological efficiency of this whole process: 1 lb of fresh mushrooms grown in the wild from 1 lb of dry substrate (4 lbs wet) are 100% biologically efficient, whereas the mushrooms grown in the wood waste process are between 300 and 500% biologically efficient. That means this process is more efficient than nature itself!

But how well did this idea take off? The paper I ran across initially was published in 1999, so I did a little more research to see if there has been any further research on the subject, and – most importantly – to see if anyone is actually growing mushrooms on wood waste. Turns out, there have been a number of articles published on the economic potential of wood-degrading mushrooms from the Pleurotus genus. Someone has even patented kits for the cultivation of shitake mushrooms on wood waste. An article published in Mushroom News in August of 2007 stated that many specialty mushrooms are now preferentially grown on sawdust substrate.

Who knew that specialty mushroom you eat in your next gourmet mushroom soup could have been grown on the wood waste from your local construction company? Using wood waste to grow food crops is certainly sustainable, and indeed an example of the “cradle to cradle” production process. “Cradle to cradle” holds that the waste product generated by one industry should be the resource for another industry; or, the principle more simply know as, one man’s garbage is another man’s gold.

In a world of increasing pressure both on the natural world in the form of rising human consumption and pollution, converting wood waste to food such as mushrooms can be a viable method of dealing with the shortage of landfill space, mitigating CO2 emissions caused by the burning of wood products, and the dealing with the growing shortage of natural resources in a world of increasing demand. And as the resource shortages increase, innovations that turn waste into a valuable product are going to be increasingly necessary to sustain our world.

Now, if only someone could convert our old tennis shoes into Cheetos…

Sources: “Bioconversion of wood wastes into gourmet and medicinal mushrooms,” by Suki Croan, from Proceedings of The International Research Group on Wood Preservation 30th Annual Meeting; Mushroom News

Paper or plastic?

I write a weekly column called “The Green Scene” for The Lawrentian, Lawrence University’s student-run newspaper. I’ll be posting some of my articles here.

A version of the following article ran in the 16 Jan 2009 issue under the title, “Paper or plastic.”

This past week, I came across a frightening little piece of literature put out by the American Chemistry Council (ACC) on the topic of plastic bag recycling. This two-paged document spouted the claims that “plastic takes up a lot less space in landfills,” “it takes 91% less energy to recycle a pound of plastic than it does to recycle a pound of paper,” and – my personal favorite – “over 90% of Americans reuse their plastic bags” for such innovative uses as “pet pick-up,” which “prevents a second bag from being purchased to fulfill these necessary functions.”

Granted, these claims may be true. But there’s another story behind plastic bags here than the space they take up in landfills, the energy required for their recycle, and their use as accessories to dog walkers. For starters, beyond the mere space plastic bags take up in landfills is the ever-critical issue of how long they are there. An American Papers Institute study concluded that paper bags decompose in the landfill in about 3 months, compared to the 240-year estimate for petroleum-based plastic bags.

Which brings me to another point the ACC “fact” sheet doesn’t address: the petroleum-derivation of plastic bags. Petroleum is, for all intents and purposes, a non-renewable resource; it does not replenish itself as rapidly as humans can suck it out of the ground. Trees, the source of paper, on the other hand, can be renewed and renewed several times within a human lifespan, as long as sunlight, water, soil, and a little TLC is provided.

And, paper from trees is easily and commonly recycled. So, while it may take 91% less energy to recycle plastic bags, only 1-3% of plastic bags are actually recycled due to the absence of consumer recycling programs. The remainder reach the landfill, and take 240 years to decompose. Fifteen percent of paper bags are recycled, on the other hand, meaning fewer new raw materials are needed for their manufacture.

Furthermore, the notion that plastic bags used in “pet pick-up” take the place of bags that would otherwise be purchased is – though possibly apt – irrelevant. Pet waste disposal bags could just as easily be paper bags, were not the prevalence of plastic bags so high.

But how did this prevalence of plastic bags increase so? Plastic bags debuted on the retail scene in the early-1980s, when its share of the bag market was about 3%. Since then, says Business Net blogger Deborah Boerner, plastic has grown to have more than half of the market. Many stores, though they have both paper and plastic available, do not even ask their customers that seemingly age-old question of which medium they prefer anymore; instead, customers must actively request paper in lieu of plastic if they so desire.

Meanwhile, the developing world didn’t miss a thing, and plastic bags are, quite possibly, more prevalent in the third world than they are in the first. They are used and reused many times: for household trash disposal (getting garbage to the nearest roadside ravine where they are frequently incinerated), human excrement disposal (where they stand in for toilets and then get tossed over the fence or into the river), and – if they do end up in a designated municipal dump– they can then be used as salvage materials collection receptacles by dump community children.

Plastic bags are even such a commodity in some developing countries that the demand for bags by consumers outstrips the ability of stores to provide plastic bags with purchases. Thus, manufacturers of plastic bags have started to decrease the quality and durability of their plastic bags in response to stores’ need for more plastic bags at the same total cost. These lower quality plastic bags, however, simply end up in the dumps and ditches sooner, eventually burning and releasing toxins and carbon dioxide, which pollute the air and lungs of the people of the developing world.

Plastic bags are a mess all across the board, in all parts of the world. But isn’t paper just as bad? Paper bags take up more space not just in the landfill, but also on distribution trucks, requiring use of more fossil fuels for delivery. And in truth, nothing much really decomposes in most modern landfills. So, what do you answer when the bagger asks you, “Paper or plastic?”

“Mine,” you answer, as you hand them the reusable bags you brought from home.

Sources: Wall Street Journal; www.reusablebags.com; www.plasticbagrecycling.org; BNet Business Net; Personal observations and study in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and the Philippines.

Link to The Lawrentian website: http://www.lawrentian.com/