Old cell phones can leak all kinds of hazardous elements into soils around landfills and potentially contaminate nearby groundwater supplies. Credit: SteveStLouis, FlickrCC.
Dear EarthTalk: What can we do to solve the e-waste problem caused by so many of us tossing our cell phones out and getting new ones every two years? — Sandy Bartram, Beverly Hills, CA
As more and more of the world develops — and smartphones become ubiquitous — electronic waste (AKA “e-waste”) is a bigger problem than ever. Around the world, people generate some 50 million tons of e-waste every year, much of which ends up improperly disposed of in landfills, where toxins common in electronics like lead, mercury and cadmium can leach out and contaminate surrounding soils and groundwater. Much of the remaining e-waste gets shipped off to developing countries happy to profit from taking others’ trash despite the environmental consequences, or even worse, just dumped illegally into the ocean.
But thanks to consumer pressure to do the right thing, most major electronics manufacturers have started to pay attention to the problem and take action to reduce the flow of e-waste. Apple, for instance, long targeted by Greenpeace and others for lack of concern about the environmental and health impacts of its sourcing and production processes, has made great strides in the last five years in recovering customers’ old products and reusing the constituent parts in new products.
In 2015 alone, the company collected some 90 million pounds of Apple-branded e-waste, recovering upwards of 61 million pounds of material, including steel, plastics, glass, aluminum, copper, cobalt, zinc, lead, nickel, silver, tin and gold, to reincorporate into new products. Environmental advocates who love their iPhones can sleep easier knowing that lead, mercury, beryllium, arsenic, PVC, phthalates and brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are no longer welcome in or will soon be phased out of Apple’s supply chain.
But most of us upgrade our smartphones every two years, so that means that even today’s greener iPhones still contribute to the e-waste problem. That’s where Europe’s Fairphone comes to the rescue. By incorporating long-lasting design and fair-traded materials, ensuring good working conditions and making products that are fully recyclable, easy-to-fix and reusable, Fairphone hopes to revolutionize the smartphone market with its eco-conscious products.
As the electronics industry matures and moves toward more sustainable components, that combined with better design can also help reduce the steady stream of e-waste. For instance, researchers at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have come up with a way to extend the life and boost the productivity of lithium ion batteries — the standard power source in today’s electronics — by treating their electrodes with hydrogen. Such a development could be huge for preventing e-waste, given that most of us toss our old phones within two years when the battery inside starts to deteriorate and underperform.
Choosing carefully when it comes to selecting your next smartphone and recycling your old one for free at BestBuy or through its manufacturer are important first steps in becoming part of the solution to the growing problem of e-waste. Becoming an advocate by encouraging others to do the same is another way to greatly expand your positive impact. The non-profit e-Stewards program is dedicated to teaching people how to deal with used electronics — and individuals can pledge to become one of the program’s Envoys to help spread the word about the importance of reducing e-waste.
Dear EarthTalk: How are farms and farmers dealing with climate change? — Michael Harris, Lorton, VA
Agriculture may well be one of the industries hardest hit by the effects of global warming. The non-profit Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental advocacy group, reports that warming-related drought and flooding is already behind tens of billions of dollars in American agricultural losses annually. Given this growing threat, more and more farmers are looking to incorporate tools and techniques — let alone switch up what crops they grow — to be prepared for the big environmental changes already underway.
According to Washington State University’s Center for Sustaining Agriculture & Natural Resources, some of the most promising warming-friendly farming technologies and practices include conservation tillage (stirring up the soil less), precision agriculture (which employs information technology to monitor crop development, refine soil inputs and optimize growing conditions), improved cropping systems (refining the sequence of which crops follow each other on a given piece of land), and anaerobic digestion of organic wastes (via capturing methane waste and turning it into useable energy).
NRDC has been working on sustainable agriculture for decades, and recently launched its Climate Resistant Farms campaign to focus on helping farmers roll with the punches of global warming through implementation of some of these new techniques. The group works directly with farmers to develop and share some of these best practices regarding soil health and water use.
“Climate change and extreme weather will likely have detrimental impacts on crop production, but farmers can use cover crops and other soil stewardship practices to make their farms more resilient to the climate change impacts already being felt and those likely to come in the years ahead,” reports NRDC. “Such practices can also help to reduce and capture the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change.”
NRDC analyzed the carbon capture and water-holding benefits of soil stewardship methods to increase soil organic matter in the 10 highest-value-producing agricultural states in the U.S. They found that “using cover crops on just half of the acres devoted to the nation’s two most ubiquitous crops — corn and soybeans — in those top 10 states could help capture more than 19 million metric tons of carbon each year and help soils retain an additional trillion gallons of water.”
But despite the benefits, fewer than seven percent of U.S. farms plant cover crops, while only one percent of total cropland nationally has them. NRDC would like to see the Federal Crop Insurance Program — which is backed by U.S. taxpayers — offer discounts to farmers who implement cover crops “just as safe drivers can get discounts on their car insurance.”
“While the program was created to help farmers manage risk, premiums are set using a formula that fails to equip them for the challenges of climate change,” states NRDC. “Instead, the program spurs farmers to make risky production decisions.” NRDC points out that besides saving taxpayer dollars in insurance payouts, expanding climate-friendly agricultural practices helps “ensure a reliable food supply for the nation even in the face of more extreme weather and climate risks.”
