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Index 1. Still Unsure of the Benefits of Recycling? Look to the Rainforests. 2. Global Warming? Then Why Is It So Cold? 3. From Swampy to Sienna - The Changing Face of the Environmentalist. 4. Confused? Recycled vs. Recyclable. 5. Recycling in the Recession.
17th January 2011
Still Unsure of the Benefits of Recycling? Look to the Rainforests.
Ever since recycling of goods became a widespread, commercial enterprise, skeptics have hailed the process as worthless. Many argue that the emissions from recycling are greater than that of producing virgin paper, or that the emissions from the transportation of recycled goods outweigh the carbon saved by not cutting down trees. However, research shows that while the early days of recycling presented fairly clunky, emission-heavy recycling processes, advances in technology have improved and streamlined the methods used to recycled materials. Data from the Bureau of International Recycling shows that producing paper via the recycling route entails 35% less water pollution and 74% less air pollution, although the organization does not say how it reached this figure or what is taken into account.
Regardless of continuing arguments about whether trucks carrying logs produce more CO2 than trucks carrying recycled paper or whether materials recycled in China produce more gases than virgin products made in the UK, a highly informative article by Daniel Howden of The Independent explains why we are missing the bigger picture. In order to slow the change in climate and regulate the ever more extreme weather patterns, he says we need to turn our eyes to the rainforests. According to Howden, while the destruction of the world’s rainforests is now being recognized as one of the main causes of climate change, global leaders are turning a blind eye to the crisis of worldwide deforestation.
Of course, trees are not only felled to make paper. Areas are also cleared for cattle grazing, and agriculture, including the growth of palm oil and ostensibly health-promoting acai berries to fulfill the surge in demand. However, without the demand for wood, the act of clearing rainforests would be far less lucrative.
The rainforests, the majority of which are situated in South America and Indonesia, form a protection cooling band around the Earth’s equator as well as generating the bulk of the rainfall worldwide. With the annual area of deforestation amounting to 50 million acres – or an area the size of England, Wales and Scotland, the rainforests now cover less than 7% of the earth. However, the remaining forest is calculated to contain 1,000 billion tons of carbon, or double what is already in the atmosphere.
The article cites a report published by the Global Canopy Programme (GPC), an alliance of leading rainforest scientists, which states that the emission of greenhouse gases as a result of the “rampant slashing and burning” of these tropical forests is second only to the energy sector. According to Howden, deforestation in the next 24 hours will release as much CO2 into the atmosphere as 8 million people flying from London to New York. Stopping the loggers, he argues, is the fastest and cheapest solution to climate change.
Of course, some paper products now come from sustainable forests. But much of it does not. Re-growing trees in sustainable forests is a slow process and therefore, it is often deemed quicker and cheaper to reap wood from virgin forests. However, the most effective way to reduce the demand for paper is to recycle it. Howden’s article demonstrates that the arguments regarding the amount of gases emitted during the recycling process are secondary to the urgent need to halt the deforestation. As the GCP’s report concludes: “If we lose forests, we lose the fight against climate change.”
1st December 2010
Global Warming? Then Why Is It So Cold?
The last two winters have seen the heaviest snow and the lowest temperatures across the Northern Hemisphere in many years. This, of course, fills the hearts of climate change skeptics with great delight, as they cling to the old tagline, labeling the drastic changes in temperature simply as “global warming”. The following article examines the simple science behind the cause and predictions for climate change and investigates why scientists have for many years insisted that climate change actually means long term global cooling.
Recording of surface temperatures began in 1860 and public awareness of human-induced climate change was raised in the early 1970’s, when it was observed that the Earth had been experiencing a period of cooling. Since 1988, the IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) has been the recognized scientific organization responsible for global research and forecasts on climate change as well as coordinating policies accordingly.
Greenhouse gases absorb infrared radiation (heat), which occurs when sunlight striking the Earth’s surface is reflected back towards space. Without interference, the temperature of the Earth’s surface should be reasonably constant, since the amount of energy from the sun and the amount of energy radiated back into space should be roughly the same. However, an increasing amount of undispersed gases in the atmosphere results in the Sun’s heat being absorbed, thus raising the surface temperature of the Earth. Many of these gases exist naturally, while some are solely man-made. Although the majority of the gases in the atmosphere are derived from natural sources and cause no harm to the environment, the accelerating rate at which they are being generated holds responsibility for the “Greenhouse Effect” and the apparent rise in the Earth’s climate.
