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June 01 2013


March 25 2011


CoLab Project Spotlight: Recycling Cooperatives in South and Central America

The MIT Community Innovators Lab (CoLab) is a center for planning and development within MIT's Department of Urban Studies and Planning. CoLab works with low-income communities in putting their assets to work to help improve livelihoods and strengthen civic life and use the market as an arena for achieving social justice.

This blog will periodically feature CoLab project spotlights in an effort to increase idea exchange and collaboration on these projects.

CoLab’s Libby McDonald and MIT students work with local recycling experts on Corn Island in Nicaragua to do a waste sort as part of data collection for determining how to reform Corn Island’s trash collection route.

"I went to a meeting of business owners and government officials in Sao Paulo," says CoLab’s Libby McDonald, "and the businesses were saying, 'We can’t really figure out how to work with the wastepicking cooperatives. How do we ensure that they do regular pick ups? How do we know if they'll even come when they say they will?' And then right after, I went to a meeting with the Sao Paulo Union of Catadores (Wastepickers), and they said, "How are we going to handle the additional tonnage coming from these companies?'"

Brazil recently passed a law mandating that businesses recycle a certain percentage of their waste. The government strongly encouraged businesses to hire informal recycling cooperatives to get the job done.

McDonald coordinates the Green Grease project in Brazil and a similar project in Nicaragua with these informal recycling cooperatives. Working in partnership with them, she assembles teams of students from various MIT departments to research the issues in question and then brings the students to Brazil and Nicaragua to work on-site developing waste management plans.

The key question that these projects seek to answer is: How can informal cooperatives scale up and develop a business model that allows them to work directly with private sector companies and local governments?

McDonald identifies a few important challenges in answering that question:

  • Local governments don’t always recognize informal recycling cooperatives, which provide a legitimate public service. The cooperatives want to be recognized for the services they provide.
  • There is a capacity challenge. The same people who corner the market on local recycling knowledge may not know how to read and write; nonetheless, we need to figure out together how to best manage these businesses.
  • From the MIT end, it is difficult to raise money to cover costs associated with these projects.
  • It’s no simple challenge to figure out how to establish waste-to-energy and recycling businesses. The problem incorporates social issues, class issues, environmental issues, and a business challenge.

A key element, McDonald has discovered, is trust. In Sao Paulo, local recycling cooperatives are agile and timely in collecting household waste and processing it. But when it comes to working with hotels and other private companies, there is a disconnect. The relationships aren’t there, and although the cooperative is capable of doing the work, they are almost never hired to do it.

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August 23 2010


Smartphone, HDTV Boom Begets Gargantuan E-Waste Problem

The digital media revolution promises to improve the quality of our lives though an expanded capacity to communicate, collaborate, learn and make informed decisions. Yet our seemingly insatiable demand for digital media is driving a proliferation of consumer electronic devices and IT infrastructure, which are significantly contributing to a tsunami of toxic electronic waste.

This week U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator Lisa Jackson announced that promoting citizen engagement and increasing government accountability on enforcement to improve the design, production, handling, reuse, recycling, exporting and disposal of electronics is of the EPA's top six international priorities. In light of this, publishers, device manufacturers, bandwidth providers and other players in the digital media supply chain should rethink their marketing narratives and redouble their efforts to identify, quantify, disclose and manage the toxic e-waste impacts associated with digital media -- before regulation or catastrophe require them to do so.

The issues and dilemmas related to digital media and e-waste can be complex and confusing, but if they are ignored or only paid lip service to they will be sure to wash up on the shores of our lives... and in our politics, in short order. If you want a quick take on some of the key issues associated with e-waste, take a few minutes to watch this short animated Public Service Announcement co-produced for Good Magazine by Ian Lynam and Morgan Currie:

To learn more, read on. In the weeks ahead we look forward to your questions, comments and suggestions about how issues associated with the environmental impacts of the digital media revolution's e-waste detritus can best be addressed. Here are some thought starters to get the conversation rolling.


How much toxic e-waste is being created and what are some of its environmental and social impacts?

According to market analyst firm ABI Research, approximately 53 million tons of electronic waste were generated worldwide in 2009, and only about 13% of it was recycled. The Electronics Take Back Coalition (ETBC) estimates that 14 to 20 million PCs are thrown out every year in the U.S. alone. There has been a recent surge in e-waste created by aggressive marketing encouraging consumers to "upgrade" basic voice-only mobile devices to 3G and 4G smartphones and mobile game consoles. There has also been an enormous surge in CRT monitors and TV sets set into motion by the switch to large flat screen displays and DVRs.

