Showing posts with label cell phones. Show all posts
Showing posts with label cell phones. Show all posts

Friday, July 31, 2009

Beyond Einstein

Beyond Einstein: In Search of the Ultimate Explanation

Albert Einstein spent his last thirty years unsuccessfully searching for a 'unified theory' — a single master principle to describe everything in the universe, from tiny subatomic particles to immense clusters of galaxies. In the decades since, generations of researchers have continued working toward Einstein's dream.

Renowned physicists Leonard Susskind and Jim Gates, and prominent historian Peter Galison discussed what's been achieved and tackle pivotal questions. Would a unified theory reveal why there is a universe at all? Would it tell us why mathematics is adept at unraveling nature's mysteries? Might it imply we are one universe of many, and what would that mean for our sense of how we fit into the cosmos? Moderated by Nobel Laureate Paul Nurse.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A collapsing carbon market makes mega-pollution cheap

'Roll up for the great pollution fire sale, the ultimate chance to wreck the climate on the cheap. You sir, over there, from the power company - look at this lovely tonne of freshly made, sulphur-rich carbon dioxide. Last summer it cost an eyewatering €31 to throw up your smokestack, but in our give-away global recession sale, that's been slashed to a crazy €8.20. Dump plans for the wind turbine! Compare our offer with costly solar energy! At this low, low price you can't afford not to burn coal!"

Set up to price pollution out of existence, carbon trading is pricing it back in. Europe's carbon markets are in collapse.

Yet the hiss of escaping gas is almost inaudible. There's no big news headline, nothing sensational for TV viewers to watch; no queues outside banks or missing Texan showmen. You can't see or hear a market for a pollutant tumble. But at stake is what was supposed to be a central lever in the world's effort to turn back climate change. Intended to price fossil fuels out of the market, the system is instead turning them into the rational economic choice.

That there exists something called carbon trading is about all that most people know. A few know, too, that Europe has created carbon exchanges, and traders who buy and sell. Few but the professionals, however, know that this market is now failing in its purpose: to edge up the cost of emitting CO2.

The theory sounded fine in the boom years, back when Nicholas Stern described climate change as "the biggest market failure in history" - a market failure to which carbon trading was meant to be a market solution. Instead, it's bolstering the business case for fossil fuels.

Understanding why is easy. A year ago European governments allocated a limited number of carbon emission permits to their big polluters. Businesses that reduce pollution are allowed to sell spare permits to ones that need more. As demand outstrips this capped supply, and the price of permits rises, an incentive grows to invest in green energy. Why buy costly permits to keep a coal plant running when you can put the cash into clean power instead?

All this only works as the carbon price lifts. As with 1924 Château Lafite or Damian Hirst's diamond skulls, scarcity and speculation create the value. If permits are cheap, and everyone has lots, the green incentive crashes into reverse. As recession slashes output, companies pile up permits they don't need and sell them on. The price falls, and anyone who wants to pollute can afford to do so. The result is a system that does nothing at all for climate change but a lot for the bottom lines of mega-polluters such as the steelmaker Corus: industrial assistance in camouflage.

"I don't know why industrials would miss this opportunity," said one trader last week. "They are using it to compensate for the tightening of credit and the slowdown, to pay for redundancies."

A lot of the blame lies with governments that signed up to carbon trading as a neat idea, but then indulged polluters with luxurious quantities of permits. The excuse was that growth would soon see them bumping against the ceiling.

Instead, exchanges are in meltdown: a tonne of carbon has dropped to about €8, down from last year's summer peak of €31 and far below the €30-€45 range at which renewables can compete with fossil fuels.

The lesson of the carbon slump, like the credit crunch, is that markets can be a conduit, but not a substitute, for political will. They only work when properly primed and regulated. Europe hoped that the mere creation of a carbon market would drive everyone away from fossil fuels. It forgot that demand had to outstrip supply, and that if growth stops, demand drops too.

There is not much time to rescue the system. Carbon trading remains at the heart of the international response to climate change. Obama backs what Americans call cap and trade. Australia wants to try the same thing. It should be at the heart of a deal at the Copenhagen summit this winter. But both are hesitating, given Europe's mess.

The market must be unashamedly rigged to force supply below demand. The obvious way would be to cut the number of permits in circulation, but in a recession no government will be brave enough to do that. And private initiatives such as Sandbag, which encourages individuals to buy and lock away permits, can exert little pressure on price in a market awash with them.

Europe can choke off tomorrow's supply, however, without hitting business today. First the EU must stop importing permits from countries such as Russia - a bonus for a paper transaction. No one really believes that 15m tonnes of imported permits will not still be emitted by a steelworks somewhere east of Novosibirsk.

Second, it must publish plans to crack down on the surplus of permits when the recession is over. Warnings of famine ahead, when the scheme enters its third stage in 2012, would raise prices now, if believed.

Like medieval pardoners handing out unlimited indulgences, governments have created a glut. Reformation must follow. Wanted - a modern Martin Luther to nail a shaming truth to industry's door: Europe's whizz-bang carbon market is turning sub-prime.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Virginia, no, not the eWaste!!

Virginia next to enact e-scrap legislation?

