Sunday, April 26, 2009
What's This Worth?
I've developed something of a habit over the past few years; bringing along an empty bag to fill with recyclables whenever I walk around the neighborhood. The photo here are a few things gathered about 15 minutes ago on a walk to and from the local supermarket. Some fairly well known brands, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Pepsi-Cola, and Cadbury-Schweppes, as well as some fairly well known containers, a glass beer bottle, a plastic (yes, that's a generalization, and most folks'll think of it as "plastic") soda bottle and an aluminum soda can.
So, what's been gnawing at me for a while is the "value" of these containers to the consumer that ultimately uses the product. What is it? And, if there is a value, why throw it away? There really is no value whatsoever to the container, to the consumer. Maybe there's something to be said for the container as a delivery mechanism or storage container, something that the consumer may desire. The way I see it, the container is ultimately a means of delivering the value of the product to the end user.
What am I getting at here? If the container has no residual value to the user, and the producer decides what kind of container to use, how to get it, and how to deliver the product filled container to the user, why is it that the consumer (and therefore the public) is responsible for its end of life disposition?
I guess what I am wondering about is why we've collectively agreed that organizations that manufacture products (and services to some extent) can externalize the end-of-life costs of those products (and services) to the public?
This really isn't a new realization.
I can't help but think that if we had a tangible and obvious way of tracking the resource intensity and costs of the containers to the users, we'd have the public clamoring for ways to reduce those impacts and costs. Imagine some way to connect the taxpayer price of a tossed aside soda bottle directly to the consumer's purchase. Maybe it's something like the push for home energy monitors; when people see what's happening, they start to pay attention.
So, how might we encourage manufacturers to think about closing the loop with the non-value added components of their product offerings?
Of course, TerraCycle (the subject of an April Fool's prank) mines companies' waste streams to capture the forgotten and unseen value there. They've recently partnered with Mars to reuse packaging from Snickers, Altoids, Big Red and other brands.
Friday, April 24, 2009
SPROUT 2009: A Benefit for Waltham Fields Community Farm
Come out to support local agriculture in Waltham!
Saturday, May 16th 6-9pm
at the Charles River Museum of Industry, 154 Moody St. in Waltham
Fabulous silent auction, great food and an open bar!
Ticket Prices: $35 for members, $45 for non-members.
Purchase Tickets Now through Wainwright Bank's secure website. When you go to the site - skip down to #2, enter the dollar amount, and make sure to WRITE THE NUMBER OF TICKETS AND MENTION SPROUT IN THE SPECIAL INSTRUCTIONS BOX.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
The Interconnections We Forget
from The Oil Drum:
"[Secretary] Chu noted that solar PV will play a major - if not the major - role in energy 100 years from now. He also noted that we really need cheap solar cells with polymer backing. Of course most of our polymers are oil-derived, which is just another example of how we take for granted the role that cheap oil plays in enabling some of these renewable technologies."This quote (I started this post last week) is a perfect segue into some comments about John Warner's talk at Babson last week. I was fortunate enough to be invited to sit in on Asheen Phansey's (founder of Quaking Aspen) MBA class targeted at students interested in learning how to integrate Nature's design wisdom into their businesses. I twittered (I'm still not sure what twitter will get me in the long run...here are some funny videos about it) about the class so I'll not go into too much detail; we talked about ecosystem succession, the different types of organisms, and what they do. If you're twitter person and are interested, search for #babson and you'll find my comments.
So, John Warner is the founder of The Warner-Babcock Institute for Green Chemistry located in Woburn, MA (pretty appropriate given the history of chemical pollution in that town, remember A Civil Action?) and what some might consider the Godfather of the Green chemistry movement. His billing was not undersold. I thoroughly enjoyed his story, and found myself muttering agreements to myself, nodding, and generally resisting the temptation to leap up and yell "Amen brother!".
So what was I so excited about? He recognizes the flaws in the system.
What struck me most, tying back into the comment about forgotten connections, was John's realization after working in academia & industrial chemistry making cool molecules, publishing papers, and becoming a bit of a chemistry rockstar he had not once been taught about the potential impacts these compounds might have on nature (including people). A personal loss (something that took the air out of the room when he told us) related to a rare birth defect sparked this realization; he said (I'm paraphrasing a bit) "what if a molecule that I touched, that I worked on, was somehow responsible for this?" How would he know? This is when he started to see the flaws in the educational paradigm that created chemists.
In the academic discipline of chemistry, no part of the curriculum addresses the potential for toxic consequences. It reminds me of my own undergraduate mechanical engineering education at WPI; there was absolutely no mention of the social and environmental impacts of our design decisions had. What does it mean environmentally if you choose aluminum alloy A over alloy B? What happens at its end of life? How much energy goes into its manufacture? Where was it sourced? What did its creation do to the native habitats from whence it came? [I can give some credit to WPI, John said he taught an evening class in green chemistry and WPI did launch a sustainability initiative in the spring of 2008 - only a little behind the curve]
What John reaffirmed for me was that we, and everything else are connected, that decisions we make have far-reaching and often unintended consequences that we are bound to start taking into consideration. He noted (and I believe) that collectively we have made the choice to accept economic practices that create pollutants, that create hazardous materials that have known toxic properties. He challenged us to think about why this is...and then think about ways to change it. Of course, this requires the asking of difficult questions, and remaining conscious of the challenges we face while maintaining a resilient posture in the face of those challenges.
Choosing to create toxic substances for the improvement of the human condition is an oxymoron.
I suppose one of the things we have going for us is that younger generations have a different perspective on industry (The days of The Organization Man are long gone). They have not been taught by the scientists and engineers that were born of the Apollo Project. In many ways, the hard work that our parents and grandparents put in to create these institutions and values that have inadvertently placed us on an unsustainable course have allowed us the luxury to take a step back and look at the system and say "Hey, you know what? This is great and everything and we appreciate your hard work. Let's look at what we can improve and move ahead with building a just and regenerative society." We do not have to settle for business-as-usual. In fact, that's probably the biggest danger we face.
Here's to the future...
Oh, and I just could not help but come back to The Oil Drum, some interesting analysis on the influence of oil prices on our economy (bubbles lead to recessions). Remember, it's all about connections.
Thursday, April 02, 2009
Does This Make any Sense?
I really can not believe that the WSJ published this graph. It appeared in a story entitled Global Slump Seen Deepening on April 1st. Maybe I am locked in my engineering mind where discontinuous graphs (especially with acceleration) usually indicated a severe problem with a design; severe spikes nearly always signal something drastic happened...not always good.
Does anyone believe that nearly complete 180s in national GDPs will happen in late 2009? Seriously, it's like someone was looking at the data and decided it was too depressing (and we all know how psychology & emotion contributes to "rational" market behavior) so they made it go back up in their dream world.
OK, I am not trying to be Chicken Little here, but this does not make any sense (what really does?).
Given that some energy analysts are now forecasting an energy price spike potentially coinciding with a global economic "recovery" (due to a steep drop off in energy investments as the price of oil plummeted) that rosy jump upwards looks even more unrealistic.
In the long-term, is restarting the economy we have the best solution? What might we make instead?
On another note, some articles I read from various sources (thanks Justin) that help trace some of the systemic changes that contributed to the current situation. If only it were so easy to pin the blame on something or someone. Systems thinkers?
NYTimes: September 30, 1999 Fannie Mae Eases Credit To Aid Mortgage Lending
NYTimes: November 5, 1999 Congress Passes Wide-Ranging Bill Easing Bank Laws
Interesting reading...especially looking in the rear-view mirror.