Mobile phone madness

ap525270798639Early this afternoon, while strolling around downtown Bethesda, Md., near my home, I saw two people sharing a table at an outdoor cafe, both staring at their phones; pedestrians crossing streets while texting; driver after driver holding phones; and a young woman on a bike, talking on the phone. People say “wearable technology will be part of our future but it strikes me that people are already all but surgically attached to their phones.

It’s hard to remember a time when most people didn’t carry mobile phones but, in fact, it wasn’t that long ago: the late 1990s.* Now that mobile technology is ubiquitous, cell phone manufacturers and wireless carriers have to work harder to sell new phones. This explains the TV and Internet ads you have surely seen this summer, touting more frequent upgrades.

That marketing campaign is the topic of my latest column for Guardian Sustainable Business. Here’s how it begins:

Can you remember life without a cellphone? In the late 1990s, only one in five Americans had one. Today, there are 102 active mobile phonesor connected tablets for every 100 Americans, according to CTIA, The Wireless Association.

This is a problem for the cellphone industry. Now that the industry has sold a phone or tablet to just about everyone in the US, the challenge is to sell more of them, more often, by persuading people to get rid of the perfectly good ones they now possess and upgrade to the new new thing.

It’s a classic example of consumerism run amok. Surely you’ve seen the marketing, which has exploded in recent months on TV and online.

“Two years is too long to wait for a new phone!” says T-Mobile, which recently introducing a replacement program called Jump! “Upgrade to the phone you want twice every 12 months, not once every two years.”

About 152 million cell phones were discarded in 2010, according to EPA. Only about 10 percent of those were recycled. Most end up in desk drawers, attics or, worst of all, landfills. What can be done? Read the column.

A pile of mobile phone

*For the record, I bought my first cell phone in 2001, after the September 11 terrorist attacks. I love my iPhone. It’s a marvelous device. But I try to remember that I lived most of the life without one.

Sorry, wrong number: AT&T’s recycling claim doesn’t add up

Sprint is not the biggest cell phone company, but it is the most environmentally-friendly by most accounts. Sprint ranked No. 3 of all US companies in Newsweek’s annual Green Rankings, well ahead of rivals AT&T (28) and Verizon Communication (54). It offered in-store recycling of mobile devices before AT&T or Verizon. And when an independent research firm, Compass Intelligence, compared the recycling and reuse programs of the major carriers, Sprint came out on top. What’s more, Sprint’s CEO, Dan Hesse, personally has led the company’s efforts, as I learned when we met a couple of years ago. [See my 2010 blogpost, CEO Dan Hesse: Sprinting towards sustainability.]

So I was puzzled to see a recent AT&T press release with the headline: AT&T Customers Break World Record for Recycling Wireless Devices. The release said:

By recycling 50,942 devices during a one-week period, AT&T* customers broke the world record for collecting the most wireless devices in a week as certified by Guinness World Records.

It also noted AT&T collected about three million cell phones for reuse and recycling in 2011. The release got a lot of attention, and was widely and uncritically covered–here at the Mother Nature Network, here at Treehugger, at Environmental Leader and elsewhere.

There’s just one problem.

This so-called world record is all but meaningless. Sprint almost surely recycles a lot more cell phones than AT&T, although direct comparisons are impossible.

Consider: AT&T says it collected 3 million cell phones for reuse and recycling in 2011. Sprint says it collected 11 million in 2011–an average of more than 200,000 a week, easily topping AT&T’s so-called record. [click to continue…]

When “green business” isn’t enough

Into my inbox every day come press releases about this company putting solar panels on a roof or that one making its fleet more efficient. These incremental steps are laudable but  also (1) boring (2) old  hat and, most importantly, (3) unlikely to get us the environmental change we need.

Transformational change, by contrast, usually requires entire industries or groups of industries to work together, often with NGOs, sometimes with government. That’s  been going on for years–Unilever and WWF organized fisheries, NGOs and companies to form the Marine Stewardship Council back in 1997 to promote sustainable fishing practices–but lately, there seem to me more of these cooperative but complicated efforts. That’s reason for optimism.

Last fall, for example, I attended a Starbucks “cup summit” at the MIT Media Lab where the company, with the help of business guru Peter Senge, brought together paper companies, NGOs, government officials and rivals like Green Mountain coffee to figure out how to design a system to eliminate waste from coffee cups. [See The Starbucks Cup Dilemma in Fast Company.] Now Alcoa, with the help of sustainability consultant BluSkye, leading a broad and even more ambitious effort to drive up recycling rates across the US.

Reclaiming (valuable) aluminum cans

To learn about the Alcoa initiative, I met last week  in San Francisco with Jib Ellison, the founder of BluSkye,  and talked by phone with Kevin Anton, Alcoa’s chief sustainability officer.

The problem, as they both described it, is simple: Between $1 billion and $2 billion worth of aluminum cans end up in landfills each year.

Now that’s waste! [click to continue…]

Trash talk, and the Internet

Incentives work. Every economist knows that, as do most parents (“clean your room and I’ll buy you an ice cream”).

Until recently, there have been few incentives to recycle. So recycling rates have been more or less steady for years.

That’s changing, largely because of the Internet and its power to efficiently collect, manage and distribute information.

In a column called The Internet of Trash for the News@Cisco website, I write about the ways a company called RecycleBank and a unit of Waste Management called Greenopolis are using data, the Internet and social media to  reward people who recycle.

Here’s how the story begins:

“Garbage,” says the character played by Andie MacDowell in the 1989 movie, Sex, Lies, and Videotape. “All I’ve been thinking about all week is garbage. We’ve got so much of it, you know? I mean, we have to run out of places to put this stuff eventually.”

