Proposed EU measures to extend product lifetime

I am happy to let you know that things are underway within the EU to ensure that products will last longer and will be easier to repair in the future. These are proposed measures at the moment, they’re not law, but they soon could be. The idea, according to the EEB (European Environmental Bureau) is to:

  1. Extend the lifetime of products
  2. Extend the availability of repair services
  3. Improve consumer information and rights
  4. Make these measures binding, not voluntary

If you live within the EU, I encourage you to contact your representatives to the EU Parliament and to ask them to support these proposed measures.

Even if this isn’t law yet, I am happy to see my own feelings on the matter mirrored by those in a position to do something about it. You may recall that I wrote an article called “Truly sustainable computing” back in August of 2015, where I proposed that desktop computers have a projected lifespan of 20 years and laptops and mobiles phones have a projected lifespan of 10 years.

The proposed EU measures would apply to every category of products, not just to computing devices, so things like cars, electronics, appliances would all be covered by the new regulations, ensuring we would once again have quality products that last a long time.

I say “once again” because those of you who are younger than me may not recall we had this sort of thing before the 1970s. The idea of “planned obsolescence” was introduced in the 1960s by manufacturers and that’s when things started to go downhill for products in terms of durability, repairability and build quality. You could still get kitchen appliances made in the late 1960s that looked and worked perfectly even in the late 2000s. You can no longer do that with today’s appliances.

It’s irresponsible in so many ways for us to generate mountains of e-waste every year and it’s doubly irresponsible for manufacturers to make them, one because they’re using the Earth’s resources without any regard for the future and two, because they make them easily breakable and disposable, contributing to the enormous amounts of waste that we generate as a race. It’s time we did something quantifiable and legally binding about this!

Why I fixed my wheelbarrow instead of chucking it to the scrap heap

This video explains why I chose to fix my wheelbarrow instead of throwing it away. (It has to do with conserving resources and reducing waste.)

Its inner chamber couldn’t be patched after too many punctures, and when I went to Home Depot and Lowe’s, I discovered I couldn’t buy a new inner chamber, because they’re no longer stocked. I’d have had to buy an entire new wheel and tire assembly, for almost the same price as a new wheelbarrow. What I did instead was to buy a new tubeless tire, which is made of solid rubber and never needs replacing, thus saving my wheelbarrow from the scrap heap and eliminating the need for new wheels in the future.

A look at what’s ahead in terms of resources and the economy

The TED channel published two interesting videos recently which present two points of view about the Earth, in terms of its resources and economy. The first is from Paul Gilding, entitled “The Earth is full“, and the second is from Peter Diamandis, entitled “Abundance is our future“.

I invite you to watch both points of view, which are at first in seeming opposition but after some consideration, are both saying pretty much the same thing, namely this:

Our current economic models, based on carbon forms of energy, will soon reach their lifespan, and we have some choices to make ahead as we transition to other economic models and other ways of generating our energy and making our stuff.

We can have a smooth transition or we can have a rocky one, with elements of anarchy and possible energy and water wars.

What’s clear on both sides is that we need to something about it and we need to start doing it now.

The wonderful thing is there are solutions to our energy and pollution problems emerging now and if they’re implemented correctly, we will not only avert any potential crises but we will come out ahead of the curve.

What are we waiting for? Let’s do it!

Modern lawn care: a lot of hot air

One of the things I strongly believe in is the need for manual labor, especially during these highly industrialized times. I believe such work yields better results and it keeps us grounded, in touch with the earth from which we ultimately draw our living. I dislike the “modern” methods of lawn care, where one uses hedge trimmers and leaf blowers to do a job which can be done much more adequately by simpler, manual tools such as a broom and a pair of hedge scissors.

Don’t mistake me for a luddite. I use lawnmowers when they’re justified, like when a lawn requires it, because of its size, or because it can’t be cut by a push-mower or a scythe. The scythe in particular is a great way to cut grass, and it’s also a great workout for one’s back and abdomen. It’s been around for millennia. It’s only been replaced by machinery during the last couple of centuries.

