Dear EarthTalk: What are some cool apps that work with a mobile phone that can help me get in better touch with the environment? — Mitchell Brown, Troy, MI
Not surprisingly, there are thousands of “green” apps out there that make it easier for people to find and share information to help us all become better stewards of the natural environment.
The American Lung Association’s State of the Air app shows live color-coded air quality maps for any U.S. location and includes both ozone and particulate pollution counts. The app also provides air quality alerts, short-term forecasts and opportunities to learn more about air quality risks and to contact lawmakers to push for more stringent pollution regulations. Another way to find out who’s emitting what nearby is via aMobileFuture’s Pollution, a free app that compiles information from various pollution databases around the world and then shows users which big polluters are emitting what near them. Coverage includes 1,380 cities, mostly in Europe and the U.S.
Ethical shoppers will appreciate the GoodGuide, a free app that shows how any of 120,000 food, personal care and household products stack up in terms of sustainability, fair wages and even health risks. Users just snap a picture of an item’s bar code to get the low-down on whether or not it’s a “good” buy. And the free JouleBug app turns living greener into a game, taking specific sustainability-oriented steps such as reducing energy use, recycling more or buying local and translating these small acts into positive “units of impact.” Embedded videos demonstrate ways once can green up daily life.
Adair Systems’ 99 cents GasHog app makes it easy to track a car’s fuel efficiency. Enter the odometer reading and amount of fuel added each time you refill the tank and the app calculates the fuel economy of the previous tank and compares it to historical averages. The app also offers tips for improving fuel economy. And Avego’s free CarmaCarpooling app matches nearby drivers with riders to share the commute and the expense. At the end of the trip, the rider can send a payment through the system to the driver to cover a share of gas and wear-and-tear.
PaperKarma is a free app to help reduce junk mail. Users input their address information once and then snap a picture through the app of any unwanted junk mail. Behind the scenes, PaperKarma’s automated system notifies the publisher to take the user’s name and address off their list.
Another popular app is Light Bulb Finder, a free app designed to help ease the transition from older incandescent bulbs to more energy efficient replacements. Users enter in their zip code-the app automatically inputs average regional electricity rates accordingly-and then choose which type of fixture, size/shape and wattage bulb(s) they are looking to replace. The app then suggests options that use less energy and shows how much money the user can expect to save with the newer bulb(s).
It’s nice to know that the little screens we’ve become increasingly dependent upon-and which otherwise tend to distract us from nature and the outdoors-can also be used for the betterment of the environment.
CONTACTS: State of the Air App, www.lung.org/healthy-air/outdoor/state-of-the-air/app.html; JouleBug, www.joulebug.com; GasHog, www.adairsystems.com/gashog; CarmaCarpooling, www.carmacarpool.com; Light Bulb Finder, www.lightbulbfinder.net; GoodGuide, www.goodguide.com.
Dear EarthTalk: What is the environmental impact of those “K-Cups” everyone seems to be using nowadays to make coffee at both home and office? — Chris B., Stamford, CT
K-Cups-those little one-serving coffee containers that allow people to brew one cup at a time in a specially designed Keurig brewing machine-are all the rage these days. Each K-Cup is made up of a plastic outer container with one cup’s worth of ground coffee and a small filter inside, capped off with a foil lid. They go into Keurig brewing machines which pierce the bottom of the K-Cup with a nozzle that then forces hot water through the coffee grounds and filter, and then out into the drinker’s cup. K-Cups and the Keurig brewers are convenient and require little to no clean-up while producing gourmet quality coffee for a fraction of the price that a retail coffee shop would charge.
Environmentalists’ beef with the Keurig system is in the single-use, non-recyclable nature of the packaging, given the implications for our waste stream. The individual parts of a K-Cup (plastic, paper and foil) could theoretically be recycled on their own, but the combination is too small and messy for recycling facilities to be able to sort. So our only choice is to throw the whole K-Cup pack, lock stock and barrel, into the garbage. Each pound of coffee consumed sends 50 K-Cups to the landfill. And with upwards of 17 million U.S. households and offices possessing Keurig brewers these days, billions of K-Cups are already ending up in landfills every year.
