Wednesday, December 17, 2008

My Charlie Brown Christmas

It happens every year. Right on the heels of the most gluttonous Thursday of my life, it strikes: Christmas season.

In fact, it seems like even before Thanksgiving is over, the makeshift pumpkin patches of Halloween have magically transformed into Christmas tree lots. Rooftops are trimmed with various blinking colorful lights. And front lawns are now covered with inflatable or mechanical woodland creatures–or both.

It all walks a thin line between festive and seizure inducing.

And just as would be shoppers have claimed another Wal-Mart employee, I am stuck there with my annual Frosted Mini-Wheats dilemma: The kid in me really wants a fresh Christmas tree, but the adult in me cannot justify it.

I know what you are probably thinking. Why not an artificial tree? All I can say is that it’s just not the same.

As a kid, my father and I went to tree farms where we would chop one down in its prime. Not one of those “lots” people go to these days. I have very fond memories of being covered in tree sap, and impaled with pine needles. All of which I cherish to this day.

Do you know how hard it is for an environmentalist to reconcile memories of chopping down a tree? It sucks.

I have tried other options. My favorite is the Christmas rosemary bush. It comes all Christmas-tree-shaped. And it isn't like the smell of rosemary is a horrible thing.

But in the end, it’s not the same. I come back to this point because I think this is the same dilemma we all face everyday. As we work towards a greener lifestyle, how do we balance habits that we cherish with “what is right?”

I’d like to say I know, but I really don’t. Do you?

As for the Christmas tree, well, most years I just don’t get one. Instead I cruise the lots like a meth addict, taking in that pine fresh smell and reminiscing about the good ol’ days. But some years I do break down and buy one.

Don’t even get me started on whether or not I should get it flocked

Monday, December 15, 2008

E-waste certification program launched

• Commits to no dumping in landfills or developing countries

• ‘Our planet’s glut of e-waste is no longer a problem we can sweep under the rug’

The Basel Action Network and the Electronics TakeBack Coalition have joined with Electronic Recyclers International of Fresno to create the “e-Stewards Initiative” — a certification program for North America’s most responsible e-waste recyclers.

The e-Steward Initiative is described as the first independently audited and accredited electronic waste recycler certification program forbidding the dumping of toxic e-waste in developing countries, local landfills and incinerators; the use of prison labor; and the unauthorized release of private data.

“Unfortunately today, most companies calling themselves electronics recyclers are scammers,” says Sarah Westervelt, e-Stewards project coordinator at the Basel Action Network (BAN) in Seattle. “They simply load up containers of old computers and ship them off to China or Africa.”

The e-Stewards announcement follows Sunday’s report on CBS’ 60 Minutes exposing fraudulent electronic recycling and the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s recently aired Electronic Dumping Ground. These programs reveal that computers given to many recyclers in the United States and Canada are likely to be dumped in China or Africa, where e-waste is causing environmental and health problems.

“The genuinely responsible recyclers in North America face unfair competition from thousands of unethical, so-called ‘waste recyclers’ that would more accurately be called ‘waste shippers,’” says John Shegerian, chairman and CEO of ERI. “We strongly support a certified, audited program to separate the legitimate recyclers from the low-road operators.”

“Our planet’s glut of e-waste is no longer a problem we can sweep under the rug,” Mr. Shegerian says.

Funding to create the certification program was provided by 14 recycling companies.

Crash in trash creates mountains of unwanted recyclables

American towns are being forced to abandon recycling their household waste after the global economic downturn has crashed the once profitable market for "trash".

By Philip Sherwell in New York

Financial crisis is rubbish for trash

Mountains of used plastics, paper, metals and cardboard are piling up in the warehouses and yards of recycling companies across the US. Some contractors are negotiating to rent old military hangars and abandoned railway depots because they have run out of storage space for the glut of suddenly unwanted rubbish.

The collapse in the recycling market is a direct by-product of the financial crisis, as demand has slumped for material to be converted into everything from boxes for electronics to car parts and house fittings.

Householders have long been able to feel virtuous about their impact on the environment by sorting out their rubbish each week. But now the great trash market crash has even raised the environmentally alarming spectre that some waste intended for recycling may end up in landfills.

"The crash is all the more dramatic because as recently as mid-October the prices for recyclables stood at record highs," said Bruce Parker, president of the National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA).

Newsprint is now fetching less than $60 (£40) a ton, down from $160; corrugated boxing has slumped from $50 a ton to $10; while tin fetches $5 a pound compared to about $25.

Other materials are performing even worse, Mr Parker said. His members are now having to pay for the removal of low-grade mixed paper that two months ago was bringing in $120 a ton. "And plastics, you cannot even give them away," he added with a sigh.

The previous surge in prices had largely been driven by soaring demand from China and India. The emerging economic powerhouses were swallowing up rubbish as soon Americans were discarding it - often to turn into goods and packing that were then sold back to the US.

But the demand from Asia has now collapsed as the economic crisis has spread around the globe. "We truly live in a global economy where what happens at one end of the earth directly affects business at the other end," said Mr Parker.

The impact is devastating commercially - and not just for recycling businesses. Already confronting crippling budget shortfalls, local and state authorities have now seen a lucrative source of income dry up as recycling centres are no longer paying for their rubbish.