If you live in the suburbs, then this next picture should be familiar to you.

That, of course, would be landscaping day, or if you happen to live within a larger community that has a lot of lawns, this would be part of landscaping week, which would happen every month, or worse, during frequent rainfall, every couple of weeks. Every day of that period, the maddening roar of the leaf blowers would be heard all over the compound, gnawing away at your brain, making it impossible to take a nice afternoon nap, or to concentrate on a project.

I find it so inefficient to blow leaves around all day, for hours on end, when a pair of men with a couple of good brooms and some rakes would make short work of those leaves, with no noise at all, no pollution from two-cycle engines, and much less dust. I’ve often seen landscaping teams use tractors to mow little patches of grass where a push mower would have done just fine, or use hedge trimmers to walk for entire yards and trim little weeds here and there, when a man could have simply pulled them up by the roots.

I associated this sort of inefficiency, expense of petrol, noise and air pollution with the US, because so much gets wasted there these days, by people who feel entitled to everything the country has to offer, even though they offer little to nothing in return. So I was surprised to find the same waste had arrived in Romania, where my wife and I currently reside.

Here people still use scythes to cut the grass in the countryside. It’s a wonder to behold a good scythe-handler. A single man can make short work of an entire hillside in an afternoon. And it’s even more beautiful to hear the noise a sharpened scythe makes as it cuts through long grass: a metallic whoosh, coupled with a slight singing of the blade at the apex of its swing. Every other noise of nature is perfectly audible: the birds, the bees, the distant bleating of sheep, the breeze blowing through the grass and the edge of a forest nearby… It’s wonderful!

And yet, the noxious use of leaf blowers and hedge trimmers has found its way into Romanian cities, probably brought here through the export of popular American culture. Here, too, we can see workers parading through our street and through the city center with leaf blowers and hedge trimmers, making a huge noise of it all, for days on end. It’s such a pathetic (and polluting) spectacle. The noise is unbearable. Here we have tall brick buildings, built by the Saxons. These cities seem made for echoes. The wall of noise obliterates everything around. It bounces off the walls and can be heard hundreds of yards or kilometers away. It’s such a waste.

It was but a few short years ago that the city would hire scythe-men to come and cut the grass. In a few short hours, with a few swoops of the scythe, they’d be done, and someone would come after them to gather up the cut grass. It was peaceful and quiet. Now, we’re polluted with noise, and the blasted filthy smoke from the blowers and trimmers.

The sad part is that here, the public lawns found on streets and in city parks are not of the scale found in the States. They’re small. And Eastern European grass is soft. If one must use more modern machinery, they could easily switch to push mowers and be done in the same amount of time, without all the ridiculous noise and smoke.

Solar windows finally feasible

Back in 2004, I wrote about an idea of mine, to integrate solar panels into house or apartment windows, and thus help offset the cost of electricity. I’m glad to say it’s come to fruition. The technology to do this has been discovered. Granted, it’s still in the research phase, and the efficiency of these 1st generation solar windows is only 1.7%, but I’m thrilled to see that it’s a workable idea, and look forward to the day when we can purchase these windows from a store, presumably with a higher efficiency and a long working expectancy.

Richard Lunt, one of the researchers who developed the new transparent solar cell, demonstrates its transparency using a prototype cell. Photo credit: Geoffrey Supran and Cosmic Log, MSNBC.com.

Thanks to RAPatton on FriendFeed, who made me aware of this!

POLLI-BRICKS reduce plastic bottle pollution

Plastic pollution is a huge problem. Most everyone has heard of the floating plastic islands in our oceans (the biggest is in the Pacific Ocean, but there are several others), all of which are made up of plastic bottles, wrappers, bags and other plastic waste that can float. They don’t break down. They only break into smaller pieces, which are still plastic and continue to pollute over time. For a wonderful primer on the subject, check out Dianna Cohen‘s talk at TED about it.

