SFI certification under attack from ForestEthics & Greenpeace

The Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) is one of the better known ‘certifiers’ of ‘sustainable forest products’ but, according to ForestEthics, a binational non-governmental organization, and Greenpeace, “SFI’s claim that it is an independent, non-profit public charity is deceptive and misleading because SFI is substantially governed and financed by the timber industry and because its vague and ambiguous forestry standards are developed and approved by timber industry personnel in a closed process”. ForestEthics has asked the US Federal Trade Commission to investigate its claim that SFI’s advertising is misleading. SFI has threatened to sue ForestEthics, something that ForestEthics states that it will vigorously defend.

ForestEthics has outlined its complaint as follows:

  • Independent forest certification is important in the growing market for “green” forest products.
  • SFI’s claim that it is an “independent non-profit public charitable organization” is deceptive, is likely to mislead the public, and therefore violates the Green Guides provisions. [The Green Guides are the FTC’s guidance document for environmental labeling and advertising of products.]
  • SFI’s forest management standards were not developed by a “voluntary consensus standard body” and therefore violate the Green Guides provisions.
  • Because SFI’s forest management standards are so vague that an auditor cannot apply them objectively, SFI’s claims of third-party certification are deceptive.
  • Consumers of timber and forest products would reasonably rely on SFI’s claims of independence and certification.
  • SFI’s deceptive claims have a material effect on consumer choices.

According to ForestEthics, a number of companies have announced plans to withdraw their products from SFI certification.

A summary of the ForestEthics’ complaint and a link to the full 22 page FTC filing are available at http://forestethics.org/news/forestethics-files-complaint-federal-trade-commission-charging-sustainable-forestry-initiative

Iconic Montreal Biosphere may close

Since 1995 Montreal’s Biosphere has served as an environmental education centre and tourist attraction for hundreds of thousands of visitors. The iconic geodesic dome structure, designed by Buckminster Fuller, is unique in North America. having started life as the United States pavilion at the 1967 World’s Fair.

When it re-opened as Biosphere in 1995 the displays focused on the aquatic ecosystems  of the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes but have today evolved into a more broadly based environmental museum with displays on air, water, biodiversity, climate change, sustainable development and more. Environment Canada, which operates the City-owned facility, claims that it is the only environment museum in North America.

Now a large coalition of groups and individuals from the environmental, environmental science, culture and museum communities have sent a letter protesting what they believe are Environment Canada’s plans to close the Biosphere or to turn it into an office building without public access.  Environment Canada is stating that its plans for the Biosphere are not yet final but there is no indication that there will be opportunities for public input on the future plans for the building.

As the environmental groups say, this may be the last summer for visiting North America’s leading environmental museum.

Environment Canada’s web page about the Biosphere is at http://www.ec.gc.ca/biosphere/default.asp?lang=En&n=E012964B-1

The letter of protest regarding possible closure of the Biosphere can be seen (in French) at http://www.ledevoir.com/societe/science-et-technologie/379249/dernier-ete-pour-le-musee-de-l-environnement-a-la-biosphere

A timely article from the Union of Concerned Scientists

A team from the Center for Science and Democracy of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has published an article in PLOS Biology with the timely title Reinvigorating the Role of Science in Democracy.

The article makes the point that good policy decisions require reasonable and robust debate grounded in the best possible information, yet, in too many cases, science and scientific advice have been marginalized in public policy debates around the world.

The authors state that, in the United States, misinformation on scientific issues abounds, from local city councils to the halls of the U.S. Congress, fueled by a never-ending news cycle in which anyone with an internet connection can pose as an expert. Instead of seeking the best available science, elected officials seek analyses that support the policies they wish to put forward. To make matters worse, even scientific and technical facts that are accepted as established knowledge in virtually every other developed nation are commonly dismissed in American discourse, on topics as diverse as climate change and the safety of vaccines. When decision makers cannot agree on even the basic facts underlying a problem and the science itself is politicized, good policy outcomes become significantly less likely.

The authors posit that we possess the intellectual capacity and infrastructure to restore science to its rightful place in democratic decision making and propose the following steps toward this end:

  • Empower scientists to engage more deeply with their communities.
  • Provide citizens with better access to reliable scientific information.
  • Create opportunities for citizens, educators, scientists, and decision makers to engage on science-based policy issues.
  • Cultivate a network of science and democracy opinion leaders to speak out about the benefits of science and evidence-based policies in our democracy.
  • Increase government and corporate accountability by exposing and publicizing instances in which science is misrepresented or misused.

