Dear EarthTalk: Where can I find information on which electronics and their manufacturers are greener than others, with regard to components, manufacturing processes and end use efficiency?
—John Franken, New York, NY
Now that many consumers are beginning to care about their own environmental footprints, manufacturers are responding with loads of greener offerings. One good place to find them is the Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics, which ranks the 18 top manufacturers of personal computers, mobile phones, televisions and game consoles according to their policies on toxic chemicals, recycling and climate change. Greenpeace hopes that by publishing and regularly updating the guide they can both educate consumers about their choices and influence manufacturers to eliminate hazardous substances, take back and recycle their products responsibly, and reduce the climate impacts of their operations and products.
According to Greenpeace, the top five electronics manufacturers from a green perspective are Nokia, Sony Ericsson, Philips, HP and Samsung. These companies get high marks with Greenpeace for eliminating or scaling way back on the use of hazardous chemicals linked to cancer and other health and environmental problems, which in turn makes recycling their products less problematic.
Nokia gets top honors from Greenpeace for the second year in a row: All of the company's new phone models and accessories for 2010 are free of brominated compounds, chlorinated flame retardants and antimony trioxide, three of the most toxic chemicals used commonly in most mobile phones and other consumer electronics today. Toshiba, Microsoft and Nintendo are the last place finishers on Greenpeace's list for various reasons, including backtracking on or failing to make commitments to phase out chemicals used in the production of vinyl plastic (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs).
Aother good place to find info on green electronics and related products is the new website of TopTen USA, a non-profit that identifies and publicizes the most energy-efficient products on the market. The goal of the group—which is part of a global alliance of like-minded non-profits—is to make it easier for consumers to find the most energy- and money-saving models, which in turn encourages manufacturing innovations that will shift the whole market in a greener direction. Besides listing the greenest individual models of desktop computers, laptops, monitors and televisions TopTen USA also lists the greenest refrigerators, freezers, dishwashers, clothes washers and even vehicles.
The non-profit Green Electronics Council, initially set up to help government, institutional and corporate purchasers evaluate, compare and select electronic products based on various environmental attributes, has now opened up its EPEAT green certification database to consumers. Some 1,300 computers, thin clients, workstations and monitors from dozens of manufacturers now bear the EPEAT certification label ensuring compliance with green manufacturing and recycling standards. All federal purchasers are required to choose between EPEAT-certified models when possible, and the database has steadily gained traction across a wide range of industries. Now consumers can freely browse the listings to see how various items from the likes of Apple, LG, Panasonic, Lenovo and Sony, among others, stack up.
Dear EarthTalk: I've heard that New York City schools are trying out "Trayless Tuesdays" in their cafeterias in order to reduce waste. Why are trays such a big issue? And how can cutting them out on one day a week really make a difference?
—Mark, Brooklyn, NY
Unlike the old days when many school cafeterias offered reusable trays that could go into big industrial dishwashers after lunchtime, the trend since the early 1990s in New York City and elsewhere across the country has been to provide students with disposable polystyrene (tradename: Styrofoam) trays that are used once—typically for less than 30 minutes—and then thrown out. From there, most of the trays end up clogging already overburdened landfills or posing a litter problem. Polystyrene, impossible to compost and difficult to recycle, is one of the predominant features of litter-filled beaches, not to mention trash-based ocean gyres hundreds of miles from shore.
According to the grassroots group SOSnyc.org, some 850,000 Styrofoam trays are trashed in New York City public schools every day. "At 80 trays per foot, the daily stack is two miles high, 8.5 times the height of the Empire State Building," the group reports.
Polystyrene can be recycled by specialty recyclers, but most municipal recycling programs do not accept it. The fact that homeowners and businesses can't put it out on the curb with the rest of their recyclables for pick-up—they have to pay a private recycler to take it off their hands—means that more likely than not it ends up in the garbage can or dumpster and subsequently a landfill. Also, polystyrene that is soiled with food is even more difficult and expensive to recycle due to issues of bacterial contamination—most polystyrene recyclers won't accept Styrofoam that has had contact with food.
According to leading environmental groups, the polystyrene in food trays and other products is dangerous to both people and ecosystems "The basic building block chemicals of polystyrene…have been linked to cancer and other very serious health problems [and are] very hazardous to manufacture," says Michael Schade of the non-profit Center for Health, Environment and Justice. He adds that he considers polystyrene "one of the most toxic plastics for our health and environment." Despite these problems, the American Chemistry Council spends millions of dollars per year lobbying to keep products made with Styrofoam on the market, according to SOSnyc.org.
SOSnyc.org is campaigning for the removal of disposable trays from the New York City school system altogether, not just one day a week, but its campaign is a start. The group's advocacy has not fallen on deaf ears. Since March 2010, all 1,500 New York City public schools have been serving lunch in recyclable paper containers every Tuesday, cutting the waste from polystyrene trays by 20 percent across the five boroughs. SOSnyc.org is spearheading an effort to find permanent alternatives for polystyrene trays five days a week. Those schools with dishwashers could switch to reusable trays. Recyclable or compostable cardboard trays could work for schools without dishwashers, but manufacturers have not yet come up with anything as lightweight and sturdy as polystyrene for such applications. But with such a big potential market for non-polystyrene trays opening up, greener alternatives are sure to emerge soon.
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