MINIWIZ, a Taipei company, has come up with an innovative “brick” design they call POLLI-BRICKS. They’re made from 100% recycled PET polymer (plastic bottles) collected from plastic waste reservoirs. This means that instead of ending up in the floating plastic islands, plastic waste can be re-purposed into bricks that can be used as building materials. Because they’re hollow and translucent (but not transparent, for those concerned about privacy), they have inherent thermal insulation, offer natural lighting during the day, and can be embedded with LED lights and solar panels for night lighting. They’re also durable, fire-resistant, interlock readily, and can be manufactured on-site. Check out the two videos embedded below, one recorded at CES by InfoWorld, and another showing how sturdy a small bridge built out of these bricks can be.

There are more videos posted on the MINIWIZ channel at YouTube.

[via Greenopolis]

How to make a compost tumbler

Last year, I made a composter using this plan from Boys’ Life Magazine. I modified the wooden frame somewhat, in order to use more wood screws and brackets — not bolts, nuts and washers — because that’s what I had to work with.

Before I recommended the design to others, I wanted to see how well it would hold up over a winter, and after proper use. It’s a year later, and I can tell you it’s held up just fine, so feel free to build your own if interested.

There are a few things to know that might help as you put your composter together:

  • Make the legs as wide as possible. There is a lot of torque generated by the tumbler as you rotate it to mix the compost. If the legs are too short, your composter is liable to tumble over.
  • Don’t drill the holes for the center axis (the pipe) at the middle of the barrel. Do it more toward the bottom of the barrel. This is because you can’t load the barrel completely with compost — it’ll become impossible to turn it, and the weight may also tear its sides, as you’re using them for support. You’ll likely load it a quarter-full or half-way full, and this means its center of gravity will be lower than the middle of the barrel. If the axis of rotation is at its middle, but the center of gravity is lower, you’ll be struggling to rotate it as you bring its bottom up. So make the axis lower, and it should make it easier for you to tumble it.
  • The pipe running through the barrel may be a nice and simple way to get the barrel to rotate, but it makes it difficult to unload the compost with a shovel. It doesn’t all come out by simply turning it upside down, so be prepared to reach in there with a scoop or something smaller than a shovel and dig out the compost. It’s not going to be pretty, I’ll tell you that right now.
  • Be prepared to drill more aeration holes into the side of the barrel than you think are necessary. Drill as many holes as you think are needed at first, but if your compost starts to smell bad even though you’re tumbling it, that means it’s not getting enough air, so drill more holes.

I think that’s it. Happy composting!

In case the original article from Boys’ Life Magazine ever goes offline, you can also download it in PDF format here: Make a compost tumbler — Boys’ Life magazine.

Follow the PCB and Mercury trail in our oceans

Marine biologist Stephen Palumbi gave a talk at TED about the massive problem with pollutants in our oceans, and the disease and death this causes everywhere in the world, throughout the food chain, including us.

Keep in mind what he says, then read this article, where the problem of toxins found in whales is shown in grim detail. Quoting from the article:

“The researchers found mercury as high as 16 parts per million in the whales. Fish high in mercury such as shark and swordfish — the types health experts warn children and pregnant women to avoid — typically have levels of about 1 part per million.”

“Ultimately, he said, the contaminants could jeopardize seafood, a primary source of animal protein for 1 billion people. ‘You could make a fairly tight argument to say that it is the single greatest health threat that has ever faced the human species. I suspect this will shorten lives, if it turns out that this is what’s going on,’ he said.”

“‘The biggest surprise was chromium,’ Payne said. ‘That’s an absolute shocker. Nobody was even looking for it.'”

“He said another surprise was the high concentrations of aluminum, which is used in packaging, cooking pots and water treatment. Its effects are unknown. The consequences of the metals could be horrific for both whale and man, he said.”

“‘I don’t see any future for whale species except extinction,’ Payne said. ‘This is not on anybody’s radar, no government’s radar anywhere, and I think it should be.'”

Guess who is the largest manufacturer of PCBs in the world? Monsanto.