Some towns have even suspended their recycling operations, although in much of the country those programmes are required by law.

Residents in West Virginia's Kanawha county, which includes the state capital Charleston, have been told to stockpile plastics and metals, the materials worst hit by the crash, as they will no longer be collected. Small towns with tight budgets are particularly badly affected – Frackville in Pennsylvania has recently suspended its recycling programme.

The collapse has even hit the nation's most prestigious academic institutions. Harvard University used to receive $10 a ton for mixed recyclables from a nearby centre, but last month was told that it would have to start paying $20 a ton to send students' discarded newspapers and empty bottles there.

"I have been in the recycling business for 30 years and never seen a time as bad as this," said Johnny Gold, senior vice-president of the Newark Group, one of America's biggest recycling companies.

"It's a combination of the economic collapse and Chinese over-capacity.

"Our industry is a textbook case of supply and demand. We sell our product to paper mills that make boxes to supply companies making goods and if those goods are not selling, then they don't need the boxes and they don't buy our product."

Mr Parker believes that the market may not bounce back until late 2010 - and by then the mountains of unwanted rubbish would have turned into major mountain ranges. The NSWMA argues that to handle the crisis, the US will have to step up investment in its own recycling mills to fill the gap left by Asia and that contractors may have to impose recycling surcharges.

"It may cost communities more in the meantime but from an environmental point of views, the savings in terms of reducing greenhouse emissions and other benefits are still much greater," he said.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Enviro Economics, green bubble burst?

Among the hardest hit is T. Boone Pickens and his alternative energy hedge fund BP Capital, which has reportedly lost some $2 billion. The Oklahoma oil tycoon who leased hundreds of thousands of acres in West Texas for a giant wind farm, has put that project on hold, saying he'll have to wait for fossil-fuel prices to rise again in order to make the project economically viable. Oil was at $48 a barrel this week, down from a peak of $147 in July. Another canary in the coal mine: the once soaring market for carbon credits in Europe has tanked, as manufacturing firms worldwide slow production. Even the once promising sector of corn ethanol has gone bust, with the American company VeraSun declaring bankruptcy in October and other publicly held ethanol companies reduced to penny stocks.

Some sectors are brighter than others. Rick Hanna, an equity analyst at Morningstar, remains bullish on solar companies. "The United States promises to be one of the largest ultimate markets for solar power," he says. The sector has suffered in the short term from lower fossil-fuel prices, but Hanna's counting on the new Obama administration to put through a cap-and-trade program to help bridge the cost difference. "It's early on in solar's technological revolution," he says. "The cost will come down, and the cost of fossil fuel will rise, not just because of supply and demand, but also with the carbon-tax regimes, which may make it more expensive for traditional power to operate." And, regardless of what is happening in the United States, Germany, Japan and Spain continue to be major markets for solar energy (Germany is the world's largest, followed by the United States and Spain), aided by generous helpings of government investment.

The road for green mutual funds has been decidedly bumpier. Just one year ago, these funds, which tend to invest in more volatile small-cap stocks, were riding a wave of popularity. The Winslow Green Growth Fund, launched in 2001, was seeing 5-year average returns of 25 percent. The New Alternatives Fund was seeing a 20 percent average annual rate of return. In 2008, the Winslow fund, which invests in such companies as Chipotle Mexican Grill, Green Mountain Coffee and First Solar, hit a low of $16 (down from $30 a year ago) before rising into the low $20s this week. "I think we're seeing now that the market has found a bottom," says Matthew Patsky, manager of Winslow's Green Growth Fund. "We are seeing more money coming back into the market looking for attractive values, and it seems they are seeking out green companies in a big way." Environmentally friendly companies have high growth potential, especially with the incoming administration in Washington, he says.

Perhaps, but that possibility is little comfort to companies like Covanta Energy, a New Jersey-based company that converts waste into electricity and recycles metal. The company has relatively lucrative long-term contracts with municipalities around the country that pay Covanta a fixed price for collecting their trash while also receiving revenue from utilities that buy the electricity the company produces. Covanta gets even more revenue from additional electricity that it sells on the open market. "It's a very stable business model, and yet the stock has been slammed," says Patsky. Covanta stock hit a low of $15 in October, down from a 52-week high of $30, before rebounding to $21 on Friday.

Stock market volatility isn't likely to settle any time soon. According to Michael Herbst, a Morningstar equity analyst who follows mutual funds, weaker green companies will probably get weeded out before the crisis comes to an end—much the way weaker dotcoms failed after the first tech bubble burst, though he hesitates to draw too much of a parallel between the two economic periods. "During the tech bubble you saw people investing like mad in companies with no products and no revenues, nothing other than allure," he says. "That certainly is the case for some companies related to alternative energy, especially the very early stage companies. But you're also including in this bucket, well established, international companies like Vestas [one of the world's largest wind turbine manufacturers]." Over the next 10 to 15 years, says Herbst, the outlook for green funds is good, because "the need for alternative energy and clean technology is going to remain important." But the next two years look cloudy. "It's a very tough time for earlier stage companies," he says. You bet your bubble.

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