Dear EarthTalk: I heard that the Pope urged President Trump to keep the U.S. in the Paris climate accord. Since when has the Catholic church been involved in environmental politics? — Janine Morse, Rome, NY
Concern for the health and well-being of the planet has always been part of the biblical tradition. “Sacred Scripture calls believers to care for God’s creation and all of God’s children,” reports the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, an assembly of church leaders from across the country. “God calls us as His stewards to care for the garden He created.”
Examples abound through the centuries of influential Catholics taking conservation seriously, from St. Francis’ 1225 canticle dedicated to praising the Lord through stewardship of “Sister Mother Earth / who sustains and governs us” to Pope Paul VI’s 1971 call for Catholics to take up the mantle of environmental protection as a key social imperative to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops 2001 “pastoral statement.” That implored Catholics around the world to do their part in reining in greenhouse gas emissions for “the future of God’s creation and the one human family.”
More recently, Pope Francis has prioritized climate as a key social concern of the Catholic church. His 2015 “encyclical” — an important papal letter that gets distributed to Catholic congregations around the world — called for urgent, drastic fossil fuel emissions cuts to stave off climate change.
“As a chemist by background and with a team of scientists and an observatory at the Vatican, the Pope is clear that climate change is the greatest threat life our Earth has ever seen — and that it is caused by humans,” reports Earth Ministry, a non-profit dedicated to engaging the faith community in environmental stewardship and advocacy. “And as a priest, he stands in protection and care for his flock, 1.2 billion Catholics world-wide, and for all God’s children, especially the poorest.”
An important part of the battle against global warming for Francis is the relationship between global poverty and environmental destruction: When people don’t have the resources to sustain themselves they are far less likely to be good stewards of the planet, and in turn may suffer the most from a quickly warming climate.
And unlike some of his predecessors, Pope Francis isn’t afraid to mix it up with politicians. He bestowed a copy of the 2015 encyclical upon a visiting President Trump earlier this month — just before Trump’s self-imposed deadline to decide whether or not to keep the United States in the Paris climate accord.
Catholicism is hardly the only major religion concerned about climate change. After all, global warming is non-denominational, affecting people all over the world regardless of their religious beliefs. Whether or not a given religion’s national or global leadership is pushing for carbon mitigation, individual congregations can do their part based on the priorities of their memberships. One easy way to get your church, synagogue, mosque or other religious institution on the right track is by signing on with the Interfaith Power & Light movement that works with congregations to fight global warming through the promotion of energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy. IPL also helps lobby policymakers to advance clean energy initiatives at local, state and national levels.
CONTACTS: U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, www.usccb.org; 2015 Papal Encyclical “Laudato Si,” www.laudatosi.com; Earth Ministry, www.earthministry.org; Interfaith Power & Light, www.interfaithpowerandlight.org.
Dear EarthTalk: I understand that the Trump administration has been busy pulling information about climate change and other environmental issues off of the EPA’s website. What kinds of information and data are no longer accessible? — Jim Harris, Norwalk, CA
It’s no surprise that the Trump administration is looking to change course when it comes to federal action to mitigate climate change, but analysts have been surprised how quickly and drastically the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has “updated” its website to reflect the outlook of its new leader. The information purge began within just two weeks of Donald Trump taking office.
Researchers from the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), a group of scientists tracking federal environmental and energy websites and data, first noticed changes on January 22 when a page formerly called “Federal Partner Collaboration” was updated with new content and renamed “EPA Adaptation Collaboration.” A few days later, the EPA changed the content of both its “climate and water” page to reflect the new administration’s interest in freeing up real estate developers from onerous restrictions, and its “international cooperation” page pledging to stand with other countries in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Interestingly, these early changes were made three weeks prior to the confirmation of notorious climate change denier Scott Pruitt as EPA Administrator.
The next big round of changes came almost two months later on the eve of the People’s Climate March in Washington, D.C., when the EPA removed several sub-pages under its climate section containing detailed climate data. This had originally been published during Obama’s tenure to help the public understand the magnitude of the global warming threat and to provide researchers with information to put into their models to predict how climate change will affect the environment and human health.
According to The Washington Post, one of the recently removed sections challenged statements made by Scott Pruitt, while another provided detailed information on the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan (a new rule which the Trump administration is working to “undo”).
Another removed section, “A Student’s Guide to Global Climate Change,” featured some 50 pages of content tailored to students studying environment and climate, leaving thousands of teachers who had incorporated the data into curricula high and dry for the rest of the school year. (Luckily for teachers, the city of Chicago has republished an archived version of this section on its own website.)
“At a time when Americans are increasingly experiencing climate impacts in their daily lives, the administration has seemingly buried its head in the sand,” says Astrid Caldas, climate scientist at the non-profit Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS). “The facts about climate change have not changed, however, and politics are not a valid reason to archive basic explanations of science.”
For its part, the EPA dismisses the critique as partisan quibbling. “As EPA renews its commitment to human health and clean air, land, and water, our website needs to reflect the views of the leadership of the agency,” says agency spokesman J.P. Freire. “We want to eliminate confusion by removing outdated language first and making room to discuss how we’re protecting the environment and human health by partnering with states and working within the law.”
CONTACTS: EPA, www.epa.gov; EDGI, www.envirodatagov.org; Chicago’s EPA Climate Change Archive, www.cityofchicago.org/city/en/sites/climatechange/home.html; UCS, www.ucsusa.org.