The EPA estimates that over 99 million TV sets, each containing four to eight pounds of lead, cadmium, beryllium and other heavy metals, were stockpiled or stored in the U.S. in 2007, and 26.9 million TVs were disposed of in 2007 -- either by trashing or recycling them. While it's not a large part of the waste stream, e-waste shows a higher growth rate than any other category of municipal waste.

Overall, between 2005 and 2006, total volumes of municipal waste increased by only 1.2 percent, compared to 8.6 percent for e-waste. Particularly troubling are the mountains of hazardous waste from electronic products growing exponentially in developing countries. The United Nations report Recycling - from E-Waste to Resources predicts that e-waste from old computers will jump by 500 percent from 2007 levels in India by 2020 and by 200 percent to 400 percent in South Africa and China. E-waste from old mobile phones is expected to be seven times higher in China and 18 times higher in India. China already produces about 2.3 million ton of e-waste domestically, second only to the United States, which produces about 3 million tons each year.

According to the Electronics Take Back Coalition, e-waste contains over 1,000 toxic materials harmful to humans and our environment, including chlorinated solvents, brominated flame retardants, plasticizers, PVC, heavy metals, persistent organic pollutants, plastics and gases used to make electronic products and their components such as semiconductor chips, batteries, capacitors, circuit boards, and disk drives. E-waste can also contain tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold, of which Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act requires reporting if they originated in Congo or a neighboring country.

Not all e-waste is exported to China, India or Africa. The Electronics Take Back Coalition reports that some recyclers and many federal agencies in the U.S. send their e-waste to recycling plants operating in federal prisons operated by UNICOR, a wholly owned subsidiary of the federal Department of Justice. One criticism of UNICOR is that by paying prison workers as little as 23 cents per hour, they undercut private commercial recyclers. Another criticism is that reliance on high tech chain gangs may frustrate development of the free market infrastructure necessary to safely manage the tsunami of e-waste that the digital revolution is intensifying.

How much e-waste does the consumption and production of digital media generate?

Digital media doesn't grow on trees. Its creation, distribution and use requires massive quantities of energy, minerals, metals, petrochemicals and labor. Rather than relying on proprietary estimates of product lifecycles or limited forensic evidence we need reliable standards-based lifecycle inventories of the energy and material flows that make our broadband connectivity and digital media experiences possible. Proponents of digital media often tout the benefits of the digital media shift in terms of the number of trees that will be saved, but shifting to digital media has an environmental footprint and toxic impact that bear greater scrutiny.

The digital media industry has a long way to go before it can declare itself sustainable, or justify its environmental footprint based on cherry-picked data, anecdotal evidence and unfilled promises. Companies like Apple and HP that tout their commitments to sustainability fail to make a even a "greenish" grade in the most recent Greenpeace Greener Electronics Scorecard..

Greenpeace Guide to Greener Electronics

Until media companies, device manufacturers and service providers are inspired to make standards-based environmental product declarations through market pressure or regulation, it will be impossible for consumers to make informed decisions or compare the climate change or e-waste impacts associated with specific products or services. A look at the overall growth trends in a few key categories is enough to justify more serious attention to the issues at hand and to the toxic tragedies that loom over the horizon.

A shift in preference from traditional media to digital media is one key trend. According to the PriceWaterhouseCoopers report, Global Media and Entertainment 2010-2014, digital media's share of consumer spending is growing at double digit rates and is expected to reach 33 percent of their entertainment and media spending by 2014.

Growth in the number of broadband mobile connections and wireless devices is also a determining factor. Smartphone manufacturer Ericsson estimates that the world will reach 50 billion mobile connections within this decade with 80 percent of all people accessing the Internet using their mobile devices. Ericsson estimates there are over 500 million 3G subscriptions worldwide with more than 2 million mobile subscriptions being added per day.

At current rates of growth some pundits believe we may soon face a zettaflood of data, and the number of broadband wireless connections, smartphones, e-books, tablets, game consoles and "wireless devices with IP addresses will outnumber humans on our planet by an order of magnitude. The World Wireless Research Forum predicts 7 trillion devices for 7 billion people by 2017 - a thousand devices for every man, woman and child on the planet.

In short we are rapidly becoming a world of digital media hyper-consumers that need to develop a better understanding of the connections between our rabid digital media appetites and their lifecycle environmental impacts before they become our undoing.

Unfortunately, at present there is no reliable way to determine and compare the greenhouse gas emission or e-waste impacts associated with digital media consumption. While the impact of an individual decision or transaction may be negligible, the aggregate impact of billions of connections and trillions of transactions cannot be left unexamined and unmanaged.