Carbon Dioxide is the primary contributor to greenhouse gases (CO2), which is formed by the burning of fuels to generate energy for requirements such as heating, lighting and travel and represents 60% of greenhouse gases. The current concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is approximately 375 parts per million. However, in recent times, scientists have discovered that levels of Methane (CH4) in the atmosphere as high as 15% of the total indicates another serious threat. Approximately 49% of the emissions are generated by agriculture, with the majority of that figure being a direct result of dairy farming. It is estimated that there is a population of 1.4billion cows worldwide, each producing 500 litres of methane per day, totaling an amount that has tripled in the last two centuries. Other gases come in the forms of nitrous oxide, which is the third most important human-induced gas and also CFC’s, whose use was finally banned over much of the world, after widely reported proof of the gas’s contribution to ozone depletion.
In recent years, the scientifically accepted illustration of the Earth’s average temperature over the last thousand years has appeared in the form of paleoclimatologist Michael Mann’s “Hockey stick graph”, which has been widely used by the IPCC. The graph, so named for its relatively flat line for the first 900 years and subsequent sharp rise similar to the shape of an ice hockey stick, is calculated prior to 1860 by use of “proxy” temperature records, such as tree rings, ice cores, lake sediments and isotopic ratios of corals.
However, more recently, Mann’s graph has come under fire from global warming skeptics, who argue that the data is as flawed as the methods used to retrieve it. For example, the emissions of the 300 year “Little Ice Age” from 1550 and the “Mediaeval Warm Period” in the graph, which are widely accepted historical events, are for some, evidence enough that the data is simply incorrect. This, combined with arguments over the reliability of the proxy data, particularly tree rings, allegations of data “smoothing” and Mann’s initial refusal to part with the computer program he used to compile the graph, made it a target for attacks within the scientific community.
Nevertheless, many scientists concur with the data, finding it to be in line with information derived from other means such as by satellite and, as the IPCC’s chosen model for climate change, Mann’s findings continue to be recognized as the standard. Studies presented in many books and journals are based on this information.
The average surface temperature of pre-industrial Earth is 14.8 °C and it was observed by the mid 20th century that average temperatures had increased by about 0.25 °C between 1880 and 1940. The period of cooling of 0.2 °C between 1940 and 1970 coincided with new data showing the level CO2 in the atmosphere, which was increasing considerably. At that point, it was predicted that the concentration of CO2 would double, resulting in a global temperature rise of 2 °C.
Statistics from NASA scientists indicate that the degree of global warming over the last 30 years surpasses that of any equivalent period and 2003 saw new records set in the Arctic region, where inconsistencies above 3 °C were shown for land and water temperatures. More recent studies show that 2005 was the warmest year on record. Prior to this, 1998 held the title of warmest year, with the IPCC declaring, “it is likely that the 1990s was the warmest decade and 1998 the warmest year during the past thousand years” (New Scientist, 18 March 2006).
With mankind showing no signs of reducing its dependence on CO2-emitting fossil fuels, according to the IPCC, the future looks warm. A 2001 IPCC forecast shows that doubling CO2 levels will result in temperature increases between 1.4 and 5.8 °C. The report, based on a computer-generated climate predictor, known as a “general circulation model” or GCM, lists best and worst case scenarios, as shown:
High Forecast: 5.8 °C
Middle Forecast 3.6 °C
Low Forecast 1.4 °C
(Christopherson – Geosystems, 2006)
This data shows a potential surge from the Earth’s current temperature of 14.8 °C to between 16.2 and 20.6 °C.
The consequences of such an increase are well known. Already, as climate alters, global precipitation is being significantly transformed. More or less rain and changing temperatures in various regions is responsible for crop failure and shifts of preferred habitats in a variety of plants and animals. Ultimately, this can cause the more vulnerable among the population starvation or displacement in the absence of sustainable agriculture.
NASA scientists have already announced that Greenland’s ice sheet is diminishing by 1m per year. Glacial ice accounts for 85% of the Earth’s freshwater and totals 24,000,000 km3. These ice shelves hold the responsibility of retaining grounded continental ice and so, once melted, there is the possibility of a surge of continental ice, dangerously raising the sea levels.
