Guest post by GreenCitizen Summer Intern Daryl Zhao
With the rising trend to go green, companies and marketers are scrambling to put eco-friendly buzzwords on their products and services. “BPA free,” “biodegradable,” “natural,” and “non-toxic” are some of the many phrases that you might see on your products. Companies are also adopting “greener” names with earth-friendly colors. The increase in these changes has also led to more instances of false eco-labeling, also known as “greenwashing”. For example, in 2012, Mazda faced criticism for advertising their car as “Certified Truffula Tree Friendly” when they are not tree-friendly.
What is Greenwashing?
Greenwashing is the act of misleading consumers regarding the environmental practices of a company or the environmental benefits of a product or service.
Greenwashing is present when more money is spent on marketing and advertising claiming to be “green” than on making business decisions that minimize environmental impact.
A classic example is a hotel chain that claims it is “green” because it allows guests to reuse the same sheets and towels, but does little to save water and energy throughout its facilities and its vehicle fleet.
Here is an fascinating article about common greenwashed products in the United States.
The Problem with Greenwashing
Everything and everyone is going “green” these days. As a response to consumer demand for more environmental and ethical products, car companies, banks, airlines, restaurants, retailers, and more are all adjusting their practices. However, many businesses are trying to find the easiest way to look “green” when there are many impactful changes they can make to help the environment.
Greenwashing takes advantage of hurried consumers, who want to purchase environmentally friendly products, but don’t have the time to investigate each product they buy thoroughly. . Consumers will spend more money to buy products that they believe are eco-friendly but don’t help the environment.
Sometimes greenwashing creates a domino effect. For example, a property manager wants to get a LEED certification (a green building certification dispensed by the U.S. Green Building Council.) for her building so she can attract high paying tenants. She buys AC units that are falsely advertised as environmentally friendly and installs them. At the same time, she managed to get some tenants who want to operate in LEED certified building. Unfortunately, LEED doesn’t approve of those AC units, so she loses out on those tenants and has to replace the light fixtures to qualify for LEED. Bottom line, greenwashing harms the environment because it encourages consumers to purchase products and services that don’t actually help the environment.
How to Spot Greenwashing
Here are a few tips so you and others don’t get greenwashed:
1. When looking at a green ad, see if the company is known for being eco-friendly. Is it easy to find information on the company’s sustainable business practices?
2. Google the company name with the word “environment” and see the search results. If there are any consumer and environmental advocates complaining about the company, watch out!
3. Trust your gut feeling! Does it seem real, or is it fake?
4. Look for certifications and labels! Sometimes greenwashers will make their own fake certifications. If you haven’t heard of it, look it up. Here are examples of real certifications: USDA approved organic, LEED certified green buildings, Green Seal products and services, and EPEAT certified green electronics.
This is not to say that all companies branding themselves as environmentally friendly are making false claims. Here at GreenCitizen, not only do we have an eco-friendly name, we are also a certified B-Corporation and only work with R2 and e-Steward certified recyclers so e-waste is properly processed and not exported out of the country. It’s just a reminder that some companies will mislead you to get your business.
Here are some helpful websites where you can learn more about greenwashing!
Recycling and reusing electronics with organizations like GreenCitizen reduces the demand for more raw materials to be extracted from the earth in order to produce more new electronics. Besides reducing environmental degradation, this also reduces the use of conflict minerals – read on to find out why that’s such a big deal!
What are conflict minerals?
Conflict minerals are minerals that come from mines where the profit fuels conflict in Congo: tin, tantalum, tungsten, and gold. If you’ve seen (or know the gist of) Blood Diamond, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, you can think of conflict minerals as being part of the same issues as the conflict diamonds in that movie. Conflict minerals are in components of all electronics.
In case you’re a techie interested in the inner workings of electronics, below are the electronic components conflict minerals are used for.