What laws and sources of international, federal, state and local government support for e-waste management are in place and on the horizon?

The U.S. lags behind the EU, which has recently created two new policies on ways to deal with e-waste: the Restriction on the Use of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) and the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment. At present the U.S. is also the only member of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that has not ratified the Basel Convention, which is intended to regulate the movement of hazardous waste across international borders.

In addition the U.S. does not have a comprehensive national approach for the reuse and recycling of used electronics, despite efforts to introduce federal legislation such as Senate Bill 1397 - Electronic Device Recycling Research and Development Act. However, electronics manufacturer take-back laws have gained traction at the state level.

An important report on e-waste recently issued by the Government Accounting Office (GAO) titled Electronic Waste: Considerations for Promoting Environmentally Sound Reuse and Recycling states that 23 states have passed legislation mandating statewide e-waste recycling, including several states that introduced legislation in 2010 (in yellow below).

States Passing E-Waste Legislation

All of these laws except California use the Producer Responsibility approach, where the manufacturers must pay for recycling. A guide to current and pending e-waste legislation is available on the Electronics Take Back Coalition website.

The Udall Center for Studies in Public Policy at the University of Arizona recently published an award-winning paper titled E-wasted Time: The Hazardous Lag in

Comprehensive Regulation of the Electronics Recycling Industry in the United States
that addresses the status of electronics recycling regulation in the U.S., as well as how the regulatory climate influences industry practice.

How can consumers and manufacturers of digital electronic devices, providers of broadband connectivity and data center services address digital media/e-waste dilemmas through voluntary initiatives and coalitions?

The EPA provides a guide to locations where electronics can be donated for reuse or recycling through the Plug-In To eCycling Partnership, Responsible Recycling and Recycling Industry Operating Standard RIOS certification initiatives. The Electronics Take Back Coalition and the Basel Action Network (BAN) have developed a competing voluntary program called e-Stewards that identifies recyclers they deem to be environmentally and socially responsible.

Both the Electronics Take Back Coalition and Greenpeace have developed scorecards that rate companies on their policies and the actions they are taking to address e-waste issues. Such sites are far from perfect, but can help can you sort through the confusing combination of apathy, indifference, marketing spin and unfulfilled green promises that predominate in today's consumer electronics marketplace. Before you buy or dispose of a cell phone, e-reader, tablet, PC, display, DVR, set-top box, game console, charger, plug strip, batteries, printers, or other electronic devices ask the manufacturer if there is a standards-based Environmental Product Declaration or Lifecycle Analysis for the product and check if the brand and the product is rated by Greenpeace and EPEAT.

Over the next five years our challenge is to stem the tide of e-waste being exported from the U.S. to the developing world, and develop a legal framework that will support mining and managing the mountains of toxic e-waste in the U.S. and in the developed world. According to Interpol the illegal trafficking of electronic waste (e-waste) is a serious crime and a growing international problem, posing an unacceptable environmental and health risk, in particular in developing countries in Africa and Asia. According to EPA administrator Lisa Jackson: "It's time for us to stop making our trash someone else's problem, start taking responsibility and setting a good example."

Going forward our greater challenge will be to change the prevailing business models and digital media marketing narratives that ignore the toxic tide and rethink the design of next generation digital media devices, media products, data networks and data centers so that they are greener by design, eliminate conflict minerals, use less energy, last longer and can be disassembled, upgraded and recycled responsibly.


Please use the comments area below to share your questions and suggestions. More importantly, use your social networks to engage the marketing and product development executives of digital media companies, device manufacturers, carriers and other key stakeholders -- including elected officials and EPA regulators. Engage them in an informed dialogue on how we can communicate sustainably and decouple the production and consumption of digital media from the scourge of e-waste in a timely and effective manner.

MediaShift environmental correspondent Don Carli is senior research fellow with the non-profit Institute for Sustainable Communication (ISC) where he is director of The Sustainable Advertising Partnership and other corporate responsibility and sustainability programs addressing the economic, environmental and social impacts of advertising, marketing, publishing and enterprise communication supply chains. Don is an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Industry Studies Program affiliate scholar and is also sustainability editor of Aktuell Grafisk Information Magazine based in Sweden. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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February 23 2010


What do your RSS feeds say about you?

Ben Harrow, a student in my undergraduate online journalism classes, has written a blog post about the environmental news RSS feeds of some of the national newspapers.

It appears that the Telegraph ‘recycling’ RSS feed hasn’t been updated in 3 months (even during the Copenhagen talks), while

“The Daily Mail has upwards of 30 RSS feeds, each updating you on a celebrity of your choice. But no environment feed. Nothing.”

