If it’s not grown, it has to be mined.

It pains us to cut trees for their wood. One recommended technique for escaping the pain of cutting down trees for paper is to substitute electronics.

The technique reminds me of a comedy I watched. As I remember it, in an opening scene, a wounded tough-as-nails soldier breaks his own finger to take his mind off the excruciating pain caused by the wound. Later, when a friend complains to him about a minor ache, the soldier smiles and says, “Let me show you a trick.”

Now, I’m all for cutting down on waste. We Americans consume three times more wood per capita than the world average, and we use one-third more paper than the average European. So the idea of moving from the printed page to a digital screen seems a simple choice.

Digital technology obviously improves lives. Consider the isolated African farmer who uses a mobile phone to locate the best price for his crops, and uses the same device to do his banking. What a glorious convenience. Yet, except for the color of the currency used to buy electronic marvels, the technology cannot be called “green.”

The manufacture and ultimate disposal of one e-book reader, cell phone, or computer can harm the environment more than the harvest of a thousand trees. You see, everything comes from somewhere, everything must go somewhere, and all actions have consequences.

Name one part of your computer, mobile phone, personal digital assistant, or e-book reader that is grown in the soil-one part, any part, that was once alive. (Petroleum doesn’t count.)

If it’s not grown, it has to be mined.

We want electronics, and electronics require metal to conduct electricity; therefore, we have an appetite for ore. By substituting technology for paper, we stop using renewable trees but instead we start using non-renewable resources such as metals, chemicals, and petroleum products. According to the Mineral Information Institute, each person in the United States consumes over twenty-four tons of mineral products a year, mostly as rock used for roads and other construction.

Consider this. A mine strips approximately thirty tons of material to obtain one ounce of gold, just one of the metals used in today’s electronics. Miners crush the mineral-rich rock and splash cyanide over this ore to leach out the metals. The waste rock (tailings) account for more than ninety-nine percent of the material moved in the process. These leftovers contain every element in the periodic table.

Tailings amount to the nuclear waste of the mining industry. It’s around for a long time, it’s hazardous, and no one really knows what to do with it. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, hard-rock mining produces more toxic waste than any other industry in the United States.

As a forester, I support conserving trees, but I also support using trees. With four decades in the field, I have marked trees for harvest, have seen them cut down, and have planted seedlings in their place. I have watched those seedlings grow more than forty feet on their way to becoming three or four times that height.

Bottom line: Forests replenish. Mines and oil reserves dwindle, and their toxic scars remain. If you think clear-cutting is ugly, imagine an open-pit mine two miles across and three-quarters of a mile deep. Within ten years, the cutover forest area will be covered with new growth, whereas Kennecott Copper’s Bennington Mine in Utah will still be visible from outer space.

Besides the mess that strip-mining for minerals makes, we need to consider how we dispose of electronic devices. By some accounts, discarded electronics account for seventy percent of the overall toxic waste currently found in landfills.

So can’t we recycle those electronics? Unfortunately, recycling is not wholly benign. More often than not, recyclers dump no-longer-used devices on Third World countries, where untrained workers employ hazardous methods, such as burning plastics and using chemicals like sodium cyanide and acids-nitric, hydrochloric, and sulfuric-to dissolve the metals.

Before asking how many megapixels an electronic device has, or how fast its graphics are, we need to consider the device’s total cost and include the external costs. External costs, or what economists term “externalities,” are what the rest of us might call “making a mess and not taking responsibility for cleaning it up.”

So what should we do? First, use wood and other renewables whenever possible instead of plastics, metals, and other non-renewables. Second, design products that reduce the quantity or the toxicity of the materials used. Third, make products easier to reuse. Fourth, pay to clean up our own mess by including in an item’s price the cost of mining reclamation and First-World-quality recycling. For instance, that price could include a deposit fee, as some states have for cans and bottles; the more hazardous the recycling, the bigger the deposit.

Forests return. Plastics and cyanide dumps don’t go away.

I know that up-front design costs and deposits can hurt you in the wallet, but here…give me your finger, let me show you a trick.

==========================================================================

23 March 2009

I remember watching a comedy where a wounded soldier breaks his own finger to take his mind off the excruciating pain caused by the wound. Later, when a friend complains to him about a minor ache, the soldier smiles and says, “Let me show you a trick.”

