Saturday, November 27, 2010

Green Ideas That Made Millions

As more and more Americans go green, environmentally sustainable innovations are translating into big bucks for entrepreneurs.

Sure, going green feels great, but these five eco trailblazers are living proof that green business can also mean money in the bank, not to mention a lighter footprint for all.

Green moving with Spencer Brown

Five years ago, product designer Spencer Brown was stunned after spending more than $800 on cardboard boxes and packing material to move his home office. After the move was finished, he was stuck with nothing but a pile of trash.

After being turned away from a recycling center because there was too much packing tape on his boxes, Brown was forced to drive to the landfill and toss his moving waste onto one of the many 40-foot piles of cardboard.

Through this shocking experience came Rent-a-Green Box, a zero-waste pack and move solution that is taking the nation by storm.

Brown’s ‘green’ boxes, called RecoPacks, are made of 100 percent post-consumer plastics and can be reused up to 400 times.

Rent-a-Green Box also distributes several other post-consumer moving necessities, including zip-ties made from bottle-caps and dollies made from aluminum cans.

Rent-a-Green Box rents, delivers and picks up the RecoPacks, which are now available in three sizes and four colors, and the company that once employed only Brown has gained international distribution and has recently begun franchising.

“If someone told me five years ago that I was going to own a franchise training facility, I would have laughed,” Brown says. “No one thought the idea of renting a green box would work, but I knew that people would love a convenient, cheaper and better way to move their stuff.”

Lyndon and Peter Rive bring solar to the city

SolarCity makes solar power accessible to everyone by eliminating up-front cost through a leasing system. Photo: SolarCity

South Africa-born brothers Lyndon and Peter Rive knew they wanted to get into green business, but they wanted to choose the application that would make the greatest impact. Once they zoned in on solar power, there was no turning back.

They launched SolarCity in 2006, and immediately set out on their mission to make solar power accessible to everyone by eliminating up-front cost through a leasing system.

The Foster City, Calif. company has made a huge splash, expanding to five states and installing more than 8,000 systems in four years. To put that in perspective, only 75,000 systems have been deployed in the entire United States over the past 30 years, the brothers say.

With so many solar panels already installed, it’s time for a break, right? No way. The Rive brothers hope to install more than a million solar systems and have plans to expand SolarCity to the East Coast by 2011.

“At the current rate of adoption we’re not going to move the environmental needle,” says Lyndon Rive. “If we want to make an environmental impact, we have to do this fast. So, we want to keep expanding and bringing affordable solar power to even more people.”

Kyle Berner and his all-natural ‘feel good’ flip-flops

After returning to the states from a one-year backpacking adventure in Thailand, recent college grad Kyle Berner knew he wanted to stay connected to the country. While he was visiting Bangkok for a wedding in 2007, fate stepped in – literally.

Feelgoodz operates its business through the triple bottom-line model of People, Planet, Profit. Photo: Kyle Berner

As Berner was crossing a busy Bangkok market, the strap of his flip-flop broke. His search for a new pair brought him to a vendor with a rubber tree display and a curiously comfortable flip-flop.

“When the vendor told me they were made from rubber trees, I was amazed, and I immediately tracked down the manufacturer and set up a meeting with them,” Berner remembers. “The next thing you know, I secured the exclusive distribution agreements for these flip-flops to be sold in America.”

Rights secured, Berner returned to his hometown of New Orleans, La. and started Feelgoodz in 2008 out of a shed in his parents’ back yard.

The company has since moved out of mom and dad’s house and has grown exponentially, selling more than 50,000 pairs of flip-flops in more than 200 retail locations in its first year.

The cradle-to-cradle business model of Feelgoodz ensures that the Thai rubber farmers harvesting the flip-flop’s natural material are paid fair wages and that disposal is sustainable through a grassroots recycling program that recycles any brand of flip-flop.

Feelgoodz also hopes to expand its recycling program in partnership with Soles 4 Souls and plans to launch a new sub-brand of boutique items made by Kenyan craftsmen from recycled foot-ware.

“There’s no end to this flip-flop,” says Berner. “We’re just going to keep running with it.”

Margarita McClure turns diapers into dollars

New mom Margarita McClure hardly had visions of grandeur when she began sewing cloth diapers for her son in 2005. When her husband suggested she turn her diaper designs into a business, McClure decided to give it a try.

Margarita McClure is out to clean up the mess the 27.4 billion disposable diapers leave behind annually. Photo: Margarita McClure

She sewed about a dozen diapers and put them up on eBay to gauge interest. When the first diaper sold for $26, McClure realized she had found something special.

