Waste Bytes. Can We Compute A Solution?

By Nelson Harvey

What if I offered you a free airplane flight with the purchase of a wireless calling plan? That’s precisely what the phone company T-Mobile did over Thanksgiving weekend this year, and it’s just one of the flood of deals that companies are offering this holiday in an attempt to move phones, computers, DVD players, and a host of other electronic devices off the shelves.

Absent from this ad blitz is any discussion of what happens to our increasingly ephemeral electronics when we throw them away, and that’s why it’s encouraging that the New York City Council is considering a new law that would require electronics manufacturers to take back their products for recycling within NYC.

The New York Department of Sanitation picks up 21,840 pounds of electronic waste per year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, and less than 10 percent of it is currently being recycled. Many electronic devices contain harmful toxins like lead and cadmium, which enter the air and water when the devices are incinerated or landfilled. According to the EPA, some 70 percent of the toxics present in landfills are the result of electronic waste.

The New York law, titled Intro 104, would cover TVs, DVD players, and portable digital music players. It embraces the principle of Extended Producer Responsibility, requiring all manufacturers who sell such devices within New York City to submit e-waste management plans to city government by July 1st, 2008.

A Chinese worker takes apart computers with little more than gloves as protection from their toxic contents.

Seven U.S. states have similar laws, and countries like Japan and the European Union have required companies to take back their waste for years now. The hope behind such programs is that once manufacturers are burdened with the toxic consequences of their own design choices, they will begin to phase toxic ingredients out of their products.

Precise regulatory approaches differ between the bills, but one of the more watched U.S. efforts is California’s 2003 e-waste law, which requires retailers to collect a fee from consumers on covered electronic devices in order to pay for government-sanctioned recycling programs. This effort has grown rapidly since its implementation, raising more than enough money through such fees to cover recycling costs.

The New York law doesn’t require retailers to collect a fee, but relies on companies alone to finance the cost of their recycling programs. This concerns me for a couple of reasons. First, it’s clear that manufacturers will find a way to pass recycling costs on to the consumer through higher prices anyway. Second, allowing each company to establish their own program could undermine the economies of scale inherent in government recycling efforts, which leads to a lower cost per ton recycled.

Margaret Walls, an economist with the group Resources For the Future who has done several economic analyses of Extended Producer Responsibility laws, told me via email that such laws have generally not been shown to spur companies to reduce the toxic content of their products. At a minimum, though, they do require takeback, keeping some goods out of the landfill. In Walls’ view, the most promising approach is a combined tax/subsidy law, like the one in place in California.

Even if the New York plan isn’t ideal from a regulatory perspective, at least its a start. If city government wants to keep pace with ad campaigns like that of T Mobile, they’ll certainly have their work cut out for them.

Photo Credit: Alistair Ruff


Boosting Local Food In NYC

by Nelson Harvey

Anyone remotely familiar with U.S. agriculture has heard the story: for more than 100 years, small farms in America have been in decline. Indeed, even as the total number of farmers has fallen, the average acreage for farms has increased. But what’s not often mentioned is that the smallest farmers, those operating on between one and 50 acres, aren’t the ones who have taken the largest hit. Rather, it’s the midsized farmers (between 50 and 500 acres) who have suffered most from the trend of farm industrialization.

This was pointed out to me last night at a panel last night on the 2007 Farm Bill, held at NYU’s Wagner School of Public Policy. Dan Barber, a chef and executive board member of the Stone Barns Food and Agriculture Center in upstate New York, noted that for those farmers small enough to throw their wares in a pickup truck and head down to an NYC farmers market, these are not the worst of times. Similarly, of course, huge industrial farmers are doing fairly well, thanks to commodity crop subsidies and the economies of scale that come with their business model.

Participants in a panel on the 2007 Farm Bill that took place last night at NYU

Mid-sized farmers, by contrast, are often unable to compete at either the micro-scale of small farmers markets of the massive scale of commodity crops. Many need wholesale markets for their products in order to make ends meet, and until recently, these have been lacking in places like New York State. According to Christina Grace, who manages Urban Food Systems Programs for the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets, getting more local food from midsized farmers into New York City can be accomplished through two main avenues: developing a wholesale infrastructure so that restaurants and busineses can purchase in bulk from farmers, and increasing demand for local food across the population.

Grace’s department is tackling both of these issues through state programs. After conducting a study, they’ve set up a temporary wholesale market at the Fulton Fish Market in NYC. And through efforts like the “Adopt a Bodega” program, they’re trying to get local foods into neighborhood grocery stores. Under that program, elementary school students are given local fruits and vegetables as snacks at school, and then encouraged to seek out those foods at their local corner store. If the store doesn’t carry them (as is often the case), the idea is that a critical mass of pestering students and parents will prompt the store to change.

Of course, the other way to get local foods into New York City is to simply grow them there. Interstingly, the 2007 Farm Bill contains more funding for urban agriculture than past bills have contained, although it’s still not much. The House version includes $30 million in discretionary funding for urban agricultural projects like the Added Value farm in Red Hook, while the Senate version contains $10 million in mandatory aid for such projects.

