Dear EarthTalk: How do the big gadget-making companies (Apple, Samsung, etc.) stack up these days regarding their environmental footprint? — Doug Greco, Newark, NJ
While some gadget-makers are already prioritizing greener sourcing and operations, others have a long way to go. The international environmental advocacy group Greenpeace has been keeping track of the tech industry’s progress on sustainability for more than a decade, and its advocacy over the years has helped push several leading players to take stock of their operations and plan for a greener future.
Back in 2006, Greenpeace released its first annual Guide to Greener Electronics, in which it ranked the top 10 leading electronics manufacturers of the day according to their track records on their use of toxic substances and efforts on takeback and recycling programs. Nokia and Dell got top honors, each scoring a seven out of 10 overall, while Apple finished near the bottom with a score of just 2.7.
My how things have changed. The 2017 edition, which ranks 17 companies based on adoption of renewable energy, sustainable design and recycling, and use/elimination of hazardous chemicals, has Apple near the top with an overall report-card style “B-” grade. Only Fairphone, a tiny upstart that focuses on designing a phone and supply chain that doesn’t exploit workers or harm the environment, scored better with an overall “B” grade.
Greenpeace gives a lot of the credit for Apple’s rise from the bottom to green leadership to CEO Tim Cook. “Under Cook, Apple not only recognizes unequivocally that climate change is a real problem but has publicly committed Apple to power its data centers and other operations with 100-percent renewable energy to address it,” reports the group. “Apple became the first company to extend this commitment to its entire global supply chain in 2014, and has since made impressive progress, securing commitments from 14 suppliers to power their operations with enough renewable energy needed to manufacture Apple devices or components.”
Greenpeace is further impressed with Apple’s recently announced goal to transition the sourcing of the materials that go into its devices from a “100 percent closed-loop” — meaning the company will reuse and recycle parts and materials and eliminate the need to rely on the mining of new materials. “Apple’s leadership in reducing the impact of its supply chain on the planet is helping redefine expectations of corporate responsibility, playing a catalytic role in driving better performance by other companies,” gushes Greenpeace.
That said, the latest iterations of many of Apple’s products are not designed with repair and upgrade as a priority, forcing users to buy new models when problems start to crop up. “Such a design strategy may help Apple’s profits in the short term, but risks jeopardizing Apple’s environmental reputation and the customer loyalty that has come with it,” Greenpeace warns.
Meanwhile, Dell and HP scored a C+ while Lenovo and Microsoft each got a C-. Acer, LG, Sony and Google got a D+. Huawei and ASUS got Ds and Samsung got a D-. Amazon, Oppo, Vivo and Xiaomi bottomed out the 2017 list with a failing grade of F.
Look for the 2018 edition of Greenpeace’s guide this coming October, just in time for the holidays.
Dear EarthTalk: My vet tells me my 18-year-old cat is nearing the end of her life and I’m wondering what my options are for a green-friendly burial? — Sandy Monroe, New York, NY
Some 94 million cats and 89 million dogs live with us as our pets in the United States. Given that these animals become part of our families, it’s hard to let them go when their time comes. And beyond that, it’s hard to know what to do with their remains.
More than two-thirds of us leave our pet’s remains at the vet’s office, which usually ends in communal cremation. But the process of cremation leads to the release of vaporized mercury, dioxins and furans — noxious air pollutants that spread for miles around — not to mention greenhouse gases.
One eco-friendly alternative to cremation is aquamation (otherwise known as alkaline hydrolysis), which entails accelerating the decomposition process by applying a combination of gentle water flow, temperature and alkalinity.
“At the end of the process, the body has been returned to its natural form in water,” reports Colorado-based Guardian Pet Aquamation. “Similar to cremation, the only solid remains are the mineral ash of the bones.” The end result is a sterile, EPA-neutral liquid solution of amino acids, peptides and sugars that can be released onto the Earth guilt-free.
Many of us just bury our deceased pets in our backyards, which is a perfectly good way to go if staying true to your environmental ideals is a factor, given that the body can decompose naturally over time in the soil and at least in theory contribute to soil health and plant growth. You can help move the process along by burying your pet in one of The Forever Spot’s shrouds or beds which contain a “bio-mix” of mushrooms and other microorganisms that aid in decomposition, neutralize toxins and transfer nutrients to plant life. They come in a range of sizes accommodating anything from a small hamster to a large dog.
If you don’t have a backyard that works, maybe an eco-friendly pet cemetery — where pets are interred in biodegradable caskets or shrouds and landscaping is done without synthetic chemicals — is a good option. The non-profit Green Pet-Burial Society lists several around the U.S. on its website, including Deceased Pet Care in Atlanta, Georgia; Ridgeview Memorial Gardens in Grandville, Michigan; Angel’s Rest in Kanab, Utah; La Puerta Natural Burial Pet Cemetery in Albuquerque, New Mexico; Carolina Memorial Sanctuary in Mills River, NC; and Greenhaven Preserve in Eastover, SC. Many of these facilities are starting to offer aquamation as an alternative to cremation, as well. Yet another option would be finding an eco-friendly human cemetery that allows pet remains to be buried in family plots.
Meanwhile, if you dream of releasing your pet’s remains into a grand natural setting that you can go visit and commune with nature, Better Place Forests lets families spread human and pet remains under a reserved memorial tree in a 20-acre Redwood forest along California’s stunning Mendocino Coast.