Uh, no. Trash may have piled up in the late 1980s—this was the time when a barge called the Mobro carried 3,000 tons of solid waste from New York to Belize and back because there was no place to put it—but Americans lately have been throwing away less stuff, and recycling more.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Internet is a big reason why.  Digital music, for example, means fewer CD cases wind up in the trash. Email and online shopping, meanwhile, reduce the flow of letters and catalogs; mail volumes in the U.S. have fallen from 211 billion pieces in 2005 to 170 million in 2010, according to the annual reports issued by the U.S. Postal Service [PDF, downloads].

The Internet is also enabling innovation around recycling. Two ventures–a startup company called RecycleBank and a new division of Waste Management, America’s largest trash hauler, called Greenopolis – are using digital technology to give people economic incentives to recycle. Both are pay dividends—literally and for the planet, by extracting value from waste that would otherwise be buried in a landfill.

Big companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo that have reputational issues tied to litter  are working with RecycleBank and Greenopolis to promote recycling. You can read the rest of the story here.

Now if only local governments would find ways to either (1) penalize people who throw away lots of stuff by charging them more or (2) reward people who recycle more, we’d drive up recycling rates further. That would move us just a bit closer to a zero-waste economy where nothing is thrown away and everything is made into somethings else. The idea here isn’t merely to eliminate waste, but to eliminate the concept of waste. Kind of like nature.

From the Gulf to the Volt

When trying to save the planet, every litter bit helps.

But let’s not lose sight of the forest when we’re saving a tree–or when General Motors is recycling “plastic boom material used to soak up oil in the Gulf of Mexico” into auto parts in the Chevrolet Volt.

Recycling is laudable–indeed, it points the way to a sustainable, zero-waste future where nothing is thrown away, and everything is made into something else. The Chevy Volt, meanwhile, is an innovative and efficient car–the “car of the year” according to Motor Trend. So the people at GM deserve kudos for developing the car and, now, for turning waste into auto parts, as illustrated in the photo below, which shows some of the materials that go into “underhood parts” of the car:

These materials (l to r): recovered boom material, shredded and densified boom material, post consumer plastic and recycled tires from GM's Milford Proving Ground are combined to create airflow management components for the Volt.

Nor is this effort to reuse and recycle an isolated effort. Just last week, according to Automotive News, GM reported that more than half the waste generated at its 145 plants worldwide is now “landfill free,” meaning the waste gets reused, recycled or converted into energy. Those plants employ more than 70,000 people–all of whom, presumably, are learning that it’s possible to reduce and reuse waste.

What’s more, GM last month announced that it was adding 1,000 jobs in Michigan to develop more hybrid and electric cars similar to the Volt, said The New York Times. GM’s chief executive, Daniel Akerson, said then that “electrification is critical to the global automotive industry.”

But a little perspective is required.

Chevrolet expects to sell about 10,000 Volts in 2010, and up to 45,000 more in 2011.

But GM is selling more than 8,000 cars and light trucks every day, according to Ward’, and most of those are SUVs and light trucks. [click to continue…]

Quiznos: Green enough?

People sometimes say we need to save the planet for our kids. I sometimes think our kids are going to save us.

If you doubt it, ask Rick Schaden. Schaden is CEO of Quiznos, the fast-food chain best known for its toasted subs, and the father of five children, aged three to 19. Today, Quiznos is rolling out new packaging (“Eat Toasty, Be Green”) made from renewable or recycled content that will reduce the chain’s environmental footprint. When we spoke by phone yesterday, I asked what led him to make the changes.

“Believe it or not, I was home watching a movie called Wall-E with my kids,” Schaden said. “You think about LEED-certified buildings and hybrid electric cars and all these really high-tech things, and then you watch Wall-E and the world is buried in trash.” The Disney-Pixar animated movie is the story of a robot named Wall-E, who is designed to clean up a Earth that has been overwhelmed by garbage.

Quiznos green packaging
Quiznos green packaging

His kids had always pushed Schaden to be more green at home. “My kids make sure everything is sorted and separated. If anyone in my house would dare to put a plastic bottle in the trash, my 14-year-old would give him a smack,” he said. “It’s the culture of the new generation. It tells you that’s where consumers are heading.”

So, he figured, why not see what could be done at Quiznos, where he is a large shareholder, and where he returned as CEO, after some time away, just about a year ago. [click to continue…]

Now that’s green tea!

Nothing is more wasteful than, er, waste. Companies pay for the raw materials that they don’t use. Then they pay again to have it trucked to the landfill. That’s why zero waste is an exciting idea. Reducing or eliminating waste is not only good for  the planet, it’s good for  business, as companies like Toyota and Wal-Mart have learned.

Smart companies that pursue zero waste are also taking us closer to an industrial system inspired by nature, where there’s no such thing as garbage. Think about a tree or plant, where this fall’s dead leaves become next spring’s food.

Lipton Green OPJToday’s zero waste story comes from Lipton, the world’s largest tea company. Lipton is a unit of London-based consumer-products giant Unilever (40 billion euros in 2008 revenues), whose brands include Dove soap, Ben & Jerry ice cream, and Hellmann’s mayonnaise. Unilever’s an environmental leader—it helped start the Marine Stewardship Council which certifies the world’s fisheries as sustainable, it’s working with Greenpeace to develop environmentally preferable refrigerants and it led the laundry industry to concentrate detergent and reduce packaging when it came up with Small and Mighty All.

It turns out that virtually all the Lipton Tea sold in the U.S. comes from a plant in Suffolk, Virginia, which brings in tea from more than 20 countries, runs its production line around-the-clock and produces about 1 million tea bags per hour. Last month, the Suffolk facility became a zero waste operation. Credit goes not just to the managers but to the plant’s 400 workers, who got the ball rolling. [click to continue…]