GallonDaily commends UCS for establishing the Center for Science and Democracy. While it may seem attractive to business and government to provide distorted scientific information in order to achieve business and policy goals, GallonDaily is convinced that any short term gains will soon be eclipsed by a public backlash that is based on correct scientific information. We encourage business to support the UCS initiative and to assist in implementing the five steps described above and, in more detail, in the PLOS paper.

Rosenberg AA, Halpern M, Shulman S, Wexler C, Phartiyal P (2013) Reinvigorating the Role of Science in Democracy. PLoS Biol 11(5): e1001553. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001553 http://www.plosbiology.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pbio.1001553


Bees, pesticides, and public opinion

Work by the European Food Safety Authority has demonstrated a strong connection between certain agricultural pesticides, in a class known as neonicotinoids, and bee die off, often known as Colony Collapse Disorder. Of the four pesticides implicated, clothianidin, imidacloprid and thiamethoxam are used on crops in Canada. The federal Pest Management Regulatory Agency is currently undertaking a review of their effects on bees.

In the United States the Environmental Protection Agency is being sued by  a group of four beekeepers and five environmental and consumer groups for its failure to protect pollinators from what are claimed to be dangerous pesticides. The allegations made have not yet been confirmed or rejected by the Federal District Court.

European reviews of these pesticides seem to be reasonably conclusive that they are harmful to bees, though whether they are the sole, or even primary, cause of Colony Collapse Disorder is to some extent awaiting further evidence. Restrictions on use of the pesticides are being put in place.

Public opinion may be as important as scientific and legal opinions in determining the future of these neonicotinoid pesticides. Despite their sting, bees are seen by most people as friendly and human-positive beings. Many kids’ books portray bees as helpful providers of human food. In a tussle between pesticide companies and bees, the bees are likely to be the big winners.

Rather than disputing science-based findings regarding the effect which a few pesticides have on bees, GallonDaily suggests that the pesticide industry might choose to launch its own pro-bee initiative, advising farmers not to use the suspect pesticides in situations where they become a risk to bees. Any other strategy risks damage to the credibility of the pesticide, regulatory, and agricultural communities.

Details of the lawsuit mentioned in this story are summarized at http://www.panna.org/press-release/beekeepers-and-public-interest-groups-sue-epa-over-bee-toxic-pesticides

A PAN commentary on the European restrictions is at http://www.panna.org/blog/europe-steps-bees-epa-your-turn

A summary of US EPA’s actions on Colony Collapse Disorder is at http://www.epa.gov/pesticides/about/intheworks/honeybee.htm

The European assessments of risks to bees from the neonicotinoid pesticides are at http://www.efsa.europa.eu/en/press/news/130116.htm

Metal Recycling: Opportunities, Limits, Infrastructure

Last month the UN Environment Program published a report entitled Metal Recycling: Opportunities, Limits, Infrastructure. The report provides a valuable update on what has been done and what needs to be done to increase recycling of metals and metal-containing products around the world:

  • A wider, systemic, view of recycling must look at the environmental, industrial and economic factors driving recycling. Simplified approaches to recycling – specifying desired recycling outputs – will not adequately support a drive for resource efficiency.
  • For maximizing resource efficiency, a Product-Centric approach to recycling must be based on a good understanding of the physics of materials in products. This allows simultaneous consideration of the interactions, why and when they dynamically vary, and the economic value of the resulting recyclates, as well as the impact on resource conservation and environmental sustainability.
  • Stimulating the use of BAT (Best Available Technique) by certified operators raises the overall level of recycling.
  • As dictated by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, there will always be losses from a recycling system. Concepts such as ‘Closing the loop’, ‘Circular Economy’ and ‘Cradle-to-Cradle’ represent unattainable ideal conditions, but they bring systemic thinking into material-efficiency discussions, and provide an upper limit to the potential economic benefits.
  • Policy and legislation play a key role in shaping the economic incentives and guiding conditions for overall system performance. Where the economic incentives for collection of waste by private or public operators are not aligned with policy goals, significant resource volumes can be lost to illegal or informal recycling, or are simply unaccounted for, sometimes through ‘cherry picking’. This often leads to environmental problems, damaging health impacts and impacts on water or climate, as regulatory standards are ignored.
  • The best policy and legislative results are achieved by creating a level playing field that internalizes external costs.
  • Policy and legislation can improve results if it focuses on promoting BAT in recycling systems, setting up the framework for innovative business models. In some cases, this will mean providing incentives for coping with negative revenues from parts of the treatment process for end of life products. Actions increasing the willingness of product manufacturers and their customers to recycle end of life products and use recycled materials produced with BAT, can also drive the recycling market.
  • For some minor elements, the required economies of scale will only be reached through processing at a sufficiently large “central” facility. However, in order to achieve this, effective international arrangements would be required to facilitate cross-border transportation in a transparent and sustainable manner.
  • The infrastructure and knowledge for the processing of waste into recycled metal is often the same as that used for primary metal production. Therefore, the health of such production is vitally important for recycling, as a healthy balance between primary and recycled metal production fosters metallurgical systems knowledge. This balance also mitigates the cyclical nature of the primary metals industry.
  • Optimized recycling requires secure and large volumes of waste, collected (or sorted) in ways that assist its metallurgical processing. Two essential factors for successful waste collection are:
    • (i) a suitable infrastructure for collection, and
    • (ii) economic incentives for the delivery of waste to BAT operators, rather than to informal or illegal operators.
  • Where economic incentives exist, private operators often set up collection infrastructures. In some cases, public-policy intervention must help the creation or capacity building of such infrastructure, for example when setting up recycling systems for mobile phones. Where waste ends up in areas with no or poor-quality recycling, the resources are often lost.
  • For optimal recycling, the industrial-waste and End-of-Life-product streams that enter processing should be economically and physically compatible with the metal production system. Both product design and collection methods strongly affect the physical properties of a waste stream. Optimal recycling can only succeed by better physics-based Design for Resource Efficiency (DfRE). Design can then try to avoid putting metals together in a stream that cannot be separated by the BAT. Nevertheless, material linkages can make any DfRE useless, as the consumer primarily purchases product functionality.
  • Legal recycling-rate targets have two implicit weaknesses:
    • They do not differ between individual substances, but are calculated solely by weight based on an entire fraction. Hence, to achieve the targets, recovery of mass substances such as plastics, glass or steel becomes much more important than recovery of precious and special metals, which are usually only present in small amounts.
    • As the targets do not consider metallurgical steps, the high legal recycling targets pretend a recycling quality that in reality is not obtained. For instance, the EU’s End of Life Vehicles directive requires a 85% recycling rate (material and energy recovery), to be increased to 95 % by 2015. If smelting and refining are included, real recycling rates will be much lower, especially for precious and special metals.
  • It may be counter-productive to use material-based recycling-performance output standards, such as mass or percentage of a single metal in a waste stream. They can ignore the complexity of recycling and its inherent trade-off between outputs of different recycled metals from mixed waste streams. This may lead to wasting of valuable metals. For example, a system focused on increasing recycled iron output may lose valuable metals with complex links to iron, such as vanadium.
  • Research and education is critically important for preserving expert knowledge, especially of the processing of key metals, and for driving innovation that maximizes resource efficiency. Moreover, much knowledge is tacit – held and transmitted by vitally important experts who cannot be traded like a commodity – and that is lost when industry sectors are too cyclical. There is a need for disseminating the physics-based systems approach to recycling, as described in this report.
  • Market operations are significantly helped when recycling operators can estimate future needs for recycling infrastructure by quantifying the “urban orebody”, its location and waste flows.

There is much more to be found in this excellent 320 page report and many of the findings have relevance not just to metal recycling but also to recycling of many other types of material.