Dear EarthTalk: Can fertility techniques pioneered for humans or other animals be used to try to bring back endangered wildlife species? — James E., Richmond, VA
No doubt, humans have come a long way in engineering medical solutions to our own fertility problems. The most common techniques to help people have babies today include: using medication to stimulate unresponsive ovaries to develop mature eggs; artificial insemination whereby healthy sperm is placed directly into a woman’s uterus and conception happens normally thereafter, and In Vitro Fertilization (IVF), which entails combining eggs and sperm outside the body and then inserting one of the resulting fertilized embryos (so-called “test tube babies”) into the woman’s uterine cavity and letting the rest of the pregnancy proceed to term naturally.
While such techniques have helped millions of couples around the world bear healthy babies, only recently have scientists applied such techniques to bringing endangered wildlife species back from the brink of extinction. “The genetics of human fertility can give a better understanding of fertility in more exotic species,” reports Dr. Sherman Silber, a pioneering human fertility expert at St. Luke’s Hospital in Chesterfield, Missouri who has had success applying the lessons learned on humans to animals.
To date, Silber and his colleagues have helped a half dozen leading U.S. zoos maintain healthy populations of chimpanzees, gorillas, South American bush dogs, Mexican wolves, orangutans and Mongolian wild horses using surgical techniques, artificial insemination, IVF and gestational surrogacy (whereby another female besides the genetic mother carries the pregnancy to term).
“We have frozen ovaries in animals that are destined to die off for later ovary transplantation back to related species to be able to increase their population,” reports Silber, who has of late been ramping up efforts to bring back dwindling populations of still-wild endangered species.
Another leading light in the field is Thomas Hildebrandt, who heads the reproduction management program for Berlin’s Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research and is well known among wildlife veterinarians for his pioneering work in endangered species insemination. Hildebrandt, who helped conceive upwards of 50 endangered elephant calves by artificially inseminating their mothers, is now focusing his attention on trying to rescue the Northern White Rhino using IVF techniques. Rampant poaching in the 1970s and 1980s and surging demand in Asia for rhino horns decimated the animal’s populations in Africa — only two individuals, Fatu and Najin (both female and incapable of carrying babies due to health complications) remain alive today; the last male, Sudan, died in March 2018.
Now Hildebrandt and colleagues want to bring them back. They froze the sperm from Sudan and four other males before they died and hope to combine it with eggs harvested from Fatu and Najin while using less endangered but genetically similar Southern White Rhino females as pregnancy surrogates. While this “baby step” won’t be enough to achieve the genetic diversity required to create a sustainable long-term population, Hildebrandt hopes it can open funders’ eyes to the possibility of actually reviving populations of Northern White Rhinos and other species through stem cell research and other techniques researchers haven’t even dreamed up yet.
Contacts: “Infertility Treatment for Endangered or Near Extinct Species,” www.infertile.com/infertility-treatment-endangered-near-extinct-species/; Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, www.izw-berlin.de/welcome.html
Dear EarthTalk: It’s finally time for me to retire my trusty old Nalgene and upgrade my water bottle. Are any brands or models particularly greener than others? — Cyndi Bland, Tempe, AZ
Plastic water bottles were once ubiquitous on college campuses and beyond where people wanted to stay hydrated without buying wasteful single-use plastic water bottles. But today we have many more options for going green when it comes to water bottles. When evidence started coming out that Bisphenol A (BPA) and other chemical additives in even reusable plastic water bottles could be harmful to human health, consumers started looking for other, safer materials. These days it’s hard to find a reusable water bottle made out of plastic, as glass and metal versions have become the more popular choices.
Glass is readily available and easy to recycle. Contigo’s Purity glass water bottle is wrapped in a silicone sleeve to make it easier to handle and pad it in case it takes a tumble. Soma Bottles are likewise made from glass and wrapped in rubber for protection and a better grip. The Zing Anything Citrus Zinger glass water bottle comes with a built-in juicer so that you can infuse your water with fruit essences.
Stainless steel is another popular water bottle choice among eco-conscious consumers, given its ruggedness and insulation, as well as how easy it is to recycle. S’well’s bottles come in a variety of designs, but all share a base made out of recyclable stainless steel. Mira’s stainless steel bottles have similar but more basic designs — but for half the price. Klean Kanteen also sells a variety of sleek stainless-steel based bottles with cool modern styling.
In those situations where you don’t have your own reusable water bottle handy, it would be nice to know that you could buy water in a disposable container that neither comes from petroleum nor requires lots of transport and energy to recycle. Boxed Water Is Better and Just Water think they have the solution: paper cartons (like for milk) derived from sustainably harvested timber. These paper cartons are better than their plastic counterparts in many ways. For starters, they can be shipped empty and flat and are so light that their transportation carbon footprint is much less than glass or plastic. But they have proven difficult to recycle (let alone compost) given that they include not only paper but also aluminum foil (to shield the contents from light and oxygen which could contaminate the water) and plastic inlays for strength.
Another improvement on the single-use plastic water bottle is one made from biodegradable plant-based material, like the algae-derived prototype developed by Ari Jónsson, a student at the Iceland Academy of the Arts. Jónsson’s bottle is derived from red algae powder and water to form a gelatin-like substance that can be shaped into the form of a bottle after a process of heating, molding, cooling and then filling with water. The bottle keeps its shape as long as it has water in it; when it’s empty, it loses its rigidity and begins to decompose — you can bury it or throw it in your compost bin. While the concept is far from mainstream, and probably never will be, it nevertheless proves that single-use bottles don’t have to be such a burden on the environment.
Contacts: S’well Bottle, swellbottle.com; Zing Anything, zinganything.com; Contigo, gocontigo.com; Soma Bottles, drinksoma.com; Klean Kanteen, kleankanteen.com; Boxed Water Is Better, www.boxedwaterisbetter.com; Just Water, www.justwater.com.