After launching a website and finding an American sewing contractor, Swaddlebees was born.

“At first I thought I could sell a few hundred diapers per month and justify staying home with my son,” says McClure. “In the first month, we sold 2,000 diapers.”

The Knoxville, Tenn. company now sells its nontoxic and reusable diapers in more than 100 retailers, and although McClure has been approached by big-name retailers such as Walmart and Target, she prefers to sell her diapers in stores and baby boutiques owned by entrepreneurial moms like her.

“Over the years, I realized that we’re not just selling diapers,” McClure says. “We’re actually helping other women create revenues for themselves, and we’re helping other moms stay home to watch their babies by selling diapers.”

With Swaddlebees booming, McClure has also launched Blueberry Diapers, a fun and funky diaper line sure to please even the chicest eco-baby, and Pink Daisy, a premium line of reusable feminine hygiene products.

Eric Hudson’s passion for toothbrushes

Eric Hudson had an idea to redesign the toothbrush since he was a teenager, and when he coupled it with a desire to make a quality product out of recycled materials, there was no stopping him.

Preserve products are made from 100 percent recycled plastics and 100 percent post-consumer paper. By using recycled materials, saving energy, preserving natural resources and creating an incentive for communities to recycle. Photo: Eric Hudson

Hudson left his job as a management consultant to launch Preserve (aka Recycline) and take it straight to retail stores.

Preserve has since expanded to a full line of razors, kitchenware and food storage, all made from 100 percent recycled material.

Through Preserve’s take-back program customers can return Preserve toothbrushes and razors, which are reused to make park benches or porch decks through its Plastic Lumber program.

The company also recycles more than 100,000 pounds of plastics #5 every year through its Gimme 5 program and turns the plastic waste into kitchenware.

The total waste Preserve converts into personal care products and kitchenware each year is almost 10 times that, and Hudson partners with about five companies to secure the 1 million pounds of pre and post-consumer recycled plastic he needs annually to produce Preserve products.

Since launching in 1996, Preserve has seen a steady growth of about 50 percent per year, on average. Not too shabby for a company with a former staff of one.

“Ultimately we think we can be a global brand,” says Hudson. “It’s exciting to be where we are now, and it’s a real testament that people out there have an interest in products that reduce human impact on the earth.”

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Monday, November 22, 2010

Cadmium, lead found in drinking glasses

LOS ANGELES – Drinking glasses depicting comic book and movie characters such as Superman, Wonder Woman and the Tin Man from "The Wizard of Oz" exceed federal limits for lead in children's products by up to 1,000 times, according to laboratory testing commissioned by The Associated Press.

The decorative enamel on the superhero and Oz sets — made in China and purchased at a Warner Brothers Studios store in Burbank — contained between 16 percent and 30.2 percent lead. The federal limit on children's products is 0.03 percent.

The same glasses also contained relatively high levels of the even-more-dangerous cadmium, though there are no federal limits on that toxic metal in design surfaces.

In separate testing to recreate regular handling, other glasses shed small but notable amounts of lead or cadmium from their decorations. Federal regulators have worried that toxic metals rubbing onto children's hands can get into their mouths. Among the brands on those glasses: Coca-Cola, Walt Disney, Burger King and McDonald's.

The Coca-Cola Co., which had been given AP's test results last week, announced Sunday evening that after retesting it was voluntarily recalling 88,000 glasses over concerns regarding the mainly red glass in a four-glass set.

The AP testing was part of the news organization's ongoing investigation into dangerous metals in children's products and was conducted in response to a recall by McDonald's of 12 million glasses this summer because cadmium escaped from designs depicting four characters in the latest "Shrek" movie.

The New Jersey manufacturer of those glasses said in June that the products were made according to standard industry practices, which includes the routine use of cadmium to create red and similar colors. That same company, French-owned Arc International, made the glasses that Coca-Cola said it was pulling.

To assess potential problems with glass collectibles beyond the "Shrek" set, AP bought and analyzed new glasses off the shelf, and old ones from online auctions, thrift shops and a flea market. The buys were random.

The fact it was so easy to find glasses that appeal to kids and appear to violate the federal lead law suggests that contamination in glassware is wider than one McDonald's promotion.

The irony of the latest findings is that AP's original investigation in January revealed that some Chinese manufacturers were substituting cadmium for banned lead in children's jewelry; that finding eventually led to the McDonald's-Shrek recall; now, because of the new testing primarily for cadmium in other glassware, lead is back in the spotlight as well.