The report is available at http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/Publications/MetalRecycling/tabid/106143/Default.aspx

Recycling opportunities can prolong utilization of some metals in short supply

A recent scientific report from the United Nations Environment Program emphasizes some of the challenges of our voracious appetite for metals:

  1. Mining can cause environmental and health problems due to leaching of toxic substances into the ground- and surface water. Mining can also cause ecosystem degradation. Accidents, e. g. related to tailings dam breaches, can be the cause of severe local surface water pollution.
  2. Mining and especially refining of metals is very energy intensive and presently uses about 8 % of the total global energy supply,
  3. An increasing share of metal emissions to the environment comes from non-metal sources such as fossil fuels and phosphate fertilizer. For some metals this is presently the major source. Especially in agriculture, closed loop accumulation can lead to high concentrations of metals in soils.
  4. For certain metals, a reduced demand leads to an oversupply due to their chemical/geological/designed linkage to valuable carrier metals or other materials. Oversupply also occurs for metals with a former high level of use, where old stocks entering the waste stage form a potential but no longer wanted source of secondary material. But even for metals with rising demand, thermodynamics dictate that cycles can never be completely closed. Those final waste streams need to be immobilized in order to prevent them from being emitted to the environment.

The report states that recycling is an option that can mitigate three out of four of these areas, and that is specifically relevant for metals: metals can be recycled almost indefinitely, with little loss in their technical attributes regardless of the number of times recycled. It reduces the need for primary production with all related impacts of mining and refining. It slows down the need for exploiting low grade ores. Secondary production, including collection and transport, is much less energy intensive and therefore can reduce energy requirements significantly.

The report seeks to define a sustainable metals management strategy. Suggested elements include:

  • Metals have an important function in new energy systems, thus contributing to a reduction of GHG emissions. It should be kept in mind, however, that implementing these technologies at pages scale will probably lead to a reduced availability of high quality ores. Hence the production of these metals will become more increasingly energy intensive, which in turn reduces resource productivity.
  • Substitution of metals by other materials could be an option to consider. However, side-effects must then be considered as well: these substitutes are not without their own environmental and supply issues, and an assessment should be made of the benefits of such a substitution in all cases. Moreover, the use of metals in new technologies is often essential, and therefore substitution will come at the expense of either resource efficiency losses or functionality.
  • Dematerialisation, in the context of a sustainable metals management, would mean using less metals in the product to fulfill the same functions. This would reduce potential life cycle impacts accordingly. Again, one has to be aware of potential side-effects.
  • Recycling rates for many metals are at present low, but rising. System optimization and design for recycling can help much to further increase recycling rates. Secondary production in general takes much less energy than primary production, therefore, increasing the share of secondary production in the total supply would reduce energy use substantially.

The 162 page highly readable report, with the cumbersome title Environmental Risks and Challenges of Anthropogenic Metals Flows and Cycles, is available at http://www.unep.org/resourcepanel/Publications/EnvironmentalChallengesMetals/tabid/106142/default.aspx

An intelligent campaign launched by a 9-year old environmentalist

In 2011 a 9-year old Vermont native told the  Natural Resources and Energy Committee of the Vermont Legislature about the problem of environmental waste associated with straws – not the kind from end of life cash crops but the kind from your friendly neighbourhood restaurant. Milo Cress worked out that between ages 5 and 65 the average American uses 40-thousand straws and that each day Americans use 500 million drinking straws – enough to fill over 46,400 large school buses each year.

Cress reckoned that the wastage of straws could be substantially reduced if restaurants only provided straws to those who specifically requested one. So he launched a campaign in his home community and from there the campaign has grown to include numerous restaurants across the USA. One of the latest to join is the 320 restaurant chain Texas Roadhouse.

Now the campaign has been picked up by the Colorado-based non-profit recycler Eco-Cycle,  one of the largest non-profit recyclers in the USA.

Eco-Cycle says “Learn more and join our efforts!”. You can do the former at http://www.ecocycle.org/bestrawfree and the latter, if you are a business, by supplying straws only on request and, if you are a consumer, by telling restaurants that you would like your cold beverage to be provided without a straw, please and for the environment.

The lowly outhouse probably contributes to groundwater pollution

In a study focused more on pit latrines in developing countries than on Canadian outhouses, researchers at George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services and the Department of Soil Science at North Carolina State University have published a review of what is known about the negative impacts of a popular sanitation method.

According to the article, an estimated 1.77 billion people use pit latrines as their primary means of sanitation. Groundwater contamination is frequently observed downstream of these latrines.