The IPCC’s forecasts for the rise in sea level this century are as follows:
High Forecast: 0.88m
Middle Forecast 0.48m
Low Forecast 0.09m
(Christopherson – Geosystems, 2006 Even if the release of greenhouse gases is stabilized, these rises could continue beyond 2100. Furthermore, although these figures may appear minimal, a 0.3m rise in sea level is capable of resulting in a shoreline retreat of 30m. The melting of Arctic icecaps and the subsequent influx of freshwater into the oceans offers a new threat with effects seemingly opposing those discussed so far. Global Cooling Considering the close proximity of much of Western Europe to the Arctic, it might be expected that the regions temperatures would be lower. However, yearlong temperatures remain comparatively high and surprisingly, temperatures on the southwestern coast of Iceland never dip below freezing.
The reason for the relatively high temperatures is the Gulf Stream, which operates as a result of a negative feedback mechanism, in response to rates of evaporation and latent heat transfers. The stream carries warm water into the North Atlantic from the East Coast of North America and generates warm winds that raise the temperature of Northern Europe by 5 to 10 °C. Upon reaching the North Atlantic and cooling, the water sinks downwards and, acting as a huge oceanic conveyor belt, returns to the tropics. The sinking of the water occurs where the water is cooled, increasing its density. The degree of the waters density is determined by its salinity, rendering it a somewhat fragile system in the face of gigantic freshwater icecaps.
Although there is far less information regarding the potential outcome of a surge of freshwater into the Gulf Stream, the worst possible consequence offered by scientists is that of Europe entering into an ice age.
However, scientific findings suggest that at the end of the last ice age, lakes collecting meltwater purged a sufficient amount of freshwater into the North Atlantic to halt the stream. Known as the “Younger Dryas” era and lasting for around 1200 years some 12,000 years ago, the events did not plunge Europe into another ice age. Nonetheless, it is also believed that the “Little Ice Age, which dropped the temperature sufficiently to freeze the River Thames in London, may have been as a result of deceleration of the Gulf Stream.
A recent study of ocean circulation in the North Atlantic by the Southampton Oceanography Centre has showed a reduction of the stream by 30%. This alone could be a drop sufficient to cool the United Kingdom by 1°C and Scandinavia by 2°C. However, this decrease in temperature has not yet occurred and scientists speculate that this may be due to the counteracting effect of global warming.
Even though research on global cooling is still in its infancy compared to that of global warming, it is estimated that the stream may halt in as little as 20 years and not recover for many hundreds of years.
Although skeptics argue that the recent dramatic climate change is part of a series of natural cycles, from the evidence presented, it is undeniable that the Earth is experiencing unprecedented rises in its temperature.
The relatively minor changes required to influence the climate on a massive scale appear to already be underway and it has been shown that the Arctic icecaps are reducing significantly. Further small temperature rises can only add to the depletion of the ice and subsequently, the gigantic abandonment of freshwater into the Atlantic seems unavoidable.
The apparently simple science used to determine the machinery of the Gulf Stream leaves little room for argument that when, injected with a mass of freshwater, it will slow significantly or even cease altogether.
Therefore, it may be reasonable to expect that temperatures will continue to rise in the predicted patterns until sufficient to melt substantial amounts of freshwater into the sea.
Then it will be cold.
19th August 2010
From Swampy to Sienna - The Changing Face of the Environmentalist.
Remember Swampy? Swampy Hooper first appeared in 1996 as an environmental protester, barricading the machinery sent in to dig out a bypass through the woodlands outside Newbury. The standoff between protester and machine lasted for weeks, with people taking root (no pun intended) in the trees and Swampy digging an underground tunnel, where he stayed throughout the protest. Dreadlocked and donning the big sweaters that were fashionable amongst certain groups in the 1990s, Swampy became the image of environmentalism at that time. As result of his appearance, many as “crusties” and potheads and the press made much of his middle class upbringing, as if it somehow diminished his authenticity, dismissed him and his cohorts. However, despite the negative reaction by many, Swampy became a celebrity. More than ten years later, not only is Swampy still protesting, albeit more quietly (more recently he appeared at the demonstrations against the third runway at Heathrow), but Swampy still practices what he preaches. According to the Independent, Swampy lives a self-sufficient life in Wales, in a community where there is no electricity or running water. The family, consisting of him, his partner and three children, grow most of their own food, wash in a nearby stream and use an eco-loo.