Keurig Green Mountain, the company behind the K-Cup revolution, is on the case about the bad environmental reputation it is developing over the issue. As a first step, it launched its Grounds to Grow On program in 2011 whereby office customers can purchase K-Cup recovery bins and fill them up with spent K-Cups. When the boxes are full, they are shipped to Keurig’s disposal partner, which turns the used coffee grounds into compost and sends the rest out to be incinerated in a “waste-to-energy” power plant. Critics point out, though, that waste-to-energy is hardly green given the airborne pollutants released from incinerator smokestacks and the fact that, in the words of Julie Craves of the Coffee & Conservation blog, recycling is the enemy of the never-ending stream of garbage needed to feed waste-to-energy facilities.
In 2012, Keurig Green Mountain, realizing it still had a lot of work to do on sustainability matters, undertook a lifecycle assessment across its product lines-and set ambitious sustainability targets to achieve by 2020. Chief among them is to make all K-Cups 100 percent recyclable. Other goals include ensuring responsible sourcing for all its primary agricultural and manufactured products, reducing life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions of its brewed beverages by 25 percent compared to the 2012 baseline, and achieving zero waste-to-landfills its manufacturing and distribution facilities.
Those who love the Keurig system but are ready to forego the environmental guilt sooner than 2020 do have some options. Julie Craves reports that used K-Cups can actually be refilled with ground coffee and reused. An easier option might be buying a reusable K-Cup-most of them are made out of plastic with a stainless steel mesh filter. Still the best choice for the environment, however, might be getting the old traditional coffee pot out of storage and brewing up several cups at once-just like the old days.
Dear EarthTalk: If “cap and trade” has worked so well in Europe for reducing greenhouse gas emissions there, why haven’t we tried something similar here in the U.S.? — Sandra M., Bern, NC
“Cap-and-trade,” whereby big polluters must pay to emit greenhouse gases against a capped total amount that is reduced over time-has been in effect across the European Union (EU) since 2005. This so-called Emissions Trading System (ETS) requires 11,000 of the largest electric and industrial facilities in 28 European countries to participate. Some 45 percent of Europe’s total greenhouse gas emissions are regulated under the system. Proponents say the ETS has succeeded in keeping greenhouse gas emissions in check and making Europe a global leader on climate. The EU reports that, by 2020, emissions from sectors covered by ETS will be 21 percent lower than they were in 2005 and 43 percent lower by 2030.
But critics argue that Europe’s reduced emissions may be more due to the global recession than the ETS, and that the cheap availability of allowances has made it easier for companies to pay to burn coal than to switch to cleaner natural gas or invest more in carbon mitigation technologies. Early in 2014 the EU tightened up its system by cutting the number of new allowances it plans to issue over the next three years by a third while simultaneously creating a “market reserve” to absorb extra allowances as needed.
Meanwhile, Switzerland, New Zealand, Australia, Kazakhstan and South Korea have each set up their own national cap-and-trade programs to varying degrees of success, while regional versions have popped up within Japan, Canada and the U.S.
As to the U.S., whether or not to establish a nationwide cap-and-trade system here has been a hot topic of discussion in Congress. It last came up for a vote in 2010, but never found enough bi-partisan support to become the law of the land. But in lieu of any federal system, two U.S. regions have undertaken their own attempts at ratcheting down greenhouse gas emissions through market mechanisms:
In 2009, 10 Northeastern states came together to create the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-trade system with the goal of reducing regional carbon emissions from the power sector 10 percent from 2009 levels by 2018. Lower emissions than expected over the first five years of the program-thanks to many utilities switching over to cleaner burning and increasingly cheaper natural gas as well as less overall economic output due to the recession-led RGGI to lower its overall annual cap from 165 million to 91 million tons in 2014, with a 2.5 percent reduction every year thereafter until 2020. Analysts expect this rejiggering will drive the price of polluting five times higher than it has been and thus force utilities across the region to seek cleaner, greener alternatives to coal as an electricity feedstock.
The other major U.S. cap-and-trade player is California, which launched its own ETS in 2013 with a cap set initially at two percent below 2012 emission levels. The cap will then be reduced three percent a year from 2015-2020. Some 600 facilities are big enough polluters to qualify for participation in the system, which will cover around 85 percent of the state’s total greenhouse gas emissions. Given that California in and of itself is the 12th largest economy in the world, its forward-thinking commitment to cap-and-trade gives hope everywhere to fans of marshalling market forces to bring about environmental change.