The researchers found only a limited number of studies that have explicitly examined links between groundwater pollution and contamination from pit latrines. Within these studies, the quality of experimental techniques and chosen indicator contaminants varied greatly. Nevertheless, based on available reports, researchers who looked for groundwater contamination from pit latrines frequently detected it, and studies observed travel distances of up to 25 m, 50 m, and 26 m for unsafe concentrations of bacteria, viruses, and chemicals, respectively. These contaminant transport distances could potentially be exceeded under certain conditions (e.g., in fractured rock aquifers), though most studies of pit latrine–derived contaminants actually showed transport distances that were less than half of the maximum values. Areas with shallow groundwater and areas prone to flooding present the greatest risks, because vertical separation is required between the base of latrine pits and the saturated zone.

Many Canadian parks have moved away from use of pit latrines and are now using toilets with holding tanks which are pumped out periodically. However, when sitting on the thunderbox in more remote parks and wilderness areas this holiday weekend, remember that you may be contributing to increased groundwater pollution.

The article is available currently in the online edition of the peer-reviewed Environmental Health Perspectives at http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/1206028/

Energy reporting and disclosure for buildings

Boston has recently become the most recent of several US cities to pass an ordinance requiring owners of larger buildings to report their energy and water usage to the city. The data will be posted online for all to see. The idea, fairly widely used in environmental circles, is that public disclosure of environmental impacts will encourage businesses to move towards lighter environmental footprints.

In GallonDaily’s opinion, results of this type of initiative are mixed, depending both on enforcement of meaningful and accurate reporting and on annual coverage and interpretation by the media  so that the public continues to understand what the data mean. Too many government and industry association reporting initiatives disappear into the fog of time and end up with very little improvement in environmental performance. Others are so late in posting reports or contain so many obvious inaccuracies that companies are able to claim that the situation has changed dramatically since the data were reported. We wish the City of Boston well as it moves towards fully implementing its energy, greenhouse gas, and water usage reporting system.

Under the new Boston ordinance:

  • the City will annually disclose energy and water use in all its facilities beginning in 2013 for the 2012 calendar year.

  • all large and medium buildings or groups of buildings will be required to report annual energy use, ENERGY STAR rating (if applicable), water use, and greenhouse gas emissions

  • the requirement will be phased in over 5 years and will ultimately apply to non-residential buildings 35,000 square feet or greater and residential buildings with 35 or more units.

  • the City will make the data as well as other identifying and contextual information for individual buildings available online.

  • buildings not demonstrating high energy performance or continual improvements or other appropriate exemption criteria will be required to conduct energy assessments or actions every 5 years to identify opportunities for energy efficiency investment. Building owners will not be required to act on the audit.

  • failure to comply with reporting requirements will lead to fines for building owners.

Given that building energy use is one of the largest contributors to energy use in cities, GallonDaily sees this effort by the City of Boston to be one of the more significant environmental initiatives that can be taken by municipalities.

Details of the City of Boston initiative, as well as a link to the bylaw, can be found at http://www.cityofboston.gov/environmentalandenergy/conservation/berdo.asp

Paper towels or electric hand dryers?

The question of whether it is environmentally better to equip washrooms with paper towels or electric dryers seems never to go away, perhaps because we are reminded of it every time we go to a public or commercial washroom. GallonDaily was therefore interested to discover that the Materials Systems Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology has actually published a science-based lifecycle analysis on exactly this topic.

More importantly is that this MIT LCA describes some of the data challenges that still plague comparative LCA studies, though the authors of this one are confident in their results because the environmental impact differences between towels and dryers are so significant. GallonDaily refers readers interested in comparative LCA as a tool to this study because of the clear lessons that it provides.

So what is the answer to the paper towels versus electric dryers conundrum? Not surprisingly in environmental conundrums, the answer is none of the above. The study shows that cotton roll towels beat both paper towels and standard electric hand dryers in most environmental aspects, though paper towels, especially paper towels from recycled paper, are not too far behind the cotton roll towel. Standard electric dryers are a little worse from an environmental perspective than recycled paper towels. Interestingly, the latest types of electric hand dryer with a very forceful air blast and  known by the brand names Airblade™ and XLERATOR® have significantly lower overall environmental impact than any other hand drying system, including cotton roll towels.

The report Life Cycle Assessment of Hand Drying Systems can be found at http://msl.mit.edu/publications/HandDryingLCA-Report.pdf