AP's testing, conducted by ToyTestingLab of Rhode Island, found that the enamel used to color the Tin Man had the highest lead levels, at 1,006 times the federal limit for children's products. Every Oz and superhero glass tested exceeded the government limit: The Lion by 827 times and Dorothy by 770 times; Wonder Woman by 533 times, Superman by 617 times, Batman by 750 times and the Green Lantern by 677 times.

Federal regulators will decide whether the superhero and Oz glasses are "children's products" and thus subject to strict lead limits; if U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission staffers conclude the glasses to fall outside that definition, the lead levels would be legal.

Judging by the agency's own analysis, obtained by the AP under the Freedom of Information Act, the Oz and superhero glasses appeal to kids.

"Licensed characters based on action superhero themes or friendship themes are very popular" with children ages 6 to 8, CPSC staff wrote when explaining why the "Shrek" glasses, which featured the cartoon ogre and his friends, would end up in children's hands.

Warner Brothers said, "It is generally understood that the primary consumer for these products is an adult, usually a collector."

However, on Warner Brothers' website, the superhero glasses are sold alongside kids' T-shirts with similar images and a school lunch box. An online retailer, http://www.retroplanet.com, describes the 10-ounce glasses as "a perfect way to serve cold drinks to your children or guests."

The importer, Utah-based Vandor LLC, said it "markets its products to adult collectors." The company said less than 10,000 of each set had been sold and that the products were made under contract in China.

The company said that superhero and "Oz" glasses both passed testing done for Vandor by a CPSC-accredited lab, including the same lead content test that ToyTestingLab did for AP — a test only required of children's products. Spokeswoman Meryl Rader did not answer when asked why a test specific to children's products would be performed on glasses the company said were not intended for kids.

"The results were well within the legal limits" of 0.03 percent lead, Rader wrote in an e-mail. The company would not share those results.

Informed in general terms of AP's results, CPSC spokesman Scott Wolfson said that the agency would pursue action against any high-lead glasses determined to be children's products. The agency has authority to enforce lead levels for glasses going back decades, he said.

AP's testing showed Vandor's Chinese manufacturer also relied on cadmium. That toxic metal comprised up to 2.5 percent of the decorative surface of the Oz and superhero glasses, nearly double the levels found in the recalled "Shrek" glasses. But the CPSC only limits how much cadmium escapes from the designs, not how much cadmium the designs contain. Even that regulation is new: The CPSC used the "Shrek" glasses to establish a standard for how much cadmium coming out of children's glassware creates a health hazard.

Five of the glasses that AP tested, including one ordered from the online Coca-Cola store, shed at least as much cadmium as the CPSC found on the "Shrek" glasses. While those five could have been deemed a health hazard under the CPSC guidelines used for the recall, recent revisions tripled the allowable amount of cadmium and the agency may no longer consider them a problem. The agency has said its upward revision means the "Shrek" glasses did not need to be recalled.

 

The all-red Coke glass shed three times more cadmium than the Puss in Boots "Shrek" glass that worried federal regulators the most last summer. Coke Zero and Diet Coke glasses from the same set did not exhibit the same problem in AP tests.

In announcing that it was voluntarily recalling 22,000, four-glass sets "for quality reasons," the company said the glass designed to look like a red can of Coca-Cola "did not meet our quality expectations. While recent tests indicated some cadmium in the decoration on the outside of the glass, the low levels detected do not pose a safety hazard or health threat." It said the three other designs in the set — Coke Zero, Diet Coke and Sprite — did not cause concern.

"The Coca-Cola Company has an unwavering commitment to quality, and at times we may withdraw products from the market for quality reasons, even if there is no safety concern or legal requirement to do so," the company said. "We apologize to our consumers for the inconvenience."

The company said consumers who purchased the glasses from Coke's online store will receive an automatic credit; customers who bought the glasses in retail stores will be instructed on what to do starting Nov. 30.

The glasses were "designed for the general adult population," were manufactured in the United States and have been on the market since March, the company said. Last week, Coke said previous testing showed the glasses "complied with all relevant regulations, including with respect to cadmium."

In all, AP scrutinized 13 new glasses and 22 old ones, including glasses sold during McDonald's promotion for a 2007 "Shrek" movie. The used glasses date from the late 1960s to 2007, mostly from promotions at major fast-food restaurants. Thousands of such collectibles are available at online auction sites; countless others are kept in American kitchen cabinets, and used regularly by children and adults.

