Week of 1/15/2006

Dear EarthTalk: What are the environmental implications of the proliferation of iPods specifically and digital music in general?

—Mike Romano, San Francisco, CA

The advent of digital music and other forms of entertainment downloaded over the Internet has staggering repercussions for not only the music industry and the consumer experience, but also for the environment.

Analysts estimate that American consumers buy about a billion compact discs (CDs) every year, most of which eventually end up in landfills or incinerators. Since CDs are a mix of polycarbonate, plastic and aluminum, they don't easily break down and are not easily recycled. They are also not biodegradable, so they won't break down in landfills. And when incinerated they release toxic fumes into the air.

In contrast, songs downloaded from the Internet consume only hard drive space, and don't contribute directly to the waste stream. To get rid of downloaded music, one need only drag it to the trash symbol on the desktop. As of January 2006, consumers have downloaded more than 850 million songs via Apple's iTunes service alone. If all this music had been copied to CDs it would have filled up 85 million disks.

That's not the whole story, of course. Downloaded music has to be played, and a large amount of "e-waste" (electronic waste) is already clogging landfills in every community. Consumer electronics contain large amounts of nasty toxins such as lead, mercury and cadmium, so when computers, monitors and MP3 players end up in landfills, they can contaminate the surroundings and become a serious health issue.

iPod-maker Apple has come under fire from the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, a group advocating for clean computer production and disposal. The group charges that Apple's hardware recycling program, which accepted 1,500 tons of old equipment last year from consumers, is woefully inadequate, and that Apple has been lobbying against legislation that sets up such "takeback" programs. They also claim that iPod batteries wear out too soon, prompting consumers to junk the gadgets prematurely. Apple disputes the charges, claiming it is one of the most environmentally responsible businesses in the industry.

But music aficionados need to hear the sounds they love, so digitally downloaded music seems to be the more environmentally friendly choice, especially if consumers make efforts to recycle as much of their e-waste as possible. Apple, Dell, HP and IBM all offer low-cost ways to recycle hardware directly.

Meanwhile, some groundbreaking new CDs, one made from corn and another partly from paper, are on the horizon. Sanyo has teamed up with NatureWorks (formerly Cargill Dow) in the production of "MildDiscs" made from corn (one ear of corn can make 10 CDs). And Sony has developed the "Blue-Ray" disc that is 51 percent paper. It can be cut with scissors and can hold about half the data of a computer hard drive.

But until such innovations become de rigueur, environmentally conscious CD buyers will have to be content passing on their old CDs to friends, selling them to used record stores, or sending them out to recycling centers set up specifically for e-waste, such as the Washington-based GreenDisk.

CONTACTS: Apple Product Take-Back; www.apple.com/environment/recycling/Computer; Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition, www.svtc.org; GreenDisk, www.greendisk.com.


Dear EarthTalk: What is the environmental impact of sugar, aside from its not-so-healthy aspects? I've heard that the industry is no friend to the outdoor environment.

—Mary Oakes, via e-mail

Sugar is ever-present in products we consume every day, yet we rarely give a second thought as to how and where it is produced and what toll it may take on the environment.

According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), roughly 145 million tons of sugars are produced in 121 countries each year. And sugar production does indeed take its toll on surrounding soil, water and air, especially in threatened tropical ecosystems near the equator. A 2004 report by WWF, entitled "Sugar and the Environment," shows that sugar may be responsible for more biodiversity loss than any other crop, due to its destruction of habitat to make way for plantations, its intensive use of water for irrigation, its heavy use of agricultural chemicals,and the polluted wastewater that is routinely discharged in the sugar production process.

One extreme example of environmental destruction by the sugar industry is the Great Barrier Reef off of Australia. Its waters suffer from large quantities of effluents, pesticides and sediment from sugar farms, and the reef itself is threatened by the clearing of land, which has destroyed the wetlands that are an integral part of the reef's ecology.

Meanwhile, in Papua New Guinea, soil fertility has declined by about 40 percent over the last three decades in heavy sugar cane cultivation regions. And some of the world's mightiest rivers—including the Niger in West Africa, the Zambezi in Southern Africa, the Indus River in Pakistan, and the Mekong River in Southeast Asia—have nearly dried up as a result of thirsty, water-intensive sugar production.

WWF blames Europe and, to a lesser extent, the U.S., for over-producing sugar because of its profitability and therefore large contribution to the economy. WWF and other environmental groups are working on public education and legal campaigns to try to reform the international sugar trade. "The world has a growing appetite for sugar," says WWF's Elizabeth Guttenstein. "Industry, consumers and policy makers mustwork together to make sure that in the future sugar is produced in ways that least harm the environment."

Here in the United States the health of one of the country's most unique ecosystems, Florida's Everglades, is seriously compromised after decades of sugar cane farming. Tens of thousands of acres of the Everglades have been converted from teeming sub-tropical forest to lifeless marshland due to excessive fertilizer run-off and drainage for irrigation. A tenuous agreement between environmentalists and sugar producers under a "Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan" has ceded some sugar cane land back to nature and reduced water usage and fertilizer run-off. Only time will tell if these and other restoration efforts will help bring back Florida's once teeming "river of grass."

CONTACTS: WWF, www.panda.org; Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan, www.evergladesplan.org.