Week of 03/11/2007

Dear EarthTalk: My local recycler won’t take my old phonebooks. What should I do with them?

—Jake, Westport, CT

Many recyclers won’t accept telephone books because the fibers used to make the books" lightweight pages are too short to be reformulated into new paper. In fact, mixing old phonebooks in with other waste paper can even contaminate the batch, hindering the recyclability of the other paper fibers.

Nonetheless, phonebook papers are 100 percent recyclable and are used primarily to—you guessed it—make new phonebooks! In fact, most phonebooks distributed today are made from re-fabricated old phonebook pages mixed with some scrap wood to strengthen the fibers for re-use. Old phonebooks are also sometimes recycled into insulation materials, ceiling tiles and roofing surfaces, as well as paper towels, grocery bags, cereal boxes and office papers. In fact, in a gesture both symbolic and practical, Pacific Bell/SBC now includes payment envelopes in its bills created from old Smart Yellow Pages phonebooks.

According to Los Gatos, California’s Green Valley Recycling, if all Americans recycled their phonebooks for a year, we would save 650,000 tons of paper and free up two million cubic yards of landfill space. Modesto, California’s Parks, Recreation & Neighborhoods Department, which lets city residents include phonebooks with their regular curbside pickup, says that for each 500 books recycled, we save 7,000 gallons of water, 3.3 cubic yards of landfill space, 17 to 31 trees and 4,100 kilowatts of electricity, enough to power an average home for six months.

Consumers trying to do the right thing should find out when and how their town or phone company will accept phonebooks for recycling. Some will only take phonebooks back at certain times of year, often when new books are being distributed. Some schools, echoing the "newspaper drives" of bygone days, run contests in which students bring old phonebooks to school where they are then collected and sent off to recyclers.

But those whose towns won’t accept phonebooks at all and who can’t find anywhere else to drop them need not fret. Old phonebooks have many practical uses. Their pages make excellent fire starters in a wood-burning fireplace or outdoor fire pit. Balled up or shredded phonebook pages also make nice packaging filler in place of problematic polystyrene "peanuts."

Phonebook pages can also be shredded and used as mulch to keep weeds down in your garden. The paper is biodegradable and will eventually return back to the soil. Those with an artistic bent can use old phonebooks to make flipbook style animated drawings, as described by animator Robert Truscio on his "Drawings That Move" instructional website.

There are also a number of telephone book collectors; some who make money selling their stock to those with a historical interest or who are researching family genealogies. Lifelong collector Gwillim Law sells old phonebooks from all 50 U.S. states as well as from most Canadian and Australian provinces.

CONTACTS: Drawings That Move; Gwillim Law’s Old Telephone Books website

Dear EarthTalk: I’m "pro-solar" all the way for the sake of the environment, but solar power has not historically been very cost-effective. What innovations are coming down the pike that will bring costs down to make solar competitive with other energy sources?

—Will Proctor, Richmond, VA

The prospect of generating pollution-free power from the sun’s rays is appealing, but to-date the low price of oil combined with the high costs of developing new technology have prevented the widespread adoption of solar power in the U.S. and beyond. At a current cost of 25 to 50 cents per kilowatt-hour, solar power costs as much as five times more than conventional fossil fuel based electricity. And dwindling supplies of polysilicon, the element found in traditional photovoltaic cells, are not helping.

According to Gary Gerber of the Berkeley, California-based Sun Light & Power, not long after Ronald Reagan moved into the White House in 1980 and removed the solar collectors from the roof that Jimmy Carter had installed, tax credits for solar development disappeared and the industry plunged "over a cliff."

Federal spending on solar energy picked up under the Clinton administration, but trailed off again once George W. Bush took office. But growing climate change worries and high oil prices have forced the Bush administration to reconsider its stance on alternatives like solar, and the White House has proposed $148 million for solar energy development in 2007, up almost 80 percent from what it invested in 2006.

In the realm of research and development, enterprising engineers are working hard to get solar power’s costs down, and expect it to be price-competitive with fossil fuels within 20 years. One technological innovator is California-based Nanosolar, which replaces the silicon used to absorb sunlight and convert it into electricity with a thin film of copper, indium, gallium and selenium (CIGS). Says Nanosolar’s Martin Roscheisen, CIGS-based cells are flexible and more durable, making them easier to install in a wide range of applications. Roscheisen expects he will be able to build a 400-megawatt electricity plant for about a tenth of the price of a comparable silicon-based plant. Other companies making waves with CIGS-based solar cells include New York’s DayStar Technologies and California’s Miasolé.

Another recent innovation in solar power is the co-called "spray-on" cell, such as those made by Massachusetts" Konarka. Like paint, the composite can be sprayed on to other materials, where it can harness the sun’s infrared rays to power cell phones and other portable or wireless devices. Some analysts think spray-on cells could become five times more efficient than the current photovoltaic standard.

Environmentalists and mechanical engineers aren’t the only ones bullish on solar these days. According to the Cleantech Venture Network, a forum of investors interested in clean renewable energy, venture capitalists poured some $100 million into solar start-ups of all sizes in 2006 alone, and expect to commit even more money in 2007. Given the venture capital community’s interest in relatively short-term returns, it’s a good bet that some of today’s promising solar start-ups will be tomorrow’s energy behemoths.

CONTACTS: Sun Light & Power; Nanosolar; DayStar Technologies; Miasolé; PowerFilm; Konarka