Week of 1/11/2004

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Overall, how does the U.S. measure up to other developed nations in terms of environmental responsibility?
—Lauren, Long Beach, CA

The U.S. ranks 45th out of the 142 countries evaluated by the Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI), which measures overall environmental progress using 20 core indicators, including urban air quality, environmental regulations and resource use. Finland, Norway, Sweden, Canada and Switzerland top the list as the most environmentally conscious nations. The United Arab Emirates has the worst score.

Developed by the World Economic Forum, The Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, and the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN) at Columbia University, the ESI gives the U.S. a poor rating in greenhouse gas emissions and reducing waste, but applauds its decreases in water pollution and active discussion on environmental policy.

According to Juliet Schor and Betsy Taylor, authors of Sustainable Planet (Beacon Press), Americans consume more than citizens of any other industrialized nation. According to Schor and Taylor, if every one of the Earth"s six billion inhabitants consumed at the level of the average American, four extra planets would be needed to meet the resource demand.

On the other hand, argues University of California at Berkeley professor Jack Hollander, the author of The Real Environmental Crisis: Why Poverty, Not Affluence, is the Environment"s Number One Enemy, environmental awareness and environmental movements are a function of wealth and education. Hollander writes, "my conviction that the vicious and self-perpetuating cycle that connects poverty and environmental degradation can best be broken by attacking and eliminating the source of the problem—poverty."

According to Alex De Sherbinin, a senior staff member at CIESIN, an updated ESI is due out in 2005. The new and improved ESI will use updated data sets and address the development goals established by the United Nations Millennium Project, which have an implementation goal of 2015. Millennium goals include decreasing the number of poor and hungry people, improving sanitation and water services, reducing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions per capita, and slowing the rate of deforestation.

CONTACT: World Economic Forum, 91-93 route de la Capite 1223, Cologny/Geneva Switzerland, (41-22) 869-1212, www.weforum.org/glt, contact@weforum.org; The Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy, 250 Prospect Street, New Haven, CT 06511, (203) 432-3123, www.yale.edu/envirocenter ycelp@yale.edu; CIESIN, Columbia University, PO Box 1000, 61 Route 9W, Palisades, NY 10964, (845) 365-8988, www.ciesin.org, ciesin@columbia.edu


EARTH TALK
From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Dear EarthTalk: Are the materials used in athletic shoes environmentally harmful?
—Margaret Southgate, Hamilton, New Zealand

The ingredient that gives some athletic shoes their cushioning support is sulfur hexafluoride, known as SF6. It’s a popular man-made gas with a uniquely buoyant chemical structure. Unfortunately, SF6 is also an unusually persistent global warming gas that is more damaging to the atmosphere (molecule by molecule) than carbon dioxide.

Nike"s "Air" technology previously used 288 tons of SF6 a year, accounting for one percent of worldwide production before they began to phase out SF6 use in the mid 1990s. According to a spokesperson from the Nike Environmental Action Team, upon the company"s discovery in 1992 that SF6 was environmentally damaging, they began investigating alternative materials and started to replace SF6 air bags with nitrogen bags. In October of 2001, Nike partnered with the Center for Energy & Climate Solutions and the World Wildlife Fund, making a commitment to complete the phase out of SF6 by June of 2003. "We"re still on an aggressive plan to transition SF6 to more environmentally friendly substances, and most of the transition has happened, but we"ve run into complications in some of our newer and more technical products in terms of finding a suitable substitute," according to Veda Manager, director of global issues management at Nike. He says the company"s new goal is to end SF6 use by 2006.

There are other environmental issues with shoes, when you consider the resources and energy that go into making our feet comfortable. Perhaps in exchange for its overuse of SF6, Nike is making an attempt to reduce running shoe waste. They now will take back their shoes, as well as other brands, grind them up and reuse them in athletic surfaces. Granulated rubber from the shoe outsole can be turned into artificial soccer, football and baseball field surface, and weight room flooring. Granulated foam from shoe midsoles can become synthetic basketball courts, tennis courts and playground surfacing tiles. And fabric from the shoe uppers can be used for padding under hardwood basketball floors. Since 1993, Nike has recycled 13 million pairs of shoes.

CONTACT: Nike Environmental Action Team, 9000 SW Nimbus Drive, Beaverton, OR 97007, (503) 671-8044, www.nike.com/nikebiz/nikebiz.jhtml?page=27; Center for Energy & Climate Solutions, 2900 S. Quincy Street, Suite 410, Arlington, VA 22206, (703) 379-2713, www.energyandclimate.org