Post-Carbon Cities and the Future of Growth

By Adam Brock

Like climate change, peak oil is a difficult concept to understand, and its implications are difficult to accept. It’s no wonder, then, that the theory is still pretty much off-limits to policymakers: openly discussing the fact that we might be in for some serious economic woes courtesy of dwindling oil supplies isn’t exactly a vote-winning platform. But, also like climate change, peak oil presents a pressing and potentially catastrophic threat to our future, and the sooner we take it seriously the better.

Daniel Lerch, author of the recently released book “Post Carbon Cities,” might be the best messenger for yet for the peak oil cause. I attended one of Lerch’s presentations at the NYU law school last Wednesday, and while it wasn’t quite up to Inconvenient Truth standards, I found it to be the most digestible explanation of peak oil I’ve encountered yet. Unlike Albert Bates, the engaging but decidedly forest-hued peak oiler that spoke in New York about a month ago, Lerch came across as practical-minded and sympathetic to skeptics. His target audience is planners and municipal policymakers, and he framed the dimensions of the peak oil crisis in language familiar to those groups.

The talk began with a few fundamentals: the demand for oil is accelerating, while the supply seems to have hit a plateau. Sooner or later, supply will outstrip demand, causing oil shortages that will get ever more severe as the remaining reserves become more difficult and expensive to extract. This much, to me, seems pretty hard to refute.

But why do most peak oilers predict that this energy gap will wreak havoc on the economy? Can’t we just scale back our consumption slightly for now and eventually replace the gap with energy efficiency and renewables? That’s certainly the popular consensus among politicians and grass greens. To quote Denver mayor John Hickenlooper, who hosted a peak oil conference in 2005, “I don’t think it’ll affect the consumption of consumer products. It’s not gonna have a dramatic negative impact on our economy – we’re just gonna drive less.”

But according to Lerch, oil shortages are a lot less simple than having to turn down the A/C and line up to refill the gas tank. For one thing, models predict that once production starts slipping, it’ll slip fast – far faster than it’ll take to replace our needs with wind, solar or even nuclear. And as Lerch explained, In the last five decades we’ve become dependent on petroleum in countless ways, and seemingly insignificant disruptions in supply can have far-reaching repercussions. During the summer of 2006, for example, the spike in oil prices doubled the price of asphalt, a low-grade petroleum product. Routine road repairs were suddenly wildly overbudget, and many municipalities were forced to defer maintenance on their roadways.

Another chilling example is urban food supply. Many grocery chains nowadays stock their food on “rolling warehouses”, where food comes straight out of the factory or shipping dock and onto the truck to cut down on overhead. As a result, very little food is in storage near cities, so if an oil shortage like the one we experienced in 1973 were to occur today, many grocery stores could be empty within a matter of days.

One of the key concepts in Lerch’s talk was “energy uncertainty”: the notion that peak oil won’t just make energy prices higher, but also increasingly volatile. This makes it almost impossible to make long-term plans: how is a city supposed to cut a budget for its vehicle fleet if it doesn’t know whether gas will cost $3.50 or $6 a gallon?

Energy uncertainty is, of course, analogous to the “climate uncertainty” that the IPCC’s been talking about with regard to global warming. Put the two together, and you’re left with a frightening conclusion: two of the most complex systems on earth, the biosphere and global economy, are set to become much less stable within the next few decades.

Lerch’s prescription to city governments: start planning now. First off, follow the lead of Portland and Oakland, and create a peak oil task force to determine how petroleum shortages would effect your city. Strategize on how to relocalize energy production and manufacturing, plan infrastructure investments for the long-term, and, most importantly, start adopting a nonlinear, systems-thinking approach.

Peak oil or no, I couldn’t agree more.

Photo credit: flickr/azrainman

The Wrong Kind of Urban Farming

by Nelson Harvey

If you don’t think there’s much farming in New York City, then you’re absolutely right.

But that doesn’t stop millions of dollars in federal farm subsidies from flowing to city residents each year. The map at right is a distribution of individuals living in Manhattan who currently receive farm subsidies, often via “pass-through” arrangements where companies that they own or invest in forward them a slice of the government assistance check.

With the 2007 Farm Bill passed the House and currently under review in the Senate, this graphic highlights the urgent need for reform. Farm subsidies are supposed to support farms when crop prices are low and encourage the survival of small family farms, making the current arrangement seem like a rather perverse use of government funds. According to an analysis by the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the current subsidy structure also heavily favors a small group of companies, with the top 1 percent of beneficiaries receiving 17 percent of funds while the bottom 80 percent receive just 16 percent. As the EWG points out, this is money that could be spent on conservation incentive or nutrition programs.

The problem isn’t just reserved to New York City; in fact, it’s a national one, as this excellent series in the Washington Post clearly illustrates. Much of the wrangling over the 2007 farm bill in recent months has focused on ways to better direct farm subsidies. This is one of those rare questions that unites anti-government libertarians and environmentalists alike. I’m a newcomer to the subject, but the organization Environmental Defense is not, and they’ve got an excellent list of 12 “Fresh Ideas” for reforming farm policy. Make sure your Senator has his priorities straight, before it’s too late!