The holidays are hard on Christmas lights. Exposed to the vagaries of small nephews and exuberant pets, most strings will experience a few casualties, and while a missing bulb no longer means the entire set stops working, Americans still throw out millions of pounds of lights a year. Adam Minter, who’s writing a book on the globalization of recycling, describes exactly what happens to your old lights when they’re shipped over to a concern in China, which, ironically, makes better use of minced-up lights than any US company could.
Workers untangle the lights and toss them into small shredders, where they are chopped into millimeter-sized fragments and mixed with water into a sticky mud-like substance. Next, they’re shoveled onto a large, downward-angled, vibrating table, covered in a thin sheen of flowing water.
The Story of Electronics has made its debut today (teaser above), following the form of the original Story of Stuff video in 2007. The Story of Stuff, written and narrated by Annie Leonard, created waves of discussion about the environment and consumption in classrooms, homes, and workplaces around the country.
She [created the movie], she said, after tiring of traveling often to present her views at philanthropic and environmental conferences. She attributes the response to the video’s simplicity. “A lot of what’s in the film was already out there,” Ms. Leonard said, “but the style of the animation makes it easy to watch. It is a nice counterbalance to the starkness of the facts.” [New York Times]
The new electronics chapter takes a step beyond the original video’s take on the manufacturing process and consumerism to explain the concept of planned obsolescence, the idea that our electronics are being “designed for the dump”–that is, to be cheaply replaceable as quickly as possible. The video makes a point that these cheap electronics come with hidden costs–to factory workers, people in unsafe electronics recycling facilities, and to the environment.
How to make natural gas? Flush the toilet, and wait three weeks. At least that’s the plan for homes involved in the Didcot Renewable Gas Project, which will be recycling residents’ waste into renewable natural gas, aka “biogas“.
Gearóid Lane, managing director of communities and new energy at British Gas, said: “This renewable gas project is a real milestone in Britain’s energy history, and will help customers and the environment alike. Renewable gas has the potential to make a significant contribution to meeting the UK’s energy needs. Gas from sewage is just one part of a bigger project, which will see us using brewery and food waste and farm slurry to generate gas to heat homes.” [The Guardian]
The renewable gas won’t smell bad or function any differently than the gas already being provided to customers’ homes. This isn’t the first biogas plant in the U.K. or the world, but it is the first facility whose biogas is made directly from human waste and transferred back to those humans’ homes. Most of the other plants run off of agricultural and food waste.
The plant is just a test project, able to provide gas to about 200 homes. But the British government is hopeful that more such projects will help the country reach its goal of 15 percent renewable energy by 2020. Said Martin Baggs, chief executive of the utility company Thames Water:
“Every sewage works in Britain is a potential source of local renewable gas waiting to be put to use.” [BBC News]
Hasta luego, plastic bags? This week the California State Assembly approved a measure to ban single-use plastic bags, and if the state’s Senate approves it too, California will likely become the first of these United States to ban the bags. California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has indicated that he supports the bill, and will sign it if it lands on his desk.
Shoppers who don’t bring their own totes to a store would have to purchase paper bags made of at least 40 percent recycled material for a minimum of 5 cents or buy reusable bags under the proposal, which would take effect Jan. 1, 2012 [San Francisco Chronicle].
Convenience and drug stores, as well as small businesses, would get a little longer to switch over. The law wouldn’t go into force for them until July 2013.
Cigarettes aren’t done causing damage when you put them out. Whether the tally of discarded butts worldwide is 4.5 trillion or 5.6 trillion, it represents an enormous amount of nicotine and heavy metals deposited in the environment. But what if the contents of your ashtray had a useful application? According to Chinese researchers, they might.
Seeking a use for all that junk, the scientists tested the chemicals in cigarette butts for their effects on a kind of steel used in oil and gas pipelines.
The results were pretty dramatic. In a near-boiling solution of 10 and 15 percent hydrochloric acid (HCl; same stuff as stomach acid), the cigarette-derived cocktail reduce corrosion by between 90 and 94 percent [Discovery News].
The researchers document their technique in the study in Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research. First, they had to soak cigarette butts they found on the side of the road in distilled water, with five butts to 100 milliliters (about 3.4 ounces) of water. That extract was then added to the HCL solution. If just five percent of the resulting solution consisted of that cigarette extract, those dramatic corrosion reductions began to appear.
If the researchers upped the strength of the acid, they needed to also increase the amount of added cigarette extract. For instance, with a 20 percent hydrochloric acid solution, the researchers needed to increase the butt leachate to 10 percent of the liquid to keep damage to the steel low: at less than 12 percent of the corrosion seen with the unamended acid solution [Science News].
Nine of the cigarette chemicals appeared to offer protective services for steel; interestingly, nicotine was the most important of the nine.
80beats: Study: “Third-Hand Smoke” Sticks Around & Produces New Carcinogens
80beats: Electronic Cigarettes Not a Safe Alternative to Conventional Cigs
80beats: In a Bad Economy, Recyclables Are Just Pieces of Junk
DISCOVER: Smoke Gets in Your Hair
Image: flickr / Nufkin
Even the recycling business is taking a hard hit from the current economic crisis. What in recent years has been a booming market bolstered by a new environmental awakening, has seen a complete reversal of fortunes in recent months as the demand for recycled materials plummeted with a drop in manufacturing. “Before, you could be green by being greedy,” said Jim Wilcox, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley. “Now you’ve really got to rely more on your notions of civic participation” [New York Times].
Mixed paper that sold for $105 a ton in October now sells for as low as $20 a ton. Tin is down from $327 a ton earlier this year to just $5 a ton. Plastic bottles have fallen from 25 cents to 2 cents a pound. Aluminum cans dropped nearly half to about 40 cents a pound, and scrap metal tumbled from $525 a gross ton to about $100 [AP]. Only glass prices are holding because demand is still high. The market for recycled materials is tied closely to new manufacturing, much of which takes place in Asian countries; the recyclables are shipped overseas and new products are shipped back to the U.S. Ordinarily the material would be turned into products like car parts, book covers and boxes for electronics. But with the slump in the scrap market, a trickle is starting to head for landfills instead of a second life [New York Times].
Researchers have discovered new strains of Pseudomonas bacteria that feed on the PET plastic used in drink bottles, and turn it into a more valuable, biodegradable form of plastic. The discovery suggests a way to keep billions of pounds of discarded plastic out of landfills; a 2006 study [pdf] found that less than 25 percent of PET plastic is currently recycled because the industry doesn’t have enough use for the end product.
Getting high-quality material — such as plastics suitable for packaging food or beverages —- back out of recycled plastic is more expensive than making virgin PET, so most plastic bottles are recycled into lower-grade, and less valuable, plastic. But there’s only so much demand for lower-grade plastics, says microbiologist and coauthor Kevin O’ Connor…. “The problem is that the market [for recycled PET] is saturated” [Science News].