Because I’m a forester, the soldier’s trick reminds me of our society’s technique for avoiding the pain of cutting down trees. Instead of harvesting trees for paper, we substitute electronics.

Now I’m all for cutting down on cutting down trees. We Americans consume three times more wood per capita than the world average, and we use one-third more paper than the average European. So the idea of moving from the printed page to a digital screen seems to be a simple choice.

Digital technology obviously improves lives. Consider the isolated African farmer who uses a mobile phone to locate the best price for his crops, and uses the same device to do his banking. What a glorious convenience. But except for the color of the money used to buy the phone, such technology cannot be called “green.” The manufacture and ultimate disposal of one e-book reader or computer can harm the environment more than the harvest of a thousand trees. You see, everything comes from somewhere, everything must go somewhere, and all actions have consequences.

Name one part of your computer, mobile phone, personal digital assistant, or e-book reader, that is grown in the soil – one part, any part, that was once alive? (Petroleum doesn’t count.)

If it’s not grown, it has to be mined.

Because we want electronics, and electronics require metal to conduct electricity, therefore we have an appetite for ore. By substituting technology for paper, we stop using renewable trees, but start using non-renewable resources such as metals, chemicals, and petroleum products. According the Mineral Information Institute, each person in the United States consumes over 48,000 pounds of minerals a year, mostly rock for roads and other construction.

Consider this. A mine strips approximately thirty tons of material to obtain one ounce of gold, just one of the metals used in today’s electronics. Miners crush the ore and splash cyanide over it to separate the metal from the rock. The waste rock (tailings) account for more than ninety-nine percent of the material moved in the process. These leftovers contain every element in the periodic table.

Tailings amount to the nuclear waste of the mining industry. It’s around for a long time, is hazardous, and no one really knows what to do with it. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, hard-rock mining produces more toxic waste than any other industry in the U.S.

As a forester, I support conserving trees, but I also support using trees. With four decades in the field, I have marked trees for harvest, have seen them cut down, and have planted seedlings in their place. I have watched those seedlings grow more than forty feet on their way to becoming three or four times that height.

Bottom line: Forests replenish. Mines and oil reserves dwindle, and their toxic scars remain. If you think clear-cutting is ugly, imagine an open-pit mine two miles across and three quarters of a mile deep. Within ten years, the cutover forest area will be covered with new growth, whereas Kennecott Copper’s Bennington Mine in Utah will still be visible from outer space.

Besides the mess made by strip-mining for minerals, we need to consider the disposal of electronic devices. By some accounts, discarded electronics account for seventy percent of the overall toxic waste currently found in landfills.

So can’t we recycle those electronics? Unfortunately, recycling is not wholly benign. More often than not, recyclers dump disused devices on Third World countries where untrained workers employ hazardous methods, such as burning plastics and using chemicals such as sodium cyanide, and acids—nitric, hydrochloric, and sulfuric acids—to dissolve the metals.

Before asking how many megapixels a piece of electronics has, or how fast the graphics are, we need to consider the total cost and include the external costs. External costs, or what economists term “externalities,” are what the rest of us might call “making a mess and not taking responsibility for cleaning it up.”

So what should we do? First, use wood and other renewables whenever possible instead of plastics, metals, and other non-renewables. Second, design products that reduce the quantity or the toxicity of the materials used. Third, make products easier to reuse. Fourth, pay to clean up our own mess by including the cost of mining reclamation and First-World quality recycling in an item’s price. For instance, that price could include a deposit fee, as some states have for cans and bottles; the more hazardous the recycling, the bigger the deposit.

Forests return. Plastics and cyanide dumps don’t go away.

I know that up-front design costs and deposits can hurt you in the wallet, but here…give me your finger and I’ll show you a trick.

==================================================================================================

Older Version:

There’s a comedy called “Major Payne” that stars Damon Wayans. He plays a tough soldier who, when wounded in battle, breaks his own finger to take his mind off the pain. Later, when another soldier complains to him about a minor ache, Wayans smiles and says, “let me show you a trick.”