Now, to note some technicalities:
-Except for gold, the above listed substances aren’t the minerals themselves; they’re the elements extracted from the minerals cassiterite, coltan, and wolframite, respectively. But when people talk about conflict minerals, they refer to the ‘3T’s and G’ highlighted above.
-When someone says “conflict mineral,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that they are actually using a mineral that they know is from Congo; they could be referring to a mineral that could come from Congo. For example, if a jewelry company says “we produce a product that requires the use of a conflict mineral,” they might mean that they are making jewelry that requires gold, which could be “conflict-free” (aka not from Congo).
More on the conflict in Congo
The eastern Congo has been at war since the early 1990s. Thus far there are over 5.4 million casualties, making this the deadliest conflict since World War II. This conflict also includes significant use of child soldiers and sexual violence towards women.
Most mines in the eastern Congo are controlled by armed groups. Civilians are often coerced into working at these mines, which the armed groups make hundreds of millions of dollars from.
Minerals are smuggled out of Congo through neighboring countries, like Rwanda and Tanzania. Then, they’re shipped to smelters around the world (primarily in Asia) for refinement, where they can be mixed with minerals not originating from the Congo before being used in manufacturing.
This video is also a great summary of the issues surrounding conflict minerals in electronics:
What’s being done
Conflict minerals in electronics are (thankfully) a growing part of both the public’s and industry’s conscience. The Fairphone has sprung up, aiming to be a conflict mineral free smart phone, and Intel is now producing a conflict mineral free microprocessor.
However, as mentioned in the previous section, conflict and conflict-free minerals are currently frequently mixed in the smelting process, making it difficult to trace mineral origin in a final product. Efforts to require a more transparent supply chain will hopefully decrease this mixing.
The 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform Act includes a section (Section 1502, if you want to look it up) that requires American companies to trace and audit their conflict mineral supply chains, and to work towards ensuring that their products are conflict-free. Companies must submit an annual conflict minerals report to the Securities and Exchange Commission.
What you can do
Raise Hope for Congo is an organization with great resources for getting involved in the fight against conflict minerals. For example, if you need to buy electronics new, you can buy them from a company that is working towards conflict-free mineral use based on Raise Hope For Congo’s company rankings. You can also become politically active, even by simply signing a letter, via one of the options provided on Raise Hope for Congo’s “Take Action” webpage.
Additionally, make sure that you recycle your electronics! (Bet you knew I was going to say that.) GreenCitizen has just partnered with Bay Ink & Toner, Cartridge World, Cole Hardware, and Sports Basement to create opportunities to recycle in Fremont, Oakland, Sunnyvale, Walnut Creek, and more. Recycling helps the planet and the people on it.
What to do with a Broken Light Bulb
Once your light bulbs burn out, we recommend you keep them safe from breakage in a cardboard sleeve or box prior to bringing them to one of our centers, or local recycling drop off spot. You can find out where to take your intact light bulbs using Earth911.com No mercury is released from lamps until they are broken. However, when they do break, the toxins are released into the environment. Because of this GreenCitizen cannot accept broken bulbs. If one of your lamps does break, leave the area immediately to avoid any dust created and allow vapors to dissipate for 5-10 minutes. When you return, don a pair of gloves and scoop up all the lamp fragments. (Do not use a vacuum cleaner!) Place this material in a sealed container, and wash your hands. Finally, take the container to a hazardous waste disposal facility. For more information, check out the EPA’s broken CFL instruction page.
Why Recycle Light Bulbs
At GreenCitizen, we recently started accepting light bulbs for recycling. Of course, recycling light bulbs is important. For one thing, the glass, metals, and other materials in light bulbs can be reused. Also, Halogen, compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs,) linear fluorescent, and high intensity discharge (HID) lamps contain trace amounts of mercury. In fact, these items have been prohibited from landfills in California and ten other states. Though many people think of incandescent bulbs as trash, they actually contain lead at levels that exceed hazardous waste limits.
Why Do We Use Bulbs Containing Mercury?