In my last article, Recycling in the Recession, I addressed the way in which matters concerning the environment are still perceived by many as “middle class” issues. So it is interesting that actually coming forward and challenging the system of power that threatens the environment, or indeed involvement in any kind of demonstration, has long been associated with the working class. Those presenting anything less than “salt of the earth” credentials, as in the case of Swampy, are rejected as fakes. This presents a weird paradox, since on the one hand, a working class background has been essential for the authenticity of the protester but on the other hand, his or her voice has been ignored because of exactly that. Despite their significant role in bringing the growing devastation of the British countryside to the attention of the public, the physical appearance of Swampy and the gang almost certainly weakened their progress in terms of getting their message heard by suit-wearing officials and politicians.
Fast-forward a few years. By the mid-noughties the planet’s corner was being fought by a host of celebrities, including Coldplay’s Chris Martin, his wife Gwyneth Paltrow and actress Sienna Miller. Exalting the virtues of composting, recycling and hybrid cars, the endeavor of these celebrities was ostensibly to lead by example. Regularly featured in Coldplay’s music videos was Martin waving his hands, adorned with messages in the form of coloured tape and scribbled symbols, as signs of his commitment to Fair Trade. However, widespread reports of hypocrisy that detailed ecologically unsound activities such as regular long haul flights in private jets seriously damaged the credibility of both the message and the messenger. Not to mention that Coldplay, in a few short years, went from being the coolest kids on the block to something no self respecting music lover would admit to having on their I-Pod. It could be argued that Martin’s increasing propensity to use his music as a platform for political activism took him down the same route as Bono et al, on a one-way trip to uncool.
So in 2010, what are we left with? Horribly contrived photographs of politicians, such as David Cameron, riding bicycles through London, tailed by a legion of support cars? Al Gore? Gore’s authority was seriously degraded some time after the release of his initially well-received film An Inconvenient Truth as a result of leaked emails and sexual allegations, meaning the public once again turned away in disbelief. Or perhaps we place our faith in Lewis Pugh, “The Human Polar Bear”, a Devonshire environmental lawyer who swam 1km (0.62 miles) across 2°C Pumori Lake under the summit of Everest to draw attention to the rapidly melting glaciers. Pugh, who has previously swum in Antarctica and across the North Pole, is something of a hero in both sporting and environmental terms and has so far been praised by the media for his efforts to raise awareness of increasingly visible environmental problems. But perhaps Pugh will only hang onto his integrity until the press can dig some dirt on him. It seems that since way before Swampy’s time, anyone with a message relating to the way we live and the things that we need to change has been condemned by certain segments of the media and had their sincerity challenged. In reality, they have probably made quite a difference in the thinking of the public but at the cost of their own reputation.
Perhaps, though, there is hope in the possibility that environmentalism has, at last, started to bridge the class divide. A heartening article in the Daily Telegraph notes how the battle against Heathrow’s third runway brought together a host of demonstrators, including middle class, aristocracy, politicians and the tweedy upper-middle class. This shows that the face of environmentalism is changing to one that encompasses us all and has the potential to make a difference from terraces and mansions, and living rooms and drawing rooms all over the country. From Swampy to Sienna – we need them all – but most of all, we need all of the people in between.
4th August 2010
Confused? Recycled vs. Recyclable.
If you don’t know the story of The Tiny Box Company or didn’t see us on Dragon’s Den, here’s what happened. While founding our parent company, The Tiny Difference Company, Rachel Watkyn was attempting to source packaging for jewellery made in ethical factories in Africa. It stood to reason that an ethical company should be as responsible as possible in as many areas as possible, so the decision to use recycled packaging was a no-brainer. Therefore, Rachel searched the UK for attractive recycled packaging in which to sell the jewellery but, as she explained to the Dragons, it was an impossible task. On asking packing companies if their products were recycled, she got the same response over and over again – “our products are recyclable but not recycled”.
Well, hang on. It’s cardboard. Of course it’s recyclable. In fact, most things are. Paper, metal, glass, and many types of plastic – these things can all be recycled – but if they are not and instead just thrown into landfill as waste, then they’re recyclable properties are meaningless. Many companies are claiming green credentials by stating that their products are recyclable. An article by Dr. Seetha Coleman-Kammula, founder of Simply Sustain LLC, highlights a target set by coffee giant Starbucks to reduce their environmental burden by making 100% of their cups recyclable by 2012. But, as Dr. Coleman-Kammula points out, well, they are already. However, for materials to be recycled in significant amounts, she argues, “that there has to be a whole lot of infrastructure in place to make it all happen in an economically and socially sustainable way”. She goes onto say that the end result of recyclable products actually becoming recycled requires a massive collaborative effort between Starbucks to persuade the consumer to recycle, the consumer and also waste sorters, in areas where waste is actually sorted.