So what does a newspaper’s RSS feeds say about its priorities? Any other examples?

January 22 2010


5Across: Environmental Impact of Newspapers, Books, e-Waste

This episode of 5Across is brought to you by USC Annenberg's Specialized Journalism Program. This 9-month program is for mid-career or aspiring journalists. To learn more, go to the USC Annenberg site.

When I canceled my daily newspaper subscription, I figured it was the right thing to do for the environment. No longer would someone have to ink up all that newsprint and deliver it to my doorstep. But what I didn't consider was the environmental impact of all my electronic devices -- their energy use as well as the harm they can do when being "recycled" in developing countries.

On this episode of 5Across, I convened a group of experts to examine the environmental impact of print media, as well as e-waste and the energy used by web servers when we go online. Most surprisingly, I learned that newspaper publishers use mostly recycled paper, as well as "virgin paper" that comes from the refuse generated by saw mills when creating lumber for houses. Could it be that over time newspapers are actually the greener option versus using electronic devices? No one knows for sure yet, but it's a fascinating question to ponder.

5Across: Environmental Impact of Media

Guest Biographies

Shona Burns is executive director for production development at Chronicle Books. She is currently working on expanding the environmental responsibilities within Chronicle Books and is a member of the Green Press Initiative Advisory Board, in addition to being a member of the Book Industry Environmental Council. Prior to joining Chronicle Books, Shona graduated from the three-year Book and Periodical Publishing program at Napier University in Edinburgh, Scotland, and she has held numerous production positions in the United Kingdom. She has spoken on various production topics at Book Expo America, Booktech and Stanford University's Summer Publishing Course.

Joe Kelleher is the production director for the San Jose Mercury News. He is a member of the company's operating committee and is responsible for all aspects of operations. This includes prepress (digital ad team, ad production, composing, paper make up, ad services, platemaking), printing (pressroom, newsprint warehouse), packaging, and building support services. He previously worked for the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and the Detroit Newspaper Agency. Prior to his newspaper career, he was employed in the field of injection molded plastics.

Charles Uchu Strader is a worker-owner of Gaia Host Collective, a cooperatively owned Internet hosting company dedicated to environmental and social sustainability. Charles has worked for 15 years in the Internet infrastructure field with both open source and commercial software. At Gaia Host, he works to grow a low-impact Internet hosting infrastructure, and focuses on data-center efficiency, maximizing the use of the embodied energy of the hardware through life-cycle extension, efficiently managing the load on the computers, as well as managing the efficiency of software running the infrastructure. Charles is also an active board member of a non-profit operating an off-grid environmental educational facility in Massachusetts.

Jean Walsh is the outreach specialist and has been working in communications for the San Francisco Department of the Environment since 2007. She supports the toxics reduction, green business and zero waste programs using new media marketing, grassroots outreach, press relations and traditional advertising. Prior to joining SF Environment, Jean served as consumer outreach and marketing manager for TransFair USA, the non-profit organization that certifies Fair Trade products. A former Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua, Jean holds a Masters Degree in City Planning from MIT.

Sarah Westervelt is the e-stewardship director at the Basel Action Network. Her work includes developing the e-steward's accredited certification program, educating the public about issues associated with exporting e-waste, as well as highlighting the worst-case scenarios. Sarah co-authored BAN exposés including films and reports documenting horrific "recycling" in China and Nigeria. Through programs, policy, and education, the e-Stewardship Initiative provides guidance to go beyond inadequate regulations and practices, and better understand existing international laws that pertain to trade in toxic wastes. Sarah has a Master's Degree in Organizational Systems Renewal from Antioch University, and worked for years as a consultant in organizational development before joining the Basel Action Network in 2001.

If you'd prefer to watch sections of the show rather than the entire show, I've broken them down by topic below.

Recycled Paper in Newspapers and Books

The Problem With E-Waste, Web Servers

Online or Print?

Educating the Public

Finding Solutions


Mark Glaser, executive producer and host
Darcy Cohan, producer

Charlotte Buchen, camera

Julie Caine, audio

Location: Vega Project & Kennerly Architecture office space in San Francisco

Special thanks to: PBS and The Knight Foundation

Music by AJ the DJ


vega project card.jpg

What do you think? Do you consider the environmental impact of the devices you use, and the print products you read? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

This episode of 5Across is brought to you by USC Annenberg's Specialized Journalism Program. This 9-month program is for mid-career or aspiring journalists. To learn more, go to the USC Annenberg site.

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