CFLs are significantly more sustainable than incandescent light bulbs, but they contain mercury. How can this be? CFLs are far more energy efficient and the mercury they contain is essential to this efficiency. Saving energy lowers the demand for electricity, and this leads to less coal burning in power plants. Mercury is found naturally in coal, and is released into the environment in large amounts through power plants. Using CFLs reduces mercury emission from factories enough that the small amount in the lamps themselves (4mg/CFL) is better for the environment.
In most places, unfortunately, you can’t put CDs and DVDs into the recycling bin. So what’s an eco-conscious individual to do? While I’d love for you to read this entire post and gain a nuanced understanding of disc recycling, I will issue this spoiler alert: GreenCitizen recycles them for free at our drop-off centers and via mail-in! More details on that below, along with further insights into the world of CD/DVD recycling.
Why it Matters
While, on the bright side, we have folks like Beyonce now promoting digital albums before physical CDs, there are still a LOT of CDs that have been, and are still being, produced. According to an EPA fact sheet created over 10 years ago, about 100,000lbs of CDs (just CDs!) were becoming obsolete monthly. That’s a ton of discs piling up in dusty corners of our homes-or worse, our landfills-that could instead be given a new life.
What they are Made of
The main physical difference between CDs, standard DVDs, Blu-ray DVDs, HD DVDs, and any other type of DVD I forgot to mention, is the size of the teeny, invisible-to-the-naked-eye holes in them that constitute the code your CD/DVD player “reads” to play your media. All of these disc categories are made of the following basic components:
Polycarbonate: One of those many types of plastic with the #7 “Other” recycling symbol. (Fun fact: the construction industry is the second largest consumer of polycarbonates.)
Metal: Typically aluminum, but you could have silver, gold, and/or nickel thrown in there as well.
Laquer: The stuff that makes the CD shiny instead of transparent. Made from acrylic, another kind of plastic.
Ink: I.e., the artist cover printed on. You already knew that.
How they are Recycled
The discs are cleaned and grinded. They can end up looking like a powder, or the pieces can look a bit bigger, like the image below:
They can then be blended, compounded, etc. for many other items, like office equipment, cable insulation, jewel cases, and street light encasements.
How you can make sure they’re recycled!
GreenCitizen will accept both your discs and jewel cases for recycling at our free drop-off centers in San Francisco, Berkeley, Burlingame, Mountain View, and San Jose. We also have a mail-in program.
The CD Recycling Center of America has a mail-in program too: cdrecyclingcenter.org
As always, earth911.com provides an excellent recycling guide by zipcode for basically anything you can think of.
Finally, the internet’s chock full of ideas for creative reuse of old discs, with one example here.
We encourage further suggestions in the comment section!
GreenCitizen’s efforts in tackling the electronic-waste crisis have been recognized with the Best for the World Award 2013.
The award is presented to the top 10% of all B-Corporations. The B-Corp or “Benefit-Corp” certification is to sustainable businesses what Fair Trade certification is to coffee or USDA Organic certification is to milk. B-Corporations are certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency. B-Corps can be described as for-profit organizations that benefit the environment and society.
At GreenCitizen, we make sure all the electronics we collect are recycled responsibly and locally. We only work with e-Stewards and R2 certified vendors ensuring nothing gets shipped abroad or dumped in landfills.
But we do much more than that. We put reuse before recycling. A staggering 25% of all the items we collect are put to reuse. We have a whole team of technicians testing and refurbishing computers, laptops, desktops, smartphones, iPads….and the list goes on and on. If there is a company that can find a new home for your old electronics it’s us! The profits we make are reinvested in opening electronics recycling drop off locations, where people from the community can drop off their old electronics for free and we make sure they are recycled responsibly. So far we have five locations in the Bay Area: San Francisco, Burlingame, Mountain View, Berkeley, and we just recently opened our new Eco-Station in San Jose. We can recycle anything that plugs in or runs on batteries. For a small fee we can also take Styrofoam, light bulbs, and tape based media.
Questions, issues or concerns? I'd love to help you!