As Rachel discovered, very little packaging is actually recycled, especially in the UK, despite the success of kerbside recycling projects and the significant drop in price of recycled materials during the recession. While we like to know that our packaging is recyclable, especially food packaging, it makes no difference if we don’t drop it into our blue bins. As such, it is somewhat misleading of companies to claim environmental responsibility by providing recyclable packaging that, especially in the case of Starbucks, will probably be chucked in the bin somewhere down the road.
30th July 2010
Recycling in the Recession.
In April 2009, an article in the Arizona Republic revealed that with the United States facing the most hard hitting and longest lasting recession in generations, environmental issues ranked low on the list of importance of those questioned. A survey taken in Phoenix found that for the first time in 25 years, Americans would sacrifice environmental protection for economic growth. Furthermore, two thirds of those asked said they cared less about the planet this year than last. This is in comparison to a year before the article was written when, as Earth Day approached, Americans seemed “smitten” by all things environmental, with the release of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the drive in sales of the energy saving light bulb and the public statement that was the hybrid car.
However, the bill passed in June by the California State assembly to ban single-use plastic carrier bags suggests that despite the pressures of the current economic climate, environmental issues still attract a huge amount of support. Dan Jacobson, Environment California Legislative Director, announced in an email to supporters of the bill that it would not have been passed without a considerable quantity of donations, along with e-mails and phone calls to the Assembly.
So, it seems that those that are in a position to support environmental action continue to do so, perhaps more than ever. But taking the issue closer to home, how does the desire to operate or consume in a greener fashion translate to the average consumer or small business struggling to weather the storm? Is4profit, an organization providing advice to small businesses, reports that small businesses are cutting back on environmental measures during the recession. According to the article, a survey of 7,000 small firms found that there had been a 75 per cent drop in those with a formal environmental management system in place since 2007. However, a Forum of Private Business spokesman said it was unsurprising that green measures were not a priority in 2009, reasoning that “Overwhelmingly, small businesses are concerned about costs”. The spokesman added that many businesses view being environmentally friendly as “a nice idea”, rather than viewing it as a “central business practice” and one that can actually reduce costs in terms of saving paper and energy bills.
This perception of the costliness of being environmentally friendly is almost certainly reflected in the eyes of the consumer. According to an article by Lets Recycle in June 2003 entitled, ‘Recycling is Still a “Middle Class Affair”’, The National Consumer Council reported that people on lower incomes are being dissuaded from recycling and buying recycled goods, due to perceptions of costliness and lack of availability. The report found that only a third of people on low incomes, particularly those on estates and in high rise flats (33%) have kerbside recycling, compared to an overall average of over 40%, indicating a lack of facilities that are available as standard for people in more affluent areas. The article also echoes the concerns of the Forum of Private Business spokesman, with an emphasis on the perception that recycled goods are more expensive than the non-recycled equivalent; the report found that cost and confusion often override concerns about the environment, along with habit, and convenience. Although this article was written a few years before the recession, it shows clearly how cost, or perceived cost, is an integral part of people’s habits.
Despite the suspicion of the consumer regarding the expense of recycled goods, a 2010 Mintel report shows that demand for recycled food packaging is remarkably high, perhaps because it is assumed that the retailers should absorb any cost incurred by offering recycled or recyclable packaging or by changing their packaging formats in order to use less. According to the report, 23 million consumers place recyclable or biodegradable packaging, as the top attribute packaging should have, attaching considerably less importance to appearance, with only 1.2 million considering stylish packaging to be a top attribute. 18.5 million consumers claimed to re-use plastic bottles and containers, with 4.4 million claiming to leave excessive packaging behind at the grocery store, thus the report considered that food packaging design should factor in multi-functional use.
So it seems that people do still care – but are cautious. Since the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 and the recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, people are perhaps more aware than ever of environmental issues and the action needed to safeguard our future. However, this cannot be at any financial cost and while many businesses are struggling to stay afloat and individuals are at a loss as to how to meet their mortgage demands, people need to be aware of clear steps that can be taken to make changes to their habits in a way that doesn’t affect their purses. Recycling facilities are more widely available than when the article in Lets Recycle was written but the balance between those of greater and lesser wealth still needs to be addressed, with recycling and buying recycled goods becoming a habit of not just the middle class but one that is ingrained in the national psyche.
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