I’m a licensed forester, and this technique strikes me as a metaphor for our preoccupation with saving trees by substituting technology in their stead. In order to get away from the pain of cutting trees, we turn to something that hurts us far worse. You see, while using digital bits and bytes instead of paper may save trees, the manufacture of one ebook reader or computer causes more pollution than the harvesting of the thousand trees it might save. Worse still is the ultimate discarding of these devices.

Technology obviously improves our lives. Today, people in the Third World use cell phones in ways unimagined a decade ago. In Africa, farmers use cell phones to locate the best market prices for their crops and the same cell phone device to do their banking. Yet, except for the color of the money to buy it, electronic technology, like mobile phones, is not very green.

Name one part of your computer or personal digital assistant, mobile phone, GPS, eReader, television, radio, refrigerator, etc, that is grown in the soil—one part, any part, which was once alive (petroleum doesn’t count), as in carbon-based plant? Nothing, right?

Everything comes from somewhere. And, if it’s not grown, it has to be mined.

Because we want electronics, and electronics require metal conductors to move electricity around, we have an appetite for ore. According to the Mineral Information Institute, each person in the United States consumes over 48,000 pounds of minerals, mostly rock, each year.

And that’s just the part we use.

The companies mining these minerals leave their mark. If you think clear-cutting is ugly, try an open-pit mine 2½-miles across, and ¾-mile deep—so large it’s visible from outer space. Those dimensions describe Kennecott Copper’s Bennington Mine in Utah. For one ounce of gold, a metal used in circuit boards, a mine strips off some thirty tons of material. The world’s largest man-made excavation, Kennecott Copper’s Bennington Mine in Utah measures 2½-miles across, and ¾-mile deep, and is so large it’s visible from outer space.

The miners crush the heading ore then splash cyanide over it to separate the metal from the rock. The tailings (the waste rock) then account for more than 99% of the rock moved and contain everything in the periodic table. Tailings amount to the nuclear waste of the mining industry: around for a long time and no one really knows what to do with it all. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, hard-rock mining produces more toxic waste than any other industry in the US.

Now I’m all for cutting down on cutting down trees. Americans consume three times more wood per capita than the world average, and we use one-third more paper than the average European. Nevertheless, the law of conservation of energy remains: everything comes from somewhere, everything must go somewhere, and all actions have consequences. By substituting technology for paper, we move from using something made from a renewable resource, namely trees, to one manufactured from non-renewable resources: metals, chemicals, and petroleum products.

Bottom line: forests grow back, mines and oil reserves don’t, and their toxic scars remain.

As a forester, I support conserving trees and I support using trees. With four decades in the field, I have marked trees for harvest, watched them be cut down, planted seedlings in their place, and seen them grow to over forty feet on their way to three or four times that height. Because forests grow back, we need to use wood whenever possible instead of plastics, metals, and other non-renewables. Not the other way around.

We ask the wrong questions when considering a new piece of electronics. We ask how many megapixels, how fast, how powerful, or how good are its graphics. When we ask how much, we’re given only a partial price, because the external costs are ignored. External costs, or what economists term “externalities,” are what the rest of us non-economists might call “making a mess and not taking responsibility for cleaning it up.” Presently, the American taxpayers, through the EPA’s Superfund, or Third-World peasants bear these external costs.

Besides the mess made by strip-mining the minerals, there’s also disposal. By some accounts, discarded electronics contribute seventy percent of the overall toxic waste currently found in landfills.

What about recycling? Sadly, recycling is not wholly benign. More often than not, recycled electronics are dumped in Third World countries where untrained poor employ hazardous methods. They often burn the plastics to get to the metals and use chemicals such as sodium cyanide, sodium hydroxide, and nitric, hydrochloric, or sulfuric acids to dissolve the metals.

What should we do?

First, we pay to clean up our own mess.The alternative I like the best is to include by including the cost of mining cleanup and recycling in an item’s price. But for For a start, the price of the item has to include a deposit like we the way some states have on cans and bottles. The more hazardous the recycling, the more required for the deposit. We will reap dividends of fewer diseases and a better environment.


Second, we use renewable alternatives whenever possible—trees grow back, cyanide pits are forever.

I know this may hurt your wallet but let me show you a trick.


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