The Old Dominion State appears ready to become the next U.S. state to implement a manufacturer-responsibility system for the recovery of used electronics. One measure already has been signed by Virginia Governor Tim Kaine, while another waits in the wings. Having passed both chambers, House Bill 344 requires computer manufacturers to implement a program solely for the recovery of desktop and laptop computers, computer monitors and other computer-related display devices. The state-approved program may consist of several different recovery options, including:

A mail-back system, where consumers could go online, print a prepaid shipping label and ship the product free of charge

A physically staffed collection site

The use of collection events. Manufacturers also could recover used and moribund electronics by creating a joint management group that consisted of other producers, processors, re-use organizations, non-profit corporations or retailers, just to name a few. The most notable provision of HB 344, though, is that it forbids the state from imposing any advanced recovery or annual registration fees upon either the consumer or the manufacturer. The measure, however, does allow the state to issue penalties against manufacturers in violation of the act, including $10,000 as of the second violation and $25,000 for each subsequent violation. The program would take effect July 1, 2009.

Already receiving Governor Kaine's signature, HB 343 will prohibit the disposal of CRTs in a waste-to-energy or solid waste disposal facility, provided the locality has implemented a recycling program capable of handling CRT waste. The act takes effect July 1, 2008.

Saturday, February 23, 2008


HIGH-PITCHED DIGITAL MELODIES and the phrase, “Can you hear me now?” have become mainstream in recent years, thanks to the growing popularity of wireless phones. But while consumers are buying phones equipped with games, text messaging and cameras, the industry has yet to provide for another important demand — an easy disposal system for that outdated phone and a product that is easy to recycle or refurbish.

Next year, Americans are predicted to buy more than 100 million new cell phones and stuff their old phones into closets, drawers and other nooks around the house or office. At that point, the stockpile of out-of-service phones will rise to 500 million units weighing 250,000 tons (about one pound each), according to “Calling All Cell Phones,” a 2003 report by Inform Inc., a New York-based research organization.

“The numbers today are the same as what we found in 2003,” says Eric Most, who authored the Inform report. “At current rates of recovery, hundreds of millions of used cell phones will soon wind up in landfills or incinerators where they'll release arsenic, lead, cadmium and many other toxic materials that threaten human health and the environment,” he says.

Thus, the cell phone industry is scrambling to develop comprehensive disposal alternatives. Cell phone recycling programs are moving in the right direction, Most says, but their scope is dwarfed by the stunning growth of the industry. In 1995, wireless phone carriers supplied service to approximately 34 million subscribers. At the beginning of 2003, there were 141 million cell phone users. According to industry estimates, the average cell phone lasts about 1.5 years. If this estimate is correct, 141 million more phones will require disposal by the end of 2005.

But developing recycling streams for new products takes time. Between 1999 and early 2003, cell phone recycling efforts netted fewer than 5 million phones, about 1 percent of those discarded.

Wireless industry affiliates account for the lion's share of discarded cell phone collection and recycling, according to Inform. Programs include Donate-A-Phone, operated by the Washington, D.C.-based Wireless Foundation, and the Call-To-Protect program, which Verizon Wireless of Bedminster, N.J., operates through its organization HopeLine. AT&T Wireless recently entered the field with a Wireless Reuse & Recycle program.

Additionally, a number of manufacturers and wireless carriers participate in Wireless Foundation programs: Alltel, Cingular, Motorola, Nextel, Rural Cellular Corp. and Sprint. These programs refurbish phones and donate them to charities or resell them to new users. Cell phones that cannot be refurbished are recycled back into the manufacturing process. However, that leaves 495 million cell phones with no place to go but the landfill.

“Bottom line, this is a matter for concern, but not alarm,” says Bruce Parker, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based National Solid Wastes Management Association (NSWMA), a sub-association of the Environmental Industry Association (EIA). “Every few years, the e-waste stream changes as technology replaces older products. The technical ability to discover toxic and potentially negative aspects of electronic products is still far ahead of the ability to deal with those discoveries in terms of social policies.”

Parker goes on to note that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Washington, D.C., currently is working with companies that manufacture electronic products to develop an infrastructure of programs to refurbish and recycle e-waste, including cell phones. Yet he believes the responsibility for dealing with e-waste must ultimately fall on manufacturers and retailers.

“It is an ups
tream responsibility,” Parker says. “We are part of the loop in that we eyeball incoming trash and comply with landfill bans by sending banned materials back. But you can't deal with the problem itself downstream at the landfill.”

The Inform report draws a similar conclusion and recommends a number of steps to help cell phone retailers and manufacturers control the problem.

The recommendations include national advertising campaigns that advise consumers to return their old cell phones to stores and manufacturers, to take advantage of cell phone collection drives, and to donate cell phones to charities that refurbish and redistribute the phones.
Inform also recommends that manufacturers develop more durable plastic components to reduce the number of parts that must be replaced during phone refurbishing. Manufacturers also could standardize cell phone design elements, such as adapters, batteries and accessories, to speed refurbishing and allow more parts to be recycled back into manufacturing. Other recommendations include reducing toxic contaminants in parts, simplifying software reprogramming procedures and color-coding batteries to simplify sorting.

The Inform report also makes four suggestions to public policy makers:

Require consumers to make deposits on cell phone purchases. The promise of a refund would provide an incentive to return used phones for reuse and recycling.

Institute landfill bans on cell phones.

Make manufacturers responsible for managing end-of-life cell phones to create incentives for manufacturers to design products that are easier to refurbish and recycle.
Evaluate the effectiveness of such policies by requiring manufacturers, retailers and recyclers to report on the collection, recycling, refurbishment and eventual end-use of old cell phones.
Efforts to keep cell phones out of landfills may not hold huge selling power among consumers. But if the industry continues to develop technology at its current pace, investing in reusable products could be music to the waste industry's ears.

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