First, AP screened them using a state-of-the-art Olympus Innov-X gun that shoots X-rays into a glass and delivers an estimate of how much lead, cadmium or various other elements are present.

The glasses were then sent to ToyTestingLab, which is accepted by the CPSC as an accredited laboratory for a range of procedures.

The glasses were tested according to the procedure that the safety commission used in the "Shrek" recall. The decorated surface of each glass was stroked 30 times with water-soaked wipes, with each stroke representing a hand touch. The wipes were then analyzed for how many micrograms of lead, cadmium or other elements they collected.

Finally, for seven of the superhero and Oz glasses the lab extracted samples of the decorations. That colored enamel was analyzed for its total lead content.

"I was extremely surprised at the levels," said Paul Perrotti, ToyTestingLab's director, of the total content test. He said his lab has seen glasses that fail to meet government standards, "But not 30 percent lead."

Despite what Perrotti described as "grossly high" levels, the wipe testing picked up very little lead coming out from these seven glasses. His staff had to use a diamond-tipped grinder to remove the colors, suggesting the enamel was strongly bonded to the glass.

Perrotti and glass engineers interviewed by AP said the surface of the glasses AP tested could break down with repeated use, scouring and trips to the dishwasher, making the metals more accessible.

Following a cascade of problems with products manufactured in China, Congress in 2008 passed strict new limits that effectively ban lead in any children's product. The underlying materials in these products — including the baked-in enamel — cannot be more 0.03 percent lead.

Lead has long been known to reduce IQ in kids; recent research suggests cadmium also can damage young brains. Cadmium also is a carcinogen that can harm kidneys and bones, especially if it accumulates over time.

Cadmium, however, also happens to be an indispensable pigment for an important part of the color palette — without it there is no "fire engine red" (think Superman's cape and Dorothy's slippers). Lead on the other hand is not essential.

A lot of a toxic metal in a glass does not necessarily mean a health hazard. Most of the 35 lab-tested glasses were safe under normal conditions — their decorations shed very low or no detectable amounts of lead or cadmium. Among those that did release higher levels in the wipe test, none gave off nearly enough to make someone immediately sick, according to AP's analysis of the results.

Instead, the concern is low levels of exposure over weeks or months, whether kids also are eating a sandwich or licking their fingers.

In addition to the seven contaminated Oz and superhero glasses, 10 others raised concern over longer-term contact — two for both lead and cadmium, five for lead only and three for cadmium only. According to widely used computer modeling, the contamination that came off three of the glasses could measurably increase a child's blood lead level.

If half of what gets onto a child's hand enters their mouth, as the CPSC calculates, seven of the glasses would require fewer than 20 hand touches for kids age 6 and under to exceed U.S. Food and Drug Administration guidelines for the maximum amount of lead they should ingest in a day.

Most of the 10 additional glasses were released before 2000, including a Disney "Goofy" glass distributed by McDonald's that shed lead and cadmium, and three "Return of the Jedi" glasses from 1983 released by Burger King. One of the "Jedi" glasses hit the FDA lead level for 6-year-olds after just eight touches.

Both fast food chains said in statements that their glasses met applicable safety standards at the time they were manufactured. Disney, which ran several promotions with McDonald's for glassware AP tested, had no comment.

Using computer modeling, nationally recognized toxicologist Dr. Paul Mushak, who has advised government agencies including the CPSC and now operates a consulting practice in North Carolina, concluded that if half of what came off the glasses was ingested, it could raise a 5- to 6-year-old's blood lead level by 11 percent on the high end and 4 percent on average.

The blood level changes didn't alarm Mushak, but he expressed concern because lead from the glasses would be absorbed into the bones, only to be released much later in life, for example in menopausal women.

Mushak suggested that the safety commission's wipe test could underestimate real-world exposure, because it uses water on the wipes, a very mild approach. AP's testing showed that when glasses were subjected to a wipe wetted with artificial sweat, the amounts of lead or cadmium that came off were up to four times higher than water wipes.

Members of the association representing the U.S. glassware industry say the glasses are safe and strongly protest that the wipe test does not accurately reflect how much lead or cadmium escapes in the real world.

Myra Warne, executive director of the Society of Glass and Ceramic Decorated Products, said she is frustrated that the CPSC used it, rather than a more commonly used method developed by the FDA.

"As we are aware, government agencies don't always (or perhaps often) share their insight and knowledge with one another which is likely why CPSC and others are fixated on improper test protocol for our products," she wrote in an e-mail.

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