Is the US government doing anything about this? No. They’re too busy blocking the press from seeing and reporting on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Oh, the paperwork…

You can get buried in paperwork in this modern, electronic, paperless society of ours. Bank statements, tax records, property tax statements, mortgage statements, credit card statements, store receipts, business expenses, insurance records, car records, the receipt for last Tuesday’s gadget purchase that you have to keep for two years because you also got an extended care plan, the restaurant receipt from last August’s meal with a client that you have to keep for the IRS since you’re deducting it from your taxes, etc., ad nauseam.

Can’t we have it simpler? Can’t it all be truly electronic? Can’t everyone just send us email receipts and statements instead of giving us paper ones? I like the way the Apple store does it. You buy something, you have the option of getting an email receipt. They have these neat credit card swipe machines they carry with them (they’re wireless), they check you out where you are in the store, and you get an instant receipt listing your purchase. It’s beautiful! Why can’t restaurants do this too? Why can’t the vehicle emissions and inspection stations do this? Why can’t all stores do this? Why can’t all banks and credit card companies handle everything electronically? My bank (USAA) has been doing it for years, and it works beautifully. Why can’t city and county governments do this? Why can’t mortgage companies do this?

On a larger and more important scale, why don’t hospitals and insurance companies handle EVERYTHING electronically, without any paper of any sort? If you’re a doctor and you have to file claims, you know what I’m talking about. If you don’t, then your secretary or claims specialist does… You have paper records for everything. Everyone has electronic systems, but very few talk to each other, and paper is still the only way to transfer information. This is pathetic. Hospital information systems ought to be able to send an electronic record of a patient consultation filed by a doctor to that doctor’s medical records system, which in turn ought to be able to process that information and send it to insurance companies electronically, who in turn ought to be able to process that claim and send an electronic notification to the doctor’s medical records system to update the claim status, then issue an electronic funds transfer to that doctor’s bank account. There should be no paper involved whatsoever, but those of us who deal with this stuff know it’s a far cry from it.

If there’s overpopulation, and we’ve got dwindling resources, and forests are being cut down at alarming rates all over the world, why do we have this constant avalanche of paper rolling toward us every month of the year, burying us under? If you’ve got multiple credit cards and bank accounts, a mortgage, a couple of cars, and a business on the side — and it’s your misfortune that the business is a medical one — you’re likely suffocating under paperwork. It’s nuts.

Helping the giant salamander breed

In their effort to control flooding, the Japanese have dammed up their rivers. But that move shut out giant salamanders from their natural breeding places and have made it impossible for them to get upstream. Scientists in Japan have worked out a way to allow their legendary giant salamander to get around dams, through elaborate staircases and small waterfalls that preserve the salamander’s natural surroundings. Now they hope the species will thrive in the wild once more.

An interview with Robert Kenner about Food, Inc

David Brancacio from PBS’s Now program sat down with Robert Kenner, the director for a documentary about food and the food industry called, appropriately enough, “Food, Inc”, to talk about the making of this very interesting film.

You can watch the interview here, and the trailer for the documentary here. It comes out on DVD and Blu-Ray in a couple of days, on November 3rd, and can be purchased directly from the movie’s official website or from stores like Amazon. I highly encourage you to get it and watch it.

Turning trash into usable products

Ann Wizer from XSProject Foundation (as in “excess”) is making custom-designed bags and other products from non-recyclable plastic waste found in Indonesia and the Philippines. She buys the raw materials from trash pickers, whom she pays at above-market rates, and, using trained artisans, creates beautiful products from trash that would be clogging landfills, streets and waterways in those countries.

Through its work, the Foundation is protecting the environment, reducing poverty, and teaching locals how to sustain themselves through the work of their own hands. The end results are beautiful, as you can from the photos and the embedded video below. The cause is noble, the work is noble, the means are innovative, sustainable and ennobling, and so I think Ms. Wizer and her XSProject Foundation deserve our applause for the wonderful work they’re doing.

Embedded video from CNN
Turning trash into usable products (CNN)

xsproject-bag-1

xsproject-bag-2

xsproject-bag-3

* I would have linked to their online catalog of products, but at the time of writing this, it seems to be down.

Images used courtesy of XSProject Foundation.